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Call for a Model of History Which Contributes to More Peaceful Relations among People


One of the ironies of history is that history itself is so often used to arouse hateful feelings and beat one’s enemies into submission. It is the connection between history and politics which makes this possible. History is told as the story of governments and of events involving relationships among nations.

Most notably, history is the story of wars. Some nations won those wars and others lost them. It is said that the victors write history. They write it to glorify themselves and vilify others. The politically strong are the historians.

Here is the genesis of a type of history which sows rancor among people. The history of governments is a history of particular peoples to the extent that government legitimately represents those people. It is therefore a reflection upon the people and their descendants if a government behaves badly. Historical narratives become for them a source of shame.

For example, after World War II, the Allied powers controlled both the governments and culture of the defeated Axis powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan. The War Crimes trials in Germany and Japan established that leaders of the defeated powers had committed atrocities or so-called “crimes against humanity”. Part of the historical legacy of those nations were, therefore, the aggressive wars which the Axis powers had waged against other nations and, especially, the atrocities and acts of brutality that were exposed during the war-crimes trials.

And so, the history of the German nation will be forever stained by the memory of the Nazi death camps; Japanese history, by the atrocities committed against Chinese populations. Posterity remembers the horrible experiments in germ warfare and the murder and rape of peoples considered to be inferior. Such acts are thought to be the fault of Germans and Japanese of that era.

Now, sixty years after the Second World War, historians have the task of producing an acceptable history of those times. School children in all nations, including Germany, will read accounts of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The German children will, of course, be aware of the fact that their ancestors did those horrible things. It would not be such a stretch to suggest that the German people in general have certain bad traits; a Nazi-like personality may be in their genes. And so, the history of World War II becomes for them a source of personal shame.

The natural tendency of any normally proud people would be to want to expunge that history which put their nation and themselves in a bad light. It would be to gloss over the atrocities with a few general descriptions and give limited space to them in the history textbooks.

And so, we have a clash of two quite legitimate imperatives: (1) the need to tell the truth and (2) the need to give school children a history which builds up a positive self-image rather than tearing it down. The need for truthful history is self-evident. I also believe that school children deserve positive histories of their own people in order to grow into emotionally healthy adults. The two requirements, at times contradictory, are both compelling. What is a historian to do?

Another Paradigm

The solution which I would propose would be to develop a model of history which relegates the history of governments and of peoples to a subordinate position. The focus instead would be upon the development of institutions within society. World history would be told as a creation story: how the world of human society came to be.

Of course, the atrocities committed during World War II are a part of that story as well; but it would be a different story. This history would not put the German people into the story as a national character. Rather, the concentration camps would be seen as a product of totalitarian government. German school children could study this phenomenon with emotional detachment. Historians could be free to pursue truth wherever it might lead. The contradictions would be overcome.

Before fleshing out this alternative model of history, I think it would be useful to review some misuses of history in the present mode. My examples are largely drawn from notes on a panel discussion which I recently attended at the University of Minnesota involving faculty members from the Department of History and others.

One observes how easily history is adapted to political ends and, also, how politically directed histories have bad consequences. By that I mean that the histories make people angry at each other. They make people want to control the discussion so that their type of person comes off in a better light. Truth goes by the boards.

Japan in World War II

Let me begin with the Japanese portrayal of Japan’s military behavior during World War II. This is a classic case of school children being forced to confront the sins of a previous generation. Unlike the Germans who have accepted full responsibility for the evils of the Nazi government, Japanese people are reluctant to admit their national guilt .

So a struggle is currently taking place in Japan over how the history of World War II should be presented in textbooks. In particular, how should the so-called “rape of Nanjing” be told? What about the Korean “comfort women” forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers? Some want this aspect of history to be told in full detail while others want it to go unmentioned.

The Japanese Ministry of Education screens proposed textbooks of history submitted by private-sector publishers and recommends certain changes. Publishers who comply with those requests can sell their books to the school system. In the period immediately after the war, Japanese textbooks were full of materials concerning the wartime atrocities.

