History’s contradictions

Lovely Observer piece by Will Hutton:

Sometimes dealing with the past is easy. A few months ago, the college where I am principal (Hertford, Oxford) handed back a precious 16th-century atlas to its rightful owners – the Humboldt University library in Berlin. A British soldier had been offered it in exchange for a packet of cigarettes in the devastated streets of Berlin in May 1945. His father was an Oxford professor and for most of the last 70 years the Ortelius atlas had been first buried in his room and then locked in the college safe.

The 70th anniversary of the end of the war seemed as good a moment as any to return it. But what struck everyone at the small ceremony was how affected the German delegation, including representatives from the embassy and Humboldt University, were by what we were doing. It was a symbol of Germany’s relationship with Britain within a peaceful EU, an act of friendship all the more valuable because it had been freely offered and a recognition that history had moved on.

But more often than not history’s legacies are more unforgiving – a minefield in which yesterday’s and today’s realities seem irreconcilable…