Times and Tides

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto on unsung heroes, Nobel's odyssey and reinventing history (and oneself)

De Balie is an admirable institution in Amsterdam, where the public is educated through a constant programme of lectures, seminars and improving theatre for all ages and intellects. One of the events I took part in during a recent visit was a seminar for academics, journalists and creative writers on what were billed as shameful episodes in Dutch history: collaboration with Nazi occupiers, brutal 'police action' against Indonesians during the war of 1946-49 and the failure of the Dutch-manned 'safe haven' at Srebrenica during the Bosnian civil war.

The historiography of guilt – once a German preserve – is becoming ever more widely shared. Even Norwegians, whom we think of as a people exempt from blame for Western imperialism, are now mounting an exhibition on their ancestors' involvement in the slave-trade. In the Dutch case, unease over the imperial past is a powerful source of social influence. Their exemplary laws on race and immigration are rooted, I suspect, in the agony of their memories of imperial failure and in the self-consciousness with which, for instance, they tell visitors that apartheid is the only universally-recognised word in their language.

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