Thursday, March 08, 2007

Money trivializes?

Historian Michael Marrus's lecture on Wednesday was about a specific legal case involving the deportation by railway of one man and his brother from Toulouse to Paris in 1944. Their forced railway trip was part of the Holocaust in France, which was then under a German puppet regime. What made Marrus's talk so interesting was that it was more generally a series of observations he, as a historian or layperson, makes when looking into the intricacies of legal proceedings stemming from a period of history about which he knows so much. I wasn't able to formulate any thoughts about the talk Wednesday night, but I want to make some comments now.

One of the main points Marrus and other make about monetary settlements in disputes between the victims (or their descendants) and the perpetrators (or their heirs) of major crimes---in his case, "administrative wrongs" ("fauts de service") committed by French National Railways during the Holocaust in France---is that they trivialize the crime. I was reminded of his lecture this morning while reading about the Japanese comfort women who, during the Second World War, were forced to become military sex slaves by Japanese authorities. Today's NYT's article notes that

In 1995 a private fund was set up to compensate the women, but many refused to accept any money because they saw the measure as a way for the government to avoid taking direct responsibility. Only 285 women have accepted money from the fund, which will be terminated at the end of this month.

In Marrus's case the direct victims are all dead. So too are all the perpetrators. But of course heirs, whether human, corporate, or governmental, do exist. And this in part makes legal recourse possible. At the lecture, Michael Bliss argued for the victims, seeing moral justification in their anger and desire for monetary compensation. Well, sure. But Marrus was making a bigger point, one that the Japanese comfort women would agree with: that although a judgement or administrative admission of responsibility for past crimes is of course a possible recourse for victims, it also trivializes the nature of the crime itself. And, he continued, the anger of the descendants of his railway victims had not diminished because of the trial and judgment. In the end, they got some money out of the company and the government---version 2006, not 1944---but this made little difference to their feelings about the crime. An interesting point.

In the question period, Eric Jennings, a modern French historian here at U of T, pointed out that the case, because it got so much press during and at the time of the settlement, at least made the French public more aware of it's own complicated WW2 past. Exactly by pointing an accusatory finger at French National Railways, an institution held in high regard by many French people not only for its good service today but also for railway workers' roles in the resistance during the war, the court case gives the French public an important history lesson. In the end, then, the legal proceedings may have a bigger impact beyond the monetary settlement. Soon enough, one might imagine, remembrance of how many euros were dolled out will fade away, but the sense of the railway's---and indeed the country's---complex past will remain. Hmm.

The final verdict? The law is an ass . . . or maybe not.

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