A place for reconciliation


Around the beautiful old city of Salzburg in Austria, “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, at least according to Julie Andrews´ character in the movie of that name. That is only fitting for the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a fact that is celebrated every year in the Salzburg festival of music and opera.

It is also, though, a place full of another sort of history, and another sort of search for harmony. Recently, I was a guest lecturer at what is called “the Salzburg Seminar”, a continuous series of courses and discussions that began in 1947 and was set up by some American university teachers and public officials as a venue within which people in Europe could meet and talk and generally overcome the differences that had caused them to fight two terrible wars during the first half of the 20th century.

Perhaps appropriately, the lovely old building the American academics took over and rebuilt as the seminar´s home, the Leopoldskron Palace (or Schloss, in German), was a headquarters for local Nazi commanders during world war two and then, much later, was the location for some of the filming in “The Sound of Music”. If you see the film and spot the characters on a terrace by a lake, that is Leopoldskron.

Moreover, just a 20 minute drive away, across the border inside Germany, stands the small mountain village of Berchtesgaden, which played an even bigger part in history, for it was Adolf Hitler´s favourite place in all the world. He had a big villa there, with a fabulous view of the German and Austrian mountains; around his villa also stood the homes of some of his closest aides, such as Herman Goering, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer.

Now, little trace of Hitler remains, except the terrible memory of what he did and the impact it had on the whole of Europe. Hitler´s villa stayed in American hands from 1945 until German reunification in 1991, at which point the Americans formally withdrew and so the German government had to accept it back, which they did highly reluctantly.

Since 1991, the building has been almost entirely destroyed to be replaced by woodland. But a few remnants can still be seen, including a complex of bunkers that were built towards the end of the war, and some parts of the walls. To descend into the bunkers is to be reminded of how awful the war must have been but also how determined were the Nazi leaders to survive. The tiny number of Nazi sympathisers still leave small shrines to Hitler in the woodland; on the day I visited, there were some small arrangements of candles there, like those one sees in European churches.

On one part of the site, a large resort hotel is under construction, part of an attempt to make visitors think of new enjoyable things, such as skiing or mountain hiking, rather than the history of Adolf Hitler. It has been dogged by controversy, however, with several investors withdrawing from the project for fear that the association with Hitler will doom it to failure.

All that reminded me of how difficult it is to erase the past completely, however much one tries to look forwards rather than backwards. Europe has been highly successful in replacing its old history of conflicts and resentments with a new future of co-operation in the European Union—though the end of communism and the liberation of east European countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have meant that the efforts at reconciliation have had to begin again, with countries with whom no reconciliation could take place during the cold war.

In that process, many institutions and organisations have taken part, including, in its small but inspiring way, the Salzburg Seminar. Many thousands of students, mainly politicians and civil servants, have attended its courses over the past half century, coming from countries all over the world. In the quiet of the Leopoldskron Palace or walking round its beautiful lake, they can discuss old historical grievances and enmities without feeling the pressure of the public gaze or of national politics.

Attending the seminar, and feeling the shadow of history cast from across the German border and through the mountains, I couldn´t help thinking of the many continuing examples of old historical disputes and grievances that still need to be resolved, even when sincere efforts have been made in the past to deal with them.

One of the biggest examples of such a need must surely lie in East Asia, in the still difficult relationships between Japan, China and South Korea. In terms of rational thought and simple economic interests, the issues that divide those three countries ought by now to be unimportant: for they are merely historical legacies that now date back almost 60 years. Soon, few people will be alive who have first-hand memories of them. Yet with such legacies, thought is rarely entirely rational and interests rarely simple. The disputes live on: over what happened, why it happened, who is to blame and, above all, what to tell today´s and tomorrow´s generations of children about it.

Perhaps in the next few years, though, there might be a chance to make progress on these issues and to begin to put history firmly in its place: in the past, not the present or future. The reason for optimism arises from changes taking place in all three countries: China´s economic development, which is making its citizens freer and more confident in themselves; Japan´s economic recovery after the stagnation of the 1990s, which should add to Japanese self-confidence as well as making politicians less defensive and obstructive; and South Korea´s maturing democracy, which, although still volatile, could now mean that its government officials and ministers may also feel freer to discuss and negotiate about sensitive subjects.

Nothing could be more necessary than that Japan, China and South Korea, three countries that have long fascinated me, should find ways to learn from Europe´s experience in reconciliation, ways to discuss historical issues and school textbooks and all the other grievances in a quiet, peaceful, co-operative manner—perhaps somewhere with music, with a beautiful lake and a gorgeous old palace.