Struggling to Come to Terms With the Past / Selected Models for Dealing With Cultural Trauma



{image via Flickr}

Nations across the globe have gone through periods under repressive regimes, almost invariably resulting in the infliction of massive cultural trauma by one group onto another. The forms of oppression responsible for these traumas range from disenfranchisement to genocide, and their ramifications extend far beyond the eras in which they occur. Both victims and those who have abetted oppression suffer from these consequences and as such, massive efforts towards reconciliation become necessary.

After World War II, the German population found itself in this position. Before its defeat, Nazi Germany had managed to systematically exterminate just under six million Jews, between 220,000 and 500,000 Romani, and 200,000 disabled and mentally ill persons. The Third Reich also targeted political and religious dissenters, killing two to three million Soviet POWs, 5,000 to 15,000 gay men, 1.8 to 2 million ethnic Poles, and six million Soviet civilians. As a result of this, a massive reconciliation process needed to take place to rehabilitate both the German people, many of whom had abetted one of the most infamous mass murders in modern history, and its victims.

Despite all this, Germany is now a Federal Parliamentary republic with the 5th highest GDP in the world and was named the world’s most valued nation among 50 others in 2008 by the Nation Brands Index, as well as the most positive influence in the world by a 2009 global opinion poll taken by the BBC.

A large part of Germany’s ability to reintegrate itself into the world so successfully was die Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a term that translates best into English as “struggling to come to terms with the past” and specifically describes the process of reconciliation and rehabilitation that occurred throughout post-war Germany. The process involves accepting history, taking responsibility, attempting to remedy what can be fixed, and attempting to move on. This occurs both politically and culturally. Politically, the Federal Republic of Germany assumed the legal obligations of the Third Reich, thereby attributing concrete responsibility to the German state.

Culturally, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung’s foundation is education. Only with sufficient knowledge of history could the German people analyze and digest the past in order to come to terms with it. There was a large-scale institutional response to the Holocaust by both churches and schools. Churches had theological discussions with their attendees regarding repentance and admonition, two very pertinent religious motifs. Most German states include repeated lessons regarding the Holocaust in a variety of subjects in school curricula from the 5th grade on, often including visits to concentration camps and lectures from survivors.

Education equips Germans to tackle die Vergangenheitsbewältigung in other aspects of the cultural sphere, including numerous books, movies, television shows, and documentaries that deal with the Holocaust. Another significant cultural aspect of die Vergangenheitsbewältigung is Mahnmale; similar to memorials, except they have connotations of admonition and guilt. The memorials, which are present in almost every town at the sites of atrocities, are a medium for Germans to reflect upon the cultural guilt ingrained in their national identity.

This combination of political accountability and a culture that encourages reflection and positive action to struggle through and come to terms with the past results in a successful, thoroughly modern process of reconciliation and rehabilitation.

Of course, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung is not without its detractors. Critics in Germany argue that it has been politicized, and is now used as a Totschlagargument, an argument with little or no content that is used because no one will dare contradict it. Others view it as the reeducation of the defeated Germans by the Allied victors. Still others argue that inequalities are inherent in populations and that attempts to account for them are futile and unfair. Despite this, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung is generally considered successful. However, analogous processes around the world that have occurred since illustrate some potential pitfalls.

A more recent process of reconciliation whose success is open for debate is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. After the abolition of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1995 based in Cape Town. The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations as well as deal with issues of reparations and rehabilitation. This was accomplished through three committees, the Human Rights Violations committee, which investigated abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994; the Reparation and rehabilitation committee, which was tasked with restoring the dignity of victims and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation; and the Amnesty Committee, tasked with hearing petitions for amnesty by perpetrators. Amnesty was granted for those whose crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and who gave full disclosure regarding their actions. No side was exempt from appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to preempt charges of victor’s justice. Of the 7,112 petitions for amnesty, 849 were granted and 5,392 were refused while the rest fell into some other category, such as “withdrawn”. The final report, issued on October 2nd, 1998, condemned both sides for committing atrocities.

