In Russia, an organization dedicated to commemorating Soviet-era abuses faces a state-ordered liquidation as the Kremlin imposes a purged national history in its place.
In Hungary, the government has ousted or taken control of educational and cultural institutions, using them to craft a xenophobic national heritage consistent with its ethnonationalist politics.
In China, the ruling Communist Party is openly using textbooks, movies, television programs and social media to write a new version of Chinese history that better suits the needs of the party.
And in the United States, Donald J. Trump and his allies continue to push for a false retelling of the 2020 election, in which Democrats stole the vote and the January 6 riot to disrupt President Biden’s certification was largely peaceful or staged. was put down by Mr Trump. opponents.
History is constantly being rewritten, whether it’s scientists updating their assumptions, activists reformulating the record, or politicians massaging the collective memory for their own ends.
But a wave of blatantly inaccurate or misleading historical revisions, from both democratic and authoritarian governments, can threaten an already weakened sense of a shared, accepted story about the world.
According to scientists, the trend reflects some of the defining forces of the century. Polarized societies prone to identity-confirming falsehoods. Collapsing trust in central institutions or arbiters of truth. emerging nationalism. Despots are getting smarter. Elected leaders are increasingly turning to illiberalism.
As a result, “we should be more likely to see the kind of historical revisionism” being pushed by these leaders, said Erica Frantz, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
In some places, the goals are sweeping: to reshape a society, starting with the most basic understanding of its collective heritage. Emphasizing the importance of that process, Chinese leader Xi Jinping echoed the statement of a 19th-century Confucian scholar: “To destroy a country, you must first wipe out its history.”
But often the goal is seemingly shorter-term: to provoke anger or pride in ways that will get citizens behind the leader’s agenda.
Mr Trump’s election lies appear to be a successful example. They have shattered Americans’ shared sense of reality in ways that could strengthen Mr Trump’s allies, justifying efforts to control the machinery of future elections. If the global trends that enable such tactics continue, there may be more of these to follow.
A changing world
One set of changes may be particularly important to fuel this trend: how governments tend to govern.
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Authoritarianism “is undergoing a transformation,” said a recent academic paper, summarizing growing opinion among scientists.
Since the Arab Spring and the uprisings of the “color revolution” a decade ago, dictators have shifted emphasis from brute force repression (although this still happens) to more subtle methods such as manipulating information or divisive, targeting on preventing dissent rather than suppressing it.
Among other changes, the blaring state newspaper has been replaced by a series of flashy state-tailored outlets and social media bots, creating a false sense that the official narrative isn’t imposed from above, but arises organically.
More sophisticated propaganda, aimed at persuasion rather than coercion, often manifests itself as a particular kind of historical rewriting. Rather than simply weeding out unfavorable officials or government blunders, it cultivates national pride and collective grievances designed to rally citizens.
The Kremlin, for example, has massaged memories of the Soviet Union and its fall into a legacy of Russian grandeur and siege, justifying the need for a strong leader like Vladimir V. Putin and encouraging the Russians to gratefully embrace him.
This also manifests in smaller ways. Mr Putin falsely insisted that NATO promised never to expand into eastern Germany, justifying its recent aggression against Ukraine as defensive and necessary.
Democracies are changing just as drastically, with leaders becoming more illiberal and stronger.
The widening social divides, along with the population’s growing distrust of experts and institutions, often help elevate those leaders in the first place.
This can be a source of support for a leader who is willing to ditch official history and replace it with something closer to what his or her supporters want to hear. And it gives such leaders another incentive: to justify seizures of power as essential to defeating enemies abroad or within.
Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, for example, has revised Hungary’s history to that of an innocent victim of Nazis and Communists who was eventually made safe by his patriotic leadership. In this way, he argues for skepticism about immigration as the continuation of a great national struggle – a struggle that also asks of him to suppress rivals, critics and independent institutions.
Why revision works
The most effective propaganda of any kind, research shows, often focuses on appeals to a group identity such as race or religion.
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There is a famous experiment: people are given a test, are told their score, and then are asked to rate the objectivity of the test. People who said they performed well tend to call the test fair and rigorous. Those who are told they scored poorly are more likely to view the test as biased or inaccurate.
Historical revisionism taps into the same impulse, telling people that the established record is an attack on their identity, like a bad score on a test, so it must be rejected.
“Our youth will be taught to love America,” Trump said when announcing a commission to “restore patriotic education in our schools” by 2020. His goal, he said, was to counter “left-wing indoctrination.” to go.
In another example, Christian Americans said that under attack on Christianity, one study found that they were more likely to embrace falsehoods about American history and politics in general.
“We want to believe that we are capable and decent, that our friends and beloved relatives share these traits, and that the groups we belong to are on the right side of conflict,” said Andrew T. Little, a propaganda scientist at the university. of California, wrote.
When people feel that this belief is being challenged – even intelligent, educated people who would otherwise know how to reject falsehoods – they will often gratefully accept any version of history that defends it, as well as whatever leader offers it.
In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has risen, in part, on a pledge to redefine India’s multilingual history as one of legitimate Hindu dominance.
Choose to forget
For opportunistic leaders, the uglier moments in a country’s history are not a problem to solve – they are a gift. An inconvenient truth that citizens may prefer to forget or, better yet, replace, gives them an opening to impose their own story.
Social media, initially seen as a force for liberation, is likely to aid that process, allowing citizens to bypass traditional media for a crowdsourced version of the truth that appeals most to their emotions.
Emerging nationalism has also contributed to a growing appetite for stories that portray one’s country as just and pure.
Poland’s nationalist government passed legislation in 2018 that makes it a crime to suggest that Poland bears some responsibility for the Nazi atrocities on its territory. The law was drafted not to suppress memories, but to protect an identity of spotless national heroism whose accuracy was almost beside the point.
Social polarization has deepened those desires even further. As more people feel that their group is engaged in a struggle for racial or partisan dominance, they become more receptive to versions of history that say they should and will prevail.
These revisions, said Dr. Little, often seem more like reframing history than rewriting it.
In the Netherlands, for example, the far-right Netherlands has revolted by repositioning Dutch history as a major conflict between Christianity and Islam. Although few historians would accept this view, it has been a factor in the growth of those parties.
Even China’s ruling party, with all its power to produce facts, is increasingly emphasizing issues of interpretation—playing out its leaders’ uninterrupted heroism—to have real effect. In 2019 alone, ‘red’ museums and memorials, glorifying the history of the Communist Party, attracted 1.4 billion visits, making them one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Despite all the warnings from 20th-century writers like George Orwell that history would be wiped out by force, the greater threat may be that people, given a choice, voluntarily turn their backs on it.