Michael Radu: Playing games with history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Radu, Ph.D., is Co-Chair of FPRI’s Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security. His most recent book is The War on Terrorism: 21st-Century Perspectives (ed., with Stephen Gale and Harvey Sicherman, Transaction, 2008); his Europe’s Ghost: Tolerance, Jihadism and Their Consequences is forthcoming from Encounter Press.]

In 1984, George Orwell wrote that those who control the past control the future, and politicians have known this for a long time. The instruments of control over the past vary across places and circumstances, but as a general rule the steps followed include the steady elimination of grey areas, polarization of interpretations, and, most often, anachronism—the application of contemporary Western rules or standards to times and societies which had or have nothing to do with them. The goal of rewriting history is always the same: to legitimize present ideas or rulers in the past. The instruments favored are propaganda, education in most cases, and legislation in some cases.

Sometimes the beginning of the slippery slope of history rewriting starts with what is presented as decent regret for some past deeds, such as the regular apologies for Western actions over the past millennium—the Crusades, colonialism, slavery in America, Nazism in Germany, the Spanish conquista in the Americas, etc. Virtually all such apologies, from Bill Clinton’s for slavery to Silvio Berlusconi’s for the Italian colonization of Libya, have come from the West. In fact, with the exception of Benin’s apology for the role the precolonial Abomey Kingdom played in the transatlantic slave trade (which was massive), no third world country has ever apologized for anything—not the Arabs for the millions of black Africans and Europeans they enslaved for far longer than the transatlantic trade existed; not the North Africans, Arab and Berbers alike, for the invasion and subsequent occupation of most of the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete, parts of France and the looting of Rome in 846; not to mention the Ottomans’ century-old occupation of the Orthodox Balkans, complete with compulsory annual kidnapping of children for their elite corps of janissaries.

The point here is not that Muslims were worse or better than Christian Westerners throughout history, but that the moral standards of today should be seen as irrelevant on all sides. What happened centuries ago was due the those centuries’ moral and political standards, not to those of today. It is just as ridiculous to accuse Tariq the Berber of “imperialism” for his attack against Visigothic Iberia in 711 as it is to accuse the 11th century crusaders of Western “imperialism”—it is all history a la carte, depending on when one decides to begin the process of misapplication of contemporary standards and why.

That is the key point, which directs us to the unique characteristic of contemporary Western culture—call it cultural masochism. Its reach goes centuries back with the widespread acceptance of Al Qaeda’s own a la carte view of history, such as that resistance to historic Islamic imperialism—such as the Crusades—was itself “imperialism.” That, conveniently passes over the previous Islamic conquests that brought Arab armies all the way into central France, Sicily and Palestine.

It was also demonstrated most recently in Spain, whose radical Socialist government decided to use politics and the legal system to rewrite the history of the 1936-39 Civil War. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not obtain a majority in either the 2004 or 2008 elections, but he has acted as if he represents the “moral” majority of Spain and manipulated history to “prove” it. Similarly, in 1936 the Left “Republicans” won the elections by a margin of less than 1 percent but acted in power as if they had a mandate to totally change Spanish society—with foreseeable and disastrous results.[1]

Prime Minister Zapatero, whose military grandfather was shot by Francisco Franco’s forces for “treason,” decided to use his Cortes majority to pass a “historical memory” law, basically enshrining in law a losers’ view of what happened in the Civil War. The “Republican” side, which by the end of the conflict was no more than the puppets of Stalin’s totalitarians, murderers of the independent anarchists and independent Leftists and controlled by Bolshevik apparatchiks, became “legally” just victims of the “fascist” Nationalist forces under Zapatero’s laws.

Never mind that no serious scholar of the Spanish Civil War or its aftermath (see Stanley G. Payne and Hugh Thomas) ever considered Franco a “fascist” (just ask European Jews!) or that, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of nationalists, nuns and priests murdered by the Republicans, both sides committed atrocities, as in all civil wars. No, according to media hog and ex-Socialist MP judge Balthasar Garzon, all of this has to be adjudicated again— based on present Spanish and European Union “human rights” standards. That is bad lawyering as well as bad history. Interestingly, and revealingly hypocritical, in 1998 the same Garzon rejected out of hand as outdated and legally anachronistic a complaint and demand for investigation by the descendants of the victims of Republican Spain’s worst known mass murder, at Paracuellos del Jarama (November 1936, over 2,000 prisoners assassinated) of a then still surviving author of the massacre—former Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo. Clearly, the aim is that Spanish children only learn one side of the story—the one preferred by the ruling Socialists, with the hoped for result that the next generation will only know that Socialists were innocent “victims” of Franco instead of willing patsies of Stalin, and vote accordingly.

