After denial and excuses, it’s time to take ownership of national sins
By Stephanie Salter The Tribune-Star: February 02, 2008 08:45 pm
TERRE HAUTE — Ever since I read a story last week about Germany’s near-obsession with public acknowledgment of the Holocaust, I’ve been thinking about what it takes for a nation to own its sins.
By “own,” I mean that first part of a process to which 12-steppers and many psychologists adhere. Until people take ownership of the wrong they’ve done, they have no real chance to break out of denial, make amends, heal and move forward. Most religions incorporate this same kind of process in their faith practice as a key element of reconciling with God and community. There is acknowledgment or confession of sin, active atonement and a sincere, sustained effort to not repeat the wrong.
The task is difficult for an individual, whether in therapy or church. For a nation, history tells us, it’s almost impossible. For the Germans, the notion of owning sins was of particular attention last week: The country marked the 75th anniversary of the Nazi’s official assumption of power. Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times reported from Berlin that “the building of monuments to the Nazi disgrace continues unabated” in Germany more than 60 years after the end of World War II.
Kulish quoted Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, as saying, “Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame? Only the Germans had the bravery and humility.”
In the city of Erfurt, Primor had attended a commemoration of the Holocaust and of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. In addition to scores of existing monuments, museums and exhibitions, a variety of government programs are meant to keep the enormity of the Holocaust sharp and fully animated in the public arena, Kulish reported.One of the programs has returned home for visits about 33,000 people who were driven from Berlin by the Nazis. All travel and lodging for the weeklong visits and ceremonies are paid for by a government fund. A Topography of Terror museum opened late last year where Hitler’s Gestapo and SS once were headquartered. Two more monuments are planned to honor Gypsies and homosexuals who were murdered by the Nazi “cleansing” of undesirables.
As Kulish wrote: “Why Germany seems unendingly obsessed with Nazism is itself a subject of perpetual debate here, ranging from the nation’s philosophical temperament, to simple awe at the unprecedented combination of organization and brutality, to the sense that the crime was so great that it spread like a blot over an entire culture.
“Whatever the reasons, as the events become more remote, less personal, this society is forced to confront the question of how it should enshrine its crimes and transgressions over the longer term.”In other words, if a nation’s people truly mean “never again,” they must accept that it can be achieved only through owning the sins anew, generation after generation. If there is a statute of limitations on Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, its leaders and general populace seem to be saying, it lies far, far in the future.The size and scope of the horror that Germans (and other Europeans) perpetrated or allowed to occur in the last century, obviously, has helped inhibit the country from falling back on customary alibis and excuses. The Third Reich did not rise from a prosperous and well-adjusted populace. Totalitarianism never does. The collective “wound” that so often enables a nation of human beings to slowly rationalize then embrace the trappings of fascism — blame and persecution of an “other,” suspension of civil and human rights for “the greater good,” torture, genocide — was gaping in post-WWI Germany. Germans have the benefit of excruciating hindsight when it comes to excuse-making. Their 20th-century history is a firsthand lesson in what it means to believe in ideas and leaders who promise justice, and to suffer the aftermath when those people and ideas fail. They know how humiliation, poverty and injustice can lead, not to compassion for others, but to scapegoating and transferring pain and cruelty back onto others in the name of recovery, justice and patriotism.
The Israeli diplomat used the words “bravery” and “humility.”Can the former ever materialize without the latter? Must it take an “unprecedented combination of organization and brutality,” a crime “so great that it spread like a blot over an entire culture” to give birth to regenerative humility? No nation exists that has not transgressed against and wronged others. Not one country, including ours, owes no one an apology, has no reason to confess shame and remorse. We all have national sins to own. The day after I read the story about Germany, I listened to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey equivocate before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the legality of waterboarding and whether it is torture.Asked by Democrats and Republicans alike for a straightforward answer, Mukasey refused. Instead he said that the U.S. Detainee Treatment Act “engages the standard under the Constitution, which is a ‘shocks the conscience’ standard, which is essentially a balancing test of the value of doing something against the cost of doing it … the heinousness of doing it, the cruelty of doing it, balanced against the value.” In other words, the end could justify the means, no matter how illegal and immoral the means may be. Am I equating Mukasey’s lawyerly dodge with the murder of 6 million people? No. I am not talking about interchangeable examples, but about similar points of reference.After World War II, the United States prosecuted Japanese military officers for war crimes involving waterboarding of U.S. and Allied prisoners of war. Whether the Japanese considered the possible end worth the means was never an issue. Six decades have passed. Now the wounds of Sept. 11, 2001, have led America to blur the edges of legal and illegal, enemy and ally, invasion and defense, torture and necessary interrogation. We have our excuse to change the rules in the name of recovery, justice and patriotism. Like all nations, we also have the choice not to use excuses, to be brave before we are forced to be humble. What history that would make. Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org