It’s easy to point out the failings of others; it’s harder to do so for the failings in ourselves. There was a recent poll which showed that almost a majority of people in the UK see the British Empire favourably, reminding us that coming to terms with the atrocities of the past is incredibly difficult.
Illusions and realities
During its heyday, when it governed a fifth of the global population, the British Empire was viewed by its people as a force for good in the world – a civiliser of the so-called ‘savage,’ if you will. This view persists into the modern-day, as according to The Independent, 43% of Britons called the Empire ‘good’ in a recent survey, compared to just 19% who said it was ‘bad.’ The British Empire, however, was not a force for good – it committed numerous human rights abuses, as it sought to exploit the land and people it subjugated, all in the name of national wealth and glory.
Let them eat… nothing
Just one example of this, is the Orissa famine of 1865- 1867, which the BBC writes, saw around one million people in British India die of starvation. This situation was brought about, in part, due to the Empire’s prior efforts to force the people of Orissa to forsake the lucrative textile industry – which had been the main driver of farming and of their economy, so they could produce the crops needed to feed the British Empire. This made these people more dependent on the whims of India’s seasonal monsoons, and when those rains didn’t come, as they didn’t in 1865 – 1867, the Indians starved.
Things might not have gotten so bad had the British lifted a finger to help – they didn’t. At the time, they believed that market forces – a term we still hear bandied around today – would restore the balance eventually. The believed they didn’t need to intervene when famine struck Orissa, ensuring a million people died. It is true that many Britons don’t know about events such as these, as they are not taught about things such as the Orissa famine in school. But when people, such as former UK Prime Minster David Cameron, call the colonialist British Empire something that should be celebrated, as he once did, it’s clear that the British don’t understand just how many atrocities they committed.
But it isn’t just the British who are guilty of glossing over the more unpleasant parts of their history. While the British, for example, committed numerous atrocities during the course of propagating the international slave trade, so did many other countries. We should point out that slavery isn’t a new phenomenon, with people from the Ottomans to the French all engaging in it at some point, and all finding ways to explain it away. In America, however, we see the most extreme example of how some citizens have fought for centuries to avoid saying sorry for their role in global slavery.
The American slave trade was brutal, with untold numbers of black people being subjected to horrific treatment. While slavery was abolished in most of the Western World in the first half of the 19th Century, it took the American Civil War to bring about its demise in the US. The issue never really died though; black people were subjected to decades of systematic discrimination in the former US slave states afterwards, as their former masters sought to re-establish their supremacy. Meanwhile, there are still people who speak fondly of the Confederate side in the Civil War, despite its active engagement in slavery, showing that many Americans still cannot accept what happened.
Cult of personality
Of course, this inability to accept the darker parts of our past isn’t restricted to the English-speaking world. Just look at Russia, or more accurately for the purposes of this article, the former USSR and it’s dictator, Joseph Stalin. During his rule (1927 – 1953), the paranoid Soviet leader sent millions upon millions of people, many of whom perished, to the brutal gulag prison camps across the ‘red terror’ that gripped the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. The man also displaced entire minority populations during World War Two, and these weren’t the only human rights abuses he committed.
Stalin is rightly viewed as one of the most evil men who ever lived by many today, but he is seen more favourably in Russia. Throughout the past year, Russia Beyond the Headlines notes, Stalin’s approval ratings in the country rose to their highest point in 16 years, with 46% of the population now viewing him favourably. This can be in part attributed to the tide of nationalist sentiment that has swept Russian society in the past decade. However, the fact that Stalin’s approval ratings could have ever neared the 46% mark, indicates that Russia doesn’t truly understand why he was so bad.
Speaking of World War Two, the Russians weren’t the only ones who committed grave atrocities during this period. Every country which participated in the conflict committed human rights violations in one way or another, but Japan was one of the worst offenders. The Japanese famously kidnapped thousands of women from the conquered territories, such as South Korea and China, and were forced to serve as “comfort women” (prostitutes) for the Imperial army. These women were raped and subjected to horrific abuse, just to keep the Imperial soldiers’ morale up.
Japan has grappled with the ‘comfort women’ issue for decades. It’s government has issued various apologies to countries whose women they abused, but they were half-hearted and none expressed an unconditional acknowledgement that as a state, Japan was responsible for these crimes. We have also seen that Japan is still failing to deal with the atrocities it’s army committed in the war. For example, in 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s dead soldiers, including those who committed atrocities, indicating that the country somewhat feels misplaced pride for a past that many would call shameful.
