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Review May 2024

Historical veracity under siege

Review by Paul Doolan
Edited By Kornelia Kończal and A. Dirk Moses, 2023
ISBN 9781032496498
200 Pages
Published by: Routledge
Monument to German Occupation in Budapest. Photo credit: Flickr/ Wally Gobetz - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

To call Patriotic History and the (Re)Nationalization of Memory a timely publication would be an understatement – it is alarming, disturbing and urgent. A collection of 15 essays, written by an international group of scholars and previously published in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2022, it maps the growth of state-encouraged patriotic histories across the Baltic and the Balkans, Western Europe and the USA, Israel and Turkey, as well as China, India and Russia. The collection demonstrates how historians have been thrown into the frontline of the so-called “culture wars” and how memory wars are entangled in very real conflicts. 

All contributions were written before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. However, the editors, Kornelia Kończal and A. Dirk Moses, penned the preface after the latest Russian aggression had started. With a nod to Marx, they proclaim that a spectre of patriotism is haunting the world and suggest that Russian aggression forms an example of the weaponization of memory. Borrowing a term from Mircea Eliade, they argue that the “‘terror of history’ […] has returned with a vengeance” (p. xiii).

Kończal and Moses explain that “patriotic” histories refer to nationalist narratives that distort historical evidence to promote “mythified, monumental and moralistic interpretations of the past” (p.1). The current surge in state-sanctioned patriotic histories share three disturbing characteristics. First, the ruthless methods used by authorities, including “memory laws that incentivize or criminalize certain narratives” (p. 3). The persecution of the Central European University in Hungary forms one such example. Second is “the increasing discrepancy between professional and political approaches to collective memory” (p. 3). Third is the global context of a post-truth environment “that devalues expert opinions, promotes personal beliefs and appeals to collective emotions” (p. 4). 

In contributions by Edwards Vickers (China), Seda Altuğ (Turkey), Yifat Gutman (Israel) Georgiy Kasianov (Ukraine), Andrea Pető (Hungary) Kornelia Kończal (Poland) and Violeta Davoliute (the Baltic States) we find governments passing laws or amending constitutions to forbid the production of historical knowledge that might be deemed unpatriotic. Altuğ shares the depressing statistic that 406 Turkish academics have been “banned for life from working in any academic institution” (p. 36). Gutman remarks that any historian in Israel who deviates from ethno-religious Neo-Zionist ideology is threatened with being singled out as an “enemy of the state” (p. 50). Kończal outlines how pseudo-legal methods are used in Poland to intimidate scholars exploring “the history of Polish complicity in the Holocaust (p. 104).

Vickers describes a Chinese Communist Party “fixated on unity and control” (p. 5), where intolerance has intensified and reeducation takes precedence. History teaching inculcates the message that China recovered from a century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners due to forces of unity embodied in the CCP. The imperative of “subordinating individual to state interests is rammed home” (p. 9). This occludes separatist narratives. Vickers concludes: “acknowledgement of the unqualified ‘excellence’ of an essentially Han civilization [is] a litmus test for patriotism in twenty-first century China” (p. 16).

The authors note common trends across the region. In each new state, it became necessary to rediscover ancient roots and locate a golden age that signaled past glory

Nikolay Koposov argues that the main objective of “Putin’s war cult” is the revival of the Soviet myth presenting the Russian people as the “primary victim and hero” of the Second World War (p. 55). To this end, Putin called for school textbooks with no contradictions in national history. Since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, new memory laws and constitutional changes criminalize any production of historical knowledge that casts doubt on the heroism of Soviet forces during the war. 

I was impressed by Tamara Trošt and Lea David’s chapter on memory in former Yugoslavia. They demonstrate the entangled and contested nature of memory politics. The former Yugoslav republics underwent a “massive U-turn shaping historical revisionism” by “obliterating the shared common past” and “revising all facts of history” (p. 74). The authors note common trends across the region. In each new state, it became necessary to rediscover ancient roots and locate a golden age that signaled past glory (p. 74). The wars of the 1990s are selectively interpreted in order to “establish the nation as victims and martyrs, never perpetrators” (p. 75). The post-Yugoslav states share with other East and Central European states an instrumentalization of Holocaust remembrance to gain European Union membership. While the new states actively purge themselves of the Yugoslav past, non-state actors, grassroots groups and civil society agents promote “communities of Yugonostalgia” (p. 82) that counter the dominant narratives. 

