“The Germans Deserved Great Credit For Their Moral Seriousness”

The delicatessen had three or four tables at which people could sit, purchase a cup of coffee, and read out-of-date Continental newspapers. There was always a copy of Le Monde and Corriere della Sera, and sometimes Spiegel, which Isabel found interesting because of its habit of publishing articles about the Second World War and German guilt. It was important to remember, and perhaps some Germans felt that they could never forget, but would there be a point at which those awful images of the past could be put away? Not if we want to avoid a repetition, said some, and the Germans took this very seriously, while others perhaps preferred to forget. The Germans deserved great credit for their moral seriousness, which is why Isabel liked them so much. Anyone – any people – was capable of doing what they did in their historical moment of madness – and their goodness lay in the fact that they later faced up to what they had done. Did the Turks go over their history with a moral fine-tooth comb? She was not aware of it, if they did, and nobody seems to mention the genocide of the Armenians – an atrocity which was virtually within living memory – except the Armenians, of course.

And the Belgians, she suddenly remembered, who had passed a resolution in their Senate only a few years previously noting what had happened in Armenia. Some had said that was all very well, but then what about what Leopold did in the Congo? And were there not islanders, somewhere in the Pacific, whose ancestors stood accused of eating – yes, eating the original inhabitants of the lands they occupied? Most unfortunate. And then there were the British who behaved extremely badly in so many parts of the world. There was the woeful story of the extinction of the Tasmanian aboriginals and so many instances of cruelty and theft under the bright protection of the Union Jack. When would British history books face up to the appalling British contribution to slavery, which involved the Arabs, too, and numerous Africans (who were not just on the receiving end)? We were all as bad as one another, but at some point we had to overlook that fact, or at least not make too much of it. History, it seemed, could so quickly become a matter of mutual accusation and recrimination, an infinite regress of cruelty and oppression, unless forgetfulness or forgiveness intervened.

– Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.

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