Week 545 – 2008.02.03 – Learning from History – Painful but Important
The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 545
During this week, the day of 30 January 1933 was remembered in some countries as the day which in prepared the way towards the Second World War 1939-1945.
This historical commemoration of events 75 years ago relates to the fact that in Germany, the leader of the party that came out strongest in national elections, was appointed as head of government according to the legal provisions of the constitution. – This party had not received the majority of the votes, but the rest of the different other political parties were not cooperating with each other. This party enjoyed the backing of two important trends in society: it was supported widely in the population because it was appealing to feelings of nationalistic pride, and it was supported by a substantial part of the leadership of big industry.
Many Germans resented to see neighboring countries prospering, while Germany was still suffering from restrictions as a result of the First World War 1914-1918. In spite of all historic differences, the feelings looking back at that time in Germany are somewhat similar to the words in the Preamble of the Cambodian constitution of 1993:
“Accustomed to having been an outstanding civilization, a prosperous, large, flourishing and glorious nation, with high prestige radiating like a diamond,
Having declined grievously during the past two decades, having gone through suffering and destruction, and having been weakened terribly…”
Instead of remembering that suffering and destruction had also been a reaction to Germany’s own actions, but rather responding to awakening nationalistic emotions to re-establish the former strength of Germany, led to massive proud nationalistic demonstrations. The new administration, once in power, started to empower itself further, changing the course of history:
The leader of the emerging powerful nationalist-socialist party – the “Nazi” party – Hitler, appealed to sentiments that easily received broad emotional consensus:
- “The national government will regard it as its first and top priority to re-establish the unity of spirit and will among our people. It will protect and defend the foundations on which the strength of our nation is based. It will firmly protect … the basis for all of our morals, the family as the root of our national and government body.”
But then, soon books were forbidden by the government in 1935 which were considered to be critical, or not in line with what was considered to be “German culture.” A referendum had to be held in the former territory of Saarland in 1935, which had been made, after the First World War, part of a neighboring country – France – to be returned to Germany. And in the same year of 1935 legislation related to define German nationality was introduced to assure that the “German race” should be kept pure, by taking away German citizenship from millions of people who had been living in Germany, but who were of a specific ethnic and religious background – Jewish people.
To affirm and emphasize German identity as over against others, finally let to the Second World War. It is estimated that it resulted in the death of between 55 and 60 million people.
Commemorating the 30 January 1933, an article in the New York Times starts with the words, “Most countries celebrate the best in their pasts. Germany unrelentingly promotes its worst.”
And the article continues to list up existing and planned memorials:
- the Holocaust memorial that dominates part of the center of the capital city of Berlin
- construction will begin in Berlin on two monuments: one near the parliament building, to remember the murdered people of the ethnic group of the Gypsies; and another to remember to the gay and lesbian people systematically rounded up and killed because of their sexual orientation
- a huge new exhibition was opened at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
- at the Dachau extermination camp, a new visitor center will open soon
- in the city of Erfurt a museum was dedicated to remember the murderous crematoriums
- two exhibitions record the role of the German railway system, organized to transport millions to be murdered.
It happened often during the 17 years I work in Cambodia that foreign visitors asked me to help them to visit the Tuol Sleng and the Chung Ek genocide memorial places. And time and again I am at a loss to answer questions related to the low regard these centers seem to receive from the Cambodian public and the Cambodian authorities. Especially the Chung Ek Killing Fields memorial, with its administration contracted out to a business company, and its shop selling all kinds of general tourist memorabilia, but with no documentations and publications for sale which commemorate the victims of the Cambodian genocide, leaves many visitors doubly confused: about the history that happened, and about the lack of attention and consideration for this very history.
Some recent and current events pose the question anew: how is Cambodian society dealing with its own history?
The 50th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations between the two countries of Cambodia and China, mentioned during the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, referred to the longstanding friendship and the fruitful cooperation between the two countries. But the time when a large number of Cambodian people lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime, when the government of China was their main international supporter, was not mentioned.
It is expected that the highest ranking surviving functionary of the Khmer Rouge, the “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, will face the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – on 4 February 2008. On the one hand he has previously stated that he want to use this court to explain the historical realities of the 1975 to 1979 period. On the other hand it is known that he said in 1996, at the end of military fighting and the surrender of the last of the Khmer Rouge faction: “Let by-gones be by-gones.”
Not to deal with past injustice, without anything mentioning about what was done wrong in the past, is sometimes praised as the Asian way of dealing with the future. That this does not work is obvious from the tensions which break up again and again between Japan and the countries of China, Korea, and others, which suffered injustice from Japan in the past. And the present public debate about the legacy of the former Indonesian president Suharto shows again: it is not an alien, Western posture, to ask for historical justice. To evaluate the many positive achievements of the former president, without considering the 500,000 to 1 million deaths suffered in Indonesia after the military coup by him, is not acceptable in Indonesian society.
Maybe in Cambodia, to deal with the major, historical problems relating to millions of lost lives will be easier, when it becomes normal in society to face and to deal with more specific and easily identifiable smaller problems – like the case of the suspected murderers of a labor union leader from 2004 – even the former King had expressed his doubt that the due process of law was followed when they were convicted. Not the legal institutions themselves, but now again the lawyer of the accused and civil society has to ask that their Supreme Court appeals hearing should be held soon.
Maybe, if members of the public society would more often and more naturally speak up when even smaller cases went wrong, the big and burdensome events of Cambodian history might also get better attention.