Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Coming to Terms with the Past
The title of my work draws inspiration from Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German term that translates to "coming to terms with the past." In the aftermath of World War II, Germany underwent a crucial process of acknowledging and confronting the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, as well as the complicity of ordinary Germans in these crimes. Scholars contend that this process was fundamental to the country's post-war rebuilding and the establishment of a new democratic society. My intention in drawing upon this concept is to underscore the ongoing need to confront historical injustices to foster a more inclusive and equitable society. It is also important to move beyond these contentions and understand history as a discipline aimed at comprehending the underlying dynamics involved. We must strive to understand the complex interplay of cultural, social, and political forces that have shaped these societies.
I remember my professor once highlighted that the ongoing conversation about history is crucial to exploring potential solutions. Leaders have manipulated history to establish legitimacy by either distorting and erasing it or appropriating it. The former creates a sense of nostalgia for a simpler, idealised past that can justify their policies or actions, while the latter involves reinterpreting historical events or figures to fit the populist message or narrative.
But can history be erased?
The attempt to erase history is an attempt to deny the reality of our world. It's there. It's part of the fabric of society and it has to be understood. It further brings me to the prologue of Eric Hobsbawm's "The Age of Empire" where he discusses the concept of the "no man's zone" in history, which illustrates that the act of erasure itself can be seen as a form of relinquishing. Historians are confronted with a critical question when they encounter a space that no longer contains any remnants of its previous occupants: what was here before? This question is not only a factual one but also a deeply humanistic inquiry that defines the study of history. As such, history endures and thrives through diverse sources, including works of fiction, thus while it may be suppressed, overlooked, or intentionally disregarded for an extended period of time in public discussions, total eradication is not feasible. Attempting to erase it is a tactic often employed by temporary regimes. More literature will be written when this "erasure" tool dies in subsequent years.
On the history curriculum however, I think there has been an ongoing discussion, from the removal of AK Ramanujan's essays a long time ago to the current case of exclusion of Chapters on the Mughals from the Grade 12 NCERT textbook, it reminds me of a senior making the astute observation that many important historical institutions and think tanks in India, like the ASI or Indian Council for Historical Research, seem to disregard merit-based practices. And as the adage goes, "Without method, history descends into madness." Unfortunately, this lack of emphasis on proper methods is compounded by leaders in these institutions who often lack proper training in history, resulting in frequent revisions to the curriculum. There's also the not so talked about distortion in the form of the Indian government's policy of assimilation through homogenization since Independence which has led to the loss of indigenous languages, cultures, and identities in the long run when history is intentionally distorted or suppressed, it can lead to the loss of valuable lessons from the past, the denial of historical injustices, and the perpetuation of myths and falsehoods. This can result in a skewed understanding of the past, which in turn can shape present-day attitudes, behaviours, and policies.
The Importance of Persistent Conversation in the Face of History's Manipulation
In the face of erasure and appropriation of history by populist leaders, resistance and conversation play a vital role in sustaining the truth of historical events. Examples from around the world, such as the denial of the Armenian Genocide by Turkish leaders and the conservative push in Australia to emphasize Australia Day and ANZAC Day, highlight the significance of efforts to acknowledge and address historical injustices. However, these efforts are often resisted, underscoring the ongoing need for conversations that challenge distorted narratives and promote a more nuanced understanding of history. With resistance and conversation, the truth of history can be preserved and upheld, ensuring that the lessons of the past continue to inform the present and shape a more just and inclusive future.
History serves as a guidepost, illuminating the path forward. It is not about glorifying or erasing the past, but rather understanding it with all its complexities, nuances, and contradictions. Critically reconciling with history requires confronting uncomfortable truths, acknowledging the experiences and perspectives of marginalised communities, and learning from past mistakes. It involves fostering an inclusive and honest dialogue about history. In summary, critically reconciling with history is key to avoiding the pitfalls of historical nostalgia and collective amnesia.
There's a need for an impassionate study of history, that can also help to counteract the myth-making and romanticizing of the past that can occur when we allow our emotions to overtake our critical faculties. By striving for objectivity and evidence-based analysis, historians can help to dispel myths and challenge simplistic narratives about the past, and in doing so, provide a less ambiguous and meaningful account of human history.
- Hobsbawm, E. (2007). The Age of Empire. Abacus.