The Wrong Side of History
Monuments, historical sins, and reconciling with the past
History has found itself dusting off the cobwebs lately and moving from backdrop to foreground. Controversies roil over Confederate statues in the United States and memorials for Cecil Rhodes in the U.K., and Sir John A. Macdonald in Canada—not to mention celebrations of the sesquicentennial. Countries around the world are grappling with dark chapters in their pasts, and with difficult questions: How do we memorialize the past while interrogating and challenging it? How do we move forward from its fraught legacies?
Historians seem uniquely poised to shed light on such challenges, and the LRC brought together two of the country’s preeminent history scholars last month for a lively discussion of the issues at stake. Margaret MacMillan is a professor at Oxford University and former warden of St. Antony’s College, and the much-decorated author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World and History’s People: Personalities and the Past. She is also the chair of this year’s jury for the prestigious Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University, which awards US$75,000 for the best history book of the year. Randall Hansen is the interim director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and the director of Munk’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. He is author of Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Operation Valkyrie and Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942–1945, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
MM: We’ve heard so often that we live in an ahistorical age, that people don’t really care about history, that they’re not learning history. Yet we’ve been seeing all these stories about statues and memorials, and I think an interesting question is, why are people taking history so seriously? Why has the past become such a matter of contention? Here we have people—including the young—demonstrating about Cecil Rhodes’s statue in Oxford…
RH: But I’m not sure it’s new, is it? You wrote about this in your book The Uses and Abuses of History. Ten years ago, you and I were involved in the argument over the portrayal of Bomber Command in the Canadian War Museum; there was the Enola Gay [exhibit at the Smithsonian] in the early 1990s. The question is, why do we get these moments when history moves from being history to being at the centre of contemporary politics? We’re in one of those moments now.
MM: It is very interesting. I suppose history, at least since the 19th century, has been very tied up with identity, with the rise of nationalism, and the idea that the human race could be divided up into these things called “peoples” or “nations.” You had to find some way of distinguishing one people from another, and history was used. You got people like us creating often very false histories, very dubious histories, about how there had always been a German race sitting in the middle of Europe, how there had always been an Anglo-Saxon race sitting on the British Isles…
RH: That’s right. What we also have now is sort of a fundamental problem, and this might be relatively new. We can debate what history is, but certainly history is about world-changing events—why they occurred, what their consequences were—and until relatively recently, those decisions were made, in the main, by men. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have social history and other histories—we certainly do. But one element of history is inevitably going to be the memorialization of the men who made the decisions, often horrific decisions. Quite rightly, women, minorities, and LGBT people feel excluded from the process. The question is how to bring those other voices and experiences into the historical conversation without pretending that John A. Macdonald, for instance, didn’t matter.
MM: I think you’re right that there’s been a move to bring in the histories of those, including women’s histories, that haven’t been properly recognized and acknowledged by history, but what worries me is we may lose any sense of a common history. You talked about political history; I think political history matters. Who governs you matters, how you govern yourselves matters.
RH: As we’re noticing at the moment.
MM: Exactly. These things go through violent swings, don’t they? So there’s been a swing away from what was seen as very boring political, constitutional history, the history of power. But we’re beginning to realize that that’s also part of history, just like the history of war is part of history—you can’t ignore it. So I think we should always be trying to have a shared understanding of the past. That doesn’t mean we have to have a single narrative of the past, but at least we should understand the different ways of looking at the past.
RH: Let’s go back to the statues and renaming. There’s a proposal [from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario] to remove John A. Macdonald’s name from schools. Then there was the Confederate statues debate. What’s your view on all of that?
MM: I’m going to give a sort of weaselly answer: I think it’s complicated and it depends very much on the context. If you lived in Eastern Europe under the Soviet Empire, you had no choice but to have statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the secret service, or of Stalin or of Lenin. When that regime ended, yes, you would want to take them down because they symbolized a dominance which you didn’t particularly want. I would say the same for taking down statues of Hitler in Germany after the end of the Nazi era.
