Historical Revisionism: Undoing the Done


Hem RizalCould an old wise saint who guards a church and waters the garden around it have led a gang?

Bits and pieces of any history are always under constant scrutiny that they are hardly ever stone scripted, even long after they have been thought to be not just true but also inherently provable. This is so because events are not pre-planned, and neither are their interpretations. Unfolding of stories is one thing while how they get delivered to generations is a whole different. The power of – or rather the cruelty of – interpretation is well summed up by a gentlemen in the name Winston Churchill who once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intent to write it.”

Therefore, the knowledge of history is never concrete. As new evidences spring out, revisionists are always ready to exploit them in way that would make their own image or that of the State more favorable and the story more desirable. In the minds of revisionists – in which historians must also be included, since historians can only talk about the past for so long without it being too mundane. At this point somewhere, they would need to spice up some bogus, ultimately– regardless of their intentions earning the title as revisionists – all that really matters is how they shape and shade the past and deliver that perfectly designed piece of historical event to the future, without revealing its foul odor.

Illegitimate revisionism (or academically known as negationism, but here-in-after referred to as just revisionism) is not an overnight arrangement. Instead it is a planned strategy that never looks particularly alarming but nonetheless is extremely effective. The idea behind is to conceal – or at least alter – the truth and can be achieved through a combination of many small, unrecognizable steps. Let’s look at three of the most common means that revisionists use to try to shadow the light: alteration, destruction and distraction. Toward the end I will conclude why all this really matters.

Alteration is a very handy tool for revisionists, in that it allows for them to apply the changes they seek remotely and without much need for public approval. The intention, off-course, is almost always ill-willed, but the manner in which it is carried out does not suggest so and can be easily defended if indeed suspicion is detected. In the process, names, symbols, systems – and frankly any historical piece that resembles the past and its perceived brutality – are modified in an effort to fog the past. Historic names of museums, schools, and even places are changed; signs and symbols that represent fragments of the broken days are replaced or altered; and the systems that once were so vital in implementing the whole mission is overhauled, in some cases, comprehensively. Alteration is not the hardest among others to achieve. During transitioning times that often accompany novelty and change, revisionists will simply have to blend in their ideas with the rising voice of the people and the desired outcome will be produced without much fuzz. Everybody wants change, but it is not as easy to assess the expense as it is do demand a change. Revisionists will just need to go with the revolutionary flow and they will get the results they want, and the public will watch unaware of them being innocently fooled at.

The reason behind alteration cannot be overstated. Once again, it is to make it look like there never was a point in history before this new and “reformed” present, and that it has always been this way and that no scars have been ignored or stories erased. If there’s no bridge, there must not be a village on the other side of the river.

Destruction is another of tactics and is closely related to alteration, only that it is more intense and provocative. This includes obliteration of public structure and institutions, including but not limited to educational foundations, religious and cultural establishments, public parks, cemeteries, houses and again any source that links the present and the dreaded past. In some cases, public records like citizenships, vital records and identities are invalidated or withdrawn and new sets issued, mostly in the favor of the state. Measures are taken to dust-off any remnants of the cold days to ensure there would not be any haunting soul roaming around in the future. As like with alteration, the aim here is also to erase any scrap that bears memories of the cold days and to gradually fade the history to obscurity. While the task can be daunting, the results can be equally satisfying, to those that seek it.

The last one that I will include in this paper has to do with diverting the focus, and I call it distraction, the most unethical of all the others. The ploy is to get the mindsets of the people into thinking how great of a country they live in and how much their leaders care about them and the nation. A serious of developmental projects are announced and carried out every once in a while, all intent on showing off a sense of eagerness in driving the country forward, just showing off, nothing genuine, really – or who really cares? In doing this they not only succeed in sowing a grain of hope into the eyes of their desperate citizens, but also, quite astonishingly, triumph in pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community over the dark matter.

When someone is at peace with-in – or at least pretends so – nobody bothers to confront them, let alone try to dig into their state of mind before the current one. Any country with a shaky past looks to adopt this principle, and appears absolutely resolute about the future that it is quite logical for the international community to buy its claim of having had a flawless past. It is equivalent to saying, “look, our country and our people are so dear to us and we have such a bright plan for them…oh please, we must have always had a good record.” It makes sense too, since a church-guarding old saint could not have operated a gang. The thieves ride their fortune, boasting and bragging, but the robbed ones curse at their own misery, helpless and ruined.

Tying all the three elements together, I come to a different form of revisionism and I call it denial or non-recognition. This is when a state adamantly denies a particular event as if it never even occurred. This form of revisionism carries with it a piece from each of the others; they first alter the evidences, destruct them, divert the attention, and finally deny the crime. Holocaust denial is a strong example, even though it is illegal in Germany, where the execution took place. Denial of the Holodomor – where millions starved to death in a man-made-famine under the Stalin Soviet – and the non-recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government are just a few other examples.

So why am I saying all this anyway? Well, I would like to end this conversation with a final question, and if you made it this far reading the article, perhaps you might want to spare a second to think about it as well, if you like: do you observe, anything above mentioned, even vaguely, anywhere close to who you are or who you have been? Think about the Gross National Happiness campaign by the Bhutan government, preceded by its invalidation of the Diaspora’s public records, modification of names and destructions of the remaining traces. In the era of foul-and-win, am I an example of a distorted history in the making?

[The author, who lives in Seattle, is a junior at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed here his personal, and don’t necessarily convey official stance of Bhutan News Service.  He can be reached for comments at [email protected]]