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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When Does History Stop Fueling Current Interest in Compensation and Restitution?
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When Does History Stop Fueling Current Interest in Compensation and Restitution?
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As is well known, history has always been part of global politics and international relations debates, but how much time must pass before history cannot be treated any longer as something fueling current interests in compensation and restitution?
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  1. Andrey Makarychev 3 weeks ago

    I don’t think this is a question of time. As I see the problem, it is basically about creating legal conditions that would make countries think twice about suing other governments for issues of the past. Indicatively, in all three examples – Poland vs. Germany, Namibia vs. Germany, and Algeria vs. France the (potential) claimants are by all objective measurements weaker than (the) potential) defendants, which means that for the first group it is first of all a matter of raising their power status. From a cynical Realpolitik perspective Germany and France definitely have power instruments (from closing their labour markets to guest workers from the claimant countries to discontinuing charity and assistance programs) to block these attempts, yet normatively it would be not easy. And it is exactly here where I see the problem – peripheral and semi-peripheral countries learned how to use Western moral and ethical standards for extracting material benefits from Western governments. We can also add Hungary’s legal case against EU’s refugee quota to the list, by the way.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 3 weeks ago

    Histories are important till we remember the past otherwise we are not human beings. How-ever, this must be separated from compensation and restitution. The right to compensation and restitution must be fixed by law, not only national but international. Justice should be restored but no further speculations were allowed. There was a nice USSR anecdote on the theme once the government introduced food stamps for vodka with a participant in WW2 being able to claim 2 bottles instead of 1 if is able to produce a confirmation paper (spravka). Once a man claimed these 2 bottles on a ground that he was a participant of WW1 but cannot confirm because of old times. He was sarcastically denied to have his 2 bottles because Tatars were bringing spravkas proving their participation in Kulikovskaya Bitva (1380). Thus, Russians can claim Alaska, Chinese – Central Asia and even Africa because of Zheng He’s expeditions in 1405-1407 etc. That makes no real sense except for populism.

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  3. Justas Paleckis 3 weeks ago

    The short answer to the question would be: as much time as there will be a bitter hostility between nations, states and religions. This hostility is not decreasing but increasing in the world. This means that there will be more compensation and restitution requirements and they can reach even the early Middle Ages in terms of time (the pessimist would add that claims for compensation may also occur regarding the death of Christ). But before that, you will still have to figure out who owes to whom and how much in Eastern Europe, where the regimes and forms of ownership have changed historically until recently. Therefore, instead of saving the world from the rapidly growing fatal threats, we will increasingly practice the policy of history when the state usually pics historic facts that favour it and closes its eyes against unfavourable ones. The claims for compensation and restitution are the components of this fake history policy that is getting more and more popular.

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  4. Thilo Bodenstein 3 weeks ago

    I recently visited an exposition about the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) in the medieval town of Ravensburg. It suffered from Swedish occupation during the war and did not recover until the 19th century. But Ravensburg can hardly insist that the Swedish government pays reparation today. On the other hand, no one would doubt the right of survivors of the Holocaust and forced labour to ask reparation from the German government and firms. The time zone between these two events is the grey area where the past loses its right to be treated as something fueling current interests. Yet the distant past can have permanent negative consequences for contemporary descendants. This is certainly the case for populations decimated by slave trade, disease and colonial rule in many countries of the world. Individual restitution is not feasible anymore, but the lapse of time must not cause oblivion of these events and does not justify denial of continuous support.

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  5. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 3 weeks ago

    I like how Prof. Segbers keeps opening Pandora boxes here. The question is indeed tricky and I strongly believe that its international and domestic dimensions as well as its moral and financial aspects should be separated. I am neither black nor American and I really think that US’ citizens should settle the question among themselves. I also strongly believe that official apologies and restitution claims should be detached from each other. As long as sates are running the risk of being sued after admitting past year’s – and frequently centuries’ – crimes, the threshold for such official apologies is extremely high, which slows down the pacification processes and conflict resolutions. However, when it comes to restitutions and payments, I strongly believe that one generation must be enough. Children should have a right to sue the killers of their parents, for later generations a “simple” apology should be enough. If modern Namibia sues modern Germany, it does not punish the people who have committed the crimes, but their grandgrandgrand children, who have neither committed those crimes, nor supported them, neither benefited materially from colonialism as that stolen wealth was lost already after the WWI. I do not understand why my husband has to pay for crimes committed in the 19th and early 20th century, but I understand why the German government should offi-cially apologize with indigenous Namibians. Which it by the way has done two years ago.

