Our glorious past is what we remember. The brutality behind it we’ve forgotten

Gary Younge

When we choose we can relive 1066, yet we have wilful amnesia about the shameful events of our recent history

Fri 31 May

Immediately after the second world war, German people were required to watch documentaries about the horrors of the concentration camps before they could get their ration cards. But the fact that they went, Tony Judt points out in his book Postwar, didn’t mean they actually watched. “In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film, and stayed that way until the film was over,” wrote the German author Stephan Hermlin many years later. “Today I think that turned-away face was indeed the attitude of many millions.”


As a German government official, surveying the 20% rise in antisemitic hate crimes in his country, advises Jews not to assume they can wear the kippah “everywhere, all the time, in Germany”, and an Italian far-right party tops the poll for the European parliament, we would do well to reflect on the corrosive impact of such determined “forgetting”. These memories need to be recovered not only to honour those who have perished or suffered only to find their experiences discounted and discarded: it is crucial for the moral potential and political vitality of the perpetrators too. It is simply not possible to deliberately “forget” the terrible things you have done and then expect to proceed as though they did not happen, and nobody noticed, just because you have chosen not to remember.
Unchecked and uncorrected, for the sake of convenience and comity, these heavily redacted tales of how we got here and who we are return as slogans on baseball caps and billboards. If you have no idea what “greatness” means or how it was acquired, then of course you want to “Make America Great Again” or “Put the Great back into Great Britain”.

As such, the “battle against intolerance, prejudice, xenophobia and the manufacture of distrust and disunity”, which Gordon Brown described yesterday on these pages, is not a “new battle for Britain”. It’s actually the same battle that has been fought over decades. It is important to understand that people of all races have resisted bigotry in this country. It’s no less important to understand that they have not been simply combating bad people but a bad system, that they have not always won – and that this system still exists.



‘Somehow, Britain’s recollection of the atrocities in the Kenyan detention camps in the 1950s, our complicity in the Bengal famine in 1943 or, even more recently, the Iraq war, eludes us.’ Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images




• Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.