Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Our memory is how we learn. I do not believe that George Santayana, in persuading us of the importance of history, meant to glorify it. He meant only to warn us of its permanence and of our responsibility to address it. In other words, I believe he would have endorsed the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A term with power and relevance in the current excavation of Britain’s colonial history.

A survey conducted by YouGov revealed that 84% of those asked believed racial inequality still existed in Britain as a problem. This indicates that the overwhelming majority of British people will no longer tolerate or endorse the prejudice and racial discrimination that was once a cultural norm. This sentiment was magnified by the tens of thousands of people that have and continue to attend Black Lives Matter protests across the country. We have collectively grasped the new decade with an ‘enough is enough’ attitude: communicated through acts of iconoclasm, such as the symbolic toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

However, removing statues and images of past injustices merely mutes their visual presence, not their impact. It does not erase the actions of those individuals. These icons should no longer take a revered position on our streets. Yet as a country we must dedicate more time trying to improve tomorrow than we should spend scowling at yesterday.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung loosely translates as ‘coping with the past’. It describes a process of political reflection that Germany experienced, post-1945, in a controversial attempt to physically and psychologically de-nazify a nation that was so indisputably tied to some of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century. It stood as an attempt to acknowledge, repent and atone for the past whilst continuing to progress away from this tragic period of their history.

After replacing the power structures of Nazism, liberal Germans were forced to face their guilt. As early as the 1950s, attempts were made to remedy the wrongs of their history. A new program outlined that all school children in Germany were obligated to visit a concentration camp at least once and required to learn the full, unadulterated history of the Third Reich. Germany’s political system also underwent complex reform designed to ensure no fascist party could ever rise within their nation’s political order again. In short, this process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung did not destroy evidence of the past but placed it at the forefront of their culture. It targeted education and politics as vehicles for change, which forced them to address and take responsibility for events, rather than escape them.  

On the 17th of June, Oxford University’s Oriel College made the official decision to remove the statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes. We can learn a huge amount from Germany’s approach to their national guilt when considering this recent verdict. It allows us to examine whether removing visible symbols of Britain’s imperial history is the most effective way to address past atrocities and better our future. Colonial rulers and slave traders should not be celebrated or praised. But regardless of whether they stay or go, the removal of these statues alone is not enough to change our societies’ attitudes, recognition or accountability for the past.

It is difficult to ignore the reality that attacking statues and icons is an accessible way to battle the aesthetic relics of historical racism. However, we should be attacking the institutional racism that persists far deeper. A racism that continues long after these statues fall.

Therefore, we should take a lesson from Germany and target education and public policy, rather than architecture. There are promising signs of this already, with a petition to teach Britain’s colonial history in schools already gaining more than 250,000 signatures. Therefore, if we are to navigate our own Vergangenheitsbewältigung, just like the Germans we must continue to put the ‘act’ into activism.