The other day I have been called a “toff”, “tax dodger”, “ass”, “whataboutery wanker”, “sociopath”, “revisionist”, “bigot”, “sordid”, “tendentious”, “arguer for wrong”, and a genocide apologist who deserves it happening to him. All in all just a slightly-above-average day on Twitter.
It started innocently enough when I commented on a tweet by Philippe Sands, a renowned international lawyer and coincidentally the author of some of my favourite books of the past few years, “East West Street” and “The Ratline”.
This is, by any reasonable standard, and extraordinary moment in the history of international law – #Germany agrees to pay #Namibia €1.1bn over historical Herero-Nama #genocide – #RafaelLemkin would be astonished and vindicated https://t.co/iXrMfDvxxK
— Philippe Sands (@philippesands) May 28, 2021
(Rafael Lemkin is a Polish-Jewish lawyer who first developed the legal concept of “genocide” and is one of the protagonists of “East West Street”.)
The slaughter of the Herero tribespeople by the German colonial authorities from 1904 onward was an odious act, arguably the first genocide of the 20th century and in some ways the precursor of Germany’s latter one in Europe. There is absolutely no dispute about either the historical facts or the heinous nature of that mass murder. What I was querying was the practicality and the morality of reparations being paid today: “If great-great-grandchildren of perpetrators have to pay great-great-grandchildren of survivors, is there any limit on historical liability? 200 years? 500 years?”
Before we get any further into the discussion, let me restate here my position, which has not changed at all in light of the subsequent online exchanges and name-calling: I do not believe in collective intergenerational responsibility. Far from modern and enlightened, it strikes me as a primitive, ancient principle, in line with the Old Testament’s “an eye for an eye” mentality. Thought to call it Old Testament might be unkind to Old Testament, since already by the time the Book of Ezekiel was being compiled during the Babylonian Exile, mid-first millennium BC, the Judaic theology had morally evolved beyond the belief that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. We are each a moral agent, enjoying free will and exercising own judgments and actions, and for all that we are rightly held responsible and accountable. But it is unjust to blame (and, at the other end of the spectrum, absurd to praise) us for what our literal and metaphorical ancestors had done or failed to do at one point or another in the past, or what they have collectively achieved.
And so, to the comment that genocide has no statute of limitation, I say: it should, and it should be right about the time that all those who were alive at the time and affected by it have passed away.
The concept of reparations for historical wrongs is increasingly in the news. In the United States, the question revolves around the evil of slavery, but it’s hardly an American-centric debate. In many Western European countries there is talk of reparations for colonialism. Then there is the agitation in Poland, long supported by the ruling Law and Justice party, that Germany should pay Poland reparations for death and destruction caused during the Second World War. While the quantum has sometimes been calculated upward of US$15 trillion, the official suggestions have hovered around the more “modest” €850 billion (1947 estimates in today’s currency). As I have discovered, a lot of Polish Twitter users follow Philippe Sands, and so I have found myself rather unexpectedly in an uncivil civil war about genocide, its consequences and compensations. “Arthur Chrenkoff” does not sound on its face Polish, which is probably why “renegade”, “traitor”, and “German lackey” have not joined the long list of epithets quoted at the start of this piece.
The debate, needless to say, is complex and multi-faceted, which is why it might help me better explain my position by quoting my Twitter detractors and answering their specific points and arguments. I will keep the original spelling for the sake of accuracy, but please remember for the sake of my interlocutors this is an online exchange, not a carefully crafted literary essay on the pages of “The Paris Review of Books”.
“Of course you’re intelligent enough to understand that genocide’s effect doesn’t stop with the murdered. It ripples across time (and yes, ancestors) by wiping out what the present might have been had the land, wealth, promise of their ancestors not been decimated”
Not just genocide – everything that has ever happened, both bad and good, ripples across time and shapes the present. This is what history is about. Each event has an infinite number of causes and an infinite number of consequences. Hence, conceptual problems start popping up once you try to unscramble the egg and make simple adjudications about complex past situations. It’s one thing to make moral judgments about what had happened, it’s another to apply judicial standards used in disputes between contemporaries to met out sanctions and punishment in relations to historical wrongs, which might have occurred centuries ago. For starters, the collective approach to situations where each individual was affected it their own unique way might simplify things but it surely does not paint an accurate picture or deliver real justice. This goes for both the victims and the perpetrators. (At the extreme, for example, potentially forcing the descendants of German pacifists to compensate the descendants of Polish collaborators. In fairness, there were few of either at the time, but most other historical events are significantly more complicated than the black and white story of Nazi aggression and crimes against humanity.)
