Monday, 19 October 2009

Persecution - pass it on

It’s fascinating to examine the way human tolerance, or perhaps I should say intolerance, pans out. For instance, I used naively to think that people who’d been victims of intolerance would be more sympathetic to other victims and would not behave intolerantly themselves. What an illusion. The reverse is the case. It’s as though someone who’s been regularly kicked around likes nothing more than to find someone else they can kick in turn.

An example. Back in 1848, the Hungarians got very fed up with being pushed around by their overlords, the Austrians. They rose in revolt and were fairly ferociously put down for their pains. The Austrians, however, got the message. In 1867, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was set up and the Hungarians were made more or less equal partners in the Empire. Celebrations all round? Not quite. The Slovaks, the Croats, the Galicians, the Rumanians – they had nothing to be cheerful about. In fact, the Hungarians were pretty much as nasty to them as the Austrians had been to the Hungarians.

Then came the First World War and the Empires were broken up into the so-called Successor States. At last an opportunity to satisfy national aspirations. But again there were lots of dissatisfied people: the Slovaks, again, weren’t happy about being absorbed into Czechoslovakia, the Croats, again, weren’t happy about being a part of Jugoslavia. The Jews were recognised as a minority more or less everywhere but got their own state nowhere.

Then the Nazis came to power. When they invaded Czechoslovakia, that was pretty bad news for that new little nation. Or at least for the Czech part. The German-speaking Sudeten people were only too pleased to be absorbed into Germany. And the Slovaks, believing that the ‘independent’ state they were going to be given would actually be independent, were pretty pleased too.

Czechoslovakia was one of the nations reconstituted after the end of the War, so the Slovaks lost their illusory independence again. But then in the nineties, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, they got it back and for real this time, when the Czech Republic had its reasonably peaceful divorce from Slovakia. At last there was cause for celebration, or so you might think. I met a young Hungarian-speaking citizen of Slovakia at the time, very worried about being part of a minority in the new country – previously his people had enjoyed some protection against the Slovak majority, from the government of the unified nation in Prague.

So it seems it doesn’t matter how bad a time you’ve had as part of a minority yourself. When you finally get to be the majority, you’re likely to be just as ghastly to other minorities. Perhaps it’s just like most child abusers being people who were abused as children themselves: the victims become the perpetrators.

So when I see Israeli soldiers firing on schools where civilians are sheltering, I have to learn to stop saying ‘how can they, of all people, behave that way?’ Instead, I have to learn to ask ‘how is it that we all, humanity, persist in behaving that badly?’


Victor Chisholm said...

`How is it that we all, humanity, persist in behaving that badly?’ - well, there are so many thing to consider.

Sometimes there is a temporal dimension. One generation might suffer persecution and the next generation might know nothing about it - witness many young eastern Europeans who know nothing of what communism was, or people who survived WWII not wanting to talk about it with their kids and grandkids; everything is/was so eager to move on and some people don't/didn't want to talk of the past. My grandmother was a perfect example of this - born Jewish, converted to Catholicism when very young with her family, lived through Hungary's home-grown pro-nazi fascism, Soviet communism, failed revolution, and emigration as a refugee, and wouldn't talk about most of it, though she would spout (with sincerity!) the importance of understanding history. Sometimes things change in the second or third generation and beyond - witness the development of holocaust museums in German by a younger generation or France's coming to terms with its WWII past, after some time has passed.

While you point out the distinction between minority and majority status, perhaps more accurately it's related to power status. That is often coincident with majority status... but not necessarily.

Or perhaps: "There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good." - Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, March 10 2008.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for the Comment, Victor - really interesting - your grandmother really went through the wringer, didn't she? And it's true that people often had trouble talking about some of their experiences - after all they were deeply traumatising. There seems to have been something of a forty-year phenomenon at work in this: I remember in the eighties a lot of people who had previously remained silent suddenly started to talk.

The phenomenon of facing up to the past is interesting as well. I'm reading a book on the subject of German and Austrian attitudes towards the Nazi period - it's clear that Germany began a real reckoning in the late sixties (Hannah Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial makes it clear it hadn't happened at that time, in 1962) and my own sense, from living out there, is that they really have worked on coming to terms with what happened between 1933 and 1945 - in a way that Austria, which still likes to portray itself as the Nazis' first victim and not an accomplice, certainly hasn't.

You're absolutely right that it isn't being in a majority that matters in itself, it's having power. Power is often held by the majority but not always, the classic counter-example being apartheid South Africa. I was being loose in my reasoning - thanks for the correction.

Great quote from Stephen Colbert. I can't remember who it was but didn't someone once say that the only lesson to be learned from history is that no-one ever learned any lessons from history?