In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.
Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.
In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”
Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.
Continue reading ““Essentially an Evil Thing””
Today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, when German armed forces surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. Public celebrations in various countries have been dampened by the pandemic.
You should definitely take fifteen minutes of your day to listen to this extraordinary address (dubbed in English) by Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
We had made enemies of the entire world. Today, seventy-five years later, we are forced to commemorate alone. But the difference is, we are no longer alone. And that is the happy truth of the present day. …
It has taken us three generations to admit it whole-heartedly. 8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the same time, the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. … This country had descended too far into the evil and the guilt. …
It is a struggle, though, that continues to this day. A remembrance can never end. There can be no deliverance from our past. For without remembrance, we lose our future. …
This country can only be loved with a broken heart.
Watch the whole speech here.
(Update: The advance text of the speech is available in various languages directly from the Bundespräsident’s office.)
A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.
September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.
Continue reading “Teach September 11”