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Berlin shows us how it’s done

Tom Swanson argues the case for more memorials to international acts of injustice, especially at moments when nations are considering heavy-handed interventions in others’ affairs.

Walking around Berlin this week, it struck me quite how much Germans (Berliners in particular) are forced to be acutely aware of their own history, with monument after monument, museum after museum, all reminding them just how awful their ancestors have been. The memorials, displays and exhibitions are all there to serve as lessons for future generations, and boy have those lessons been learned. Germany has transformed itself from tyrant to titan, pretty much single-handedly holding together the European Union, the institution set up to promote European peace and cooperation in the wake of WWII.

So what’s the lesson that has been learned?  That the Allies and the EU succeeded in teaching the German people the error of their ways, and have helped them forge a reformed nation for themselves?

Well maybe. But let’s not fool ourselves here, because there’s hypocrisy at work. For although the Allies arguably succeeded in helping Germany become what it is today, a peace-loving economic powerhouse, they failed to see the irony in them ‘teaching the lesson’. The British, Dutch and French Empires have histories which are cumulatively as bloody as the Third Reich’s, and the US has massive quantities of post-WWII blood on its hands from its obsession with being ‘leader of the free world’.

The problem is that their malfeasance never happened anywhere near their own countries, so national leaders could somewhat sweep the more gruesome details under the carpet. It’s also a feature of winning; if you’re a winner, you get to run the war crime courts and create the perspective through which history is written.

So it’s time for us to learn from the Germans. If we had museums and memorials to all the innocents that have died at the hands of the British Army and details of their deaths freely available in London, I’d stake my life on the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan never happening.

Yes, keep the Cenotaph in Whitehall, but how about putting next to it a Bloody Sunday memorial? Or something to honour the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in India in 1919, where British troops fired on unarmed men, women and children ‘until [they] ran out of ammunition’, killing over 1,000 people? The US can keep its Vietnam war memorial, but again, what about some sort of recognition of the My Lai massacre, or to the countless victims of Agent Orange, discussion of which has been conspicuously absent from the recent debate over Syria?

By all means condemn that which is wrong and act against it. But do so while acknowledging your own failures, and you can take a far more measured and more just response to any situation. Germany, show us the way.

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