Countries are using their machinery of power to delete one version of their past and enforce another. Is that a good idea?

First published in July 2021.

If you get to Spain this summer, watch your tongue. A careless word that could be construed as sympathetic to General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from his victory in the country’s civil war (1936-9) until his death in 1975, could land you with a hefty fine.

The proposed democratic memory bill, which will honour people who suffered until Spain’s fascist dictatorship, also has sanctions for those who remember it fondly. Penalties range from €200 (£170), for a casual expression of admiration for the dictator, up to €150,000 if you destroy the evidence of the burial pits dug for his victims.

This is the latest in a series of moves by European states to outlaw the expression of inconvenient or unpalatable historical views. Poland, for instance, has criminalised any reference to Nazi death camps on Polish soil, such as Auschwitz, as Polish death camps. You can also fall foul of the law for suggesting that Poles supported or helped the Nazi persecution of the Jews. This, despite the fact that antisemitism was rife in Poland at the time of the German invasion, a point made in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List.

Nazi symbols may not be displayed by law in Germany and, in 2006, the British historical writer and Nazi apologist David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for breaching Austria’s law banning Holocaust denial. And woe betide anyone who risks Vladimir Putin’s wrath by deploring Stalin’s atrocities, as the human rights group Memorial found in 2016 when it was branded a “foreign agent” for doing just that.

This sort of approach is by no means confined to Europe. In Japan, controversy has long raged about the way school textbooks ignore atrocities carried out by its soldiers during the second world war, such as killings and rape in China and the wholesale forcing of Korean women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops. The 1985 Argentinian film La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) tells of how memory of “disappearances” under the country’s former military regime was repressed and omitted from state textbooks.

At a time when the UK is gripped by arguments about statues to figures, heroic and otherwise, from Britain’s imperial past, these examples of the legal imposition of official historical versions are of increasing relevance.

Uncomfortable heritage

All states have aspects of their history which they find difficult to face up to and will try to suppress. It took the French state until the 1990s to own up to the role that French functionaries and police officers willingly played in rounding up Jews, holding them in inhuman conditions and forcing them onto trains to German extermination camps in Poland. Until then, the most commonly expressed view was that the Holocaust was imposed on the French by the Germans and that any French involvement was entirely under duress.

The Irish still find it difficult to know how to deal with the memory of those Irish who served in the British armed forces in the two world wars. It is particularly difficult with regards the second world war because Ireland stayed neutral in that conflict and the Irish government was the only one to express its condolences on Hitler’s death.

It is absolutely right for governments to face up to such difficult histories, whether by erecting memorials or issuing apologies or simply enabling the truth to be taught. In 2013 William Hague, as UK foreign secretary, ordered the release of thousands of documents relating to the torture of Kenyans suspected of being part of the Mau Mau resistance group, that had been locked away for half a century. After the High Court ruled that British camps in colonial Kenya did come under the jurisdiction of the UK’s legal system, Hague also announced a payout of some £20 million in compensation.

Whose history

But should the courts decide on matters of historical judgement? Professor Sir Richard Evans, who acted as an expert witness in Irving’s unsuccessful libel case in 2000 against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for labelling him a Holocaust denier, wrote in his account of the trial that a law court proved an unexpectedly good forum for settling the historical points at issue.

But would a judge necessarily look kindly on anyone who might point out that the Spanish economy grew under Franco or that many Poles were happy to see their Jewish neighbours removed?

Most scholarly work on tackling difficult and sensitive histories has been in the context of the school history curriculum, though political scientists have also looked at the role history has played in the process of nation-building. Anglo-Irish political scientist and historian, the late Benedict Anderson, argued that it was shared but selective versions of the past which had originally helped create the modern nation-state – and that they still play an important part in maintaining it.

So, perhaps we should not be surprised to find states using their machinery of power to delete one version of the past and enforce another – it can be seen as a form of self-defence. Whether it’s a good idea is another matter. 


Dr Sean Lang, Historian, author, playwright and broadcaster. Senior Lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University.


[This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 28 July 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Far-right Spaniards mark anniversary of General Franco’s death. | 23 November 2014. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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