Eric Dain Felker

The Undead Past

What's Inside

How do nations handle the sins of the fathers and mothers? Take genocide, or slavery, or political mass murder. After such knowledge, what forgiveness—and what way forward? The Germans have a word for it, of course: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” But the concept is applicable far beyond the Nazis—as Americans belatedly recognized when Robert E. Lee shot to the front of the culture wars last August after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. To put the debates over memorializing the Confederacy in context, this issue’s lead package explores how various countries have handled similar problems. There have been all too many crimes in all too many places, but six cases stand out—two of genocide, two of political mass murder, and two of enduring racial oppression. Individually, the articles here delve into how each country has processed its tragic past. Together, they reveal interesting patterns and lessons.  To kick things off, Annette Gordon-Reed considers the United States’ troubled racial history, from the founding to the present. Slavery may be gone, she points out, but its underlying ideology lives on. Then, Richard Evans traces Germany’s evolving attitudes toward the Nazi era, from initial postwar sympathy to mature critical engagement—with the contemporary resurgence of right-wing populist nationalism as an unfortunate coda to a generally heartening story. Nikita Petrov and Orville Schell look at Russia’s and China’s problematic responses to Stalinism and Maoism, respectively. Petrov finds an official soft-pedaling of the Soviet regime’s horrors, combined with a patriotic celebration of Russia’s authoritarian past. Schell finds something even worse—an airbrushing of Mao’s horrors out of the historical picture by later Chinese Communist leaders. Sisonke Msimang casts a cool eye on South Africa’s truth-and-reconciliation process, arguing that although it provided a useful public forum for victims to find answers and perpetrators to seek forgiveness, it failed to dismantle the enduring structural racial and economic inequalities of apartheid. And Phil Clark, finally, assesses Rwanda’s ongoing recovery from genocide—a success story in many respects, such as the creative legal processing of perpetrators and impressive official education programs, but playing out under the Kagame regime’s authoritarianism. Worst practices are easy to identify: denying what actually happened. Best practices are more scattered, but one country leads the field. Germany’s crimes rank with the worst in history. But at least, over time, the right lessons were indeed learned, and responsible engagement with the past has become a new national tradition. (One example is the Stolpersteine plaques—two of which are pictured on the cover, remembering Martin and Sophie Happ, who were murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.) Perhaps facing a problem so directly and brutally that you coin an actual word for it is a smart idea after all. —Gideon Rose, Editor

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