Universe Column, Sunday April 15th
The news that police cadets in the Berlin police force refused to listen to the harrowing testimony of Isaak Behar, an 83-year-old holocaust survivor, raises disturbing questions.
Mr.Behar’s parents and two sisters were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz and as a Jew he had been invited to give a lecture on his experiences in the Third Reich. The cadets shouted that they didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust anymore and complained that they were being emotionally blackmailed.
There have been sporadic reports about a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany but beyond that issue is the equally fundamental question about the importance of collective memory.
I have never been very impressed by the glib encouragement to “forgive and forget”. Forgive certainly, but forget? Without becoming prisoners of our history we need to remember the past and allow our memory to condition our behaviour and our actions today.
After the Holocaust world leaders declared “never again” – and after every subsequent genocide, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Burma, Kosovo and the rest, they have said exactly the same thing. “Never again” is yet another old cliché we can do without.
We need to understand gross inhumanity precisely because it has, does, and will happen all over again. That’s the nature of evil in our world.
Those German police cadets may find their history unpalatable, or even repellent, but they have no right to erase it or ignore it.
Since World War Two, Germany has rightly insisted that its police officers are given compulsory Holocaust-awareness training. Visits to sites where Nazis murdered or deported Jews are part of the curriculum. It is illegal to display Nazi symbols or to produce pro-Nazi symbols.
But this isn’t just an issue for Germans.
As we bleat that sentiment about “never again” we are routinely turning a blind eye to contemporary atrocities. Every act of rape, torture, and mass murder committed by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur and Chad underlines this. Never again, all over again.
While the world stays in denial about the deaths of 400,000 people in Darfur (and the 2 million killed in Southern Sudan) by the Khartoum Government, the failure to remember is having profound consequences elsewhere.
In Russia, for instance, if there had been an honest discussion of what Stalin did to the Chechens – his mass deportation of an entire nation to the wastes of Kazakhstan with the intention of destroying their culture and language (and where half of the entire nation died), would Russian public opinion have supported the obliteration of the Chechen capital, Grozny, or the two wars instigated against them by Russia?
If Russians comprehended the enormity of the crimes of their Communist leaders – the terror, the show trials, the gulags – would they have freely elected Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, as their leader?
The dominance of ex-communists (now rebranded as Socialists or Social Democrats) in Russia and almost all of the former Soviet republics and satellites means that the past has been concealed and history distorted.
The political and moral consequences of this collective amnesia have been appalling. With no equivalent of South Africa’s truth commission, or the UK’s re-opening of the Bloody Sunday massacre, those responsible for the murders and massacres in the Soviet camps have gone unpunished.
The stories of the Russian dissidents and writers – from Sakharov to Solzhenitsyn – the ordeal of the refuseniks – the Jews refused exit visas- the suffering of the incarcerated Russian Orthodox Christians, the arrest of the Soviet Baptists, the persecution of the Ukrainian Catholics, the massacre of the Polish officers at Katyn – and the bravery of students, like Victor Bulgakov, who dared to raise their voices – need to be told and remembered. Just as every German knows about Dieitrich Bonhoeffer – the theologian killed by the Nazis at Flossenburg – and why he and others sought to assassinate Hitler, Russians need a similar understanding of the cruelties of their leaders.
As it currently stands, for the next generation, the moral of Russia’s story is that those who were responsible for sending 18 million of their fellow citizens through Soviet camps, colonies and psychiatric hospitals, did so with impunity. Re-invented as today’s Russian billionaires they have their phenomenal gains salted away in foreign bank accounts and their private jets on stand-by lest the tables are turned on them by some other mobster. They at least have sufficient knowledge of their history to know the probability of that scenario.
So let’s hear less talk about forgiving and forgetting and more talk about repenting, remembering and renewing; less talk about “never again” and more awareness of how it all too easily happens all over again.
Post war Germany – which has many achievements to its name – knew that denial of what had gone before was no way to build a civil society. That is why the behaviour and actions of the German police cadets need to be taken so seriously.