Social Sciences & Humanities
Topic of the Month
Dialogue about our past and future
Who are we and where are we going?
Our actions are oriented around the future. A future that we hope will be better than the past. But where do values that give us direction come from?
We often expect science to give us solutions to concrete problems. But we have to know which direction we want to go in order to know which challenges to work on. Where does our orientation come from? Who will help us take the current problems and goals that we are pursuing and place them in a larger framework? How do we answer not only the question of what is technically feasible but also what is ethically right?
Our goals are determined by our values. But our values don't just fall from the sky. They are part of our identity and part of our history.
The way we see ourselves today – as individuals and as a society – how we perceive the world, what appears right and wrong to us, depends on the background against which we see these things. Our view on life is determined by our experiences as individuals and as a society and by our history.
Gauging these issues, continuously asking new questions, holding up a mirror and asking us to take a good long look at ourselves is what the humanities strive to do. Whether philosophy, art history, archaeology, palaeontology or historical research – information on what makes up the cultural legacy of human beings as well as the collective memory of individual nations, peoples and societies is collected and analysed, giving us the coordinate system that tells us where we stand and where we come from.
One important topic in this context is, for example working to overcome the past of an unjust state – Germany with its two dictatorships in the 20th century and South Africa with its history of apartheid.
The Federal Republic of Germany bears the legacy of two dictatorships, two eras that don't, however, make up the whole of German history but that can only be understood when analysed together with the events, conditions and correlations of their prehistory. Because German history didn't begin or end in 1945.
Some analyses concentrate on fundamental problems, for example, on the question of an individual's personal freedom to take action in a dictatorship, on sensitivity to human rights violations, on dealing with those who sustained an unjust government or those who fought against one. Exploring these issues is taxing for a society. Nevertheless, it is indispensable for establishing a new legal and social system and for the development of internal social peace and reconciliation.
But also essential to dealing honestly with the past is appropriately remembering and commemorating freedom fighters and traditions of resistance and the events associated with them. This is also an integral part of a nation's self-understanding and its democratic tradition.
In dictatorships, it is the regime that controls how history is interpreted. The regime thus claims the country's identity for itself and asserts this claim in different ways. History is often reinterpreted to adapt it to current interests or to use or abuse it to legitimise current politics.
Because interpreted history affects the image the individual has of the present, it affects his moral concepts, his understanding of society and his ideas about the future. It forms the blueprint for our plans and visions of the future.
In democracies, the political sphere is only one realm: other actors such as civil society, the media, literature and, last but not least, science, determine the public discourse. An open and mutual exchange of experiences and findings even beyond country borders can immensely extend the horizon of knowledge. Which is why events such as the joint German-South African conference "Historical Memory" held a few years ago in Berlin, which looked at historical memory and social change in South Africa and Germany after 1989, make an important contribution to the dialogue and always represent an opportunity to reflect and explore and forge identity.