#15 responsibility
Julian Rieck

A History of Responsibilities

Our global society is a history of injustices. How can we take responsibility for the past?

Since antiquity there has been an ongoing debate about how to cope with the past. Nietzsche, for example, stated that remembrance is not possible without oblivion, and that without oblivion there is no progress. World history is characterized by the injustices that have been committed. What does this mean for our collective memory and how do we come to terms with the past? Would it be better to remain silent about past injustices, so as not to open up old wounds? Or is it the other way around: Does keeping quiet about atrocities lengthen the distress of the victims and their descendants and ultimately pave the way for future inequity? What about crimes that were committed 50, 100 or more years ago? Are subsequent generations responsible for what their forbears have done? What might the consequences be? And what does taking responsibility for historical injustice look like in practice?

…we need to distinguish between guilt and responsibility.

70 years after the Second World War, the few perpetrators of the Shoah left are dying. There will be no more trials of concentration camp guards in future. Looking back even further into our dark past: Slave owners, slave traders and the slaves themselves who were forced into labour have been dead for a long time, but the consequences of the injustices of enslavement are still present today. First of all, we need to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. No one can be guilty or be punished for something that she or he has not done or influenced, especially when the events occurred before a person was born. No citizen present today has ever authorized a past agent to act in their name. Not having been alive when an injustice was committed seems like very good reason for denying any responsibility. But can you reject the burdened legacy of your community in the same way you can turn down inheriting your deceased parent’s debt? You have been born into a specific society with all its achievements and atrocities. You enjoy the benefits like education, the infrastructure, the healthcare system, etc. on the one hand. This means you cannot simply ignore your society’s evil past on the other hand. Every German must come to terms with Hitler as part of his or her identity, and not just Goethe or Schiller. Australians and US-Americans benefit from past acts of dispossession, slavery and forced assimilation. “Such profiting from past injustices” the philosopher Rob Sparrow writes, “renders our claim to have disavowed them hollow and makes us complicit with them.” In Peru the guerrilla group Shining Path was militarily defeated more than 15 years ago, and a museum has already been built to remember the history of violence. But as long as the divisions in Peruvian society, widespread racism and the socio-economic reasons for the erstwhile success of the Shining Path have not been vanquished and overcome, there is an inherent danger that history might reoccur.

The dead are dead and cannot be compensated, because there is no compensation to murder, torture, forced labour etc.

The historical injustices that have been committed cannot be undone. The dead are dead and cannot be compensated, because there is no compensation to murder, turture, forced labour etc. If we look at the controversy between Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer history is finished while remaining unfinished because the injustice is still present. There can be no doubt that the ethical standards we use to evaluate history are also embedded in history as well. The slave owner who mistreated or murdered a slave may have been convinced that his victim was his property instead of a human being. But according to philosopher Lukas Meyer, the living have a special responsibility towards the victims of historical injustice known as "surviving duties". The concept of surviving duties assigns the responsibility for reparations to present living persons based on the breach of duty (inequity) under which the victims had to suffer. Just treatment would have been in the interest of the dead or unjustly treated. Thus follows the idea that present living people must treat their fellow human beings equitably because their dead forbears would still be alive or would not have been treated badly if it were so.

The generations that come after the direct victims have been and often still are structurally deprived, such as the descendants of slaves in the USA.

What does this mean for historical responsibility? Jennifer Tillmanns points out that “the direct victims (the dead) are addressed in spite of the finished past and the indirect victims (their descendants) because of the unfinished past.” The historical event loses its direct relevance for the ancestors. But there is an indirect impact which lingers on as long as the deeds remain in our collective memory. For the dead, there can only be a gesture, a monument or other form of symbolic compensation. But for the present and the future there can be something that at least approximates justice. The generations that come after the direct victims have been and often still are structurally deprived, such as the descendants of slaves in the USA or of Aborigines in Australia. Who is responsible for their marginalization today? And what could be done to try to compensate them?

