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Dangerous History

from the magazine

Dangerous History

In Europe, the past continues to haunt the present. Winter 2006

History is an increasingly dangerous subject in Europe. Austrian authorities recently arrested historian and born-again Nazi David Irving for denying a genocide; Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk currently faces trial in his native land for asserting that there was one. The question is not which of them is right, but whether writers’ opinions, morally odious or hurtful to national self-esteem as they might be, are the proper subject of criminal law.

While some things must not be said about history in some countries, other things must be said about it in yet others. The French National Assembly, for example, passed a law last February that required teachers to accentuate the positive achievements of French colonialism, especially in North Africa. No doubt it sought to encourage national pride among the disaffected young.

Instead, it sparked, predictably, an international crisis. President Jacques Chirac, who had earlier signed into law an official recognition by the French Republic of the Armenian genocide, sought to calm tempers by saying that the republic had no “official”—that is, orthodox and unquestionable—history: and then he suggested that a day be set aside each year to commemorate the victims of slavery.

History knows no final versions, of course, and it is no secret that most people seek in the past lessons for the present that accord with current interests and prejudices. But when governments try to impose versions of history upon their populations, and prosecute those who contradict the official line, it is fair to surmise that anxieties must lie close to the surface of national life.

Like other European countries, France finds it difficult to fashion a new national identity now that its population is so ethnically and culturally heterogeneous. Its recent history has many dark episodes. A prominent French school of historical thought ceaselessly emphasizes those episodes—including colonial massacres in the very countries that have spawned mass immigration to France—and denies any achievement that might create pride in the country among the young. The temptation is thus strong to impose a more positive version of the past upon schoolchildren.

Austria, of course, forbids Holocaust denial, because its population denied for so long, and would still like to deny. This deliberate amnesia is precisely the preoccupation of the recent Austrian Nobel Prize winner for literature, Elfriede Jelinek. If the Austrians were immune from the temptations of Nazism, they would hardly have needed to pass a law against denial.

Turkey has long sought to minimize the scale and intent of the Armenian massacres. Pamuk’s contentions undermine the moral legitimacy of all Turkish governments since the time of the massacres and suggest that Turkey can have no morally legitimate government until it makes a full admission. Such, of course, is the position of European countries that want to keep Turkey out of the European Union, but don’t care the slightest about the Armenians.

When history is dangerous, the present is dangerous.

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