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Amabel Crowe – Rewriting History

How and what we learn about our past determines attitudes, actions and ideology in the present. History can be at its most divisive when dealing with territorial conflict; all over the world there are disputes over specific tracts of land and enduring violence after painful partitions. In such situations, recourse to the history of the area is often motivated by the search for justification and legitimacy, rather than a desire for potentially destabilising truths. The complexity of the matter is boiled down to a simple attribution of blame; consequently the ‘history’ of a conflict becomes complicit in the construction of realities it merely claims to describe. In areas such as Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan and the Balkans, the history of the nation becomes a tool used to ensure loyalty within state boundaries, imprinting divisions onto the next generation. Narratives of culpability, entitlement and beleaguerment are constructed and reproduced, without room for debate and discussion about alternative explanations.

In these circumstances, and the world over, there is reluctance to recognise that a historical narrative is the construction of oneexplanation; one way of explaining why events happened as they did, which relies on a selected starting point, inclusions and omissions, in order to make sense. Clearly not all historical narratives will be equally valid; some will meticulously weigh up sources, while others will cherry pick their evidence. What is dishonest, and in conflict-ridden territories frankly dangerous, however, is selling a historical narrative as if it is fact. Rather than the dissemination of a coherent story of the past, historical education needs to emphasise the multiplicity of potential narratives and the range of explanations that are available for the same set of historical circumstances. While historians focus on the attainment of an objective narrative, there is an implicit suggestion that a single narrative can reflect the truth about the past. This approach does not promote the tools necessary to effectively deconstruct nationalist narratives, and the divisions they encourage. In order to prevent the reproduction of ethnic conflict and territorial disputes, the study of history needs to develop awareness of the existence of divergent ideas and stimulate curiosity, rather than impart a dogmatic one-dimensional explanation of what happened.

Since the turn of the century there have been a number of specific projects, as well as the establishment of global organisations, which attempt to address the issue of conflicting historical narratives, particularly in the context of disputed territories. The Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) launched an ambitious project to develop a school textbook of the Israel-Palestine conflict written collaboratively by Palestinian and Israeli historians and teachers[i]. As the PRIME team says, “at this stage in their polarized history there is not enough common ground for Israelis and Palestinians to create a single historical narrative,” and consequently the end result was a textbook which contained both narratives. The Israeli description of events runs down the left hand side, and the Palestinian explanation down the right, of every page. Features of the narrative form – a chosen starting point, inclusions and omissions, and how these affect the meaning given to the history of the territory – are clear throughout the book. For example, the Israeli introduction to the Balfour declaration begins in 1882 when there was “a small wave of immigration to “the land””, the Palestinian version, however, begins in April 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte proposed a Jewish state in Palestine. Depending on the selected starting date, Israel is seen as the culmination of a Zionist movement designed to create a Jewish homeland, or an imposition of European imperialist powers.

Another example is the Scholars’ Initiative project[ii], which not only seeks to illustrate the way in which each national group in former Yugoslavia appropriates the history of the conflict to legitimise their own nation state, it also attempts to challenge historical narratives which deviate significantly from the evidence. By tackling the historical misrepresentation of events, the Scholars’ Initiative project hoped to stem the deepening of divisions between ethnic communities in the Balkans: a single, multi-faceted narrative comprehensible to all could form the foundation for peace in the region, just as the distorted narratives provided the basis for developing nationalisms.

Unsurprisingly, the reality was not so simple. Teams composed of representatives from Balkan countries as well as specialists from America and Europe tackled sensitive themes in the conflict, including ‘Independence and the Fate of Minorities’ and ‘Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes, 1991-1995’. Although these chapters valiantly labour towards answering contentious questions, they are also transparent about the many limitations in the process. The  reliability of sources, the lack of consensus over concept definitions, and the problems posed by the narrative form in the production of objective history, are just a few of the issues that the teams faced[iii]. In the introduction to the second edition of Confronting the Yugoslav controversies: A Scholars’ Initiative, Charles Ingrao highlights the inability of the project to resolve major controversies, emphasising rather the teams’ success in indicating points of agreement and highlighting the existence of contradictory explanations which necessitate more investigation[iv]. It is by all accounts the start of a process. The constrictions of space, resources and the lack of evidence all impede satisfactory conclusions – the enduring theme of the book seems to be the necessity for more research. Nevertheless, this has to be a step forward from the claims to historical truth, based on flimsy evidence, normally given by historians of the Balkans. And amidst the lamentations about limitations, there are some nuggets of important analysis that is all too often lacking from conventional historical accounts of conflict. In the chapter concerning minorities, Gales Stokes writes: “The question of minority status was not a side issue, but grew out of the fundamental structure of the nation-state system into which the former republics of Yugoslavia suddenly emerged as newly independent states.”[v]

This assessment of the issues of minorities and nation states could be backed up by examples from all over the world; one region that has particularly suffered at the hands of this system is South Asia. In 1947 the departing imperial British state crudely drew a line on a map to create a new nation for Muslims – Pakistan. This provoked the largest human migration in the twentieth century, with estimates of one million lives lost. Predictably the establishment of a new state did nothing to resolve the animosity between religious communities; instead India and Pakistan constructed opposing national identities and entered a cycle of conflict.

