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Remembering the dead: what have we learned 67 years after the end of WWII?

This week, Europe commemorates the end of World War II, the event that marks a breaking point in contemporary history, the event that faced us with this reminder of humanity’s capability for evil. I don’t need to re-visit the significance of this war or the importance of the event as others have done it (and continue to) much better than I ever would. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of this war, the Holocaust and how we have moved forward after the concerted and life long efforts of so many activists to never repeat anything remotely similar again.

While thinking about this loss of life and the ensuing continuum that leads us to today, May 1st 2012 (coincidentally or not, International Workers Day), I end up with a few snapshots, a few seemingly disconnected events that offer a landscape, a view from the margins if you will, which is, after all, the only view I am ever capable of.

I. The legacy of eugenics

I don’t write about The Netherlands as often because usually, I am caught in the immediacy of the news I end up sharing on Tumblr or Twitter with short commentary. I am, after all, immersed in this context on a day to day basis which means I do not always have the emotional distance to reflect on the big picture, which is, invariably, what interests me the most. However, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been accumulating outrage in a way that does allow me to see a bigger framework at play: one of complete disdain for the life of those that are cast away, set aside, deemed unworthy.

For a glaring example of this disdain, I do not need to look into far away lands like the ones European media like to portray as “backwards” or “brutal” or events in the distant past. Here, in my own backyard, so called Dutch experts propose eugenics as a means of “birth control”. 

Compulsory birth control should be introduced for serious drug addicts, psychiatric patients and people with mental disabilities, according to the former chairman of the Dutch Safety Board Pieter van Vollenhoven.

“Most people will say that’s going too far,” Mr Van Vollenhoven says, speaking on the current affairs TV programme Zembla, to be broadcast on Friday. “I must say I can imagine it if you don’t know the reality. There are people who can’t control themselves. If you observe this, you should perhaps resort to contraception.”

Mr Van Vollenhoven’s proposal draws support in the programme from a number of experts in the field. They include Amsterdam’s child welfare chief, the head of mental health and addiction organization Bouman GGZ, and a former juvenile court judge and Socialist Party senator.

Now, I invite you to reflect on the significance of this proposal for a moment. That the people in charge of caring for those with mental health issues and addictions are proposing sterilization as a means of “control”. That in spite of the legacy of the Holocaust and its reliance on eugenics as a means of genocide, not one, but several people in positions of authority are proposing this.

More than fifty children a year in the Netherlands die as a result of abuse by their parents, the programme reports. “The majority of these parents have a psychiatric problem, are addicted to alcohol or drugs, or are mentally impaired,” says Rob Bilo of the Netherlands Forensic Institute. “They are damaged parents.”

Another fact worth noting: Mr. Van Vollenhoven is the husband of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, a member of the Royal House of Orange-Nassau.


II. The legacy of “Othering the alien”

I have written extensively about the EU’s internment camps and the treatment of migrants across the continent. However, a week does not go by when I am not reminded of the systematic nature of this treatment. This is a matter that goes even beyond regional borders. Europe has two executing arms to extend this beyond policy making and into action: Frontex and NATO. Sometimes, the two organizations even collide to bring death in equal measures:

A damning new report into the death of dozens of African migrants who were left drifting in the Mediterranean last year has concluded that Nato contributed to the 63 deaths, and raises the possibility of British military forces being connected with the tragedy.

The 90-page study by experts at Goldsmiths, University of London, employed cutting-edge forensic oceanography technology to determine the exact movements of the doomed migrant vessel, which was left drifting for two weeks in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, despite European and Nato officials having been aware of the boat’s plight and location.

Almost everyone on board, including two babies, eventually died of thirst and starvation.

In a video interview, one of the few survivors of the tragedy, Dan Heile Gebre a man from Sudan, tells the heart breaking story of his escape from Libya and the appalling conditions that migrants faced during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. They escaped hoping to reach Europe to save their lives, only to be met with deaths that could have been prevented, were it not because the EU had collectively decided that migrants should be stopped from reaching the border no matter the cost.

From NATO’s website, where they list the current missions:

NATO operations are not limited only to zones of conflict. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NATO immediately began to take measures to expand the options available to counter the threat of international terrorism. With the launching of the maritime surveillance operation Active Endeavour in October 2001, NATO added a new dimension to the global fight against terrorism.

Two babies died because NATO refused to take action. Is this the new face of terrorism that the European Union seeks to combat? Is this the way Europe protects human life as part of the legacy of World War II?


III. The legacy of racism

Back at the end of December, I closed the year with a post that listed what I considered my personal failures. I mentioned how a major national newspaper published a column by one Rutger Bregman claiming that “Only neurotic Americans think that we are racist”. In this column, Bregman entertained us with novel ideas such as the fact that there is no racism in The Netherlands and that those of us who actively work to dismantle it are nothing but delusional people who see evil where there is none. Now, the piece itself was nothing but pandering to the dominant culture in a baffling case of self congratulatory lack of critical thinking. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, further than when it came out, if it wasn’t that one of the most prestigious foundations in Europe, Felix Meritis, invited Rutger Bregman to discuss the significance of evil, liberation and freedom in the eve of Liberation Day.

