A nation must find the courage to own up to the worst deeds of its past if only to never go there again.
French President Emmanuel Macron did his country just such a favor on Sunday when he called on his countrymen to abandon 75 years of equivocation and denial and fully acknowledge France’s role in sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. Macron spoke with a kind of refreshing bluntness that would serve our own nation well in more honestly acknowledging its own darkest deeds, including the treatment of Native Americans, the brutality and continued legacy of slavery, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
For that matter, if nothing improves, our nation may one day look back and only then fully admit to shame for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay — held without trial or charges — for a travel ban aimed at adherents of a single religion, Islam, and for the demonizing of undocumented immigrants.
Macron spoke of “convenience” versus “stark truth” in explaining why generations of the French have attempted to minimize or negate France’s active role in deporting some 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. To this day, he said, French far-right leaders and others insist that the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, did not represent France.
“It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness,” Macron said. “Yes, it’s convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie.”
Macron talked specifically about the rounding up of some 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16-17, 1942. It was the French police who did the arresting and detaining, he said, and “not a single German” was directly involved. Of those 13,000 people, including 4,000 children, fewer than 100 survived the concentration camps.
Every nation succumbs to historical amnesia to distance itself from its worst crimes. To this day, millions of Americans deny the indisputable fact that the question of slavery was at the heart of the Civil War. Worse yet, they’ll tell you slavery wasn’t so bad. Only now, a century and a half after the fact, are Southern cities pulling down menacing monuments to the “Lost Cause.”
During World War II, federal agents along or near the Pacific coast rounded up more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry — 62 percent of them U.S. citizens — and forcibly removed them to camps in the interior of the country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was a matter of national security, and it took 40 years to put that falsehood to rest. In the early 1980s, a formal federal investigation concluded that there had been little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and incarceration was the product of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
All words that remain relevant today.
Macron pledged to fight current anti-Semitism as well. He called for an investigation into the recent death of a Parisian woman who possibly was murdered by anti-Semites. It’s not enough to deplore the bigotry of the past if the bigotry of the present goes unchallenged.
The United States faces a similar moral test with respect to President Donald Trump’s 60-day freeze on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries and his 120-day freeze on the admission of all refugees. Trump’s many comments on the ban — he clearly wants to turn away Muslims — give the lie to his claim that his sole concern is national security. If so, the president could upgrade vetting procedures immediately and the matter would be moot, rather than hold off until the Supreme Court rules on the ban later this year.
The reality is that Trump, true to form, is playing on our fears and encouraging our worst instincts.
As a nation, we may not be ready to admit that. Six in ten voters, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released this month, support the president’s travel ban.
But our children and grandchildren, looking back, will know better.