How to learn from history while letting go of the past
Travelling in northern Europe, ‘the War’ is never far away: from the way that people feel about Germany’s performance in the World Cup, to the bullet scares on churches and town halls, the designs of cities such as Rotterdam that where flattened in air raids, to more in-depth conversations about identity and nationalism.
As an Australian who has not spent much time in this part of Europe until recently, this is quite surprising. Like most Australians, World War II feels to me in the distant past and rarely thought about, whereas here, its memory is alive and present.
A friend of mine highlighted an example of just how nearby the War is for many Europeans even of more recent generations.
She explained that if you ever visit a German military facility, all symbols of the country’s fascist past have been removed.
Despite best efforts, however, you can still make out where they once existed. Buildings still bear the marks of the once intimidating symbols that celebrated the rise and power of the Third Reich even though they were violently removed some 65 years ago.
It must raise conflicting emotions for a member of the German Military Police Force I met as he prepared to undertake his next tour of Afghanistan: a proud soldier from a military family who have served the German army for generations.
His personality wonderful, his politics progressive, his service record impeccable. The emotions of his country past, however, uncomfortable.
It is not just Germany that has a past whose symbols of brutality have been removed. In Holland, for example, the history taught at high school until relatively recently revolved around their Golden Age of world dominance – while the brutal reality of the slave trade in the colonies that where managed by the Dutch West India Company is glossed over.
Such symbols act as an interesting metaphor for memory: both personal and national. When past events that we are ashamed exist, we often do our best to erase them.
Both nations and people, however, are often confronted by moments where this memory returns – and it is something that makes us uncomfortable. It is something that we can never truly erase no matter how hard we try.
Renowned sociologist, Kelly Oliver , describes how all nations like to imagine a smooth history. Each one only looks smooth because we work so hard at covering up the cracks. Like a cheap renovation, however, the cracks will always become visible.
In conversations about the history and memory of our various nations, both the Germans and the Dutch I was keeping company with stated that at least as an Australian I did not have to deal with such an uncomfortable history.
To their surprise I rattled off a number of difficult aspects of Australia’s history: our betrayal of East Timor in the 1970s, the appalling role we played in the Bougainville conflict, the illegal invasion of Iraq, the ‘children overboard’ fiasco, the refusal to accept the genuine refugees picked up by the MV Tampa and of course, and the clincher, the long history of mistreatment of Australia’s Aboriginal population.
Such a discussion of any country’s chequered history raises two invariable questions: why should I feel any responsibility of a past that had nothing to do with me? And, are not the recounting of such details disrespectful to a nation that has served you well?
As a nation that still has much to do to reconcile our past and our relationship with Indigenous Australians, both these questions miss the point.
More appropriate questions that we should approach are: how can we deal and resolve a past that includes many injustices? Secondly, how do we learn from the mistakes we have made?
The thing here is, there is no reason why you cannot express a sense of patriotic pride while still acknowledging dark parts of your history. It also does not make those historical figures involved in these incidents automatically evil.
For example, as a fan of Gough Whitlam, I still am dismayed by his stance on East Timor, but remain impressed with his other achievements. Likewise, I remain a strong critic of the Howard Government, but this does not make John Howard a bad guy (even though he can neither bowl or bat).
No single Australian is personally liable for the massive death and displacement of the Aboriginal population: but as citizens of this nation, we bear both rights and responsibilities, including that of a shared past.
As a second-generation migrant Australian, I have benefited from Australia’s history, enjoy the rights granted, but should also carry some of the responsibility. After all, if we are all encouraged to celebrate the nation’s achievements, should we not be responsible for its failings?
In Germany, each school student is made aware of the Holocaust; Germany’s role in World War II and the impacts this has on Europe. While there are also attempts to ensure proud moments of Germany’s history are celebrated, there remains a nervousness that this pride should remain in-check.
It is quite a mature position for a country with so much history: a position that Australia should learn from. There are few monuments to mark the death of so many Australian Aborigines or the loss of their culture that existed for 40,000 years. However, we are quick to celebrate and mark a national achievement.
Rather than covering the cracks of our history with cheap jingoism, we should acknowledge them right along those parts of history we rightly commemorate. If not, the memory will continue to haunt us and much will remain undone.
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