This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in which the country’s ethnic Hutus slaughtered around 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, in 100 days. Although plenty of survivors, politicians of the day and those responsible for the killings are still around, the details of what happened remain hotly contested.

Linda Melvern, whose third book about the genocide, Intent to Deceive, will be published in April, argues that there has been a “campaign of denial” by a network of academics, journalists, lawyers and French former military officers, intent on “minimising, distorting and altering” the facts.

“There continue to be claims of a double genocide, originally suggested by [French] President François Mitterrand in 1994,” she said.

There were an estimated 30,000 reprisal killings in 1994, and she claims that “numerous attempts at moral equivalence have been made”.

Genocide scholars have observed that a common feature of mass killings is not only the intention to eliminate a group of people, but also the inability, or refusal, to allow free discussion of it afterwards. So, some of the most traumatic and complex episodes in a country’s history become the most taboo, the most disputed or the most controlled as perpetrators and their backers defend their reputations and the status quo.

 Yet the way a nation or a society faces up to such an atrocity affects how it functions in the future.

Every citizen was a victim, a perpetrator, or somewhere in the grey area between the two and, especially in rural areas, people often know what their neighbours did and who they betrayed.

Alternative narratives about Rwanda garner eager listeners among diaspora Hutus, who blame the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, whose forces ended the slaughter, for their exile. However, Phil Clark, reader in comparative and international politics at SOAS University of London, believes the Rwandan government has alienated the Hutus by its tight control of the genocide narrative, especially during times of national remembrance.

“The RPF made a mistake in heavily suppressing any crimes that had been committed against the Hutus,” he said. “There’s no moral equivalence, but crimes against Hutus did occur, and sometimes involved the RPF. Some RPF figures admit in private that they should have acknowledged that some revenge killings took place, and should have prosecuted some RPF figures.”

A law passed in 2008 banned the promotion of “genocide ideology”, which Amnesty International said suppressed political dissent and freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, there is much to commend in Rwanda’s handling of the aftermath, such as a Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre modelled on Israel’s YadVashem Holocaust museum, and the establishment of community-based Gacaca courts in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were able to give testimony. In addition, Clark says grievances have been reduced by a socio-economic programme that has benefited Tutsi and Hutu alike.

Like the Rwandan government, the legitimacy of the post-genocide government in Cambodia rests on its overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, during whose rule, in the 1970s, about one-fifth of the population was killed or died from starvation or disease.

“Every citizen was a victim, a perpetrator, or somewhere in the grey area between the two and, especially in rural areas, people often know what their neighbours did and who they betrayed,” argued Yale University anthropologist Eve Zucker.

But the Cambodian People’s Party that succeeded the Khmer Rouge has repeated the narrative that the perpetrators were Pol Pot and his closest henchmen; that lower-ranking leaders were victims themselves (many defected to the CPP); and that the authoritarian CPP, including its prime minister of 33 years, Hun Sen, a former KR battalion commander, had nothing to do with the murderous regime. Public holidays mark the overthrow of the KR and offer citizens an opportunity to express their hatred of it.

Genocide investigator and Harvard academic Craig Etcheson pointed out: “The ‘big lie’ technique continues to work if you repeat something over and over.”

The UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal, established in 1997, has tried a handful of senior, now elderly, men and two were convicted for the first time of genocide in November 2018. This validated ordinary Cambodians’ experiences and made discussing them easier. Until the early 2000s Cambodians shuddered to mention the KR, because of the group’s ongoing insurgency and unofficial presence in government.

The trauma of the victims has been “for the most part suppressed”, Etcheson said, and even now, “most Cambodians don’t trust the government, don’t trust much of anybody”.

This, he says, has left society atomised and riven with high levels of domestic violence, rape and gang rape. However, many young people born after the Khmer Rouge was ousted have enjoyed more education than their parents and are developing a dim view of the CPP. Over the last 11 years, the country’s secondary schools have adopted a textbook, written by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an NGO founded by Etcheson and others, which describes the KR in academic rather than the government’s terms. Zucker argues that reconciliation work by NGOs can result in former lower-level KR leaders issuing apologies and being accepted back into the community. “In some cases, their whole demeanour changes,” she said, adding that others were rehabilitated after doing good deeds such as serving in Buddhist temples. 

Whereas in Cambodia discussion of its genocide is increasing after decades of government-led suppression, in Europe surely the most-analysed “genocide of genocides” is facing new challenges to the extent that it can be freely discussed.

Germany’s laudable record of reconciling itself to the Holocaust is familiar: trials of senior Nazis; reparations to Israel; museums; city-centre memorials; Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling outside the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1970. Schoolchildren visit concentration camps and plaques have been put up outside victims’ homes. The Germans even developed a word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, for “coming to terms with the past”, but that wasn’t always easy.

“In West Germany, you had lots of ex-Nazis who quickly found themselves in the government of West Germany,” said William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University. “[In Soviet-controlled East Germany,] there wasn’t as much free speech … and there was also a kind of smug satisfaction that they were pro-Soviet, they were the people who had defeated the Nazis.”

Not that East Germans did not need to come to terms with what had gone before. Elke Schwarz,who grew up in West Germany and lectures in political theory at Queen Mary’s, London, said the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 pushed East Germans to come to terms with the surveillance, violence and depression that had become endemic.

Today, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland is the largest opposition party in the German parliament and, says Schwarz, its rhetoric rejects the Vergangenheitsbewältigung legacy in favour of a nostalgia for military prowess and a “mysticism about the good old days”.

Genocide can be followed by the denial of the crimes committed, or of some of the grey areas around them. While eliminating hate speech is important for stability, honest discussion and exploration of events are necessary for a society’s longer-term functioning.

The records of Germany’s neighbours have also been mixed. In January, amid the rising tide of nationalism in eastern Europe, Poland was criticised for a step it took to emphasise its wartime suffering and play down any complicity. Under its socially conservative right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, MPs passed a law prohibiting anyone from accusing the Polish state or Polish nation of being responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes, and advocating fines or prison sentences for those found guilty.

Poland rejects the term “Polish death camps” because the camps on its soil were Nazi-run. Six million Poles, of whom half were Polish Jews and half non-Jewish Poles, were murdered in Nazi-run camps. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was furious with the new law and described it as an “attempt to rewrite history”. In June, an amendment was passed to downgrade penalties to civil offences.

Nowhere is the fight for Poland’s war narrative more clearly seen than at the Gdansk Museum of the Second World War, which opened in 2017 after being commissioned by the former prime minister Donald Tusk. The current PiS government has found it “not Polish enough”—its founding curator was removed and some of the exhibits were changed.

So genocide can be followed by the denial of the crimes committed, or of some of the grey areas around them. While eliminating hate speech is important for stability, honest discussion and exploration of events are necessary for a society’s longer-term functioning.

Paul Roth, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that societies with just one received narrative of events tend to cope badly if that narrative is challenged, and they are “more brittle”. The emergence of new nationalisms, and terms such as “post-truth” and “fake news”, show that maintaining accurate and fair narratives is an ongoing task.

This article first appeared in the global quarterly Index on Censorship magazine.