All parties involved found the process to be relatively successful at bringing out the truth, as the condition of the possibility of amnesty in exchange for full disclosure encouraged testimonies. However, despite shedding light on many abuses that would have otherwise remained unknown or unreported, the reconciliatory effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are debated. A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Khulumani Support Group surveyed hundreds of victims of abuses. Most felt that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had failed to reconcile black and white communities. Many believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation, not an alternative, and that due to its focus on restorative rather than retributive justice the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was weighted in favor of the perpetrators. Many perpetrators testified but showed no remorse and attempted to mitigate their responsibility, resulting in an incomplete sense of justice for victims. Some whites also objected to the process, feeling that it was a witch hunt for them.
In the end, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa resulting in providing a much more comprehensive picture of the reality of what happened during apartheid that otherwise would not have existed, but this came at the cost of true reconciliation. While granting amnesty to some perpetrators occasionally resulted in closure and forgiveness for victims and their families, it also often represented the façade of justice for the sake of expedience to many. A further example of a reconciliatory that faces criticisms of incomplete justice is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established to deal with the gross human rights violations that occurred during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has not yet completed its work, which is scheduled to be completed by 2012, but it already faces harsh criticism from both the Rwandan government and Western governments. The Rwandan government objects to the Tribunal because the most severe punishment it issues is not death, but rather life in prison. Additionally, offenders that are convicted will not serve time in Rwandan jails, but rather in prison facilities offered by other countries. The Rwandan government also fears the Tribunal will not meet the expectations of the Rwandan people, but is rather being used to appease the consciences of the rest of the international community, who made no effort to stop the genocide while it was occurring despite the presence of UN security forces in Rwanda at the time. Western governments, led by the United States, view the Tribunal as dysfunctional and believe it isn’t making headway. Proponents of the Tribunal allege that regardless of the amount of offenders tried and convicted, the most important aspect of it is the message it sends: that those who do not value life can and will be brought to task for their actions. Of course, this symbolic value provides little comfort for victims who feel that justice is not being served.

A critical difference between the case of Rwanda and other examples that should be noted is that it is not an internal mechanism, as a lasting peace that is acceptable by all has yet to be achieved there. As such, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda provides more an example of external attempts to aid in reconciliation through the provision of justice rather than nations sovereign attempts to deal with their own pasts. Despite this difference, Rwanda is still a good example of the dangers of delivering justice that is viewed as incomplete by victims and the inability of incomplete justice to facilitate total reconciliation. Additional internal reconciliatory processes that may be instructional can be found in former communist countries during the 1990s.

After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, former eastern bloc countries found themselves struggling to cope with the events that occurred during the reign of their recently deposed repressive regimes. Although the bastions of totalitarian repression had been removed from their governments, countries found themselves struggling to cope with their legacies. Individuals who had taken part in the various forms of secret police within countries found themselves no longer protected by the corrupt regimes that supported and instructed them, and something had to be done to reconcile populations that included both the oppressed and oppressors. This birthed the process of "lustration," historically a term for ancient Greek and roman purification rituals that came into modern usage as a term similar to die Vergangenheitsbewältigung that described the process of dealing with past human rights abuses and injustices perpetrated by a nation. The Polish and Czech lustrations provide excellent examples for what can go wrong in modern reconciliation and rehabilitation processes.

The key mistake with lustration in the Czech Republic was that it was undertaken through a non-judicial process. This was primarily because Czech lustration was not intended to do justice, but rather to safeguard the fledgling democracy from events similar to the 1948 communist takeover that led to the repressive regime the Czech people were trying to come to terms with. As such, lustration in the Czech Republic consisted primarily of preventing past human rights abusers, such as members of the communist secret police (the StB), from entering into official positions. All those involved with the secret police were blacklisted from taking part in the judiciary, the upper reaches of civil service, the procuracy, the security service, the army, management of state-owned enterprises, the central bank, railways, high academic positions, and public electronic media.

Of course, this led to the difficulty of accurately identifying past human rights abusers from the previous regime that would be subject to this exclusion. This was done through a screening process for individuals who wished to fill any position for which lustration was necessary. This process was partially derailed by the initial decision to include “candidates”, people who were identified by StB recruiters as potential agents. Estimates from 1992 indicate that half of the 15,166 individuals who were lustrated were candidates, yet records showed that only a third of individuals identified as candidates in 1989 had actually agreed to become informers. Additionally, of the 580 lustrations studied by an independent lustration commission, half were overturned. Further derailing the process, presidents, parliamentarians, and ministers did not need to undergo screening, thereby limiting the "protective" effects of the process greatly. Finally, the reason the Czech Republic chose to utilize a bureaucratic rather than judicial process was to avoid charges of retroactivity, resulting in the removal of open discussion regarding collaboration and responsibility from the public sphere. With no such public discussion, any hopes of the sort of reconciliation seen in Germany were quashed in favor of small scale punitive measures for which fairness could not be guaranteed.

