Furthest Right

On the Politics of Memory (Paul Gottfried)

On the Politics of Memory

Paul Gottfried

In his remarks on the politics of memory, Heribert Adam seeks to find means by which those groups that have been collectively hurt or grievously degraded can be “reconciled” with their erstwhile persecutors — or at least with the descendants of these wrong-doers. He tries to apply his principles for assessing blame and achieving “reconciliation” to Germans and Nazi victims, and to South African blacks and whites. He points out that most conflicts involve wrong-doing on more than one side. Such a situation complicates the search for morally satisfactory solutions in the Balkans and South Africa, as well as in other cases of civil strife. Adam draws the useful distinction between grievances that continue to be relevant and those that merely bring economic gain or can be attributed to ethnic whining. The continuing push by the World Jewish Congress for compensation for the Holocaust, even from Nazi victims, perhaps most blatantly the Norwegians, clearly exemplifies the second case. Even more outrageous may be a column by Ed Koch on the “reasons” that Jews might not want to accept an apology for anti-Semitism offered recently by the Polish clergy.(n1) Koch suggests that Poles were somehow involved in the Holocaust, but offers no evidence for this weighty charge. The most damning proof he provides is that Polish Cardinal Glemp complained (imprudently) about anti-Polish attitudes among American Jewish journalists. Adam believes, on the one hand, that if victimizers remain unpunished for outrageous crimes, the victims and their families have reason to complain. But if, on the other hand, a once victimized group attempts to maintain a perpetual victim status, it may be justified to ignore this claim. According to Adam, such a distinction may be critical not only in dealing with the legacy of the Third Reich and South African apartheid, but also in helping Eastern Europeans come to terms with their Communist past. This Abrechnung will presumably involve the apportioning of guilt and punishment, just as Europeans had (and may still have) to deal with the fallout of the Nazi era.

Unhappily, none of this corresponds to what is happening. While journalists and the media are still in a feeding frenzy about the residues and undisclosed crimes of the fascist era, they have no interest whatever, outside of isolated pockets of Cold War liberals, in calling attention to Communist “human-rights violators.” Milosevic is an exception: despite his Titoist background, the media recast him as the newest incarnation of Hitler while randomly associating Serb nationalism with Nazi ideology. Nothing has happened to European Communists comparable to what befell the imagined or real servants of the Third Reich. In France almost 11,000 collaborateurs were executed in 1944 and 1945, summarily, more often than as a result of judicial proceedings; and the figures for Italy may have been equally ghastly. In 1945 and 1946, over 30,000 Frenchmen lost public employment and/or suffered various forms of public disgrace and professional disbarment, because of alleged involvement with the German occupying forces. Communists, who then as now enjoyed charmed lives, suffered neither collective nor individual embarrassment for their contributions to the fall of France. They managed to become the official avengers of the French people, despite their own conspicuous softness toward the Nazis at the time of the Soviet-Nazi pact.

Eric Conan and Henry Rousso have pointed out how tainted the “politics of memory” has become.(n2) By the 1990s, France was awash in what can only be called lies about continuing government cover-ups of French complicity in Nazi war crimes. On critical scrutiny, not one of these charges has turned out to be true. Moreover, the attempts to deny that punishment had been meted out to suspected collaborators at the end of the war ignored the indiscriminate savagery of the actual reprisals, often incited by communists, who themselves had been Nazi collaborators. An observation confirmed by Conan-Rousso (which may in fact be taken as self-evident) is that the politics of memory now practiced in Western countries centers on the disparagement of majority populations. Thus, in France, the well organized demands put forth in the early 1990s on behalf of deported Jews, as a missing part of national holidays devoted to the Resistance, led to other more imperious demands for commemoration. Celebrations of the Resistance were shifted from Mom Valerien, the place from where opponents of the Nazi regime were sent to internment camps, to the Velodrome d’Hiver, where, in July 1942, over 13,000 Jews (many refugees from other countries) were deported to concentration camps. By the mid-1990s, two of the three fetes nationales pertaining to WWII commemorated the Jewish deportations. The decorating of the tomb of Philippe Petain as the victor of Verdun (not as the president of Vichy France) had to be stopped after Francois Mitterand was attacked as an impenitent Vichyiste. Moreover, the periodic comme il faut recognition of the wartime deportations of the Jews by the French government had to be done so as to avoid the charges made by the “politicians of commemoration,” that the Vichy regime was simply a regular French government carrying out the anti-Semitic will of the French people, without Nazi prodding.

All of this is necessary for understanding why Adam’s prescriptions for a chastened or moderate politics of memory are not likely to prevail. What is at stake is an ideological tool, not a standard of disinterested justice. General P inochet remains a human rights criminal, because of his anti-communist executions in Chile, while Fidel Castro, who killed many times more people to “build socialism” in Cuba, journeys to Spain to receive a human rights award. In this contemporary, ideologically charged climate, it is foolish to believe that the politics of memory can be practiced in some realm of pure forms. Nor does Adam help matters much by his exhortations for “progressive memory,” which will come about through “political education” and the removal of “fascist mentalities.” Such language is obnoxiously condescending, and an invitation to power-hungry social engineers, who are far more dangerous than xenophobes. Similarly, the curious equation of “fascism” with anti-immigrationists, an association Adam seems to take for granted, is highly questionable. Neither Latin fascists nor their far more brutal German counterparts were committed to isolationist politics. Would that have been the case!

A crucial distinction should be made between two goals that Adam seeks to achieve at the same time: a politics of memory that transforms moral consciousness, and the reconciliation of former enemies. The second has taken place repeatedly for reasons unrelated to the first; and usually what brings about this conciliatory state is the exhaustion of warring sides. Longtime enemies fred the costs of war or the quest for hegemony more ghastly than peace. Although, according to Thucydides, on the eve of the Pelopennesian War an Athenian ambassador explained to a Spartan assembly that “No one having devised to take power that he succeeds in obtaining can be dissuaded from reaching for more,” thirty years later the defeated Athenians and the temporarily victorious Spartans had both fought themselves out. What ensued was a relatively lenient peace, and no major struggle broke out again between these two erstwhile leading Greek powers. A similar situation obtained between the French and the Germans after WWII, but unfortunately not any sooner. The absence of Soviet arms and the military resources needed to achieve all of its geopolitical ambitions may have forced the PLO into seeking an accommodation of sorts with the Israelis. The promise of foreign aid here may have helped to grease the skids, but this is what the US as a superpower is providing to further its interest in regional stability in the Middle East. In short, physical devastation, economic ruin, or the fear of both disasters have had the effect of stopping hostilities and neutralizing enemies in the past. Presumably this will not cease to be the rule among nations and power blocs.

Peace does not require “political education” by sensitizing experts, but “reconciliation” might. For what Adam is talking about is getting nasty people to fess up to their sins, as an act of “reconciliation.” This may work mutatis mutandis at a Christian revival meeting, where the participants are presumably receiving the girl of the Holy Spirit. But Habermasian interpersonal dialogue, social psychology, and the imposition of “democratic civic culture” are different from religious fellowship, although it is not clear that Adam perceives the magnitude of that difference. Getting people to stop killing each other may be the most that international relations can achieve, or should want to achieve.

(n1.) In Newsday (September 1, 2000).

(n2.) Eric Conan and Henry Rousso, Vichy: Un passe qui non passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994). Both Conan and Rousso are non-Communist leftists.

[Telos; Winter 2000 Issue 118, p115, 4p]


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