The Problem of Remembering

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How important is it to remember unpleasant things from the past? Should they be forgotten, left alone to fade away and disappear? Or do we need to recall, to acknowledge them, and then move on? For individuals the answer varies based on the events and the individual. But for nations, the questions are tied to politics, to national identity, and even to how a country understands itself and its place in the world.

The UIL* social studies test this year is based on a book about the end of the USSR and remembering and forgetting. It seems especially apt, at least to me if not to the students, because western Europe is in the process of trying to decide if they will remember or forget, and if so how much and why. Should Western European civilization, especially German and Scandinavian, disappear? Is the past so specially terrible that it is better for humanity if Western Civilization goes away, bowing to demographics and the need to atone for that past? If not, what should be remembered, and how? For the people of the USSR, especially in Russia proper in 1989-1992, the question was one of memory and survival. Do you ignore Stalin or do you bury him? A few would prefer to praise him.

Looking from outside, it is impossible to praise Stalin. 35,000,000 souls killed, more blighted by his touch and his shadow, and any positives that might be credited to his account vanish. From inside the USSR and former USSR, he is remembered differently. “Yes, he did some terrible things, but outsiders exaggerate everything bad about Russia, and only Stalin could have made Russia strong enough to win WWII.”** That sums up many of the arguments for preserving Stalin’s memory as more good than bad. To deny Stalin is to deny the sacrifices the USSR made during the Great Patriotic War. Or so a strong thread of argument within Russia runs.

What do you do in other places? And can memories of the past become so overwhelming that a people, or their leaders, decide that extinction is better than perpetuating the past? Again looking in from outside, that seems to be an argument going on in Germany, and possibly less consciously in parts of Scandinavia and France. Germany’s sins in the two World Wars were so terrible, and Germany has a special guilt greater than that of any other nation in the Western World. So perhaps it is better if Germany disappears, erasing its culture in order to take in the poor and desperate from the Third World in expiation. There are days I wonder if that’s really what goes through the subconscious of some of Germany’s intellectuals and political figures. Perhaps they believe that after the Holocaust, national extinction is the only option to make the past right.

Can you be a good person and not focus on the sins of the past? Should Western Europe look only at the shadows and dark places in its history, dwelling on them in self-abnegation and flagellation, giving everything to “make up for” history? Because you will notice that it is only the western end of Europe that dwells on the need to atone for colonialism, Christianity, and high standards of living. The Old East (as I call it) has looked at that past and said, “No way, no how. We are proud of what we’ve been through, proud of our faith, and have no reason to join you in self-destruction.” They like Western Civilization, and have defended it more than once. Ask a Pole or Hungarian about 1683 and be ready to have your ears talked off.

In the Christian scriptures, it is understood that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d.” So with nations. China’s history, even before 1900, is not exactly without incidents that make people gulp and stare in shock. Look at the role of women and their treatment after 1100. Or the massacres of aristocratic families and city-dwellers at the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 900s. Erk. The Taiping Rebellion was and its aftermath left Europeans queasy, those who saw a river choked with bodies. The Ottoman Empire called the shots in much of Southern Europe well into the 1800s, and modern Turkey sees nothing wrong with having taken over chunks of Europe. I get the feeling that a number of Turks would be pleased as punch to recreate the Ottoman Empire. And that empire was not known for peace, harmony, toleration, and pacifist foreign policy.

So how do you balance Stalin and defeating Hitler? For me, it is a case of watching two monsters fight and rooting for a third party to come in and flatten both of them, even though I know what happened in the real world. How do you look at the history of Germany and find something to celebrate? Well, start by looking past 1914 and going back through the long span of history.  There’s plenty there to honor and respect, as well as plenty to wince at. Yes, the Holocaust. Yes, 1914-1918, and being the birthplace of Karl Marx.*** The US has chattel slavery, the Indian Wars, racism, not being France (according to some critics of the American Revolution, we did not go nearly far enough).

How do we remember? What do we remember? Who controls public memory, controls history? The government, the professional historians, or talented and determined individuals who refuse to let the dead bury the dead? Is it time for the Germans to focus less on 1914-1945 and include more of the good things that came about between  800 – 1913? Can Russia glorify Stalin less and acknowledge the other Allies more, while still praising their own people’s sacrifices? Or would letting go of Stalin so cripple the historical identity of Russians that they too might opt for national extinction.

