Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. -- George Orwell, 1984
A presidential visit to a German military cemetery sets off protests and charges of distorting history. The ritual, intended to divert attention from painful events of 40 and more years past, temporarily focuses on them more clearly. Interest in the Holocaust is, for the time being, at an all-time high.
Almost concurrently, elderly survivors of an earlier massacre meet in Washington for what some say is likely to be the last time. Armenians who witnessed the mass slaughter of family and friends in Turkey from 1915 to 1923 voice the fear, common to all survivors, that their story will die with them. The fear is made more poignant by these survivors' ages and their adopted government's failure to acknowledge the recalled genocide. Public attention is comparatively brief.
What do the two episodes say about the way historical events, particularly traumatic ones, are transmitted? Is time the critical factor in determining how history's graver lessons are remembered? Is an eventual forgetting or at least blurring of the disasters inevitable?
Historians, psychologists and sociologists preoccupied by such troublesome questions tend to agree there can be a kind of remembrance, given a conscious commitment and a continued perception of relevance. How much recalled events resemble actual history, however, is questioned.
Those who are more optimistic count on documentation, on written eyewitness accounts, on government ritualization, or on religious and cultural tradition to cement memories -- at least within a particular group.
Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist who directs the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children in Manhattan, points to the strong role commemoration plays in Jewish tradition. "We still celebrate Passover and Hanukah, don't we? We still have a day for the destruction of the first Temple . . . Different cultures believe more in memory. Others," she says in a reference to American society, "believe more in being young."
The more pessimistic point to the natural human reluctance to confront pain, the contemporary bombardment with and consequent inurement to repeated crises, the constant reconstruction of memory to suit present needs, and our highly selective consciousness of catastrophic events.
Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust historian who teaches at the University of Vermont, recalls: "I remember I had an Armenian girl 20 or so years ago in my class. We talked about the massacre. She came up after class and said, 'Oh, I heard all about this jazz' -- that was her phrase -- 'from my grandmother.' One should not fool oneself. All this remembrance fades. As a social scientist I'm well aware that a massacre can be forgotten in its entirety."
"It's possible," agrees psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, who's written extensively about the Holocaust, nuclear war and the bombing of Hiroshima. "An event can lose its power for us. That's why survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima have a common fear that when they die out, memory will die out with them."
Danieli concedes the difficulty in getting people to confront pain. She remembers a conference planned in Israel a few years ago on the subject of memory. It was cancelled, she says, because of low attendance. She laughs. "They were really afraid of it."
The same principle also accounts, in part, for survivors' frequent difficulty in transmitting their experiences to their children.
Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University, describes an experiment in which children were given three messages to induce them to brush their teeth. First, he says, they were told their teeth would look more beautiful if they brushed every day. Second, they were told they would get cavities if they didn't. Third, he says, they were told their jaws would drop off if they didn't brush.
"Children totally forgot the third message . . . By and large a negative message was ineffective, especially when it was horrendous. There's an attempt to try to get away from it."
"There's the same tendency about events like the Civil War or, more recently, Vietnam, for the public at large to go back and edit them and try to diminsh the pain," says Etzioni. "The Civil War has been turned into nostalgia. People buy Confederate flags. People collect memorabilia about it. It's all an attempt to make it something more comfortable.
"The Soviet Union had a celebration of the end of the seige of Leningrad. It's now celebrated as a moment of great achievement -- 'our finest hour.' Finest hour, hell! It was starvation and betrayal and the murder of millions of people.
"Memory persists but in a very pale and sweetened way . . . We haven't forgotten the Civil War but we've changed its meaning. It was a trauma. Now we've turned it into something fought with tin soldiers on a playing field. It's natural. Look, if you had a terribly traumatic surgery, you wouldn't reenact it, would you?"
Without memory, the risk of repetition mounts. "Who knows," says Richard Hovannisian, history professor at UCLA and the son of an Armenian survivor, "if the Armenian genocide had been acknowledged, maybe the Holocaust wouldn't have occurred."
