Something very odd happens when people get told a story of how other people with some shared characteristic have behaved in the past: they take it personal and see themselves in those ‘ancestors’, even if they share no actual family relationship to those people and even though they were of course not involved anyway. When a group of people who see themselves as Polish now get told a story of how other people described as Polish behaved 300 years ago, that story becomes part of the self-image of the listeners, making them proud when they hear something that sounds good about those previous Poles. When hearing something bad or shameful, they feel bad about their own ‘Polishness’.
People thus cannot help but ascribe historical continuity in their story of how they relate to the history of their country. Honesty dictates they shouldn’t, but they do and that has enormous consequences for the telling of the history of groups. It makes history politically contentious and a potential reason to go to war, to break up a country, or to work towards a positive shared future. The history story of groups should not be treated lightly.
The inevitability that people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’ forces a country that wishes to remain united and strong to police the story of its own history. A unified country needs to punish those who put something too negative for the living into the story of that history. The alternative is a recipe for civil war and break-up into smaller bits that then are prepared to police their national story.
Poland shows you how that policing is done. Spain and the UK show you what happens if you don’t.
The Polish government, newly reelected in October 2019 with a majority in parliament, passed a law punishing anyone from mentioning Polish complicity in the Holocaust, despite ample evidence of enthousiastic complicity in WWII. After all, how could a thousand years of Catholicism in that area not lead to complicity? It is now illegal to bring up that evidence in Poland in a public forum.
The government also sacked the director of the national history museum and put a new one in place who ironed out any negative stories about Poles over the ages. The fault of any misdeeds in the past, like, say, the mass murder of the population of Gdansk by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, is now described as due to someone non-Polish, which means one must avert ones eyes when one looks at just who made up the rank and file in that army of the Teutonic knights.
Intellectuals are of course up in arms about this in Poland, but what the Polish government is doing can also be seen elsewhere in the world for the same underlying reason of needing a positive story for the population to buy into now.
[Added due to persistent misunderstandings:] One should of course not confuse the need for a positive history with blind adherence to the history telling of today, or that one should abide by the history telling of a large dominant group in a society. On the contrary, the logic of needing a positive story for the population to go forward leads one to advocate additional elements and changes in emphasis to the existing history telling to accommodate new migrants and marginalised groups in society. Rather than accepting a particular story and not revisiting history, one is then continuously updating one’s view of history to ensure (almost) no-one is depicted as having an evil history. What we are now seeing in the world is many countries re-defining their history, some indeed accommodating groups not previously catered for, but sometimes not accommodating the whole population but merely a large part of them. The history re-writing is inevitable, leaving out large minorities is not.
In India, a similar historic cleansing is underway to generate a continuous narrative from the Veddas to ‘modern’ Hinduism. In China, the government facilitated the creation of a story of 2,000 years of the Han Chinese nation, falling due to outsiders and rising again due to its innate greatness. We see similar processes in Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and much of Eastern Europe. In each case the new national history story is in a literal sense a made up story, concocted in committees and overseen by politicians, a fabrication that falls apart if you look too close.
It is not necessary that the actual events and interpretations in the favoured national history story are completely made up, though that is rather normal. What is necessary is that certain things are accentuated and others not, ie the perspective is always selective. Hence the new Polish national story does not have to pretend that the murder of the population of Gdansk did not happen, but it does require downplaying the role of anyone described as Polish as perpetrators.
We see stirrings of new history fabrications in the UK and Western Europe, usually in response to the failure to police or update old fabrications. The Catalan government since the 1990s churned out a story of Catalan history that is cleansed and that creates a national narrative for the Catalan people. That lead to civil unrest and the possible break-up of Spain, and reflects the failure of the Spanish state to control the national history story in Catalonia.
Scotland has such stirrings too, for the same reasons and with the same consequences.
In the UK they just put a prime-minister in charge who has personally penned down a more romantic nationalistic story of the time under Churchill, leading the charge out of the EU by drawing on narratives of Imperial greatness. The main question in the UK on this point is whether the Brexit movement is channelled towards a resurgence of British Nationalism or towards English nationalism. If it goes the way of ‘rose tinted’ English national history revisionism, it means the break-up of the UK. If it goes the way of ‘rose tinted’ British national history revisionism, I think the union will survive.
I personally feel conflicted about the various fabrications. They offend me because I was taught to value truth and I don’t want to be constrained by a make-belief lalaland of national goodness. On the other hand I recognise that groups cannot function if they do not buy into a story that makes the members feel good about themselves. Without functioning large groups there is massive bloodshed, so if their stability requires history to be fabricated, then it must be fabricated. The alternative is the destruction of large group, and that can involve civil war, ethnic cleansing, and other mayhem. Breaking up the larger groups into smaller ones doesn’t help at all but just pushes the same issue one layer down, only stopping when there is policing of a fabricated story at that lower layer.
The ultimate question is whether peace is more important than truth. Surely it is.
Do I then not believe a country should face ‘the truth’ about its terrible history, learn its lessons and try and do better in the future, meanwhile reminding its citizens of the horrors they have been capable of?
No I do not because that ‘truth’ is just another fabrication, particularly when it comes to things no longer in living memory. You see, none of those alive were actually involved in what happened before their birth and all countries emerged from lots of different entities with lots of people mingling within it. So any story about ‘our past’ that divides the living into victims and perpetrators is a quite nefarious fabrication itself. It is simply another attempt at enslaving the audience to a particular self-image, and we should judge on the likely outcome.
So what matters about the fabrications is how they make you feel about your country and your place within that country now.
This does not mean we have to pretend humanity is good. If you need to remind people that humanity can be brutal, tell a general story of human brutality, but do not accentuate this in the story of your own group.
So I return to the point of my introductory paragraph: since people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’, countries must police the story of its own history and punish those who put something negative for the living into the story of that history. This is a basic duty of the state. The alternative means civil war and the break-up into smaller bits that are prepared to police their national story. So ultimately there is no alternative: we have to make up a positive national story that gives the vast majority of the population a positive view of their past.