What should we forget? What should we remember? How should we recall the past? There are no easy answers to those kinds of question, unless you let the government, or the religious leaders, or yes, determine what the past is. And then, as they said in the USSR, “The future is certain, it is the past that keeps changing.”

*The private schools buy the tests and some materials from the University Interscholastic League. We can’t compete against public schools, but we use their stuff. Dates to the 1920s, if memory serves.

**Many Russian schools now teach that the USSR fought Hitler alone well into 1944, and that the other Allies really didn’t contribute anything. The Soviets had already finished off Hitler and it was a matter of mopping up after 1944.

***Should we burn down the British Library because Marx worked there and wrote a lot of his tomes while on their premises?

23 thoughts on “The Problem of Remembering

  1. “All politics is local.” Tip O’Neill
    If that’s true then the only things to forget and remember are local as well.
    I served with two former members of the Wehrmacht in Germany: Gerhard Schroff and Elsa Geist. We never talked politics, but this was 1973 – 1975, and perhaps WWII was both too distant and two recent at that time to make a difference.
    And perhaps it was just the fact that we all had jobs that we needed to do THAT DAY.
    I live in Cherokee County, Georgia. Just a few miles away from my house is the New Echota village, one of the main starting points of the Trail of Tears. I don’t spend much time thinking about that, because I’ve got stuff to do.
    It seems to me the recent outrages have all been individuals, not corporate. If that’s the way it’s gonna be, maybe we don’t NEED to remember the sins of our fathers. Maybe if we just do the stuff we have to do, we can afford to forget. And maybe we can remember only the legends in their glory, and it won’t do anybody any harm.
    If that’s the case, then maybe all of us Southern people can allow the CSA memorials to be removed.

    • Somehow, the old saying about “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” comes to mind.

        • Yes. Reading about the USSR’s policies about which history can be remembered, and how often that switched… no wonder the KGB used “mental hospital” as a euphemism for their nastiest prison.

    • No.
      Not ever.

      I will not allow my Confederate ancestors to be slandered as black-hearted villains when even the least of them was head and shoulders above those moderns presuming to judge them.
      Nor will I allow such a false dichotomy to rob my Abolitionist ancestors of their virtue. Their opinions were unpopular, and they suffered for them. (Including at the hands of the Union army.) Their mantle is not to be donned by some snot-nosed punk for a cheap bit of self-gratifying theater.

  2. Well, the Russians are right in that they did defeat Nazi Germany. on the ground The Western allies never faced more than around 20% of Germany’s military after 1941. Of course, the Soviets may very well have collapsed without all the aid sent to them. And the Royal Navy (with US aid) bottled up the German fleet and embargoed the continent, forcing Germany to conquer and hold land to get many raw materials. And the allied bomber campaign, while it didn’t halt German production, didn’t do anything to help it, either. Every liter of petrol used by the Luftwaffe to defend the cities was one that the Wehrmacht didn’t have to drive trucks, trains, and tanks.

    As for me? I am unapologetic about the role of the West (formerly known as Christendom) in history. We are the children of the survivors and victors of thousands of years of conflict. In order to survive, we must continue to succeed, for losers are eliminated or replaced, and there are no more frontiers to cross. Yes, we slaughtered the Indians, and conquered a continent. We must have the intestinal fortitude to do so again, if needs must and the devil drives. As the saying goes, history belongs to those who show up.

    In a note on geography driving history – Vienna stood against the Turks twice, and the Poles drove the Turks back from the gates in 1683. The Visegrad group of Poland, Czech Republic (Bohemia/Moravia), Slovakia, and Hungary, with their new ally Austria, seems awfully familiar somehow.

  3. Besides the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, my thoughts about the general push to cultural suicide from the Western European intelligentsia are:

    1)They themselves are not the ones suffering the results of their policies; their ordinary citizens are. It is not the elite whose women and children are raped by the invading horde, their men prevented from defending them.

