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e-politik.de - Home  Brennpunkt  Europa   Das Europa der Menschen - Living Bridges-Dossier   Europe and the World - Das Europa der Menschen

Autor Nat Julien, UK/France

The Legacy of Empire

Autor :  e-politik.de Gastautor
E-mail: redaktion@e-politik.de
Artikel vom: 28.08.2000

Is it easier to be a catholic after the Pope's recent apology for some of the church's past actions and attitudes?

If one accepts and agrees to present positions, for instance on contraception, but felt uneasy about the Catholic church's heritage from the times of the Inquisition or its tacit support for the treatment received by the Jews in the 1940s all over Europe, then does the Pope's repentance and apology on behalf of the Church make a difference?

I choose the example of the catholic faith because there is a greater element of choice in being a catholic or not, than in being the citizen of a particular State. But I believe this difference is counter-balanced by the fact that the potential input of citizens and civil society in a State's identity is greater than that of the believer in the identity of the Catholic church.

Being a catholic implies adherence to a certain number of values and the belief that the Church embodies these values; taking communion is an act of faith, which confers on each believer a certain social identity. I would like to argue that, despite the narrow or non-existent range of choices at our disposal (naturalisation, asylum etc), holding a certain nationality also means adhering to a set of values embodied by the State and bearing a national identity.

We do not choose where we are born or who our parents might be. Neither do we actively make a choice about the citizenship which this confers on us. Nevertheless, this automatic citizenship makes us participants and stakeholders in the political and civic life of the nations we belong to, via a collective decision-making system which produces and acts on values. These values form our national identity.

Just as the Pope embodies the historical continuity of the Catholic church, the State embodies the continuity of the Nation; when it does not wish to do so, or when it wishes to dissociate itself from certain actions, it states this fact. For instance, De Gaulle's refusal to declare the re-establishment of the Republic in 1944 was a declaration that the period between 1941 and 1944 was an illegal bracket in the history of a French State which in the meantime had been embodied by De Gaulle and the Free French outside the French mainland. However convenient this might seem, it does mean that the French State today has distanced itself from many actions undertaken in its name during that time. The referendum in Australia about recognition of the State's persecution and expropriation of the Aborigines could have been another example of how to disassociate the State we belong to from part of the nation's historical continuity. Where no such statement has been made, the State can be understood to value such actions as persecution of Aborigines, slave trading, or anti-Semitic policies.

If a State does not exclude from its pretension to national continuity the support of such practices, then as citizens of this State, we subscribe to its values and slave trading, for example, reflects on our collective identity. This is not a question of hereditary responsibility, but simply follows from the contract which we tacitly accept as citizens of a State. Becoming aware of our nations' histories and accepting a public debate on our attitude to this history is an important part in the process of forming national identity. Therefore if public opinion feels that it wants to disassociate itself from an aspect of the nation's history, a statement to this effect does make a difference. It is not either a question of erasing parts of our national histories; on the contrary, it is facing our historical heritage and drawing from it to form our present values.

How this idea links in to our theme, Europe and the World, is uncomfortably obvious to me as a British and French citizen. The heritage of colonialism, slave trading, involvement of our armies or police forces in torture not so long ago, are blots on our copy-books which clash with our proclaimed values. From the start, the forces behind European imperialism were economic expansion ( the search for resources, labour and markets) and the insurance of national security (exporting segments of the population which posed a threat to public security, providing a reserve army and resources to support a war effort, competing with rival imperial powers, protecting the economic interests mentioned above). The resulting trade-military complex was an extension of the State and its interests fed in to the formation of national identities, however blinkered and ostensibly well-meaning the articulation of national value systems may have been.

But I still haven't answered my initial question. The Pope expressed regret for the Church's sins. Various German Chancellors and Presidents have expressed repentance on behalf of the German nation for the final solution. 'Tony Blair recently apologised to the Irish for the potato famine and Nelson Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation committee in South Africa. Is it enough to say sorry in retrospect?'

Many find the whole apology business fake, pointless, and slightly nauseating. What I find important is not so much the tone of contrition, genuine or not, put on by a representative of State on behalf of his country, but the acknowledgement that some pages in our history books, precisely because they cast a shadow on our present collective identity, need to be remembered, and cannot simply be turned and forgotten about. It is the legacy of Empire and its aftermath that for some European nations many of these pages connect them to people and places around the world; in the interest of continued relations with the rest of the world in a globalised era, our collective value system must reflect on our history.

That such a reflection should be highlighted by our heads of State and political representatives seems to me a positive achievement, but especially so because of the impact which this will have on official discourse in the spheres of primary education, the allocation of research grants, and the fostering of aid and exchange projects. The celebration of a globalised world and the performance of Europe within it is a blinkered and arrogant world-view if we maintain the taboos connected to the myth of Europe as the beacon of modernity and democratic values. Much as 'modern' Catholicism finds its message of euchumenistical reconciliation, condemnation of war and resistance to authoritarian regimes undermined by a not so distant history of sectarian repression and support to dubious regimes, Europe's espousal of the cause of human rights, democratic values, and peaceful resolution of conflict dodges many questions about its own recent history. It is up to civil society to work on these contradictions in our national identities and it is up to the State (the quasi-constitutional voice which articulates and acts on our value system, thereby producing and giving shape to our collective identity) to acknowledge progress in this reflective process. So, just as protests against arms trade are legitimate, so are requests for a public recognition of the legacy of slavery, the atrocities committed by our armies, or our historical responsibility in as yet unresolved conflicts in Africa.

Autor: Nat Julien, UK/France


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