Foregoing The Honor

News-flash! Adolf Hitler de-honored by Austria town!

Which might mean more if, you know, Adolf Hitler were still alive.

Or if anyone could remember whether he’d received the honor in the first place.

Yes, it’s that strange. The town of Braunau, Austria, the area where the infamous Nazi dictator was born, has revoked Hitler’s honorary citizenship. There’s no record as to whether it actually granted him one, but by jingo, they’re taking it back!

It’s actually part of a trend among Austrian towns these days. One by one, each has been symbolically stripping him of any honors that didn’t automatically expire at his death in 1945. In dubious cases … well, better safe than sorry, right?

In other news, the United States will be removing Al Capone’s membership in the AAA auto club. I mean, there’s no proof that he belonged, but you can’t be too careful. And John Gotti, your Reader’s Digest book club membership is on notice.

I won’t say it’s an entirely meaningless gesture. How and if a society remembers someone can be important. Nobody wants to be the town with the Joseph Stalin High School or the Bernie Madoff Civic Auditorium, after all. Heck, it hasn’t been that long since Longmont had its own debate over Chivington Drive, named for a hero of the Civil War battle of Glorieta Pass – and the leader of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre two years later.

But at a certain level, memory only matters so much. (Especially when you don’t quite remember what you’re remembering.) What matters is what you do going forward.

Imagine for a second that I was the biggest bully in my high school. (Well, make that “most notorious bully” – I was about 145 pounds soaking wet my senior year.) Imagine that I left so many hurt lives and bruised bodies that today, 20 years down the line, Longmont High School decided it wanted to apologize. As a symbolic gesture, my name is taken off the old roster of the school newspaper and removed from the programs of school plays. The school even – gasp! – rescinds the letter I received for choir.

But if it does nothing for the kids suffering from bullies now, they may as well have spent their time and energy replacing the carpet instead.

It’s great that the towns of Austria want to symbolically spit in the Fuhrer’s face. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. But how much are they, or any of us, ready to act against today’s villains, today’s evils, today’s prejudices? How readily will we stand up against the selfish and the sinister before they’re 66 years in the grave?

That’s the real history test. And it’s the one later generations  will levy against us.

Assuming, of course, it hasn’t been filed with the citizenship documents.