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