Critics of the historical responsibility argue that in the complex society we live in today, it is not possible to ascribe concrete responsibilities. They doubt the efficacy of the concept of responsibility entirely, because the extensive interconnectedness of modern societies leads to a finer differentiation which involves risk of assuming responsibility where there is none.

Our acts today and in the future always await the judgement of history.

The agents of responsibility are thus disempowered by overextension. The current concept of responsibility leaves no room for coincidence and destiny. This critique seems to portray humankind as victims of an authoritarian regime or general circumstances beyond our control and not as reasonable, self-determined beings. That exactly is what the philosopher Karl Jaspers pointed out in his “Question of German Guilt” where he discusses political guilt as one of four major points: It implicates a citizen of “having to bear the consequences of the deeds of the state whose power governs [them] and under whose order [they] live”. Jaspers wrote this shortly after 1945 in an attempt to appeal to political virtue in Germany that was essential for a future sovereign German state. Jaspers’ interpretation is that the past should shape present and future actions. Or to put it differently: Our acts today and in the future always await the judgement of history. This is central to our understanding of history and also the main point when we discuss historical responsibility.

The lessons we take from history are profoundly shaped by our normative evaluations of today, and we do not know how future generations will judge us.

History is not seen as individual events or unrelated actions. Today we interpret the past in periods or eras, as causal chains or series of events. Even if a historian endeavours to be as neutral as possible, his or her work will be shaped by the selection process, political principles, and eventually by the present. As the post-punk band Fehlfarben once sung: History is made, it is progressing (Geschichte wird gemacht, es geht voran). History derives from how we look at the past from our standpoint today. We only have indirect access. From our current point of view the very important difference between today and yesterday will no longer be visible in 50 or 100 years. Yesterday was once tomorrow, and the distinctions between the past, present and future are fuzzy and unclear. Future generations will not be able to tell our actions apart from and what we now view as historical actions by our ancestors. The lessons we take from history are profoundly shaped by our normative evaluations of today, and we do not know how future generation will judge us. In all likelihood they will not share our values, and will judge us based on our shared general history. For us today this means that if we do not take responsibility for historical injustices, future generations will see us as perpetuating the same cruel history. Given that we cannot undo injustices, we should at least compensate the victims of our forebears. We should at least name them, remember them, and defend their reputations in an attempt to lessen the pain felt by victims and their descendants.

While all these methods and means may help a society take responsibility for historical injustice, they also have to be filled with progressive spirit and a sense of conviction.

Otherwise it is doubtful whether we have really left our convictions behind which in the past led and still today lead to genocide, slavery etc. Furthermore social and political means must be established to put the historical lessons into practice. First of all, there is the work of historians, lawyers etc. whose job is to offer proof of the historical facts which may be denied, relativized or disputed. Inspired by the Nuremberg Trials this has been carried out by truth commissions all over the world since the 1980s. The process can also involve legal and constitutional instruments, such as trials of the perpetrators or laws against denying systematic genocide. Education structures are also extremely important. In addition to schools, these can include also specific learning facilities like museums or places of remembrance and documentation. While all these methods and means may help a society take responsibility for historical injustice, they also have to be filled with progressive spirit and a sense of conviction.

By adopting a critical view of the past, we may foster other injustices in the present or conversely identify current injustices. Although slavery was officially abolished in the 19th century, when we explore the conditions then, we may discover that millions of people still live under circumstances which should be labelled forced labour today. We are nowhere near the post-racial society we may aspire to, as we can observe every day. What will future generations think of us when they want to confront us with the number of refugees who met their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea?

Historical responsibility can be seen as a conceptual means for dealing with collective memories and experiences of the past. French Philosopher Jacque Derrida even defined history as a history of responsibilities. But this will remain a hollow phrase if we do not understand the historical responsibility as a call to action today.

Photo: “Conscience” by Jackie.lck
2014 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Related Articles

Prescribed Reconciliation

The Gacaca Courts in Rwanda offered a socially acceptable framework for overcoming the deep gap rent between Hutu and Tutsi by war and genocide.

» more

Basta Ya – Enough Already!

Colombia has been shaken by violence for the last two decades. What is and needs to be done to overcome the nation’s past?

» more