I picked up a copy of this week’s (17 July 2015) Newsweek at the local Kiosk in the St. Gallen Hauptbahnhof.
Two articles caught my attention:
“A 58-year-old Austrian man has been given a 10-month suspended sentence after appearing in a documentary that revealed his basement to be full of Nazi memorablia. He was found guilty on two counts of breaking the Prohibition Act, which aims to suppress all forms of neo-Nazism.”
“Whether the Charleston church shooting and the debates that followed will permanently put the Confederate flag beyond the pale is yet to be seen. Those in the auction industry think not.
“Confederate flags are still pieces of history”, argues John Sexton, one of the US’ leading experts in Confederate memorablia.
“It’s a shame some racist fool used a mass-produced prop in his violence, but this is still a great iconic piece of American history that turned out to be on the losing side.”
Auction house owner James D. Julia would not consider banning the flag from sale, just as he has not banned the sale of Nazi memorablia.
“From the standpoint of historic relics, both Nazi and Confederate items have historical significance. I deal in historical items, not symbols. People who buy these things are institutions, museums, major collectors. They are not re-inventing the pre-Civil War South.
I understand why some firms don’t handle them – because it’s not politically correct, but if we did this with relics of every generation that happened before us, we would have no history left. We would know nothing.”
When I consider these news items I am bothered by the implications that these acts symbolize and the issues they touch upon directly and indirectly.
First, let’s consider the Nazi basement aforementioned.
There is a world of difference between a shrine and a museum.
Owning historical items does not necessarily / automatically mean that a sweet nostalgia for that history and all of its elements – good and bad – must, by extension, exist.
Owning something historical does not mean that you embrace everything that it might represent.
Items of the past preserved are meant not so much as souvenirs of a trip through time you don’t wish to forget, but rather as reminders of the past and its bittersweet lessons that should not be forgotten.
It is admirable that countries should wish to discourage neo-Nazi movements from coming into fruition, but thinking that neo-Nazism will disappear as a result of anti-Nazi legislation and enforcement of that legislation is similar to putting your beach chair in the ocean and forbidding the waves to advance any further.
There will always be disturbed minds who will be drawn towards the forbidden and will act accordingly.
They do their acts of unspeakable evil, not because they actually believe in the ancient causes, but rather because these causes are a convenient cloak and excuse to do these acts.
Had Nazis and Confederates never existed, these unspeakable acts would still have happened, but under a different cloak, such as religious fanaticism as opposed to political ideology.
Second, there is a tendency to demonize the enemy to justify our actions against him.
If we truly believe that the enemy represents all that is evil, then we can dismiss our remorse when we bomb his villages, leave his chidren orphans, make wives widows, make the healthy handicapped and create graveyards out of gardens.
By painting the enemy as the ultimate wrong, we ourselves can do wrong with a clear conscience.
Thus America can nuke two Japanese cities and kill millions of people all in the name of a greater good.
We must paint all members of the enemy camp as evil, otherwise it is difficult for the ordinary foot soldier to fire his gun at the enemy foot soldier, who like himself is fighting with “clean conscience” for his country and his family and like himself loves his own children too.
So the Allied soldier must be convinced that all Germans are lovers of Nazism, instead of pawns like himself in geopolitical games.
Because if you begin to see the enemy’s humanity is not so different from your own, then it becomes harder to kill him.
One can almost see a similarity to the overgeneralization of a racist with the overgeneralization of war propaganda.
So it is easy to condemn everyone on the Confederate side of the US Civil War if you brand all of them as racists fighting for the right to enslave black people, rather than as ordinary people fighting for their own homes and families.
War may be cloaked in ideology, but the reality of war is simply people trying to survive a time of unimaginable violence, pain and loss.
Third, destroying symbols of a past we wish to forget is dangerous in that we, or those who follow us, may forget the lessons that the dark elements of the past have to teach us.
As much as we wish that the horrors of the past had not existed, there is some comfort in the thought that had these tragedies not occurred errors in judgment that were being made might well have continued.
Had Nazism never happened, Germany might not have learned the lesson that extreme ideology is dangerous and not to be toyed with. They might not have learned how delicate democracy is and how easily it can be manipulated against itself.
Had the Holocaust never happened, perhaps the world might have continued in its anti-Semitic extremism and the Jews might never have seen the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Had the US Civil War never occurred perhaps the road to liberation of the black American might never have been realised without bloodshed to underline its importance.
I wish I could go back in time and erase all of the pain and sorrow, death and destruction that occurred, but would we be who we are had these events never occurred?
Washing away the unpleasant reminders of the past and only keeping the positive memories in the rinse does not teach us the lessons we so desperately mustn’t forget.
The last shots in the US Civil War were fired in 1865.
Southern states have nonetheless continued to display Confederate flags upon their state Capitols.
Prior to the Charleston shooting of nine black people at Bible study inside a House of God, there was very little discussion as to the symbology of the Confederate “stars and bars” flag.
One disturbed teenager uses the flag as a cloak to justify his insane act and suddenly like a pent-up tidal wave we hear endless debate and pressure to remove these flags.
I can’t help wondering if the Confederate flag is being used as a distraction away from issues Americans find it harder to discuss and deal with.
The Confederate flag is a much easier target than the problems of an over-proliferation of guns or the never-dying embers of racism in America.
Maybe America needs to find yet another clear and present danger in an enemy away from its shores to distract everyone from domestic problems no one enjoys dealing with.
Leave the bitchy wife and kids alone at home.
Let’s go to the pub and pick a fight.