Postwar West Germans invented a word to describe the difficulty they had with talking about and acknowledging the atrocities they or their parents had committed during the Second World War: Vergangenheitsbewältigung—the attempt to cope with, work through, and overcome a difficult past. This process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is not unique to Germany; in the wake of de-colonization, civil wars, conflicts after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and genocides throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many nations have gone through various kinds of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
In this presentation, I argue, from an autobiographical perspective, that it is not enough to load Vergangenheitsbewältigung off on to institutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions; instead, individuals, families, and societies need to learn how to talk about and acknowledge one’s nation’s past crimes. I am drawing on my own experiences of growing up in West Germany and of immigrating to Canada, thus witnessing from a private citizen’s eye how individuals and families in two different societies have attempted “to put the events of the past behind us”. My personal experiences were deeply shaped by my oral history interviews with immigrants and refugees in Canada, which eventually led me, together with my colleague Nolan Reilly, to found an oral history centre at my university. I will conclude with some thoughts on the role of oral history in individuals’, families’, and societies’ attempts to talk about and acknowledge their nation’s past atrocities.
28 November 2018 from 5.30 pm – 6.30 pm
National Library of New Zealand