On the other side, of course, rewriting history is relentlessly used by a variety of radical regimes. Hugo Chavez, the elected dictator of Venezuela, suggested that the continent’s name should be changed from America Latina into “America India” -forgetting, as he is wont to, that “America” is a itself a European name (from Amerigo Vespucci) and that his own country has few “Indians” (another European name and case of mistaken identity). His subsidized protege, Evo Morales of Bolivia, goes further, and pretends that the precolonial Inca Empire, correctly described by Peruvian writer Mario Vargasa Llosa as “totalitarian,” was in fact proto-Marxist in its collectivism and centralism. Perhaps so, but Marx himself was a European—and proud of it.

That Al Qaeda and associated Islamists try to gather public support among the radicalized middle classes and illiterate lower ones of the Muslim world by manipulating history is no surprise. After all, that is what revolutionary minorities have done everywhere since the French Revolution. The Islamists systematically refer to “Crusades,” “Crusaders,” and colonialism because those are loaded words in Islamic societies that suffer from longstanding inferiority complexes. That, however, is no excuse for Western “scholars,” as well as the media, to feed such myths and thus provide them a legitimacy they do not deserve. But they do, and unsurprisingly, it is the same scholars of the Left who assault the United States for everything it does or doesn’t do who find “explanations” for the deeds of Bin Laden, and apologize on every occasion for the alleged past sins of their ancestors.

It should be self-evident that a nation that rewrites its history as a series of negations will have little left to defend, much less cherish. Political gamesmanship in the guise of “history” is therefore not only bad scholarship, but also dangerous politics. The war of ideas begins with national memory.


1. The same happened later to the Salvador Allende Marxist Left in Chile in 1970 (who won with 36.2 percent of the vote compared to 34.9 for the opposing conservative candidate) and to Evo Morales in Bolivia (who won with 54 percent of the vote in 2005).
Read entire article at Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/10/2009

Of course Stalin said that: he was tring to distinguish himself from the National Socialists.

Most of us stopped taking our cues on historical definitions from Stalin years ago, though.

Elliott Aron Green - 1/10/2009

actually, Jonathan, Stalin was asked about 1930-31 to define fascism and he said that one its features was "antisemitism." Of course, he too was Judeophobic in his own sophisticated way.

Edmond Dantes - 1/3/2009

Whom the gods want to destroy, they first make ridiculous.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/3/2009

Mr. Panarin's prediction is a wishful thinking, not a serious factually grounded forecast. On the other hand, if it does happen, he's gotta be given a dozen of Nobel prizes as an ultimate overall genius.

What is most likely to happen is the following: the US economic
situation is likely to deteriorate for, at least, next three years, over which US imperialism can resort to extremely drastic measures (including use of nuclear weapons) to affirm
recently shakening American financial and political superiority by military means.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/3/2009

Let me reply to your observations or objections in the order presented by you.
First, the notion that Stalin (and derivatively post-Stalin Soviet political elite) was anti-semitic still very popular in Western and Jewish circulation is, at the least, quite complex and controvercial, if not erroneous one.
If you want to know my personal conclusion (which may be not to your liking) and the facts I based it on, let me know and we'll discuss it
Second, as far as your question: How do I explain "all that"? goes, I'm not sure what "all that" you ask me to explain and I'm not sure why do chose me as a target of this rather non-specific question;
However, let me take a shot at some of "all that", in particular, the refuge given to Nazi criminals by some Arab countries. If those who you refer actually were Nazi criminals, then the authorities of those Arab countries responsible for giving such a refuge were wrong and perhaps, anti-semitic. However, even more disturbing, plus in outright violation of respective post-war international agreements among anti-Axis allies (which the Arab countries were not part of), was similar treatment of some notorius Nazi criminals by US, Argentina, Urugauy, Paragauy, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, etc.
How do I or you can explain "all that"?
The rest of your requests for explanation continue on the same keynote, which makes me to suspect a funny thing: that you think of me as an ally of all Judophobic, anti-democratic world forces, and royal parasites.
Since your prime interest is the matters of world Jewry (which is only
my partial interest, as an atheistic Jew), let me tell you something about current situation that I'm certain about: noone hurts the interests and well-being of Jews around the world as bad as Zionism, especially some disgusting policies/actions of Zionist establishment of the state of Israel. All your (and others like you) previous comments, reflecting dogmatic Zionist stance on these issues become a weapon deadlier than nuclear bomb for Judophobs around the world, in general, and Arabic ones, in particular. The Zionist zealots like you are the worst enemies of all Jews and of the Israeli nation.
Although I have already told you that, it is not redundant to inform others about your poisonous ideological and political stance.

