George Santayana was a distinguished philosopher . He lived from 1863 to 1952. Born in Spain, educated at Harvard, on whose faculty he served until he left America to live in Europe for the last forty years of his life. He produced highly acclaimed philosophical and literary works. He is best known for pithy aphorisms, most especially for conferring a blessing on the past with the statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This last one is a virtual mantra one hears very frequently. I am particularly aware of it in relation to the Holocaust. We are reminded over and over again “Remember the Holocaust, so it won’t happen again”. This could come straight from the mouth of Santayana. It is the prevailing mantra to make us believe that Remembering that unparalleled horror will so shock people that they won’t ever repeat such horrors.
There is just one problem with this thesis: It does not work. It did not prevent more genocides from happening, by people who knew about the Holocaust. To be sure the latest genocides were not exact replicas of the Nazi Holocaust. But they were sufficiently similar to make one question the validity of the Santayana mantra. This reality deserves some serious thinking about the actual consequences of this mantra.
I. When survivors continually dwell on the Holocaust horrors, as they do when following the Santayana mantra, they are prevented from healing. Their wounds remain raw. They are vividly reminding themselves of the suffering they endured. They recall the violent death of loved ones — of their mothers and fathers, of their children. They re-live their own terror before, somehow, surviving. They re-experience deprivations beyond description. They know starvation. Recalling ultimate cruelties remain part of their here and now. Their sorrow is unconstrained, endless – fed by the very act of Remembering, of re-living, re-living, re-living. Healing is, at best, an unrealistic fantasy. At worst, it is something totally beyond one’s horizon. It is an irrelevance – to be denied because one fears the loss of attachment to those who did not survive.
II. The past sometimes becomes an incitement for repetition. We hear disgruntled people repeating Nazi slogans, yearnings to “finish the Nazi work” of exterminating Jews. Their interpretation of the Santayana mantra, applied to the Holocaust, is that the past is a model for achieving grandeur for the disadvantaged. It is a call-to-arms, where genocide is its favored, illusionary tactic. Their version of the beguiling past – with its choice of what to venerate – confers a blessing on the left-outs of the population, those who feel wrongly deprived, now seeking a path to glory. Yes, there is enchantment with the past. But it is highly selective of events within that past. It chooses the hateful because it is hateful. It honors those who are now filled with hatred, showing them a cause that nurtures that hatred. The Santayana mantra has become a curse.