On 9 May 2015, Russians celebrated the 70th Anniversary of their victory in the Great Patriotic War over Nazi Germany. However, the memorialisation of the Red Army’s celebrated march to Berlin has prompted discussion (outside Russia) of the mass rape of an estimated two million German women and girls by the occupying forces. April 2015 also marked two important centenaries. Commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landings was accompanied by recognition (outside Turkey) of the Armenian genocide. Indeed, 2015 is a year of decadal anniversaries. It is 70 years since the nuclear and incendiary bombing of Japanese cities. It is 50 years since Indonesia’s anti-communist purge. 40 years since the start of Cambodia’s killing fields. 30 years since the Air India bombing. 20 years since Srebrenica. 10 years since the London bombings.
The weight of history is not only felt upon significant anniversaries. Recently the death of Günter Grass, sometimes called ‘Germany’s conscience’ (outside Germany), sparked renewed discussion over responsibility for the Holocaust—a discussion Grass, known for ‘saying things other people didn’t wish to hear’, would have enjoyed. Germany’s past erupted into present-day politics as Greek politicians demand that Germany agree to pay wartime reparations as a precondition for further austerity measures and loan repayments. At the same time, in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s refusal to accept Japanese culpability for wartime atrocities has occasioned criticism from China, both Koreas, and the United States.
In all of these cases, and many more, we are asked to remember the past. But are we to be buried by the demands of memory? Often, too often, we are told that ‘We can’t move forward until we look back.’ But that is wrong. Remembering is a means of going forward, but so is forgetting.
We must choose how, and what, to remember. And we must decide what to forget. And those decisions are political. While some attempt to force us to forget, others demand special recognition for particular outrages. The Holocaust must be written with capital H. Ethnic cleansing and ideological purging becomes genocide. Murders are massacres. Rape is a crime against humanity. Alongside the insistence upon particular vocabularies come calls for reparations, memorials, apologies, archives, trials, and truth commissions.
Who is responsible for meeting these demands? Are we all responsible for remembering historical horror? But none of us can know everything. And our inevitable ignorance permits politics to twist public history. The ANZAC sacrifice at Gallipoli is represented as a fight for freedom, the Rape of Nanking becomes a geopolitical bargaining chip, the Holocaust justifies Israeli colonialism, 9/11 licences perpetual global war.
Suppose we put aside obvious excesses and ask what responsibilities we have to remember atrocity. In cases where perpetrators of these crimes still walk free, we can assign culpability—as in the case of Oskar Gröning. 2015 is also the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Charter– the politico-legal basis for the 1946 Nuremberg Trials. But culpability is not the only form of responsibility. Do citizens carry special responsibilities to remember outrages and sufferings inflicted by their co-nationals? And what about third parties?
One way to move forward is to divide responsibility between the individual and the collective. As individuals we cannot remember everything worth remembering. But we can require public institutions to recognise and fund memorialisation. Those processes require clear-headed analysis of past actions. And where acts are found to be wrongful, we should advocate for official recognition through apologies and, where appropriate, reparations. We can also require political institutions to provide material for public memorialisation. That not only means collecting and curating exhibits in museums. It also means dignified public memorials, that neither varnish nor obscure atrocity.
But the process of historical analysis is not dispassionate. And we may hope that resulting debates, although painful, eventually produce better history. That process depends upon the freedom to debate and discuss the full range of historical questions. In practice, realising that freedom requires providing resources for specialists to continue the job of analysing and writing history. But freedom depends upon more than material resources; it also means the end of those legal prohibitions and social taboos that prevent critical engagement with celebrated pasts. It may be pleasant to celebrate history. But appropriate memorialisation requires critical knowledge and ability.