Understanding history: References to "historical justice" as an old-established practice

12:18 Aug. 12, 2016

References to "historical justice" as an old-established practice

References to "historical justice" as an old-established practice

Historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the long tradition of referring to historical justice all over the world

Contemporary Russia and international law have formed a relationship that, in an impassive way, could be defined as particularly peculiar. This situation has led to various consequences, among which some are especially alarming. The latter include one notorious practice of political legitimization openly favored by Moscow. As we all witnessed in the case of Crimea's occupation, Putin's regime has resolved to explain its offensive actions by the necessity of ‘restoring historical justice'. It is very unclear how the existing system of multilateral diplomacy should deal with the increasing number of politicians who refer to the imagined past of their nations in a kitschy, irrational and inevitably inconsistent style.

While looking for the answer, one should remember that the idea of ‘correcting the wrongs' or ‘making the country great again' has been around for quite a while. The agenda of restorative justice brought about war, conquest, or someone's subjugation since earliest antiquity.

The mythological tradition of Ancient Greece and, to some extent, its historiography labeled the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese as the ‘Return of the Heracleidae'. The descendants of legendary Heracles, according to the story, took possession of the peninsula on the pretext that their glorious progenitor had ruled there in his time.


Painting on a Spartan vase. Source: www.realmofhistory.com

. The Spartans were descended from the Dorians, who, as the progeny of Heracles, reduced the local inhabitants of Laconia to serfdom.

In 1066, while conquering England, the Normans produced their own arguments to justify the affair. The kingdom's crown, they claimed, had been promised to William, ducal sovereign of Normandy, because he, along with his barons and knights, had every right to rule the invaded land. Such entitlement was explained by the alleged descent of the duke and his people from the ancient Trojans. The legends of the medieval epoch heralded that the kingdom of Britain had been founded by a band of Trojan drifters. Their leader and the first king of the Britons was a noble prince by the name of Brutus, the grandson of famous Aeneas. At the end of the 10th century, the historians in the service of the Norman dukes concocted a genealogy that represented their bosses (and the whole dukedom) as the progeny of Antenor – another prince of the Trojan House. The dynasty of William the Conqueror and its Plantagenet successors (1154-1485) used the said lineage to portray the Conquest as the Trojans' return to the Trojan country. This reasoning was to ‘prove' that the real oppressors were the Anglo-Saxons – the people who had brought to heel the Trojan realm of oldenBritain and founded their polity in its southern part.



The famous Bayeux Tapestry. Scenes depicting the Battle of Hastings.

Source: www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/www.medievalists.net

The Bayeux Tapestry commissioned after the Conquest of 1066 is one of the brightest products of medieval political propaganda. Having depicted the military deeds of William the Conqueror, it furnished the target audience with the explanations concerning the duke's right to the throne of England.    

Edward I of England (1239-1307) referred to the same Trojan ‘history' of Britain when attempted to justify his Scottish policy. The king's ‘wise men' composed a number of documents ‘proving' that Scotland had been a part of Brutus's original kingdom. On those grounds, as the Plantagenet propaganda asserted, all the Scottish realm was to be subjected to English monarchs, the lawful heirs to the primordial Trojan House of the Isle.   


King Edward I of England. Line engraving, mid 17th century. Source: www.npg.org.uk


The Ottoman Turks, eager to legitimize the capture of Constantinople in 1453, proclaimed their Trojan ancestry as well. According to the logic of this manifest, the ‘Greeks' of the Byzantine Empire were merely forced to give back the lands they had brutally stolen after the destruction of Homeric Troy.  


Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432-1481). Source: Wikipedia

In his letters to the sovereigns of Europe, Mehmed referred to the ‘history' of The Trojans. According to the medieval tradition, the Turks descended from one of the branches of the Trojan people. That ‘meant' that the Osmans were related to the French, the English, and the Italians, all of whom proudly claimed the Trojan roots.

The crusaders, who, as the self-appointed offspring of Trojan survivors, tried to find some additional explanation of their presence in the Middle East, exploited almost the same idea. 


A 14th-century depiction of the crusaders' capture of Antioch from a manuscript in the care of the National Library of the Netherlands. Source: Wikipedia.

Either tacitly or ostentatiously, the concept of ‘historical justice' was implanted into the ideologies of medieval and early modern elites. The members of privileged groups explained their social and political domination by the ‘primeval order of things'. The nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example, regarded itself as a race of Sarmatian origin that had conquered the local Slavic ancestors of peasants. Similarly, the nobles in France saw themselves as the descendants of the Franks, whereas the peasantry and the bourgeoisie were thought to have the blood of the Galls. 


The 17th-century depiction of a Polish noble of allegedly Sarmatian descent.

Source: www.budujemydwor.pl

In the early modern period, Western Europeans tried to persuade the world that the enslavement of Africans could be justified by the immemorial events described in the Bible. According to the Book of Genesis, the patriarch Noah cursed his second son Ham whose descendants were to serve the descendants of the other two sons, Shem and Japheth. The Europeans insisted that they had sprung from Japheth's seed, whereas the peoples of Africa had originated from Ham. 


Noah's Curse. Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

Source: www.isthatinthebible.wordpress.com

Although no racial differences were mentioned in the story, Europeans regarded Ham as the progenitor of the enslaved Africans. 

Of course, it is the 19th and the 20th centuries that allowed the governments and other political players to allude to ‘historical justice' on a much larger (truly massive) scale. Hitler and his propaganda machine seem to enjoy absolute leadership in this dimension, while Putin'sRussia is steadily approaching the level and the agenda of the Third Reich.

It looks like the pathos of ‘historical' discourses is the unpreventable disease of all aggressive regimes, bygone and present. The ways to detoxify their impact or, even better, to prevent a political class from all delirious declarations concerning the past is something that has to be discussed in a very thorough and civilized manner.          

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