Germany and Cambodia have a cruel history in common. The genocide and mass atrocities of the Khmer Rouge mirrored the German genocide and war crimes committed during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.
After World War II, German society shied away from dealing with its own past for too many years. People were afraid of the old Nazis: They were traumatized, afraid of being confronted with their own crimes or were simply too busy rebuilding the nation.
It needed the American four-part television mini-series “Holocaust” starring Meryl Streep, aired in 1978—33 years after the end of the Nazi dictatorship—to start a lively debate in German society about such questions as: “How this could have happened?” and “How can it be prevented from ever happening again?”
Although “Holocaust” somewhat trivialized the events and was full of omissions and sometimes historical mistakes, it was watched by 20 million Germans and brought the issue of the genocide during World War II to public attention in a way that it had never been before. Still today, the discussions about the genocide in Germany have not ended.
Angelina Jolie’s film “First They Killed My Father” can play a similar role for Cambodian society, as highlighted in your article “Jolie’s Film Reopens Wounds, Brings Catharsis to Survivors” (February 20).
The film uses typical Hollywood instruments like music and showy effects, and far from fully explains how and why the Khmer Rouge came to power and committed horrendous crimes. But at least one would hope that people start discussing the film and talk within their own families about the past.
Denying and silencing the past will prevent the Cambodian people from healing. Ms. Jolie’s film can be a starting point to break the vicious circle of trauma, silence and injustice. Nobody would expect more—but it would already be a huge contribution to dealing with Cambodia’s past.
Heinrich Boll Stiftung