Today marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, where the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were brought before a court which gave the world a new term: crimes against humanity. Just another historical anniversary? Far from it; all of our collective history is relevant – events from 60 years ago influence and shape our present just as events 600 years ago. History is far from a purely academic interest, it is the mould of our current world and a lack of awareness of our history denies us the means to understand and thus alter that mould to a new and better design.
The Nuremberg trials set the basis for later international law and set leaders on notice that they could be held to account for their actions in a world court – as old Slobby is at the moment (‘ethnic cleansing’ – a hideous case of history repeating itself if ever there was). Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see all of those who use their power and position unwisely – will we see Mugabe in the Hague? Blair? Bush? The leaders of the insurgency in Iraq who murdered dozens of Muslims at prayer on Friday? As with the supposedly impartial law of our own land those with influence and connections can and often do manage to circumvent the legal consequences to their actions. Nonetheless, the principal is a good one and we ignore it and the lessons of history at our peril.
On which subject I was watching the documentary series The West (from the producers of the excellent Civil War series, which drew largely on the work of the wonderful Shelby Foote) and once again was struck with how patterns repeat in history, usually to our shame. This episode dealt with Custer’s arrogant downfall at the Little Bighorn, the forcible taking of the sacred Black Hills by the US government after promises not to and the flight of the Lakota and the Nez Perce. Legendary names abound in this episode – Sherman, Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – but the one thing which stared me in the face from over a century ago was the blind arrogance and greed of a larger power which would make many indications of friendship and peace then break their word and commit any and all forms of brutal act on warriors and civilians alike when they saw land and resources they coveted. Be it minerals in the Black Hills or the black gold of oil in the deserts of Iraq, it seems we are doomed to repeat some patterns as long as those with weak morals and no grasp of history are allowed to rule.
All the more important then, I think, that the rest of us learn and debate these events, historical and contemporary. Perhaps it will only be some of us talking online, but as long as some think about it and discuss it we serve notice that we refuse to be comlicit in these events and that we are watching what they do. And who knows, perhaps one day the people who commit such atrocities, dressing them up in lies and broken promises, will have to answer to us. Last week we commemerated the fallen of previous wars and the phrase ‘lest we forget’ was repeated, almost as a litany; this is a good phrase and one we should and must apply not only to those who fell to protect us but to those who would abuse that sacrifice to further their own selfish ends, dressing it in a rhetoric of lies.
“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.
Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.”
In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from the water), better known to us as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, talking of the plight of his people, but it can all to easily be applied to current events. There is a commendable and concise overview of the chief by Jennifer Beck on this site.