“People who forget history are destined to live through it again”. The speaker was Hans Werk, former member of the SS (Schutzstaffel, ‘political soldiers’) of the Nazi time in Germany in the 1930s and ’40.
He was speaking to a group of young Germans after the Second World War of his deep shame at having been part of the operation which deliberately set out to kill all the Jews in Germany and the lands it occupied or planned to occupy – a total of eleven million people, equivalent to the entire population of Zimbabwe. This was Hitler’s ‘final solution’ to the Jewish ‘problem’ and it led to the death of six million Jews.
As if to underline Werk’s message, how many of us can remember ever hearing of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, eighty years ago, which is being remembered this week and which drew up the plans to put this operation into effect? If we ever knew, we have probably forgotten. And yet Jewish people are deeply aware of the threat that still remains because people forget. Unbelievable as it may sound, there are people who deny, in spite of overwhelming evidence, the slaughter, the Holocaust, ever happened.
Our reading from St Paul this Sunday speaks of ‘delighting in the truth’ and in Luke’s gospel we read of Jesus ‘winning the approval of all.’ But when Jesus tried to build on his initial welcome in Nazareth, they suddenly turn on him in rage. They had forgotten their history. Israel had failed many times; in the desert and after the people were settled in the ‘promised land’. Their memory was short and they soon found themselves in exile in Babylon. They were unable or unwilling to remember and learn the lessons memory provides.
We can be selective about memory. Zimbabwe has a memory; a memory of opportunity based on race. Education, health, employment, access to land, advancement to leadership roles – all were based on the colour of a person’s skin. But we seem to have forgotten all that because all these things are – largely though not totally – still being denied to people. The difference is that now it is not colour that distinguishes people but power. The Liberation War was all about empowering people but we have forgotten.
It is deeply painful but true: people who forget their history – be it personal or group – are destined to repeat its mistakes. This saying is attributed to George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, and was slightly adapted by Winston Churchill just after the war when he warned in the House of Commons, in London; ‘those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’
30 January 2022 Sunday 4C Jer 1:4…19 1 Cor 12:31-13:13 Lk 4:21-30