Nationalists and their apologists like to point to historical events as justification for their invasions. Serbs claim that their military domination of Kosovo and the repression of the people there is justified by some ancient battle there. Russians claim at least a piece of or a right to dominate just about every country that borders the current state of Russia (and some that don't border them) based on the maximum extent of the old Romanov empire. China justifies its actions in Tibet with similar arguments. Many governments and non-governmental political movements (like Hezbullah) argue about historical events - to the point of threatening to assassinate archeologists who dig up inconvenient artifacts. I could go on and on with examples from around the world.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
But do these things really matter? I say that not only do they have no intrinsic meaning but claiming that they do is an intellectually flawed argument and dangerous in that it gives legitimacy to some really brutal behaviors by some nasty regimes out there. It also gets us nowhere as far as solving these problems.
So why is history such a rotten place to seek explanations? Because in most of these countries history is not an objectively definable thing. While the facts that occurred are objectively identifiable, their meaning and significance are formed by the people who teach those facts to people. Furthermore, in most of these countries we have highly centralized education systems where the books and curricula are approved by political offices of (usually) nationalist and/or undemocratic governments.
When you have a government that is self consciously using the school curricula as a propoganda tool, you can't really say that "history" is causing this or that widely held opinion in the people. In such a situation, nationalist feelings among the population aren't a natural consequence of the historical event but a consequence of the way that event is being used as part of a vocabulary of nationalism by the leadership.
Consider any number of examples in Europe. Germany conquered a large part of Denmark less than 150 years ago. Danes still live in the district and yet there is noone in Denmark banging on about German persecution of Danes and the need to get the international community to return the Danish land to its rightful owners. Same thing for the formerly Danish lands in Norway, Iceland or Sweden. Or Swedish lands in Norway or Finland. By the same token, no one in Germany is talking about retaking Silesia, Prussia or the Sudetenland. This despite that there are Germans alive today who were born in these regions and expelled as a result of the German defeat in WWII. You don't hear about German demands to rule Alsace either. Nor do you hear about the English wanting Ireland back. And you really don't even have a lot of people in Ireland proper making a big fuss about Ulster anymore. And what about the German speaking territories in Italy? Or Italian speaking territories in Switzerland? Even the Basque and Catalan conflicts are gradually cooling off in Spain.
These kinds of historical "rights" to this country or that valley, only matter if the politicians of today MAKE them matter. And some politicians make these things into big deals for very cynical reasons. In the context of this fact, it is really problematic to seek explanations for international and ethnic conflicts in the local history books. In most of these countries plagued by such conflicts, you may as well just read the party manifestos of the local nationalists as a history book.
So, if the historical facts themselves aren't causing the conflict but rather the propaganda built up around them, what causes the propaganda? I think it is fairly easy to establish that ethnic and international conflicts over issues like this tend to be more frequent and worse among poor populations than among rich ones. As a population gets more prosperous they care less and less about which side of the line some valley or town or battlefield is. And they don't particularly get upset about what happened on St. Crispin's Day in 1415 for example. Or whose fleet sunk whose back in 1588.
Posted by Raised By Republicans at 4:25 AM