CRF Blog

Forget It

by Bill Hayes

In Forget It for the New York Times Book Review, Gary J. Bass reviews In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies by David Rieff.

Worse, Rieff worries that memory could not just spark violence, but prolong it. In order to end a war, or get a dictator to yield power to democrats, it’s often necessary to negotiate with murderous leaders who will demand their own amnesty — blotting out their own past cruelties to assure future peace. (Nuremberg, the preferred precedent of human rights lawyers, is almost always the wrong example. It was only after a hard-won unconditional victory that the Allies could put Nazi Germany’s rulers on trial, but most wars don’t end so decisively.) While Rieff would prosecute war criminals whenever feasible, he rejects the legalistic “absolutism” of those human rights activists who insist on justice above peace or other worthwhile political goals. He prudently warns that Chile’s return to democracy could have been scuttled by a Spanish warrant for the arrest of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. And in Bosnia, he convincingly argues that the injustice of a Dayton peace agreement that spared the bloodstained Slobodan Milosevic was still far better than continuing a ruinous war.

Rieff makes a powerful case for reconciliation and compromise, and exposes how politicized our nationalist histories are. [more]