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     Volume 4 Issue 47 | May 20, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Learning from the Past

Farah Ghuznavi

Politicians are fond of saying that history will judge them (invariably while arguing a point of view that others don't share). Sometimes, in the midst of events that are taking place, it is indeed hard to gauge the long-term implications of such decisions. For example, some who believed in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were genuinely dismayed when this argument was subsequently discredited.

However, though events can be judged more objectively from a historical perspective, facts are needed in order to do so accurately. The bitterness over the Iraq war is not only about the non-existence of WMD, but also relates to the suspicion that political leaders have not always been honest e.g. the UK Attorney-General's full legal advice to the government was not officially made public until it had been leaked (which was also when some Cabinet Ministers saw it for the first time!), and confirms that the legality of the war remained questionable. Meanwhile, the "irrefutable intelligence" --(clearly, anything but!) -- in the US war-dossier drew some of its material from a decade-old PhD thesis available on the Internet…

Even when situations are correctly documented, revisionist historians and opportunistic politicians may collaborate to promote denial, as Bangladesh has experienced first-hand. Despite worldwide recognition of the 1971 genocide, we have to date received no reparations and no formal apology for the enormous human suffering caused. Rather, there has been a frequent re-writing of history where the Liberation War is portrayed either as a valiant battle by Pakistan to hold together a Muslim homeland, or a war between India and Pakistan, in which the freedom fighters and martyrs of Bangladesh are forgotten altogether!

Nor is Bangladesh alone in experiencing this, as recent events in China and South Korea have shown. After initially treating their outrage over revisionist Japanese history texts (that downplayed the damage done to these countries by Japan) as a minor diplomatic incident, the Japanese premier finally expressed "deep remorse" and "heartfelt apologies" for Japan's colonial rampage through Asia, which caused millions of deaths. However, the sincerity of his apology has been questioned, because it re-hashes a 1995 statement by the (then) Socialist Prime Minister, rather than offering anything new. Furthermore, the current Japanese Education Minister is among the (over 100) ruling party supporters of the neo-nationalist group responsible for these textbooks. That group believes that the 1995 apology went too far, and adding insult to injury -- claims that the so-called "comfort women" (100,000-200,000 sex slaves kept by the Imperial Japanese Army) were simply "prostitutes"!

Indeed, it has become quite clear that the primary reason behind Japan's verbal retreat on this issue relates to China's importance as a trading partner, and Japan's current aspirations to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, rather than because of any genuine penitence.

Meanwhile, the uproar over the Japanese textbooks has led historians in the UK to demand a re-evaluation of the way that Britain's imperial past is taught, with experts warning against whitewashing unsavoury aspects of the colonial experience. Currently, the curriculum is structured to encourage students to focus on World War II (e.g., the rise of Hitler), rather than focusing on events like the Boer war in South Africa (when 27,000 women and children died in Lord Kitchener's concentration camps), or the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya (which was brutally put down by the colonial authorities).

This is undoubtedly a praiseworthy initiative, since the failures to learn from history are clear. Despite the global community's promises to "never again" allow crimes against humanity to take place unchecked (recently reiterated at the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide), events in Darfur have already raised questions about the veracity of such pledges. And while many view the Nazi era as the darkest chapter in European history, the recent Balkans conflicts demonstrate that "ethnic cleansing" policies continue decades later.

Of all nations, perhaps Israel could be expected to have learnt the most from history. Jews have experienced persecution not only during the appalling atrocities of WW II, but for centuries before that. Sadly, what many appear to have learnt from their own undoubted suffering is not greater sensitivity to the sufferings of others. On the contrary, they seem determined to dwell obsessively on their own grievances.

While fully acknowledging that Israel is correct in its assessment of its (lack of) popularity in the region, it seems absurd that a recognised nuclear weapons state -- which also happens to be the best friend of the world's only superpower! -- should seek to portray itself as the vulnerable party in the Middle Eastern powder-keg. Instead of learning from history how not to behave, Israel regularly tramples on the rights of others on a pre-emptive basis, while emphasising its own "victim status".

So perhaps then, the nation that really appears to have learnt the lessons of history is Germany, which remains to date, one of the largest donors to Israel. Many see this as ongoing reparations for the Holocaust. So why does Germany do this? Is it because of some inherent nobility in the German character that they continue paying the price for their sins? Perhaps -- and one should certainly give credit to the Germans for not only paying their reparations (financial and otherwise) uncomplainingly, but also ensuring that the post-war generation of Germans have been properly educated about this aspect of their country's past.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason why the Nazis' treatment of the Jews remains so vivid in European memory also has to do with the collective guilt that many European nations feel about the events of that period. However, the key reason that the Holocaust is still a live issue today is because the Jews who survived those atrocities have ensured that the memory of those who didn't is kept in the forefront of global discourse. Whatever you may think of the state of Israel (and I, for one, am no fan of Israeli foreign policy!), it is hard not to envy the tenacity with which all of us, including the Germans, are regularly reminded of Nazi atrocities through the countless books, films and history syllabuses that focus on that period.

Nations, like individuals, mature and develop over time. Ideally, their development takes place in a progressive rather than regressive direction (though given some of the recent debates around immigration and asylum in Europe, one might be forgiven for questioning whether this is actually happening). Perhaps the best guarantee of balanced development is to ensure that the lessons of history are learnt well, and remembered with clarity. The historical progression should be a positive one --recognising, learning and building on the experiences of the past -- both good and bad. If that happens, then there is hope for all of us to overcome the past. Post-war Germany's rehabilitation in the international community is only one example of that.

And bearing that in mind, it is less the case (as US President Woodrow Wilson put it) that no nation is fit to pass judgement on another nation, but rather, that any nation which seeks to pass judgement on another, must make sure that its own house is in order first, and that it truly does practice what it preaches.

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