Columns

Malik ’18: The difficulties of historical legacy

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A recent Herald article (“Professorship name stirs polarizing views,” Feb. 17) has lingered in my mind and has made me ponder how we view and judge people. The article explains how an “endowed history assistant professorship is named after Hans Rothfels, who served as a substitute lecturer at Brown during and after World War II.” The article describes Rothfels as a very vocal supporter of German nationalism between the two World Wars who held racist views and expressed beliefs that paved the way for the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany. The article further explains that Rothfels supported the Nazis, voted for Hitler in the 1932 election and tried twice to become an honorary Aryan.

But the article also explains, “In the 1930s, as Hitler turned on conservative elites, Rothfels, too, was attacked, his home was ransacked, and he was forced to flee the country as a refugee.” The donor who named the professorship after Rothfels thought of him as a great teacher who was funny, helpful and accessible to students, and that, according to Associate Professor of History and Judaic Studies Adam Teller, Rothfels was important in developing German contemporary history.

The question boils down to: Should the University rename the professorship?

I’m not going to answer this question. Instead, I will focus on the end of the article, which really struck me: “The study of history can help ‘create a different society,’ (Teller) said, adding that the Rothfels issue will not be resolved simply by siphoning his legacy into the good and the bad. ‘If we start reducing the past to black and white then we’ll never understand the present,’ Teller said.” Often times, it is easy to categorize figures from the past by saying that they were either “good” or “bad.” I understand that it would be easier for all of us on a psychological level to view historical figures in such a simple way. But doing so is problematic because it ignores the complexity of humanity and prevents us from learning important lessons.

When we think of people as simply “good” and “bad,” we ignore their complexity as human beings and make angels and demons out of mortals. When we make someone an angel, we ignore his or her negative qualities and faults, and this can allow us to excuse terrible behavior. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. president beloved by many for his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. His actions helped this country persevere through numerous crises. But he passed an executive order that sent all Japanese Americans to internment camps. If I think of him as an “angel,” I run the risk of excusing that terrible, immoral action of his. I fail to learn an important lesson: Human beings who have done great things are capable of and often commit terrible actions, too.

Now let’s discuss the “demons” of history. For this thought experiment, I kindly ask readers to pick whatever historical figure comes to mind when they think of the word “demon.” Whoever this demon is, he probably destroyed and ruined the lives of many, many people and caused immense damage that has left a mark to this day. This is all despicable. This is all completely inexcusable. But to call this person a “demon” would be inaccurate. This person was a human. This person probably had at least a few friends or family members who loved him. This person might have once done something helpful for another human being. Again, this person’s actions should not at all be excused, and judgment should not be mitigated by the mere fact of common humanity. But if we fail to think of the “demons” as human beings, we fail to learn another important lesson: The people who have done the most atrocious things are still human beings and therefore similar to us in an essential way. This harsh truth is important because it allows us to understand that human beings like us are capable of committing horrendous actions, and this knowledge allows us to be more aware of our own beliefs, behavior and potential to do terrible things.

People are complex, and every person has the capacity to do both great good and immense evil. This awareness is useful in our lives. It prevents us from seeing the people around us too simply, from being shocked when someone we admire does something terrible, from being taken off guard when someone we detest does something nice. I’m not saying that we cannot judge people, but that when casting a final verdict, a person’s good and bad qualities have to be weighed against each other. It’s obvious that none of the “demons” of history should be honored. But it’s also true that a few negative traits are not enough to deny someone an honor. After all, no person is perfect.

Should Rothfels be honored with a professorship? I don’t know. I don’t know enough about his connections to the Nazi party and ideologies, about the impact of his research, about the relationship (if any) between his scholarship and his reprehensible beliefs or about the effect he had on the person who endowed a professorship in his name. I lack the depth of knowledge about Rothfels to judge his good qualities against his negative ones. I believe it is up to those who could know these things — the professors and other scholars at the University — to decide if the professorship should be renamed. But I personally think that it would be appropriate for a history professorship — which would be for a field of study that focuses on the complexity of past events and figures — to be named after an individual with a complicated life.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.