History by decree
Song Gengyi, professor of journalism in Shanghai, was fired last month for doing his job. She had encouraged her students to check the official accounts of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, the orgy of mass murder and rape carried out in the then Chinese capital by the Imperial Japanese Army. Another teacher, Li Tiantian, who protested the dismissal, was punished by being interned in a psychiatric hospital.
Checking the facts is what journalists are supposed to do. But because the Nanjing atrocity during the Sino-Japanese War became the cornerstone of Chinese nationalism, and therefore of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda, any critical examination of what precisely happened is seen as a criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese government.
This may need some explanation. Until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, official Chinese accounts paid little attention to the Nanjing massacre. Rather, the story under Mao was a heroic story of Communist victory over the fascist and bourgeois oppressors. Nanjing had been the Chinese nationalist capital at the time of the Sino-Japanese war. The massacre was therefore a story of nationalist defeat, not Communist heroism.
By the time of Mao’s death, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thought had lost their appeal even to many CCP members. The New Party Orthodoxy is a form of nationalism based on memories of collective humiliation, like the Nanjing Massacre, the stain of which only the continued CCP hegemony can erase.
Around the same time that Song was fired, a Moscow court ordered the closure Memorial International of Russia and its sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center. Memorial was founded in 1989 to investigate crimes committed during Stalin’s times in the Soviet Union and to honor the victims. Like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to control the historical narrative. It means ignoring the horrors of Stalinism and highlighting the heroic victory of the Russian people against fascism in World War II.
History has of course always been political. At least since the time of the great court historian Sima Qian, born around 140 BC. Each dynasty had its own historians. It was the same in ancient Rome.
Democratically elected leaders in more modern times do not have court historians (although Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr. almost played that role for US President John F Kennedy). But the history of Western democracies can nonetheless be highly political. Consider the role that the history of slavery plays in American politics today. While some on the left project America’s history as that of white supremacy, politicians on the right are trying to get school books banned.
Significantly, Xi’s official Chinese story is consistent with the strong Western tendency to define collective identity in terms of victimization. If Mao’s official account of China was in the heroic mold, the story under Xi is one of unrelieved degradation at the hands of foreign invaders until the communist revolution of 1949. The heroic story of the Long March of 1934-35, when Mao’s Red Army escaped the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, is now less important than the suffering of the Chinese people in Nanjing or during the Opium Wars. from the 19th century.
Something like this happened in Israel too. The story promoted after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 was that of heroic freedom fighters and manly kibbutzniks, while the Holocaust in Europe was something shameful and best forgotten. This started to change in the 1960s, after the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the logistical mastermind of the Nazi genocide. The new narrative was that memories of the Holocaust should make Israel harder on its enemies, especially the Palestinians.
Putin always prefers the heroic version of Russian history. The triumph, not the victimization, and above all not to suffer under their own rulers, this is what the Russians must remember.
The triumphal story has many dangers. A sense of national superiority blinds people to their own faults and makes them oblivious to how they treat others. It can also foster a natural sense of entitlement, much like that felt by the British at the height of their Imperial power, or Americans in more recent times.
But official stories of victimization can be at least as dangerous. They fuel the belief that the wrongs of the past must be avenged and that old enemies can never be forgotten.
While a triumphant mood can lead to arrogance, the wounds of humiliation feed collective rage. These injuries may be so old that their causes have long been forgotten; victimization becomes mythical. But vengeful emotions can be easy to arouse. For example, Serbian nationalism in the 1990s drew on grievances dating back to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when a Serbian army fought troops from the Ottoman Empire.
When hostile sentiments are stirred up, historical accuracy is irrelevant. Bosnian Serb troops who rampage in Prijedor and Srebrenica during the Bosnian War have called their victims Muslim “”TurksAs if they were fighting Ottoman soldiers at the end of the 14th century.
In fact, the difference between official accounts of heroism and victimization is not as great as it seems. The purpose of history as propaganda in China and Russia today – and, indeed, Israel – is to legitimize those in power. Only the strength of the CCP will ensure that the Chinese people will never be humiliated by foreigners again. Only Putin will keep the Russians safe from their enemies, just as Stalin did during Hitler’s invasion. And only an Israeli government that knows how to be ruthless will prevent another Holocaust.
The problem with history as propaganda is not that it makes people feel good or bad, but that it creates perpetual enemies – and therefore the perpetual risk of wars.