Magazine article The Spectator

Guilt-Edged Comforts

Magazine article The Spectator

Guilt-Edged Comforts

Article excerpt

A mong the most thriving branches to have sprouted from the fecund trunk of historical studies is the one called Memory. History, of course, is about remembering, but the study of the collective memory normally patriotic and piously self-justifying in holy texts, poems, museums and memorials - has recently gained impetus from an increasingly fashionable political project: to force a defeated opponent not merely to surrender his pennant but to crap on it in the same motion.

This is done with the most saintly of smiles: it's called Truth and Reconciliation. The victors of Versailles post-1918 and Nuremberg post-1945 had not thought of it: Germans were required to hand over material reparations, cede provinces and offer certain necks to the hangman. They were not, however, required to vow love for their conquerors on the scaffold and adjust their collective memory to affirm their own guilt. More recently, the Federal German Republic brought leading apparatchiks of the defunct GDR to trial without requiring them to denounce Marx, Engels and Lenin. Our SAS snatch-squads in former Yugoslavia deliver `war criminals' to the Hague in anticipation of the normal selfjustifying defence.

But another agenda has been surfacing during the half-century since Hitler put an end to himself without a hint of contrition. The collective memories of defeated tribes (whether nations or regimes) must be wrenched from the usual pieties of selfcongratulation, the normal bitterness attendant on defeat (`We were sold down the river'), into a marvellous sacrament of selfloathing and guilt. Young Germans must be 'educated' in the sins of their fathers. They must `never forget' the Holocaust. Young Russians must `never forget' Stalinism and the gulag archipelago. No child anywhere must ever be allowed to `forget' what we, not he, remember. Japan must apologise (and pay up). Prominent thugs of the apartheid regime must bare their breasts with a sufficient display of conversion to satisfy the saint of the hour, Desmond Tutu. The ritual is meant to convey a healing, moral symbiosis - but where consent is withheld, as in the case of ex-President Botha, well, gentlemen, what a shame that he should force us to produce the thumbscrews.

Clearly Germans have become addicted to the culture of guilt. Should the Regierunsviertel, the administrative quarter of Germany's restored capital, Berlin, wear the hair shirt of repentance by refurbishing two Nazi landmarks, Schacht's Reichsbank and Goering's Air Ministry, as -the new Foreign Office and Finance Ministry? Is it possible to preserve a spirit of collective atonement by forcing passing citizens not to look at architectural eyesores? Should Berlin build a Holocaust Monument, a version of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, or a Holocaust Museum? The debate rages.

It so happens (as Wole Soyinka points out) that the dominant nations, the great moralisers of the 20th century, were up to their elbows in the slave trade for 300 years. So where is their own mea culpa? As a boy I witnessed the self-righteousness of the British officer class and its wives in occupied Germany (BAOR) as they bartered small packets of coffee and a few cigarettes for cut glass and fine china. No one challenged my parents' generation about the African slave trade or asked why it was a crime to conquer non-Aryans as Untermenschen (Hitler) but merely common sense to conquer Africans as 'savages' (Montgomery). …

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