Coming To Terms With One’s History: What Does It Mean And How Can It Contribute?

By Ferdinand Mowinckel

It is a truism that nations often have traditional rival nations and relationships between such nations are often very embittered. These nations tend to have interlinked histories shaped by competitiveness in wealth, colonies and, above all, in war and occupation. France and England, France and Germany, Norway and Sweden and even the USA and Mexico illustrate this phenomenon. These nations have often been at war, but their relations today are appeased far beyond hostility, not to say (as is overwhelmingly the case) characterised by mutual jest and benign stereotyping. By contrast, China and Japan, Turkey and Armenia, Poland and Russia and France and Algeria, demonstrate relationships in which more hostile attitudes seem to prevail. This article attempts to give one explanation as to why this might be so, as well as draw a valuable lesson from this conclusion.

A good start is the case of Germany. Who would have thought that the Germans, demonised for so long for the crimes of Nazism, would now enjoy fruitful partnerships with citizens of neighbouring nations, good trade relations worldwide and respect from other heads of state, given that culture and media elsewhere entertain a never fading obsession with Nazism? Think of headlines such as The Guardian’s, “David Cameron vows to ‘blitz’ poverty by demolishing UK’s worst sink estates”, or incessant comparisons between Hitler and every conceivable head of state, and even “Nazi-zombies”![1] Even in the Brazilian film, Tropa de Elite (2007), the word for German (alemão) is a synonym for “traitor”.

Up until 1968 the Nazi-period was not really talked about. Culture production played it down, as did civil society at large. So-called Heimatfilme prevailed with plots in the vein of girl-meets-boy in a Bavarian meadow. Following 1968, the young people of Germany themselves started to raise questions on the thitherto avoided topic of Nazi-Germany. Some time has now passed since 1968, through which Germany as a nation has had a serious re-evaluation of its history. It is the only country ever to have erected, displayed and encouraged those doing so, through the use of private initiative such as monuments to its own shame, including holocaust memorials, concentration camps and so-called Stolpersteine. The fact that the state and the establishment played a major part in this undertaking plays, in my opinion, a major role. From this it would seem that because Germany has, so to speak, come to terms with its history, it now enjoys better relations with its neighbours than if it had not. This is not to say that every German person has done so; I am merely pointing out a general trend. But to further investigate whether a national avowal of past faults has any bearing on contemporary interstate relations, let us now turn to the example of Japan and China.

The Chinese are not exactly known for their affection of Japanese people, neither state officials, or the average citizen. This is in large part due to the time when fascist Japan occupied Manchuria and committed the appalling atrocities to which world-wide attention was drawn through the book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang. The anti-Japanese sentiment in China has roots further back into the nineteenth century however. Although there have been official apologies by Japanese prime ministers and many other officials, these have often entailed rather vague descriptions of the events and have been overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, expressed verbally and not written. However, as late as 2012, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, denied that the Rape of Nanking ever happened.[2] Needless to say, those denying it happened are, and always have been, in good company. There are no monuments to the events on Japanese soil. In terms of Japanese history curriculums, there have been a number of controversies; some leaving the incidents out whilst nearly all others refer to them in exceedingly downplayed terms. The emphasis in Japanese popular self-perception, views Japan as a victim of history (e.g. Hiroshima and Nagasaki).[3] The Chinese nation, at any rate, does not feel that it has received a proper apology, and anti-Japanese sentiment continues to run high. Now this begs the question of whether Japan could improve its relationship with China, were there to be a widespread re-assessment of its history. The implication here is that this would lead to the Japanese issuing an apology that the Chinese would accept. If there were to be an official inauguration of a monument, attended by some Chinese civil servants with respect, media cover, and the handover of a written atonement, arguably the relationship between these nations would be improved in the long run. This was definitely the case when the German Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970, an event usually referred to as the “Warsaw Genuflection”.

