peace and justice files

History has history

Posted 8/30/23

"Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been …

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peace and justice files

History has history


"Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”

—George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner

You may have noticed: the past has become a battleground in that war I spoke of in my previous column. Agreement on what has happened, and on the significance of those events to the present, has become a measure of one’s location on the political spectrum. 

History, it seems, has its own history. The way that we interpret events, the people or groups we glorify or villainize, the lessons we try to distill—all these things themselves change over time. (Two words: “Christopher Columbus.”) 

The most recent example, as I write, comes from Florida, where there is a hot debate going on about how to look at and teach about slavery. Did slaves “benefit” in some way from learning skills and crafts? If so, would that somehow balance out the evils done, or lessen the historical burden of slaveholders and their descendants?

My wife Jasmine, as you may know, is a native German. We’ve been talking about this stuff and what is happening here in America quite a bit. She asked for some space here to share her opinions on this subject, and I am more than happy to oblige. 

Jasmine: So let’s speak about history from the point of view of a German artist living in the U.S.  

Imagine that the German government would say that the Jews at least learned that gas chambers are very effective—or that they learned important survival skills! (No, I don’t think that, and you’re probably upset about this sentence and you’d be correct to feel that way!)

But that’s exactly what happens in the U.S. right now, this idea that the slaves learned culture because they were forced to live in the U.S.

The First Nations aren’t accepted still. I have Native American friends who still feel discriminated against in their own country.

I work at a nearby historical museum. What I realize from listening to our visitors is that there is a lot of “polishing” of American history,  trying to make it nice and shiny.

Well, two genocides, involving many millions of people, aren’t shining at all.  

With that polishing you can focus on the famous American “freedom”—better to say “so-called freedom,” because my freedom ends at my neighbor’s door. History is something to be aware of, history has lessons in it. I’m speaking about what really happened.

So probably there were no slaves in the place where I work, or better to say it’s not documented. But of course there was slavery on the Delaware. So likely they knew about this genocide and about the one that was committed on the First Nations. And knowing about a crime but not stopping it or supporting it indirectly—what’s that?

In Germany, something happened called Entnazifizierung after World War II. People were forced to watch movies about the concentration camps and what happened there. And to be honest that wasn’t enough—and many Nazis escaped with the help of the U.S. to Uruguay or other countries. 

There’s no excuse for the murder of millions of Jews, Roma, gay, handicapped or politically different-thinking humans. But to acknowledge that this happened, and to accept that we should do our very best to make that never happen again—that’s a responsibility of being a German (and yes we still have idiots we don’t understand).

To do otherwise creates a sensibility, a mindset where persons and political structures can move in more fascist directions—and that is exactly what happens when you polish your history in such an intense way as it’s being done here. 

No, you’re not responsible for the past—but you are responsible for learning from the reality of the past! 

So if a Trump presidency happens again, it’s because many people never learned about the true history of this country. Actually, America was never great, and neither was Germany. 

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