The French historian Henry Rousso noted in an interview that historians have traditionally seen the proper time for history as the inverse of the proper time for justice. While the law decrees that the possibility of prosecuting or punishing expires after a certain amount of time (with the important exception of crimes against humanity), the historian supposedly should begin work only after a certain waiting period, often after the dead are buried and the archives are unsealed.
Rousso rejects this notion of a waiting period but does not seem to realize that the temporal antagonism between history and justice is rooted much more deeply than appears at first sight. The conflict between the time of jurisdiction and the time of history (I refer here to history as a discipline or as historiography) can be interpreted as an antagonism deriving from their respective emphasis on presence and absence, and with the re- or irreversibility of the event at stake. The time of jurisdiction frequently assumes a reversible time in which the crime is, as it were, still wholly present and able to be reversed or annulled by the correct sentence and punishment. This concept of time holds a narrow economic logic of guilt and penalty, in which justice ultimately is understood as retribution and atonement. History, in contrast, works with that which has happened and now is irretrievably gone. It stresses “the arrow of time,” makes use of a fundamentally irreversible time, and forces us to recognize the dimensions of absence and the unalterability of the past. History’s concept of time challenges justice’s: the “retribution” of justice never can be swift enough to completely reverse or undo the damage done, because every crime is always already partly in the past and thus always displays a dimension of absence. This makes it impossible, within history’s concept of time, to bring complete justice after time has elapsed…
Yet does this concept of time not overstate the absence of the past? Does it not neglect dimensions of “presence” or persistence of the past and its injustices? The emphasis on the absence and irreversibility of past and historical injustice endows the time of history with something uncomfortable, something unjust and almost unacceptable in a moral sense. It is exactly against this time, which “threatens to destroy all morality,” that the Belgian/Austrian Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry rebels in his notorious essay “Resentments”
Améry shocked his contemporaries by pleading against forgiveness and future reconciliation in favor of resentment, and by demanding a “moral inversion” of time. He encouraged resentment but also realized that it and its backward temporal orientation are in fundamental conflict with some of the most dominant ideas concerning the irreversible character of time: “the time-sense of the person trapped in resentment is twisted around, dis-ordered, if you wish, for it desires two impossible things: regression into the past and nullification of what happened.”
However, as a captive of the moral truth, Améry demands a right of resistance against what he calls the anti-moral “natural” or “biological” time that heals all wounds: “What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect. . . . The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being”…
[T[his debate…has (re)appeared on the international political stage with full strength and high urgency when a growing number of nations trying transition to democracy had to reckon with a dark and violent past of dictatorship and civil war. Often, these situations of political transition—usually characterized by a combination of high moral capital and low bureaucratic capacity—seem to manifest a weighty practical, political, and moral dilemma: on the one hand to restore historical injustice and thereby to risk social dissent, destabilization, and a return of violence; or on the other to aim at a democratic and peaceful future to the “disadvantage” of the victims of a grim past.
Predictably, most perpetrators of historical injustice choose the second option. Both F. W. de Klerk and Augusto Pinochet, for example, plead for forgetting in the name of the future and reconciliation. Historically, advocates of political amnesia—often combined with a certain degree of amnesty—are numerous and weighty. Conscious forgetting frequently is defended in the name of democracy and emancipation. remembrance of and retribution for the past then become subordinated to a future-oriented policy. The most radical formulation of this position is Bruce ackerman’s plea to forget the illusion of corrective justice and to burn the “stinking carcasses” in the official archives.
Stuck in the temporal dichotomy that was described above, the only reasonable alternative for some—given the impossibility of falling back on the traditional legal repertoire of prosecution and punishment, and given the fear of a dividing and traumatizing historiography—seems to be a combination of amnesty and amnesia. Given this dichotomizing of the present and the absent, Ignatieff’s claims (cited at the outset of this essay) about a past that continues to torment because it is not past, about the non-serial time of places like Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and South Africa, and about crimes that cannot be safely fixed in historical time, cannot be taken seriously. History’s concept of time forces us to interpret the victim’s recurring stress on the “presence” of the past as merely figurative language. When victims or relatives fail to achieve justice shortly after the crimes are committed, we see how a stress on the absent and irreversible dimensions of the past promotes the attitude of letting “bygones be bygones.