They say that history is written by the victorious. It’s one of those sayings that doesn’t mean that much in Australia because we have been so mercifully free of major conflicts. There is evidence of organised armed resistance to the European colonisers and the Eureka Stockade gets a fair dose of attention but there is nothing even close to the scale of what has occurred here in Europe or across many of the countries we have touched. Europe has seen staggering levels of ethnic hostility and while we as a nation are still grappling with the complexity of a white history overlaid on an aboriginal history it just takes one step inside a nation much older than white Australia to realise how peaceful our soil has been and still is.
The modern histories of every nation we have touched from Australia to Europe seems like a constant battlefield compared to what I know as my homeland. I have studied their histories, I have read up, I am fascinated by them – but I still can’t possibly truly comprehend them. Even being here, immersed in the web of cultures and societies that is Europe, I am still staggered that – despite everything that has gone on here – there is relative peace (not withstanding Comrade Putin’s clandestine push Westward into Ukraine).
So I am fascinated by the question of what they do with their history. How they face into their past and make sense of it all. The history of the Baltic states reads as this mind boggling centuries-long procession of foreign “conquerers” all taking turns to rule over land that they have no right to. This is hundreds of years of foreign entities just walking in and saying “We’ll take this thank you very much…”
Within these countries it has not just been external rulers but the litany of oppressive, inhumane regimes and governments leave you a little speechless. So the quandary becomes clear: we as nations want to be proud of who we are and our history – but our history is filled with some distinctly ugly episodes.
The answer to this? Just re-write it.
So we have seen history being re-written before our very eyes. The first to get a makeover was Mao ZeDong. Mao of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution that saw 30 million people die through starvation and brutality. A man who systematically wiped away family lines and generations – not to mention thousand of years of cultural heritage. But there he is smiling and looking proudly over boulevards and highways. Warm, huggable, fatherly Mao portraits are everywhere – sometimes with a gentle hand on a child’s head or scratching the tummy of a baby deer in the forests. A nice mass murderer with a penchant for nature.
Then Mongolia joined the party. Good old Ghengis Khan. A ruthless invader and conquerer who expanded the Mongolian Empire to literally span almost half the world. He is everywhere in Mongolia as the “Father of the Mongolian State”. I am sure he is – but he also killed an estimated 40 million people in the wake of his expansion. FORTY million……living breathing humans. But he did establish the first postal service – so good on him. But there he is in Mongolia in shining 70m high statues. Museums, streets, squares, buildings all named after him and a youthful following that includes Ghenhis tattoos and a penchant for imagery of wild-eyed horsemen charging into battle eager to kill and plunder.
You wander through the Ghengis Khan museum and not one single word is mentioned about anything other than the empire building feats of him and his heirs.
Then of course there is Russia. Stalin seems to have remained dead and buried for good reason – but Lenin is staging a comeback. After 70 years of an oppressive, somewhat failure-riddled communist experiment – Russia has turned its back on Lenin and his mates and is burning the capitalist candle at both ends. Despite their love of money and ostentatious cars – Lenin still stands tall all over the place. His arm outstretched majestically, coat flowing, eyes burning – pointing towards the local supermarket selling everything you could possibly want (unlike the empty shelves of the Soviet era). He would be groaning in his formaldehyde if he knew that overlooking his embalmed body are several of the most expensive and garish luxury goods shops in the world. You can spend $20,000 on a Louis Vuitton handbag then walk across Red Square and visit Lenin’s tomb. Matter of fact you don’t even have to leave the Louis Vuitton shop…you can look out onto his tomb WHILE you choose your handbag.
But Lenin was a murderer as well. The proud father of the secret police and the overseer of countless ruthless “anti-revolutionary” purges. Those victims were fathers, mothers, children even. But his gleaming bald head appears in cafes and bars. A sort of retro-pride. (I used to feel a little funny about our glorification of Ned Kelly – but his crimes don’t even rate against the bad guys).
I don’t know the answer to making sense of a bloody national history – it’s not like Arthur Phillip and his mates asked the local Aboriginal peoples around for tea – but something doesn’t sit right with it all. I feel that it is a step away from whitewashing the truth about what these people did. It feels dangerous to me.
I can still recall one of the (many) pearls of wisdom that my inspiring schooling mentor – Mr Collins SJ – dropped in our modern history classes. He was the one who rattled my concept of what history was. He was the one that shattered my childish notion that history was facts recorded meticulously and diligently in big books and taught faithfully to generation after generation.
No. History was a slippery story pieced together painfully from a million little facts. And all stories can be told many ways. Facts can be chosen, facts can be omitted and stories can be crafted.
I remember him commenting on how nations deal with history. He commented off hand that America was re-writing its Vietnam War history through movies and TV programs (like “Tour of Duty”) that showed a fictional or even romanticised version of the reality. I couldn’t understand what he meant. I thought “Surely no rational adult could watch a TV show and think it was real…”. But that’s not what he meant.
All psychologists will tell you that human memory is a fickle, easily manipulated beast. Research has demonstrated that even the slightest of conflicting suggestion can actually change your recall of events. And after you recall that “false” memory several times you forget what was real and what was added. This is what he meant. That after many years – when those who experienced that event are gone – then the next generations will believe whatever they are told. The line between fiction and reality becomes blurred and you start to believe what you have been told. And yes Ben Affleck really did fight the Japanese at Pearl Harbour.
Therein lies the root of my unease. China is brining’ Mao back. Mongolia is painting a new friendly nation building picture of Ghengis. Lenin wasn’t as bad as Stalin – so he was just a brave challenger of the status quo.
All these people who have been an affront to human rights. All these people that have held an ideology above basic notions of humanity. They’re comin’ back – but nicer this time. Soon history will forgive them and once again we simple creatures will have failed to learn or remember. And as soon as we forgive these ideological monsters the memory of every single death they caused is slowly rubbed out and rendered even more pointless. They are not even a silent reminder of humanities failings.
It scares me because in my head I see something played out. One day soon in a back room of the dark, musty buildings where bespectacled men re-write history books. Someone sticks up their hand and says: “You know this Hitler guy….maybe he wasn’t that bad after all…..”