The New Statesman Essay - History as a Banana Republic accessory

With schoolchildren being taught virtual history, we are in danger of forgetting the sins of our for

History has become all things to all people. In Zimbabwe, the injustices of colonial history have become an excuse for murder and mayhem. In Chechnya, the persistent vilification of an entire people rationalises their removal from present history. Yet, in London, in the David Irving trial, there is a collective jubilation over a vindication of history.

The news abounds with the uses and abuses of history. Not all falsifiers of history are exposed and denounced. Not all manipulation of history is now actionable: if the principles vindicated in the Irving trial were applied across the board, international politics would come to a grinding halt.

The Holocaust notwithstanding, history as a profession does not have a distinguished record in preserving and acknowledging, or building its judgements upon, the testimony of suffering. We accept, in the case of the Holocaust, the overriding human duty to pay attention to the witness of victims. Ultimately, it was the testimony of witnesses that called Irving to account. But the suffering of the Australian Aborigines and native Americans, for example, elicits no such historical imperative. Both peoples were subject to systematic pre-modern genocide, but are still seeking their day in court to substantiate their historic right to what was rightfully theirs.

It is conventional, professional history that compounds the legal problems of Australian Aborigines and native Americans. Which people lived where, when? These are the details of historical questions. The selection of documents, manipulation of evidence and difficulties in translating the terms used in documents lead to the conclusion, in many instances, that there are no descendants through whom restitution can be claimed. The plight of the Aborigines may raise pangs of guilty conscience in some white Australians, but their voices as witnesses to their own genocide and suffering has no special claim before the Australian judiciary.

There are and have been many awful events in history that have not left such extensive paper trails, such obscene mounds of physical evidence as the Nazi death camps. If routine mass murder, so amply documented, can become embroiled in historical disputation, what chance of illumination on horrors with scantier documentation? Or no documentation at all, as in the case of Australia. Captain Cook was instructed to make a treaty with any inhabitants he encountered. He considered the Aborigines to be no better than wild animals, and claimed the entire continent for Britain - without any treaty. This allowed for the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of all Aborigines with legal impunity and no paper trail. Indeed, the last mass murder was as recent as 1958 at Coniston, Northern Territory. The belated, recent acknowledgement that Australian Aborigines were the original inhabitants is far from giving them a legal right to reclaim their land.

Proper remembrance should teach us that the abuses of history are merely the flip side of its normal usages. History is always selective, constantly manipulated, customarily prone to mistranslation and uniformly written with an ideological bias - frequently with racial undertones.

Take selection. Our contemporary understanding of British history has gone through many revisions. The entire thesis of E P Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) and Christopher Hill (The English Revolution) turns on the faulty selection of previous historians. Available material that documents the activities, ideas, concerns and nature of important sections of the population, such as the working classes, had been selected out of proper historical consideration. To change the selection is to alter the historical perspective on events.

Consider manipulation. When we study the history of European expansion, we consider it as a contest between European nations. It is an historic episode about the contest between Spain and Portugal, and then the entry of the Dutch and the British into the arena they opened. Where, in this historically manufactured, manipulated frame of reference are the consequences, impact and effect on the peoples, lands and systems on which they intruded? By sleight of innumerable historians' pens, we seldom stop to ask such basic questions. This perennial manipulation, historic inevitability, gives rise to colonialism; and some historians, Marx among them, manipulate the facts so much that colonialism comes out as a beneficial enterprise.

This is why, to take an example, the history of the Raj written by the British is radically different from the same history written by Indian scholars. Even in India, Muslim historians tend to project the Moguls as benevolent, while Hindu history sees them as marauding invaders. Moreover, as the so-called "subaltern" historians have shown, the same history manipulated from the viewpoint of rulers looks rather different when seen from the perspectives of the peasants.

Manipulation often involves mistranslation. Language is a flexible medium and linguistic usage changes; thus, taking the modern usage of a word as its meaning in an historic document opens endless avenues for new interpretations. In Muslim history, for example, power has been shifted from "the people" to "religious scholars" simply by changing the meaning of the word ijma, or consensus. The "consensus of the people" became "consensus of the religious scholars"; democracy was written out of Islam by a sleight of hand.

As for ideological bias, it has always been the historian's metier. The victors get to write history, and they write it to favour themselves. Whig history, history written to show the inevitability of the rise of liberalism, is nothing but ideological bias. Marxist history is ideology as a means of selecting, manipulating and reordering our understanding of historic process. Western history is founded on racial bias. Primitives, savages, barbarians, tyrants and despots abound in history books. They are always "other" people. "We" in "our" history never see ourselves as being primitive, committing acts of savagery, being barbaric, acting as tyrants and despots.

History is always revisionism. Only occasional revisions work to bring justice to victims silenced by dominant history. More often, historic revisionism works to spread the deathly pall of moral neutrality over the horrors of history.

If revisionism worked to redress the imbalances, then the hackneyed idea that history is made by western civilisation would have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, the ideology of western historians, from Oswald Spengler to Arnold J Toynbee, which presented the history of the west as a great Universal River, continues to be the unquestioned arena in which all history happens. The global success of Francis Fukuyama's obnoxious and trite book, The End of History, is but the latest testimony to the inflexible, unrevised grip of dominant history.

