It has been more than a quarter of a century since numerous tragic war events and crimes in this vicinity have inscribed in history the need to confront: both with crimes and our history as such.

Voja Žanetić

Almost two years ago, on the date and the anniversary that we are interested in, Covid was raging in the vicinity. Mostly due to the flare-up of the disease and the quarantine associated with it, an important round anniversary was merely noticed and marked by the public in the vicinity. It doesn’t hurt to mark it now.

So, December 7, 2020, marked exactly half a century since the former German Prime Minister Willy Brandt knelt in front of the Warsaw Ghetto monument in 1970. On the day that historic kneeling minute of silence took place, 25 years, 3 months, and 5 days had passed since the official end of World War II. If we “graft”  the aforementioned temporal distance to a more contemporary Balkan war event, for example the Dayton Agreement (signed on December 14, 1995), that would mean a local Willy Brandt was supposed to kneel on March 20, 2021… And as we can notice, he hasn’t.

And if it was the fiftieth anniversary of that – which is absolutely unnecessary information, but let’s leave it here – it would be celebrated in 2071. What a distant, and yet impossible, future.

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Dealing with the past has been talked about in our region for more than a quarter of a century. This sensitive topic, which “Vicinity” deals with in this week’s issue, has different meaning and significance in different parts of the vicinity itself.

Somewhere, there is not much need for that confrontation, because the war was long ago and far away. Again, somewhere there is a need for it precisely because the war was far away, but not the participation in it. On the other hand, who were too close to the war are first faced with sadness and painful memories of suffering, and only then with anything else. The past has many faces here, hardly any of which are in a good mood and cheerful, so it is not easy to even look at them. And least of all if it’s in a mirror.

The main argument for a local Willy Brandt’s absence in places where he was missing, and especially in those where he was missing the most, could be the negative mood of the local public towards Brandtian acts of self-repentance. Of course, as the root of all misconceptions lies in ignorance, hypothetical supporters of this point of view probably do not know that after Brandt’s kneeling, 48% of (then West) Germans considered his act to be an exaggeration. It was supported by 41%, and those who (“seemingly”) did not have an opinion were as many as 11%. Two years later, Brandt’s Social Democrats won 45% of the vote in the elections, and the party has never been as successful at the polls since. If Olaf Scholz knew where he could kneel to get those social democratic election results, he would not be up from his knees for weeks.

The case isn’t, therefore, that Willy Brandt was harmed by his understanding of dealing with the past, but quite the opposite: just one year after he knelt in Warsaw, he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And Germany has no reason to complain about its former prime minister either. Its unification took place, when you think about it, at Brandt’s knees.

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It has been more than a quarter of a century since numerous tragic war events and crimes in this vicinity have inscribed in history the need to confront: both with crimes and our history as such. And with this vicinity in general. But since Willy is nowhere to be found, and since the expression “dealing with the past” has somehow become ineffective from excessive use, perhaps the tactics and the topic should be changed. Perhaps, instead of advocating for confronting the past, we should organise an intense confrontation with non-confrontation. It would probably help a future Brant to kneel, if only in apology for not doing it when it was needed. Which would then (well, whenever) mean that, finally, that facing the future has begun.

And we can discuss that, the most important confrontation of all, another time.