What purpose do days of remembrance serve? A culture of commemoration reaches ever fewer people, but history's evildoers must not be forgotten, DW's Robert Schwartz writes.
At a recent panel discussion, a political science student surprised me with a provocative statement: Remembrance days are like shirts nowadays. Every morning you pull a new one out of the closet and every evening you take it off - day in, day out, all year long. It is a symbol without substance. Society learns nothing from its history, setting the stage for past mistakes to be repeated. The audience applauded him in support.
Was this youthful defeatism? Despondence? Simple resignation? None of the above, as the discussion revealed. It was instead a combination of frustration with the exorbitant use of commemoration days and of a disappointment in politics falling short of finding long-term solutions to large problems.
The student was not entirely wrong in his assessment. One day of remembrance follows the next, replete with moving speeches that both recall and admonish. Then it's quickly back to business as usual: war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, all-out war in Syria, authoritarian regimes from Moscow to Ankara, refugees, Islamic terrorism, weapon exports, financial crises and the ongoing failure of European leaders to reach consensus on a common way forward.
At the same time, we shouldn't draw premature conclusions. Yes, there are those who irresponsibly ignore a bloody past, but they are fortunately in the minority. Democratic societies are accountable for their history. Certain days of remembrance predate many of us, making them part of our common values. Others, such as those for victims of Stalinism and National Socialism are relatively new, but important nevertheless. Remembrance sometimes stirs controversy and is criticized for being used by particular interest groups as a means of minimizing the significance of other days. Such accusations stoke fear: There's no comparison between victims and perpetrators. Nazi crimes and the Holocaust stand out in a way that can neither be denied nor relativized.
People need these days of remembrance. History's monstrosities would be too quickly forgotten otherwise - even our recent European history. The Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust, Stalinism and other crimines of communist regimes aren't only for textbooks, but also for our collective memory. Remembrance isn't reserved only for particular days, my student agreed, rendering his shirt metaphor moot.
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