Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the need of the hour

Of late every news cycle seems to give a clearer indication than the last that we are inching closer to a Third World War. The signs are revealing themselves slowly and subtly which is probably why they are going unnoticed. The trouble almost always stems from the use of national borders as a tool for identity rather than governance. The cause of any war is often unwontedly personal and the coming war—if there will, in fact, be one—will have roots that are no different.

This is unfortunate because it means we failed to learn from our previous mistakes. ‘Those who forget the past’, as Jorge Santayana said, ‘are condemned to repeat it’. In German this is known as vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process of analysing and debating a troublesome past while accepting it and living with it in the present. The pith of the idea is geared towards keeping a country’s past in mind while learning from it to ensure a better future. Although coined with the holocaust in mind this is something every country needs to adopt—they have all had a dark past at some point—but most are too lazy to pick their battles these days and blind enough to consistently miss the forest for the trees.


The tilt towards subtlety began with the Cold War that ended about two decades ago. There was a fifty-year gap between the first two World Wars and almost none between the Second World War and the Cold War. It started and ended like any other headline in the news: on Christmas 1991 Russia was formed, which meant the old Soviet blocks disintegrated. While the war ended for the rest of the world this situation had parallels with Germany’s plight at the end of the WWI, a set of events that would spur Hitler to start WWII. Vladimir Putin finds himself in the same place today: he likely believes the Cold War ended disadvantageously for Russia.

The height of peace following the Cold War have been the many attempts at calming the Middle East. Little has come of it. What is starting now is a mad game of poker under a rain of cards. There is utter confusion and chaos dressed by some as clarity and others as interference. There is no third party left to pass a fair judgement. And the last thing our world needs is a bunch of paranoid leaders rushing to fortify their borders while preaching against the one thread keeping us from destroying ourselves: a global world that has slowly come to feel local.

It is when you identify with someone on the other half of the globe that you think twice about fighting them. When you are far too worried about your own country’s safety you corner yourself into thinking you are being attacked. You lose sense of perspective, you sow fear, you create an empty need to fend off enemies that do not exist, all while you make new enemies in the process.

The cancerous grip of nationalism has pushed some countries towards democratically electing dictators. A faux sense of national threat stemming from personal insecurity—itself stemming from a lack of understanding of how the world and society work—and a pointless sense of national pride due in large part to peer pressure have caused people to (sometimes unintentionally) echo a diplomatic war cry, to fear what they do not understand, and to suppress beliefs at odds with their own. These moves are often cloaked as patriotism but are not: being a patriot does not require one to denounce or oppose other countries; but the fact that such myopic thinking is dressed as patriotism does wonders to bring—and keep—authoritarian leaders in power.

Does every generation have to live through a war to be weary of its ugliness?

None of this is to say that either nationalism or patriotism is a bad thing inherently. Humans are generally an emotionally weak species and need something bigger than their individual self to hold on to: on a personal level there is religion (although it does not always stay personal, unfortunately), on a social level there are clubs and communities, on a national level is a grouped identity built around one’s own country. The trouble is our interpretation of it and how we often take it to the extreme.

Besides subtlety the inklings of a Third World War can be found in indirect combat. Look at Syria for example: although the US is not fighting either Russia or China they are arming and supporting rebels against the Assad regime which is backed by Russia and whose troops are trained by the Chinese. On the ground this is a state-issue between Mr Assad’s men and a large group of rebels and has nothing to do with other countries; globally this is an ideological conflict with Russia and China on one side and the West on the other.

Had this conflict been resolved through talks or debate—like any other conflict of ideas—we would have had nothing to worry about. However, both countries decided to take another route and arm factions making this all but a new Cold War. This time round, it will be a Cold War without ideologies or reason which is all the more reason to fear it. Moreover the same pattern repeats in nearby Iran with its Shiite community drawing support from Russia to go against the Saudi-led Sunni community backed by the US.

There is no telling when a conflict kindled by ideology will slip into an abyss where destroying the enemy, not objectively defending a belief, takes centre stage; and the ideology will itself eventually be spurned.


The boldest moves yet have also come from Russia and China: the former started the first European war of the 21st century (the so-called Russo–Georgian war of 2008) and later took hold of Crimea; the latter has almost disdainfully been staking claim over islands around the mainland by repeatedly redrawing maps. These may all seem churlish but they are clear signs of an impending war. Most unspoken disagreements between two persons will erupt into ugly fights if the persons meet each other often enough. Here on Earth there is nowhere to run away to from either Russia or China so an all-out war seems like a much more realistic possibility than one would hope.

Speaking of European wars, the first two World Wars were just that, wars centred around Europe. The next war will not follow suit. Blocs that dissolved thanks to a global epiphany following the end of the second World War are now rebuilding themselves. Countries are picking sides and aggressive, authoritarian leaders are catalysing the process. Even a glimpse of a positive relationship with North Korea can be unreliable what with the dictator visiting China soon after the Chinese premier set himself up for a lifetime at the country’s helm.

The presence of diplomats across the globe as a result of the Vienna Convention during the Cold War was what stitched the most under-valued net that has held global peace steady for decades now. The most subtle spark of a Third World War of late has been the expulsion of hundreds of diplomats from Russia. The fault is not Russia’s this time, however; the West played right into Mr Putin’s hands by sending back his diplomats and he replied in kind. The overall effect is that without the presence of diplomats countries have little motivation to keep themselves in check and will quickly sink into the grips of secrecy and espionage.

Hardly anybody can tell who lit a fire in the dark. But once the fire has been lit putting it out becomes priority, not identifying the person who caused it. We are well past that point. The fire is lit; it is a dim but it flames on while we ignore it and hope that it goes away. We try to point fingers at each other trying to determine who lit the fire as though he alone can stop it.

Any war that will come will not only start before we know it but also spiral wildly out of control taking us far from our current, mostly peaceful situation. But in the midst of all this America’s own role in maintaining world peace thus far cannot be dismissed: its image and economic support—and perhaps respect to some extent—had brought a lot of smaller democratic countries under its lead. This is being corroded slowly by Donald Trump and his White House, shifting the power to Europe which, unlike the US, is a more massive potpourri of cultures, traditions, beliefs and languages. It is hard to imagine a Europe that would accept a clear leader; they will characteristically set up a multinational senate for decision-making. However, there is yet a chance that the burden may fall on Germany, the country that gave us vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Dialogue is key but it is easier said than done. The suffering will be subtle and will go unnoticed; getting world leaders to talk about it will therefore naturally be harder. Starting wars will remain as easy as it ever has been—perhaps it will get easier. Ending wars will be infinitely harder. A war that nobody realises is underway is dangerous, but a war that is clearly strategised but never acknowledged by anyone involved is the most dangerous of all.

There is still a positive side to all this: we have, as a civilisation, been in this situation before. All we have to do then is look back and accept the situation and learn from our mistakes. The downside is that we have rarely proven to be good at retrospection.