We cannot discuss World War Two, however, without covering the Nazis. The Nazi German regime was virulently racist, believing that people of Germanic ‘Aryan’ blood were superior to all others, especially the Jews, and that because of this, they had the right to dominate and exploit everyone else. It was this belief that actually led to the start of World War Two, as in their hunt for ‘Lebensraum’ (living space for their people), the Germans invaded Poland, prompting the UK and France to intercede, an event which led to an estimated 60 million deaths during the war.
You cannot think about Nazis and the Second World War, and not have the Holocaust come to mind. This is the term we use to describe the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate, either outright or through their ‘extermination through labour’ policy, so-called undesirables in society, such as Jews, LGBT people, the disabled and so on. We do not know exactly how many people died during the Holocaust, but many estimates put the figure at around 11 million, with 6 million of these people being Jews. So how has the world dealt with the Nazis and the Holocaust since World War Two came to a close?
Denying the past
That inability to acknowledge our own sins characterises how many engage today with these subjects. The US, for example, often decries the Holocaust, while forgetting that it actively turned Jewish people away when they fled Europe before the war. Meanwhile, a fierce Holocaust denial movement has arisen in countries across the world, with proponents of this belief either saying outright that the Holocaust didn’t happen, or arguing that it wasn’t as bad as people say, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This movement is also now gathering strength in the Middle East, primarily due to many people in this region’s opposition to the state of Israel, which was created as a national homeland for the Jews in the aftermath – and some argue because of – the Holocaust.
Some of the countries who supported the Nazis have also sought to put space between themselves and the atrocities their ancestors committed. Austria is the obvious example. Due to political motivations, during the war, the Allies deemed Austria as “the first victim of Hitlerite aggression.” Many Austrians rushed to embrace this label in the post-war years, despite the fact that scores of Austrians actively participated in the Nazi regime, and Hitler himself hailed from the same land. It was a taboo of the highest order to bring up the Austrian role in the Nazi regime in the country for many decades, and this subject only started being discussed in public in the 1980’s, illustrating that the Austrians found it extremely difficult to come to terms with what their ancestors had done.
Exception to the rule
What about the Germans themselves? They were the ones who were primarily responsible for the Holocaust, so surely they must have trouble recognising this today? Germany, however, is in many ways the exception to the rule. The Allies decided that after they conquered Germany, they must make the Germans understand the severity of their actions. They promoted the concept of collective guilt during the immediate Post-War period, making great efforts to ensure the Germans understood that as far as the world was concerned, everyone was guilty for what the Nazis did. Famously, for example, they forced local Germans to bury the bodies of people killed in concentration camps.
However you feel about this strategy, – make no mistake, many including myself think the Allies went too far, especially considering that they were hardly innocent themselves – it worked. Public perceptions of the Nazis dived during the Post-War period. Meanwhile, German governments have imposed strict anti-Nazi laws, banning the use of symbols such as the Swastika and anything else which could cast the Nazis in a positively light. Don’t get me wrong – Nazi sentiments do still exist in Germany – but you can find them anywhere. However, this system was pretty effective, and today the Germans have made many great strides in acknowledging and atoning for their past.
Explaining the issues
We saw this recently with the decision to reprint Hitler’s virulently racist autobiography, Mein Kampf. It had been out of print since the end of World War Two, as it’s rights were held by the State of Bavaria and they refused to publish it. However, Bavaria’s rights to Mein Kampf ran out in 2016, meaning that from then on, anyone could publish it, as the Munich-Based Institute of Contemporary History did that year. The Institute released a heavily annotated version of Mein Kampf, featuring notes which shed light on the horrific nature of the ideals espoused in the book, and turning it into a damning condemnation of Nazism. In this way, they used Mein Kampf to acknowledge the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis, and to warn people against walking down the same road in future.
Learning from history
There are numerous examples across history – the ones I’ve included in this article are just a few – that show that we find it incredibly difficult to acknowledge the atrocities that our ancestors have committed. This is understandable. It’s human nature not to want to think badly of the people we came from, as we often feel that this reflects badly on ourselves, but this doesn’t make it acceptable. As the old saying goes, “if we don’t learn history, we are doomed to repeat it,” and as we’ve seen in Post-War Germany, it is possible to confront and atone for the darker parts of our past. We must all start doing this more, if we hope to avoid repeating our mistakes and make the world a better place.