When History’s Losers Write the Story

31 May 2018

South Africa is not the only country where monuments commemorating the past have led to public debates on the interpretation of history and the act of remembering.

In an article in the New York Times, journalist Sabrina Tavernise tells of a visit to a Russian summer camp in 2015. Apart from outdoor activities, the kids attending “were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly”.

Under leadership of Great Stalin

She then looks at the recent uprisings in America about statues commemorating Confederates who participated in that country’s Civil War.

“Selective memory,” Tavernise writes, “is a global phenomenon”. She lists Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide and Japan’s difficulty to deal with its aggression and mass murder in China.

Chinese massacre – Nanking 1937

She describes it as a “basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present”.

A point in case is Russia, who experienced a seismic shift with the end of the Cold War. “People choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity.” The only thing they still had – and could hold on to – was their past, and so “Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation”.

One historian describes the American Civil War as “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had”. The reason lies partially in having allowed the loser (the Confederates) to have their own interpretation of the events. By casting itself as an underdog with just cause, it has managed to create an alternative memory of the events. The North, “more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights”, didn’t help. And so the political will to complete Reconstruction died.

Germany is hailed as an exception and the world watched as many Nazi perpetrators were very publicly put on trial for the Holocaust and other political and human rights offences. However, the bigger part of German society only fully grappled with the crimes in the 1960s. “There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.”

Children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors are memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies.

The article closes with caution: “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”

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