In Russia, an organization dedicated to remembering the abuses of the Soviet era faces a state-ordered liquidation as the Kremlin imposes a sanitized national history in its place.
In Hungary, the government has ejected or taken control of educational and cultural institutions, using them to fabricate a xenophobic national heritage aligned with its ethno-nationalist policies.
In China, the ruling Communist Party is openly using textbooks, movies, TV shows, and social media to write a new version of Chinese history better suited to the party’s needs.
And in the United States, Donald J. Trump and his allies continue to push a false narrative 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 organized by Mr. Trump opponents.
History is continually being rewritten, whether by academics updating their assumptions, activists reframing the case, or politicians massaging collective memory for their own purposes.
But a wave of blatantly false or misleading historical revisions, emanating from democratic and authoritarian governments, can threaten an already weakened sense of a shared and accepted narrative about the world.
The trend, the researchers believe, reflects some of the defining forces of the century. Polarized societies receptive to identity affirming lies. Faith that collapses in central institutions or arbiters of truth. Rise of nationalism. More and more shrewd despots. Elected officials turning more and more towards illiberalism.
As a result, “we should be more likely to see the kind of historical revisionism” pushed by these leaders, said Erica Frantz, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
In some places, the goals are broad: to rethink a society, starting with its most basic understanding of its collective heritage. Stressing the importance of this process, Chinese leader Xi Jinping repeated a saying from a 19th-century Confucian scholar: “To destroy a country, you must first eradicate its history.
But often the goal is seemingly more short-term: to provoke rage or pride in a way that will rally citizens behind the leader’s agenda.
Mr. Trump’s lies about the election appear to be a successful example. They shattered Americans’ common sense of reality in a way that could strengthen Mr. Trump’s allies, justifying efforts to control the mechanism of future elections. If the global trends that allow such tactics continue, there may be more to come.
A changing world
One set of changes may be particularly important in driving this trend: the way governments tend to govern.
Understanding the January 6 survey
The Justice Department and a select House committee are investigating the events of the Capitol Riot. Here is where they stand:
Authoritarianism “is undergoing a transformation,” said a recent academic article, summarizing the growing opinion of academics.
Since the Arab Spring and the uprisings of the “color revolution” of ten years ago, dictators have shifted the emphasis from brutal repression (although it still happens too) to more subtle methods like manipulation. information or division, aimed at preventing dissent rather than suppressing it.
Among other changes, the thunderous state newspaper has been replaced by a series of flashy, state-aligned outlets and social media bots, creating a false sense that the official narrative is not being forced into high but emerges organically.
More sophisticated propaganda, aimed at persuasion rather than coercion, often manifests itself as a special kind of historical rewrite. Rather than simply circumcising underprivileged officials or government blunders, it cultivates national pride and collective grievances designed to rally citizens.
The Kremlin, for example, massed 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 Russians to embrace it. gratefully.
It also manifests itself in a more modest way. Mr Putin has falsely insisted that NATO is committed never to expand east of Germany, justifying its recent aggression against Ukraine as defensive and necessary.
Democracies are changing just as radically, with increasingly illiberal and arrogant leaders.
Growing social divisions, as well as the growing distrust of the population in experts and institutions, often helps to uplift these leaders in the first place.
This can be a source of support for a leader willing to throw away the official story and replace it with something closer to what his supporters want to hear. And that gives these leaders another incentive: to justify the seizures of power as essential to defeat enemies abroad or at home.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, for example, revised the history of Hungary to that of an innocent victim of the Nazis and the Communists who was finally brought to safety by his patriotic councils. In this way, he defends skepticism towards immigration as the continuation of a great national battle – a battle which also forces him to suppress his rivals, critics and independent institutions.
Why revision works
Research shows that the most effective propaganda of any kind often focuses on an appeal to a group identity like race or religion.
Key figures from the January 6 survey
There is a famous experiment: people are given a test, given their score, and then asked to rate the objectivity of the test. People who reported good results tend to rate the test as fair and rigorous. Those told they performed poorly are more likely to view the test as biased or inaccurate.
Historical revisionism plays on this same impulse, telling people that the record set is an attack on their identity, like a bad score on a test, so it should be rejected.
“Our young people will learn to love America,” Mr. Trump said, announcing a commission to “restore patriotic education in our schools” in 2020. Its goal, he said, was to counter “the left indoctrination “.
In another example, American Christians said Christianity was under attack, a study found to be more likely to embrace lies about American history and politics in general.
“We want to believe that we are capable and decent, that our friends and relatives share these traits, and that the groups we belong to are on the good side of conflicts,” Andrew T. Little, university propaganda specialist. from California, wrote.
When people feel that this belief is being called into question – even smart, educated people who would otherwise dismiss lies – they will often gratefully accept a side of the story that stands for it, and the leader who comes up with it.
In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose in part on a promise to redefine India’s polyglot history as that of legitimate Hindu rule.
Choose to forget
For opportunistic leaders, the ugliest moments in a country’s history are not a problem to be solved – they are a gift. An embarrassing truth that citizens might prefer to forget, or better replace, gives them an opening to impose their own narrative.
Social media, initially seen as a liberating force, has the potential to aid this process, allowing citizens to bypass mainstream media for a participatory version of the truth that appeals to their emotions the most.
The rise of nationalism has also helped to increase appetite for stories describing his country as just and pure.
The Polish nationalist government passed a law in 2018 criminalizing suggesting that Poland bore any responsibility for Nazi atrocities on its soil. The law was not intended to suppress memories, but to protect an identity of unblemished national heroism, the accuracy of which was almost irrelevant.
Social polarization has further deepened these appetites. As more and more people feel their group is locked in a battle for racial or partisan domination, they become more receptive to sides of the story that say they should and will prevail.
These revisions, Dr Little said, often feel more like a reframe of the story than its rewrite.
In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch extreme right has risen by repositioning Dutch history as a great conflict between Christianity and Islam. Although few historians would accept this representation, it has been a factor in the growth of these parties.
Even the ruling party in China, with all its power to fabricate facts, is increasingly emphasizing questions of interpretation – playing on the unbroken heroism of its leaders – to real effect. In 2019 alone, “red” museums and memorials, magnifying the history of the Communist Party, attracted 1.4 billion visits, making it one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Despite all the warnings from 20th century writers like George Orwell that history is being forcibly suppressed, the gravest threat could be that people, given the choice, willfully turn their backs on it.