It gets more complicated when you get things like the statues of Confederate generals in the south. I’m beginning to shift my view on that because I began to understand that a lot of them were put up in the Jim Crow period to say to the blacks, “You may think the North won the Civil War, but we won, and you still better watch your step because we’re still in charge.” And so those are more complicated. But I think my general preference is not to take statues down, but to talk about them and explain them.
RH: That’s very interesting. My general view is that one should leave the statue up, and if the person represented in the statue committed some egregious crime or there’s an element of the history that we’ve ignored, then add something to it: add a plaque explaining that; provoke conversation; contextualize the statues. Because the left, if I may, won’t necessarily get what it wants here. If we remove all these statues, we simply stop talking about them.
In my book on sterilization that I wrote with Desmond King, we talked about the renaming of a University of Alberta lecture series and room in the psychology department because the academic in question was a eugenicist who sat on the sterilization board and strongly supported forced eugenics sterilization. Now that that’s all gone, no one’s going to remember his name. Indeed it has slipped from my mind.
Coming back to the specific issue of statues, I think the idea of removing statues of John A. Macdonald is ridiculous. But how do you distinguish between that and removing statues of Hitler or Goebbels? People press me, as a Germanist, on this all the time. I think the answer is that the forced assimilation of First Nations populations was a historical sin, but that is not all that John A. Macdonald was about. Hitler and Goebbels were about nothing other than a racial war of extermination and a dictatorship across Europe, whereas to say that all John A. Macdonald was about was the genocide, quote unquote, of First Nations is ahistorical in every possible sense.
MM: I hate—hate is too strong a word, but I very much dislike—the loose use of the word “genocide.” It was coined at the end of the Second World War to describe a very particular type of crime against humanity and that was the systematic attempt to exterminate whole people. To throw around words like “cultural genocide” seems to me in a way to be taking away some of the really important meaning of that word.
I’m also uneasy about us sitting here in judgment of people’s views a hundred years ago. I mean if they were mass murderers…But there were attitudes that a lot of people held at the time, about assimilation, for example: they thought it was the only way forward for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. We now think they’re wrong, but we probably have equally silly views that people a hundred years from now are going to say were absolutely ridiculous. I don’t think the assimilation attempt was in itself evil. It was misguided and it led to a great deal of cruelty, but I don’t think we’re doing that much better in our relationships with First Nations at the moment, so we should be careful about condemning people in the past.
RH: We’re getting lots of things wrong. And we’d have to parse that out a bit—what we memorialize and what we study as historians and students of history are distinct spheres with overlap in the centre. We want to understand how it happened, what drove it forward and what the factors explaining it were. If it’s just moral condemnation, at which Canadians, incidentally, excel, that is quite poor history.
MM: Dean Acheson called Canada “the stern daughter of the voice of God,” which is quite a good phrase. I’m also a bit worried when particular groups say that we have the right to define the past. I don’t think governments should define the past. I don’t think bodies of teachers should pass a resolution saying this is the version of history we must have. I think history is a debate and history should always be a debate. We should certainly try and explode false history or misguided history or wrong history, but to have some group decree that this must be our view of the past, it just makes me uneasy.
RH: Doing so essentializes history. It says, there’s one history, I understand it and I’m going to tell it to you, and if you have a different view then that’s unacceptable. It’s fundamentally illiberal, isn’t it?
MM: Yes. I remember in Australia, there was this huge controversy about the teaching of Australian history and the government attempted to impose a sort of pattern on it. As did the British government. Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, said we must have the correct view of the past. That makes me so uneasy because it’s usually very illiberal societies that do this. Look at what Vladimir Putin has been doing with Russian history: he has been very concerned with promoting a particular view of the Russian past. I don’t think we want to go down that road.
RH: Absolutely. Thinking further about memorialization, which country, if any, do you think gets it right?