As in the other examples discussed, educating about history in South Asia tends to be perceived as an opportunity to imbue the young generation with a strong sense of national identity, rather than an exercise in encouraging the development of critical minds. Krishna Kumar has done a comparative study on how the freedom struggle is taught in India and Pakistan[vi]. The differences in content of school textbooks illustrate, in a similar way to the Israel/Palestine example, how historical narratives are formulated by a specific starting point and developed by the insertions and absences of historical facts, as well as carefully placed emphasis. The divergence in how the road to independence is taught in both countries might not be so important if it were not accompanied by a ‘quiz culture’ approach to education, which encourages children to regard the contribution of the ‘right’ answer as the only competence that matters[vii].

Unless the teaching of history is radically transformed, it will remain the tool of nationalism for many generations to come. In conflict situations, atrocities are committed and voices need to be heard; the challenge for historians and educators is to facilitate the discovery and exploration of the past in a way which recognises the experiences of past generations but fosters empathy rather than divisions. Instead of teaching a story laced with historical facts, the emphasis has to be on being critical in the face of explanations, questioning instead of memorising and engaging with the unknown rather than pretending that there is a right answer. However, as critics of the education systems in India and Pakistan are all too aware, reform is difficult when it challenges the very foundations of the state. It isn’t by accident that the history syllabus reads something like a doctrine of nationalism; the process of building nations in a multi-ethnic world demands actions from the ruling class to legitimise boundaries and foster stability within them. Setting the rules about what history we learn and how we learn it, is an important resource in justifying a divisive nation-state system[viii].

This is an ongoing process all over the globe, and does not just encompass setting the agenda for the history school syllabus, but also dictating how historical events should be commemorated by society. In 2012, David Cameron, when speaking at the Imperial War Museum, called for “a truly national commemoration” to mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War One: “A commemoration, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, that says something about who we are as a people.” Comparing the centenary of the outbreak of one of the bloodiest wars in history to a celebration raised a few eyebrows[ix]; but aside from the insensitive language, it demonstrates the perception that politicians are in some way custodians of the nation’s past, dictating the parameters and temperament of commemoration. The plurality of historical explanations does not sit well with a domineering hierarchical approach to how the past is learnt. History needs to be transformed, not by presenting an alternative narrative as the correct one, but by promoting an inquisitive exploration of the past, encouraging analysis and critical minds.

In a hopefully more peaceful territorial dispute, Scotland will vote to become independent or to stay in the United Kingdom later this year. The debate so far has seen a left-wing, pro-democracy case for independence sit uneasily alongside the nationalistic arguments of the SNP. Unfortunately, Scotland’s main political party is already repeating the pattern previously described, of utilising history in order to promote nationalism and engender divisions. Matching Cameron’s ‘truly national commemoration’ of the First World War, one of the main attractions of the SNP’s ‘Scotland’s Year of Homecoming’ will be an interactive Battle of Bannockburn visitor’s centre[x]. The Battle of Bannockburn is said to be a significant Scottish victory against England during the twelfth century Wars of Independence; no prizes for guessing why it is taking centre stage this year. As historic anniversaries become pawns in the independence debate, the thinly veiled grip that ideology has over public commemoration is swept away. These are just two examples of a wider tendency to favour military history as the object for public commemoration, which sharply draws a line between “us” and “them” – whether the “us” is the UK or Scotland, depends on the point you’re trying to prove.

This tendency also indicates little historical agency for the common person in the shaping of the nation – deciding to go to war tends to be the reserve of the ruling class, even if it is the workers who make up the death statistics. History is not only the study of the past, our understanding of it shapes the present.  What and how we learn about history has an impact on the collective psyche; while politicians enjoy the prerogative of prescribing public commemorations, and while the past is seen as a static object to be memorised, history will remain divisive. The challenge is twofold: take control of the content and the form of historical education, in this way history can become a source of wisdom for the present, rather than a means to replicate the same mistakes.


[i] PRIME is an NGO, established by Palestinian and Israeli researches in 1998. A pdf of the textbook, “Learning from each other’s narratives in Israeli and Palestinian schools” is available online: http://vispo.com/PRIME/leohn.htm

[ii] All twelve chapters of the second edition of Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholars Initiative, are now available for download: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/purduepress_ebooks/28/

[iii] See Nancy Partner, Narrative Persistence, p94. And Marie-Janine Calic, Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes, 1991-1995, p116.

[iv] Charles ingrao, Confronting the Yugoslav controversies: A Scholars’ Initiative, 4.

[v] Gale Stokes, Independence and the Fate of Minorities, 1991–1992, 85.

[vi] Krishna Kumar, Prejudice and Pride, 5.

[vii] Kumar, Prejudice and Pride, 243.

[viii] Discussion on the impact of nationalism is immense, with thinkers such as Lenin arguing that it ‘corrupts and divides the working class’[viii] and thus is key in maintaining hierarchical societal organisation. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/may/10.htm

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/global/2013/oct/08/jeremy-paxman-david-cameron-first-world-war

[x] http://battleofbannockburn.com/


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