Remembrance of horrors past

A masterful study of the way nations re-create their history

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey recently acknowledged his role in the killing of a number of women and children in an attack he led on a Vietnamese village 32 years ago. For that "successful mission," he had earned a Bronze Star. Later he received the Medal of Honor, for further in-country actions, including one in which he lost a leg and nearly lost his life.

How does a good man like Kerrey live with his history - with the truth about what he and others did in wartime? How do entire nations address what their armies did or do to others for king and country in retaliation for attacks by others, to win converts, to purify their "sacred" spaces?

To understand such matters is a monumental task; to explain them is even more daunting. Yet, in "Long Shadows," Erna Paris has done precisely that. Her new book is an examination and critique of how history is "remembered," "recounted" and amplified through special ethnocentric filters.

As in "The Wages of Guilt," in which Ian Buruma discusses the very different ways the Germans and the Japanese have sought to deal with World War II, Paris convincingly demonstrates that memory is not only selective but subject to calculated efforts to serve personal needs and national interests.

Like Buruma, Paris discusses Germany and Japan, during and after World War II. She also focuses on France, a country she has studied before and wrote about in "Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair" (1985).

She examines other remembrances of past conflicts (some of which are continuing) such as those "between white and black races," mainly in the United States and South Africa, and the situation in former Yugoslavia, where the phrase "balkanization" has been reprised with a vengeance.

Having set out "to probe the role justice can play in pacifying unreconciled historical memory," she also discusses a number of "truth commissions" and the workings of post-Nuremberg courts in The Hague and in Tanzania.

Paris, best described as an investigative historian, is a masterful writer and consummate storyteller. In "Long Shadows," she presents her cases in a highly readable reportorial style, taking her readers with her first to eastern Germany and then to Paris and on to many other places.

Along the way, we meet the people she meets (the powerful and the powerless) and hear their stories. In chapter after chapter, their voices - and her own - are intermingled with the thoughts of academic scholars (such as fellow Canadian, Michael Marrus), "witnesses" (like Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel), and fellow writers (such as Buruma and Michael Ignatieff), who grapple with her theme of "public memory," an innocuous label for coping by equivocation and rewriting history.

One need go no further than to remember the words of Richard von Weizsacker, former president of the Federal Republic of Germany, to understand the significance of Paris's title and thesis: "Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity [of the Holocaust] is prone to new risks of infection." Paris quotes this in her three-chapter section on "Memory and the Second World War." The implication is clear: Beware of the temptation to sanitize, revise, reconstruct, and rewrite history to suit the vagaries of politics, especially where so many are so vulnerable to propaganda.

Peter I. Rose, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College, is editor of 'Americans from Africa,' the forthcoming 30th-anniversary edition of his two-volume collection of controversies.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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