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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?