Home Susan Neiman: ‘Grunbergs recensie is neerbuigend en misleidend’

Susan Neiman: ‘Grunbergs recensie is neerbuigend en misleidend’

Door Susan Neiman op 28 september 2020

Susan Neiman: ‘Grunbergs recensie is neerbuigend en misleidend’

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Arnon Grunberg schreef een kritische recensie in Filosofie Magazine van Susan Neimans boek Wat we van de Duitsers kunnen leren. Volgens hem begrijpt Neiman weinig van Duitsland en maakt ze de historische waarheid ondergeschikt aan haar betoog. Neiman dient hem van repliek.     

Mr. Grunberg’s review accuses me of being indifferent to truth value.  Yet the review contains so many distortions of the truth that readers of your magazine have a right to some corrections.

First, Mr. Grunberg reveals a very narrow conception of philosophy when he writes that the book is written for those who don’t know much about philosophy.  Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, I strive to write in clear prose that can be read by philosophers and non-philosophers alike.  Reviews in the U.S. and in Germany have praised the book for “inventing a new genre, investigative philosophy” in the words of one reviewer, but Mr. Grunberg seems to think that anything written simply is written for simpletons.  I did not offer a detailed discussion of Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment in this book because one already exists in my book Moral Clarity; I also strive to repeat myself as little as possible.  Should Mr. Grunberg be interested in a detailed analysis of the Enlightenment, which I hardly view as “Christianity without Jesus”, he should consult that book.

Readers of Mr. Grunberg’s review would never suspect that the entire first chapter of Learning from the Germans is devoted to answering the kinds of (very common) objections he makes, by listing the differences between the Holocaust and American slavery.  In the end, as I argue, my interest is not in comparative evils but in comparative redemption, and here cultures can learn from each other even when the events they reflect are different – as historical events in different places and times invariably are.  Mr. Grunberg does recognize the importance of Tzvetan Todorov’s work for this book, while twisting and shortening my discussion of it to suggest that I do not care about truth.  Rather, in writing that statements are also forms of action, I went on to say that a German who insists on the universality of the Holocaust is avoiding responsibility for the crimes of her own nation.  By contrast, a Jew who does so is insisting that we care about crimes committed against humankind, not simply her own tribe.  “The Holocaust is universal” is not the kind of statement that can be empirically tested; it is an interpretation, whose value is, and should be, determined by its use.  Only a reductionist reading of a Wittgensteinian analysis of language can conclude that it “has nothing to do with truth value”.

It’s hard to know what to make of Mr. Grunberg’s claim that I don’t understand Germany, when unlike him, I have lived in Berlin since 1982 and since 2000 as the director of a German research institution – something no reader of his review could guess.  Even more importantly, they would not guess that my research for this book included detailed interviews with most of the major figures involved in postwar German memory culture:  Jan Philipp Reemtsma, creator of the Wehrmacht exhibit, Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald memorial, Hans Otto Bräutigam, former West German ambassador to East Germany.  These and many other authorities are cited at length in the book, which was careful to include voices other than my own, even where they disagreed with me.  Does Mr. Grunberg believe that none of them understand Germany?

Nor does Mr. Grunberg choose to examine any of the evidence or interviews I present to argue that East Germany did a better – though by no means perfect – job of facing the Nazi past than did West Germany.  And here, I suspect, is the real animus that drove his condescending and misleading review.  Like many Westerners who know little about the GDR, Mr. Grunberg is convinced a priori that nothing could possibly have come from it.  Instead of actually engaging with the evidence I offer, he cites one book as an argument against a claim I never made.  (No sane person ever asserted that antifascism rules out antisemitism.) Well aware that Cold War clichees in which Mr. Grunberg indulges are widespread, I took great care to refute those tired claims, and asked two German historians to fact-check my own examination.    An honest review would have examined the evidence instead of reducing my arguments to something a straw man would be ashamed to offer.