According to psychologists, the transmuting of events begins not after a certain lapse of time but almost immediately.
For survivors of disasters, it fills a critical need. In her book "Memory," University of Washington professor Elizabeth Loftus writes: "Another aftermath of a disaster is that people need to understand why it occurred and what it means. Thus, people talk a lot about it among themselves. Disasters are largely shared experiences; the conversations participants have with one another can influence one another's memories. The offshoot of this is that it becomes very difficult to get a completely unbiased, accurate account of a disaster from survivors."
In fact, reconstruction of events is a universal human occurrence.
"The memory," says Lifton, "is never literal, but rather a combination of what happened and what we make of it. We have to construct memory . . . Even an event one has lived through is reconstructed. That's the way the mind works. We don't receive anything nakedly -- that's both the glory and the susceptibility of the human mind. We reconstruct it according to our present situation, our individual experience, what we are struggling with."
This poses a dilemma for historians. "I've worried about this problem for a long time," says Hilberg. "Cultural memory is created by people like me . . . Ironically, if I'm halfway successful in publishing books that will be read, plagiarized, cribbed from, used as a source -- does not one usurp history itself, take the place of what happened? People remember not what happened, but what they read. It's a basic philosophical problem."
Yet, the creation of symbols -- monuments, renderings, re-creations -- maintains consciousness and promotes healing. Danieli, who believes government has a responsibility to preserve history, points to the Vietnam memorial recently unveiled in New York City: "People come there to touch it as if they're touching their sons and fathers . . . Think about the statue of Iwo Jima, when you go to Arlington. Doesn't it still move the hell out of you?"
Lifton argues that individual and social awareness of painful events swells and subsides periodically. The fluctuation of public interest, he says, can be documented in the aftermath of events like Hiroshima and the Holocaust.
According to Lifton, the memory of Hiroshima diminished after an initial period of intense expression because of "resistance to that memory and efforts of many leaders to move away from those memories. Americans weren't proud of their use of the bomb; the Japanese were not proud of being victims.
But, he says, "in the last five years there've been new writings, survivors have made visits to other countries and told their accounts, books have been reissued . . . This revival has to do with contemporary nuclear fear. Even though we recognize Hiroshima was devastated by a tiny bomb by present standards, and therefore it can't be a model in any way for the kind of destruction that would occur with our present stockpiles of weapons . . . people recognize Hiroshima has something to tell us. I never address the subject of nuclear threat without addressing Hiroshima . . . I believe it to be a source of memory that informs all our history."
But what if an event's relevance is less apparent? Hilberg recalls the disconnection he felt listening, as a graduate student in 1948, to an elderly professor: "He said, 'Well now, the trouble with the North is they don't understand war. The South, they understand war.' You could tell what he was referring to."
In the case of the Holocaust, historian Raul Hilberg says there is more publicity now than 20 years ago: "Between 1950 and 1975 there were almost conscious attempts to obliterate the event altogether, not to bring it up . . . A number of communities including the Jewish community attempted not to display it . . . Colleges and universities under Jewish auspices did not teach the Holocaust. They hardly gave it any mention in the curriculum. They did not have articles about the Holocaust in their journals. There were a few exceptions -- some pieces in Commentary -- but on the whole, this was back-burner stuff."
Danieli, in her writings, calls it a "conspiracy of silence."
"Then," says Hilberg, "something happened. After Vietnam, it began to look like a pristine issue, where there was a clear definition of right and wrong, where you could take sides . . . unlike Vietnam, which was blurry. Consequently, the Holocaust began to have appeal. There was an attempt to bring World War II back almost as a good war that was clear cut, black and white, in which Jews were the consummate victims . . . "
David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, credits the 1967 Arab-Israeli War with triggering the change. "Many American Jews felt abandoned on this issue," he says, especially after the growing acceptance they felt in the 1950s, which saw the breakdown of housing restraints and other forms of anti-Semitism. "It rekindled attitudes about the Holocaust."
Interest spread out from mostly Jewish circles, he says. "The next watermark was 1978 with the television mini-series 'Holocaust,' which . . . got through to millions of people the rudimentary information that millions of people were killed."
