Suppressed history is like a boomerang – Geraldine Schwarz

Forum on European Culture Festival 2020

Géraldine Schwarz
Up until the Second World War, remembering history served only to glorify the nation, to stir up revanchism, to sanctify heroes. After 1945, the trauma of the war gave rise to a new endeavour in Europe: learning from history.

For us to use our past to improve our present, it is not enough to name a few culprits from history and tear down their statues. Certainly, anger is understandable when authorities allow very controversial figures to keep being honoured in public places without any contextualisation – such as King Leopold II of Belgium, or the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, or Jan Pieterszoon Coen in the Netherlands, who led a brutal conquest of the Banda islands in 1621, in modern-day Indonesia. But iconoclasm, the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, often only serves an illusion of justice. Soon after comes the forgetting. The missed opportunity to use our past to get to know ourselves better is all that remains.

“Our history tells us what men is capable of. We should not believe that we have become different or better,” the German president Richard von Weizsäcker said in a historic speech to the Bundestag in 1985.

Getting to know our weaknesses and strengths, and also to know the others better – that should be the guideline to learn from the past.

The removal of statues and street names also buries the responsibility of millions of citizens on whose complicity a criminal system was built and able to persist. These  colonial leaders were able to do what they did because entire societies in Europe, in the Americas, as well as in the Arab world and the Ottoman empire, thought like them. They may not have had actual blood on their hands, but many people benefitted from the cruel and savage domination of man over man that slavery and colonialism entailed. The complicity of this mass of people with a criminal system seems much more a central question to me than the guilt of an individual slave trader or a sadistic colonist.

And such societal responsibility seems less relevant in the obscurantist era of Christopher Columbus, when illiteracy, superstition and the dictation of a white Church left little room for reflection, than in time of Enlightenment – in France, the United States, Great Britain, and of course the Netherlands. In these cases, the argument that “history cannot be judged with the parameters of the present” is more difficult to defend. For, even if these countries were not democracies as we understand them today, they boasted of how they advocated freedom and tolerance at home, but then went off to betray those principles elsewhere.

The Dutch were the first to experience enlightenment. In the 16th century they started to question the doctrine of divine right of kings, which asserted that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. For 80 years, the Dutch fought against the reign of the Habsburgs and Philip II of Spain, considering that it was their right to depose a sovereign if they felt that he was no the task. This revolt, which led to the constitution of the Dutch Republic, inspired the great revolutions in Great Britain, France and the United States. It is a source of pride for the Dutch people.

As a matter of fact, the Republic was truly ahead of its time, advocating self-governance, community spirit and an enlightened civil society, and condemning authoritarianism and obscurantism. But far from Europe, she unscrupulously waged colonial wars of great violence and practised slavery.

Later, the United States, Great Britain and France would in their turn be guilty of double standards. Despite the revolutions of Enlightenment, they continued to oppress and exploit people on a large scale, through slavery, racial segregation and colonialism. The oppression continued after the Second World War, after they had proclaimed their moral superiority over fascism. To what extent has this double standard discredited and continues to discredit the ideas of the Enlightenment in the world? Millions of French, British, Dutch, European and American citizens took part in this unbearable hypocrisy, in this immorality.

This reflection is central because it sends each of us back to our present-day responsibilities, our contradictions and the consequences of our behaviour, our actions, our consumption patterns. It allows us to become aware of our own fallibility, our malleability, instead of always shifting the responsibility to the leaders, to the others. It helps us realize that one doesn’t have to serve an unfair system directly to be complicit with it. Following the crowd through indifference, opportunism or conformism is also form of complicity. Taking this perspective is essential to learn from the past – to understand that most of the time we have a choice. 

Conversely, to learn from history it is equally important to shape our ability for empathy and take the perspective of the victim, the oppressed, the humiliated.

Facing up to the shadows of history shouldn’t be done in a culture of guilt, nor should it serve a victim cult. Nor should it be instrumentalised to stir up hatred or sectarianism, or to nourish an anachronistic and Manichean vision of the past. However, no reconciliation is lasting, no peace is solid, no past is appeased without an essential step: being able to apologise. Yet, how many still shy away from this process!

Britain, which once ruled over one-fifth of the world, still refuses to apologise for the economic exploitation and racial segregation operated in its colonies, as well as clearly identified massacres. In India for example, or in Kenya in the 1950s, during the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion, when the British confined almost the entire Kikuyu group in detention camps and reserves – tens of thousands died. In 2000 survivors began to sue Britain – the government expressed “regrets” but did not apologize. In the face of these massacres, its strategy is to systematically deny liability for the actions of the colonial administration, as if the local governors had acted independently. In truth, they scrupulously followed instructions issued by London.

In Britain, remembering the mistakes of history doesn’t seem to be part of national education in schools, museums or in most of the media. And how many streets and statues still honour leaders of the fallen empire! A part of the elite who have made their case for Brexit come from families who build their fortunes in the colonies. They were educated in elite schools, in which the traditions of the Empire are still alive. Thus the illusion remained that Britain would have enough influence worldwide to be able to act on its own. In reality, that influence has been steadily declining.

The British aren’t the only ones. The ability to apologize is not a widespread talent. When Mexico asked Spain in 2019 to apologize for the brutal subjugation of indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Madrid reacted offended, claiming that the past could not be judged from a contemporary perspective. It can indeed be argued that the obscurantism that prevailed in Spain and Portugal at that time was an extenuating circumstance. But one should be cautious with such an argument because it can serve to excuse all sort of crimes committed under the influence of a fanatical ideology.

What undermines Spain’s credibility is that it also voluntarily blinded itself to the crimes of Franco’s regime. After the dictator’s death in 1975, an amnesty law was promulgated which guaranteed impunity for all those who participated in crimes. Impunity triumphed and the victims were left alone in their pain, digging in the earth to search for the remains of the 140,000 people who “disappeared” during the dictatorship. In 2007 a “law on historical memory” was adopted to help them and to remove the symbols of the dictatorship from public places, but it was not until October 2019 that Franco’s remains were finally exhumed from the mausoleum of the Valle de los Caido, an unbearable state-run tribute. As a result of this failure to face the past, a dangerous relativization of Franco’s crime is taking root in parts of society – and its corollary: the growth of an antidemocratic extremist party.

Italy, for its part, has hardly ever paid tribute to the countless victims of its violent colonial and foreign policy under fascism: brutality and massacres in Libya, Ethiopia, Greece and Yugoslavia, and the internment of tens of thousands in fascist concentration camps. Hardly  a memorial or museum recalls this historical responsibility.

Few Italians are aware of these crimes – when Italy returned to Ethiopia the Aksum obelisk that Mussolini had stolen during his bloody conquest to install it in Rome, many reacted with outrage. But hardly anybody complains that a monumental Obelisk with the inscription in large font stating “MUSSOLINI DUX” still remains in Rome, a tribute without any contextualization. As in Spain, the denial of these crimes have led to a rehabilitation of fascism in parts of society and helped the rise of racism and populism.

In France, light has not been shed an all aspects of the colonial era. In particular, the crimes of the Algerian War of Independence, after which 800,000 French citizens were forced to leave the country. The memory of that war, marked by atrocities, continues to fuel tensions especially among descendants of Algerian immigrants – many of the latter live in the explosive “banlieues” , the suburbs.

But the spirit is no longer one of denial either in education, in museums or in the media. In politics, a majority condemns the colonial system as unjust and brutal. Emmanuel Macron even called it a “crime against humanity” in 2017. Nevertheless, France still has trouble understanding how to use this memory to consolidate a sense of democratic responsibility among the authorities as well as its citizens.  

As for the Netherlands, in 2013 its ambassador to Indonesia expressed “regrets” for “the excesses committed by Dutch troops” during Indonesia’s war of independence between 1945 and 1949. This gesture came after victim’s widows had taken legal action against the Dutch government. In March 2020, King Willem-Alexander unexpectedly reiterated this apology during a visit in Indonesia. Beyond that specific crime, the Netherlands is struggling to come to terms with its colonial past, which is largely unknown among the population. Apologies are not their strength. They were one of the last countries in Europe to apologize, in January 2020, for the failure of the authorities to protect the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation –  75% were massacred, by far one of the highest rates in Europe.

But the recent increase of apologies in the Netherlands reveals a better understanding of how to transform the weight of the past into wealth – confront the shadows of history instead of ignoring them. And also how important coming to terms with the past is for the democratic maturation of a country.

A repressed history has a boomerang effect. It returns in form of communal tensions, divided society, populism, antisemitism and racism. It also harms international relations and can threaten the peace.

If Europe wants to have a normative influence in the world, if it wants to be credible by asserting its model of an open and democratic society in the face of authoritarian, illiberal models, the former colonial powers must face up to their historical responsibilities.

Colonial history is the main link between Europeans “de souche” and Europeans with an immigrant background. If we want peaceful relations and an inclusive European identity, we must include it in Europe’s collective memory.

If the colonial past has been repressed to such a degree, it is maybe because another past has outweighten it: that of the Second World War, totalitarianism and the Shoah. Europe was founded on the promise of “never again” and has mobilised incredible energy to spread those  words.

It is 75 years later, what have we Europeans learned?

A recent dramatic event gave us the opportunity to measure our skills: the Coronavirus pandemic.

On the one hand, it revealed flaws in our ability to learn from history.

The ease with which so-called “free” societies gave up basic freedoms for instance freedom of movement or meeting together, has shown, once again, the effectiveness of the “fear” factor. Not that confinement was not justified, but how many Europeans found themselves accepting everything, without public debate, without discussion, including disproportionate and illogical measures? This blind preference for security at the expense of freedom is a  dangerous reaction. It has already opened the door to a worrying evolution: our growing willingness to accept the use of mass surveillance tools in the name of better pandemic control.

On the other hand, the pandemic has shown that we have understood an essential message of the twentieth century’s disasters: when man ceases to be human, he destroys himself. At a time when the technological and economic vision reduces men to algorithms, consumers, substitutable models, the majority of us have reaffirmed that every man is unique, not replaceable and that he has a fundamental right to live. In the face of natural selection logics and utilitarian doctrines that accept the sacrifice of a minority in the name of the so-called general well-being, triumphed the refusal to give man the right to decide upon life or death, the right to compare the value of one life, with another. Old versus young, healthy versus sick, but also – countryman versus stranger, French versus Italian, German versus French. Even if late, European solidarity has shown up. 

These lessons from history are not a moral accessory to look good. Solidarity between generations and between European countries does not just serve humanistic ideals. It serves humanity itself, therefore all of us. Because tomorrow, in the face of the many challenges that lie ahead, the survival of each of us will depend on the capacity of others to be human.

Géraldine Schwarz is a German-French journalist and writer based in Berlin. She is the author of Les Amnesiques (published in France by Flammarion and in Germany by Secession Verlag), which retraces the memory of fascism through her family story.

Ahead of the Forum on European Culture Festival, De Balie invited four European thinkers to reflect on this year’s theme: We, the People. Is there more that binds us together than holds us apart?

The festival takes place from 17 to 20 September, both online and offline. Thinkers and artists come together to imagine a better future for Europe. The complete line-up of the festival full of theatre, music, talks and movies can be seen via