(Danish text of this article can be found on my blog for 28 Feb 2012)
During the summer of 2004 the Danes celebrated the silly period by having a heated discussion whether Ole Wivel and Knud W. Jensen, both pillars on the art and literary scene, ought to have confessed their Nazi-sympathies in the 1930s and 1940s.
It is clear that perception relativism often is ignored by people who should know better. Historians such as Barbara Tuchman (‘The March of Folly’) and Anne Appelbaum (‘Gulag’) have emphasised, that it takes very little time from the actual events till we either forget what happened or simply change our opinion or perception about them. This is not only because new information has become available or because it is physically impossible to ’think’ using the mind of the past, but it is also driven by a changed political and cultural situation, or in short: fashionable correctness. One just need to look at how we now evaluate events in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine.
It is possible that with the passing of time we obtain a better understanding, but simultaneously we distance ourselves from the realities of the day and thereby the conditions that formed the background for the opinions, perceptions and decision processes. Seen in the rear mirror it becomes easier to criticise, even though our understanding has diminished; we blissfully ignore this fact.
What if we actually had found WMDs in Iraq? (Perhaps we did – only, it was people, not bombs!). Or if Chamberlain had been proven right? How about the Ukrainians, who offered their welcome to the invading German troops in 1941 with the traditional bread and salt. Were they traitors? Tolerance, indifference and ignorance are closely related concepts, which, in the different world of the information constrained 1930s, muddied people’s understanding – just as it happens today with perhaps too much information; important decisions are still taken based on 20% knowledge and 80% gut feel – both in politics and in business.
No wonder that the assessment of events, 50 years later, risks bearing no resemblance to what actually happened. This is the historian’s eternal dilemma. The change in perception will always be coloured by the swings in political reality. Our perception will always be formed by our present knowledge and not with the mind of the past. Knowledge doesn’t transmit automatically and once lost, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate later.
In 1932 a large majority of the Germans considered Hitler to be a rather laughable person, who was bound to disappear shortly. Very few had a more clear vision, like Hindenburg, who said: “This man will lead us over the precipice”. The perception changed just 1-2 years later, but to many people the question was still whether Nazism was a little evil with a lot of good, or a disaster with only few benefits. The Germans – and surely the Danes – disagreed amongst themselves about which side of the scales weighed most.
If one leaned to the ‘good’ side, society had moved from chaos to order, economic growth after WWI and the 1920 and 1930 recessions, work after unemployment, prosperity, motorways, Volkswagens and a path to regain national pride.
Perhaps the dark side was a little more difficult to define in the beginning, although the Kristall-nacht ought to have been a wake-up call with a tow bar.
The negative picture disappeared in a flood of prosperity and a feeling of national greatness, which was anything but wasted on the Danes of the day. One should not forget that Denmark and Germany were rather closely connected through culture, education and business. A large part of the Danish industrial machine was either a traditional supplier or a customer to the Germans, a fact that continued well into the war. It was Danish engineers who built the German submarine base in St Nazaire and strategic bridges in Croatia.
In 1975, when I worked in Holland, people often asked me what language was spoken in Denmark and even exactly where Denmark was. Is it such a mental high-jump to realise, that people were less well informed in 1935 and had their mind set on different issues? We tend to forget, that the last 80 years of information distribution, political innovation and global development were still to come. Dad worked, Mum was a hausfrau, divorce was immoral, children grew up being beaten into discipline, TV and mobile phones were science fiction if even that, the toilet was often in the courtyard and shared by many, and Jews were “ not really it”. These were the social realities in the 1930s in Denmark, where the characteristic ‘where few have too much and fewer too little’ was about to be invented.
The Social Democrats and their programme of worker power and emancipation of women had changed the political, social and cultural scene and more was to come. But there was also a growing feeling amongst many that we had to be careful not to go all the way towards communism. Nevertheless, a new balance had to be found, as communists were growing in numbers.
This fact, together with the leaning towards a powerful Germany and the memory of the recent winter war in Finland, where many Scandinavians had volunteered on the Finnish side, were the major reasons for a strong anti-communist feeling when WW II started. It therefore felt natural for many Danes to join the Germans and continue the battle against the Russians (i.e. communists) forming the SS Viking division.
