Neel Mukherjee on Historical Taboos

Europe’s biggest taboo? The inability of some of its member states to come to terms with their shameful pasts. Austria has had practically zero reckoning, compared with Germany, about its deep complicity in Nazism. Does one not want to return to Elfriede Jelinek’s extraordinary book, Die Kinder der Toten, on the voluntary, willed amnesia afflicting postwar Austrian society, if only to remind us how rare that kind of book is in Austrian culture and mentalité? All her subsequent works have anatomised the Austrian soul by approaching it via one of its expressive strands, the sexual violence of men against women, as if that were the abiding metaphor for the long-festering sickness and sordidness that lie just under its haut-bourgeois veneer. Here are the opening words of her essay, ‘Im Verlassenen’: ‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal. The performance takes place in the very much smaller cellar dungeon in Amstetten – daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed … Performances are all there can ever be.’ Amstetten was the village where Josef Fritzl held his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in an underground cellar for 24 years.

Or take Belgium and its appalling colonial past in the Congo. Remember the scene in WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in which Joseph Conrad arrives in Brussels in 1891, where he ‘saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies, and all the passers-by in the streets seemed to him to bear that dark Congolese secret within them’? And then those shocking lines: ‘And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere.’ Once again, near-zero accounting for this chapter; again, almost a collective amnesia, against the tide of which only Adam Hochschild’s book pushes. Is it shame and embarrassment that is responsible for the silence? Or just ignorance?

England, once the dominant colonial power in the world, was, until last year, unaware of Churchill’s direct role in the Bengal famine of 1943 (casualty: 3 million Indians), or, until 6 years ago, of the exact, brutal nature of its empire’s end in Kenya. These are only two examples in what Sebald calls the ‘mostly unwritten’ story of colonialism. These examples can be multiplied, particularly in regard to the British Empire.

What can be done to reverse the denial, the ignorance, the volitional amnesia?

Here, I think, a leaf can (and should) be taken out of Germany’s book: the way learning about and memorialising the Holocaust has been at the centre of every postwar government’s agenda and duty. It is only with deep State intervention that the darkness can be pushed back. Perhaps even a kind of Truth & Reconciliation Committee with links to board members of the National Curriculum in History so that schoolchildren imbibe this knowledge from the outset? A dedicated sub-section in History Departments in universities to promote research, publication and teaching in the field of the particular country’s colonial past? A National Remembrance Day that will be dedicated to a special kind of remembrance, that of colonial history and its depredations? But perhaps at the beginning of all these interventions lies the wish for a truthful reckoning, to settle accounts with history, as it were, and what intervention or suggestion can ever achieve that? 

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified, how would that impact the country?

This is a game of counterfactuals so one could play this endlessly. My (skeptical) position is that any individual, peoples, or nation, when confronted with their incontrovertible history of wrongdoing, tend, first, to go into vociferous denial, then entrench themselves further into their indefensible moral position or their position of error. Recent studies done on large sample sizes of people who are told, then given the evidence, that a particular belief they hold has no basis in fact or reason (such as a superstition), show that they tend to cling to their beliefs even more strongly instead of abandoning them. So questions of overcoming, I feel, are both advanced and optimistic. And yet Germany has shown that it can be done. But, on the other hand, Britain, Belgium, Austria, Poland are still in denial. Last week a declassification of certain documents held by the Foreign Office in the UK has revealed how tens of thousands of documents pertaining to atrocities in the former British colonies were destroyed and their existence denied. A terrible light has been shone yet again on very grisly chapters on the final days of Empire. What is the reaction in the UK? Why, denial, of course. Here is the English writer George Monbiot’s opening paragraph in today’s Guardian on the new revelations: “There is one thing you can say for the Holocaust deniers: at least they know what they are denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, they must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain's colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied.” He identifies a ‘national ability to disregard’ that history of crime. The comments posted by readers at the end of this soul-searching and truthful article make for very uncomfortable reading; there, in a microcosm, is a fair picture of the ‘impact’ you ask about.What makes us think that other countries will not be following similar patterns of behaviour?

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

Unquestionably, the Nuremberg Trials and, generally, the post-WW2 reckoning with the Holocaust.

There are another couple of learning moments shaping up now, nowhere near the scale of the previous learning moment, but they pose or will be posing serious problems for the shape and well-being of the future of Europe: 1) the hoo-ha about the Muslim population of Europe, 2) the failure of austerity measures to lift Europe out of its massive economic mess. Both are in the process of unfolding so talk of learning is a bit premature at the moment.