The penitence of sons for the sins of their fathers

>> Tuesday, June 10, 2014

At Durban in 2001, [Sir Hillary McDonald] Beckles remembered the "surreal theater" of the black British Baroness Valerie Amos leading a phalanx of historians and legal scholars into the conference, and making three major arguments: first, that since the slave trade was not "illegal" under British law until 1807, it was not technically a crime, and could not be subject to legal restitution; second, that the slave trade was a "joint venture" between Europeans and African leaders, limiting British culpability; and third, that even if the slave trade could be termed a crime, it was a crime whose reparation was "too large be imagined." (Here Beckles shared his own 2001 reply to Baroness Amos: "I have a very large imagination.")
The Junto, A Group Blog on Early American History, June 5th, 2014.

Read the whole post, and also (if you haven't already), read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations", which is possibly the most important thing anybody will write this year.  Karp provides a useful context for Coates' piece and the larger conversation we ought to be having--the Transatlantic Slave Trade wasn't just an American atrocity--so long as the general doesn't eclipse the specific; that is, we have an obligation in the United States to address our own Original Sin regardless of what, if anything, the international community does about their own assorted historical roles.

My jaw did drop when I got to the Baroness Amos quote, though, and I felt obliged to add my own two cents: if that's an accurate reflection of the Baroness' views, it's mind-boggling.

Karp follows with Sir Hillary's rebuttals:

Beckles laughingly rejected these arguments—any argument against reparations that rested on the letter of eighteenth century law, he said, could be safely dismissed; and the role of Africians [sic] the slave trade was undeniable but did virtually nothing to diminish British guilt. Could the presence of "local collaborators" in any other historical context be used to exculpate the chief instigators and beneficiaries of such horrific crimes?

--but it seems like Sir Hillary may have missed a specific, historically recent, example of just how shallow the Baroness' argument is: by her lights, the Nuremberg Trials should never have happened. 

After all, genocide was not "illegal" under German law until after the War ended and was not technically a crime, it was a joint venture between Germans and various collaborators in occupied lands, and you could certainly argue that the Holocaust was "a crime whose reparation was 'too large to be imagined'" (indeed, when West Germany and Israel entered into a reparations agreement in 1952,  the primary opposition within Israel to the agreement was that reparations were inconceivable).

The fact is that the ex post facto nature of the Nuremberg proceedings was such an obvious and primary objection to the legitimacy of the tribunal that the Nazis on trial had to be denied recourse to it as a defense.  Nor were the defendants allowed to argue the prior bad acts of their own prosecutors, e.g. the Americans' Indian Removal, or the Soviet Great Purge.  The unfortunate fact, pre-Nuremberg, is that genocide was a novel concept--the word didn't even exist until 1944--and that international law of the immediately preceding years was that there was no international law applicable to wholly internal events, no crimes of universal jurisdiction, what happened in Germany (or occupied Poland) stayed in Germany.  And if the Allied victors wanted to change these rules after the fact, what gave them any moral right to do so?  Certainly not the Anglo-American legal tradition, at the very least.

Legally speaking, the strongest charges against the Nazi regime concerned their treatment of prisoners of war  Morally speaking, the Allies were aghast at what they found in the concentration camps they liberated.  But horror isn't a legal principle; indeed, quite the opposite, the reason a people of laws write the rules down in advance and put them where everyone can see them is so that we don't capriciously punish because of our gut reactions (and fail to punish because of our hypocrisy).  Where the slaughter of POWs was concerned, the Nazis had agreed before the outbreak of War to be bound by the 1929 Geneva Convention.  The rules were written and posted and everyone had agreed anyone could enforce them.  Where the massacre of six million civilian nationals of Germany and occupied territories were concerned, however... a different situation.

And yet this isn't a defense of poor, railroaded Nazis; quite the opposite, in fact: it's almost self-evidently clear that the Allies were under a moral obligation to say and do something about the horrors the Nazis introduced to the world, and to take the Holocaust as an awakening and a point from which to say that the rules would be changed, must be changed, could never again be what they had been and that this was such an important threshold for human civilization to step across that if the future repercussions must extend into the past, so be it.  It was wholly insufficient to say, "Well, you've committed crimes against humanity itself, but I guess you didn't know anyone would be mad about it so, just don't do it again."  It is right to worry about ends being used to justify means, and about the dangers of rationalizing one's actions based on one's good intentions, yes, and to be self-aware of the issues and problems involved in depriving horrible people of basic legal rights for the sake of establishing a more fundamental moral principle; but that doesn't mean it was wrong to do so at Nuremberg, nor does it mean that it would be wrong to do so again for the sake of similarly profound principles connected to similar historic atrocities.

I don't know that there's much to be said about Baroness Amos' remaining arguments against British (and/or American) culpability in the slave trade except more of the same.  The Nazi regime wasn't allowed to shift blame to their Polish proxies at Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz et al., and apologists for the Nazis who have tried to do so in subsequent decades have largely been unsuccessful.  One doesn't even need to spend much time pointing out that whatever atrocities may have been committed by Poles were orchestrated by Germans: it ought to be enough to say that there is plenty of guilt to go around and nothing novel in the idea that ringleaders, co-conspirators, accessories, and accomplices are all culpable alongside their agents, underlings and associates.

Then there is the fact that West Germany indeed did enter a restitution agreement with Israel after WWII.  In "The Case for Reparations", Coates wrote:

Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.

I think that nails the crucial takeaway.  There's no dollar value that can be rationally assigned to all the suffering of the Holocaust, six million dead and millions more tortured, starved, enslaved, and abused.  Nor has the state of Israel ever had a monopoly on the victims of all that suffering; not all who emigrated to the state of Israel after WWII were victims of the Holocaust, nor did all the survivors of the Holocaust choose to emigrate there.  But the fact that West Germany acknowledged guilt, that the acknowledgement was accepted by Israel on behalf of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and that there was something more than mere words proffered (though words are important): these are important things.

It might not be enough for those countries who participated in and benefited from slavery to apologize for it and try, in however crude a way, to make some kind of amends to somebody for it.  But if that proved to be the case, the fact that it wasn't enough wouldn't be a very good reason for not doing anything at all.

It wasn't really enough to hang a bunch of Nazis, not really--it didn't bring anyone back from the dead, it didn't return lost years of suffering endured to any survivor.  But it did acknowledge something had to be done.  It wasn't really enough for West Germany to pay out around 3.5 billion marks--no resurrections, no returns of time and health and joy.  But it did acknowledge something terrible had been done by one group of people to another.  These things do matter.


Anonymous,  Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 11:58:00 AM EDT  

I think you make some excellent points here. Reparations are important, even if they merely begin with the admittance of guilt and culpability, because they are an important part of the healing process.

Part of the American reparations for slavery is admitting that human rights abuse in America has not been relegated to slavery, but also in the treatment of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and, arguably, the current treatment of illegal immigrants. Until we begin reparations for the original sin of slavery, then we (America) cannot begin atoning for the other abuses we have inflicted, and prevent them from happening again.

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