MEP Milan Zver: How to come to terms with the past?

One of the key questions of contemporary societies is how to come to terms with the past,  and particularly with the ‘dark’ heritage of the turbulent 20th century. This – individual as well as collective – reconciliation with the past should be based on truth, but the truth is sometimes bitter and often painful. Hence the dilemma: Is it worth opening old wounds, disturbing tranquillity by ‘counting the bones’ and dealing with the past instead of with the future? It can often even be heard that those opening this discussion are doing it for possible political gain. But the truth might be quite the opposite – those who want to close it are doing it on the basis of certain political calculations.

Admittedly, opening this sensitive topic in the societies which have not yet reached reconciliation is a delicate matter, and as these issues are perceived to be political, not national, their resolution is not intense enough despite the fact that European institutions, too, have adopted enough initiatives and guidelines for resolving the crimes committed in the totalitarian regimes.

It is well known that Slovenia survived as many as three totalitarian rules in the 20th century: fascism, Nazism and communism. Each of them was genocidal: fascism was above all culturocidal, Nazism ethnocidal and to communism – especially in the earliest periods – I ascribe political genocide as it was physically destroying ‘class enemies’ or political adversaries.

While victims of fascism and Nazism were recognised, and injustices repaired to the highest extent possible, the victims of communism were kept secret until the mid-1980’s, public discussion about this topic was forbidden, and perpetrators of mass murders and surviving victims, their relatives and possible eye-witnesses were sworn to strict silence. Slovenians therefore hadn’t learned about the real dimension of post-war killings until the advent of democracy, when more than 600 hundred mass graves (!) were discovered on the relatively small territory of Slovenia – which we like to describe to foreigners as heaven on Earth on the sunny side of the Alps. For the sake of comparison: in much larger Serbia, 200 hundred such grave sites were discovered, the resting place of 25,000 opponents of communism killed by the newly established authorities in 1944 and 1945. Some Slovenian mass graves conceal the remains of thousands of members of various military formations and people labelled as political adversaries. The recently discovered Huda Jama cave also contains bodies of brutally killed women, the wounded and young people. It is practically impossible to articulate the feelings one experiences when seeing the shocking remains of bodies, braids of women’s hair…

In addition to 15,000 Slovenians of both genders, according to the most conservative estimates, the territory of the present-day Slovenia is also the final resting place of around 100,000 Germans, Croats, Serbs, Italians, Russians and members of other nationalities.

As early as 1993 the Slovenian Parliament set up a fact-finding committee, chaired by Dr. Jože Pučnik, himself once a victim of repression and a well-known dissident, which made important steps forward, but the left-wing political majority obstructed the adoption of the committee’s report. Afterwards, Slovenian politics did not have the willpower to continue this work, to find the way and establish legal frameworks for a respectful attitude towards and dignified remembrance of all those killed in the so-called out-of-court killings after the victory of the communist revolution. All attempts at finding a compromise among political parties regarding adoption of a proper resolution failed miserably. And if the first step is missing, others cannot follow. This pathological reflex is undoubtedly the consequence of damaged mentality from the old days, and is characteristic of political elites as well.

It is sad that young people do not know enough history, and particularly the part of history this writing is about. They might have heard of the holocaust, but don’t know of gulags, Huda Jama, Katyn, Stalin, etc. In one survey they identified Hitler as a German football coach; in Slovenia and in the Balkans Tito is considered to be an idol like Che Guevara.

How could Slovenia and other countries with similar problems permanently resolve this issue? In the short term and on the operative level it is politics that must accomplish certain tasks. Firstly, it should – with a general measure, a suitable resolution, for instance – demonstrate positive determination to have the issue resolved. The judicial system should determine the nature of those crimes and decide on the way of repairing the wrongs, executive policies should keep uncovering the mass graves and ensure the construction of ossuaries, museums, monuments and other memorials so that the murdered can be buried with piety in order to restore the dignity of those killed.

In the long term, a key role should be played by scientific and educational systems, which must research, discover and evaluate this concealed part of our past. Young people should be educated in the spirit of democratic culture and human values in order to be able to distinguish between what is acceptable and what must be rejected. To this aim curricula should be updated, and these topics included in school manuals in an adequate way. Only through proper acquisition of this knowledge can we provide a lasting cultural background which will make it impossible for totalitarianisms and their crimes ever to return.

To conclude – if we refuse to look back and face the consequences of false beliefs, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. And Antigone – metaphorically speaking – will keep looking for a way to bury her brother in accordance with existing civilisation norms.

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