by Harriet Strahl
Two old oaks frame the entrance to a graveyard in a village somewhere in Germany. A sign nearby tells visitors about the history of the graveyard, which contains the headstones of the local Jewish family deported during the Third Reich, carefully restored next to a stone commemorating the local dissenter, who was executed in 1944. The gravestones and memorials link the community with the victims and the suffering wrought by the Nazis. Nothing, or almost nothing, links the village with the perpetrators. These two gnarled oaks at the entrance are exactly 87 years old, having been planted by the village community in 1933 and named ‘Hindenburg’, after the German president at the time, and ‘Hitler’, the newly elected chancellor. The trees are the last physical reminders of the 93% of votes Hitler’s NSDAP received here, and of the prominent Nazis who were welcomed to this area, successfully hiding here for years after the end of the Third Reich. Of all this, the sign and the memorial stones say nothing. It appears, and has always appeared, a morally upright community, an innocent and peaceful village.
Few people know about the provenance of the trees. Their names have been purposely forgotten. Forgetting is a strategy whereby all reminders of an undesirable past are removed, and silence muffles a community’s, a family’s or an individual’s involvement with matters left unspoken until these are indeed forgotten. This strategy works so well because there is nothing left in the physical environment to serve as a warning, to remind people of this unspoken history in their daily lives. Heroes and victims are widely commemorated. As for the perpetrators, monuments have been taken down, streets re-named and trees unnamed. We can’t pretend that there were only good people in our history. Whatever we do to forget this history, it remains our legacy. The past is not a foreign country, it is still our country.
There are, of course, museums. Museums preserve and inform, but they also segregate the past, separate it from the present, and show it as something we can walk away from. Museums physically remove the past and take objects out of their sometimes uncomfortable historical context, creating a new context detached from our day-to-day reality. If we face the past, we face it behind glass. It is safe and ordered, it has nothing to do with us personally. We can go home and wash our hands of this inconvenient history. We forget about it.
Remembrance is the antidote to pride, be it national or personal. By confronting us with our origins, it keeps us humble. But how do we remember if there is nothing to remind us?
Taking down a monument and disowning the past is a powerful statement. As liberating as such an action appears, it comes with great responsibility, it is only the first step. If we selectively show only the pretty parts of history, and conceal the ugliest from the public eye, it becomes easy to ignore them, not to engage with them, to simply forget them. Many German communities have done precisely this, and are only now, 75 years after the end of the war, beginning to remember by creating new physical reminders of their dishonourable past. ‘Lest we forget’ is written on many English monuments to the victims of the First World War. The saying holds true, however, not only for glorious sacrifices and finest hours, but equally for the darkest days. We must take care not to forget, not to disassociate. Forgetting means that the guilty are not judged, and leaving people clinging to their pride. If a reminder is taken down, it must be replaced with another, ‘lest we forget’. The two oaks are ordinary trees like any others, but they are also the last poignant reminder and warning of a community’s guilt.