MM: Well, some countries have been more honest about confronting their past than others, perhaps because they’ve had to. Germany was pushed by the Allies, but I think there were many Germans who also felt they needed to confront their past. Germany has confronted its past; it’s taken a while. I think Austria by contrast spent a very long time trying to ignore the past. There’s that whole narrative that Austria was the first victim of Nazism, which doesn’t explain all those cheering crowds when Hitler made the…
RH: Which we encouraged, it must be said. The western Allies encouraged that narrative.
MM: Dear little Austria and wicked Germany. The Japanese have actually done a lot to teach their past. They have apologized to the Chinese, they have apologized to the Koreans. Those apologies may never be enough, but it seems to me Japan has gone at least some way to trying to deal with its past.
RH: Yes though if I understand correctly, and I’m glad to be corrected, Japan hasn’t incorporated it into the school system in the same thoroughgoing way that the Germans have.
MM: It depends on which union is in charge. I think there are a number of competing Japanese teachers’ unions and there’s a real competition over that.
RH: There’s sort of two models out there. One is to de-memorialize, to strip away, to not memorialize, to take down statues of anything that was unpleasant in our past, and then we would end up with barren squares—not barren of religious symbols, as conservatives complain, but barren of monuments to what is, at the end of the day, all our pasts.
Think of what the Germans do: they layer on an incredibly powerful and constant recognition of what they did, with the massive Holocaust memorial in Berlin. And walk down any German street and you’ll see the golden cobblestones with the names and dates of Jews who lived in the apartments above and who were deported. Yet there’s also statues of Bismarck across Germany, and some people blame him for the Second World War. In Hamburg, near one of the main stations, there is effectively a fascist memorial to First World War dead that the city of Hamburg decided not to take down and instead contextualized with a little description of when it was set up and what it’s valourizing.
MM: I heard about a war memorial in Crete that the Nazis had put up to their dead soldiers, the Nazis who were killed fighting there. And the local Cretans left it up with an alteration or two because they said it reminds us of how many of them “we” killed. Now that may not be the most elevated motive, but I do think memorials can be interpreted in different ways.
Just very close to where we’re talking is that giant equestrian statue of Edward VII in Queen’s Park, which was brought from India and was very much a product of the Raj. I don’t think people see it like that now, they see it as a piece of Victoriana or Edwardiana and they see it as a memorial of a time that has long since vanished.
RH: I think that’s absolutely right. Our history was imperial history; to pretend it was anything else—we were a settler nation, we were part of the British Empire, we were a Dominion. These are basic facts that we can’t wish away.
MM: Could we do more, Randall? Some historians would say there’s been too much of a trend to look at the dark side of Canadian history, but I don’t think we properly deal with the relationship between the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas and the settlers as they arrived.
RH: I think multiple things are going on. It’s been only recently that we’ve recognized that the creation of the country was the product of perhaps not genocide but dispossession, expulsion. Many, many deaths through disease and forced assimilation.
MM: Broken treaties—we behaved disgracefully.
RH: Ugly, awful history. And it relates to a broader issue. The Germans are really the only ones who accepted that they were a racial state. The Americans haven’t and I think that is part of the explanation of why we have the man we have in the office of the president. So in Canada we haven’t got as far as the Germans. That’s part of the challenge facing this country.
On the other hand, my guess, and I might be wrong, is that it’s going to be a while before we have the proper nuanced debate about those relations and about Aboriginal societies themselves. I don’t claim to know much about them, but they would have been complex, they would have had their contradictions, liberalisms and illiberalisms, had their successes and failures like any other society. I suspect, since First Nations history is just now coming to the centre, we’re going to have 20 years or so of celebratory history and we’re going to have to go through that process until First Nations feel that they’re part of the common narrative, and then we can have a more complex historical debate. If you think of how we treated the First World War or Vimy Ridge, it was rather like that: our histories were celebratory and patriotic, and it took a while before we had a much more critical history.
