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Our glorious past is what we remember. The brutality behind it we’ve forgotten

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Immediately after the second world war, German people were required to watch documentaries about the horrors of the concentration camps before they could get their ration cards. But the fact that they went, Tony Judt points out in his book Postwar, didn’t mean they actually watched. “In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film, and stayed that way until the film was over,” wrote the German author Stephan Hermlin many years later. “Today I think that turned-away face was indeed the attitude of many millions.”

As a German government official, surveying the 20% rise in antisemitic hate crimes in his country, advises Jews not to assume they can wear the kippah “everywhere, all the time, in Germany”, and an Italian far-right party tops the poll for the European parliament, we would do well to reflect on the corrosive impact of such determined “forgetting”. These memories need to be recovered not only to honour those who have perished or suffered only to find their experiences discounted and discarded: it is crucial for the moral potential and political vitality of the perpetrators too. It is simply not possible to deliberately “forget” the terrible things you have done and then expect to proceed as though they did not happen, and nobody noticed, just because you have chosen not to remember.

Unchecked and uncorrected, for the sake of convenience and comity, these heavily redacted tales of how we got here and who we are return as slogans on baseball caps and billboards. If you have no idea what “greatness” means or how it was acquired, then of course you want to “Make America Great Again” or “Put the Great back into Great Britain”.

As such, the “battle against intolerance, prejudice, xenophobia and the manufacture of distrust and disunity”,........

© The Guardian