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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.

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