In search of elusive justice
Hushed Voices: Unacknowledged Atrocities of teh Twentieth Century, edited by Heribert Adam (Berkshire Academic Press)
The centennial anniversary of World War I is almost upon us. Cultural historians refer to that prolonged and bloody encounter between “civilised Christianised” nations of Europe as the ending of the Enlightenment myth of inevitable human progress.
It was also the beginning of one of the most violent centuries in the history of humanity. Wars multiplied, billions were spent on perfecting and using military technology and millions upon millions suffered maiming or death. Much of this was the direct consequence of the folly of the “war to end war”.
Among the atrocities perpetrated at the midpoint of the century, the one that has seared the memory and conscience of the West, was the Holocaust.
But well before and during the period of that horrendous event, and throughout the years that followed, many other atrocities occurred; some reasonably well known to the informed, but many of them swept under the carpet by those responsible and their supportive bystanders.
Hushed Voices profiles 15 of these. None of them has been satisfactorily remembered, let alone dealt with as attempted by our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission and others similar to it.
Instead, there has been a deafening silence by the relevant authorities, a refusal to come clean and acknowledge the crimes by their followers and descendants, an astonishing lack of will within the global community to hold perpetrators to account and a failure to remember the victims in any significant manner—if at all.
To appreciate the scope of Hushed Voices, not least because of the importance of its substance for understanding current events such as the uprising in Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, relations between China, Korea and Japan and, nearer to home, the situation in Zimbabwe, it is important to record here the list of the atrocities documented and analysed: the Gukurahundi massacre in Zimbabwe, the Zanzibari genocide, the Biafran slaughter in Nigeria, the fate of the Harkis in Algeria, the Spanish Civil War, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Hama massacre in Syria, the al-Nakba in Palestine, the massacre of Gujurati Muslims in India, the mass murder in Indonesia and the violent sexual abuse of women by occupying Japanese forces in China.
There are other narratives that could have been included, but the list is comprehensive and the evidence compelling for these events to be brought back into our consciousness and conscience.
The possibility of holding the perpetrators to account is now becoming remote, though not impossible in some cases, at least, in getting present governments to own up, apologise and make reparation. But, at the very least, the victims and their descendants (if there are any survivors at all of some of the events), need to be remembered, and so do the atrocities themselves.
To forget them is to encourage further outrages to human dignity and rights and to become, in the process, guilty bystanders, if not perpetrators ourselves.
Lessons from history
The study is important in itself, but the cumulative effect provides insights we desperately need to help us to ensure that the new millennium is not a ghastly repeat of what began in such a decisive way in 1914.
Unpleasant as the experience may be, we need to know this silenced past, why it has been hushed up and how similar events can be prevented from proliferating in our time.
Heribert Adam is a distinguished Canadian professor of sociology with strong South African connections. His concluding chapter draws the material together in a lucid way, helps us appreciate the essays collectively and calls us to greater political literacy and awareness of what is happening in the world today in the light of the past.
The other authors come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, though all now reside in Canada, and they represent a fascinating array of vocation and experience. They know their respective subjects intimately, often at first-hand, and together they have workshopped the essays that have now come together in a compelling and coherent form.
South Africans, perhaps above all, should be sensitive to the intent of the book and the issues raised, and to the importance of the insights for our own current struggles.
One of our number, Alex Boraine, deputy chair of the truth commission and founder of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, has written the foreword and placed the totality in the context of the global need for restorative justice.
John de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town