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).
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