Tuesday, 18 May 2010


I watched a fantastic film last night. It was called Hidden (Cache') directed by Michael Haneke.
Ostensibly the film is about accepting or refusing guilt; the protagonist's guilt, it is inferred, is mirrored by the refusal of guilt by the French people regarding Algeria, in particular the police massacre of large numbers of pro FLN supporters in 1961.
The film made me reflect on the nature of national guilt, a strange phenomenon that does indeed tend to be refused or accepted. The German's, for example, seem to completely embrace the guilt of the holocaust, but as the losing side in the war they had that guilt thrust upon them. The British rarely think about the incendiary bombing of Dresden (a war crime by anybody's standards) and the American's are always quick to justify Hiroshima. And perhaps this is just, what makes a nation accountable for the actions of individuals that are now dead or dying?
The American Government has made reparations to black families who can trace their lineage back to slavery, that is right back to their ancestor's abduction from Africa. In many ways I support this (though I think its overly selective) but I have two questions:
1. can money pay to wash away guilt? especially when the consequences of the thing that make you feel guilty are still active?
2. To what extent are the American Government responsible for the actions of their long dead predecessors?
The first question is a matter for future debate but the second raises some important points. Does this not introduce a process of eternal reduction and regression through history?
Can we, the nation of Britain, not demand reparations from Italy for the Roman conquest 2,000 years ago? The slave traders are just as dead as the Romans. Of course England would have to pay Wales and Brittany for the Saxon invasion, then Denmark for the Norse et cetera ad infinitum. Is this not ridiculous, when do we say STOP! that was too long ago, I was only born in 1986, I am not responsible for the Bloody Sunday Massacre or the conquest of India.
Of course the counter argument is: well somebody has to take responsibility. The American Government has a spiritual responsibility, the individuals are not taking responsibilty, the institution is... but when a Government accepts guilt it is very hard to separate that from the national responsibility of admission of guilt, and again, how far are we to go back to find the guilty? I suppose we could feel guilty if the standard of living we enjoy now comes directly from a crime of the past, for example, but even so what is to be done? Is the victim to blame the child of the culprit for the rest of his days>
Ultimately this brings me on to something Nick Clegg was criticised by the Daily Mail for saying a couple of years ago. Britain needs to stop harking back to WW2 as if it was yesterday: one great act 60years ago does not justify a nations actions for the rest of its existence. There is still a touch of xenophobia towards Germany that tends to come out in f0otball matches; their guilt cannot last forever! just as Britain must let go of its nostalgia it must also let go of its historical finger pointing. After all, one day the Germans may gather enough confidence to respond by pointing out one of the many horrific skeletons in this country's closet.


  1. I would like to add that guilty, or rather not guilty, parties are often quick to justify their actions, we can imagine what they would say: 'The British Raj ended slavery and religious intolerance in India,''Hiroshima ended the war months, if not years before it would have ended.' do good consequences or good intentions nullify guilt? Of course this is another question, my chief point his historical regression, but its worth considering

  2. I agree that there seems to be something intrinsically illogical about a county bearing collective responsibility for the acts of their ancestors, sometimes generations back. Where does this end? Many of the fine architecture in Liverpool or Bristol was built from the proceeds of slavery and associated wealth. Likewise, Britain's great country houses are built from the wealth generated by exploitation eg coal and factory workers. Should the once great families bear for the guilt for this wealth too? As you suggest, though Fred, this isn't a simple matter and many do seem to want to argue that one should apologise for war crimes/atrocities etc committed generations before, and that nations do bear collective responsiblity for such deeds.

    I guess this could be linked in to another perennial question concerning treasures which were taken(or plundered depending on your point of view) during times of war. This could also apply to treasures taken from archaelogical digs eg in Egypt. Should such artefacts be repatriated to their country of origin, or is it a case of finders keepers? It is often argued that "we" have earned the right to be custodians of such items because we have the resources and knowledge to preserve artefacts within the public domain for future generations in a way that "they" ie the original owners, are unable/unwilling to do. If it weren't for our expertise and thirst for knowledge, such artefacts would have been lost for ever (or never found, in the case of archaelogical items)It is even sometimes argued that because such treasures are priceless they belong to no country, but should instead be held in trust, as it were, by their custodians who just happen to be of a particular nationality.
    I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this issue...

  3. WE ought to be careful with claims to artefacts. The first defence of say british ownership of acient egyptian items might be: ancient egyptians were a differnt culture and people to those who occupy that territory now, they are just as much OURS as they are THEIRS. again this is problematic. We might even say that perhaps the mona lisa should return to italy, we'll have OUR blakes back from new york and the dutch can have the van gough's that now sit in the national gallery. But what a frightfully dull, nationalistic, selfish and cold thing we would make art then