As is the case with the present and with the future, so also the past is approached in different ways, it is interpreted in a certain way and our memories are always tinted. Victims and perpetrators e.g. have, understandably, an almost opposite view of the events that bind them together. Historiography takes a different approach to the past than individual or group-related memory. The person who remembers something is directly involved in the event, and relives it when he or she accesses his or her memory. In this sense, the event does not merely belong to the past, it is relived, actualized. The more one was involved in the past event, the stronger the lived experience, and the more the past will be coloured by present-day values and ideals. The past as we remember it, is a past rethought in function of the present and of the future, it is a commemoration.

The subject of history, of historiography, is what has happened, what is past. As far as this is possible, this is studied in relation to the present and the future. We should try to draw lessons from the past, certainly, but this should not guide or distort the way we look back at our past. Obviously historians are also moved and determined by contemporary concerns, values, norms and ideals. They should be well aware of this when they exercise their profession. Only then can they minimize the influence of these subjective factors in order to achieve a less committed interpretation.

Memory and history have different methods, standards, objectives and concepts of truth. On the one hand a more personal, subjective, experienced or practical truth; on the other hand a more impersonal, objectified and theoretical truth. Both approaches are legitimate and of great societal interest. But different truths about important events from the past... this can only lead to collisions. It is understandable that emotions sometimes run high when this happens. Memories consist of the actual events but also of current feelings and values. They activate the past, keep it lively, make the memory possible. When certain aspects of that memory are called into question by historical research, the persons concerned frequently feel that the emotions, values and expectations, which are connected to these memories, are called into question, that these are in one way or another 'mistakes'. Both parties involved pay too little attention to the complex nature of memory.

All this applies to an even higher degree to horrific events, to the memory of suffering. Grief and horror are almost always exclusively remembered and approached from the perspective of the victim. People almost automatically align themselves on the side of the victims, turning away from the perpetrators. Humanity and compassion, linked to an almost instinctive abhorrence of evil are part of the explanation. Few can imagine ever being involved in evil in any other capacity than as a spectator or as a victim. Identification with victims excludes empathy for perpetrators.

The victim perspective is characterized by emotional involvement, questions about why things happened and a strict dichotomy between guilt and merit. What has happened is highly personalized, intentionalized, moralized, and painted in blacks and whites. The gruesome outcome is projected into the past as the intended result. The perpetrators are demonized, portrayed as inhumane, the Dutch has the term “onmens”, literally, “non-human”, creatures that resemble us in nothing. This is a reverse history which explains away evil as something totally alien to us, and makes it unrecognizable. In this way one ignores the latent evil in all of us, such as xenophobic and racist tendencies. Because of this, we are no longer wary of ourselves and in certain socio-economic situations the latent evil can be reactivated.
By opposing in an absolute, manicheistic way the inhumanity of the perpetrators to the humanity of the victims, the lesson to be learned from historical horrors, namely that civilized people are capable of horrific things, is reversed into its opposite: only monsters can do things like this. The demonization of evil makes the "banality of evil” inscrutable and uncontrollable.

Ideally, historians adopt the perspective of an outsider, they do not take sides. The emphasis is more on the causes and the genesis of events than on the outcome, more on perpetrators than on victims. They aim at complexity and multifacetednessrather than at a simplistic and manichaean duality. Their task is not to reject and condemn, but to scrutinize and to understand, especially, the perpetrators.

To understand horror and to realize that it should never happen again, one should look through the eyes of the victims. Empathy for the victims is essential to the political and ideological motivation to want to avoid repeating the past. That is why we should consult with and listen to victims over and over again. But in order to be able to prevent the repetition of horror, one should look behind and beyond the horror. In order to avoid evil, we need to understand the origins and the development of horror and its perpetrators. To identify the moments when interventions were or are still possible, the thought-processes, ideology and behavior of the future perpetrators should be studied as objectively as possible. How did they arrive at their deeds? Did they still regard them as crimes ? How is it that most of them did not experience conscientious objections? How did they get to be so different from "normal" people? These questions can only be answered if the victim's perspective, the moralization, intentionalization and demonization are transcended.

Victims (and those who identify with them) experience difficulties with this neutral, objectifying approach. They are bothered by this apparent absence of discomfort, compassion and condemnation. That in order to avoid new casualties and suffering, perpetrators must be understood, completely goes against compassion, compassion for the victims and rejection of the perpetrators. Understanding is perceived as sympathy and therefore condemned. They find scientists should become involved in other ways than the purely scientific way, they should take sides (for the victims).

Apparently, a horrific past that lives on in memory should only be approached with empathy. Inaccuracies in the collective memory should be left uncorrected, covered with the cloak of charity because the cause is just. For perpetrators on the other hand the historical norms apply without restrictions. They are not allowed to mythologize the past, minimize the part they played in it, or plead ignorance of the facts.

All this is very understandable, even for the historian. But if the saying is true, that “those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”,[1] the historical quality of that remembrance is very relevant. People who want to prevent something, are advised to have a realistic view of the causes of what it is one wants to prevent. In light of prevention, it is good to know that lightning is not a manifestation of divine wrath.

[1]These words of George Santayana (1863-1952) from The Life of Reason,Vol. IReason in Common Sense, New York, 1905 (1980), p. 284, are frequently quoted in anti-fascist circles, but rather uncritically so because this American-Spanish philosopher had a lot of sympathy for fascism, among others for Franco and he was, to put it mildly, not particularly friendly to Jews.

Gepubliceerd in: Praet, Danny (ed.) - Philosophy of War and Peace, Ghent, Ghent University, 2016 - p. 161-163