So, how do we judge this today?
We know too much! Socialism was a way forward at the time. Perhaps Communism and Nazism were as well? Who in the 1930s could tell for sure after the wars in the 19th Century and after WWI? At this time Stalin was creating ’Paradise’, building a state based on collectivism, but did we realise how many eggs he was cracking while making the omelette? Did we know that this process made Hitler’s approach look like play in a sandbox?
Both sides had their protagonists.
What we forget, when judging today, is to eliminate our 21st Century knowledge and think ‘1930’!
When we say ‘Nazism’ today, it evokes images of suppression, persecution, concentration camps and war. That was not the reaction in the 1930s.
But what do we say in 2012 about Stalin’s extermination of more than 20mill. People – in a time of peace!! – and deportation of whole populations such as the Kalmyks and Tartars? How about the collectivisation in Ukraine, that in 1933-34 cost over 6mill. people their lives as one of the largest human-created hunger disasters ever? Or being shot for possessing food in this period? Gulags? Systematic removal – back to Russia – in the 1950s of all industrial production assets from East Germany, Poland, Czekoslovakia and Hungary, maintaining suppressed agrarian nations as a buffer zone towards the West? And how about Hungary 1956, Czekoslovakia 1968, Stasi, Ulbricht, and Honecker?
Hang on a second! Did we know all this in the 1970s, while the cultural elite in Denmark was as red as tomatoes? After all, this was only 35 years after Walter Duranty, New York Times, had reported ‘no problems’ during his Soviet sponsored travels in Ukraine, in the middle of the hunger disaster.
A report for which he got the Pulitzer prize.
Why has no one insisted and told the Danish left: “You owe us an answer?”
Perhaps it is easier to sling such questions at the now deceased Wivel and Jensen?
How many of the extreme left in Denmark have not said “we didn’t know”?
Obviously, people find it difficult to admit errors, and in the political climate after the war was it surprising that neither Wivel nor Jensen had any motivation to express remorse publicly? Who knows, perhaps their feelings hadn’t changed. Self perception, survival instinct and adjusted knowledge and information could be determining factors. No one wants to stand out as a social pariah. It must be remembered that many people, who had been too close to the Nazis, had been executed after the war. So in short: with an adjusted outlook, one has to consider the consequences and the lie becomes an invisible friend.
Clintons ‘I did NOT have sex with this woman’ is a good example.
Despite the realisation that Stalin was nothing less than a monster, probably worse than Hitler, and despite the collapse of both communism and the Soviet Union, it has still not become fashionable to attack the communists for their misbehaviour. Perhaps we still haven’t completely digested the information in the KGB and Stasi archives, where evidence of a planned East German led invasion of Denmark during the cold war came to light. Perhaps there are still too many old extreme leftists in power or opinion forming positions? A minister in the present Danish government (2012) is the ex chairman of the Danish Communist party and under investigation for having received personal funds from KGB.
Then it was much easier and more politic to accuse the asylum seeking Kravchenko for being a CIA spy than to expose Duranty and his nonsense.
In the 1970s I was mentioned in an ultra-left anthology as an ‘enemy of the State’ – “Vrag Naroda”, a terminology with a very dark notion from Soviet times – due to the fact that I had worked in the Ministry of Defence. What would have happened, if Denmark suddenly had an extreme left government?
Plus ca change!
In our open and transparent societies we have the tradition of speaking up and to protest, based on our development during the last 200 years and our cultural roots in a humanistic outlook after the French and American revolutions. We therefore have the right to say to Ole Wivel and Knud Jensen and to many people still alive: “You owe us an answer”, but not to attack them from a position in a glass-house.
However, it is not just in Denmark that our concept of tolerance has led to a complete imbalance of what we accept and what not in terms of extreme opinions. A good example is represented by the Hizb-ut Tahir group. In England the Imam Abu Hamza has publicly encouraged extermination of Jews with a call to continue where Hitler stopped. It took the authorities several years to have him arrested, only made possible when the terror laws changed after 9/11.
