History by Decree
By Ian Buruma
The difference between official national narratives of heroism and victimhood is not as great as it might seem. The point of history as propaganda in China and Russia today – and, indeed, in Israel – is that it legitimises those in power.
Song Gengyi, a journalism teacher in Shanghai, was fired last month for doing her job. She had encouraged her students to verify official accounts of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the orgy of mass murder and rape perpetrated in the then-Chinese capital by the Imperial Japanese Army. Another teacher, Li Tiantian, who protested against the firing, was punished by being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Verifying facts is what journalists are supposed to do. But because the atrocity in Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese War has become a cornerstone of Chinese nationalism, and thus of the Communist Party of China’s propaganda, any critical scrutiny of what precisely happened is seen as criticism of the Chinese Government.
Perhaps this needs some explanation. Until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, official Chinese accounts paid little attention to the Nanjing Massacre. History under Mao was instead a heroic tale of communist victory over fascist and bourgeois oppressors. Nanjing had been the Chinese Nationalist capital at the time of the Sino-Japanese War. The massacre was thus a story of Nationalist defeat, not communist heroism. Democratically elected leaders in more modern times have no court historians (although Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. came close to performing that role for US President John F. Kennedy). But history in Western democracies can nonetheless be highly political. Consider the role that the history of slavery plays in US politics today. While some on the left project America’s history as one of white supremacy, right-wing politicians try to have books that make this case banned from schools.
Significantly, official history in Xi’s China is in line with the strong tendency in the West to define collective identity in terms of victimhood. If the official narrative of Mao’s China was in the heroic mould, history under Xi is a story of unrelieved degradation at the hands of foreign invaders until the communist revolution of 1949. The heroic story of the 1934-35 Long March, when Mao’s Red Army evaded Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, is now less important than the Chinese people’s sufferings in Nanjing or during the nineteenth-century Opium Wars.
Something like this happened in Israel, too. The story promoted after the founding of the Jewish State in 1948 was one of heroic freedom fighters and virile kibbutzniks, while the Holocaust in Europe was something shameful that was better forgotten. This began to change in the 1960s, after the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi genocide’s logistical mastermind. The new narrative was that memories of the Holocaust should make Israel tougher on its enemies, especially the Palestinians.
Putin still prefers the heroic version of Russian history. Triumph, not victimhood, and especially not suffering under their own rulers, is what Russians need to remember.
Triumphalist history has many dangers. A feeling of national superiority blinds people to their own faults and makes them oblivious to the way they treat others. It can also foster a natural sense of entitlement, a bit like that felt by the British at the height of their imperial power, or by Americans in more recent times.
But official histories of victimhood can be at least as dangerous. They fuel the belief that past wrongs must be avenged, and that old enemies can never be forgotten.
If a triumphal mood can lead to arrogance, the wounds of humiliation nurture collective rage. These wounds can be so old that their causes are long forgotten; victimhood becomes mythical. But vengeful emotions can be easy to stir up. For example, Serbian nationalism in the 1990s tapped into grievances going back to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when a Serbian army fought troops of the Ottoman Empire.
When hostile feelings are whipped up, historical accuracy is irrelevant. Bosnian Serb troops rampaging in Prijedor and Srebrenica during the Bosnian War called their Muslim victims “Turks,” as though they were fighting Ottoman soldiers in the late fourteenth century.
By the time of Mao’s death, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought had lost their appeal, even for many CPC members. The new party orthodoxy is a form of nationalism based on memories of collective humiliation, such as the Nanjing Massacre, whose stain only the CPC’s continued hegemony can erase.
At about the same time as Song was fired, a Moscow court ordered the closure of Russia’s Memorial International and its sister organisation, Memorial Human Rights Centre. Memorial was founded in 1989 to investigate Stalin-era crimes in the Soviet Union and to honour the victims. Like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to control the historical narrative. That means glossing over the horrors of Stalinism and highlighting the heroic victory of the Russian people against fascism in World War II.
History has of course always been political. At least since the time of the great court historian Sima Qian, born around 140 BC, official scribes in China have compiled histories to lend legitimacy to the rulers who commissioned them. Every dynasty had its own historians. Much the same was true in ancient Rome.
In fact, the difference between official narratives of heroism and victimhood is not as great as it might seem. The point of history as propaganda in China and Russia today – and, indeed, in Israel – is to legitimise those in power. Only the strength of the CPC will guarantee that the Chinese people will never again be humiliated by foreigners. Only Putin will keep Russians safe from their enemies, just as Stalin did when Hitler invaded. And only an Israeli Government that knows how to be ruthless will prevent another Holocaust.
The problem with history as propaganda is not that it makes people feel good or bad, but that it creates perpetual enemies – and thus the perpetual risk of wars.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, and, most recently, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit (Penguin, 2020).