Time is not on our side

Last month, Der Spiegel featured a story on 89-year-old Werner Christukat, a Wehrmacht soldier and World War II veteran who is being investigated for allegedly participating in the massacre of over 640 men, women and children in a French town in 1944.

Christukat is among a number of aging soldiers of Nazi Germany suspected of having escaped justice for about seven decades.

Prosecutors now intend to find out how large his role in the killing of residents of the town called Oradour-sur-Glane was, and whether he can be charged as a war criminal. For his part, Christukat acknowledges being at the village during the massacre but insists he did not kill anyone and instead actually helped some French villagers escape from the massacre.

Around the same time that Christukat’s case came to light, a flurry of remakes and sequels to classic 1980s films were announced with fanfare. A sequel to the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid is confirmed. A sequel to The Goonies is also being planned, with the goal of reuniting the original cast. Plans are also underway for a remake of Gremlins, and the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the coming onslaught of new Star Wars movies. As with The Goonies, many original actors are being persuaded to return to maximize the nostalgia factor and box office profits.

I felt somewhat ashamed and puzzled at myself for initially being more concerned about the movie remakes than with the case of the unpunished Nazi soldier, but it is to be expected. These movies hold plenty of sentiment in my heart and mind. Plenty of successful television shows, from Mad Men to Pawn Stars, capitalize on our strange and dangerous attachment to things of the past.

I had to spend time contemplating the savagery of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, an event I previously never knew anything about, before becoming emotionally invested in Christukat’s story. The suffering of countless real people can easily seem unimportant when compared to some kitschy movies.

Nazi war crimes and popular 1980s films may appear unrelated, but they actually share some major similarities. Both situations involve the evanescence of memory and how any emotion, positive or negative, invariably fades simply with the passage of time. The most horrific and destructive actions mankind is capable of can be gradually erased by neurons that decay, stories that contradict one another and hearts that cease beating.

Regarding endeavors to prove whether Christukat is guilty or innocent, Der Spiegel touched on neuro-scientific research which suggests that with increasing time, people tend to form slightly more positive memories and convince themselves that whatever they experienced had some silver lining. Christukat argues that he was responsible for rescuing some women and claims to feel intense hatred of Nazism and remorse for victims of the Third Reich. But 70 years after the incident, it is nearly impossible to accurately reconstruct the true events.

Records of Christukat and the massacre are scarce, statements from prosecutors and Christukat are backed by little evidence and, most shamefully, the ideal time for convicting and punishing Nazis is nearly over. Most participants of Nazi Germany’s empire are suffering from dementia or have already died and escaped justice. Had Germans taken a widespread and serious approach to investigating the Third Reich’s supporters during the 1950s and ’60s, there might not be so much confusion and inability to discover the truth as there is today.
We are currently entering a dangerous new era with regards to World War II. The Greatest Generation, along with the people who carried out Hitler’s plans of genocide and conquest, is shrinking in number every day. Holocaust survivors, American GIs, French Resistance fighters, comfort women and all other people with firsthand memories of the war will, in several decades, be as foreign and inaccessible to us as veterans of the American Revolution or the Civil War.
Time is ruining our ability to recall a catastrophic event, and without any of the original survivors of World War II, our recollections of the conflict will grow less and less accurate. We lost the last World War I veteran several years ago. When we finally lose the last World War II veteran, we will come closer to being less cautious about violence and closer to igniting another war to generate fresh memories. A couple of generations from now, young people will have no ability to personally see and hear World War II veterans, the Beatles, Barack Obama and all other living figures we take for granted. All human achievements, no matter how important, wonderful or terrible, will fade and become the subject of jokes and questions.

People will begin to wonder whether Hitler was really that evil or if he actually existed, or whether World War II was really that destructive. The pain of the Holocaust will grow more trivial with each day, as no Holocaust victims will remain to tell their stories and remind people of the Holocaust legacy.

Time, with its ability to age and kill off everything in this world, will destroy all of our memories, no matter what we do. Eventually, there may be a third world war that dwarfs World War II on the scale of death and tragedy, yet even that will not be enough to survive the human mind for more than a century. Out of lack of creativity and forgetfulness, we remake films and reenact similar events to capture certain emotions, and when those emotions fade, we repeat the process.