Coming to Terms With the Past, as a Citizen, a Writer and a Human Being

05/12/2015 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

"Vergangenheitsbewἄltigung" is a coinage in German that is used to mean something like "coming to terms with the past." That is the major theme of post-World War II German literature, but, considering the effort that was expended, leading literary figures have done a remarkably poor job of it. It was an obsession of Christa Wolf, an author in former East Germany who critics long considered a major candidate for the Nobel Prize, as well as of the late Gὒnter Grass, who won the Nobel Prize in 1999. Wolf managed to block from her mind the fact that she had worked as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, until that was revealed by archives in 1993. For most of his career, Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the notorious Waffen SS, before finally revealing it in his 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion.

One explanation of these failures is offered by their fellow German W. G. Sebald, a major candidate for the Nobel Prize before his premature death in 2001, in On the Natural History of Destruction (1999). Even as they acknowledged the Nazi crimes, these German authors had repressed awareness of the suffering that they had witnessed among their own people, when cities were bombed to rubble, people starved, and, at the end of the war, an additional 2.1 million were killed as the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia forcibly evicted ethnic Germans from their ancestral homes. Sebald writes, "The almost entire absence of profound disturbance to the inner life of the nation suggests that the new Federal German society relegated the experiences of its own prehistory to the back of its mind and developed an almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression..." This does not imply that there was an equivalence between the crimes by and those against the Germans. The obligation of a writer, however, is to confront his own experience, and the Germans could not do justice to that while hiding so much trauma from themselves.

Every country, ethnicity, or major subculture has matters that it does not care to acknowledge. The Japanese do not always admit to the sexual abuse of the Korean "comfort women" during World War II, and the Turks regularly deny the genocide of Armenians at the start of World War I. In the United States we have, of course, the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Blacks, in addition to many other crimes against humanity that only appear "minor" by comparison.

I remain a fairly unregenerate man of the left. In the United States and throughout the world, the left has lost a lot of credibility by its past support of figures such as Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung. As at least a charter member of that community, I feel a special obligation to help redress that failing. In many cases at least, I believe the offense was usually due less to malice than to very human errors of judgement, but that is no excuse for ignoring or trivializing it now. We need to ask why so many of us allowed themselves to be hypnotized by an ideology, to the extent that they failed to perceive some of the most egregious human rights violations ever.

But, assuming Sebald is correct, there are things about this German pattern of psychological repression that seem paradoxical. Other countries such as Russia, Ireland, Serbia, and Israel are perpetually commemorating their own suffering yet have trouble acknowledging guilt, the reverse of what Sebald finds in Germany. For Germans, furthermore, Vergangenheitsbewἄltigung is a matter of values and philosophy, but for Americans it is mostly one of business and politics. In contrast to the Germans, we have engaged in little soul-searching or philosophizing about national crimes. Traditions going back to the first European settlement made America, the "New Eden," the place where humanity might cast off its past, so full of wars and intrigues, and make a fresh start. On some level, we still believe in a primal innocence that might relatively easily be recaptured through a change of heart, if we could only find the right policy.

Every country, and probably every culture, has its own way of selectively remembering, and forgetting, the past, and perhaps that contributes as much to its identity as the past itself. That is why the national state emerged as a major ideal in the latter nineteenth century, at about the same time as history became a distinct academic discipline. This national style involves selecting a few themes and previous events, which may underscore victory, defeat, empire-building, victimization, triumph, guilt, prosperity, hardship or many other things. These are then taken at least partly out of context and romanticized, often in intellectually highly sophisticated ways.

That is a sort of mythologizing that generally has remarkably little difficulty accommodating internal contradictions. In the United States, we honor the heroism of both the South, fighting for autonomy, and the North, fighting to end slavery, in the Civil War. In some states such as Arkansas and Mississippi, Martin Luther King Jr., the crusader for Black rights, shares a holiday with Robert E. Lee, commander of the rebellion that opposed Black rights. In a similar way, Russians now often honor adversaries Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Stalin, and President Vladimir Putin may see himself as the successor to both. The Arc de Triomphe was originally conceived by Napoleon to memorialize his victory in Egypt, which quickly turned into the first in a series of catastrophic defeats. The arch was completed by subsequent regimes, making it simultaneously a celebration of Napoleon, of the French Revolution that he ended, and of the Bourbon Kings who replaced him, along with King Louis-Phillippe who replaced the Bourbons. Elaborate rationalizations are always essential to national or ethnic identity.

But the incoherence of virtually all national mythologies begins to become apparent when they are juxtaposed in ways that force their inherent contradictions to the surface. We see this is the decision of Western leaders to boycott the military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015, to mark the end of World War II. Their absence reflects a displeasure over Russian support for the rebels in Ukraine, but that, in turn, is intimately tied to differing perspectives on events of World War II, as well as on many that led up to and followed the war. Britain held out against the Nazis almost alone for over a year, and the Americans commanded the Allied forces at D-Day, but it was the Russians who did most of the fighting, losing 20 to 30 million people. Ukrainians remember the Holodomor, the 1922 famine in Ukraine, caused or at least actively encouraged by Stalin, which killed, by some estimates, up to seven million people or more. The Russians remember the widespread support for the Nazis in Ukraine, where many people initially greeted them as liberators. As is so often the case, it is just about impossible to untangle the mix of history, mythology, and politics, among all the countries involved.

"Vergangenheitsbewἄltigung" literally means "overpowering the past," and that is a thing that we can never do. Why even bother to come to terms with it? Why not simply forget the past, as, indeed, many people today appear to have done? Our link with the past is, in any case, tenuous as best. Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, called history "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." Nevertheless, Gibbon devoted his life to recording it. We are easily overwhelmed by the vastness, the brutality, and complexity of the historical record. History contains no clear lessons, and no promise of redemption. I love it anyhow. History, for better or worse, is "us" on a grand scale ─ full of secrets, beauty, fear, longing, and stifled love. Without history, our lives would not be complete, and we could not be, in the best sense, fully "human."


French Cartoon, 1815. The caption reads, "'If the plague paid the pensions, the plague would also have flatterers and courtiers.' Saahdi." The man, responding to each trend like a weather vane, signs allegiance to the a series of governments that have come to power in the last two and a half decades.