Telling the Truth, but Whose? Yours or Mine?
16 April 2007

'The truth' is a thorny subject. Whose truth, yours or mine? But perhaps we can be clearer on its opposite: lies and untruth. Perhaps truth and lies are less absolute states than permanent struggles. 'Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened,' said Sir Winston Churchill, never short of a pithy phrase.

Ten years ago now, Switzerland, the peaceful country where I live, went through something of a national trauma over the national history during the Second World War. Largely through external and media pressures, a government-financed group of historians was set up to produce a report over 'dormant bank accounts' of Jewish victims of Nazism, and the wartime compromises and policies of the Swiss government. Just recently, marking the tenth anniversary of the start of the commissions work, Jean-François Bergier, the historian-President, sadly noted that their report had not had the impact that he'd hoped, had not been taken into the thinking and politics of the country. But he helpfully reminded us that this massive and critical examination of the past was not a question of apportioning blame or judging our forebears. Rather it was an attempt to tell the truth.

The truth, of course, has many sides to it, many facets. Some of the older generation in Switzerland, enraged by this re-examination of the past, made themselves look foolish by saying that no-one who had not lived through a period had any right to say anything about it – which taken literally would mean that most of us could say nothing about the Second World War – but no-one could now talk about events further back in the past! But these reactions led to an audio-visual archive of the period being created, gathering the stories of hundreds of ordinary people – a positive outcome, and one of real help for future historians.

I am struck by how hard it is for nations to be willing to confront their past, and to want to tell the truth. We pride ourselves in our democracies on our freedom – including the freedom of information and media – but there are strange 'black holes of history'. The recent book by Initiatives of Change International’s President, Mohamed Sahnoun, Wounded Memory (it is published so far only in French) touches on one such black hole that is starting to be addressed: the Algerian war and Algeria's relations with France. Spain is struggling with memories of its civil war, with the children of forgotten victims leading the search for hidden collective graves. Between Japan and China and other former enemies of the last war, in Turkey, in so many places, the past is still so alive – and mostly toxic.

It's always easier to discern other people's and nations' 'black holes' than our own. I've read several painful – for me – history books recently. One was about the struggle to end the Atlantic Slave trade – a great story of thousands of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people mobilizing to end a great wrong. But we shouldn't lose sight of the great wrong, which perhaps marks the African continent to this day. And then in Kenya: Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag – the brutal end of Empire in Kenya, and David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged – the dirty war in Kenya and the end of Empire. To my shame, I'd unconsciously held to the idea that the British might have done some pretty terrible things here and there, but that at least we weren't as bad as the French! Having read these books, now I'm not so sure. But in any case, it's not a question of balancing the books of blame, but truth-telling.

How can we help each other to cherish the truth? How can we build the trust that is the best natural fertilizer for the truth to grow? These are questions that lie at the heart of many Initiatives of Change programmes and at the heart of its history: Hope in the Cities, in the USA and UK, Initiative-Dialogue in France… It is one important strand in the dialogue and alliance of civilizations that the United Nations seeks to promote. The Bible says, 'Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.' Telling the truth, with love, as best we may, is a step towards healing the wounded memories.


Thanks for a very interesting analysis of 'what is truth' and its historical context.

To me, this debate lies at the very heart of the difference between mental and spiritual aspects of humanity. Truth at first appears to be an absolute, and purely a mental process, 'black and white', but once it is put into a spiritual context, the possibilty of grey areas and different viewpoints emerges.

This fits in with the historical analysis issue you raise. Interpretation of 'what is truth' will again depend on the spiritual stance of the analyst.

When using the term spiritual, I have in mind 'anything that is not physical or mental', in line with the Global Fitness Framework developed by Dr Jon Smith and myself. Thus mental covers the decision making process, but spiritual includes such aspects as ethics, motivation, morality, humanitarianism, global connectedness and religion.

The framework looks at physical, mental and spiritual fitness of individuals, groups and societies, and we are keen to encourage its use in historical analysis of such issues as slavery, colonialism, power and, ultimately, 'what is truth?'

If you are interested in collaborating to study these issues, I can send you copies of papers introducing the framework, our idea of global spirituality, our definitions of spirituality and religion, and thoughts on relevance of spirituality in the workplace.
John Rayment, 17 April 2007

Thank you to Andrew Stallybrass for this stimulating reflection on truth, not least in the context of history. I've recently resurrected a story I wrote following the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, in which a British army officer affected the surrender of the Argentine troops at Goose Green. But I am only too conscious that history is often written by the victors and seldom by the loosers. So while I was able to quote an Argentine conscripted soldier, who sought healing and reconciliation with the British, I really have little idea how most Argentinians feel to this day about the outcome of the war. A revealing portrait was shown recently on British television in a programme called 'Mummy's War', when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's daughter, Carol, visited the Falkland Islands, where she was feted, followed by her encounter in Buenos Aires with a group of Argentine mothers who had lost their sons in the war. It was painful indeed to see Carol Thatcher's total lack of comprehension of what these mothers had gone through, and the losses they suffered, in Argentina's abortive attempt to reclaim the islands which they see as historically theirs. Carol Thatcher's blunt assertion that 'We fought a war. You lost. We won', was met with gobsmacked incredulity by the mothers of Argentina's dead. Yet truth requires their perspective as much as the victors'. I felt ashamed indeed that the victor all too easily fails to live into the shoes, the reality, of the loser. Yet if there is to be any healing of history at all, that is precisely what is most needed. Abraham Lincoln's magnanimity after the American Civil War is a classic example to us all.
Michael Smith, 17 April 2007