“Those who close their eyes to the past, are blind to the future”
Prof. dr. Maurice Adams
“Trying to forget just prolongs exile; the secret of redemption is memory.” It was May 1985 when German President Richard von Weizsäcker quoted this Jewish saying. His address, on the 40th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi tyranny, is still worth reading. Von Weizsäcker deliberately and emphatically linked the past to the present, enlisting memory as a guiding light for future action.
In 2015, The Netherlands celebrates the 70th anniversary of its liberation from German and Japanese oppression. At the same time, the world is far from peaceful. War and mass violence are a daily reality and freedom is anything but self-evident. Therefore we must ask ourselves how we can keep the story of terror, tyranny and occupation alive and how our nation’s wartime past relates to current events. As one person attending the Dutch National Commemoration on Dam Square put it, in May 2014: “I find it important to be here because my generation gets to hear fewer and fewer stories about the Second World War. Our grandparents will not be around forever. It’s important to keep this going.” Remembrance prompts difficult questions, both about our actions in the past and about the unfinished project that is our modern day democracy. These questions are not always easy to answer.
Both before 1940 and afterwards, our country was faced with an influx of refugees. Many were denied entry, and those who were allowed to stay had had to go through great trouble to gain that right. Once in, they were not guaranteed the safety they had hoped for and expected. Jews were confronted with these hardships, as were people of mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent after the war. They, too, were received and treated with coldness, not hospitality. Today, shiploads of refugees arrive nearly every day at the Italian island of Lampedusa, the gateway to Europe. These are people in search of a better life, and their quest is one that many do not survive. Do we care? Do we feel responsible? Or do we see the lives lost as collateral damage, a risk people knowingly took when fleeing their homeland? How do we feel about deporting rejected asylum seekers, even when they are unwelcome or risk persecution in their home country?
Under Nazi rule there was no democratic state, no rule of law, no independent judiciary. There was no free speech in a real sense for those who wanted to voice political opinions. In Germany, this situation was legitimized as the—supposed—will of the people. Hungary’s current nationalist government has held an overwhelming majority in Parliament since 2010. Over the last few years, it has drastically curbed press freedom and enacted electoral changes that benefit the ruling government. It has even subjected the judiciary to radical changes, paving the way for active judges to be systematically replaced by pro-government successors. Protests and social and political opposition have largely been ignored. Shouldn’t we assess the health of a democracy at least partly on the basis of how it deals with dissent?
And what are we to think of the changing language of politics? Even in democracies, the discourse seems increasingly based on the idea that opponents are enemies, not merely people with other political views. This is actually quite similar to the situation in Nazi Germany. In his recent book Fire and Ashes, author and former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff argues that today’s politics is increasingly full of the language of war. In war, enemies need to be defeated or even destroyed; so in a warlike political climate, even reaching a compromise can be seen as a form of betrayal. In a democracy, however, politics is the only viable alternative to war; its key objective is to enable us to resolve conflicts while maintaining peaceful coexistence. So shouldn’t political disagreements, however sharp, be accompanied by an explicit show of respect and tolerance for those who hold other opinions?
With increasing regularity and visibility, citizens’ problematic coexistence is manifested in clashes between constitutional rights. These rights are not hierarchical. Equality and the ban on discrimination are equivalent to freedom of expression. Because it protects all of these principles equally, the law can not decide a priori which one will prevail and when. Should people be allowed to say absolutely anything, even if their expressions are discriminatory or lead to exclusion? Do we indeed need a prohibition on group discrimination—as we have in Dutch law—to ensure a social climate in which citizens regard each other as moral equals, as individuals deserving of respect?
The idea that history repeats itself is a fallacy, because every event has unique characteristics. We can discern patterns, however. It is key that we look for the parallels between unique events, such as the systematic Nazi murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma, and more recent developments. While it is our responsibility to clearly identify the differences between then and now, we should not shy away from making comparisons either. It is our duty to tell true, real-life stories so they can be retold, passed on to the next generation, and preserved for the future. Among these narratives are accounts of the bombings of Nijmegen and Rotterdam, the Hunger Winter, forced labor in Southeast Asia, resistance against German occupation and the hardships suffered in Japanese internment camps. We should retell these stories, if for no other reason than the fact that we owe it to those who lived through the horrors of the war. But in addition, these narratives can shed light on the mechanisms that lead people in today’s world to cast aside the rule of law, democracy, tolerance and respect.
The latter point explains how history and remembrance can be something greater than the sum of its parts, more than a collection of individual narratives. It shows how the interaction between past and present, between the unique and the general, can be turned into a topic of public debate. It shows that the past is never really over. It also holds an opportunity for us to pass on valuable information to current and future generations, to continue to give relevance to the act of remembrance. “I’m here with my daughter and four granddaughters,” said another person attending the Dutch National Commemoration on Dam Square last year. “My grandfather was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp because he was in the resistance. I want to let the next generation know how important it is that we live in freedom.”
Let us end with another quote from Richard von Weizsäcker: “Those who close their eyes to the past, are blind to the future.” His words still hold true today.