Contextualize Troubling Past

 
Adolf Hitler and the evil he epitomizes are ubiquitous once again. I wish I could say that this is the first time since 1945 that this was the case, but unfortunately there have been several other “Hitler waves” at various points in time. With the subject in the news again, it is time to revisit how societies can come to terms with and overcome troubling pasts.

In a more serious vein, ever since the demise of the Nazi regime, access in Germany to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was severely limited. Sale of the book was prohibited in stores and library patrons had to sign a form specifying that they were reading it “for scientific purposes only.” In early 2016, however, the copyright held by the state of Bavaria since 1945 expired, allowing for unlimited publication. Thus came the publication of an official annotated version, 4,000 initial copies of which quickly sold out and generated international headlines and validated the fears of many elites.

Indeed, Hitler is appearing in hit German films like “Look Who’s Back,” not to mention appearances or allusions in television series such as “The Man in the High Castle.” Comparing contemporary politicians to Hitler is also common; German politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel have been depicted this way for several years, in Greek or Spanish anti-austerity protests for instance. Much of this validates Godwin’s law that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches one.”

Just this week, the government of Austria proclaimed that it was initiating a process to expropriate Hitler’s birth house in the town of Braunau am Inn. The interior minister claimed that the structure, which has become a pilgrimage destination for right radicals and neo-Nazis, would be demolished. Intense debate immediately ensued, the minister walked back his plans and the ultimate fate of the house remains unresolved as of today.

These observations about the current rise in Hitler references generate two questions. First, why does Hitler continue to haunt our culture? From one perspective, Hitler has become the ultimate symbol of secular evil in our world. Today, he is akin to a floating signifier, divorced from the historical referent and used emotively to make a point or to delegitimize an opponent. The racism, xenophobia, cult of personality, violence and authoritarianism that Hitler embodied has witnessed a resurgence in many countries.

Second, how should Hitler’s legacy be dealt with? I fundamentally disagree with the notion of demolishing the house where Hitler was born. What would replace it? An empty lot? A parkette? A modern structure? Whatever replaces the current building will forever be contaminated by its connection to Hitler. It will always be a magnet for right radicals, the curious or the deranged.

Instead of trying to expunge traces of the past — however vile — history ought to be preserved, contextualized and confronted as honestly as possible. We cannot just ignore it or wish it away. In fact, such strategies can be more dangerous than anything else — engendering the “return of the repressed,” to quote another famous Austrian, Sigmund Freud.

The republication of “Mein Kampf” shows a better way to proceed: Acknowledge the evil, contextualize it, delegitimize the perverted politics and values and show a better path to the future. In this way, the past can be worked through and eventually overcome. This is the only way to mitigate Hitler’s overall influence. For instance, the house in Braunau should be re-appropriated and used to house refugees, as some have advocated.

Incidentally, we do not need to look to faraway Germany for guidance regarding our confronting of historical burdens. Much closer to home, Georgetown University’s still-nascent efforts to acknowledge and confront our own experience with evil — slavery — point promisingly to a path forward, but as a whole we must not be afraid of the evil of our pasts to further engage with the future.

 

Eric Langenbacher is a Professor in the Department of Government.

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