Which brings me to the second problem: the supposed intergenerational nature of responsibility and punishment. Not only are we talking about entire nations or ethnic (or social or religious or other) groups as monoliths for legal purposes, somewhat akin to a corporation, but also monoliths in time, across an unlimited number of generations. I find it morally odious, but you may well say “well, it’s not about moral blame per se, but whether you have, intentionally or not, benefitted at the expense of past others as a consequence of the evil actions of your ancestors” – in other words, it’s not a punitive but a restorative justice. Putting aside, again, the fact that no two individuals are ever affected in exactly the same way, the past is much more complex than your simplistic unicausal, zero-sum calculations allow and so, consequently, simple justice in theory is simply unjust in practice. Take Germany for example; if you think that Germany and Germans as a collective had benefitted from their rapacious actions during the war, you clearly have little idea what happened to them between, say, 1943 and 1946. You might think, as many did particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war, that this was still not a (collective) punishment enough considering the extent and the gravity of crimes committed (including the Holocaust) but if there was a time to tip the scales even more it was contemporaneously. The point I’m making is that any short-term German gains have been wiped out by the deliberate actions (military or otherwise) of the Allies, who in so doing destroyed much of the native German wealth as well as the wealth stolen by Germany from the occupied territories. That Germany is rich today is despite, not because of the Second World War. And while it’s true that Poland, for example, and at least some of its people are poorer today than they would have been had there been no war, I return back to my original position: how is it just and fair for a 25-year old from Bremen to compensate Poland as a whole (or the Polish government to be exact) for the “ripples” set off six decades before they were even born?
The other problem with that sort of historical meta-justice is that once you start peering deep enough into the past, just about every victim becomes a perpetrator and every perpetrator a victim. Many in Poland might want the trillion Euro compensation from Germany for the war losses, but what about the potential compensation relating to the 8 million ethnic Germans who had to escape or were expelled from their ancestral lands in East Prussia, eastern Pomerania and Silesia, which were subsequently absorbed into Poland (not that Poland had any say in this decision by Stalin), one million of them losing lives, all losing their land and most of their possessions in the process? Well, it’s different, you might say, because Germany/Germans started the war and the guilty party has to (collectively) live with the consequences of ‘their’ actions. But if that’s now a settled principle of (international) law, then international victims-de-jour like Palestinians likewise deserve nothing back of what they had lost as a consequence of several wars from 1948 onwards started by them and their Arab allies against Israel.
Or take as another example the issue of African slavery. Of course slavery is inhumane and wrong, but if the United States should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves, so should the Arab world who has had a similar (if much longer) involvement in African slave trade as Western Europe (for that matter, what about reparations for enslaving around 1 million Europeans over the same time?). And if the United State and the Arabs should pay, so should African nations: after all, slavery was practiced by every African tribe throughout history, and virtually every slave who ended up transported to the Americas was hunted down and put in bondage by a fellow African and then on-sold to white slave traders along the Atlantic coast.
“The “where do you draw the line?” fallacy. As far back as you can.”
Destruction of Constantinople? Mongol invasions? Crusades? Roman imperialism? If you say 100 years, there is no logical argument against 200. If you say 200 years, there is no logical argument against 500. Or 1000.
Apart from the sheer absurdity and impracticality – though not impossibility, after all “you can” do pretty much everything – the problem with drawing the line further and further back in time is that in your pursuit of perfect cosmic justice you merely succeed in reinterring hundreds if not thousands of years of bloody history and creating countless competing claims and counter-claims. Not only is it beyond human wisdom to fairly resolve all such disputes and arrive at a just accounting, there is a broader problem here: this “never forgive, never forget until what I see as justice is finally achieved” (i.e. most likely never) only serves to perpetuate the centuries-long blood feuds. You might have replaced swords with words and warriors with lawyers (a progress, to be sure), but the constant presence of the past in the present and the never-ending (and never-endable) re-litigation of wrongs, crimes and slights not only poisons today, it also destroys any chance of a better tomorrow. This is precisely why lines should be drawn, and they should be drawn sooner rather than earlier. The best time, the only time really, for justice is when those concerned are still alive. The fact that in many cases – and for many different reasons – justice could not be done and was not done in such a contemporary or near-contemporary time frame should not lead to international litigation extending for many decades or even centuries afterwards.
“Yeah… make a war, loot each museum with a list that you want to take, kill all citizens and according to Arthur you are good to go- no survivors and who would care about looting assets accumulated over 1000 years. It’s just daVinci and others. Who cares.”
This is a different argument involving a different type of situation, namely individual and specific as opposed to collective and general justice. In many if not most such cases, there are mechanisms in place, in both the domestic and the international law, for the recovery by the previous rightful owner (or their legal heirs) of specific and identified items of property (such as artworks) from their current owner (or their legal heirs). Be careful with expanding this principle, however, unless you want to see most museums disappear in the West, since their collections of ancient as well as more modern artefacts and art from the Rest should by that logic be returned to the modern collective legatees of their creators. Again, the harder and the further back you look, most property and most land around the world has been “stolen” at least once in the past.