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  6. Friederike Kies 3 weeks ago

    History has frequently been reported and reconstructed in various sometimes even competing ways. The question thereby remains: How much time must pass before certain stories cannot be used anylonger to fuel current interests in compensation and restitution? I believe it is not necessarily time that needs to pass but rather minds that need to change. Minds, perceptions, ideas and narratives can change by being exposed to new impulses. Such impulses could be a critical engagement with one´s own history. How? One shall not only listen to one´s own narrative but also try to engage with others who hold competing narratives. Standing in someone else´s shoes can sometimes help to understand the feelings, values and narratives of another person. Education, particularly how history is being taught to children in schools, is crucial when trying to change narratives. Furthermore, international exchanges between different cultures that hold competing narratives are indispensable. Certainly, a society needs a high level of maturity and sense of stability in order to engage in such a critical assessment with one´s own history. A change of narratives does not come about easily. However, such a change is always worthwhile and deserves great amount of respect when done.

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  7. Charlotte Cohen 3 weeks ago

    As we’re dealing largely with humanitarian atrocities, let’s begin by saying that whilst perpetrators and victims live and can represent themselves, or be represented, in a court of law, both international and international bodies have a duty to past, current and future victims. They must assure them that justice will be served and restitution given.
    But, once these events recede further into the past, can we push them to one side? It’s not an easy question to answer, as despite efforts by historians to create narratives in their work, history lacks neat endpoints, turning points and beginnings. Events bleed into each other. Even as survivors of the Holocaust pass away, their experiences shape the lives of their descendants, and there is even (limited) evidence to suggest that trauma has been genetically inherited by their children and grandchildren. Should they get restitution? The situation grows even more complicated as more time passes and effects remain tangible; should we give compensation to African-American descendants of former slaves? Not only was slavery in and of itself a horrific system, but its workings remained evident in the economic structure of the post-bellum South, in the legislation of the Jim Crow Laws and in the institutional racism that pervades government and society even today. Perhaps the best course, rather than the morally straightforward, pragmatically difficult route of granting compensation, is to tackle the remnants of such events and processes head on; to help develop the economies of former colonial assets without stripping them of their wealth; to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and help the global Jewish community continue to process their shock and loss; and to appreciate that stories and memories shape and are shaped by culture and society.

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  8. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 3 weeks ago

    History is an irreplaceable teacher with its helpful utility to guide us through a noble task of eluding the mistakes of the past. In addition, history also provides an opportunity to restore the justice (whatever that might mean) for sake of creating healthier societies not tormented by the perpetual guilt and tokenism. The question is, of course, how back into the history ‘ought’ we go and where to drive an arbitrary line (if at all)? That endeavor is a very slippery slope.

    Shall we arbitrarily agree on ‘100 years’ as a symbolic representation of ‘long time’ encompassing several Generations? Alternatively, as reparations are mostly paid ‘by’ and ‘to’ the nation states (with some exceptions), we could trace down every injustice back to the ‘Westphalian system’ of 1648 (a gargantuan and arguably a futile task)? Yet, why not transcend the nation-states altogether and plunge even deeper into the history – after all, there was no Namibian nation-state 100 years ago. In other words, shall Italians, while being proud of the Roman Colosseum, pay restitutions to Tunisians for destruction of Carthage? When walking down this slope, only imagination is a limit: shall we, the Homo sapiens, bear responsibility (ethical and legal) for extinction of Neanderthals and if yes, shall we, as a token for justice, first restitute/replenish them (scientifically viable through DNA cloning) and then hand back all their lands in Eurasia?

    Unfortunately, such discussions are often guided not by what counts as objectively ethical (highly contested concept) and practical, but rather hijacked by the vindictiveness and pursues of the personal gain. In order not to generate, even more injustice while restoring the justice, I assert, the terms of a ‘victim’ and a ‘culprit’ shall be more clearly defined. I believe, those who have personally and directly suffered from the injustice (including their immediate family) shall have all the right to claim the restitutions and those culprits who have personally inflicted injustice shall be held accountable. Therefore, the compensation period can encompass two generations.

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