Elliott Aron Green - 1/2/2009

Arnold, depending on our definition of fascist, you could be right in saying that fascist are not necessarily Judeophobic ["antisemitic"]. However, if I remember rightly, it was Father Stalin who once said that "antisemitism is an essential feature of fascism." Anyhow, if Stalin was right, then that would make him a fascist too.

Now, as to Franco, I think that Radu goes too far in exonerating him from antisemitism. He was instrumental in saving some thousands of Sefardic Jews in Eastern Europe from being sent to the death camps, but this was at the end of the war --if I recall rightly-- when he wanted to earn brownie points for presenting himself to public opinion in the Allied countries that looked like they were winning [seem Haim Avni's book on the subject].

On the other hand, there were thousands or tens of thousands of Jews in Spanish Morocco and Tangiers who were harassed and persecuted during the time of Franco's s alliance with Hitler --with the approval of local pro-Nazi Arab nationalists. The regime and the Falange party's propaganda was clearly Judeophobic.

What I would like Arnold to explain is the diplomatic alliance between Franco and the Arab states, including Egypt and Syria after WW2. While the Soviet Union was courting Nasser's Egypt and Syria, they were quite happy to develop close diplomatic ties with Franco, a fascist according to both Arnold and the USSR at the time. Arnold surely knows that Nazi war criminals were given refuge in Egypt, Syria, and Spain. How does Arnold explain all that?

What is mightily curious is that Spain's royal socialist shoemaker, now serving as prime minister, is pro-Arab and anti-Israel, just as Franco was.

Arnold might also explain to us just where he classifies the Arab kings, sheiks, emirs, and za'ims or caudillos [like Qaddhafi], etc. who possess immense amounts of private capital. Does possessing billions in private capital in cash, in oil reserves, in stocks in Western real estate and manufacturing firms mean that those Arab potentates are fascists, imperialists, liberals, democrats or socialist benefactors?? Where does Arnold classify them?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/1/2009

The equation of "fascist" with "anti-semitic" in the article is clearly wrong: "no serious historian" accepts that definition.

That said, the legislation of historical truth is wrong in principle, and in this particular case is ahistorical and wrong on facts.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/31/2008

on one main reason: cause his regime was actually supported by the Western right-wing ideology and private capital. "Asking European Jews" would not add anything to the characterization, since not all fascist (in difference with Nazi)regimes were/are simultaneously anti-semitic, as it is absolutely clear from historical record (e.g. Pinochet's regime in Chili).
Major characteristics of fascist regimes are: anti-democratic, totalitarian (to a different degree),
brutal political and ideological persecution (primarily of the Left and Left sympathizers, oppression of trade unions and working class, in general, and close ties to private capital (local and Western) as a prime sponsor and benefactor of such regimes.
Franco's regime satisfied all those
features and therefore should be labeled "fascist".

Arnold Shcherban - 12/31/2008

<What about marxists, socialists, and communists? Did they ever embrace such things?>
The answer that's more than clear is: no, they didn't; on the contrary, they have always been fighting against <such things>.

Edmond Dantes - 12/30/2008

Our civil war in 2010 will fix everything - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123051100709638419.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

John Connally - 12/30/2008

Always blame Western Civilization first. Without us, there would be no colonization, enslavement, imperialism, or exploitation. The arts, humanities, and sciences could finally break free from the shackles of Western Civilization and flourish. Elysium awaits!

Edmond Dantes - 12/29/2008

Yes, and it is quite obvious for whom Arnold Shcherban cries...

As historians, we should know that Muslims have never embraced imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. Right? What about marxists, socialists, and communists? Did they ever embrace such things?

Let's all keep applying today's value judgements to historic events and keep up the self-flagellation. Who will apologize for the conquests of the Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Mauryans, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Mongols, Incas, Aztecs, and countless others?

Arnold Shcherban - 11/13/2008

Arnold Shcherban - 11/13/2008