Learning from dark pasts

Looking critically at the past is important. Remembering that the people of the past are people like us is also important.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
A woman placed a rose at the Berlin Wall Memorial Nov. 9 after a ceremony marking the 26th anniversary of the wall's fall.

A few years ago, I was chatting with a journalist who was a diplomat at an East German embassy in the Middle East during the late 1980s. He told me that he had been so immersed in his job that he was baffled when his boss phoned one morning and said simply, “It’s over.” He initially thought he was being fired. When he turned on the news, he learned that it was the state he served that was being fired. 

Few people in the months leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall thought East Germany would disappear. If my acquaintance was surprised, so were plenty of experts in the West, including the CIA. But few people today are surprised that a nation that required a wall to keep its people from fleeing was untenable.

Bedrock assumptions about our world can crumble overnight. A generation later, what once seemed normal can be puzzling, even shocking. What were our ancestors thinking when they enslaved other people, committed unimaginable genocide, used starvation to enforce economic policy? It’s important to ask those questions if you believe that human rights, freedom, and justice must be defended. The lessons of history are useless if they don’t help us avoid repeating past mistakes and progress beyond the brutal and immoral.

But when judging the past too narrowly, we risk what historians call “presentism,” ignoring context and nuance while overlaying today’s standards on earlier generations. To acknowledge the long history of worldwide slavery that led up to American slavery, the grievances Germans felt after World War I, the oppressive serfdom that czarist rule imposed on Russians – that still would be no excuse for subsequent cruelty and misrule. History’s gray areas help us understand how we, too, might be making decisions that our children will look back on in shame.

A cousin of mine keen on genealogy once hunted down distant relatives in Germany. During their pleasant visit, the photo albums came out. There were formal family portraits and candid snapshots of parties, picnics, and weddings from the 1970s, ’60s, and ’50s. Eventually, the pages landed on the ’40s and ’30s. Here again were smiles and family settings but also occasional SS armbands.
That was 1930s Germany.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Sara Miller Llana digs into the difficult but necessary way Germany continues to face its Nazi past – cringing from it, learning from it, turning from it. Can that dark history be preserved without being honored? Germany, she notes, is not the only country still wrestling with historical wrongs. In the United States, the legacy of slavery and segregation and present-day concerns about institutional racism and “white privilege” remain hot topics.

A Confederate flag flew over my high school in the 1960s. I don’t recall having qualms about it at the time. I do now.

The past must be faced. We must learn from it. One of the biggest lessons is that it was inhabited by people navigating the world by the lights they had at the time. We’re doing that, too.

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