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The rise of grievance history

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a marked increase in accounts of the past made by those considered to have been on the ‘losing side’ of history. But, warns Jeremy Black, we should all be wary of the forces such histories can unleash.

A woman mourns a child during the deportation of Armenians by the Turks, 1915. Getty Images/AFP‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ asked Hitler in 1939. The answer now is far more people than then and not just Armenians and scholars. Hitler’s own genocidal policies guaranteed a new audience determined to remember cases of historical mass brutality. In 2001 France even introduced a law declaring that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915. In addition to the recovery and expression of the histories of those who feel they have been on the losing side of history, the process has led to a questioning of Whiggish accounts of all kinds of other histories.

The sheer length of the list of redress underlines both the variety of our engagement with the past and the extent to which this engagement informs public discussion and debate. In the public sphere the contesting of the past is always a matter of debating both the present and future. Academic historians, however, tend to resist such links.

For a historian the frequency and range of grievances and appeals to justice are fascinating, yet there is also the question of whether they have become more frequent of late or simply more prominent. Individual grievances are by their nature self-absorbed and those who assert them are not generally interested in finding common cause with other complainants, not least because they are concerned that reference to other grievances will dilute their own. Moreover, casting a wider span may draw attention to contrary arguments.

Grievances are a characteristic of post-Cold War history, as various ‘liberated’ peoples have adopted historical claims in the service of their political goals. The end of the Cold War discredited Marxism as an official creed and lessened its influence as a basis for analysis, resulting in a major shift away from the understanding of society linked at an international level to the expression, revival or rise of national grievances, notably within Eastern Europe.

Grievances provide an easy way to mobilise identity and expound policy; and the use of grievance in this fashion by one party encourages its use by another. The copy-cat nature of public history has become very apparent, as in rival Chinese and Japanese accounts such as those inspired by recent territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Grievance becomes a means both to interrogate the past and to deploy the past to justify current actions.

The common theme in the search for an exemplary historical identity is that of past adversity: an existential threat rising to a peak in a crisis that demonstrates the mettle of national character and thus acts as a rallying point for the present and the future. This approach flattens the rest of the historical landscape or treats it with reference solely to the crisis. Thus, in the case of Britain, the 1930s become merely a prelude to the Blitz, and the years of Appeasement are castigated accordingly. In turn the national togetherness of the Blitz is contrasted with the divided society of the 1930s. It’s an approach that is less than accurate when investigating the myth of 1940, when there were at least some obvious political strains. But it is even more misleading as far as the 1930s are concerned.

Grievance history can work for or against the state. It can provide a language of unity against outsiders, including fellow citizens perceived as such. This has obvious uses for governments. For example, the current Chinese discussion of real and alleged mistreatment by foreign imperial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries serves, very successfully, as a way to suggest that weak Chinese government at the time led to vulnerability. Such a history of grievance serves as a call to national discipline and resolution. In Venezuela repeated references to the successful war of independence against Spain in the early 19th century acts as a lodestar for Hugo Chávez, the increasingly dictatorial president who came to power in 1998. He calls Venezuela ‘the Bolivarian Republic’, has declared ‘Bolivarianism’ the ruling ethos and frequently compares himself to Simon Bolivár. In Scotland, grievance history focuses on incessant complaints about alleged victimisation by England. Judging by the rise in support for the Scottish National Party and its calls for independence it is a narrative of great appeal.

Yet grievance history can also pose major problems for politicians. First, the process can easily escape the control of government. Second, grievance history, from the outset, can lead to the harassment and persecution of perceived ‘enemies within’, seriously compromising national unity. Third, such readings of history may be redirected against the government, which may be blamed for past mistakes.

The net effect is to underline the very real political dangers of using the past as a way of settling grievances. Yet this danger must be addressed, because an unwillingness to act will invite other, potentially more hostile, narratives. This concern helps account for the desire among contemporary politicians, especially in western Europe and not least Britain, to create coherent and inclusive national accounts of their history as a way to tackle widespread crises of identity.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter.

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