The shifting sands of history; Just as the words we use to describe our past change, so to does our understanding
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 March 2016)

Word has seeped out of Ottawa that the citizenship guide for new Canadians, Discover Canada, will soon be rewritten by the still newish Liberal government. With education mainly in the hands of the provinces, this is a rare chance for the federal government to express itself on the nature of Canada and its history. There's no doubt our past as seen by the Liberals will turn out to be subtly different from the version the Conservatives published.

You may find this process scandalous, with politics intruding where it shouldn't, but experienced readers of history will see it as the normal evolution of opinion. The past has a way of changing. Annoyingly, it won't stay past. We constantly re-examine it, adjusting our views in the light of newly acquired data and newly adopted passions.

Long-dead villains of the past can be turned into heroes, or vice versa. In 1885 Canada executed Louis Riel for leading the North-West Rebellion. After that, much of Canada began to see him as a religious fanatic who believed God had chosen him as a leader of the West. But by 1992 history had so thoroughly rehabilitated him that Parliament unanimously declared him "a founder of Manitoba."

When we go to school we learn that history is a set of facts set down in books. We assume that if we read the books carefully we'll know the facts, and possess them as long as our memory lasts. But those who rely on history, especially the history of conflict, eventually learn they are standing on shifting sands.

Within many cultures and nations, the past is a site of endless dispute. Armenians and most objective historians believe that in and after the First World War many Armenians (up to about 1.5 million) were killed by the Ottoman government's ruthless program of driving them out of what is now Turkey. In contemporary Turkey, however, even describing that crime is forbidden. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel-prize novelist, was charged with a crime for nothing more than suggesting the Armenian claims should be discussed. It took an international protest to save him from conviction.

In Canada the English-speaking majority assumed for generations that the country's history was settled by the British victory over the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. We thought of that as an incident from the dim past. But in the 1960s Quebec nationalism came to life, the FLQ began setting off bombs in Montreal and Canada was in a crisis that threatened its existence.

Live long enough and you can see history change. I first heard about war in the 1930s, when I was a little kid and "the war" meant the First World War. My uncle Arthur had fought as a Canadian soldier in the trenches. It was clear to me that he was on the right side and the German troops were on the wrong. Germany deserved to lose for starting the war. That was widely and passionately believed.

But today that opinion is at best dubious. In a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement under the heading, "Sleepwalking into the dark," Margaret MacMillan wrote, "We still have no consensus on how the First World War happened and I suspect we never will."

As a child, during the Second World War, I believed that France was populated by free and democratic citizens who maintained a heroic resistance against the German occupation. That was the way people on the radio described them. I was well into adolescence before I heard a different story: The Vichy government of France, supported by Hitler's troops, was sympathetic to fascism, not at all anxious to revive prewar French democracy.

But it was another three decades before I learned the darkest side of this story from a 1981 book, Vichy France and the Jews, by Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto and Robert Paxton. They revealed that the anti-Semitism of the Vichy government was not imposed by the Nazis but reflected much French opinion. The French took an active role in deporting French Jews to death camps. In 1980 a François Truffaut film, The Last Metro, depicted theatre people shielding a Jewish director from the Nazis. A friend of mine, reacting to my high opinion of The Last Metro, told me he simply didn't buy it. "The French hiding a Jew in every basement?" he said. "You can't believe that any longer." At that moment my friend knew much better than I did.

If the truth about the past keeps changing, why should we read history? First, even though it's partial, history often contains beautiful writing and fills our minds with magnificent images. Edward Gibbon's magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in six volumes, enlarges our ability to imagine not only antiquity but also the persistence of human nature. Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August provides a good way to begin thinking about how war came to Europe in 1914, creating the worst catastrophe of the 20th century. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, an observer's highly personal book on the Spanish Civil War, takes us deeply into the tangled morality of a war that everyone at the time thought they understood.

In these books and hundreds of others, studying the past brings us intellectually alive and encourages us to think about the present and the future. Not studying it, on the other hand, deadens us to the reality of the present.

James Baldwin used to say that white Americans suffered grievously from innocence. Eager to forget the racist past, whites in their innocence came to believe that their black fellow citizens were equally willing to erase from memory the generations of slavery and Jim Crow. Whites saw the meaning of their own side of American life and ignored the way it looked to African-Americans. It's only in recent times that the true feelings of minorities have emerged. Extremely late in the day, much of America has finally realized that southerners should stop flying the Confederate flag. An end to that kind of innocence can only be achieved by knowing all the truth about the past that's available.

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