“History is written by the winners” is the popular view. But your winner may not be my winner. A lot depends on the narrative you are trying to build.
History is rewritten all the time.
Sometimes it is rewritten because new information has come to light, perhaps from an archeological find or previously classified documents. When this happens, it is exciting. We joyfully anticipate that more information will deepen our understanding.
But rewriting frequently happens in the service of building a cultural or national narrative. We highlight bits of the past that support our perceived identities and willfully ignore the details that don’t fit. We like our history uncomplicated. It’s hard for us to understand our groups or our countries, and by extension ourselves, as both good and not-good at the same time.
Culture is a collective memory. It’s the interwoven stories that we use to explain who we are as nations, organizations, or just loosely formed groups.
Many of us belong to multiple cultural groups, but only one national group. Margaret MacMillan, in The Uses and Abuses of History, explains that “Collective memory is more about the present than the past because it is integral to how the group sees itself.” And “while collective memory is usually grounded in fact, it need not be.”
We have seen how people justify all kinds of mistakes to preserve the personal narratives they are invested in, and groups also engage in this behavior. Countries rewrite their histories, from the textbook up, to support how they see themselves now. Instinctively we may recoil from this idea, believing that it’s better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath. However, as MacMillan writes, “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”
For example, when Canada’s new war museum opened, controversy immediately ensued because part of the World War II exhibit called attention “to the continuing debate over both the efficacy and the morality of the strategy of the Royal Air Force’s bomber command, which sought to destroy Germany’s capacity to fight on by massive bombing of German industrial and civilian targets.” RAF veterans were outraged that their actions were considered morally ambiguous. Critics of the exhibit charged that the veterans should have the final say because, after all, “they were there.”
We can see that this rationale makes no sense. Galilean relativity shows that the pilots who flew the bombing campaigns are actually the least likely to have an objective understanding of the events. And the ends don’t always justify the means. It is possible to do bad things in the pursuit of morally justified outcomes.
MacMillan warns that the danger of abusing history is that it “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.”
Which leaves us asking, What do we want from history? Do we want to learn from it, with the hopes that in doing so we will avoid mistakes by understanding the experiences of others? Or do we want to practice self-justification on a national level, reinforcing what we already believe about ourselves to justify what we did and what we are doing? After all, “you could almost always find a basis for your claims in the past if you looked hard enough.”
As with medicine, there is certain fallibility to history. Our propensity to fool ourselves with self-justified narratives is hard to overcome. If we selectively use the past only to reinforce our claims in the present, then the situation becomes precarious when there is pressure to change. Instead of looking as objectively as possible at history, welcoming historians who challenge us, we succumb to confirmation bias, allowing only those interpretations that are consistent with the narrative we are invested in.
Consider what MacMillan writes about nationalism, which “is a very late development indeed in terms of human history.”
It all started so quietly in the nineteenth century. Scholars worked on languages, classifying them into different families and trying to determine how far back into history they went. They discovered rules to explain changes in language and were able to establish, at least to their own satisfaction, that texts centuries old were written in early forms of, for example, German or French. Ethnographers like the Grimm brothers collected German folk tales as a way of showing that there was something called the German nation in the Middle Ages. Historians worked assiduously to recover old stories and pieced together the history of what they chose to call their nation as though it had an unbroken existence since antiquity. Archaeologists claimed to have found evidence that showed where such nations had once lived, and where they had moved to during the great waves of migrations.
The cumulative result was to create an unreal yet influential version of how nations formed. While it could not be denied that different peoples, from Goths to Slavs, had moved into and across Europe, mingling as they did so with peoples already there, such a view assumed that at some point, generally in the Middle Ages, the music had stopped. The dancing pieces had fallen into their chairs, one for the French, another for the Germans and yet another for the Poles. And there history had fixed them as “nations.” German historians, for example, could depict an ancient German nation whose ancestors had lived happily in their forests from before the time of the Roman Empire and which at some time, probably in the first century A.D., had become recognisably “German.” So — and this was the dangerous question — what was properly the German nation’s land? Or the land of any other “nation”? Was it where the people now lived, where they had lived at the time of their emergence in history, or both?
Would the scholars have gone on with their speculations if they could have seen what they were preparing the way for? The bloody wars that created Italy and Germany? The passions and hatred that tore apart the old multinational Austria-Hungary? The claims, on historical grounds, by new and old nations after World War I for the same pieces of territory? The hideous regimes of Hitler and Mussolini with their elevation of the nation and the race to the supreme good and their breathtaking demands for the lands of others?
When we selectively reach back into the past to justify claims in the present, we reduce the complexity of history and of humanity. This puts us in an awkward position because the situations we are confronted with are inherently complex. If we cut ourselves off from the full scope of history because it makes us uncomfortable, or doesn’t fit with the cultural narrative in which we live, we reduce our ability to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the situations we are facing today.
MacMillan says, “There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support and help; it does mean that we should do so with care.”
We need to accept that people can do great things while still having flaws. Our heroes don’t have to be perfect, and we can learn just as much from their imperfections as from their achievements.
We have to allow that there are at least two sides to every story, and we have to be willing to listen to both. There are no conflicts in which one side doesn’t feel morally justified in their actions; that’s why your terrorist can be my freedom fighter. History can be an important part of bridging this divide only if we are willing to lift up all the rocks and shine our lights on what is lurking underneath.