Past and present

In a recent post, I referred to Tony Judt’s collection of essays, Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. A few weeks ago I read the introduction to the book, “The World We Have Lost”, which is in the first place a quite brilliant defence of the importance of history, in particular the dark history of the twentieth century. But what made it particularly thought-provoking for me is that it articulates a particular question that has been on my mind recently but that had I been unable to formulate clearly, that is: what relevance should the lessons we in the West and in particular in Europe have drawn from the twentieth century have for the world in the twenty-first century?

Judt cautions against the illusion that “the past has nothing to teach us” but also against “ransacking [the past] for serviceable precedents”. In other words, he is arguing not just against forgetting in general but also at the specific way we remember. He says we memorialize the last century through museums and memorials, but says such sites of memory are merely “opportunities for the acknowledgment and recollection of selective suffering” in which a nation or ethnic group commemorates only its own past. Thus “we encourage citizens and students to see the past – and its lessons – through the particular vector of their own suffering (or that of their ancestors)”. In other words, it’s our memory against their memory. What results is what Judt calls a “mosaic” of “fragments of separate pasts” rather than a shared past. The most extreme example of this is surely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which both sides see through the prism of a narrative in which they are victims.

(This, incidentally, is exactly the problem I tried to articulate – but was unable to formulate as clearly as Judt does – after watching Andrzej Wazda’s film Katyń last year. The film tells the story of the massacre by the Russians of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk in 1940, a story that could not be told until after 1989. As I tried to suggest in the review I did for Prospect, the film was a moving representation of Polish suffering but was silent about Poland’s role in the suffering of others, in particular the Jews. Thus, while it may be a corrective to earlier pro-Russian narratives, in the end it simply replaces one vector, to use Judt’s term, with another.)

This question of the role of the past in the present is also one that runs through my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. For obvious reasons, many among Germany’s 1968 generation – the children of what they themselves called the “Auschwitz generation” – were almost obsessed with the need to learn the lessons of the past. Their political journey is in many ways the story of the arguments among themselves, and between them and others, about what the correct lessons of the Nazi past were and how they should be applied in the present. The result, however, was that, from Vietnam to Kosovo, they tended to see the world through the prism of their own history. (Interestingly and perhaps unusually, however, they focused on Germans as perpetrators as much as Germans as victims).

The challenge, it seems to me, is to learn from the past without “instrumentalizing” it, as Fischer was accused of doing when he invoked Auschwitz to justify German participation in the Kosovo war. But how? Is one automatically “ransacking” the past when one refers to it to make a case for a particular course of action in the present? (I am thinking in particular of references by supporters of the Iraq war to appeasement in the thirties and comparisons by opponents of the war in Afghanistan to the “quagmire” in Vietnam.) One solution, of course, is to simply avoid drawing any parallels at all between past and present. But I’m not sure this is even desirable, let alone possible. After all, wouldn’t it imply that “the past has nothing to teach us?” Rather, it seems to me that we need somehow to knit together these different collective memories and create the kind of “shared past” that Judt mentions. The solution, in other words, is not less history but better history.

This question also came up at the launch of my book in New York in December, at which Paul Berman spoke. Berman said the big philosophical question that the book raised was, as he put it, “What might be a Nazi-like thing in the present?” He talked about the way, for example, that the French New Left saw de Gaulle as a Nazi, and the way others since then have variously described Nixon, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon as Nazis (one might also add Barack Obama to the list). But although Berman was critical of those comparisons, he himself famously sees parallels between, for example, Islamism and Nazism (i.e. Ahmedinejad as a Nazi). In other words, he is not against such comparisons in principle; he is just saying we need to compare the right people to Nazis. Or, as Berman put it in the discussion, we need to be “lucid” when we say someone is “Hitler-like”.

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2 thoughts on “Past and present

  1. Pingback: Islamofascism redux « Hans Kundnani

  2. Pingback: The Holocaust and history « Hans Kundnani

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