March 1, 2012
We owe this statement to the original Henry Ford, pioneer of the ‘Model T’. He went on to tell the journalist interviewing him: “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”
But even the history we made today runs the risk, like the past, of being massaged or mishandled by the generations that follow.
Legitimate history has so much to offer humanity. It can teach us fundamental truths, point out potential consequences, prevent us from repeating our mistakes. Yet so much of the past has been manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, by politicians, national apologists and others uncomfortable with the truth.
The business of rewriting history is often a protracted one. As layer after layer of half-truths is applied to a historical event or process, it becomes increasingly difficult to restore the reality. Even when myths are knowingly and conspiratorially organised, they can still – with the aid of sympathetic minds –
be rapidly accepted as the truth.
Attempts to rewrite history go back a long way. In the beginning was the word, but the word was often passed on inaccurately. As humanity struggled to emerge from the mists of time, reality and myth were close partners.
But, as recorded history became an established process, its inadequacies – focusing on individuals and events rather than people and processes – became apparent and the falsifications evident.
One of the early examples of tampering with the truth was Caesar’s portrayal of the Celts in his de Bello Gallico, caricaturising them as primitive savages when they had already developed a civilisation of their own.
Later came the adaptation, for doctrinal and political purposes, of the history of the First Crusade, the legend that underpins today’s standoff between the Muslim world and the West. The official version would have it that the initiative came from Western Europe, with Pope Urban II calling on the righteous to smite the infidels in the Holy Land.
But the reality is that it was triggered by a request from the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos for help in liberating parts of Anatolia occupied by the Seljuk Turks. It was in fact a practical initiative, not a spiritual one. Moreover, relationships with the Muslim Turks were reasonably cordial at the time – and Jerusalem wasn’t ‘liberated’ until 450 years later!
Religious and political impulses have helped reshape the presentation of other events, notably various episodes during the process of expelling the Arabs from Europe and buttressing the stronghold of the Church of Rome. Contrary to their images as role models for Christianity and Europe, Ferdinand and Isabella behaved like the bigots they were.
The falsifications of the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy and Spain – where the history books have since been put to right, with occasional gaps – reflect a tradition of ideological totalitarianism that was first inspired by the Crusades and then institutionalised in the acts of the Catholic Monarchs, the Inquisition and the pogroms that ensued across the Continent over the centuries.
The nation state has been as great a culprit as religion. History has been substantially reworked by politicians and nationalists for various reasons: aggrandisement, self-respect, simple convenience.
The French and the British have always tended to highlight the victories in their mutual wars and play down their defeats, even giving the names of their victories to such buildings as Blenheim Palace, Waterloo Station and the Gare d’Austerlitz.
The Gallic thirst for la gloire has prompted frequent manipulations of history. The fact that the majority of the population of France couldn’t speak the French language at the time of the Revolution and were unable to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ is hardly ever mentioned!
The English were responsible for a demonization campaign against the Dutch – conducted by a frightened royalty with the complicity of creative spirits like Samuel Pepys – that coined a vocabulary of smears: ‘going Dutch’ and ‘Dutch auction’ to emphasise meanness, ‘Dutch comfort’ (thank God it’s no worse!), ‘Dutch courage’, ‘talking double-Dutch’, ‘talking like a Dutch uncle’ (moralising), and so on.
Like the French, the English have encouraged myths about themselves too. Many of them are convinced that they are direct descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, despite the growing evidence that their genes are closely related to those of the Basques.
A similar challenge posed by genetic research faces the Greek Cypriots, confronted with the scientific reality that they are the same people as the indigenous Turkish Cypriots and, oh horror! a different race from the mainland Greeks – who themselves bear a greater admixture of Albanian and Slav genes than those of their ancestors.
In the words of the Greek author Nikos Dimou: “We used to speak Albanian and call ourselves Romans, but then Winkelmann [the German art historian], Goethe, Victor Hugo, Delacroix, they all told us: ‘No, you are Hellenes, direct descendants of Plato and Socrates’, and that did it. If a small, poor nation has such a burden put on its shoulders, it will never recover.” Recent events have proved Nikos Dimou right.
Mythmaking is not confined to ancient history. Most Brits think they were responsible for winning WWII, readily acknowledging help from the Americans and less readily from the Russians. They certainly played their part, but let’s not distort reality. Quoting official German sources in his book Europe East and West, Norman Davies says “they state unequivocally that 75-80 per cent of Germany’s losses in men and materiel were incurred on the Eastern Front. The unavoidable implication is that all other contributions added up to a maximum of 20-25 per cent. Of this, the Americans might claim the laurels for 15 per cent, and the British for perhaps 10 per cent.”
Education is also often a culprit. One of the gaps in the knowledge of Britain’s schoolchildren was the country’s dubious conduct in the Boer War. At the same time, Italian schoolchildren were being taught that this war was the most despicable in European colonial history – and that the Italian escapade in Abyssinia was the most admirable!
Nationalist impulses can prompt the manipulation of trivia as well as major events. A striking example is the account of the Flemish brothers, Frans and Edward Van Raemdonck, who both died on a First World War battlefield. According to a carefully constructed and fervently supported legend, the dying Frans cradled his dead brother in his arms. In reality, the dead soldier was not his brother, not even a fellow-Fleming, but a Walloon comrade, Aimé Fiévez. But that did not satisfy the appetite of Flemish nationalism, which demanded a reconstruction…
Over a century ago, in his essay What is a Nation, French historian Ernest Renan said: “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality; the union of northern France with the Midi was the result of massacres and terror lasting for the best part of a century.”
How much of the history of that last Crusade by the French elite against their own people in the Languedoc is remembered by le peuple français today?Author : Richard Hill