Claude Lynch considers the conflict between nationalism and historical narrative.
Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton, is a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp located in Hanoi, Vietnam. Before playing host to American prisoners, the prison was used by the colonial territory of French Indochina to house Vietnamese political prisoners, most of whom were incarcerated for being pro-independence agitators. Now, the prison is a museum.
Surprisingly, in a world where history is written by the victors, the communist Vietnamese government chooses to depict the prison in complete duality: displaying both the gruelling treatment of more than 2000 Vietnamese, alongside the experience of American prisoners of war. However, one of these histories is portrayed far more accurately than the other. A nationalist reading of history – one that emphasises French cruelty to the ethnic Vietnamese at the expense of describing the verifiable torture endured by American POWs – offers political perks that are too good to resist.
Yes, winners write history; conversely, historiography – the study of history – is never so straightforward. Far from a single winning narrative, historiography is written differently by each and every respective nation, in corollary with their ideology and their objectives. Then, it materialises in life itself. In Moscow, Lenin’s tomb still stands proud just outside the Kremlin. In Madrid, Francisco Franco is buried within a giant catholic monument on an imposing mountaintop. Reactionary political groups on opposing sides would happily argue that venerating a communist or a fascist in such a way is highly problematic.
In Berlin, however, the problematisation of historiography is confronted head-on. As instigators of the Holocaust, a genocide without parallel, Nazi Germany was frantically pushed into a process of denazification following the peace that ended World War II. Today, that process is still ongoing, with Berlin’s Topography of Terror exhibition stating:
“Much has been achieved over the years, but the challenges remain great. Memorials must work relentlessly to promote historical awareness to counter the efforts of populist and right-wing extremist parties that seek to instil the memory of Nazi crimes with positive nationalistic views of history.”
This is, doubtless, an incredible feat of public pragmatism in the face of necessary repentance. The crimes for which Nazi Germany was responsible, even ideologically, made a critical revision of Nazi doctrine essential, especially in the face of universal condemnation from the international community. The exhibit also takes care to admit that “the creation of these memorials … was preceded by a long history of repressed memory, silence, and political conflict”. This impeccable historiography instils into the German conscience that the consignation of Nazism to the waste bin of politics must come with the caveat that it is acknowledged for the atrocity it was, which must be learned and re-learned over consecutive generations.
However, the case of Berlin is far more outstanding than one might hope. In cities across the world, historiography is too often used without due diligence in the face of atrocities committed by the domestic party against “the other”. While not the only example, Spain offers many: as the nucleus of colonialism, streets, squares and statues are littered with knowing references to the celebrated coloniser, Christopher Columbus, the man credited with the Columbian exchange and the birth of the New World as we know it today. Columbus led the development of the encomienda system, allowing Spanish settlers to “employ” natives as, effectively, slaves. The number of natives trapped in the encomienda reached over 5 million by 1574.
The idea that colonialism (and imperialism thereafter) bred injustice and inhumanity is not new, nor is it an idea that fails to pierce the public consciousness of Westerners, just like the near-universal condemnation of Nazism. Where it differs is that the historiography of colonialism does not entirely reflect the sea change of the 20th century, when the colonisers ceased to be the only historiographers and the age of imperialism proper came to a close. It is almost as though the Nazi case, by virtue of being without parallel, is the only one that merits a true, critical, public examination. While academics largely rank the Atlee ministry highest, the public will always choose Churchill, a man with an ambivalent, chequered past; in Spain, the monarchs that sent Columbus and brought about the horrific Inquisition are revered, in almost a godlike fashion; granting an irony to their designation alone as the “Catholic Monarchs”.
In the United States, the Confederacy, as a symbol of racial hatred, white supremacy, and even neo-Nazism, raises similar issues. In response to a 2015 shooting in Charleston, in which the perpetrator associated himself both with white supremacy and the Confederate flag, the United States began to consider the wider implications of Confederate imagery. What followed was a series of attempts to remove Confederate commemorations from public spaces such as parks and street names, culminating in the Charlottesville rally last year; a response to the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the recently renamed Emancipation Park.
There’s no question that the Confederacy has racist connotations; moreover, many statues commemorating the Confederacy can be tied to attempts to curtail the rights of people of colour in ex-Confederate states during the 20th century. The fact that white proponents of the Confederacy can choose to ignore the death and enslavement experienced by minorities throughout the civil war period speaks to a wider failure to critically analyse and thereafter internalise in the public conscience the horror that Confederate symbols provoked for a large section of the population. But this is not something that the United States ever needed to do; it was never forced on the country by a peace treaty nor criticised by the global community.
In the aftermath of World War II, Germany was subject to just these conditions, and exhibitions like the Topography of Terror bear out that commitment. But you needn’t go far to find a more innocuous example of historical partisanship. While the Natural History Museum in London might put Darwin on a pedestal and preach the glory of the Origin of Species, the Natural History Museum in Berlin does the same for Humboldt and his work instead. While it would be petty to question such a choice (why not honour a home-grown natural scientist first?), it speaks to the narratives each country will tell their own.
All this evidence hardly flies in the face of the aforementioned assumption – that history is written by the victors. What it ignores is that narrative is an increasingly powerful tool in modern politics. Enabling historical revisionism, especially if it encourages white supremacy or neo-Nazism, is a very dangerous thing. The sculptors of today’s national psyche should pay heed to the warnings of the Topography of Terror: the task may seem unsurmountable, and it may never be truly completed – but the costs of not trying are simply too great to ignore.