The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Learning from history

When I attended school in Germany one of the bigger subjects in the last few school years naturally was linked to the history between 1933 and 1945. It was the time of the “Dritte Reich” as it was called in Nazi Germany.

It was a time and a regime with ideologic features of racism, Nazi eugenics, and antisemitism. Learning the material was uncomfortable, less because of the historical facts than because of the emotional background. It contained a mixture of shame, guilt, and a desire to find a way to integrate this with our identity. It was a history that wasn’t entirely past. All of us still had relatives who had experienced that period of history. I could sense how everyone was trying to deal with the shame and how it related to them. Some by taking the guilt as theirs, others seeing it as guilt they couldn’t be made responsible for. A foreigner at the time, I too found it difficult. This was reinforced when I experienced the outsider’s perspective in Belgium, my home country. It wasn’t that friendly.

And yet, the emotional aspect of it remained under the surface in both countries.

History was taught in much of the same way the Roman history or the French revolution had been. It didn’t serve us well, nor did it serve Germany or Europe. When history is being taught there often is a liking to either find the hero or the enemy in the story.

The more difficult aspect of how we would integrate it into our lives was left out.

I was reminded of this while reading Jamelle Bouie NYT Newsletter.

He writes: “Democracy requires empathy. We have to be able to see ourselves in one another to be able to see one another as political equals. I think history education is one important way to build that empathy. To understand the experiences of a person in a fundamentally different time and place is to practice the skills you need to see your fellow citizens as equal people even when their lives are profoundly different and distant from your own. This is why it’s vital that students learn as much as possible about the many varieties of people who have lived, and died, on this land.”

A lot of Jews who survived the concentration camps have had the generosity to share their experience. They often shared it in a way allowing to see the tragic and magical moments of their experience. They have written books, went into schools, and presented their history on a variety of stages.

Not everything was happy in the German reunification. While fighting apartheid Nelson Mandela doesn’t say that everything was bad nor that everything was good in his fight.

That duality is true too for the history of racism, gender inequality, and other types of discrimination that are impacting our modern times.

It never serves well to focus on moralizing the subjects we have to learn to deal with.

We need to enable ethics instead of expecting it to always be present.


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