In Praise of Forgetting // David Rieff
On 24th March 2016 Radovan Karadzic, the leader of Bosnian Serbs during the Bosnian War, was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in the Netherlands. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment and his conviction became a headline across the world. What many hoped was that his conviction would help to sooth the memory of the violence he inflicted on Bosnian Croats and Muslims.
The memory of conflict has been a major feature of 20th and 21st century society. The collective, historical memory of war, genocides, atrocities, controversies and national hatreds has filtered down from the upper echelons of government politics to everyday interactions on the ground. From Israel to Northern Ireland; Pakistan to Armenia, memory has defined how the governments function, how foreign policy is determined and how defence strategies are developed.
However, journalist and writer, David Rieff, has an alternative proposal. Throughout In Praise of Forgetting he argues that the mantra of ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it’ may, in fact, be forcing us towards a society in which the wounds of past conflicts are continuously reopened and left to bleed. Instead, he believes there is a place in our modern world to forget the past wrongs in favour of a future in which we do not constantly rake over the past.
It is an interesting perspective. Many will reject it as immoral. Convention dictates that we commemorate our history and never forget what happened in the past; forgetting would dishonour those who died. But is it honorable for Israelis and Palestinians to continue a war of attrition against each other, inherited from the 1948 division of Palestine, resulting in more deaths and the continuation of policies of division and segregation? Is it honorable for India and Pakistan to threaten nuclear war because of the legacy of partition or for relations in the Caucasus to break down over historic boundary concerns and ethnic conflict?
Rieff’s idea is beautifully logical. If politicians can foster a new ideological approach that advocates reconciliation and ‘forgetting’ then we could see economic and political interests blossom under a new policy of cooperation. Imagine if a progressive Israeli and a progressive Palestinian leader both agreed to put their respective prejudices and mistrusts behind them and agree to a policy of reconciliation. They could foster closer relations at the grassroots level that abandons hatred and, instead, focuses on economic growth, social development and a progressive political agenda. In this scenario both nations could co-exist, cooperating, sharing common interests and, critically, remain at peace without a continual degeneration into violence.
It is ambitious but possible. We can look at Spain as an example. Spain’s transition from autocratic, Fascist dictator to constitutional monarchy was a peaceful one and it allowed modern Spain to develop a progressive modern economy and government that soon became a key component of the European Union. Spain embraced the future and it has not sought endless recriminations for past wrongs. It is a model on which we could base a future of post-conflict nation building.
However, Rieff is not right all the time. There is often a place for remembering and commemorating, but it is important that these commemorations do not lead to the continuation of hatred or violence. Let us remember WWII without the need to continue to punish Germans or Japanese for the role they played in that conflict. Let us remember the struggle for Irish independence whilst condemning the actions of the modern IRA movements. In, In Praise of Forgetting Rieff does not adequately cover the dual necessity of both remembering conflict and also ensuring that it reflects our past not our present. Forgetting entirely is a dangerous leap into a future where the past could be rendered meaningless.
But what Rieff proposes is simple and elegant. Do not carry that hatred forward; do not allow the actions of past generations to dictate the policies of the current and do not allow violence and conflict to occur based on the dogma of nationalism and historic wrongs. We can embrace the power of forgetting the wrongs and adopting a progressive future. With wars raging across Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Libya Rieff’s message has powerful resonance. Let us pray that even a few people listen.