“Bc of german agression in 1939, 6 mln of Polish citizens were murdered. Half of them received reparations, half of them did NOT. Poland was destroyed, Warsaw razed to the ground, 100 000 children kidnapped&germanised. Jews got Israel(and rightly so!) Ethnic catholic Poles ZERO”
“The Germans stole or destroyed property that our parents, and then us, would inherit.”
“But Germans still benefit from the art/goods/money stolen from our Polish grandparents.”
Jaws indeed got Israel (so to speak; certainly many in the Middle East tend to see “the Zionist Entity” as a compensation to the Jews that the Palestinian Arabs had to pay for the crimes of the Europeans, particularly the Germans), as well as financial reparations from West Germany (communist East Germany refused to pay for Nazism’s sins, except to the Soviet Union, which extracted heavy reparations in kind at a point of a gun). That Poland did not (except for Stalin “compensating” Poland for western Belarus and Ukraine with the formerly German lands incorporated into the post-war Poland) owes most the the vagaries of the Cold War politics. You could say that Poland got screwed twice. History is not fair. But as I explained above, it’s factually incorrect to suggest that contemporary Germans continue to benefit from the wartime mass robbery of the occupied countries; by and large all that wealth – and then some – had been consumed in the bonfire of the war itself.
“But Germany is said to be a country with „ a rule of law”. Germany will pay to Namibia now. The logical thing is to pay #ReparationsForPoland”
“other countries have never murdered, stolen or destroyed on such a scale as Germany”
“in outrageous cases like Germany up to grandchildren [should pay] I’d say. Of course moral folk would want to help put right what their grandparents viciously destroyed.”
These are curious arguments that Germany had been particularly evil in the past – and is particularly good (or sanctimonious) in the present – and so it really deserves to pay for the old sins, even today. It is not a particularly good practice that we pick and choose those we hold responsible (and financially liable) based on the severity of their historical behaviour. There are many ways of assessing the degree and the extent of culpability; for example, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians would argue their ancestors had proportionally suffered as much European Jews in Hitler’s much shorter-lived empire, making the German case “unique” in absolute but not necessarily relative terms.
In any case, my Twitter critics also condemned me for favouring realism and pragmatism at the expense of justice, but – putting aside the question of what constitutes justice – the reason why Poland, for example, will never see its €850 billion reparations is because Germany would at the same time have to pay Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states somewhere in the vicinity of €10 trillion – never mind another few trillion for the countries of southern and western Europe. If you think this is likely to happen, I have a bridge you might be interested in, though I hasten to add it’s a bridge too far.
“Btw, Germany waited long enough to pay to Polish forced labourers – my own grandmother only received then when she was already more than 80 years old – way to get them was close to imposible.”
“The thing about Germany paying forced labourers; it had a time limit and wasn’t advertised in Britain, so by the time granda learned of it, it was too late to apply despite him being one of the slaves they took from Poland. Neither my family nor hubby’s got any money. But both my grandfather and hubby’s were taken as forced labour by the Nazis while still minors.”
Compensating war-time forced labourers was a legitimate legal exercise and the questions surrounding the implementation of this scheme are likewise legitimate, but they have no bearing on the broader problems of collective intergenerational justice (or punishment) we have been discussing so far.
“Re slavery, my great unwashed family, who had nothing to do with slavery, being peasanty plebs, only finished paying it off for you tax-dodging toffs, via income tax in 2015. Think on. And it’s a tax-dodging toff type who types that kind of Tweet!”
This is a different situation. When Britain abolished slavery and slave trade it decided to sweeten the reform by compensating slave owners for the economic loss. The amount of money required for that purpose was so huge and the consequent government debt so high that Britain has not officially finished paying it off for over two centuries, until 2015 to be precise. You can debate the wisdom – and equity – of the original decision (in the United States there was no compensation, merely the Civil War to settle the matter – this is not to say that there were no other options before Her Majesty’s Government, such as telling slave owners to FO), which saddled generations of future taxpayers with extra obligations, but it was a contemporary response to a contemporary problem, even if it had a long tail. As such, it’s not at all the same as a government today, two hundred years after the events, deciding to pay compensations or reparations to the descendants of those affected (today, most certainly the slaves rather than their owners).
By the way, I’m neither British nor a toff (at least no one has previously called me that) nor for that matter a tax dodger. Apart from that, my critic was dead accurate.
And so I won’t be waiting for Russia to compensate me for expropriating my family’s land and possessions in the territories then incorporated into the Soviet Union. Past wrongs do indeed ripple through history, which is why you don’t need to address me as “Count” (even if many have, slightly misspelling the title) and I’m much poorer today than I conceivably would have been in an alternate, more peaceful time line. And so what? If you keep living in the past you eschew the responsibility to make your own future; you are the slave to history and no reparations will fix your sad life and forever wounded self.