But then, in the mid 1990s, a conservative group of scholars and politicians pushed for “reforms” in textbooks of history that would show Japan in a more positive light. Instead of describing the Japanese assault on Manchuria as an “invasion”, the history books now said that Japan “advanced” into China. The Japanese conquests of neighboring countries were not an attempt to establish an empire but were intended to liberate Asia from western colonialism. The new textbooks were meant to restore national pride.

When Japanese textbooks came out minimizing the atrocities committed in China in the late 1930s, massive protest demonstrations took place in several Chinese cities. The writing of history was thus a cause of deteriorating diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Some point out as well that the revision of Japanese history is tied to efforts to amend the constitution so as to allow Japan to arm once again. In this way, too, there could be political consequences. History is not a mere academic discipline but the source of a national self-image from which future behavior follows.

American Indians and Others in U.S. History

Other panelists spoke of history from the perspective of American Indians. U.S. textbooks of the 1840s tended to create what one panelist called a “New England replacement scenario”. Indians were a prominent part of this history but only as people who used to occupy the land now settled by whites. They sold the land to English settlers and then vanished. Not until the 1960s did they reappear as a militant political group.

This kind of history is troubling from an Indian perspective. It is used to justify encroachment by whites upon Indian land, suggesting an orderly and legitimate process. As an alternative, a panelist passed around a textbook for elementary-school students which she said did a much better job of presenting Indian history. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society, it was titled “Northern Lights - The Stories of Minnesota’s Past.”

I took a look at this book. Yes, more space was devoted to Indian life before Europeans came to Minnesota. The treatment of Indians was respectful. Elsewhere, I saw pages describing African American settlement in Minnesota, women aviators during World War II, and Laotian and Somali immigrants since 1980. But where was Charles Lindbergh in this narrative? Where was Sinclair Lewis - or Judy Garland? These were all Minnesota natives who had become nationally famous and should have been included in a standard history of Minnesota. It seemed to me that this kind of textbook, while improved with respect to American Indians, might aptly be described as a “WASP replacement narrative”.

Here again one can see how history is used to serve political ends. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s created a scenario by which African Americans struggled to gain a place in society against an oppressive social environment imposed by white people. Soon, other types of people joined the African Americans in their triumphal procession to equality: women, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, immigrants. Their scenario of progress assumes, however, a core of white-male population which is resisting progress and losing position. Like the 19th Century Indians, they are expected to “ride toward the sunset with a smile on their face.” Historically speaking, they are on the losing side of a “replacement narrative”.

Politically dominant groups have written history textbooks to flatter their own type of people in comparison with other types. The question of how much space in the history textbooks to give to stories of one or another demographic group is a win-lose situation. This is at the heart of the “culture wars” that loom so large on the current political scene. As always, politics determines which group will prevail in the history textbooks. Conversely, history can be a powerful tool in consolidating political advantage.

History and Rwandan Genocide

History has influenced the contemporary politics of Rwanda. The African nation of Rwanda was a colony of Germany and of Belgium which became independent in 1962. After 1990,a civil war took place involving a Rwandan rebel based in Uganda. The warring factions used ethnicity to appeal to their constituencies. Feeding into ideologies supporting their respective political positions, the different factions had their own versions of history.

In early 1994, a cease fire was arranged and peace talks took place. However, in April, the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi were both killed in a missile attack on the Rwandan president’s airplane. The country then plunged into civil war. Tribal conflict led to genocide.

It was believed that history had played a role in the events leading up to the genocide. After the rebels won in July 1994, the government of the victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front called for a ten-year moratorium on writing history to let tensions subside. A conference was then held to consider a suitable kind of history. The government decided that there was correct history and incorrect history - or “incorrect ideology” as the Rwandan president called it in many speeches.

Interestingly, most of the Rwandan histories written before the 1994 genocide were considered incorrect since it was believed that these histories had led to the genocide. Most established historians were discredited. One who was not discredited was Alison Des Forges, who is with Human Rights Watch and who has been actively involved in prosecuting persons accused of genocide. However, other versions of history also produced by competent historians are considered incorrect because they precede the period of the genocide. Newcomers to this field are considered more reputable experts because they are not tainted with the bad historical concepts that had produced the genocide.

Rwanda is now going through a painful process to deal with that experience. History plays a central role in the process. In many trials, especially those in international courts, historians have been called to testify as expert witnesses. Such historians have been used both by the prosecution and the defense.

