The Guilt of Nations

Author Elazar Barkan, chair of the Cultural Studies Department at Claremont Graduate University, proposes a combination of symbolic and practical restitution as a way to begin the process of rendering historical injustices less divisive and permanent. Since it is not possible to restore the dead to life or replace all material losses, it is better to do something practical than to demand full recompense for sufferings which often cannot be calculated, or, if calculated, could never be paid. Moreover, the sheer number of victims in world history precludes any kind of ultimate justice being achieved.

It was once common for victors to demand tribute from the vanquished, but until very recently no one ever considered that the victors should pay the losers. Barkan places the historic moment of change shortly after World War II, when the Germans combined apologies for the Holocaust with compensations to Israel. Had money been the sole issue, an earlier date might have been picked, such as when the United States paid Mexico for land taken in war and individual innocent victims were compensated. Now, however, group rights were recognized in a way that was soon applied to injustices committed upon Japanese Americans, Maoris, Australian aborigines, and American Indians. Restitution has the potential of resolving disputes over the possession of art and becoming an alternative to affirmative action in providing justice to the descendants of American slaves.

Barkan suggests that the moral benefits of such a policy will combine with a limited improvement in existing social injustices to allow yet further progress toward conflict resolution.