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Remembering the Katyn Massacre: What is Reconciliation?

April 8, 2010

Katyn, by Wit on Flickr

This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn massacre in which Polish prisoners of war were murdered by the Soviet secret police on the orders Joseph Stalin. Until the 1990s, the Soviet Union blamed these killings on the Nazis. This year, the prime ministers of Poland and Russia commemorate the massacre together, taking a first step in the direction of reconciliation.

“A word of truth can mobilise two peoples looking for the road to reconciliation,” [Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk] said.

“Are we capable of transforming a lie into reconciliation? We must believe we can.”

Last week, Alicia Simoni wrote a powerful post about how gender expectations affect forgiveness, and commenters discussed when and whether to forgive. While forgiveness may be personal and optional, however, reconciliation is public and necessary.Reconciliation is the way people learn to live together, or at least side-by-side. In cases of crimes committed by individuals, this may not be necessary as victim or violator may leave, be removed, or simply avoid the other, but in cases of conflicts that rip up communities, cities, or nations, it is an absolute necessity. Some kind of understanding, some kind of trust, needs to be found to make society function without the fear that one transgression might bring chaos back. It is also about those who have injured others, or who have inherited power from those who have done so, meeting their moral obligation to make restitution to the injured.

In many cases, bringing the truth of what happened out for everyone to see is a major part of the process. In Canada, a truth and reconciliation commission was set up to address the forced placement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in residential schools:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.

According to Phil Fontaine, past National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations,

It’s an opportunity to engage in a very important conversation with Canadians so that Canadians will know this story (of residential school abuses) and through knowing and understanding what was done to thousands and thousands first nations students they will come to understand some of the challenges that we have faced as a community.

The older and perhaps better known South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is divided into three committees: one to investigate human rights violations, another to provide restorative reparations to victims, and a third to provide amnesty for some acts of political violence.

No way of approaching reconciliation can be perfect, nor can any one approach be prescribed across cultures and societies. What does cross these boundaries, however, is the necessity of having victims’ truths heard and honored. This is something that we can practice, that we should all practice, in our own lives. If someone tells you that they have been hurt, listen and believe them. This is particularly important when it comes to crimes like rape, the victims of which are often disbelieved. When you see an injustice, talk about it: don’t be silent. If you’re not sure what happened, try to find out but never at the expense of the victim’s desired privacy.

Reconciliation doesn’t mean that any individual has to forgive, either in their hearts or their words, but it does mean finding a way to look to the future without dishonoring or denying the horrors of the past. It means honoring mourning as well as the way forward.

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4 Comments
  1. alicia permalink
    April 10, 2010 12:14 pm

    Great post Elizabeth.

    I’ve spent alot of time with ppl involved in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the end of the day they would say that as impoverished black South Africans reconciliation had become a word everyone used but that it many ways it was meaningless in ppl’s day to day lives unless they really pushed themselves to forgive. They also talked alot about power – in this case that white South Africans needed to relinquish some of their power in order for true reconciliation to occur. I think that in most cases where reconciliation is necessary power is a critical factor – the victim/ perpetrator relationship is about power whether it is on an individual or a societal level. I wonder, can true reconciliation happen if power paradigms aren’t changed?

  2. BASTA! permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:02 am

    Something for you to think about: the victims of the Katyń mass killings were either exclusively male, or a vast majority of them were, but you don’t hear this fact mentioned at all.

    Now, only three days have passed since the Black Saturday and already the media are full of articles that focus on women who died that day, effectively privileging their deaths over the deaths of men who perished in the same crash.

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