In the decade since the genocide, the Rwandan government has developed a more or less official version of history. It is the standard by which judgments are made. To hold revisionist views is a crime; it’s similar to Holocaust-denying in our culture.

Again, this is history in the service of politics.

Slavery and the Holocaust

Western history, too, has elements like this which we would call “political correctness”. There are historical hot buttons. Two come to mind: the institution of African American slavery and the Holocaust. Both are states of victimhood born of historical experience. The victimhood is assigned uniquely to a racial or religious group. It also serves certain political interests to keep this type of history alive.

In the first instance, historical awareness of slavery in the pre-Civil War South produces a sense of shame in America’s white population much as the Rape of Nanjing produces shame in the Japanese people. In the second instance, Americans are obviously not to blame since it was American and other Allied forces that liberated Europe from Hitler. The memorial of the Holocaust is, instead, a more generalized grievance directed by Jews against non-Jewish people who might be thinking or acting like Nazis - i.e., exhibiting signs of anti-Semitism.

One should recognize that slavery and the Holocaust are both slices taken from history rather than the complete story. They are images of an inhumane condition that once existed. If more of the story were told, historians would have to recognize that these evil situations were ended primarily by groups other than the victims. American slavery was ended by the U.S. Civil War, fought among white soldiers primarily. The Holocaust was ended when largely Gentile armies of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany and liberated inmates of the concentration camps.

If history were told as a morality story, then, black Americans would feel some gratitude to the white soldiers who fought and died so they could go free. Jews would feel some gratitude to the Gentile liberators of the concentration camps. Victimhood rather than gratitude seems, however, to be the prevailing spirit behind this kind of history. Even if Great Britain was the nation most responsible for Hitler’s defeat, that did not stop Jewish emigres from Europe from employing terroristic actions against the British colonial occupiers of Palestine in the period before the State of Israel was established.

The motive seems to be primarily to keep the memories of slavery and the Holocaust alive. In that respect, historical awareness becomes like a religion. One must keep remembrance alive. The worst sacrilege is to forget - or, even worse, deny that the history ever happened. Holocaust-deniers are the infidels and heretics of a religion. They are generally depicted as persons who deny that there ever was such a thing as a Nazi concentration camp or that any Jews died there. One would have to be out of one’s mind to believe that. But, not only are the Holocaust-deniers deluded; they are evil. They are negative figures in a secularized Jewish religion.

Politically, however, one can clearly see that historical awareness of slavery and of the Holocaust serves the purpose of putting other people on the defensive. Slavery and the Holocaust have been branded as supreme evils through numerous films, news reports, scholarly articles, and the like. The image is enforced by hair-trigger political action. If one dares say the wrong thing or think the wrong thought, the entire society comes down on you with the full weight of condemnation.

It is convenient for Jews and blacks to have that weapon in their arsenal - an extract from history which only hurts other people and never themselves. It gives them powerful political leverage. However, such history does not serve the cause of peace. More and more, I think that world history should serve that end.

Evict the Politician from History

Therefore, I am looking for an alternative model of history. I am looking for a narrative that does not create racial, religious, or national characters imbued with virtue or guilt. It is unfair to individuals belonging to guilt-laden groups to have to bear the burden of an unflattering history imposed upon them by the political winners. I call it child abuse to force young children to take history courses that tell them how bad their own people are or have been.

Education is meant to propel children in a positive direction, not bog them down in guilt. At the same time, history must be truthful. It must be scientific, its theories determined by fact rather than by political mandate. As a form of knowledge, there can be no predetermined conclusions to its study.

The way to create this kind of history is to evict the politician from the process of writing history. The politician would also be removed from the center of historical narratives. Government would be but one of several institutions described in history.

The first histories were, of course, the chronicles of royal dynasties. Even after democracy transformed the nations, political leaders took charge of the schools and organized the history curriculum with themselves at the center. American history was, then, the history of American government, with other aspects of society thrown in as subordinate details. So it will be a wrenching process to take the writing of history away from politicians and organize it according to some other principle. But the cause of peace requires nothing less.

