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Cooling down the history wars

by Shaun O'dwyer

Special To The Japan Times

There have been some colorful “history war” controversies of late, featuring a diverse cast of fictional and historical characters.

In Britain there was a Telegraph op-ed brawl about Yasukuni Shrine, war remembrance and militarism between the Japanese and Chinese ambassadors to the United Kingdom. In their mutual denunciations, both invoked Voldemort, the evil wizard of “Harry Potter” fame.

Then the British minister for education, Michael Gove, provoked an angry debate with a Daily Mail article claiming that left- wing myths about World War I belittled patriotism. One prime suspect in Gove’s case: “Blackadder,” a World War I comedy series starring Rowan Atkinson, better known as Mr. Bean.

In China, the Chinese and South Korean governments opened a memorial hall in Harbin to honor Ahn Jung Geun, a patriot known to all Korean schoolchildren, who assassinated Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito in Harbin in 1909. Japan reacted furiously, while everyone forgot Ahn’s own fervid (if confused) pan-Asianism.

There is much to laugh at in these absurd squabbles, and also something to worry about. Behind them there are also some serious questions about what “correct” historical understanding and commemoration amounts to, and (as Gove hinted) about the role of patriotism in history education.

These questions about history, patriotism and remembrance have been around for a long time. The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with the idea that history was about narrating the heroic events and tragedies of their fatherlands and of their great men, and that one of its roles was to school upper-class youth in patriotism and the virtues of their forbears. The ancient Chinese looked to chronicles of sage kings to provide models for virtuous behavior in their own time.

Historical correctness here means, respectfully relating the stories of virtuous ancestors and of the great events they took part in.

But there was another idea of history the Greeks developed — that it should narrate as truthfully as possible important events involving different nations and peoples, including peoples hostile to the historian’s own, and investigate the motives and characters of the individuals behind those events. In order to achieve accuracy in this quest, the historian had to amass and interpret sources fairly to arrive at sound conclusions about the events and personalities he was studying.

This latter approach to history required something like impartiality, for as one Greek historian said, it is a vice for historians to act like lovers toward their own country.

I think today there is a plausible distinction to draw between patriotic, commemorative memory of the past on one hand and historical understanding of the past on the other. Patriotic memory can still be valued on its own terms, if its rituals and even loosely factual morality tales promote a healthy national pride and sense of civic duty.

It is sometimes hard to make that distinction, though. So, for the sake of its own plausibility, revisionistic nationalist memory is usually packaged as historical “fact.” Yasukuni Shrine’s Yushukan War Museum provides glaring examples of this.

On the other hand, there are historians who lack impartiality, who are openly committed to some national or ideological cause. Some left-wing and conservative historians, politicians and journalists who recently lined up in the British media to lambast each other’s “leftist” or “Tory” versions of World War I illustrate this mindset.

Historians concerned about these controversies over patriotism and remembrance face many challenges. In today’s online media, practically anyone can claim historical expertise — politicians, journalists, cranks and trolls — and the right to vituperate against historians, or each other.

Then there is the matter of the national identity crises and anxieties that lie deep inside historical controversies: British nationalists’ fears of lost national identity in the European Union, or Japanese nationalists’ anxieties over emasculated national pride.

Historians who tackle some cherished national myth can become targets for angry backlashes, and for persecution in authoritarian countries. What follows is my own wish-list for taking some of the heat out of the history wars:

Perhaps one thing for historians and their supporters to do is to choose targets for criticism wisely. Sometimes the worst thing that can be said about a nationalist myth is not just that it is untrue, but that it is divisive, jingoistic and offensive to other nations. Historians need not be the only ones to point this out; journalists, critics and bloggers can do this job just as well.

What historians can focus on is the careful, fact-based interrogation of national remembrance, especially when it becomes the subject of bitter international division.

One example is Nanjing Massacre remembrance. It is a matter of national honor for nationalist Japanese — and the Yushukan Museum — that Japan’s armed forces did not commit mass rapes or massacre captured Chinese soldiers and civilians in Nanjing in 1937-38, that they were only engaged in lawful military operations. Meanwhile, for Chinese nationalists, the figure of 300,000 massacre victims remains an inalterable tally, an emblem of national humiliation.

Yet when historians work on such interrogation, how can they rise above the “troll-fest” atmosphere of historical controversies such as that over Nanjing?

They can do what some Japanese and Chinese historians are already doing, and insist upon the importance of the ideas of evidence and truth against the nationalists and ideologues who distort them. The British historian R.G. Collingwood once elegantly expressed how he understood the relation between these ideas: “truth is what the evidence obliges us to believe.”

In other words, historians attuned to evidence and to the judgement of their peers, who select, interpret and evaluate that evidence as honestly as possible to answer the research questions they have, will feel driven by it to particular conclusions, or driven not to make any definitive conclusions at all.

That, as best as can be demonstrated, is the truth of the matter, irrespective of whatever biases or preconceptions a historian might start out with.

British or Japanese education ministers who want stirring national stories taught in history classrooms might say they agree with these ideas. But if they have their way, British schoolchildren will learn jingoistic “truths” about British honor and German treachery in August 1914, and Japanese schoolchildren will learn to deny the truth of wartime atrocity allegations that offend their national pride.

To protect the integrity of history teaching, I hope historians and teachers can insist, forcefully, that there are many spaces where patriotism can be cultivated in a modern democratic society — and the history classroom is not one of them.

In the classroom, students can learn about the agreed-upon interpretations and facts of the past, whether they concern nations, peoples, social classes or genders; about disagreements over historical facts; and they can study critically the research and narrative building processes through which historians arrive at those outcomes.

If there are values or virtues to learn in history classrooms, they are those of historians — of impartiality, factuality, scholarly rigor and respect for evidence.

Education ministers who disagree should be invited to work for education ministries where ambitions like theirs are given free rein, in North Korea or in China.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.