How wars can be started by history textbooks; The imposition of an authorised version of events turns education into brainwashing

Last updated: March 17, 2014 6:32 pm

How wars can be started by history textbooks

By Gideon Rachman

The imposition of an authorised version of events turns education into brainwashing

image002-9©Ingram Pinn

When political leaders start rewriting the past, you should fear for the future. In Russia, Hungary, Japan and China, recent politically sponsored efforts to change history textbooks were warning signs of rising nationalism.

In January Vladimir Putin presided over a meeting designed to produce a new standardised history book for use in schools. The Russian president complained that many current textbooks are “ideological garbage” and “denigrate the Soviet people’s role in the struggle with fascism”. He dislikes the suggestion that the countries of eastern Europe were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945. His preferred vision of history is that the USSR saved these nations from fascism.

The political significance of this historical dispute became clear in the crisis over Ukraine. Moscow has consistently attempted to tar the new government of Ukraine as “fascist”, arguing that its leaders are the ideological heirs of the Ukrainians who fought with the Nazis against Stalin’s Soviet Union. That version of events is now being energetically promoted by the Russian media.

Ironically, Mr Putin’s Russia enjoys warm relations with Hungary – the one government in the former Soviet bloc that could justly be accused of adopting a dangerously equivocal attitude to the history of the far right. Hungary’s conservative government, led by Viktor Orbán, seems to be encouraging the rehabilitation of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s authoritarian and anti-semitic leader of the interwar years. Several statues to Horthy have been erected around the country, as a well as a plaque in Budapest. Efforts are also under way to rewrite school history textbooks to give them a more “patriotic” tone.

As with Russia, Hungary’s neighbours have reason to be concerned by this outbreak of historical revisionism. One of the reasons that some of the country’s rightists look kindly on Horthy is that he was a believer in a “Greater Hungary” that would one day reclaim the territories that the country had lost after the first world war, a cause that remains dear to modern Hungarian nationalists.

Nationalist efforts to rewrite history textbooks are also cause for concern in Asia. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has suggested some school textbooks adopt too “masochistic” a view of the country’s history. This suggestion has outraged the governments of China and South Korea, which even before Mr Abe’s advent had long complained that Japanese textbooks play down crimes such as the Nanjing massacre of 1937 or the use of sexual slaves by the Japanese imperial army.

Yet Beijing is itself hardly innocent of the abuse of history for nationalist purposes. President Xi Jinping unveiled his plans for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in a speech given at the recently redesigned National History Museum in Beijing. The building devotes acres of space to the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, as well as the crimes of the British, French and other foreign imperialists who “descended on China like a swarm of bees”. But the national museum – like the textbooks that teach Chinese children – is virtually silent on the many millions who died under the rule of the Communist party, whether in the famines caused by Mao Zedong’s “great leap forward” or during the cultural revolution. A portrait of Mao still hangs over Tiananmen Square. For all the revisionism indulged in by Mr Putin’s Russia, it would be unthinkable (one hopes) for a portrait of Stalin to be on permanent display in Red Square. The point of the official version of history is obvious: to direct popular anger outwards, at China’s neighbours, rather than inwards towards its government.

Even Britain has experienced a controversy about the history taught in schools. Michael Gove, education secretary, has provoked fierce criticism from some eminent historians by suggesting children are being given an overly negative view of the first world war. Mr Gove argues they should be taught that it was a justified defence of freedom, and not just a futile bloodletting.

This illustrates that there is nothing unusual in the efforts of political leaders – including Mr Putin or Mr Abe – to try to influence the way their nation’s histories are taught and remembered. But there are still important distinctions to be made between legitimate debate and the politicised misuse of the past.

First, politicians should never be allowed to deny historical facts. Mr Gove may argue that the first world war was a just conflict. But he is not attempting to deny that the battle of the Somme took place, in the way that some Japanese nationalists, close to Mr Abe, have denied that the Nanjing massacre ever occurred.

The second important distinction is between encouraging debate – and shutting it down. It is sad and sinister that some Russian nationalists continue to promote a positive view of Stalin. But that view of Stalinism is much more dangerous if it becomes the unchallenged, official version of history, promoted in schools and on the media.

Politicians, like academics or ordinary citizens, will naturally have competing views about how to view their national history. But the abuse of political power to impose a single, authorised version of history on a nation’s schools and mass media is when education crosses the line into brainwashing. As we are seeing in Russia today, a public in the grip of a nationalist version of history can be a dangerous thing.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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