Mark Wagstaff – Historical invention and political purpose
History-writing is this conditional perception, yoked to political purpose, whose shifts and contradictions will shoot us on the one day, and pardon us the next, says Mark Wagstaff.
History, the saying goes, catches up with you. It cannot be outrun. History appears to exist independently of politics or imagination, something past, which yet continues, an objective narrative accessible to succeeding generations on equal terms. History catches up with you because the narrative of occurrences persists. From this perspective, history is fact. But it cannot be so. When we discuss history, we mean history-writing, the invention of history. Egon Friedell called history-writing ‘the philosophy of what has happened’, and this sense of an investigative and imaginative discipline underpins Friedell’s analysis of how history is written and why. Historians do not address facts, so much as associations.
Take the individual life. When someone dies, Friedell suggests, they are removed from the realm of fact and become legend, even among those who knew them. What he implies is that there is imperfect recollection of the totality of the person: certain impressions and associations, often for arbitrary reasons, stand out more than others. The past, where all individuals are legend, becomes both unclear and suggestive of explanation, as each age invents its legend of history, mythologised through the fears and aspirations of the present. The significance of individuals and events rises and falls, as the imperatives of one age succeed another.
History-writing is not unique to the historian. Individually and collectively, people write history through the memories they claim, memories crucial to identity. Powerful collective memories – however they events – are cohesive. Baumeister and Hastings suggest, plausibly, that collective memory is shaped because groups, like individuals, demand a positive correlation between events and their image of self . Viewing events through this prism of self-image is politically constructive, so that historical invention through collective distortion is most obviously apparent in suppression of those aspects of the past which do not serve present political purposes. For example, many recall that Thomas Jefferson raised equality in the United States Declaration of Independence. Fewer, however, point to his enthusiasm for the extension of slavery, of which he was a beneficiary. Another obvious source of distortion is straightforward fabrication: the invention of narrative after the event to explain particular circumstances in a certain way. Traditionally, dictatorships excel at this, although democracies can practise reactive justification, around reasons for going to war, say.
In the context of political purposiveness, an effective distortion technique is what Baumeister and Hastings call ‘manipulating associations’, a technique that accords with Friedell’s analysis of history-writing as a shifting legend of history. What this manipulation focuses on is the form of associations used to link or separate events. For example, American history-writing might view the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the eventual outcome of a process propelled from the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese history-writing might view the bombing of Pearl Harbor as a military operation within a theatre of war, whereas the attack on Hiroshima, and subsequent attack on Nagasaki after the consequences of the Hiroshima bombing were known, were civilian genocides. Both views rest on constructions of self-victimhood and others-cruelty, and both enable a political stance as these competing views become components of national identity. People remember together, and what they remember creates and accords with national self-image.
In producing today’s version of history, as much rests on forgetting as remembering. A society has a generalised concept of the shape of its past, a stereotype of the conventions which make it the society it is. Revision and forgetting serve this order. In Igartua and Paez’s case study model of the Spanish Civil War, a model they phrase as being generally applicable, the immediate postwar period produces cultural artefacts focused on a conventional view of winners and losers. This is followed by a period of amnesia, in this case the 1950s when the conflict vanishes from popular discourse, with critical memory only emerging three decades on from the end of the war. By the 1980s, the Spanish Civil War was so remote as to be, to paraphrase Friedell on German Baroque interpretations of antiquity, an abstracted ideal. A myth of eternal values (the fight of brother against brother) rather a collection of actual events. The recent past is less substantial than older times which, by remoteness, acquire this illusion of authority. This process of mythologisation is essentially sanitising, sucking the blood from war to present the legend of war as a template of technique and example, to illustrate supposed enduring truths. This allows the catastrophic event to be accommodated in national self-image, as blame is deadened by eventual reconstruction of the event as a step in a natural process.
The grammar of forgetting is illuminated in German conservative revisionism after the Second World War. It was necessary for German conservatives to view the Nazi regime as conspiracy or aberration and so, by implication, something alien and non-German. The vulgarity of the Nazis marked them as disconnected from the race of Beethoven and Goethe and allowed a myth to be propagated that nobody had actually supported the regime. What underpins this is trauma around collective guilt: Germans knew that a majority had voted for Hitler and that he was widely popular. By the 1970s and 80s, following the cyclical model of collective memory, neoconservatives in the Federal Republic were rejecting the notion of perpetual penance by pointing to the universality of the evil Hitler mobilised.
In Western memory, the First World War has proved an enduring field for historical reinvention. At the time, the British government considered it politically expedient to shoot deserters. In the early twenty-first century, the British government considered it expedient to pardon those who had been shot, both the shell-shocked and those who had simply betrayed their comrades. This move was nothing to do with the past, and everything to do with the present. The First World War is now so far away that its origins have grown mythic, as its ideological imperatives have vanished. This allows the conflict to be co-opted to current debates. Distance renders history first as myth, and then as certainty, from which lessons can be drawn. As Friedell observed, with electricity we can say ‘whether, where, and to what extent it is effective…’ because we know, conceptually, where to stand to view electricity. But history, as Friedell put it, ‘takes place underground…’ we do not know what happens, but what we perceive happens. And what we remember as having happened passes through the filter of present conditions. History-writing is this conditional perception, yoked to political purpose, whose shifts and contradictions will shoot us on the one day, and pardon us the next.
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