Are we allowed to rewrite history?

It was a character in George Orwell’s 1984 who said He “who controls the present controls the past.” Rewriting history was something we European historians used to laugh at in our Soviet counterparts. Think of Stalin, for example, ordering the deletion of all references to the major role played by Leon Trotsky, during the Russian Revolution. If only they’d had photoshop! A famous example of rewriting (or rather over-writing) history occurred in 1953, within the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
Lavrenti Beria had been head of the NKVD, the dreaded secret police, from 1938 to 1953. In 1953, following the death of Stalin, Beria was arrested and executed on orders of his fellow Communist Party leaders. As luck would have it, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had just gone to press with a long article singing Beria’s praises. With Beria having just become a “non-person,” the new rulers of the Soviet Union acted quickly. The editors of the Encyclopedia wrote an article of identical length on “the Bering Straits,” with an instruction to paste it over the article about Beria, and sent this off to its subscribers. Most subscribers decided it was safer to paste in the new article.

Of course, each generation has the right to re-assess the past on its own terms because new information is continually coming to light. The archaeologists investigating the new saxon hoard found last year (see the header photo) enthused that “now the Saxon history of England will need to be re-written” (but probably they just meant “re-examined”!). Similarly, the recent biographies of Stalin by Sebag Montefiore utilised secret files “never before released”. Such disclosure clearly justifies reassessment –even rewriting.
Where the water becomes a little muddy, however, is when political fashions change, or a new agenda governs the processing of old information. Having taught about “the hero Cromwell” in English state schools at KS3, for example,I found it alarming to have to teach “the psychopathic monster Cromwell” at Irish junior cert. (So much easier to detect someone else’s prejudice, rather than your own, isn’t it?).
And so we come to the new guidelines of the Texas Board of Education.The new curriculum –it must be admitted- presents history from a white, right-wing perspective and de-emphasizes the role of blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups.
The new version of history given Texas students will:
• celebrate the free market;
• minimize the role of labour movements; and
• give greater prominence to conservative figures like Phyllis Schlafly.
Additional changes will include:
• Students will now study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
• Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, which documented the horrors of working conditions in the meatpacking industry and led to calls for greater regulation, has been removed from the list of suggested readings.
• The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” has also been removed.
• Thomas Jefferson’s name has been removed from a list of the country’s great thinkers because he advocated the separation of church and state.
• In a sop to the Christian Right, references have been added to “laws of nature and nature’s God” to a section in U.S. history that requires students to explain major political ideas.
• The word “democratic” has been removed in references to the form of U.S. government, and this will now be described as a “constitutional republic.”
• A reference to the Second Amendment right to bear arms has been added to a section about citizenship in a U.S. government class
• Economics students will be required to “analyze the decline of the U.S. dollar including abandonment of the gold standard.”
• The names or references to important Hispanics throughout history also were deleted, such as the fact that Tejanos died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.
• All references to “capitalism” have been replaced with “free enterprise.”
• U.S. “imperialism” no longer exists; there is only “U.S. expansionism.” Only the Europeans are guilty of “imperialism,” just as only the Soviets committed “aggression.”
• In a rare setback for the radical Right, the slave trade will not be renamed the “Atlantic triangular trade.”
Requiring students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has been associated by some in the words of Edward R. Murrow, to “giving Jesus and Judas equal time.” As a non-American I guess I ought to tread carefully here, but as a reader of US history textbooks can we simply note that what used to be described as “treason” is now being resold as “states rights.”

Forgetting our past is dangerous, but so is “understanding” it incorrectly. Deliberately omitting events and persons from the historical record–such as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King–can be as lethal to the truth as outright lying.

2 Responses to Are we allowed to rewrite history?

  1. Surely we can’t help but “re-write”? We ourselves are a product of history and we can’t distance ourselves. I’m not so sure about attempting to NOT re-write history, our job is to at least re-examine it at least.
    I’ll disagree about the role of the historian being to show “wie es eigentlich gewesen”. Aren’t we just showing how we see the past from our viewpoint. That said, obviously the Soviets blatantly lied. Non-Marxist archaeologists were employed to teach Medieval history though.


  2. kenbaker says:

    Clearly, we have an obligation to re-interpret the past, and in that process we make different emphases from our predecessors., but surely that’s somewhat different from misrepresenting what actually happened? Holocaust denial etc?

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