This is the second and the part of the series on the debate on bringing down statues of human rights violators. Click here for the first part.
Such movements are gathering storm around the world and the question that it seeks to address is how a country must deal with a history carrying human rights violation and human rights offenders. However, let us take two countries, the US and Germany, which have had a bad human rights record and try compare their culture of commemoration. Germany’s case provides the strongest argument against commemorating such figures in history.
The world saw Germany grossly violate human rights during the Second World War, atrocities incomprehensible to a sane human being even today, and Germany is constantly reminded of their past. United States on the other fought an intra-state war, a war which started out as a ‘war of rebellion’ but is today remembered as a ‘war between two states’, a constitutional crisis. We must however be clear on one thing: that the Southerners during the Civil War represented and advocated racism, segregation and slavery, which are considered to be human rights violations, just like the Nazis in Germany represented and advocated racism, segregation, torture, slavery and genocide. Why then is the very utterance of the word Nazi bound to give one Goosebumps while the issue regarding Southerners during civil war must be debated, with philosophical inspection? Why are there so many gray areas when it comes to this?
The first and the main reason for this could be the way both countries dealt with the immediate aftermath of such historical incidents. Post Nazi Germany saw a serious de-Nazification process wherein the Allied Forces in collaboration with the German government tried removing the erstwhile Nazi symbols, propaganda tools, state establishments, culture and psychology. Today, the very invocation of Nazi ideology would earn scathing contempt from the society and the law. Nazi leaders were publicly tried and executed by international forums, display of swastikas criminalized, statues and monuments of people associated with the Nazi regime systematically destroyed, Nazi architectural structures razed and executed Nazi members buried in unmarked graves.
The United States in the wake of the Civil War however saw a completely different reaction. A recent report by The Southern Poverty Law Centre points out that the vast majority of statues, streets and schools dedicated to the memory of the Confederacy date from the period between 1890 and 1930—four decades when the legal, cultural and political edifice of Jim Crow was under heavy construction. Another memorial spate followed after 1954, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and, coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. The statues were blunt instruments in institutionalizing white supremacy and blotting out the dual sins of treason and slavery. The Confederate flag’s defenders still claim that it represents “heritage not hate”. I’d argue that it does represent heritage, but only the heritage of hate and white supremacy. Today in Germany, we won’t see a neo-Nazi converging on monument to Hitler or Goebbels because there doesn’t exist any such statue, whereas in Virginia, America, neo-Nazis and Klansmen will be found honouring General Robert E. Lee, who raised his arms against his own country to defend white supremacy.
The second reason concerns the ‘collective responsibility and guilt’ of the crimes committed. Germans today are collectively reminded and shamed for their Nazi past, but Americans (more specifically Southern America) are not. The oft presented counter argument to collective guilt is that why must the entire nation (its present and future generations) be imposed with such a memorial debt when only a specific people carried out the atrocities? The simple rebuttal is that a citizen of a country by the accident of birth is entitled to certain privileges such as life, liberty, freedom and so he must be equally entitled to the debts of the nation, which in this case is the collective guilt. A crime involves not only the criminals but also the silent associates who helped him commit it. Southern America must acknowledge its past, good or bad.
Addressing these aspects of every country’s past directly, with major memorials and education, is a part of overcoming historical legacies of racism and dehumanisation. A retrospective view of history is a must. And it won’t really be a regressive view. I do not ask to ‘correct’ the ‘story’, all I ask is for people to learn the ‘moral of the story’, and certainly that is not being learnt if we continue to honour such people in the public space, which goes mostly unquestioned although not unnoticed. It is not that the ‘social evil’ was a norm back in those days. Slavery for example was being fought out in an all out civil war. Many other human beings, and more specifically, many other citizens of the same country were completely aware that slavery as a practice was bad and were completely against it while many other were for it. But the very fact that such a divide existed means that this was certainly no norm and hence the people on the ‘wrong side’ don’t become privy to any pardons. Insanity had not really usurped the world to become a norm, if it did, I’d be more forgiving today. Likewise, racism too had not really usurped the world and it won’t ever will. The people on the ‘right’ side of the battle ought to punch Nazis hard, they ought to punch them to death if they could. A human being loses all purpose of existence once he dons himself a Nazi. Robert E. Lee, Cecil Rhodes, Charles Colston stand affixed in the sands of time, but for what? How have they contributed to humanity if not by just enriching themselves and shackling the weak and the coloured? Bless those schools and institutions that have honoured them for their linger the ghosts of these magnanimous racists and colonisers who reek of ill-deed and immorality. I don’t propose a Marxist historical revisionism. I’d like the countries to be fully aware of their past, both good and bad. But we needn’t honour the dark past in the open light. These human beings were lesser beings even in their days and I don’t see a reason why they are today any greater.
Swagat Baruah is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University.
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