    2) Fools! If you truly did wish to repent and atone you cannot do it dead! Committing atrocity on your citizenry by letting the barbarians in is not an act of repentance! As it is, your atonement is hollow, as it is not the decisionmaker who pays the price!

    3) The Muslim members of the Nazi fighting machine notably do not suffer any sorrow or guilt or shame for their deeds in WW2. To paint them as victims is idiocy of the highest magnitude , as whatever ills they suffer locally has naught to do with the West. If their peoples could not bring about technological improvements on their own once their colonizers left, that is their own problem, not the West’s.

    4) The current ‘mindset’ of the Euro elite does not jive with the attitudes I saw of the citizenry. The French are proud and often arrogant, and indeed focus on the French Revolution as the pinnacle of their history, airbrushing out the Terrors from education. And the racist attitudes would make a SJZ blanch. Were there friendly individuals? Yes. But France is a more complicated issue than mere ‘but we were awful colonizers we must all die now’, and honestly, nothing less than a bloody war will fix any of its ills. Perhaps that is what their elite has hopes for.

    I’ll have to see if I can find this tweet that encapsulates what I saw of general French attitude, that is part of the problem there.

    • Historians talk about “German exceptionalism” but from what I’ve seen, France really has a wonkier history. There are areas with grudges that go back to the Albigensian Crusade, so 900 years or so. I didn’t notice it as much down in the Dordogne, but each French village and sub-region seems resentful of having to deal with anyone else, including the people from the village over the hill. Maybe the Dordogne is different because 1) they really can pull up the drawbridge and shut out the world in many villages and towns, and 2) they look back at the Middle Ages and think, ‘Eh, could be worse. At least they’re not English freebooters.”

      • There was someone I know that couldn’t get the job she was trained for because once they saw she wasn’t white, the interviewer would apologize and say the position wasn’t open any more, and leave.

        Cutting out all the flowery language, the attitude in France was that they wanted an underclass of serfs who would be ‘accepted’ to ‘work’ in certain areas, but not in more civilized work, white collar jobs, respectable careers. Pretty much, if you weren’t already a rich foreigner who was potentially bringing in business, you were SOL.

        NOT a cultural mindset that encouraged integration, or, for the matter, being able to do more than eke out a bare existence. Heck, I used to get into fistfights against French students who were upset that I knew the history material in class despite not speaking French that well, and committing the unforgivable sin of being better at something than they were (English, history…) I don’t imagine that it’s changed, especially since the area where I used to go to school in Paris is now one of those Zones Urbaines Sensibles.

        • A note for anyone who reads the above comment but doesn’t speak French: the “sensibles” in the phrase Zone Urbaines Sensibles does not translate to the English word “sensible”. It translates to the English word “sensitive”. As in, urban zones that need extra attention from the local government (higher police presence, etc.) because they are low-income areas and/or (usually “and”) have a higher crime rate than other neighborhoods.

        • Your experience is very interesting. I visited France only once, for less than a week in 2013, but a couple of things struck me. First, the disgust the natives had with the “gypsies” – French-speaking African immigrants who were dropped off by van to sell trinkets to tourists – and second, that no attempt was made to assimilate them.

          I asked our host about job training and education, since they were legal immigrants planning to stay in France for years to come. He looked shocked. “If they had better jobs, you wouldn’t be able to buy souvenirs so cheaply.” I pointed out that I hadn’t bought cheap souvenirs.

          We had another talk along those lines when I chatted with an Algerian night manager. He had a business degree and experience but only recently landed the hotel job after several years of driving a taxi. I commented to my host that his English was perfect and his demeanor so professional, was his French as good? It was, so I wondered how bad the unemployment was that such a man had trouble getting a job. He was polite, but my host indicated that the man wasn’t French enough for some employers.

          I also talked with a number of Spanish-speakers, most of whom weren’t from Spain. There were some working in shops. We ran into three (!!??) groups of Peruvians who played music in public places, including some who wore feathered headdresses because Europeans don’t know the difference between Incans and Plains Indians. They were very much outsiders despite some of them having lived there for years. They told me there was no “Frenchification” the way there is “Americanization”.

