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Awkward histories: the Holocaust

Whether in Russia or beyond, moves to rewrite awkward histories are always done with evil intent. When it is done in relation to genocide, it is doubly offensive. Andrei Konchalovsky reflects on last month's Holocaust Memorial Day

Writing in The Origin and Goal of History (1949), the German philosopher Karl Jaspers said: “We cannot allow the horrors of the past to be consigned to oblivion. We have to keep them in the forefront of the public mind. We have seen that the events of the past were possible and this possibility has not gone away. Only knowledge can prevent it happening again. The danger is that people do not want to know: they try to forget it happened at all.”

The desire to forget “awkward” truths is still in evidence among those who try to rewrite history, which they always do with evil intent. One of the most horrendous examples is the attempt to deny the most heinous crime mankind has ever committed – the Holocaust.

Man is given to cherishing the illusion that he can create an ideal world. The twentieth century was full of these illusions and they all ended in ruins. But the most horrific illusion of the twentieth century was the Nazi desire to build a perfect world by excluding individual nations. Jaspers' thought is extremely important, for it would be naïve to think that mankind cannot once more retreat into barbarity.

"The Holocaust was not relative in magnitude. It's an absolute magnitude, as is that sense of guilt we should all feel, preserving this terrible crime for ever in the human memory" 

Andrei Konchalovsky

 

The eminent English philosopher John Gray once expressed an idea that might make many today uncomfortable. His assertion was that progress, as a concept, exists only in science. Science is a gathering, an accumulation of facts, but there is no such thing as progress in the field of the ethics of human relationships, because ethics is not accumulative. Just think how many of the great works — from the Tora, Koran, Bhagavad-gita and the Bible, not to mention the marvellous works of art — were written to assert simple truths common for all, one of which is that human life is priceless.

Mikhail Gershenzon, the illustrious Russian historian and philosopher writing at the turn of the twentieth century, said that “We educated people know so much about God's truth that one thousandth of what we know would be enough to make us saints. But it is well known that knowing the truth and living by it are different things”. Human morality has not changed in the last three thousand years, so on more than one occasion we have seen the considerable achievements of a civilisation destroyed during the life of just one generation. A period of highly-developed civilisation has often been succeeded by a period of barbarity. What is significant here is that archaic barbarity recedes gradually, but it is replaced by a new, modern barbarity, which proves that in a very short space of time man can descend to the level of animals and brutishness. One doesn't have to be incarcerated in, say, Abu Ghraib. It's enough to be a guard or a supervising officer there.  We are all familiar with unfortunate confirmations of this uncomfortable thought. 

As an idea of destroying a chosen ethnic group, the Holocaust remains with us to this day. It is even now being played out in various parts of our planet, which is why it is so important not to forget that illusions and the desire to build an ideal state turn in the event into the construction of hell. There is only one way to atone for such a crime: we must never allow it to be forgotten and we must feel that sense of guilt which is essential to avoid a repetition of the horror in the future.

I have heard Russians say: “so…6 million Jews were murdered? Well, 25 million were murdered here under Stalin, and not so much as a word!” What does this tell us? Not only that the cost of a life in Russia is extremely low, but that the price of a Jewish life is extremely high.

Andrei Konchalovsky

The post-war generation of Germans has shown the world that they have a national conscience and a feeling of historical guilt for what happened in their country in the first half of the twentieth century. This feeling of guilt confirms that the Germans recognise their responsibility to the human race for the Holocaust, that tragic choice which they made quite consciously with their majority support for racism and Nazism.

But no less terrifying is the absence of historical guilt. This shows that a nation feels no responsibility for what happened: they exteriorise i.e. offload the guilt on to others outside the nation. It may be sad, but I can't fail to agree with Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who, in a letter to publisher Alexei Suvorin, wrote: “When something is wrong with us we look for the causes outside ourselves, and readily find them. 'It's the Frenchman's nastiness, it's the Jews', it's Wilhelm's'. Capital, brimstone, the freemasons, the Syndicate, the Jesuits… they are all phantoms, but how they relieve our uneasiness!”

I note — not without sadness — that I have heard Russians say: “so…6 million Jews were murdered? Well, 25 million were murdered here under Stalin, and not so much as a word!” What does this tell us? Not only that the cost of a life in Russia is extremely low, but that the price of a Jewish life is extremely high. The marvellous Jewish tradition of caring for one's parents and one's children is no coincidence. As the ancient Jewish saying from the time of Exodus goes: “The caravan should go no faster than the pace of old men and children.”

There's a joke about the six Jews who changed the world. Moses said that everything came from heaven; Solomon said it came from the head; Christ said it came from the heart; Marx said it was the stomach; Freud said it was sex; and Einstein said: “My friends, everything in this world is relative”. 

This was the only time the great scholar and philosopher was wrong. The Holocaust is not relative in magnitude. It's an absolute magnitude, as is that sense of guilt we should all feel, preserving this terrible crime for ever in the human memory.

About the author

Andrei Konchalovsky is theatre and film director and scriptwriter. His films are known and loved in Russia and other countries and have received numerous awards from various international film festivals.

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Andrei Konchalovsky

Theatre and film director and scriptwriter; a National Artist of Russia; a member of Russia’s National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

His films are known and loved in Russia and other countries and have received numerous awards from various international film festivals. Films include The First Teacher, The Story of Asya Klyachina, Siberiada and The Speckled Hen. His most popular Hollywood releases are Maria's Lovers, Runaway Train based on a script by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell.

Andrei Konchalovsky has written 33 film scripts and made 25 films. He has worked as a stage director in Russia, France, Italy and Poland. He is the brother of film director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov and the son of poet Sergei Mikhalkov. He has written over 100 sparkling and trenchant essays and 6 books.


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