THe cartoon shows a king addressing a courtier from his throne. “I’m concerned about my legacy,” he says. “Kill the historians.” So, it might seem, it has come to pass.
The current news is about how we preserve the past. In February 2020 Matthew Connelly of Columbia University wrote how under President Trump “vital information is actually being deleted or destroyed, so that no one—neither the press and government watchdogs today, nor historians tomorrow—will have a chance to see it.” And in the last two months we have learned that China’s President Xi Jinping plans to rewrite his country’s history and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to liquidate the research group Memorial and its archives that document the Gulag prison camps.
The U.S. is still arguing about what form of history should we teach. The proponents of the 1619 Project argue for one version of America’s history, while another version is furiously defended by a huge—notably white, Evangelical, and/or Republican—section of the population, so that what is the past is now a vital political issue.
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However, such revisionism is not new. It has a long history dating back to at most ancient Rome. Tacitus began his Annals: “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.”
British history is full of myths, from the Spanish Armada tale (small British vessels fighting massive Spanish ships) to the heroic stories of the Battle of Britain. After 1945, the country exulted in tales of how the country had all pulled together valiantly during the world war, preserving Britain’s place as one of the Big Three powers—what the military historian Michael Howard has called “nursery history,” as sent up by the 1960s satirical revue Beyond the Fringe in its sketch “Aftermyth of War.”
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France believed that they had been the crucial factor in the First World War’s outcome. Many Americans only have a vague idea about who was involved in the Second. Kwame Nkrumah was the president of Ghana between 1960 and 1966. He commissioned murals showing European scientists being taught by African counterparts. This fiction was necessary to ensure national self-respect.
It is rare for a nation or country to have not used its history in a positive way. The late-19th-century French historian Ernest Renan is famous for his statement that “forgetfulness” is “essential in the creation of a nation,” his positive gloss on Goethe’s blunt aphorism, “Patriotism corrupts history.” But this is why nationalism often views history as a threat. The truths declared by governments are one thing, but historians’ judgments can be quite different. “History always emphasizes terminal events,” Albert Speer commented sharply to his American interrogators just after the end of the war. He hated the idea that what he saw as the earlier achievements of Hitler’s government would be eclipsed by its final disintegration.
Japan offers another example. It invaded China in December 1937, and went on a 6-week-long rampage that saw it massacring 3100 000 civilians, and raping over twenty thousand females. Both figures come from Chinese estimates. They are probably exaggerated. But, since there are no records, the exact number is unknown. Over the following seven years there were many other crimes, including the poison gas use and the Bataan Death March.
However, Japan after the war did not accept such information. Nationalist historians started to doubt whether or not the Nanjing Massacre actually occurred, and an alternative textbook was created for schools in October 1999. Kokumin no rekishi (The History of a Nation) was released, extolling Japan’s wartime record while vehemently attacking those who publicized its outrages. The founder of this faction, a 53-year-old professor of education named Nobukatsu Fujioka, declared that past events were not a fixed tabulation: “History is not just something that involves the discovery and interpretation of sources. It is also something that needs to be rewritten in accordance with the changing reality of the present.”
The Japanese historian Michiko Hasegawa has posed the question: “Why is it that people do not look at history honestly?” Her words invite an ironic response, given that Hasegawa argues that the atrocities committed by the Japanese military never occurred or at least have been greatly exaggerated. Japan has yet to prosecute a single war criminal. Since 1985, Japan’s prime ministers made it a habit of going to the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine in Tokyo that houses the remains of over a thousand war criminals, as well as fourteen Class A felons. Next door to the shrine is a museum that reiterates the revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history. The Nanking Massacre is referred to as “an incident”; history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda. It is both understandable and tragic.
You might say that wars need a hero narrative to motivate soldiers and ensure their survival after conflict ends. But such comforting can come at a great price. As John Carey has said: “One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly, and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.”
This lesson is not learned without confronting the truth of the past.
Japan isn’t the only country to have manipulated its past. There are hardly any countries that has not done so. “I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” wrote George Orwell in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history Could be truthfully written.” The problem continued to trouble him. Three years later he went further: “Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.”
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This is the scenario Orwell mocked in Nineteen Eighty-Four with his vocabulary of state power and deception— Big Brother, Hate Week, Newspeak, doublethink, and the Thought Police: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth. . . . History is over. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Putin complained about confusion in Soviet history teaching and demanded that well-established standards be followed during the national televised conference for high school teachers in Moscow in June 2007. The history teachers heard his words:
“As to some problematic pages in our history—yes, we’ve had them. But what state hasn’t? And we’ve had fewer of such pages than some other [states]. Ours was not quite as terrible as the others. There have been some horrible pages in our history. But let’s not forget the terrible events that began in 1937. However, other countries have seen more. . . . Every state’s history is filled with many different events. And we cannot allow ourselves to be saddled with guilt.”
In the meantime, we continue to fight for historical excellence. Francis Bacon said that truth was the daughter not of authority but of time.
Copyright © 2022 by Narrative Tension, Inc.. From the forthcoming book MAKING HISTORY: These Storytellers Shaped History by Richard Cohen, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Permission to print.
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