          • Pretty much. It didn’t matter if you held French citizenship, if you weren’t white French, you were never, ever going to be considered French, nor were your qualifications ever going to be good enough to get you into a good job. That Algerian fellow you describe got lucky getting the hotel job, but I wouldn’t be surprised it was likely the fact he wasn’t a day manager (who would likely see more customers and be considered more a front-face man) that he got it.

            It did not matter at all if the immigrants wanted to integrate. Your skin color dictated whether or not you’d pass. My French teacher made no bones about the fact that she was irritated that the Chinese students ‘would learn just enough French to interact with customers and then stop school to go work in the Chinese shops in Belleville’; but I think they irritated her less than the Africans, ‘who wouldn’t even bother wearing French clothes, or attempt to speak French without that blablabla accent.’ I gathered that she let her guard down with me because I was a diplomat’s kid, and the fact that I (still) spoke German with decent fluency back then showed I was at least taking her efforts seriously (‘and expected to perform at a higher standard because you will be speaking in more formal settings.’)

            This was probably also a problem in Germany as well, but when I was living there (both in East Berlin, and later Bonn on the West side) there was a bit of difference. The Easterners were more concerned about the politics you held (were you also a fellow Communist or Socialist?) than the skin hue (at least to my face, and I was a child then.) The families of the immigrants I went to school with in West Germany were determined to integrate (the Turkish, Iranians and Iraqi families insisted that their daughters not wear hijab except during Ramadan, for example, because “German women do not wear headscarves”, or that their sons not copy the attitudes of male relatives towards women from ‘back in the old country.’) I remember reading an article a few years ago from the child of a Turkish immigrant who was baffled at the attitudes of the newer immigrants that absolutely refused to learn German and almost never wandered from their self-imposed cultural ghettoes; he found it highly disrespectful of Germany (in the “why the hell would you want to move here if you didn’t want to leave your previous hellhole behind” sense) and that it was essentially undoing the work of folks like them in showing that yes, they were capable of integration and Westernization, and would bite everyone of Turkish descent in the ass if these attitudes persisted. I think the article writer worked in IT, but I don’t remember that part very well since it wasn’t what stuck with me. What stuck with me was the implication that the migrants who did integrate were not kept out of jobs that they were qualified for, which was a big contrast from the French attitudes I remembered experiencing.

            I do remember though a French bakery store owner who would praise our improving French. I didn’t get a sense of condescension from her when she would correct our pronunciation; she was sincere in helping the three foreign kids in learning. She was markedly different from the bakeshop owner that was right next to our apartment, who would glare at us when we first stepped into her shop. So we would buy bread from the friendlier stores (and since we often had guests, that was a lot) and she would just have this angry expression when we’d walk past, carrying bread, pastries and cakes to serve to guests.

            • Pres. Macron kicked a hornets’ nest when he hinted that it would be nice for Algeria to let the Harki and the Pied Noir back in if they wanted to return to Algeria. That the French-Born-in-France have never accepted French-born-in-Algeria as French says a lot.

            • I laughed at the unfriendly bakery owner not making the connection between customer service and sales!

              The German immigrants sound a lot like the Arabic immigrants I knew in the Detroit area. I’m not sure about now, but at least five years ago, there was still an interfaith group that met monthly – Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, etc. – to discuss problems and work together. So many of the second- and third-generation Americans grew up hearing about sectarian violence, they really wanted the bad aspects left in the “old country”.

              Some of the more recent female immigrants are absolutely stupid about keeping their culture. A few years ago, there was supposed to be a scrimmage between two private schools’ girls basketball teams. The Muslim school coach and administrators made absolute asses of themselves by whining to the media after the game was cancelled. Why? They wanted to ban all the other schools’ fathers and brothers from watching the game!

            • I’ve told this story before, but:

              We had a group homework and went to one of my Iraqi classmates’ house to work on it. While working, said Iraqi classmate’s pen blotted on his page or something, and he said “Shit.”

