The Curse of History

July 10, 2008

For Jeremy Black the curse of history, or at least the curse of history as it is all too often employed by governments, religious, racial and ethnic groups, is that it focuses present attention on past grievances. As a result, present-day identities are often conceived in terms of a backward-looking "culture of grievance" in which a group's most important characteristic is their status as historical victims.

The Curse of History offers a series of case studies of the alleged ill-effects of this grievance culture, including the attempts by left-wing Spanish politicians to reopen the wounds of the Civil War, the Chinese Government's exploitation of the 1937 "Rape of Nanjing" to score political points off the Japanese and avoid discussion of the regime's own atrocities, and the continued preoccupation with the legacies of the slave trade in modern-day Britain, Africa and America - a subject addressed in more detail in Black's recent book The Slave Trade, also published by the Social Affairs Unit.

Each of these is a "treatment of history" in which "the emphasis is on sin, rather than redemption, with the curse being that of fundamental error as opposed to an emphasis on reconciliation" or "sharing memories, coming to terms with the burden of the past and commemorating together so as to establish a collective memory and shared future".

In addition to these straightforward examples of history as "curse", Black also details several other (mis)uses of history and public memory. Thus, we see Stalin exploiting competing discourses of imperial Russia and of communist internationalism to justify the expansive aims of the Soviet Union and rally support for the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. We also read about the utopian attempts of the French Jacobins and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge to erase history altogether, and to begin with a new Year Zero - all of which, Black claims, embody the same principle of manipulating the past for present advantage.

Finally, the book identifies a few cases in which the lessons of history have been used, not to foment hatreds through black-and-white reductionism but to smooth the path towards peace and reconciliation through an appreciation of nuance and multiple perspectives. Recent developments in South Africa and Ireland fall under this category. So too, arguably, do the decisions of Argentina, Chile and many other Latin American governments to establish truth commissions to heal the societal rifts caused by the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s - although a discussion of Latin American politics is notably absent from this otherwise global survey.

Although Black deals thematically with historical cases from around the world, the book is less a global history than a polemic. The intended audience is not so much teachers and scholars as politicians and policymakers - particularly British politicians and policymakers who, in their preoccupation with "political correctness" and their over-hastiness to apologise for Britain's supposed past wrongs, are encouraging "distorted and monolithic" interpretations of the nation's history.

While The Curse of History is emphatically not just a book about Britain, it frequently reads like an exhortation to Britons to abandon their current fetish for historical self-laceration and embrace a conception of history that acknowledges the good as well as the bad about Britain's (and the British Empire's) past. In this sense Black is, as he freely admits, a bit of a Burkean. Heritage, tradition and continuity are, for him, an invaluable component of Britain's national identity. The Curse of History, like many of Black's other works, is an attempt to redirect public attention towards what is valuable about Britain's past in a hope that doing so will help build a better future.

The Curse of History

By Jeremy Black
The Social Affairs Unit
255pp
£10.00
ISBN 9781904863298
Published 17 March 2008

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