Heyoka’s Workbench

Judging the Past

Photo: Two covers of old Czech matchboxes (from the ČSSR)

In another article, I’ve already referred to the pernicious habit of judging the past by today’s standards, conditions, and knowledge.

I want to revisit this subject after I’ve read quite a lot of shrill »Boomer« bashing recently. The Boomers being the generation born in the two decades after the Second World War (in Germany, the decade between the mid 1950s and mid 1960s) and the common accusation being that they have left a wrecked world and did so against better judgment, even deliberately.

I’m not a Boomer, to be sure – too young for that. But I do not like unfairness and unreason.

Most Europeans, after the Second World War, were poor, very poor; victors as well as vanquished. They wanted peace, safety, food, some kind of normality. And after these basics had materialised, they began to strive for a better life – for themselves but even more so for their children or grand-children: the much-cited Boomers. Now, would it be surprising if their offspring had learned the lesson by them that material security was crucial and material wealth desirable?

And not to forget: a generation is not a homogeneous mass. Take the working class, for example: the decades following World War II were the first time in history that they were not totally excluded from growing prosperity. Are they to be blamed for having enjoyed their (still small) share? And what about the people who came from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey in those decades to work in the North? Are they or their descendants to be chided for their striving for some humble wealth?

Another thing I really cannot get my head around is why on earth only this one age group has incurred the wrath. Why not those born in the seventies, eighties, and nineties as well …?

At any rate, it’s not only unjust but rather unwise too, to blame the Boomers for not having had any concerns for the environment or sustainability (the word did not even exist then). The aggressive stance of some (not all, and certainly not even many) members of today’s young generations, often with a totally irrational despise and rage, might be explained by the crises that we are facing and that seem to top anything else in our history. But nonetheless this aggressiveness is unfounded, unfair, and utterly unhelpful.

Blaming older generations in such a wholesale manner shows two different flaws in viewing history. Firstly, we should – however difficult and frightening the global problems be – always be able to take a step back and ask ourselves how a Saxon or Bohemian farmer and his family might have felt in the Thirty Years’ War. Or everyone when the plague raged in Europe. Or take the American natives, the Australian aborigines, several African peoples when they faced extermination. Or the European Jews during the Shoah. Or the Chinese at the »Rape of Nanjing«. Or the people of Constantinople in 1453. Or our parents or grandparents during the Cuba Crisis (though annihilation did not become a reality then). Or … – Humankind has seen many dire times. Are you the one to claim that our problems are the worst of all?

Secondly, we must never look at historic events, at decisions and actions in bygone decades and centuries without the context from which they emerged and in which they took place.

It’s always been easier for us human beings to grasp the drawbacks of our doings, of our proclivities when we already see or feel the consequences. And moreover, if you live in safety, in liberty and in abundance, it’s easy to decide that the one or other thing should be dispensable or might even be bad.

Look at the people in the former Soviet block – the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Yugoslav peoples, the Albanians, the Russians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and all the other peoples in the crumbling USSR. Not to forget the Germans in the former GDR, of course. Would you have been the one, after the fall of the Iron Curtian, to tell them that consumerism is bad and that they should not emulate the Western life style? Would today’s Boomer bashers have told them?

And would these young fellows address people in Africa or Asia or Latin America with the same harshness they display towards their elders? I’m dead sure there are a lot of people in what we used to call the Third World who are longing, besides safety, for the same standard of living, the very same items of wealth that were cherished by the much-berated Boomers (and by all the following age cohorts, for that matter …): a convenient home with decent space for everyone in the family, good food, air-conditioning, mobility, electric devices – household appliances as well as tablets, smartphones, large screens, and other gadgets –, fancy clothes, toys, …

Would our Boomer bashers attack those people, insult them, »cancel« them?

One might accuse me of undue relativism. I’d not be surprised. – But I’d take this objection not as a reproach but as a sign indicating that we’re getting to the point: history is relative. Even the present is. (The terrifying monster right before you might be a small beetle on a white wall if you take a step back or two. Or a beetle on a wall covered with hundreds of bugs if you’re out of luck.)

I’m not sure if this phenomenon of aggressive ranting against Boomers can be found in other countries, too, or if it’s a German thing. I assume, though, that those bashers do not speak for a large part of the young folks but rather are a small set of extremists and social media hooligans who, like with several other topics, know how to make themselves heard and how to dominate the public agenda. They cannot (yet) dominate people’s private lives, however. – Some weeks ago, I joined the traditional Easter hike of my maternal kinship. We were forty-seven persons of all ages from some months to over seventy years. And it was great! These people are no ethereal beings who never quarrel. They have their conflicts and their problems. But all in all they stick together. And that’s why they have been able to cope with problems and tough times and always will.