Bret Stephens: Europe's Strange Politics of Memory

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. Stephens writes the Journal's "Global View" column on foreign affairs.

Does the secret of redemption lie in remembrance?
Richard von Weizsäcker, the former president of Germany, once said it did, and he was right—at least when it came to his own stained country. The rape of Belgium, the Holocaust, the Stasi: If there is one thing that goes without saying in modern German life, it's that historical amnesia is not an option.
So it's a good thing, if not very surprising, that Germany's next president will be Joachim Gauck, who comes to the (mainly ceremonial) office after a run-of-the-mill political scandal forced the resignation of his predecessor. Mr. Gauck, an outspoken anticommunist pastor from East Germany, became a household name after reunification in 1990 as the first overseer of the Stasi archives. Nearly three million Germans have since paid a visit to the "Gauck Office" to learn which of their most personal secrets were known to the state—and who among their neighbors, colleagues, friends or relatives likely was keeping tabs and ratting them out.
When the question of opening the archives first came up, some thoughtful people warned against it: There could be revenge killings. Millions of people would spend the rest of their lives recriminating about the past instead of building the future. Friendships would be ruined. So would a few marriages.
Fortunately it hasn't worked out that way...

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