Forgotten and Recalled Their will to remember, our will to forget
Travelling in Germany recently, I was struck by the emotional and political changes of the last decades in terms of how the now-unified nation deals with its past.
Before, there was a silence about the war, about who did what, about what happened during those years and to whom. Through the 1960s and 70s in the West, film makers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff and Werner Herzog examined the Nazi era and the repressive democratic State through metaphors in their films. Writers like Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boll did the same in literature. But the two German states remained silent on their own history, tiptoeing around the past, reinventing their nations around a war-shaped hole in their narrative of themselves.
The unification of the divided country after the fall of the Wall in 1989 seems to have brought a new public face and sensibility to the German state. It is a State that chooses to remember, to memorialise even, the atrocities in which it was complicit, if not entirely responsible. There is a serious detente with the countries of the former Soviet Union, which first occupied and eventually created East Germany after the war. German and Russian histories are seen as running parallel since 1945, histories now united by a city and a country that had been divided in the most brutal (in fact, ridiculous) way. There are physical reminders of the dark past as well: close to the Parliament building in Berlin, memorials to all those that were killed during the Nazi era have been built over the years. The largest one, a chilling cluster of stone coffins, recalls the genocide of the Jews.
Smaller monuments in the nearby gardens acknowledge that large numbers of the Romany people, homosexuals and the physically and mentally disabled were also eliminated during this time of ethnic cleansing. The Wall itself is marked by white paving stones throughout the city.
There is a will to remember in Germany that is endorsed and realised by the State itself. It made me think about us and our will to forget. Which is also endorsed and realised by the State. Where are our monuments to the civilian dead, those murdered in riots by their fellow citizens, those felled by the armed forces that are supposed to protect our borders, those killed by the police that are meant to keep us safe in our home and our cities? Where do we pause to think about the darkness within ourselves? More importantly, where does the State acknowledge its own acts of injustice and repression?
We wallow in our moments of 'glory' but we have nothing to remind us of our shame, of the violence that we have wilfully unleashed upon each other. Forget monuments, there aren't even conversations about the horrors of the past, be it Partition, Operation Blue Star or Godhra. When we talk about these ghastly events, it is only to accuse or to defend, never to express remorse or contrition as a nation and a people. We remember in order to blame, not to reconcile ourselves with what we have done. It's so much easier to forget and time and again, elect to powerful public office the men and women who lit the fires and then, like Nero, fiddled while bodies burned on the streets.