Dealing with the Past: From Complexity to Contextualisation

Dealing with the Past: From Complexity to Contextualisation

When deliberating about the very delicate subject of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past Timothy Garton Ash’s Trials, Purges, and History Lessons influenced both the analysis and the recommendation which Arkiv made in its submission to the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive (Haass).1 Of course, Garton Ash is concerned with historical transitions which are not analogous to the Northern Ireland case, namely Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to representative democracy in the 1990s and the Iberian transition from fascism to representative democracy in the 1970s.  As he concedes: ‘There are no easy generalizations and certainly no universal laws. So much depends on the character of the preceding regime and the nature of the transition’. Acknowledging those important caveats, his general reflections are appropriate nevertheless to our own circumstances.

Garton Ash begins by asking: what exactly are we talking about when we talk about dealing with the past?

‘There is no single word for it in the English language. German, however, has two long ones in regular use: Geschichtsalfarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. These may be translated as “treating” the past, “working over” the past, “confronting” it, “coping, dealing, or coming to terms with” it—even “overcoming” the past. The variety of possible translations indicates the complexity of the matter at hand’.

He then poses four basic questions:

  • whether to remember and treat the past or simply to try to forget and look to the future?
  • when to address it, if it is to be addressed?
  • who should do it?
  • how should it be done?

As Garton Ash works his way through each of these questions it is obvious that there are no easy answers. Official forgetting of the past (‘a collective and willed amnesia’ as Jorge Semprun described the Spanish experience after 1975) is as problematic as remembering it. To delay the process (Yes, but not yet) can be as troublesome as to expedite, threatening the delicate basis of stability. There is no easy answer either to the question of who should be involved, especially when there are questions of trust. More importantly, as Garton Ash points out, only ‘the victims have the right to forgive’. How it should be done is a fiendishly tricky question and there is no simple formula, from purges to trials to amnesties: none are without their defects.

For Garton Ash, there are what he calls ‘history lessons’, state or independent, public or private. The South African approach of a truth and reconciliation commission, favoured by some in Northern Ireland, is not a one-size fits all model (just as the ‘Northern Ireland model’ of conflict transformation is far from universally appropriate). Other approaches, such as the German Enquete Commission, can reduce ‘truth about the past’ to ‘acceptable compromise between the political parties’. That is not an unworthy principle (if the object is to seek peace) but it may not be satisfactory to the victims of violence. Garton Ash concludes that one way forward is a variation of the ‘history lesson’ approach which involves the engagement of professional historians:

To advocate the third path does, of course, assign a very special place to contemporary historians. In fact, I do think that if you ask “Who is best equipped to do justice to the past?” the answer is, or at least should be, historians. But this is also a heavy responsibility.

The recommendation Arkiv makes to the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland follows the logic of Garton Ash’s sensitive and intelligent treatment of dealing with the past. Of course we are aware of well-founded and long-standing criticism of the limits of historical ‘science’. Certainly we do not suggest that historical examination of sources and evidence will lead to a consensus about the past. Yet there is a shadow line which, once crossed, turns history into what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott described as a field in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on Sunday afternoon. The ability to understand that there is a difference between moralising about the past for present effect and understanding the past for its own sake is what distinguishes the historian from the propagandist. That is why we propose engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians formally and centrally in any publicly funded and officially sponsored ‘process of dealing with the past’

1 Timothy Garton Ash, “Trial, Purges, and History Lessons,” History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, Random House, New York 1999, p. 256–277.

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