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PAST AND PRESENT: TWO PROBLEMATIC ARGUMENTS

In this section, I examine two arguments for the view that we ought to remember wars. The first holds that acts of remembrance are a way properly to acknowledge what our ancestors did. The second argument claims that such acts are a means to cement our political and cultural relationship with fellow community members, which gives us a compelling moral reasons to perform them.

Giving the Past its Due

The claim that we have strong moral reasons to commemorate our predecessors’ wrongdoings is familiar. Less familiar (at least in the academic literature) is the claim that we have strong moral reasons to honour and express gratitude to those who benefited us which we can also discharge in this way. As we shall see, both arguments are problematic.

Past Wrongdoings

Let us begin with the claim the descendants of war criminals have particularly compelling reasons qua such actors to honor victims of those wrongdoings and their descendants via acts of public remembrance—whether they are descendants through kinship, political membership, or both. The example which is the most often discussed in this context is that of the Holocaust, so we might as well use it for argumentative purposes. On this view, contemporary Germans have strong moral reasons—stringent enough in fact that they generate duties—to remember the Holocaust, for even if they themselves are clearly not complicitous by deed or omission in it, the crime was committed by their forebears understood as their predecessors in the transgenerational and national community known as Germany.

The difficulty with the argument under scrutiny is that it relies on an overly simplistic notion of a national community. Current German citizens are not all descendants of the wrongdoers whose crimes are to be remembered, either because their parents or grandparents immigrated to Germany after 1945, or because their forebears were victims rather than wrongdoers. It is not clear, thus, why a second-generation Turkish immigrant who was granted German citizenship, let alone the granddaughter of a German Jew who died at Bergen Belsen, should have compelling moral reasons to commemorate the Holocaust qua German citizens.

Nor does the fact alone that someone’s grandfather was an SS guard at Auschwitz give that particular individual here and now stronger moral reasons to participate and support Germany’s acts of shared remembrance, than an American citizen whose grandfather did not take part in the genocide would have. As we saw in chs. 5 and 6, either responsibility for wrongdoing or benefiting from it are necessary for reparative obligations. The same applies to moral reasons in respect of remembrance. This individual can plausibly be deemed to have compelling moral reasons to support and take part in the remembrance of the Holocaust only under the following conditions: if his polity—Germany—here and now, is still engaged in acts of wrongdoings towards victims of the Holocaust and if he himself can plausibly be regarded as complicitous in this particular wrongdoing, or if Germany here and now is still benefiting from the Holocaust (which would impose reparative obligations on him), and if private and public remembrance of the Holocaust is plausibly construed as a way to rectify those ongoing wrongdoings. Under those conditions, however, what grounds those reasons is the fact that as a citizen he commits a particular wrongdoing or that he derives an unjust benefit from the Holocaust—and neither the fact alone that his grandfather served at Auschwitz nor the fact that he is German. If the point holds with respect to the grandson of an SS guard, it also applies, a fortiori, to the grandson of an ordinary German citizen who voted for the Nazi party in December 1932 and failed to resist its rule in the twelve and a half years that followed. Note, furthermore, that the point also holds of immigrants at the time at which they arrive into Germany: if at that time German citizens are still under collective reparative duties to victims of Nazism and if remembrance is one way to discharge those duties, immigrants acquire a compelling moral reason to contribute to it at the same time as they acquire rights to the benefits attendant on residence. Likewise with those immigrants’ descendants.

Here is another argument in favour of this particular kind of remembrance. Namely: if we want to take pride in the good aspects of our national culture and its past, we have to accept that we ought to feel shame at its bad aspects. This in turn provides us with a compelling moral reason to distance ourselves from those bad aspects—a reason which is specific to us precisely because it is our culture and we in some way identify with it. Engaging in appropriately conducted remembrance practices is one way in which we can do that. Moreover, even if we do not feel shame at our culture’s morally troubling past any more than we feel pride at its achievement, we still have a particularistic moral reason to distance ourselves from it. For if we fail to do so, others, and particularly surviving victims of our predecessors’ wrongdoings and their descendants may reasonably presume that we do in fact endorse that past. To the extent that they might feel threatened or disrespected by our silence, it behoves on us to reassure them—for example, by engaging in the aforementioned practices.[1]

This is a powerful argument. Its strength lies in the surely plausible thought that if my behaviour understandably leads others to believe that I endorse (e.g.) racist views, then I ought to reassure those who would feel victimized by those views. Moreover, the argument has considerable bite if the enactment of remembrance itself would shortly follow the commission of the wrongdoings under remembrance. However, the argument does not work if I do not act in such a way as to lead others warrantedly to form those beliefs. If I plant the Confederate flag in my front garden, my neighbours and passers-by can reasonably form the belief that I do not regard slavery as egregiously wrongful to the point that its abolition is a just cause for war. But if I choose to live in Mississippi and not do anything at all to signify any kind of allegiance to the Confederacy, it would be unreasonable on their part to impute to me feelings of leniency towards slavery. Treating people with the respect they deserve does involve not thinking the worse about them absent relevant evidence to the contrary. Were I to encounter a German national who would express pride at the fact that Germany (or, rather, its predecessor state) gave J. S. Bach, Beethoven, and Schiller to the world, my first thought would be that it is rather misplaced pride: after all, his connection to those geniuses, and theirs to him, are based on the utterly contingent fact of their birth. But I would not assume that he might be sympathetic to Hitler. The more time has elapsed, the less plausible, indeed the more disrespectful it is to presume of others that they endorse their community’s murky past.

In sum, the notions of collective shame and collective identification strike me as problematic bases for moral reasons in support of remembrance. The underlying rationale for rejecting them is the humanist and individualist point that individuals are not liable to the imposition of reparative duties just in virtue of their membership in this or that community, but only in virtue either of what they did, or of the benefits they accrued from unjust acts. To those who believe that political borders and political membership alone are irrelevant to the conferral of fundamental rights and the imposition of correlative duties, that point will seem obvious. But it does pay to notice what it implies in the present context—namely that the grandson of an Auschwitz guard does not have a more compelling moral reason to support and take part in the public remembrance of the Holocaust than does the granddaughter of the Jewish female detainee whom his grandfather murdered. To be sure, those two individuals’ emotional attitudes to the Holocaust are likely to differ. In particular, the former might feel shame at what his grandfather did, so deeply rooted is the view, at least in our culture, that our parents’ and grandparents’ deeds somehow taint us by association. But even if those feelings are not irrational, it is a far cry from concluding that this individual has particularly compelling moral reasons for remembrance in virtue of his kinship with his grandfather the SS guard. It is that conclusion which I reject.

distance themselves from wrongdoings committed by their contemporaries or immediate forebears in s.9.6 when discussing apologies and regret as reconciliatory practices.

  • [1] I owe this objection to Patrick Tomlin, whose comments on this section, together with DavidMiller’s, were of great help. We encountered the argument that agents have strong moral reasons to
 
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