LONDON — Digging up the past has become politics, not archaeology. All round the world, whether in dusty archives or beneath sand-covered mounds, new “facts” are being uncovered, half-forgotten outrages reanalyzed, old myths debunked, old grievances exhumed and apologies or compensation, or both, demanded.
Starting first with more recent history, the supposed Turkish massacre of Armenians around 1915 has been resurrected — by Turkey’s critics, of course — with all kinds of documents and incriminating pictures — whose authenticity is immediately challenged. Newly discovered accounts of claimed British brutality in India in the early part of the century have generated new demands for apologies, as have British activities during the South African Boer War.
The cases of army deserters executed in World War I have been re-examined and several of the individuals pardoned. As part of the eternal quarrel between Britain and Ireland, the bloody events of the Easter uprising of 1916 have been redepicted.
Meanwhile World War II continues to be quarried for its undoubted horrors, injustices and brutalities. The headlines have been taken by compensation for Holocaust victims and lost bank accounts.
But this is proving to be just the tip of the iceberg. The archives are being trawled and scanned with new thoroughness to find and compensate the millions of forgotten sufferers from Nazi slave-labor practices . Property, treasures and pictures seized from Jewish families 60 pr 70 years ago are only now being identified and returned. New accounts of Japanese wartime barbarities are being exposed and dramatized — as, for example, in the harrowing and award-winning movie “Paradise Road,” on Japanese prison camps in Sumatra.
War “myths” and legends seem particularly vulnerable. Did Hitler really die in his bunker? Were Winston Churchill’s war speeches really his own?
Even more recent events, scarcely yet “history” at all, may not be what they seem.
Thus, the currently reopened inquiry into the Bloody Sunday event of 1971, when British troops were supposed to have shot unarmed civilians, is revealing, on the basis of deep digging and record tracing, that some of the “unarmed” civilians opened fire first that day with snipers’ rifles.
But it is not just the recent past which is being rescanned.
Anglo-Irish animosities are taking the quarrel back to the 17th century and English butchery in Ireland under Oliver Cromwell. The wildly misleading movie, Braveheart, about Scotland’s 13th-century hero William Wallace, has given the debate on Scottish independence a sharp new twist. Apologies are being demanded, and given, following fresh or rediscovered evidence of the undoubted brutalities of the early Crusades, especially the second crusade.
The latest jarring new “fact” is that the hero of British parliamentary history, Simon de Montfort, who called together the first English Parliament in 1265 , seemingly had anti-Semitic tendencies. This is what new researches into ancient documents show. As a result, indignant city managers in one British city, Leicester, have been taking his name off street signs and monuments.
And going back further still, new research reveals, that Stonehenge, the world-famous ring of giant neolithic stones in Wiltshire, often thought to have looked as it now does since the dawn of Britain, was in fact heavily restored by the Victorians. Nothing, it appears, is sacred or safe from the laser beam of modern archaeological investigation and the new technology of data search going back through the centuries.
The march of science means that little can be done to halt the reinvestigation of the past, with more and more chance of controversial new versions turning up. Science is taking us backward as well as forward.
But policymakers and wise leaders need to be careful about too much opening up of healed scar tissue. Some genocidal matters, such as the Holocaust and German concentration camps, will never be closed and deserve anyway to be kept open in people’s memories for their sheer, unimaginable, monstrosity.
But history is littered with extreme violence, tit-for-tat massacres and cruel pillage from its beginning — from the ancient Egyptian slaughter to Roman brutalities to Norman butchery to Mongol savagery. War is hell, as U.S. Civil War Gen. William Sherman long ago observed. Some events, however dreadful, just cannot be judged by today’s standards, nor should they be used to inflame old and forgotten disputes and tribal rivalries. Better that they should be allowed to rest, and be replaced by healing and joined hands — especially when they are many decades or centuries old.
Publicity-seeking politicians may argue that people “must know the truth” or “cannot live without knowing what happened to their grandparents, great grandparents or ancestors.”
But this is often just an excuse for score-settling and hatred stirring. What went on in South Africa a century ago, or in Turkey 80 years ago or in Ireland four centuries ago, or even some of the things that happened a mere 50 years ago in Europe and Asia, should now be buried — not by denial but by an absolute determination to look forward and to seek reconciliation, rather than ceaselessly disinterring the past and all its disputes.
So let the archaeologists carry on digging and the archivists carry on researching in a strict spirit of academic inquiry. But let the commentators, policymakers and political leaders restrain themselves from seizing every new “fact” and twisting it to their own ends and prejudices.
Not only is this unhelpful, but with every stage of history now being re-examined by new techniques, these polemicists could well find today’s “new facts” turning swiftly into tomorrow’s fairy story — which would leave them looking very silly.
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