Can Germany ever close the chapters of the Second World War? Over the past 60 years, successive German governments have been compensating victims of the Holocaust.
In my latest Letter From Europe, I write about the battle over how to pay pensions to Holocaust survivors who volunteered to work in the ghettos and contributed to the government pension plan.
But compensating Holocaust victims is not only about money. It is also about dealing with the past and ensuring that Jews living in today’s Germany can feel safe and believe that it is their home.The Holocaust dwarfs the tragedies of history. Yet other European governments are also haunted by the past, often finding it extremely difficult to apologize for cruelties during war or occupation, despite the passage of time.
When François Hollande, the French president, made an official two-day visit to Algeria last month, Algerians were hoping that he would apologize for the way French atrocities during an effort to brutally crush Algeria’s war of independence in 1961.
Mr. Hollande had already gone further than his predecessors when last October, he acknowledged the injustice done to Algerians during colonial rule. In particular, he cited the killing of up to 250 Algerian protestors in the streets of Paris on October 17, 1961. ‘‘Fifty-one years after this tragedy, I pay tribute to the memory of the victims,’’ Mr. Hollande said.
But in Algeria, Mr. Hollande fell short of making an apology.
“I want to define with Algeria a strategic partnership on an equal-to-equal basis. I am not here to repent or apologize, I am here to tell the truth,’’ he said after meeting the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Maybe, said analysts, an apology will be made once those French politicians who were in power at the time are no longer alive.
Dealing with the past has also proved extremely difficult for the countries of the former Yugoslavia that were plunged into civil war just twenty years ago. The media in Serbia is still reluctant to write about Serb atrocities in Bosnia and in Kosovo. Indeed, across this part of Europe, there is a prevailing sense of victimhood. Analysts said this makes it difficult for governments to talk to each other about the past and normalize their relations.
Yet remarkably, after many decades of distrust and enmity, Poland and Russia are slowly dealing with the past.
In April 2010, President Vladimir Putin visited Katyn, in western Russia where 60 years earlier an estimated 22,000 Poles were killed in April 1940 on Stalin’s order.
Mr. Putin was the first Russia leader to make such a gesture and the first to invite a Polish leader to commemorate the event. A Polish-Russian historians’ commission has also been established to delve into the many chapters of their difficult relationship. Perhaps historians in the Balkans could emulate such a commission.