When History’s Losers Write the Story

From The New York Times:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/sunday-review/civil-war-statues-losers.html

By
Sept. 15, 2017

I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.

“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”

Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.

“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”

That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.

“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.

Continue reading at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/sunday-review/civil-war-statues-losers.html

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