Duelling histories

This week, we in The Review newsroom followed with interest a discussion happening on our Facebook page, after we posted a story about plans to honour Hanna Reitsch in a ceremony in Lachute. The problem is that Reitsch was an ardent Nazi. The organization cancelled its ceremony, but not before much debate had taken place.

The decision to honour her is only remotely defensible because she is considered the first woman helicopter pilot, and in our society, we now recognize that women have had to struggle to achieve equality. The first woman to break into a traditionally male workplace can be considered a hero in retrospect. So, arguably, as one of our readers wrote: “She was being honored for her achievement of being the first female to fly a helicopter . . . not for her beliefs.”

When the plans to honour her were cancelled, not everyone applauded. What she had done was “still an achievement,” said one commenter. The organizer of the event apparently agrees. In a CBC News story, she is quoted as saying: “If you’re aiming to talk about her maybe-controversial part in political history, to me, that’s not relevant.”

Why? There is a sense, in many of the comments supporting the decision to honour her, that not honoring her would be some kind of betrayal of history. Making that argument requires believing that being the first female helicopter pilot is objectively important, but participating in a genocide is an irrelevant accident of history. Reitsch would be praised for her prowess as a pilot, but not held responsible for her unrepentant Nazism. It makes no sense.

We can’t change history, but it’s doubtful we can look at it objectively, either. Whenever we pluck someone out of history in order to honour them, the choice is a reflection of what we now believe to be important. The organizers of the event were trying to be apolitical, maybe, but it’s not that easy. Honoring the first woman helicopter pilot is political. Ignoring her Nazi history is political.

In fact, there’s no way to honour someone from the past that’s not in some way political. And that’s fine. But it’s important to make careful choices. We can excavate the stories of incredible women who were ignored or disrespected during our sexist history. We can also, as many universities and cities have, rename buildings and monuments that were built to honour people with whom we now disagree. When you give someone a medal or put their name on a building, what you’re saying is: we admire you. You’re not making a statement about our past, so much as a statement about our present, and future.

Here’s another quote from an organizer, Marguerite Varin: “Are we going to do something and change the world and make it a better world, or are we going to keep on talking about the past?”

The irony here is obvious. The original ceremony was all about the past. But it was a very specific interpretation of history: one that was particularly convenient for a group of people celebrating women in aviation. But, if we want a better world, like Varin said, we should start by trying to be better than our predecessors. And a big part of that is looking beyond our own narrow agendas.

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