From Rome to Russia, all societies manipulate history

Jhe caricature has a king on his throne addressing a courtier. “I’m concerned about my legacy,” he says. “Kill the historians.” So it might seem like it happened.

How we record the past is making headlines right now. In February 2020, Matthew Connelly of Columbia University wrote how, under President Trump, “vital information is actually suppressed or destroyed, so no one – not the press and government watchdogs today , nor historians tomorrow – will have the chance to see them”. And in the past two months, we have learned that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to rewrite his country’s history and Russian President Vladimir Putin to liquidate the Memorial Research Group and its archives that document Gulag prison camps. .

What form of history should be taught is, of course, also a subject of intense debate in the United States. and/or republican of the population, so that what happened is now a vital political question.

Read more: “Critical Race Theory is simply the latest bogeyman.” Inside the battle over what kids learn about America’s history

Yet such revisionism itself has a long history, dating back at least to ancient Rome. Tacitus begins his Annals: “The stories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of fear, then, after their death, were composed under the influence of hatreds still alive.

From telling the story of the Spanish Armada (valiant little British ships against huge Spanish ships) to heroic tales of the Battle of Britain, British history is full of myths. After 1945, the country exulted as it recounted how the country had united valiantly in the World War, preserving Britain’s place as one of the three great powers – what military historian Michael Howard called ” the nursery story”, as sent by the 1960s satirical journal Beyond the Fringe in its sketch “Aftermyth of War”.

Read more: Britain can no longer hide behind the myth that its empire was benign

The French saw themselves as the decisive factor in the outcome of the First World War; many in the United States have only a vague idea of ​​who helped them win the Second. Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana from 1960 to 1966, commissioned huge murals to show European scientists being educated by African predecessors, a fiction he felt was necessary for national self-respect.

It is rare that a single nation or country has not shaped its history to its advantage. The late 19th century French historian Ernest Renan is famous for his statement that “forgetting” is “essential to the creation of a nation”, his positive critique of Goethe’s brutal aphorism, ” Patriotism corrupts history.” But that is why nationalism often sees history as a threat. What governments declare to be true is one reality, the judgments of historians are another. “History always emphasizes terminal events,” Albert Speer commented 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 overshadowed by its eventual disintegration.

Another case study is in Japan. Between December 1937 and January 1938, his army invaded China, rampaging for six weeks, massacring three hundred thousand civilians and raping over twenty thousand women. (Both figures are Chinese estimates and are likely exaggerated, but since no records have been kept, the exact figures are unknown.) Other crimes were committed over the next seven years, from the use of gas toxic to the Bataan Death March.

But a post-war Japan has not come to terms with such knowledge. Nationalist historians began to question whether the Nanjing Massacre ever took place and, in October 1999, an alternative textbook for schoolchildren, kokumin no rekishi (The Story of a Nation) was published, extolling Japan’s wartime record while vehemently attacking those who publicized its outrages. The founder of this faction, a 53-year-old education teacher named Nobukatsu Fujioka, said that past events were not a frozen tabulation: “History is not just something that involves the discovery and interpretation of sources. It is also something that needs to be rewritten according to the changing reality of the present.

Japanese historian Michiko Hasegawa posed the question, “Why don’t people look at history honestly?” His words invite an ironic response, given that Hasegawa argues that the atrocities committed by the Japanese military never happened or at least were greatly exaggerated. To date, Japan has not prosecuted a single war criminal. Since 1985, its prime ministers have made a point of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo, where the remains of more than a thousand war criminals, including fourteen Class A criminals, are buried. there is a museum that reiterates the revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history. The Nanjing Massacre is described as an “incident”; the story recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda. This is understandable, but also tragic.

It could be argued that all wars require a heroic narrative, to inspire soldiers to risk their lives and, once the conflict is over, to ensure that they and their survivors believe they have not suffered or died in vain. However, such comfort is very expensive. As John Carey said: “One of the most useful tasks in history is to make us realize how acutely, honestly and painfully past generations have pursued goals which now seem to us false or shameful” .

Without confronting the reality of what happened before, however, this lesson is not learned.

Japan isn’t alone in retouching its past, given that there’s hardly a nation that hasn’t, to some degree, butchered the tales of its history. “I know it’s fashionable to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” George Orwell wrote in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “I am prepared to believe that history is largely inaccurate and biased, but what is unique to our time is the abandonment of the idea that history could be written faithfully. The problem continued to torment him. Three years later, he goes further: “Already, countless people would find it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.

Read more: Putin’s war on Ukraine shows the terrible power of history

Thus the situation Orwell satirized in One thousand nine hundred and eighty four with its vocabulary of state power and deception – Big Brother, Hate Week, Newspeak, doublethink and the thought police: “The past has been erased, the erasure has been forgotten, the lie has become the truth.” . . . The story has stopped. Nothing exists but an endless present in which the Party is always right.

In June 2007, during a televised national conference of secondary school teachers in Moscow, Putin complained about the confusion he saw in the teaching of Soviet history and demanded well-established criteria. He tells history teachers:

“As for some problematic pages in our history, yes, we have had them. But what state hasn’t? And we had fewer such pages than others [states]. And ours weren’t as horrible as some others’. Yes, we had terrible pages: let’s remember the events from 1937, let’s not forget them. But other countries have had no less, and even more. . . . All sorts of things happen in the history of every state. And we can’t afford to be burdened with guilt.

Meanwhile, the battle for a good story continues. As Francis Bacon said so well, truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.

Copyright © 2022 by Narrative Tension, Inc.. Excerpt from forthcoming book MAKING HISTORY: The storytellers who shaped the past by Richard Cohen, forthcoming by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.

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