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Va. Offers Fresh Lesson In History's Power To Sting

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has declared April to be "Confederate History Month."
Steve Helber
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has declared April to be "Confederate History Month."

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell earned himself a world of bad press by declaring April "Confederate History Month" without apologizing for — or even acknowledging — slavery. He said slavery wasn't "significant" enough to be included. McDonnell later said that was a "major omission," but the damage had been done.

McDonnell is only the latest politician to stir up trouble by talking about the past in a way that does not conform with accepted views about the past. It's not that people can't argue about history. In fact, they can't stop arguing about it.

Why do events that happened decades ago still have the power to trigger fierce reactions?

Old Wounds Still Sting

In South Korea, the decision to name a post office branch after a noted poet — who is accused of having collaborated with the Japanese — has opened up a broader debate about the nation's colonial past.

Many historians suggest that debates about the past are central to the formation of national identity — to a nation's sense of itself. The stories a nation chooses to remember are a way of determining its values.

Last month, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the U.S., angry that a congressional committee voted to officially recognize the 1915 genocide of Armenians.

On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended a memorial service for victims of the Katyn massacre — one of several massacres of some 22,000 Poles by Soviet forces in World War II. The massacre and its memory have been a flashpoint in relations between the two countries in recent years, but Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk are now seeking closer ties. A commission will publish a joint history of relations between the nations this year.

Arguments like this happen all the time. Many historians suggest that debates about the past are central to the formation of national identity — to a nation's sense of itself. The stories a nation chooses to remember are a way of determining its values.

"Scholars and historians would say that we live in the era of remembrance," says Alon Confino, a historian at the University of Virginia, "in the sense that societies attribute great importance to the past, the construction of the past and struggles over who defines the past."

Shaping Identity

What might be called "public history" — the shared narrative that informs a people about who they are and what they value — has become a major concern for politicians and, of course, historians. Last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged this explicitly, calling for a "grand debate" about national identity.

A century ago, nations were thought to be defined by ethnicity, language and culture. But in more recent years, many historians have become convinced that what truly binds a people together is a shared sense of the past.

Rosamond McKitterick, a medieval historian at Cambridge University, argues that "an idea can hold a people together and sustain it." The creation of historical memory, she says, is a collective act; that is, as nations construct their histories, they're simultaneously constructing a national identity by agreeing about what is fundamental from their past.

"To have some kind of impact," she says, "it has to have some resonance with memories of people whose identities it's shaping."

Putting The Past On Trial

Traditionally, nations have shirked from owning up to their own atrocities. There are countless stories of unflattering documentaries being blocked from airing on television or playing at film festivals. Short of outright censorship, most national leaders simply prefer not to dwell on past disgraces.

"Countries try to protect the narrative that justified their creation and avoid the criticism that would lower their national self-esteem," says Charles W. Ingrao, a professor of German and Eastern European history at Purdue University.

But often their neighbors — or successors — will insist. Regime change often leads to explorations of the recent past. Truth and reconciliation commissions, modeled after the one set up a decade ago in post-apartheid Africa, have become almost the expected end to internal conflicts.

Or the international community will insist on an accounting. Former leaders such as the Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic and Liberia's ex-President Charles Taylor are put on trial as a way to explore the historical record. "I don't know about history being written by the winners," says Eric Gordy, a senior lecturer at University College London, "but the winners never put one another on trial."

An Age Of Apology

We now live in an age of apology. It took a generation for Germany to reconcile with its Nazi past, but today countries are expected to apologize for their most embarrassing historic sins.

Since the 1950s, Japan has issued dozens of apologies for its aggression and atrocities in World War II, but its role in that conflict remains a sore subject at home and in its near-abroad. Australia has apologized for its treatment of and its role in the forced migration of British children, while Britain has apologized for its roles in both the Irish Potato Famine and the international slave trade.

That's why Virginia Gov. McDonnell's failure to recognize slavery was such a sore point. In 2007, Virginia became the first state to offer a formal apology for slavery --an act quickly followed by other former Confederate states and the U.S. House.

The fact that slavery was a historic evil is now a settled fact — or is supposed to be. Denial or even lack of acknowledgment of crimes that are considered central to an understanding of the past causes ongoing pain, and even the sense that a fresh crime is being committed.

Apologies "draw a line between how we acted in the past and how we'll act in the future," says Laura Hein, a historian at Northwestern University. "'No, we will not lynch you anymore. No, we will not massacre anymore.' "

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