‘Nazis as words of history’
The use of the term “Nazi” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and several members of the Turkish government against Germany and the Netherlands sparked a hot row between Turkey and two of its NATO allies, although the fire between Ankara and Berlin was eventually partially doused. The fire with the Netherlands, though, is still burning just days before a crucial general election on March 15 and has become an election issue between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his main rival, the right-wing populist Geert Wilders.
Wilders, as expected, seized the opportunity presented by the crisis with Turkey to score more points through his usual nationalist and anti-Islamist rhetoric. “Great! Thanks to our party (PVV) pressure a few days before the Dutch elections our government did not allow the Turkish minister to land here!! I say to all Turks in the Netherlands that agree with Erdoğan: go to Turkey and never come back,” he wrote on Twitter.
The recent incidents between Turkey and Germany and between Turkey and the Netherlands over a historical term that refers to an extremely painful and devastating period of world history made me remember something that deserves, according to some contemporary historians, special attention in dealing with history: the interference of historical memory in the current public sphere.
“Nazi”: It is a word that is linked with one of the biggest wars in world history, World War II. But it is also a war that occupies a privileged space in contemporary history as there are still people alive who can still recount their own experience and traumas. And as such, these personal memories can be disseminated to large audiences with contemporary means of communication.
Regarding the impact that the collective experience of World War II still has on us, the eminent German emeritus professor of contemporary history at the University of Athens, Hagen Fleischer, deals with the value of memories from living witnesses in his recent book, “The Battles of Memory: WWII in Public History,” discussing how this “explosion of memory” can be misused using today’s media. By overusing living memories such as that of World War II and putting them side by side with more recent events (like equalizing the victims of the Nazi regime with the victims of the Stalinist period) you create an incorrect view of the past. Such a practice can be a useful communication trick often dictated by political incentives, he claims.
Fleischer, along with other contemporary historians, advises us not to “offset” the history of the Nazi regime with something else but try to increase our knowledge about it and not to use or misuse World War II as an “easy play of historical fantasy for ill-intentioned purposes.”
History or historical references should not be a consumable item nor a consumer item for today’s purposes, he argues.
It is true that the history of World War II has been constantly used not only because of what happened then but also because of what it caused in terms of new world realities and political balances. And it is also true that both contemporary politics and the media have often portrayed what happened then according to their present needs and purposes.
There is a heavy emotional baggage behind words which refer to important and traumatic events in history. The emotional charge is even heavier when there are still living witnesses and can add their own version of collective memory. This is particularly true for the events related to the Nazi regime in Germany and its role in European history. And it is also true that for a long time, Germans have avoided using words that were used during Hitler’s time. Words like “Endlösung” (final solution) or “Selektion” (selection) or “Lager” (camp).
In fact, in the “Dictionary of Coming to Terms with the Past,” which was compiled by two German authors, there were about 1,000 words that are taboo for Germans as they refer to the dark past of World War II.
This 800-page dictionary was published in 2008. But judging how easily words like “Nazis and fascists” fuelled the recent crises with Germany and the Netherlands, we can say that historians have still a lot of work to do in the correct understanding of recent history in the public discourse.
As the German linguist Thorsten Eitz, co-author of the dictionary, said: “[With] words and terms associated with the Nazis, you can be pretty sure that they make headlines, and thus we assume that often those terms are used deliberately for that reason only. Most of the time, though, the use of those taboo words in public discourse backfires and causes tremendous controversy.”