Very few societies have the good fortune to boast a truly unproblematic, non-violent past. Dark corners are often found even in exemplary democracies that have not fought in wars. Switzerland is one example. Despite its neutral status during World War Two, its role in the theft of valuable assets by the Nazis was a highly problematic one. However, the Bergier Report was later exemplary in calling Switzerland to account for the part it played in assisting National Socialism.
Germans have acquired a reputation as both experts and model students in the discipline of coming to terms with the past. They have had to re-evaluate two very different histories under two different dictatorships: the Nazi era, culminating in the tragedies of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and the Communist dictatorship under the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. But if, as Germans, we can today take pride in the process through which we have come to terms with our past, and recommend it to the rest of the world as a peculiarly German export, we should not forget that the process of coming to terms with our past under National Socialism only really got underway in 1968, and that the re-evaluation of the history of the German Democratic Republic was simplified by the fact that the GDR and its apparatus of power rapidly fell apart. This re-evaluation therefore became the official policy not of the GDR but of a united Germany, in which the former West was dominant.
For most other countries, the process of coming to terms with the past when a despotic regime collapses, a civil war comes to an end, or a revolution takes place is a more difficult one. If some kind of reckoning has not been made with those who were previously in power - and this reckoning is usually bloody rather than constitutional, as in the Russian and Iranian revolutions - then supporters of the new and old regimes must somehow find a way of living together, of reconciling their differing views and histories as peacefully as they can. Often this is only possible at a price: the past is not talked about, it is simply repressed. This, however, carries the danger that the old wounds do not truly heal, leading ultimately to more violent conflict at some point in the future. This is why it is so important to find effective ways and means of dealing and coming to terms with the past.
This edition of Art&Thought/Fikrun wa Fann aims to demonstrate how different societies are going about this, with reference to examples from all around the world. We need only take a look at the Arab world to see how relevant this subject is today. Yet as we do so it is also apparent that every society has to find its own way of dealing with the past. Formulae that have worked in Germany or South Africa may prove useless in Egypt or Syria. Nonetheless, societies currently in a state of upheaval can undoubtedly learn from others’ efforts - and most especially from their failures.
We hope that the articles in this edition will help to encourage an open and fair re-examination of even the darkest corners of history in every part of the world where the past threatens to take the future hostage.
Editor-in-Chief, Fikrun wa Fann/Art&Thought