Lustration in Poland encountered difficulties of a different nature. The objective of lustration in Poland was similar to in the Czech Republic, focusing mainly on limiting the role of former communists, especially secret police and informants, in government and civil service. The process was also intended to clear the air and introduce transparency in government that had been lacking under the former communist regime. Unfortunately, the process was slow in initiating as the new government was focused more on reconstruction of the state than dealing with the past (the first lustration laws weren’t passed until 1997). Officials were often not completely removed from their positions and the files of the secret police have still not been released to the public.

Aside from its initial slow start, lustration in Poland was also compromised by being politicized. During the 2000 presidential election between the highly popular incumbent president Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Wałęsa, a significant player in the Solidarity movement and former president, charges of collaboration based on shaky evidence were exchanged. Kwaśniewski was charged first and Wałęsa was charged a day later. Both cases were highly publicized, with commentators and politicians weighing in on both sides. In the end, both men were vindicated of charges of collaboration. The use of lustration for political gains certainly reduces the credibility of the process and severely limits the reconciliatory effect it may have. Additionally complicating lustration in Poland, two separate lustration bills, one proposed in 1992 and the other in 2007, were deemed unconstitutional.

A similar process is beginning in America. The indigenous people of America sustained a massive cultural trauma during their genocide and forced relocation at the hands of the United States government that reverberates to this day. For example, Buffalo County, home of South Dakota’s Crow Creek reservation and with Native Americans making up 81.59 percent of its population, was the poorest county in the U.S. according to the 2000 census (most recent data available) with a per capita income of only $5,213 and an unemployment rate of 57 percent. Compared to other ethnic groups in their native Minnesota, Dakota Indians have shorter life spans, higher rates of infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Among American Indians in Minnesota aged 15-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death and the suicide rate among children 10-15 is four times that of all other ethnic groups combined. Clearly, time has not healed all wounds.

The process is complicated by many of the same factors that cause resistance to reparations for African-Americans, another mar on America’s past that recently made headway when the first federal apology for the Jim Crow laws and slavery was issued in 2008. Like Native Americans, African-Americans are also still suffering. African-American men have higher death rates than Whites for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. The average African American family’s median income was $33,916 in 2007, compared with $54,920 for Whites.

Ironically, one of the primary arguments against reconciliation is the feeling by the majority cultural group that it is unfair. For white Americans, slavery and the genocide against Native Americans took place at a great historical distance; they personally didn’t ever enslave or kill anyone and the tangible benefits whites receive from maintaining a dominant position in society have been an established fact for so long that they don’t seem out of the ordinary. African- and Native-Americans who still suffer from the negative consequences these periods had on the health of their culture can’t ignore the legacy of the past so easily; they continue to be economically and socially marginalized as a result of centuries of oppression. In addition to the more tangible scars left behind by this history of oppression, cultural traumas such as those suffered by African- and Native-Americans have a lasting effect on cultural identities. Because of the persistent, institutional nature of the oppression suffered, self-perceptions have been distorted to fit within the socially constructed framework of racial hierarchy. In order to facilitate rehabilitation, many African- and Native-Americans focus on education. The strategy is that by reconnecting to cultural identities and traditions, there can be a reclaiming and regaining of status as healthy nations of people. This desire to reconnect with the past is the source of natives’ desire for land reclamation, as often their cultural identity is inexorably linked to the land through site-specific culturally sacred locations that fit prominently into their spiritual beliefs and tribal histories and identities. This focus on education as a means for rehabilitation presents an excellent opportunity for a reconciliation process similar to die Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The U.S. has still failed to live up to its many broken treaties or engage in any sort of meaningful and effective rehabilitation efforts with the tribes. In October of 2009, the U.S. passed a resolution to issue an apology to Native Americans for historical violence and injustices. As can be learned from Germany, this is an important first step. However, the U.S. still has a long way to go towards reconciliation. The process is complicated by historical distance; events seem long-ago to those who don’t suffer and in fact continue to benefit from the outcomes of historical conflict. Reconciliation is a difficult process, but only when we truly study repressive periods in human history along with reconciliation strategies can we complete the long-overdue process of struggling through--and reconciling--our troubled past.

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by Angus McLinn

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