MM: When I was at university, there was a tendency, which then influenced the later teaching and research, to treat Canadian history as if it had started somewhere in the 16th century. It took out the Aboriginal history, which just wasn’t considered, but it also failed to recognize that Canada was always enmeshed in a wider society; it was affected by what was going on in Europe; many Canadians came here from Europe. That pattern of immigration has changed, but so many of our ideas and our institutions are still affected by that past. Not to understand that, to see Canada as something that suddenly sprang fully formed out of the ground, misses a very important dimension of Canada in the world.
RH: I think there’s an even more pernicious project, which has gone on since the 1960s, in which the Liberal government starting under Pierre Elliott Trudeau treated history as something that’s optional, so the state can flip things whenever it wants. Dominion Day becomes Canada Day; we’ll take the prime ministers off our money, as if history is something that state fiat determines. History did not begin in the 1960s and that’s why the claim you hear in this city, that multiculturalism was discovered sometime around the Beatles in Toronto, is ludicrous.
MM: Yes, look at Montreal. Look at Winnipeg.
RH: Look at Pittsburgh and New York. Or Izmir, historically named Smyrna; Smyrna was a wonderful entrepôt of Muslims, Jews, Christians…
MM: Alexandria, Lvov, Istanbul, Baghdad: they were all multicultural cities. I think there is a tendency to assume that we invented things or discovered them for the first time. But I’m with you. I’d rather, in a funny way, call it Dominion Day. We’re no longer a Dominion, but it reminds us of when we were. And I quite like Queen Victoria’s birthday; she’s been dead a great many years, but it’s still part of our past.
RH: It’s part of what the country is and actually where I disagree with some of my liberal friends is during the citizenship ceremonies, when migrants who have come to this country and want to naturalize say that they’re not prepared to swear allegiance to the Queen. My response is: then don’t naturalize because Canadians owe allegiance to the Queen, and there are republics all around the world that one can travel to and migrate to. That is what we are. And why does that matter? Because it’s part of our history.
I think there’s one more thing we need to talk about: the history wars. Do you think they’re over or are they going to continue? Did turning 150 change anything?
MM: I think there will always be history wars because history is so much tied up with who we are, and as society changes we ask different questions of the past. There will always be disagreements about what that past means. And we look to the past. In so many western societies, religion or respect for authority no longer have the hold over people that they once had. It’s not true of all societies, but I think we look to the past for validation, for authority, to say, yes you’re right and they were wrong. So we’re always going to be expecting a lot from history and we’re always going to be disappointed because history can’t deliver that sort of validation.
Let’s talk about what it means for Canada to be 150. What are we celebrating? I think 150 is not bad. We get a lot of talk today about how Iraq was a totally artificial country, so many African countries are totally artificial, their boundaries were drawn elsewhere on maps—it’s also true of Canada. It’s a very interesting process that once you create a structure, things begin to develop within that structure, things begin to grow within it. And Canada’s in some ways the most improbable of countries.
RH: I suppose all nations in the end are ultimately fairly artificial constructions. France for all the rhetoric is a process of centralizing and crushing all sorts of regional identities. In Germany, they remain strong. Ditto Italy.
The country has turned 150, it has many merits: it’s wealthy, it’s stable. Canadians often are incredibly smug, essentially because they look south of the border and feel superior. But I wonder if we aren’t, in an odd sort of way, a more provincial place than we were 50 years ago. Because the British Empire, while I will certainly never defend it—it was modelled on racial superiority and subjugation—but it did connect us to something larger.
MM: That’s very interesting because we were born, as a country, as part of a much larger grouping, and we took a great deal from that. We felt that we were part of something more important than ourselves. We certainly pushed for a greater say within that bigger structure, but we wanted to remain part of it. As the British Empire faded, we threw ourselves into supporting multilateral organizations like the UN and NATO. It was partly the pressures of the Cold War, but perhaps we have become less curious about the world. I don’t know how many people have told me that the Canadian immigration website crashed on the night of the American election. People tell me that with a sort of glee. It seems to them to confirm everything about Canada.