World History as a Creation Story

What I have in mind is to tell world history as a creation story. What could be more natural? Every young person asks: Where did I or my people come from? How did the world begin? The tribal myths of many people address this type of question. History can do the same in a more scientific way. Such a history will arouse curiosity rather than inciting hatred among differing peoples.

More than a decade ago, an Australian historian named David Christianson had a brilliant idea. He called it “big history”. Christianson’s idea was to begin the study of history at the beginning of natural existence: the so-called “Big Bang”. His history would therefore include scientific theories regarding the origin of the universe. It could describe the formation of the solar system and of the earth. It could cover the various geological periods which produced particular forms of life. It could tell how the species of plant and animal life emerged. It would tell how man, homo sapien, emerged as a successful species of life.

From there we would get into the story of human migrations and of pre-civilized human culture accessed through archeology, anthropology, and DNA testing of scattered peoples. We get into the development of language. We would study oral folklore, early religion, and myths. We would study physical artifacts that remain from those ancient cultures. We would study the economic transformation from a hunter-gatherer society to one based on agriculture. Through various disciplines, Christianson’s “big history” takes us from the beginning of time to the world as it existed, say, five or ten thousand years ago.

While its spirit would be scientific, I see no reason why such a history could not also accommodate “unscientific”, mythological, or religious theories about the origins of the universe and the beginnings of life. We simply throw everything that is known or believed into the historical pot and let students of history sort it out. And so, the Darwinian theory of evolution might coexist with the Biblical account of how the earth was created in six days and God rested on the seventh. The point is not to achieve a consensus of truth but create a narrative that shows how the world developed to its present state.

“Big history” adds the development of nature to the historical narrative. I think this scheme is useful in suggesting how the main body of history should be written. History might be framed as a creation story, describing the creation of the world in which we ourselves live. Political history is only a small part of that process. We live in a human world that includes many other forces besides those of government. Whatever institutions, practices, cultural influences, or elements of the environment shape our personal experience have a history. World history should be a coherent summation of all this.

Scholars may generally agree on how the early part of the story might be told - the formation of the natural world and the development of human society and culture to its state five thousand years ago. They would have little idea on how to organize the subsequent history.

I propose that the second part of “big history” , conforming more to what we think of history, be the story of how the world of human society developed from its state five thousand years ago in small tribal communities to the large civilized societies that we have today. This story would focus upon the development of society and, especially, its progress toward new and lasting forms, rather than upon the rise and fall of imperial dynasties or the affairs of national governments that have little relevance to us today.

To write big history in its second phase, I would use my own book, Five Epochs of Civilization, as a model. This book claims that human history during the past five or six thousand years can be told as the story of five successive world civilizations. The parade of human inventions is important to the story, especially inventions in the area of communication. Each “civilization” is associated with the introduction of a new communication technology.

The first civilization is associated with the invention of ideographic writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia more than five thousand years ago; the second, with the development of alphabetic writing in the Middle East around 3,500 years ago; the third, with the introduction of printing in western Europe around 1450 A.D.; the fourth, with several inventions of electric and electronic communication developed in the 19th century and the early 20th century A.D.; and the fifth, with the development of computer technology in the latter part of the 20th century, especially with respect to communication.

The other “key” to civilization would be the development of a particular institution in society at the time that the communication technologies became widespread. This history envisions that civilized societies emerge from primitive society much as higher forms of life emerge from single-celled organisms. The more advanced civilizations therefore feature larger and more complex societies.

World history is the advancement of society from small communities with a fairly unified power structure to national and international communities in which several institutions share power. Society advances from a simple condition to a condition of institutional pluralism. Again, the analogy is to complex forms of life whose cells each have specialized functions.

When we look at the history of civilized society, we again find five civilizations appearing in succession. In the first civilization, the institution of government is formed as a separate institution apart from the hereditary priesthood. In the second civilization, philosophically based religions arise to challenge political power and share power with it in the organization of society. In the third civilization which began in Europe and spread to the rest of the world, business organizations arise and become powerful. Secular education is established to transmit the society’s culture to young people and train them for employment. In the fourth civilization, entertainment becomes a dominant force in society. The media become an important center of power. In the fifth civilization, computer technology will transform society in as yet unknown ways.

