Which History Should We Remember?

Anwar Congo comes across as a fairly normal man – Until he starts to describe his sadistic ways of killing innocent people. He is the protagonist of an Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing, a film making, for depicting the 1965 Indonesian purge of Communists. An estimated one million people were killed during that period. Men like Congo were the ‘gangsters’ who carried out these killings. act-of-killing-trailer

            The killers who are captured in this film are free men today. They roam the streets, have access to national level politicians and are boastful of what they did. The narrative that they paint is one of ‘saving Indonesia’ from communism. My understanding of communism and the Cold War was limited only to Vietnam, the Non-Alignment movement and other Western interventions. But I had no idea that over a million people were killed in Indonesia in the guise of ‘spreading freedom’. Isaiah Berlin would be turning in his grave. Perhaps all liberal thinkers who rightfully defend liberty and liberal principles would be turning in their graves at this supposed intervention, to stop the spread of a totalitarian system.

            The question that is relevant to us now in 2014 is: How do we remember this history and what if, anything, do we do about it? Are these war crimes? Should Congo and his accomplices be prosecuted? And more importantly, how do we make sense of this history, that implicates directly the narrative of Western powers, who defended ‘freedom’ and ‘human dignity’ by standing up to totalitarian regimes during WWII, but very soon were fighting proxy wars that killed millions around the world. Indonesia, Vietnam, Latin America were all impacted by the Cold War. A related question to how we should make sense of evil is : How should we remember history and which part of it should we remember?

Nietzsche addressed this problem very well in his short essay On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life. He argued that there are three kinds of histories: Monumental, Antiquarian and Critical History. Monumental history is when we remember history through monumentalization. For instance building war memorial etc. Antiquarian history involves preserving traditions of the past while Critical History is taking a step back from our engagement with the characters and narratives and taking a close hard look at our history, through a critical lens. He argues that we need all three histories, to ‘serve life’, i.e., to ensure that we learn lessons from them and do not stagnate, as individuals or become unthinking creatures, who live in the glories of the past or are deluded with fantasies of the future.

What is at stake here? In the case mentioned above, a few things stand out: abuse of power by the powerful, the co-optation of others, who willingly helped those who were doing evil deeds and also the identities of all those involved. The victim’s identities were as crucial as those of the perpetrators. While in Indonesia, the ‘communists’ were the demons, in Germany it was the Jews. While the cliché that victors write history is true, it is also true that the losers remember it. And they valorize their loss in more ways than one. Consider the Confederate flag-hoisting ceremonies that occur in the American South, every so often. The group that organized this event said on their website “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.” While their stated purpose may be true, what is really at stake in these actions seems to be political mobilization. Mobilization around an ideology and history that has long lost relevance. This ideology believed in slavery, denied minorities and the ‘others’ rights that were due and vehemently resisted joining the Union. This is also part of the rhetoric that believes that the federal government is ‘taking over our guns’ and believes in re-arming itself, should there be a revolution. Sounds rational? I am not too sure. Being able to look at the past and the mistakes that our ancestors have made, willingly or unwillingly is mark of a mature mind.

            Nietzsche argued for remembering our history, not just to memorialize it or merely to draw inspiration – though both can have their uses. He argued for remembering it critically. As he says: “Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary.” Comparing human memory with that of cattle grazing, he points out “For the man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever.” Forgetting all one’s experiences, lessons in life is akin to living like a beast, he is saying. While this is not a tenable position, the alternative, i.e., to remember everything and live ‘historically’ would also rob man of his agency.

            Elaborating on this idea, Tariq Ali, Novelist and Writer talks about the ‘downgrading of history’ in this fascinating talk. He argues that in contemporary times, there is a trend to forget history or even think it is irrelevant. “The historical process is not linear. It is not a line going up, progress and all that. It goes up and down. Progress, rationalism, defeat, rise of irrationalism. This’s been the case for thousands of years. It is good to remember that there have been bad times before. There is nothing pre-ordained that we must move forwards.” Ali points out that the Western world fought the ‘monism’ of Communism that stifled differences in thinking, divergence from the norm. The very same thing seems to be happening, with those in power suppressing dissent.

 His thesis is that the current global crisis and the recession that started in 2008 showed that when the rich are being bailed out, why are not the poor being afforded this? To even ask this question is to invite wrath of the rulers, the rich and billionaires, says Ali. This is also an area where history has been forgotten, and the lessons are not being used. Forgetting history is altogether an abuse, Ali says.

            Coming back to the documentary, are not Congo and his accomplices’ actions despicable? And isn’t this documentary an attempt at critiquing this history, while monumentalizing it? Through the narrative in the film, Congo seems to be rather proud of his actions and he says that he was going ‘good’ for his country and that the Communists deserved to die. There are graphic accounts of how he killed the men, women and children and his friends describe other ghastly acts including rape of minor girls. All of this is surely sick and it is quite clear that we are dealing with a very dark and psychotic character here. But taking a close look at this part of Indonesia’s history and critically examining the facts also shows us how supposed wars for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have had terrible consequences. Remember that these were supposed to be the ‘good’ guys fighting the ‘bad’ Communists during the era of heightened Cold War. The Western world was involved in its own versions of such wars, though not so blatantly.

By remembering, altering history and “through the power of using the past for living and making history out of what has happened, does a person first become a person.” But for all of this to occur, it must occur critically, with conscious thought to what is being remembered and why. Aspects of history should be examined, critiqued and also used in all three forms that he has shown. Should this documentary shame the Indonesian government or the Western powers who supported them? Or rather should we, supporters of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in the West be more cautious when we claim to support these values and people who further them. This documentary certainly raises these profound questions and we are wise to heed the call and examine these issues critically. Not to do so would mean abusing history and our own intellect.





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