No. 30, October 1995


Book reviews


The haunting or the liberating past?

The end of the Cold War has, rather unexpectedly, lead to the "breaking out of peace". In different parts of the world what seemed to be unbridgeable hostilities and insoluble problems, were suddenly tackled in a new spirit of accommodation: Israel, Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam, Argentina, Cambodia. Ironically the "peace" has spurred new acts of violence from those who do not gain by the peace initiatives. At the same time violence is spreading in some parts of the former Soviet Union and Communist bloc like Chechnya and Bosnia.

War and violence are inseparable parts of human history. They play an important role in creating and fostering perceptions and images that haunt history. History is used to perpetuate grievances, fears and brooding, dormant imaginings. People demand redress, revenge, justice in the name of history. "Around the world, horrors of history continue to haunt the present and act as an implacable engine driving modem politics. From the streets of Buenos Aires to archives in Berlin, from the highlands of Ethiopia to the hills of EI Salvador and paddy fields of Bangladesh, demands to redress injustices of yesteryear or sometimes yesterday bedevil public life still. Victims of oppression in one-time communist countries struggle to cope with ruthless social engineers who continue to live among them. Many Asians still bum with rage over atrocities committed by imperial Japan two generations ago and longer. Everywhere scarred societies strive for an elusive balance" (Time 22.5.1995, p.20). In South Africa we are to have our own Truth Commission to "settle the scores of the past".

As history teachers we find ourselves in the middle of this "battlefield of history". For us history is not a battlefield - it is a learning experience. We know from history that Nuremberg-like proceedings do not really achieve their aims of settling the burning issues in history. They provided moral triumph and justification to the victors and they act, or are supposed to act, as a warning to future generations. But they leave the affected people untouched. It happened in the American south after the Civil War, and in Germany and Japan after the Second World War that the losers from whom the prosecuted and persecuted came, simply immunised themselves by withdrawing from the whole process and insulating themselves against the moral judgements and condemnations. That is why the German historian Friedrich Meinecke questioned the denazification process in Germany after the Second World War. The Germans and the Japanese regarded it as an artificial revolution. What was needed, Meinecke claimed, were not trials and prosecutions but a "Selbstreinigung des deutschen Volkes" (A self-cleansing of the German people). The Germans and the Japanese succeeded in doing that to a remarkable extent in the way in which they constructed modem democracies and modem thriving economies in their war-devastated countries.

The desire for revenge is part of history. It is also the cause of wars and violence. In public life and in politics people tend to have astonishingly long memories. It is the remembrance of their defeat by the Turks at the battle of Kosovo on June 28, l389 that was, used to justify the incorporation of modem-day Kosovo by Serbia in 1989. This was the beginning of the present military confrontation in Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

We study and teach history because we believe that it must ultimately improve our understanding not only of the present but also of the behaviour of people in particular circumstances. We further believe that this understanding is reflected in our ability to distinguish between that which we appreciate about the past and that which we dislike and would prefer to avoid in our present or future circumstances. We believe that a mature historical consciousness is the hallmark of a liberal mind and a liberal education. It broadens people's outlook, encourages an accommodating, appreciative and critical awareness and fosters a spirit of enquiry and a respect for the truth. History enables us to forgive without forgetting.

Even if we agree with Israeli historian Meron Berventi that some wars are never over because they are endemic and organic, we as teachers have to rise above a particularist or partisan approach. It is true that the purpose of many historical writings is to justify or condemn. We know that politicians, ideologies, rebels and revolutionaries mobilise history for their own purposes. We realise that few people, including ourselves as teachers and students of history, can claim complete objectivity, neutrality or impartiality.

What we do know is that there are no blameless heroes or monstrous villains in history. History is not the story of cowboys and crooks, of the good and the bad. People of all ages are products of their history, their values, their circumstances. At worst they are victims of their circumstances.

The true student of history does not demand justice in terms of Nuremberg Trials or Truth Commissions. He does not demand revenge for past deeds. He demands justice in terms of the victory of the liberal spirit. The liberalising spirit of history is no where better demonstrated that in John 8 verse 7: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her ... they went away, one by one ..."

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