I would argue that this type of history would be more interesting to students than the political histories because it is more able to answer questions about the world around them. Another advantage is that students of history could look dispassionately on the process of how the world of human society developed. They would not have a vested interest in the outcome.

If Italians, for instance, want to be proud of Italian inventors who have contributed to world culture, they could take such parochial delight from this kind of history; but that would not be the spirit of the history as a whole. Rather, the design of history as a creation story would arouse intellectual curiosity in the quest to know more about one’s origins. It would tell where humanity has been and suggest where it might be going. By its very nature, this history would be openminded.

As our world of diverse cultures and peoples becomes increasingly integrated, I would suggest that we can no longer afford the old contentious histories which are focused on nations or peoples encountering evil forces on the way to their own redemption. Those others who are seen as evil in that type of story have their own pride and legitimate aspiration. The narrow-minded histories of contentious groups cannot be allowed to become universal histories.

How this Type of History might Treat Slavery

Take the issue of slavery. Yes, it is true that the black people of America were once uniquely relegated to an unhumane condition and the slave-masters were mostly white. So are we to generalize from this history that white people have a unique tendency to mistreat black people? If the truth were told, some black people also mistreat whites.

Looking at the institution of black slavery from perspective of a creation story, we can see that it was the product of a civilization focused on financial gain. It was a civilization that began with Columbus’ attempt to reach the rich lands of the Orient by a westward route to secure costly spices, silk, and gold. After reaching the Americas, the Spaniards sought to become rich by establishing silver and gold mines worked by Indian slaves.

But then American commerce shifted to such things as tobacco, coffee, and rum. African slaves were found suitable for labor on plantations to produce them. A three-cornered trade developed between the European colonial nations, Africa, and the American colonies. Black slaves were a commodity in this trade, bought from African slavers for manufactured goods from Europe (especially guns) and sold to the colonists as labor to produce agricultural commodities that Europeans would accept in exchange for manufactured goods. Profit was the motive throughout this period of time.

However, the commercial civilization rethought its original assumptions about wealth and human dignity. For one thing, it discovered that gold and silver were not wealth. Spain, which dominated world production of such commodities, went bankrupt during the same period. Adam Smith’s book, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, expressed the modern view of what wealth is.

With respect to slavery, American Quakers and other religious groups began agitating for its abolition in the early 19th Century arguing that this institution was cruel and inhumane. It was wrong for one man to own another. And so a moral debate ensued about the nature of property which split the United States politically and eventually led to the U.S. Civil War. These were important steps in creating the kind of society that we have today.

However in politically controlled histories, the racial aspect of slavery comes to the fore. That is because black Americans have become a powerful political force in the United States. Histories of black people as a group have greater appeal to many blacks than histories of the development of commercial society. Such histories lend themselves to moral characterizations along the lines of race.

Some blacks see themselves, then, as a people who, like the ancient Israelites, were led out of a land which enslaved them into a “promised land” given to them by God. The Egyptian pharaoh has his white counterparts in U.S. society. Biblical history records how Pharaoh’s armies were destroyed in the Red Sea.

Another politically dominant group in America does not much favor histories that put slavery in the context of a discussion of the extent to which human beings can be financially exploited. They are the wealthy owners and managers of businesses that continue to exploit people financially in our own time.

While it is true that ownership of another human being has become illegal, some business interests effectively own their employees. The managers of businesses “own” people, in a sense, when they require their employees to work such long hours that they have no personal life outside of work. Banks and credit-card companies “own” people, in a sense, when people are lured into debt obligations that require all their energies to be devoted to work merely to keep up with the interest payments.

These well-heeled interest groups would not look with favor upon histories that raise the moral question of the extent to which one human being can exploit another human being financially . Racial histories are, however, acceptable.

Can Peaceful History Happen?

Let me end on a pessimistic note. If the winners of political struggles write the history, history will not be written, or at least not be published and promoted, from the standpoint of presenting human history as a creation story; there’s no profit in this. Instead, money and power will always support the type of history that confers a political advantage on someone - i.e., the funders, whether they be rich people or governments.

Yes, the cause of promoting a more peaceful world is laudable; but, frankly, there’s no constituency for this. There’s no demand for a peace-promoting history among the people who matter.

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