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The atrocities in Bucha show that remembrance without resolve is empty

“Every year politicians repeat ‘never again’,” Volodymyr Zelensky chided the Bundestag. “And now, we see that these words simply mean nothing.”

By Jeremy Cliffe

Some European capitals stand as grand proclamations of past glories. Not today’s Berlin. The rebuilt centre of the reunified German capital can feel like an open-air museum to Nazi crimes. An entire block has been given over to the 2,711 concrete slabs of its sprawling Holocaust memorial. Pavements glint with brass plates bearing the names of victims at the addresses where they once lived. Money has been lavished on exhibitions, plaques, ceremonies and educational initiatives commemorating the darkest chapters of German history. As a resident of Berlin, I have long admired this mature commitment to Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the processing of the past) and Erinnerungskultur (memory culture). Yet today I find myself wondering: what ultimate purpose does it serve?

When Russian troops retreated from Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on 30 March they left behind scenes seemingly torn from Europe’s history books – but which belong inexorably to its present. Corpses of civilians lined the streets. Some had their hands tied behind their backs. Others lay where they had fallen; one body under a bicycle, another strewn amid dropped groceries. “They had been torturing people,” one resident told the Times of the scene in one basement. “Some of them had their ears cut off. Others had teeth pulled out.” Bodies of children and teenagers were among the mutilated. The ghastly likelihood is that these were just early glimpses of Russian crimes unfolding across the occupied territory of Ukraine.

“Never again” is our instinctive reaction to this nightmare, just as it was in 1995 when more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. Yet the grim pattern post-1945 is that this refrain’s every incantation marks the start of a countdown to the next such mass atrocity. The US diplomat Samantha Power has called it “the world’s most unfulfilled promise”, arguing that time and again realpolitik has stymied preventative action.

Take the case of Vladimir Putin. That the Russian president is capable of genocidal violence has been clear for decades. His first major act after coming to power in 1999 was to launch the Second Chechen War, in which his troops raped, tortured and carried out summary mass executions of civilians. His wars in Georgia in 2008, in eastern Ukraine from 2014 and in Syria from 2015 all brought further crimes. None of it stopped Western governments doing business with him. In this respect Germany is far from uniquely hypocritical. Yet it is galling that a country with its 20th-century history has based its 21st-century energy strategy on gas, oil and coal imports filling the coffers of a power led by a man like Putin. And it is all the more dismal that this country, shown the horrors of Bucha, still declines to stem that enabling flow of euros.

Western sanctions so far have not stopped Russia. The rouble has recovered and its value is now close to what it was when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began. The one thing sure to change this would be a comprehensive energy embargo, especially from the country that buys more Russian energy than any other. According to the respected economist Moritz Schularick, an embargo by Germany would be economically “manageable” for Berlin, costing a short-term hit to GDP of between 0.5 and 3 per cent (between about €100 and €1,000 per capita). Significantly reducing Russia’s ability to wage genocidal war at a cost to the average German of a mid-range holiday? It should not be a difficult decision. Yet at the time of writing the federal government deems it a step too far.

This all raises some difficult questions about the country’s vaunted memory culture. Remembering history is the first step towards learning its lessons and then acting on them. But what use is it without the follow-through? “Every year politicians repeat ‘never again’,” Volodymyr Zelensky chided the Bundestag on 17 March. “And now, we see that these words simply mean nothing.” On this point, I would go further than Ukraine’s president. Remembrance without resolve is actively counterproductive: functioning as a substitute for action rather than a spur to it; sanitising and distancing the past rather than preserving its immediacy; breeding complacency rather than vigilance.

Some counter that to link the Holocaust with current events risks relativising an act of singular and incomparable evil. Yet recently historians have sought to nuance the debate, even suggesting that cordoning off the Holocaust as a detached, unique object of contrition risks diminishing other terrible crimes in other times and places. In a provocative essay in the liberal weekly Die Zeit last year, the historians Jürgen Zimmerer and Michael Rothberg called on their compatriots to “End the taboo on comparison!” (subtitle: “Globalise history writing, pluralise thinking: why the German memory landscape must change”).

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Their call was and is welcome, especially in light of recent events in Ukraine. Memory should never get too settled, smooth or polished. It must remain raw and alive, open to comparison and contestation, spiky and awkward. The darker its content the more it should discomfort, not comfort, those who hold it in contemplation. To be sure, today’s Germany is capable of great moral courage. But in moments like this it also stands as an example of the perils of memory becoming overly shrouded in reverence; of remembrance becoming separated from action; and of the present becoming too blithely vulnerable to the atavistic furies of the past as they rise up through the ether of history once more.

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special