In addition to the dominant, Eurocentric and frankly racist, conception of history, we now have to contend with postmodern notions of history. Michel Foucault in particular has reduced history to archaeology, a remnant of a dead and distant past with no living presence. In postmodern history, the emphasis is firmly on abandoning any sense of historical continuity. The gap between ideology and history is collapsed and history becomes a multicultural salad bowl. In postmodern history, selection becomes a high art. This is best illustrated in such works of postmodern history as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Millennium and the television programme based on it; here the history of the last thousand years is represented as snapshots of achievements of individuals and cultures.

Postmodernism conceives itself as a struggle against history. Postmodern writers and historians thus freely plunder history to render it meaningless, to drain it of truth, to fictionalise it, to appropriate it. Postmodernist novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie freely mimic history, dig up its remnants, select and juxtapose, manipulate and assemble, put different histories of different cultures side by side in a museum of modern knowledge.

Indeed, this kind of magical realist history, as I discovered to my horror when my daughter was doing A-level history, is now taught in the classroom. It goes by the name of virtual history. It consists of asking hypothetical questions about events that never happened instead of wrestling with understanding what actually occurred.

This virtual history, despite being dubbed "historical shit" by E P Thompson, is the latest academic fashion. But it is dangerous. Making history a plaything, where actual events are no more important than flights of fancy, breeds amnesia and spreads it as a cultural product to be consumed by us all. We revisit horrors of the past as nostalgic designer products in shops such as the American chain "Banana Republic" and the South-east Asian chain "East India Company", where colonial history is packaged as postmodern fashion. The search for "roots" or Africa often ends up as a television series: as a collection of images, or pastiche, of some romantic past. In every case, the object of the exercise is to make the multinational postmodernist consumer feel at home with the injustices of history and to legitimise the injustices of the present.

How this historic amnesia works can be seen in Chechnya. A few weeks ago, we were cautioned not to accept the "excited reports" of people in refugee camps. The caution came from Igor Mironov, Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights. The "excited reports" are the accounts of survivors and victims of the Russian blitzkreig on Chechnya. Tsarist history had viewed the region as a land of bandits and brigands needing to be colonised and subdued. Postmodern historic amnesia transfers that propagandist history to contemporary reality. Seamlessly, dominant and postmodern history combine to enable new Russia to reawaken old stereotypes, manufacture pretexts (as when the KGB itself blew up buildings in Moscow and blamed the Chechens), and proceed unchallenged to the mass destruction of an entire nation.

History collapses as a result of amnesia and denial. There was no 50-year wait for a trial of past injustices before Mironov could airily claim that Russia is a civilised, modern state, as if that somehow is a defence against eradicating a whole nation. It is not only in the law courts of London that the right of survivors to be heard is on trial.

When amnesia rules, historic experience is replaced with political expediency, as in the case of Tony Blair's embrace of Vladimir Putin, the Butcher of Grozny. The need to do business with Putin is akin to the fluttering piece of paper that another prime minister brought back from Munich. An ethical foreign policy evaporates as victims of history are artificially and selectively categorised: the Kosovars are, the Chechens are not.

Thus, in all its forms - conventional, modern, postmodern, multicultural - history is selective, manipulative and ideologically biased. It is a battle zone. Even the most objective history can only be partial and interpretative. It often claims, as its first casualty, truth. Historic denial, not just the denial of the Holocaust, must be confronted. Just as the historic reality of the Holocaust is intrinsically tied up with the Jewish identity and the survival of the Jewish people, so the sacred histories of other cultures are intimately linked to their survival.

History provides non-western cultures with a repository of ideas and principles to question the present. This is why history has a constant presence in non-western cultures and is periodically re-enacted in the form of rituals such as the Shia remembrance, in the Islamic month of Muharram, of the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandsons at the battle of Kerbala. The ever-present historical memory provides a source of cultural identity, social cohesion, a sense of permanence among change and means of rejuvenating the present and shaping the future.

Without a sense of continuity and confidence in their history, all non-western cultures, as well as minority cultures in the west, become archaeological sites fit only to be represented in museums or exist only as a source of entertainment for postmodern tourists. Historic identity becomes problematic; and with the erasure of historic identity, their future as living cultures becomes threatened. The global rise of identity politics, which often goes under the rubric of fundamentalism, is a product of the postmodern onslaught on the notion of historic truth as well as the modern marginalisation of all non-western histories.

And that is precisely why history cannot be a morality-free zone.

Only the victims of history can save us from amnesia and moral neutrality. When it comes to the Holocaust, we must all feel as Jews to prevent ourselves thinking as Nazis. The lesson is not singular, a one-off, to be applied in one historic instance only; it is universal. The failure to apply this moral methodology is not only the shame of history as a profession, it is our shame as moral beings. To get at the truth, we must always arraign history in the court of moral judgement, and we must always give a platform to the victims of history.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis