Internationalise history!

by Thomas Rodham Wells

ScreenHunter_559 Mar. 17 10.01

Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history

History too important to be left to national politicians and their ideological visions of national identity and social engineering projects.

First, the principle. History should be truthful, relevant, and just. As an intellectual enterprise history is a matter of fact not opinion, the discovery and painstaking corroboration of contingent events by rigorous peer-reviewed methods. People have a right to an official story that is also true, even if that is upsetting or inconvenient for some politicians or dominant ethnic groups. Children have the right to study the truth rather than propaganda, to be respected as future citizens rather than being used as pawns in a game of social engineering. It is as ridiculous to have national politicians imposing their opinions and calling it history as it would be for them to choose what kind of evolutionary theory gets taught. The idea of ‘national histories' should be replaced with the idea of international history, in which a basic requirement is that every historical account should be compatible with each other. There should be no more of the competitive victimhood in which every country teaches its children that they were the ones attacked without provocation.

Of course it is reasonable for national governments to decide to some extent which areas of the country's history should be the main focus in schools. But national curriculums should not only meet the bare truth requirement. They should also pay adequate attention to the dark side of a nation's past – the oppression of empire, the moral quagmire of occupation, the crimes of autocrats and their accomplices, and so on. The victims of national crimes, and their descendants inside and outside the country, have a particular right to have the crimes against them acknowledged, as in the case of Turkey's Armenian genocide or Japan's war-time atrocities across Asia.

Second, there should be a grievance mechanism that reflects the fact that the way history is taught is a matter not only for national governments, but of human rights below and international relations above. I like the model of the European Court of Human Rights, to which both individuals and other member states can bring cases of rule-breaking by national governments. But instead of legal judges we would have a panel of internationally respected academic historians. False, substantially misleading, or unjust history curriculums would lead to legally binding rulings against propagandist governments including fines and reform requirements.

History is about matters of fact as science is about matters of rational truth. Yet, while more or less the same science is taught in schools all over the world, with the exception of a few theocracies, history is often opinion taught as fact, i.e. propaganda. In supposedly liberal places like America and western Europe, one may find fewer outright lies, but inconvenient or shameful parts of national histories, such as the ghastliness of colonialism, are still skipped over or whitewashed in the curriculum. The general aim seems to be to unite the country in a shared national pride. Yet, as I've argued elsewhere, facing up to your country's shameful past is a necessary part of what real national honour requires. Deliberate self-deception will haunt a country as the portrait of Dorian Gray haunted him from the attic. And in any case, this kind of national pride rests on the shaky foundations of informational control – rather difficult in these days of Wikipedia.

But enough about truth, justice and honour. Countries have prudent as well as moral reasons to internationalise their histories. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme. Without a generally shared, truthful understanding of how things really happened, it is easy for a country to fall back into the same old dangerous patterns, especially the seductive allure of war or autocracy in times of political crisis. Moreover, bad history often has international implications. A country which indoctrinates its children with myths of historical grievance against its neighbours, such as China, or which glorifies past imperial militarism, such as Russia, will find it difficult to get those neighbours to trust in their good intentions. Those neighbours have reason to worry about future aggression driven by popular nationalism, and may militarise their own societies as a result, thus increasing the likelihood of war.

Indeed, peace may be the greatest pay off of internationalising history. Most armed conflicts are fuelled by popular moral tribalism not the realpolitik of cunning statesmen: a shared faith in the righteousness of your group's cause and a belief that the other side are monsters. Various explanations for this tribalism have been advanced, but they are generally some version of a deep conflict between different, incompatible value systems. The New Atheists, for example, like to blame religion, since religions tend to generate ultimate value systems that are backed up by divine metaphysics and hence brook no compromise. Such accounts suggest that moral tribalism is caused by differences in abstract ideas i.e. people are ready to kill each other for having the wrong metaphysical beliefs.

I have never found this very convincing. First, since religion in most of the world is still a matter of inheritance rather than individual conscience, the value-clash account doesn't add much to the general perception that the fault-lines between warring groups tend to be ethnic ones, especially in civil wars. Second, religion seems to work more as a marker of group identity, for example as a shibboleth that is hard for outsiders to fake – as 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' labels work in Northern Ireland – than as a driver of conflict itself. On the whole, religious affiliation seems to have more to do with determining which tribe you fall into, or which you will fall back into when the chips are down, than it does in generating the conflicts themselves.

The roots of many conflicts lie in contradictory beliefs about the way this world works rather than about the divine world, and an important part of that are the very different histories told in each tribe about how the other has thought and acted in the past.

In the Ukraine, for example, Soviet era history painted a picture (continued in current Russian propaganda) of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism's innate association with Nazism and the murder of Jews, Poles and Russians. While on the nationalist side under President Yushchenko, Stalin's crime's took centre stage and the leader of a gang that carried out mass murder, Stepan Bandera, was officially declared a ‘Hero of Ukraine'. Virulent mistrust is a natural consequence of this use of government authority to perpetuate self-serving tribalist narratives, fuelling both the Maidan revolution and the illegitimacy with which many in the East of the country see the new government.

Likewise, the simmering crisis between Japan and China has much to do with the nationalistic propaganda taught in schools and little to do with the fate of a few uninhabited rocks in the sea. In China the hardly communist any more ruling party seems to have been after an additional pillar for the legitimacy of its rule but has managed to unleash a tide of grievance based nationalistic aggression among its young people that it struggles to hold in check. In Japan the failure of schools to clearly and unequivocally explain the crimes of the short-lived Japanese empire (in contrast to Germany) has allowed an aggressive nationalist movement to flourish that portrays Japan entirely as a victim and demands repeal of the pacifist constitution.

It is often these divergent distorted histories of victimhood and blamelessness – rather than the usual suspects, moral relativism and religious fanaticism – that create and sustain dangerous moral tribalisms. By connecting present politics to past betrayals they perpetuate stereotypes of the homogeneity and monstrousness of the other group; and they drive people further into their own sectarian identity, in search of security and united by a sense of grievance, at the expense of their other, broader identities as citizens or as human beings. Historical relativism is thus directly relevant to modern politics and especially the failure of politics that leads to armed conflicts between and within states. It is a danger to peace as well as truth and justice.