To understand the importance of this invitation and the legitimization of Bregman’s views, awarded with further exposure and institutional support, I’d like to quote from Felix Meritis’ mission statement:

Felix Meritis is an independent European centre for art, culture, science as well as an (inter)national meeting place in Amsterdam. In Felix Meritis art, culture, philosophy and politics are matters of everyday life. It continues the values of the Enlightenment that led its founders (40 citizens) to erect one of the grandest buildings on the Keizersgracht with Holland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall (opened in 1788).

It provides the European public with a space for reflection and connection, a home in which to network and be surprised. We believe in (the need for) cultural diversity in Europe as an engine of progress and social cohesion. Under the motto “Connecting Cultures” we foster the European dialogue and take part in national and international cultural networks.

Through deeper understanding and dialogue with different groups in Europe and the world, we strengthen the insight into and understanding of the European cultural integration process among citizens of Amsterdam, Europe and the world.

However, lest anyone thinks that this is an isolated incident, the result of bad programming decisions, I must contextualized this invitation with another news item from this past week: Row over teenager’s poem overshadows Remembrance Day

A poem by a 15-year-old Dutch boy about his uncle who joined the SS will not be part of next week’s Remembrance Day commemorations following boycott threats from several organisations.

Auke de Leeuw had been invited to read his poem after winning poetry competition for schools organised by the May 4 and 5 organising committee. Pupils were invited to write a poem about the after-effects of the Second World War.

De Leeuw’s poem focuses on his uncle who served as one of 20,000 Dutch volunteers with the military wing of the SS. He died on the Eastern Front.

But a group representing Auschwitz survivors said they would boycott the event if the poetry reading went ahead. The Israel information centre Cidi also criticised the decision to allow De Leeuw to read his poem.[…]

The teenager at the centre of the row told the NRC he wanted to show everyone loses during a war, no matter what side they are on.

‘How can we learn from our mistakes if we are not allowed to name them,’ he said. ‘I was born in peacetime. It is hard enough for me to make the right choices, so how must it have been for people during the war?

This moral relativism, this attempt at presenting victims and victimizers on equal grounds, as the result of “bad decisions” in a shocking effort to re-write history is not an isolated episode. Rutger Bregman, who claims there is no racism in The Netherlands is invited to speak at a commemoration while organizers of the main Remembrance Day event attempt to include a poem about “bad decisions”, equating someone who willingly joined the Nazi SS with victims of war. None of this gratuitous.


IV. Today in counter legacies

On April 14th, I attended the opening of an exhibition by Dutch cultural critic Quinsy Gario at one of The Netherlands most important museums for modern art, the Stedelijk. Some of you who read this blog regularly (and what I write more specifically), know Quinsy as the activist who was arrested during the Black Face protests in The Netherlands back in December and whose video of the ensuing police brutality made international news. During the opening of his exhibition, I tweeted photos of the event which, in turn, were re-tweeted by the official account of the museum. When I got home, I was dismayed to see that some had complained that Quinsy was featured at the Stedelijk due to his relentless anti racist activism. “Disappointment” was the word they used. Because, you see, if you make it your life commitment to fight against systematic discrimination, you should not have a place in respected institutions. Instead, such place should be awarded to the Rutger Bregmans who invite the dominant culture to bury their collective heads in the sand and claim we are “delusional”.

So, this week, to reflect on the legacy of the end of World War II, I will most likely be attending the Day of Empathy, an event where Quinsy is a co-organizer and where I will most likely not be told that racism is a result of my mental health problems. And in the eve of Remembrance Day, on May 4th, when everyone holds two minutes of silence for the dead, I will remember the unnamed asylum seeker who committed suicide two weeks ago so that his children could avoid deportation. This unnamed man from Burundi, so desperate to provide his children with a future saw no other option but to end his life. And I will remember the other forty also unnamed people who try to commit suicide every year in The Netherlands and the countless others who remain in internment camps across the continent because in spite of the memories of a war that happened only 67 years ago, Europe seems to forget the most valuable lesson: one death is a death too many.

One Comment

  1. Eli wrote:

    Thank you, Flavia, as always. I’m also prone to drowning in the minutiae of one national context, and your pieces always remind me how important it is to step back and look at the whole, big, brutal picture. And how important it is to tell and re-tell these stories, even as they’re drowned out by other, louder narratives. Italy just celebrated Liberation Day, which ends up being this logic-bending national effort to celebrate the defeat of Fascism and, simultaneously, to pretend that Fascism never really happened. Everyone was a partisan, and as a result, everything is fine now! Bella motherfucking ciao.

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink