: History and (in, for, as) Politics

15:14 Jul. 8, 2016

History and (in, for, as) Politics

History (or rather those notions of collective past that owe their respectability to wide and official acknowledgement) enjoyed a distinctively influential role in society since its very birth

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on politicized myths in East European history

This article starts a series of reviews focusing on political interpretation of history. The issue becomes so urgent amidst an active dialogue between Poland and Ukraine with both countries trying to overcome evasions and resentment they both suffered following the tragic events in history. Also, the political interpretation of history is vital in terms of Crimea's annexation and its reflection in political life of Russia and the Ukraine. 

History (or rather those notions of collective past that owe their respectability to wide and official acknowledgement) enjoyed a distinctively influential role in society since its very birth.

It wouldn't be entirely erroneous if we encouraged ourselves to place the aforementioned phenomenon alongside religions or even their much earlier – mythological – forms. Each known cosmogony, one could add with a fairly grounded confidence, tended to justify the order of things peculiar to that pre-state community where it functioned. Ruling clans and dynasties had their genealogies intertwined with those of mythical deities, whereas commoners were constantly reminded of their most humble origins. Fables of this kind may trumpet that a goddess, like Nu Gua of Chinese myths, carefully shaped the first humans from some golden-colored clay found at a special place. Pressed with exhaustion, however, the creator, as we are further informed, completes the deed by cutting numerous pieces of mud with a twisted rope. In this story, it is hardly a challenge to suggest which group formed the aristocracy and which embraced the forebears of subjugated simpletons. In various mythological systems, the elites were proclaimed to have descended from the Sun or similarly elated elements; in others, the nobles are meticulously created before all other ungentle individuals. Cosmogonic mythology and its multiple addenda explained the whole hierarchy of particular social structures, while connecting them to the sacred beginnings of the universe. This reference to the past, fabulously sanctified by almost inevitable divine touch, was to maintain and strengthen societal status quo; except, of course, for the cases when the existing order collapsed. The second scenario meant that the whole framework of beliefs had to be adjusted to new circumstances, under which the supposed ancestors of victorious parvenus were to find their place in respective dominant cosmogonies.      

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The Garden of Earthly Delights. (Triptych, reverse: The Creation). Found in the collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Getty Images)          

More complicated societies preserved a great deal of what scholars call ‘mythological consciousness', or, as Dr. Freud would prefer it, ‘animism'. Established religions re-mastered the archaic myths that elegized the beginnings of everything; and the discourses on sacred past (with god's grand creation as the chief motif) turned out to be a carefully guarded duty of the priestly order. Meanwhile, the potentates along with their not disinterested minions managed to take charge of a very interesting process – interesting and extremely useful to those who supervised it. This was the very nascence and triumphant gallopade of official historiography.

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A cloth painting depicting a parade, a Sun Dance ceremony and scenes from daily life, USA. Plains Indian, prob. Cheyenne. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Perhaps, the best schematic description of its socio-political advance appeared in Michel Foucault's ‘Society Must Be Defended' – a course of lectures he prepared for the Collège de France in 1975. Both elegant and manifold, this work's meditations on the said matter may be briefly put as follows.

The period that lasted from Late Antiquity till the Late Middle Ages was marked by a purely ‘Roman' style of depicting the past. Above all, it had to glorify the power and its bearers in the most magnificent of fashions, whereas the primary instruments for this glorification included myths of familial and common descent. The genealogies of sovereigns were furnished with almost inherent attachment – the stories that concerned the forefathers of the subjects. This combination led to a political reality, in which a monarch and his ‘people' could regard themselves as a family; the one, where a simpler majority is nearly or literally ennobled by the ruler's glorious and divine roots. At the beginning of the early modern period (according to the thesis of the same author), societal transformations brought about a number of significant changes in the discourses on ‘History'. Almost all noticeable groups of society invented their very own genealogical stories, and, unlike in the case with the familial unity of the ‘medieval millennium',  they tended to see themselves as separated ‘races' living within the borders of a political entity.  Some of those ‘races' were portrayed as the descendants of conquerors (for instance, the Romans, the Franks, or the Normans), others regarded themselves as the progeny of the conquered and the oppressed (in different contexts – the Britons, the Galls, or the Anglo-Saxons).

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Fresco depicting a knight in armor wielding a spear, reception hall, Suze-la-Rousse castle, Rhone-Alpes. France, 11th-16th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

During the 19th and the 20th centuries, Foucault argues, these opposing histories and genealogies were adapted to the policies and political forms of Modernity. This adaptation, in its turn, begot the discourses of class struggle, biological confrontation, and state racism. The State (or one may say the nation-state) reintroduced itself as the chief and, possibly, the sole owner of the Past – i.e. of political, stately, and, ‘national' history.         

The very phenomenon traditionally known as ‘History' is persistently and systematically used by the political players of contemporary world (primarily, by the Leviathans) endeavoring to protect their interests or legitimize their power. This is a statement no one would seriously attempt to disavow.

And now we'll take a look at this issue in the context of Eastern Europe.

This is that part of the continent where you'll find a bellicose aggressor-state and a state under attack – almost like ‘the conquerors' and ‘the conquered' in early modern political genealogies. Both Leviathans, the attacker and the one that is trying to defend itself, are using ‘the Past' as a (or even the) political instrument intended to justify each step taken in this struggle.

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Europe, 1730 (Charles Colbeck, The Public Schools Historical Atlas, 1905)

In addition to being increasingly distasteful, the (ab)use of history in this and other cases seems to be unspeakably dangerous. References to the past have had practically magic effect on collective consciousness since those times, when cosmogonic mythology dominated in societal order. Used as propaganda by belligerent player, some historical discourses may somehow appeal to political forces today in other states ofEuropeor beyond it. Nations with imperial background, for instance, could easily find it convenient to accept the models of empire applied to the so-called Post-Soviet area. Cockiness, with which certain historical notions are presented to the world, along with the West's weariness of its own difficulties, seems to be an advantageous basis for effective application of ‘historical' arguments. Ignorance, of course, is another matter that needs to be taken into account. Having to deal with East European conflicts, how well do the international players know the history of the region? Will politicians or common voters in European states manage to separate cheap manipulation from a well-grounded historical polemic? One shouldn't exclude a possibility that they might be very far from possessing even a general knowledge ofEastern Europe's past. These (otherwise nice) people could easily find themselves persuaded to support such a view on history that may lead to most unpleasant results. 

It is our ambition to overcome this problem.

We will not try to substitute one type of propaganda, namely that of the aggressor, by another; nor will we present our views on history as some ultimate truth.

Our task, as we see it, is to draw the audience's attention to the most worrying examples of the present-day abuse of history in East European and other politics. We will show that a number of historical events have different interpretations in the countries of the region. We'll try to analyze what is known about that in the West or (if we gather relevant data) in the East. Finally, we expect the readers to join the future debates on these matters, which, we hope, will be conducted in an unchangeably civilized manner.

P.S. The following short article within these ‘History in Politics' series will touch upon the views, established in Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe on the whole timeline of East European history. Besides, on another occasion, we intend to review the existing politicized myths regarding Crimea, as well as the matter of criminal charges in the countries of the region against people who came up with historical arguments different from those officially accepted by their governments.                   

Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD (candidate of science), historian, policy analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

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