Visiting Berlin this last week made me think about how we acknowledge our past indiscretions. History is a tricky subject; many are aware of what brought their nation or people to this point, but many simply choose to ignore it.
Sadly, many who do acknowledge and seek to raise awareness are castigated and labelled ‘apologists’ for simply acknowledging wrongs committed in the past.
Walking around Berlin you can really gauge the culture and mindset of the German people. Hitler’s bunker is now a car park, there would be no shrine for future maniacs. Statues commemorating those who were murdered are plain to see and are open – often for free – to everyone.
They showcase the good and the bad, and it proves they are a cut above other European cultures.
Berlin has been the focal point of some truly great eras in European history. The enlightenment lay the foundations for a city culture that embraced tolerance and progress. Science and intellectualism reigned supreme and the culture of openness in Berlin during the interwar era allowed for a myriad of subcultures and societies to flourish.
Berlin is home to some wonderful museums and exhibits. Many sites that inform visitors of the horrors of Nazism and the uncertainty of a world divided between East and West. Museums such as the Topography of Terrors look at the rise of the Gestapo and Nazi brutality, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a harrowing account of the murder committed by the Nazi regime.
These museums all openly detail how, where and when it happened. Crucially however, they acknowledge why.
In such uncertain times as these we would do well to think about how easily the Germany people were drawn into the rhetoric of hate speakers. Socrates once spoke of the danger that demagoguery posed to society, and in 1930s Germany intellectuals, academics and every-day open minded people were caught up in the madness.
They found themselves burning books and synagogues, informing on and betraying neighbours; all actions that one cannot imagine doing today.
The German people want the world to know about this, and it is a trait that absolutely must be applauded. They accept that their ancestors committed heinous acts and they want to display the evil they committed as a warning to others today, and as a tribute to those who died.
It is not self-indulgent in any way, it is not a grovelling apology aimed at garnering sympathy, it is simply an acknowledgement that this happened, and they allowed it to happen.
This is more than can be said about other nations; particularly the United Kingdom.
I would go so far as to say that I cannot be held responsible for the actions of others several centuries ago, and nor would I openly apologise for it – I wasn’t there, I didn’t commit these crimes and I cannot be held accountable. I can, however, acknowledge the heinous acts that the British Empire committed in its centuries long supremacy.
In addition to this I can seek to educate others on this subject. Whether they simply do not know, or refuse to acknowledge. It is not only my responsibility, but the responsibility of any decent and moral person.
Many in the United Kingdom fail to acknowledge our past. They do not wish to be held accountable, and rightly so. Yet they refuse outright to even speak of it.
Is it a deep-seeded shame, or a real belief that these were necessary evils?
Ultimately, I believe it falls down to our education system. Throughout our years in school we are taught of the marvels that the British Empire produced; the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery and a myriad of scientific and medical breakthroughs.
We are taught of our nations’ valiant defence of democracy against Nazism, German imperialist ambitions and our gentrification of the globe, but we fail to detail our own relentless imperial advances, our creation of the very camps that the Nazis used to murder millions, or the countless indigenous cultures subjugated and destroyed.
Those three are but a taste of the many crimes committed by Britain; An aperitif before the several courses of glutenous murder and destruction.
Walking through our museums and galleries, one would be hard pressed to find a significant exhibit or section throughout the United Kingdom that details what Britain done. Grand statues of imperialists and monarchs watch over our streets and squares, and the museums themselves are home to our plunder.
Small mentions of the peoples who came before us are all we can seem to hope for, an ode to a flame long extinguished, and replaced by the empty glow of our own brand of progress and civilisation.
We need to discuss this culture of denial in the United Kingdom. To do this we need politicians who are not scared of speaking the truth, who are not scared of being lambasted across all forms of media. We need an education system that teaches the good and bad in equal measure, for if history is how we perceive it, then we cannot hope to move forward without repeating the same mistakes.
Educating our youth on how our ‘glory days’ actually came about will, hopefully, stem the flow of nostalgia in our country. Our longing for those days to return and Britain to take pride of place among the world’s apex predators. If we do that then I would guess that we can actually look to building a better future and not clambering to rebuild the old.
Like a lover scorned, we clutch at straws in the hope of once again feeling the warmth of love. I do pity those who long for the glory days to return. If they truly knew what that glory cost, I dare say they would not sleep well at night.