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.

Born in South Africa, Neville Frankel immi­grat­ed to Boston when he was 14. After grad­u­at­ing from Dart­mouth Col­lege, he pur­sued doc­tor­al work in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. While in Cana­da, he wrote The Third Pow­er, a well-reviewed polit­i­cal thriller. When he’s not writ­ing, Frankel works as a finan­cial plan­ner in the Boston Area.