              His father came in from the other room like the wrath of God, smacked his son on the back of his head, yelling “Don’t swear in front of women! That’s disrespectful!” and dragged his son out of the room. This kicked off a shouting match between the two of them, where the father was saying he refused to allow his son to pick up his son’s disrespectful, outdated attitudes from his brother – at least, the parts we could make out, since the yelling was done in a mix of Iraqi and German – the dad wasn’t as good at German as his son was, but he was trying. Both us girls had to try mollify the angry dad, that his son wasn’t swearing at us; but the dad said that his son needed to be handled strictly, because if not, he ‘wouldn’t become part of German society.’

              The poor guy apologized – both for swearing, and his Dad’s rather extreme reaction.

              What did they expect? That everyone bow down to their cultural demands and ban fathers and brothers? Good to see that they went ‘nope, we’re canceling’ instead.

  4. IMO, a lot of the “guilt” is driven by the same motivation that is driving the purges of sexual harassers we are seeing on the news today … the motivation to shame those who will not go along with the Utopian beliefs of the elites, so that they will go along.

    It is anything but guilt.

    What has been forgotten, has been forgotten by those elites … respect for liberty. The respect that motivated Germany, after its defeat, to stand strong in the gap (in the case of the Fulda Gap, literally) against the expansion of another tyranny … and motivated the United States to spend trillions on a Cold War that, among many other things, put two of my great uncles who fought in WWII BACK in the bullseye in the 1960’s when we moved Minuteman II ICBMs next to their farms.

    That respect, OTOH, is held tightly by their next-door neighbors to the east, who were subjected to that tyranny and now say, in their own languages, “never again”. Even if it means having to stand this time not only against tyrants to the East (which others have noted they have historical experience with), but the moralizing busybodies of the West with their softer, cuddlier tyranny that will sell them out as a virtue signal.

    The problem with Russia, is that they ARE forgetting about that tyranny, of Stalin AND his successors, in their angst over their post-Cold War loss of status and the self-inflicted wounds of replacing Communism with sprinklings of kleptocracy, instead of a full commitment to rights-respecting governance and the rule of law.

    Here in the United States, the desired endgame of the Sexcapade Purges is obvious: an attempt to force conservatives into abandoning Trump, Moore and others by leveraging Alinsky Rule Four saying “we cleaned house … YOUR TURN!”. What these do not understand is that the Sexcapades are a self-inflicted moral sideshow, compared to a more fundamental moral failing on the part of the purgers: their veneration of the Utopian belief system known as the Blue Social Model over respect for liberty. They are going to be in for a surprise: Trump and Moore will REMAIN their moral superiors, because of that lack of respect for liberty, until they embrace that respect … and enough of us perceive that inferiority, that they will fail in their attempted endgame.

    • Wow! That really hits the nail on the head! I have told people before that I refuse to feel historical or collective guilt. I am descended from conquerors and conquered. It is impossible for me to know if my ancestors had abusive or tender relationships, so how dare anyone else slap a label on my more recent progenitors?

  5. Does it not seem that any honest appraisal of history is a punishable offense today? History as taught is adjusted to align with some pretty damn strange world views. Expressing unpopular history can certainly cost you your job. You may expose yourself to violence. Hate crimes exist to punish thought and political or cultural stances that vary too far from those strange world views. I don’t think anyone has gone to jail, but there are people in the public forum who would like to jail the non-conformers.

    History is thrown at us way too frequently to be good for us. There are two reasons for it:
    Those who understand the importance of history have to push it harder than they should have to do because it is under constant attack. History can disappear and they know that.
    Those who insist on changing it or suppressing it want their different history pushed to further their agenda, whatever it is. Remaking us all in their own image, generally.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have that long period of peace and understanding that western civilization was meant to produce? Instead we are daily stirred to anger. Every conservative leader is Hitler. And a fascist.

    • Thus far, I have not had any hard-core challenges on how I teach history. However, I am also very careful to explain WHY I am saying something, and offer primary sources and additional material if anyone or their parents [high school] wants to look for themselves.

    • Which shows the lack of imagination and historical knowledge of those painting everyone who disagrees with them as fascist. I suspect if you were to hand one of the “protesters” one of Mussolini’s books with his name removed, 1) the language would be far above their reading level and 2) they’d agree with about 80% of his ideas. The 20% about the role of women and beating up trade unions they’d probably object to.

  6. Never before in the history of man has there been so much history.
    The sun rises , the sun sets……History is made!

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