Thursday, June 22, 2006

Collective responsibility?

The question of collective vs. personal responsibility is a very relevant one these days. How much is an individual responsible for the wrongdoing of their government? What does “collective responsible” mean? Are we collectively responsible in a democratic system? That’s definitely something most Americans who go abroad have to deal with today. How much blame can or should they take as individuals for the war in Iraq? Should only those who re-elected Bush feel some responsibility? Should no one feel responsible but the individuals in the government?

What about wrongdoings done in the past? French President Jacques Chirac became in 1995 the first French leader to recognize publicly France's responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II.

In the last couple years, the issue of the French colonial past has also been much discussed - partly exacerbated by the problems of integration of the immigrants from the former French colonies. In the same way, France held for the first time this year a national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery (May 10). France being…. France, well, the teaching of France's colonial past was even turned into a law.

The guilt-trip is beginning to make some people mad. They think it is too much. I know a lot of history teachers feel that way. I also think it is a question of generation. A lot of people who lived through WWII and through the end of the colonial period are still alive today.

The latest example of the changes in France's view of its past is a court decision last month. A tribunal found the state-owned railway (the SNCF) liable for the deportation of Jews by cattle car. The tribunal ordered the SNCF and the French state to pay one of the survivors’ family the equivalent of $85,000.

This is the first time that a French court has singled out a government agency, rather than an individual, for condemnation in connection with the Holocaust. More litigation is expected: The SNCF will appeal; and similar arguments have been made in a class-action lawsuit in New York.

The Globe and Mail has published two very interesting articles (here and here) that exemplify the current struggle between those who think there is collective responsibility and those who think it is going too far.

If French railway men are held responsible, where does one draw the line? What about the secretaries who typed the lists of deportees, or those who scheduled the trains? And, as Arno Klarsfeld, a Paris lawyer who defended the railway's record, noted: "If everyone is guilty, then no one's guilty."

Ironically, the SNCF has set something of an example of historical responsibility. In 1992, in response to charges of complicity, the company opened its wartime archives to researchers.

Then on the other hand:

Many Holocaust survivors in France and elsewhere welcomed the ruling as the first time a French court condemned a contemporary French government institution for its role in rounding up Jews and sending them to their destruction in death camps.

For decades after the war, the official view in France was that the Vichy collaborationist government was illegitimate and that subsequent French governments were not accountable for its crimes.

Then in 1995, President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged that France shared in the responsibility for crimes against the Jews, saying "the criminal folly of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state.".

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