Song Genyi taught journalism in Shanghai. She lost her job last year for a curious reason: She had encouraged her students to take a critical look at the official history of the so-called ‘Nanjing Massacre’ in 1937, when Japanese troops massacred many thousands of civilians. (The official number in China is 300,000 dead, but some historians put it at around 100,000 dead or even less; nobody knows exactly.)
Li Tiantian, a teacher in southern China, protested on the internet against the dismissal of the professor, whom she never met. She was locked up in a mental institution for this.
Criticizing official records is part of journalism, but the Nanjing Massacre has become such an important part of nationalist propaganda in China that any criticism is seen as criticism of the communist regime.
Perhaps this requires some explanation. Until Mao’s death, little attention was paid in China to the infamous Japanese war crime. History under Mao was a triumphant tale of the heroic victory of the Chinese proletariat over fascists and class enemies. During the war, Nanjing was also the capital of the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. The massacre was a defeat of the nationalists, not for communist heroes.
After Mao’s death, most Chinese, including members of the Communist Party, were fed up with Maoist propaganda. This was replaced by a new orthodoxy, a nationalistic narrative in which history consists of a long series of national humiliations, including the Nanjing Massacre. Only the rule of the Chinese Communist Party can heal those wounds.
At the same time that the Shanghai professor was fired, a Moscow court decided to close the Memorial human rights institute. Memorial was established in 1989 to investigate the political horrors under Stalin and to honor the victims. The massacres under Stalin are covered up, and the brave victory of the Russian people in World War II is celebrated. Like Xi Jingping in China, Vladimir Putin wants to control not only the present, but also the way the past should be viewed.
Every dynasty has its own historians
All this is not new. Historiography has always been steeped in politics. It was the job of Chinese historians to justify those in power – starting with Sima Qian, born about 140 BC
Each new dynasty had its own historians. The same was true of ancient Rome, and of the courts of later rulers.
The court historian is less common in modern liberal democracies, although Arthur Schlesinger Jr. came close under John F. Kennedy. But that doesn’t make history in a democracy any less political. Take the debate about slavery in the US, and now increasingly in other countries such as the Netherlands. In some left-wing circles, American history is seen solely as an ongoing example of systematic white supremacy, while right-wing politicians want to ban books that argue this from schools.
Current Chinese nationalism fits in well with a popular trend in the West in one respect, namely the tendency to fit identity into a ‘narrative’ of collective victimization. Under Mao the official history was still heroic, under Xi it comes down to offenses by foreign enemies that were only put an end to with the revolution in 1949. In official memory, the Nanjing Massacre is now far more significant than the Long March of 1934 and other communist exploits.
Something similar has happened in Israel. After the establishment of the modern state in 1948, brave freedom fighters and industrious kibbutzniks were widely celebrated as the ‘new Jews’. The victims of the Holocaust were talked about as little as possible. This only changed after the lawsuit against Adolf Eichmann. Remembering the Holocaust was increasingly seen as the legitimacy to crack down on Israel’s enemies, especially the Palestinians.
Putin is sticking to the heroic myth for now. What Russians should remember is triumph and not victimhood, especially not victimhood under a Russian ruler. Triumphal history can be dangerous. A sense of superiority blinds people to the misery their country has wrought, and perhaps is still causing. It also breeds a sense of the right to make the world your way, something the English used to have and many Americans still have.
Also read: Too much historical awareness is a danger to democracy
Old sore must be avenged
Victimhood as the official story is at least as risky. Old sore must be avenged. Historical enemies should not be forgotten. The triumphant attitude leads to arrogance, but hurt feelings lead to collective anger. Sometimes the historical wounds are so old that the real causes have long since disappeared from memory. Thirty years ago, Serbian nationalists invoked grievances from the 14th century to attack Bosnian Muslims. The Battle of Blackbird Field in Kosovo, in 1389, when a Serbian prince was defeated by armies of the Ottoman Empire, seemed very much alive.
How things really went in history no longer matters when feelings of hatred are stirred up. It’s about the emotions. Serb troops in Srebrenica called their Bosniak victims ‘Turks’, as if they were at war with the Ottomans nearly seven centuries ago.
But in fact, the difference between triumph and victim stories is not that great. History as propaganda comes down to the legitimization of power, in China, in Russia, in Israel, but really everywhere. Only Putin can keep Russia’s enemies in check. Only the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party will save the Chinese people from more humiliation under a foreign yoke. Israeli leaders must be tough to prevent a second Holocaust. The danger of historical nationalism is not that it makes people feel better or worse, but that it creates eternal enemies, thereby increasing the likelihood of endless wars.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 22 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 22, 2022