The ProsenPeople

How Memory Changes Our View of History

Monday, August 14, 2017 | Permalink

Neville Frankel is an Emmy winner and author of the recently published novel On the Sickle's Edge. A native of South Africa, he immigrated to the US when he was 14. He is blogging here today as a part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Memory is changed by the passage of time.

Childhood beach vacations with siblings and cousins might have been difficult and fraught with rivalry. But fast forward fifteen years, and a young person struggling to make ends meet and involved in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship may remember those vacations as idyllic periods of joy and harmony.

In the same way, the passage of time also changes our perceptions of political and economic history—but with more far-reaching consequences.

It has been said that history is written by the victors. But time can change that, too, as succeeding generations bring their perspectives to bear.

It can be instructive to think about a few examples and see what—if anything—they have in common.

Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman government killed about 1.5 million Armenians. For decades there was little discussion of this atrocity as a systematic attempt to destroy an entire people. Then, in 1944, the term genocide was coined, and the Armenian Genocide was given its name. The present day Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies that there was ever a systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people, but Armenian communities, scattered across the globe, have increasingly made an accepted case that what occurred was indeed genocide.

Following World War II, prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who planned, carried out or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes were tried and prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials. There was no doubt in the minds of the Allies who liberated the concentration camps, and the historians who ploughed through Nazi records, that the Nazis planned—and almost succeeded in—achieving a Jewish Genocide. Yet today, fringe groups of Holocaust deniers cling to the belief that the Holocaust never happened.

In writing my novel On The Sickle’s Edge, most of which takes place in Moscow over much of the twentieth century, I’ve become more familiar than I ever wanted to be with other demagogic leaders. They range from Stalin, a deranged monster in human guise if ever there was one, to Putin, who brings with him an autocratic legacy of his service in the KGB, and who has encouraged and profited from a level of corruption that far surpasses the inefficiency and bureaucratic corruption that brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there seemed to be the promise of a more transparent, more democratic and open Russia. Information about Stalin and the systematic murder of millions of his own people—information that had been long refuted, denied and hidden—was suddenly accessible. But under Putin, massive corruption, economic hard times, a crackdown on opposition and an almost total government takeover of the news media have made the promise of openness and democracy a joke. The Russian people increasingly hold Stalin up as the ultimate leader, forgetting what it was like to live in fear under Stalinist rule. Historians studying the Stalinist period report that they have trouble getting access to the archives they need. If an authoritarian leader wants his people to accept a particular version of history, all he has to do is make other versions of history unavailable.

In all these examples of cultural memory and forgetting, there are some common themes. Those who want to change our view of history always have a self-serving agenda—financial, political or cultural. Discredit a group’s historical claim to land. Gain possession of assets. Assert cultural identity. Initiate the payment of reparations. Repress a view of the past that gives ammunition to a political rival.

I’m not making a value judgment on any of these groups’ assertive desire to rewrite history. But I am struck by the human capacity to forget the past; to change the perception of the past in order to shape the future. Because we have difficulty seeing beyond the curvature of our own lifetime horizon, the perspectives of those who came before us are easily obscured—leaving history precariously balanced in the hands of those who tell the story today.

This is far more than a simple but interesting observation. It has far-reaching implications for how we behave in the real world, and in determining the actions we take today that will most definitely have consequences for all of us, our children, and grandchildren.

Find out more about Neville Frankel here.