George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That works for both individuals and nations. Another reason not to forget history, is so you don’t accidentally upset those who remember it, and who may even have lived it.
Currently, the citizens of Bergen are arguing about whether or not to hang a huge portrait of Joseph Stalin on the side of our city hall, a 14-story tall building. The suggested display, done by a Norwegian artist, is based on Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, in connection with the Picasso exhibit currently showing in Bergen. “It’s art,” says the artist, “art is meant to provoke.” “Stalin was the worst mass-murderer in history,” say the critics, “Nobody in their right mind would accept a portrait of Hitler hanging on a public building in Bergen, so why should we allow a portrait of Stalin?”
Myself, I understand the artist’s point of view, especially since it seems to be a promotion for the exhibit. But the debate also shows what can happen when people don’t remember the past, and even some odd responses: Some say that the portrait won’t offend because nowadays, nobody knows who Stalin was. And the upside is that the current debate will teach those people who he was. To not hang up the portrait is to bury history, say others. On the flip-side, though, are Bergen’s large population of immigrants from Chechnya and Ukraine, and they know only too well who Stalin was. Just as every Norwegian knows only too well who Hitler was. Also, not everyone may be aware of the tie-in to the Picasso exhibit. So, how much insult and pain does art have the right to inflict? And just how much ignorance and inconsideration can we allow ourselves?
This reminds me of my own asking why, in this day and age, we couldn’t use “SS” on Norwegian license plates. Norwegian plates are two letters followed by 5 numbers. The first letter is connected to region, so cars with SR, SP and ST in their license are all registered in Bergen. SS was skipped because there are still people around who do remember their history. I felt a bit ashamed for forgetting the obvious.
And: Just a few weeks ago, an article in the paper about how we’ve outgrown our courthouse, making it necessary to hold trials in a neighboring building’s banquet rooms, was not just inconvenient, but also a bit creepy and an affront to democracy: The banquet rooms are in the building the Gestapo appropriated during the German occupation of Norway, and where several Norwegians were tortured and killed. The building houses several nightclubs now, and the entrance the party-goers use faces the modest “bautastein” (menhir) commemorating those lost lives.
There is no easy answer regarding the hanging of the Stalin portrait on the city hall wall. We can’t forget our past. The question is: What does the portrait remind us of?