Another reason for the delayed outpouring of written material on the subject, he says, is the lag time of 25 to 30 years needed after almost any historic event to obtain government documentation.
But revived interest in the Holocaust has also prompted new distortions. Says Hilberg, "As soon as the Holocaust began not to go away, the 'me-too people' came along -- the homosexuals, the antiabortionists," also laying claim to the term 'Holocaust.'
Says Etzioni, "We tend to cheapen these things. People talk about the 'Holocaust' in Nicaragua. We call people we don't like 'Nazis' . . . There's the danger in diluting the term to the point where it loses all bite."
Hilberg, who sits on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, talks about the "politics of remembrance." "There's a representative of Polish background, an Armenian, a Ukrainian, they even asked me at some point if I could think of some non-Jewish person from Europe. There's an attempt peculiar to American life to have broad representation . . . It's not illegitimate, but once you bring the word 'Holocaust' before the American public, once you want to have it in some way for future generations, at that point you've got an obscuring of the original event. We don't make the distinctions that Israel always makes: that while there were other victims, not all the other people were victims as Jews were."
The president's honorary visit to the site of some SS graves in Bitburg was seen by many as a more critical distortion. As "a ritual, a way of reasserting a shared view of historical or cultural memory," says Lifton, Bitburg offended because it involved a "fuzzing and covering over and ultimate elimination of moral distinctions." In its wake, he says, officers at an SS reunion expressed "a sense of historical legitimation," claiming 'We never killed anybody or knew anybody who killed anyone.'"
"It was the worst example of moral Realpolitik the sacrificing of morality for political ends ," says writer and survivor Jerzy Kosinski, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
Yet, for all the revival of interest in the Holocaust, the issue was widely misunderstood.
History professor Charles Strozier, a leader of a psychologically oriented school of historians, teaches a course on Nazi Germany to students at Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill. Of his students, he says:
"I'm amazed at the sheer level of ignorance. They have no knowledge of Naziism in Europe. Well, not no knowledge, but often so little, they don't have any consciousness of the moral issues involved. Therefore, they have to be informed before they can react in some meaningful way to the kinds of issues involved in Bitburg. Once they understand, they're aghast at what's being said by some members of Congress about it: that the Jews are stirring up a fuss."
Others believe the same kind of issue is raised by the State Department's refusal to label Turkey's killings of Armenians earlier this century as deliberate and systematic. History professor Hovannisian suggests the motive is U.S. concern for keeping Turkey in the NATO alliance. He complains, "We want to believe that whatever national interests may be perceived to be by the administration, that morality not be entirely sacrificed to that."
Revisionist history uses deliberate 'forgetting' to serve a political end. In his new book Vital Lies, Simple Truths ($17.95, Simon and Schuster), psychologist Robert Goleman cites this anecdote:
"In 1974, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko told of his dismay when, around a campfire in Siberia, an 18-year-old girl proposed a toast to Stalin. Hadn't she heard how many people were arrested and murdered during his rule? Maybe 20 or 30, she replied. Says Yevtushenko:
"'And then I suddenly understood as never before that the younger generation really does not have any sources nowadays for learning the tragic truth about that time, because they cannot read about it in books or in textbooks. Even when articles are published about heroes of our Revolution who died in the time of the Stalinist repressions, the papers fall silent about the cause of their deaths. The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.'"
Similarly, writes Goleman, "American textbooks rarely portray the occupation of Indian lands by 'pioneers' as having even the least tinge of injustice. American invasions of Canada, Russia and Mexico are glossed over, while in the textbooks of those countries those invasions are major events . . . "
To people like author Jerzy Kosinski, who says he is now left without family members of any kind, Bitburg smacks of the same dangerous revisionism.
"The issue is really fear," he says, "fear that it will happen again. The problem is how to incorporate the past in a way that it will guard you . . . What bothered me is not that I want to avenge the fact that he may have forgotten my murdered relatives. I want him to remember my potential children."