Recently, in the ongoing protests over the wrongful death of George Floyd, protesters have turned from tearing down statues of symbolic ‘heroes’ of the past to demanding the removal of culture that depicts racism.
Recently, for instance, a jittery HBO has just removed the classic film ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its streaming services, because of its clichéd and racist depiction of black people.
I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether it was justifiable for an angry mob in Bristol to fling a statue of a notorious slave trader like Sir Edward Coleston into the Bristol harbor.
What I’m more concerned with is the underlying attack on free speech here, the enormous implications of attempting to ban or erase parts of history and literature that are racist or in some way reprehensible to modern sensibilities.
When history is censored
Let’s compare two obvious examples of what censoring history can lead to: how Germany and Japan handled teaching the history of World War II to subsequent generations.
For many years after the war, there was no standardized national approach to teaching modern German history; authorities of individual federal states were free to interpret Germany and the German people’s role in WWII in whatever way they pleased.
During those first postwar decades, many West German historians writing textbooks – themselves teachers in the Nazi era – chose to repress the worst atrocities of the past.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the federal government insisted that Hitler and the Nazi regime be given an ‘intensive and thorough treatment’ in schools and the ‘memory of the Holocaust be kept alive.’
Today, nothing is whitewashed; high school students are required to take classes on 20th century German history during the 1930s and 1940s, which includes a matter-of-fact depiction of the full unvarnished truth: the complicit role of individual Germans, the Nazi race laws, the German companies who contributed materials used in the death camps, and of course the extermination of six million Jews.
School children are asked to tackle complex moral questions, such as ‘Who knew what?’ and ‘Who joined in and who resisted?’ And, most of all, ‘Why did it all happen?’
More recently, Germany put a replica of Hitler’s bunker in the last years of the war on display, and his manifesto Mein Kampf, banned for 70 years after the end of the war, has now been reprinted.
Japan’s method of teaching its role in World War II is very different. As Mariko Oi wrote for the BBC in 2013, only 19 of her history textbook’s 357 pages concerned the events between 1931-45.
Of those brief entries there was but a single sentence on the atomic bombs dropped by Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and only a footnote about ‘comfort women’ created by the Imperial Army of Japan.
It was only after she’d moved to Australia and could find out more about details of her country’s history that Oi finally discovered the truth about war crimes such as the Rape of Nanjing: that 200,000 Chinese and Korean women in Japanese-occupied territories were forced to become sex slaves for troops.
As recently as 2007, the Japanese prime minister was eventually forced to apologize for casting doubt about the existence of these ‘comfort’ women.
As Oi says, although Japanese children aren’t taught much about Japanese war crimes like this, South Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese children are.
Consequently, she says, many Japanese young people fail to understand why territorial and other disputes with some of their neighboring countries cause such emotional outcries or why the Chinese are still bitter about historical war crimes.
Even today, the current prime minister accuses their neighbor’s method of teaching history as too ‘anti-Japanese.’
Some historians even believe that these gaps in the Japanese education system and its teaching of history are responsible for a number of difficulties in the country’s foreign relations.
A slippery slope
Rewriting history and censoring literature certain historical portrayals, such as the ugly way black people were treated in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ is the beginning of an extraordinarily slippery slope.
Here’s the sort of thing it can lead to.
In Germany at the moment, many far-right groups such as the AfD and Poland’s ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, are attempting to cast doubt on the existence of gas chambers and minimizing the crimes of the death camps during the Holocaust as a way of developing a positive new national narrative.
The Polish government has even made it a criminal offense to suggest that Poland (the home of 457 death camps during the Nazi occupation) was guilty of any crimes during the Holocaust.
My point here is simply this: as soon as we attempt to expunge from our history and literature anything that we find personally offensive – as soon as we determine that our view of what should be read and seen is the only ‘proper’ version – we deny a future generation every opportunity to learn from it.
History is highly nuanced and famous historical figures extraordinarily complex and multi-dimensional. For instance, was Thomas Jefferson a racist? Absolutely. Do we then refuse to laud him for his role in initial drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of America?
Was Churchill a racist? Many comments of his would definitely point to a belief in white supremacy. But had he not played a central role in winning the war and the Nazis prevailed, they would have gone on to kill millions of people of color throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.
The philosopher George Santayana famously said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Unless we are able to discover and accept the complicated and often contradictory truth about people or situations in our history books and our literature, we will never have the opportunity to understand – much less do better.