The revenge of history: authoritarian narratives


Some 25 years after the Cold War, passions grounded in history are increasingly an essential feature of international relations, and dangerously so, argues Bruno Tertrais, a Senior Research Fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS). What should the West do? The first step is to learn and understand. We ignore the importance of history at our own peril, he writes for The Washington Quarterly:

One of the most fruitful themes to encourage revanchism is the narrative of humiliation through various forms of imperialism. It has been a favorite of the People’s Republic of China for some time now: the period 1839–1949 is described as the “century of humiliation” by foreign powers, and Japanese atrocities have their very own museum in Beijing. In recent decades, Iran and Arab countries have taken up discussions of imperialism. More recently, it has become a major theme of Russian propaganda. When the past is not reconstructed or cannot be swept under the rug, then it must be physically destroyed. This is a classic move of many authoritarian regimes, and of revolutionary passions…..

It has been said ad nauseam that it was necessary to “understand the humiliation” felt by Russia and former colonized nations in the Middle East and in Asia. This is true, but we must also avoid the post-modern trap that considers all historical narratives of equal value. We must meet passion with reason, exposing facts, opening archives, accepting debate whenever it is sincere. But we must also assist those non-governmental organizations that work to that effect in countries which still refuse to lucidly face their own past—such as Russia and China.

“Ultimately, history cannot be the ultima ratio of political claims: democracy and international law, as imperfect as they are, must have the last word,” Tertrais contends. “But it may take a long time—and perhaps other major power conflicts—for this principle to succeed in today’s turbulent world. Until that day, history will have its revenge.”


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