Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Article excerpt

* De Balie is an admirable institution in Amsterdam, where the public is educated through a constant programme of lectures, seminars and improving theatre for all ages and intellects. One of the events I took part in during a recent visit was a seminar for academics, journalists and creative writers on what were billed as shameful episodes in Dutch history: collaboration with Nazi occupiers, brutal `police action' against Indonesians during the war of 1946-49 and the failure of the Dutch-manned `safe haven' at Srebrenica during the Bosnian civil war.

The historiography of guilt -- once a German preserve -- is becoming ever more widely shared. Even Norwegians, whom we think of as a people exempt from blame for Western imperialism, are now mounting an exhibition on their ancestors' involvement in the slave-trade. In the Dutch case, unease over the imperial past is a powerful source of social influence. Their exemplary laws on race and immigration are rooted, I suspect, in the agony of their memories of imperial failure and in the self-consciousness with which, for instance, they tell visitors that apartheid is the only universally-recognised word in their language.

I do my best to shock my hosts into reassurance. I point to the proper pride formerly expressed by builders of a great empire from a small and poorly equipped country. I draw attention to a crumbling and neglected seventeenth-century gateway near the Singel, carved with a heroic charioteer who lashes her team of exotic beasts beneath the inscription, `It is the part of courage to tame what others fear'.

Dutch colonialism in South Africa, I suggest, could be considered morally superior to the practices of whites in similar environments -- in North America, Australia and the South American cone -- where so few indigenous people were left alive that apartheid was never considered necessary. My Dutch friends seem unconsoled and I go home worried about the extent of the revived fashion for moralising about the past. Moral judgements are the worms of memory, rotting our images of the dead. More than guilt about the past, we need to cultivate our sense of responsibility for the future.

Dutch shame over Indonesia was aroused last year by disagreement over when to commemorate the half-century of Indonesian independence -- a date disputed between former colonial masters and victims. Centenaries are silly. It is always a hundred years since something and I have never understood why the passage of a particular number of years should be thought to make an event more interesting. (This detachment, perhaps, has made me notorious as a specialist in pieces d'occasion, timing books for 1988, 1992 and the year 2000.)

So far this year in Britain, the deaths of Sir Francis Drake, 400 years ago, and William Morris, a hundred years ago, have generated exhibitions and media coverage. As the year lengthens I shall be interested to see how much attention is given in English-speaking countries to two makers of the modern world who died in December, 1896: Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and the Filipino `father of Third-World nationalism', Jose Rizal.

Both are due for re-assessment. Nobel's reputation has been zealously guarded by his executors and trustees. Secrets of self-torture are still concealed in the unpublished poems and novels he left at his death. `War', he said `is the horror of horrors and the greatest of all crimes'; the Peace Prize he founded has made his name revered throughout the world. Yet the money which pays for it comes from the profits of weapons of destruction; and the vision which inspired it was of `a substance or a machine with such terrible power of mass destruction that war would be made impossible'. This bleak deterrence made sense to Nobel, a victim of his own introspective bitterness -- a misanthropic philanthropist who hated people and who was chillingly indifferent to the waste of life. The loss of his youngest brother in an experiment with nitroglycerine left him unmoved. …

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