RH: We heard this all in 2004, but the immigration flows have not occurred. There has not been a mass exodus north. Thanks to our current prime minister—basically his looks, which are very impressive—we’re getting more attention than we usually do, but relatively few people think of Canada as the centre of the globe or of Toronto as a truly global city. We tend to be a bit self-satisfied and a bit provincial, and, when we’re talking about history, happy to let history happen somewhere else.
MM: And happy to go tut-tut to other people. I remember in the last days of apartheid in South Africa, when the Canadians were, I think, playing an important role and leading the charge against it, there was a very canny South African ambassador here called Glenn Babb. The Canadians were going on about the horrors of apartheid, which were very real, and Glenn Babb took a group of South African journalists—all white, of course—to a Native reserve in the north of Manitoba and he showed these appalling conditions, which were widely publicized, which were as bad as anything in the townships: no clean water, no sewage, dreadful schools, teenagers drinking too much or sniffing glue. And the Canadians were horrified, they said this is absolutely disgraceful of the South Africans to do this. Babb actually put his finger on a sore point. We were being very smug about South Africa and how dreadful things were there; we weren’t looking at what was happening in this country.
RH: I was working in Yellowknife during those summers in a town that was effectively an apartheid city, with all the First Nations living in one part of the city suffering terrible problems. I was told, when I worked at a hotel there, that I was not to hire “Indians.” Now if that isn’t apartheid, I don’t know what is.
That takes us back to the issue that we started with, which is how one incorporates those excluded histories without rewriting history as it is. So how do you bring in First Nations without knocking out John A. Macdonald? I fear a debate now polarized between the naive [elementary school] teachers on the one hand and the Conrad Blacks on the other—
MM: Who’s naive in a different way…
RH: —is not a helpful space to be in.
MM: It’s not helpful. Because history belongs to us all, I think it should always be a conversation. If I don’t understand the histories of others, then I’m not going to really understand them. There was that whole thing in the 1970s I think—we’re getting a little bit of this at the moment with the cultural appropriation debate—that you should only study the history of your own people and you shouldn’t study the histories of others because that was somehow taking that history. Well, it would have left me studying the history of women of Scottish descent from southwestern Ontario. I thought, the world is a bigger place than that.
RH: You studied the women of the Raj and produced a very good book. There’s a distinction there: saying that other voices should be brought in and people from those groups should be part of the conversation, that’s quite right; saying that only those groups can have that conversation, that’s the end of the Enlightenment. Indeed, reasoned thought.
MM: It’s denying the common nature of humanity. It’s saying that we are really separate species and we can’t talk to each other. The other thing is that societies are organic and they grow and they change, as they should. That’s the thing I hate about this history which says, “There’s always been a nation of the French and it’s always been like this.” It hasn’t. It’s always changing, and what it means to be French has changed hugely over the centuries.
RH: I think we can all agree founding moments do matter. In the case of Canada it was the declaration in favour of something that was actually quite unlikely, but in the end worked. But nations change all the time, evolve all the time, and there’s nothing inevitable about their survival as, in our case, liberal democracies. If you think of Germany in the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, it was a society that made incredible advances that we didn’t actually make until the 1960s. Women were very engaged in politics, there was an active feminist movement, there was an environmental movement, and there was a very public gay movement. So everything that we think is kind of post-1960s, you found in Germany and in Berlin in the 1920s, and within a decade we were looking at the jackboots.
In the current context of, above all, Donald Trump, but also some very nasty forces that are driving the United Kingdom out of the European Union, populism across Europe, I think we have to say that not only will the nation develop, but we need to be vigilant and active in determining how it develops. Because there are other visions out there and nothing’s inevitable about our triumph over theirs.