Monthly Archives: January 2018

When Does History Stop Fueling Current Interest in Compensation and Restitution?

History is a difficult thing. First of all, it is past. Second, there is rarely only one narrative reporting and reconstructing it – so, depending on the position of the observer or author, there are different, even conflicting stories on what actually happened. Third, history is often presented and used with clear current interests and purposes, which may come with twists, biases and inventions.

This helps explain why history still plays a role in current politics and IR debates. A few examples: The Polish government claimed (until quite recently) compensation from the German government for the destruction and atrocities inflicted by German forces in World War II. Currently, Namibia is suing Germany in New York, for slaughtering Hereros and other ethnic groups about 100 years ago, when Germany was a colonial power. Algeria is considering similar moves and is asking for an official apology from France for atrocities committed in the early 1960s, during the final years of France’s colonial rule. In the U.S., compensation is debated for slavery (which officially existed until 1863), and in Australia for the mistreatment of aborigines.

A separate, though equally difficult, issue is the question of restitution for property that was taken away from people or groups of people, mostly after regime changes – as, for example, the issue of compensating the few remaining Jews (or their families) for lost property after the Nazis were removed in 1945, and, and compensation for property appropriations committed by Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1917 and 1945, which came to the fore after those regimes collapsed in 1990.

So this week’s question is NOT about why, how and how long to produce memories and stories about history. It is about how much time must pass before his (or her) stories cannot be treated any longer as something fueling current interests in compensation and restitution?

 – Klaus Segbers

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“Partying Like It´s 1933”- What Did We Learn and Can We Do Better This Time Around?

There is an ongoing debate about the character of these years, 2017 and now 2018. Maybe stimulated by the recent change of years and nostalgic sentiments, there were some features added to this debate. The core issue suggested is that we are experiencing a major change in the global structure, an epochal rupture, a tipping point, or a Zeitenwende, away from the liberal global order established after the horror of the Second World War. The organizations and institutions of the Bretton Woods system are experiencing, so we learn, an erosion, a devaluation, and are partly supplemented by Chinese-led structures (AIIB, OBOR, etc.). The U.S. in particular is departing from organizations (UNESCO), and global treaties (Kyoto Protocol), giving up on trade regimes (TTIP, TPP) and customary rules (status of Jerusalem), and afflicting damage to other agreements (Iran Vienna agreement), reducing the credibility of established organizations (NATO), and addressing the EU with contempt and ASEAN with neglect. Although the Chinese are more polite, they may agree with the substance of a perceived or claimed need to build a new global (dis)order. Russia does not care much either way, violating rules if convenient. Most of the EU sticks to rules, but it is not united, losing with the UK an important member state, and is not strong enough to serve as a counterweight.

A second, more specific concern is the question of whether there are parallels between 1933 and 2017-18. What was the rise of National Socialism 85 years ago, is now, as some writers suggest, the rise of populism. One and a half years ago, Robert Kagan alerted the public with the piece ‘This is how fascism will come to America’. More recently, the President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs stated that ‘the global order that had shaped the world since the end of World War II was over’. The observer Alex Bayer wrote in Kyiv Post under the header ‘Partying like it’s 1933’ about a world that is ‘being launched upon some kind of destructive course and careening full speed toward as yet unknown disaster’, and sees a situation he compares ‘(i)n this respect … is similar to the year 1933 when the foundations of the subsequent momentous events in world history were laid but the events themselves were yet to take shape’.

The New York Times registers and comments on two new publications with the header ‘Will Democracy Survive President Trump? Two New Books Aren’t Not So Sure’. One of the authors, David Frum, who has a sound Republican background, is quoted as saying ‘if it’s potentially embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long’. USA Today published a piece by the former under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns under the title ‘America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe, thanks to Trump’.

It is very difficult during the course of ongoing events not to lose perspective. Very true. But most of the consequences of 1917, for example, were not quite anticipated, as was the trajectory of 1933. The end of the East-West conflict in 1989 surprised most professional pundits. The financial crashes of 2007-08 came over the world in a similar fashion. So this week’s question is: Do we think that we can do better now?

 – Klaus Segbers

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