To illustrate my point clearly, I could have picked France and Algeria, although France has not come as far as Germany. A shift of historical consciousness among non-academic parts of the French nation would be necessary for this. Reaching non-academics through media such as film, art, talks and conferences is crucial to instilling a prevailing “come-to-terms-with-your-history”, mentality within a nation. Indeed, the Germans even have a term, Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, which denotes this very notion. I could have also compared China and Japan or Turkey and Armenia as both are similar and refer to key events (the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide in the latter case) that happened not so long ago that the perpetrators have forgotten it or lost any feeling of responsibility, and long ago enough for there to be the necessary distance required for a more desensitised historical assessment that both sides could largely agree on. In a non-resolved conflict such as the Israel-Palestine one, reaching an agreement on basic historical facts is difficult and the historical issue there is very contentious. So much so in fact that, Ilan Pappé, an Exeter Professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic studies, had to move from his native Israel. In this case, I think an agreement on the historical facts would be of great help in the resolution of the conflict.

So far the relations between states that have, or have not, come to terms with their history have been considered. However, nations without particularly embittered relations to another also have good reason, to critically assess and advertise their past wrongdoings, especially where the treatment of minorities is concerned. Norway, for instance, ran a terrible state run ‘Norwegification’ programme aimed at the Sami people in its northernmost region. Families were split and their language was forbidden, (Canada had a similar incident with its indigenous peoples). Although there are no monuments to commemorate this, and the school history curriculum lends next to zero weight to it, the fact is widely familiar. As a Norwegian though, I should stress that it is not agitating the consciousness of people to the extent where it interferes with the display of chauvinism and the prevailing paradigm of Norwegian goodness. Luckily for the Norwegians, their current version of nationalism is quite benign. It is worse for the Poles, for instance, where aggressive nationalism has tremendous momentum; they currently have a far right wing government that seeks among other things to limit freedom of speech. Their popular historical consciousness is shaped by the self-image of a victim of history. For instance, the Polish government have been known to reject studies which emphasise the independent involvement of Poles in the Holocaust, such as Neighbors by Jan Gross. No nation is free of past crimes, and widespread awareness of the specifics might calm the ubiquitous rise of right-wing populism, whose propagators make a good tool of distorted history.

A word here needs to be said for South Africa. Immediately after the end of the Apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. Here, trespassed and trespassers alike were invited to testify to the crimes of this racist system. It was not as much a programme of culpability, as one of merely establishing what had happened. Although it must be acknowledged that South African society still suffers enormous splits, there is no doubt that this initiative, along with formal acts of apology (not merely statements), have had a beneficial effect. To cite Mandela, it contributed to the freeing of “oppressed and the oppressor both”, meaning freeing the oppressor from the illusion of innocence.[4] Incidentally, I understand that an unresolved controversy in the UK concerning the so-called Battle of Orgreave causes a bit of stir nowadays; if a serious historical establishment of the facts is obtained, with the likely conclusion that the government was guilty in some way or another, a government apology would bring a vindication upon the dissatisfied workers, which might ease tensions in society. This is not to say that every society should engage in a large-scale programme of self-hatred, but that it should seek to recognise and make known past injustices that it may have inflicted. It is to say that we should become aware in contemporary society of the inherited rifts that these injustices have left behind, and that still pollute our societies.

The final idea therefore seems to be this: to come to terms with your history as a nation may have serious beneficial effects for the relations your country has with others and the societal divides within itself and would furthermore temper the political forces that prey on glorifying myths to further their agenda.

[1] Caroline Davies, ‘David Cameron vows to blitz poverty by demolishing UKs worst sink estates’, 10th January 2016,  (Last Accessed: 30/11/16).

[2] David Sneider, ‘History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia’, 29th May 2012, (Last Accessed: 30/11/16).

[3] Kathleen Woods Masalski, ‘Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies’, November 2001, (Last Accessed: 30/11/16).


[4] Extract from Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, ‘The Oppressor and the Oppressed Must Both be Liberated, (Last Accessed: 30/11/16)


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