The Imam Abu Quatada is another example. In 2004 he travelled up and down the country preaching jihad and repetition of 9/11. England is still trying to get rid of him (2012), prevented by the EU statement, that extradition to Jordan would hurt his human rights due to possible torture or execution.
Eh? Human rights?
On the other hand, the increased resistance amongst ordinary people against medieval cultures, in particular hate-preaching religions, tend to be met with silence by the media or even laws prohibiting critique.
This does not make sense any more. Where did our right to freedom of speech go?
The question is, whether our tolerance, normally a strong pillar in a democracy, will be criticised in the future. Is it possible, that in 30 years from now people will reproach us and say that we didn’t do enough? Or will they say: “You really managed that well”?
Personally I am afraid, that we will be considered a failure, as we are slowly abandoning the right to free speech. Without criticism, there will be no dialogue and the increasing undermining of our right to speak up will hit us hard in the end.
Relativity in perception has always existed.
A good example is the way medieval painters depicted the crucifixion – with soldiers in uniforms and armour of the 1400s and not as Roman soldiers.
It is important to remember this when we go to the barricades and shout “J’accuse”.
The right to speak up, think and express one self freely must necessarily be followed by the duty to defend it. It is inevitable that we sometimes exceed this right, but it is a necessary element in the exercise of democracy. The Americans manage this concept through their 1st amendment, but both England and Denmark are slowly putting a clamp on this important issue.
It took a little too long, during WW II, before the Danes began to protest. They made good money on the Germans! Today other dangerous issues seem to find people in the West completely asleep. In particular religious criticism is too often considered racist or political incorrect. This loss of dialogue stifles society and can be extremely dangerous if not modified.
But perhaps it is understandable, as we have not even come to terms with the past, the communist atrocities and Lenin’s omelette statement.
20-30mill. Russian and Ukrainian eggs. Cracked in time of peace.
In order to understand our thoughts and ideas today we have to go ”back to the future”. This future has been clear for some time concerning Nazism, but it hasn’t arrived yet in respect of our assessment of communism and fundamentalist religions, and certainly not in our understanding of the dramatic social upheavals that are going on in Western societies at the moment.
On 20 July 2004 the Germans held a 60 year memorial day for the assassination attempt on Hitler. There were many speeches and a solid attempt to unravel the built-in conflict: were the would be assassins traitors or heroes? The tendency went in the direction of heroes. After all, it was now 60 years later. But Schroeder avoided the use of the word ‘hero’, even though his speech clearly indicated this direction.
This shows how difficult it often is to change our stance and self perception.
In respect of communism, there are many who owe us an answer.
How long must we wait?
One also wonders what went through Kim Philby’s brain, when he sat lonely, isolated and under constant KGB supervision and censorship in his Moscow apartment, devoid of all civil dignity. The sausages and sour cucumbers that he served for the last BBC journalist, who visited him before he died, were a far cry from the Steak and Yorkshire Pudding in his local pub back in England.
If his pitiful existence had managed to bring about a level of regret, he didn’t show it.
Our species is a master in the defence of our errors and stupidity!
So, how could we ever expect two pillars of society as Ole Wivel and Knud Jensen to show regret?
Perhaps we should wait until our own communist top-dogs are dead. It will be much easier to attack them then.
Or perhaps we should learn from history and begin to think forward instead of complaining backward, concentrating on the issues of today!
Until wisdom one day descends upon us, we can do nothing but watch. The many immigrants, who now express anger and hate against our society and who left countries devoid of the concept of freedom, countries they didn’t like either, can now enjoy our benefits, order, security and social support – until they have re-created the societies they disliked so much!
People want freedom, but it is the first value to be suppressed.
As far as the old communists are concerned they are welcome to go on holiday to e.g. Ukraine, where they can experience the mess their political conviction created in an otherwise beautiful country, mentioned by the World Bank in 1996 as ”the potentially richest country in Europe”.
Long live the relativity of perception.
And long live the freedom of speech!
July 2004 (with a few changes 2012)