I was sent an article titled ‘The Ratline’ on the escape route (mostly to South America) senior Nazis had set up to evade justice. The actions of the Nazis constitute one of the most appalling chapters in human history. We shake our heads in horror at it, and struggle to understand how and why it came about. However, as the following personal incident, taken from my Bits & Pieces shows, people can be formed; can be ‘deformed’ and then formed again. I titled the vignette ‘Political culture; social climate’:
“Driving higher up in the mountains on the afternoon of the 13th March 2015, the car got stuck in the snow. It was a deserted place at the start of woods but we found a man who willingly went away and came back a while later with shovel and wooden planks to help out, but to no avail. Then a couple turned up; later, a woman walking her dog. The snow cleared by the shovels as much as we could; planks in place, I started the car while the others pushed but it was stuck too deep. (An old man with a heart condition, I felt bad watching them trying to sort out my problem while what I could contribute was minimal.) Fortunately, yet another man turned up: someone in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, with the necessary equipment – and with the knowledge of how to deal with such a situation. Within minutes the car was freed. The whole incident took something close to two hours, and help was given as a matter-of-course, natural, almost to be taken for granted.
But by chance, in the morning I had read an incident in a Holocaust-survival memoir, Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. (‘Untergetaucht: Eine junge Frau überlebt in Berlin 1940-1945’.) One day, eighteen-year old Marie stood despairing on a bridge looking down at the water. A woman approached her, but then saw the yellow ‘Star of David’ which Jews were then forced to wear, and said contemptuously: “Well, go on, do it.” That woman was a German; yet, years later, there was I, a black man, helped by Germans as if I were German myself. (Sri Lankan Jesuit priest, Paul Caspersz, observes that the Sinhalese are by nature one of the friendliest people in the world but they can be easily whipped up into hatred: See, Sarvan, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, chapter titled ‘Paul Caspersz: Jesuit socialist’.)
Some realizations, even if banal, renew themselves. Germany or Sri Lanka, the little misadventure showed me yet again how malleable individual and group human-nature is; how circumstances can turn us to remarkable kindness or drive us to gross cruelty. It’s all a matter of a certain historical time; of a particular political culture, and a specific social climate. The German example shows that positive change is realizable.”
As Neil MacGregor writes (A History of the World in 100 Objects, Penguin Books, page 172) rulers can change the way a people think and feel. Though a digression, Sri Lankan readers will be interested in this comment of his (pages 225-226): “The religions that survive today are the ones that were spread and sustained by trade and power. It’s profoundly paradoxical: Buddhism, the religion founded by an ascetic who spurned all comfort and riches, flourished thanks to the international trade in luxury goods. With those valuable commodities, like silk, went the monks and missionaries”. (If I may be permitted a digression within a digression, one sometimes sees in the windows of obscenely expensive shops representations of the Buddha or of Che Guevara. O tempora O mores indeed.) Somewhat similarly, Christianity spread because a Roman emperor became a convert. Centuries later, the English language became the world’s lingua franca because of the British Empire, the most extensive the world has ever seen.
Neil MacGregor in his Germany: Memories of a Nation observes that in the centre of Berlin one keeps coming across monuments to national shame. “I think that is unique in the world.” Indeed, close to the world-famous Brandenburg Gate there’s an extensive Holocaust memorial. It’s on ‘prime property’ gifted by the state. Germany has paid billions in compensation and, wherever possible, has restored looted property. Then there’s the well-known Warschauer Kniefall when Willy Brandt as Chancellor of Germany went down on both knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (7 December 1970) in a confession of collective guilt and as a gesture of penitence. Brandt hadn’t been a Nazi. On the contrary, born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm, he was a left-wing journalist who fled to Norway and then Sweden, adopting the name Brandt to avoid detection and capture by the Nazis. While Britain ignores the exploitation and cruelty of its imperial past, Germany confronts it regrets MacGregor who adds that Japan too has failed to search its collective conscience. One may add that the world, unlike with Germany’s past, largely ignores Japan’s atrocities because they were perpetrated mostly against Asian folk.
T S Eliot writes in one his poems, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” We view the distant in order to better understand the near; we study the foreign in order to better know the native. “Blessed” Sri Lanka has not apologised for the succession of anti-Tamil riots, culminating in the horrific pogrom of July 1983. There are many incidents known and related but it’s best to turn to foreigners, for example, to Shiva Naipaul, the brother of V S Naipaul and his posthumous An Unfinished Journey. I quote from page 113: Of two Tamil sisters, aged about eleven and eighteen, the younger one had her head chopped off, the elder one is stripped naked, and when “there were no more volunteers, when there was nothing worth the violating, petrol was poured over the two bodies”, and they were set alight. There has been no inquiry; no expression of regret, far less compensation and restitution. Then there are the last days of the war when thousands and thousands of trapped children, women and men, the old and the handicapped, pitifully crazed with terror were pitilessly slaughtered, some having first been humiliated and worse, all crying out futilely to God or the gods. “Their moans / The valleys redoubled to the hills, and they / To Heaven“: Milton, ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont‘. (“Late” is in its earlier meaning of “Recent”). Posthumous restitution is an impossibility because the dead are dead but an apology will make less sore the souls of the grieving living.
An apology is an expression of regret. It follows that where there’s no regret, there’s no apology. In Sri Lanka, the vast majority do not regret the actions carried out in the name of their race and religion. What holds sway is vicious and virulent ethnoreligious nationalism. The majority cannot hide behind the proverbial fig-leaf of a minority. “It’s a few who are barbarous, cruel and sadistic. We, the majority, are decent; true Buddhists who try not to trample on an ant”. But this fondly invoked minority cannot enjoy the impunity and immunity it does unless the majority were, at best, indifferent; at worst, supported and connived at the doings of their minority. Under the electoral system, the majority cannot exculpate itself. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, if in a situation of oppression you remain silent, then you have in effect taken the side of the oppressors.
Yet another ploy is to point to the atrocities committed by the Tigers. (Among their victims were fellow Tamils but these are omitted in the reckoning: they don’t count.) The argument is that the actions of “the people’s armed forces” are but retaliatory: deserved and salutary; exemplary and above all, cautionary. But as I have written elsewhere, one cruelty does not cancel out another cruelty. No, the world is left with two atrocities – and all the more a sadder place for it.
The word ‘commensurate’ is defined as ‘corresponding in size or degree; in proportion’. Jesus in the New Testament rejects the proportionality of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” but Israeli actions against the Palestinians go back to the Old Testament -and worse. It’s not an eye for an eye but an eye for a tooth! So it seems to be in ‘the Paradise Isle’, and the appalling lack of commensuration. But as a popular phrase has it, La esperanza muere la última (Hope dies last), and one returns to the first paragraphs above. But one must not merely hope for but work towards positive change, and the bringing about of a decent and humane, fair and just society.