Many, many times in human history, someone—monarch, scholar, dictator, judge—attempts to erase the past, either in toto or to remove individuals, or people’s tribal histories. Thus far, each attempt appears to have failed. Yes, I know, if one had succeeded, we’d never know, because we’d never know what had existed that got erased. But when you look at the last 1000 years or so, we see multiple attempts to erase events and individuals, and they do not succeed. Something always lingers, and often it comes roaring back, especially over the last 200 years.
The two earliest documented attempts at damnatio memoriae, to use the Roman phrase, were those attributed to Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of China, and to the successors of Hatshepsut. According to later accounts, which were written after the fact by people who opposed Qin’s ideas and policies, the First Emperor tried to eradicate all philosophical teaching, all teachers, and all historical accounts and historians. His reign would be Year 0, the beginning of the world. Was he successful? No. Hatshepsut’s successor was a little more successful, at least until determined archaeologists smelled something interesting and (of course) started looking even harder and discovered “His Majesty, Herself” as one inscription phrased it.
Revolutionary France attempted to re-start the calendar, literally, although even they didn’t really get rid of all French history. For one reason, they needed something to unify all the different groups who happened to live in France at the time, and for another reason, they soon had other more important concerns, like being invaded.
Skipping ahead to the Twentieth century, the Communist Chinese were more successful at eradicating the past, in part because after the Great Leap Forward, people were more fearful of the government, and because cultural centers and collections were more concentrated. However, the Chinese Communists also kept some parts of that history because of the importance of reminding people that China was once a major (the major sometimes) world power, and could be again. How do you define “Chinese” without having a history? The Chinese government is still working on that, and seems to have become more selective. Tiananmen Square 1989? It never happened, at least if you are inside the Great Firewall of China. Chinese Imperial history? Oh yeah, it’s there and it was important and research into the distant past is encouraged along certain lines.
And then there’s the Balkans. If any part of Europe has too much history per square kilometer, it may be the Balkans. Three civilizations collided there – Byzantine, Ottoman, and Western Christian. Battles, feuds, revenge, memories of great empires, memories of claims to have been great, dreams of lost power and domination… Outsiders thought all that had vanished. Tito and the Communists had found a way to get all the Balkan peoples to live in harmony and the past was dead and gone. Yugoslavia was stable and just needed to have Communism removed. After all, the past was the past, dead and buried, gone forever, and bygones were bygones.
Just as the most recent Balkan War was breaking out, I read Rebecca West’s Grey Falcon, Black Lamb, which is a well written martyrology of the Serbs. They are the victims, they suffered and bled that the rest of Europe might stay free, they are the poor, abused black lamb sacrificed to the Ottomans. If you are rolling your eyes, I agree. It is a wonderful piece of propaganda and selective memory as well as selective interpretation. But it gives you a sense of the forces that Slobodan Milosevic tapped into and that exploded in 1991 into a war that left “civilized Europe” flabbergasted. History had gone away, right?
Removing statues and demanding that the names of people who were on the losing side be erased won’t erase history. Especially when the demands move from leaders on the losing side to memorials for all who died fighting for the losing side. Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg and Jeff Davis are one thing, but when someone from outside the community demands the removal of a monument to “the Confederate Dead?” Even the Germans are allowed to have memorials to those lost in their wars—all wars.
Attempting to erase the idea that people can be honored for doing what they thought was right, even dying for that belief, despite the cause being wrong, won’t do the trick. And it certainly won’t induce guilt and make people eager to do penance. * Humans being human, what will happen is people will remember their dead, expand on the glorious bits, and will grow resentful. Resentment festers until it explodes.
Remember a few months ago when I inquired if someone would demand the removal of Andrew Jackson from Jackson Square in New Orleans? The process has begun. And the Jefferson Memorial in D.C., and other monuments to any and all people who had a connection to slavery and the Confederacy. That Robert E. Lee attempted to bridge the gulf between Southerners and Northerners after the war is irrelevant. That Jefferson made the expansion of freedom as well as of slavery possible doesn’t matter. Anything related to slavery in North America—if practiced by those of European ancestry—must go.
But that won’t make history go away. In fact, if the anti-monument forces insist on rubbing people’s noses in a selective past, they are going to discover that history returns with fangs and claws. If they erase the idea that former enemies can reconcile and learn to work and live together, and do away with examples of that, they will find themselves bitten very hard.
*Note the disclaimer on the post. I read the original post that is linked, and it appears legit. The list does sound a great deal like other things I have read and heard demanded to “redress the evils of” [event/institution].