Tanika Sarkar’s chapter on India makes for interesting reading as it demonstrates the politically motivated strategy of using grassroots organizations to circumnavigate and outflank the critical approach of academia. India’s ruling Hindu party is just one player within a massive complex of Hindu grassroots movements. At the apex stands the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which controls legions of history teachers throughout the country and works with grassroots organizations that form “cells within institutions of religion, charity, culture, education, leisure: among women, students, teachers, Adivasi/tribals, Dalits/untouchable castes, urban and rural workers, army personnel and lawyers” (p. 19). The aim, done under the guise of decolonizing Indian history, is to provide a narrative of India’s glorious, pure Hindu past. Remarkably, none of this is the work of trained historians and in the narratives disseminated by thousands of amateurs, a mythological divinity such as Ram, can be “passed off as a full-fledged historical character” (p. 20). The RSS runs the largest independent school chain in the country, parallel to government schools. In these schools, “Hindu ethnic pride” is one side of the coin and “ethnic hatred” (that is, hatred of Muslims) is the other (p. 19). The “creeping hegemony” (p. 19) of the RSS extends into Delhi University, where courses are organized for college teachers. Once again, the lecturers are mainly non-academics. Sarkar concludes that the RSS memory activists, driven by political needs, have outmaneuvered academic historians by focusing on the local, grassroots level while academics – “the best minds, no doubt” – work in isolation (p. 28). Similar to India, Pető and Kończal demonstrate how governments in Hungary, “ground zero” of illiberal memory politics (p. 86), and Poland construct and fund alternative institutions in order to overwrite uncomfortable truths emanating from the work of traditional academics. 

Sabine Volk’s essay on Germany focusses on “the failed working through the country’s colonial past and its racist legacies” (p. 123), but also examines blind spots that glorify the German past “before and after National Socialism” (p. 126) as well as the error of “reading reunification [of 1990] as a determined outcome of the revolution [of 1989]” (p. 127). Sebastian Ledoux’s chapter on France and Priya Satia’s on Britain share the concern that right-wing populists, media outlets and governments have mobilized memory into a culture war. Satia notes: “The Telegraph functions as the current government’s go-to media platform” (p. 161). Mia Fuller’s thoughtful chapter concerns a “general whitewashing” (p. 143) leading to an unremembering of colonial atrocities committed by Italian colonial forces. While Angelo Del Boca’s work irrefutably demonstrated Italy’s deployment of chemical warfare in Ethiopia, the consequence was decades during which he was “defamed, threatened with legal action, and harassed by other means” (p.148). In their essay on the USA, Jeffrey Ostler and Karl Jacoby focus not on the foundational crime of slavery, but on “one of the worst kept secrets in American history” (p. 175), namely “over a century of genocidal conflict with Native nations” (p. 176). Their work attempts to counter the populist right’s “on-going efforts to craft a narrative of US innocence” (p. 176).

The contributors succeed emphatically in bringing home the message — historical veracity is under siege by illiberal, (usually) non-academic forces.

There are, inevitably, gaps in this collection. Nothing from the Spanish-speaking world, Argentina and/or Spain for instance. Fuller, when writing about how uninformed Italians are regarding their colonial past, claims, “Italy resembles the Netherlands” (p. 144). So where is the chapter on Dutch colonialism (or Belgian)? Contributors use terms like historical “amnesia” or “forgetting”; for instance, Gutman writes: “The Nakba has been forcefully forgotten” (p. 42). However, this is not accurate. Something forgotten cannot (re)appear in discussion. I would argue that events are unremembered but not forgotten, a subtle but necessary distinction. 

This is an excellent volume, scarred alas by typographical errors too numerous to mention. The content, however, is rich, though alarming and depressing. The contributors succeed emphatically in bringing home the message — historical veracity is under siege by illiberal, (usually) non-academic forces. You have been warned.

Paul Doolan was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland but has spent over 30 years teaching history in the Netherlands, Japan and Switzerland. He studied history at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and completed his PhD at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is the author of Collective Memory and the Dutch East Indies: Unremembering Decolonization, published by Amsterdam University Press in 2021.