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New York Times Room for Debate: Turning Away From Painful Chapters

The most powerful nations continue to wrestle with whether to whitewash, overcome, ignore or confront painful histories of generations or centuries ago. Even Nelson Mandela’s proud legacy of “truth and reconciliation” over apartheid has increasingly disappointed many in South Africa.

Can dark pasts ever be ignored or sins forgotten?

Omar G. Encarnación, a professor of political studies at Bard College, is the author of the forthcoming "Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting."

Forgetting, in Order to Move On

Spain was ready to let bygones be bygones. After the demise in 1975 of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, the nation’s leading political parties negotiated the so-called Pact of Forgetting, an informal agreement that made any treatment of the most difficult episodes of Spanish history, such as the horrific violence of the Civil War, unnecessary and unwelcomed. Far from seeking “justice,” “truth” or “reconciliation,” the nation chose to forget and move on, even passing a comprehensive amnesty law making it all but impossible to prosecute the human rights abuses of the old regime.

The pact to forget meant that in Spain there would be no accountability for the thousands of people who perished during the Civil War (1936-39), or for the many more who were executed, forced into exile, tortured in prison or sent to labor camps in the postwar years for simply having defended democracy against Franco’s fascist coup. The pact also committed the government to “la desmemoria” (disremembering), a policy that entailed avoiding anything that could awaken the memory of the past, such as the observation of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, in 1986; the creation of a truth commission to look into who bore ultimate responsibility for the Civil War; and the use of state funds to exhume the remains of thousands buried in unmarked Civil War mass graves, most of whom died fighting Franco....

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Leslie Vinjamuri is an associate professor in international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Lessons From Africa’s Efforts

The demand that states confront their past isn’t new. In the aftermath of World War II, successor regimes across Europe held trials of Nazi collaborators. Truth commissions followed a wave of democratic transitions in El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia and beyond. In 1984, Argentina’s truth commission published its report and a handful of military officers were put on trial. Each of these initiatives was inspirational, but also necessarily compromised. It was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that created a new global standard that served as a symbol that post-conflict reconciliation could be the basis for a fundamental restructuring of society. In 1998, the commission handed its report to President Nelson Mandela, who died in December.

Internationally, the symbolic power of truth and justice has been surprisingly robust. Many people uncritically embrace the aspiration to uncover and document the truth, and the belief that doing so will generate societal reconciliation. But confronting the past is ineluctably political, and especially in the absence of a solid democratic foundation, ill-considered efforts to deal with the past may do more harm than good and generate heightened expectations for redress. The assumption that truth or justice can provide a neutral basis for widespread societal reconciliation in the recent aftermath of conflict is at best naïve. South Africa allowed individual perpetrators the opportunity to apply for amnesty if they confessed their crimes at public hearings not because this was an ideal strategy, but because a political bargain between the African National Congress and the apartheid regime that made the transition to majority rule possible demanded it....

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Henry J. Rozycki is a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University and a writer.

As a Child, I Wanted the Truth

I was about 10 or 11 when I began to wonder if my parents were Nazi war criminals in hiding. All I knew was that they said they had lost most of their family in the Holocaust and that no matter how much I wanted to know more, details of their experiences were too terrible to tell me. In the absence of any solid information, I was left to speculate, eventually to imagine that pretending to be a Holocaust survivor was a perfect cover. Thankfully, this crazy idea disappeared as I realized that no one could fake what were symptoms of their post-traumatic stress disorder. Decades later, they are gone and I still only have scattered facts and my imagination to try and understand. As a result, it took too much time for my irrational fear of Germans to leave me.

Without truth, children have only two sources with which to understand. The first are the myths which can grow like fungi when sunlight is blocked and the dead matter is not cleared. The second are their imaginations. What either one creates is often more terrible than the truth....

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Antonio Olmos, a photojournalist based in London, is the photographer of the forthcoming collection "The Landscape of Murder."

Remembering What Society Wants to Ignore

It is better to remember painful realities than to forget them. And it is better to see the ugly truths of the present day than to simply hope they will become history.

I am a photographer; the nature of my work is to give memory to things, places and events. Photographs are a record of things that have happened and people who have lived. We look at photographs as proof of the recent past. In my personal work, I mostly photograph what people would rather forget.

Recently in London, two young men were convicted of murdering a British soldier. The crime made news because the men called themselves jihadists in a war against the West, and because they tried to justify the murder to bystanders, who filmed them on smartphones....

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Melissa Nobles, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of "Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics."

Face Up to the Violence of Jim Crow

The U.S. civil rights movement was one of our country’s most important democratizing efforts. But the United States continues to grapple with how to acknowledge and understand the uglier aspects of its undemocratic past.

Scholarship has mostly analyzed Jim Crow’s undemocratic nature by focusing on black disenfranchisement. The coercion and violence that enforced political disenfranchisement and economic subordination have received far less attention. This has influenced the public understanding of that period which holds that protests, legal challenges and the power of moral suasion dismantled a bad Jim Crow system....

Read entire article at New York Times