Post-Colonial ‘Anamnesis’ and the Challenges of Revisionism

In describing post-colonial responses to decolonisation, Stoler (2011) has argued that France suffered from an inability to address the topic due to a widespread ‘colonial aphasia’. French society, she suggests, had had difficulty in speaking about empire or indeed generating an appropriate vocabulary of words and concepts to be able to discuss its lifespan and contemporary legacies. Drawing on Stoler’s thesis in his study of Dutch colonial memory, Bijl (2012) notes that the apparent lack of language has inhibited the production of a memorable past in post-colonising nation-states, meaning the selection, convergence, and repetition of historical narratives have appeared to suggest that aspects of the colonial past are ‘forgotten’. He concludes however that there is a distinction between post-colonising societies lacking the appropriate vocabulary to articulate their memories of empire and the conscious decision to not utilise a vocabulary that might be unpalatable to some.

Assmann (2015) argues that the diminishment in the resonance of empire within the national consciousness of post-colonising nation-states in Europe was both a post-Second World War and latterly a post-communist phenomenon. She notes that rather than explore the history, ideology, and morality of empire, the Holocaust and the Cold War instead dominated nation-building historical narratives and memory culture in post-colonising states. The association of progressive political and social modernisation with the post-war—as opposed to the post-colonial—period provided historical reference points that nourished positive national self-esteem. It also deflected political and intellectual foci away from addressing the often violent nature of decolonisation or the lack of positive legacy of empire in many former colonies. History education curricula and textbooks often replicated this bias, offering national historical perspectives that sought to avoid substantial post-colonial critiques of empire.

Rothermund (2015) argues that a form of post-colonial ‘self-consciousness’ emerged during the 1980s in many post-colonising states which can be linked to the perceived failure of post-war modernisation. This reflected the enduring resonance of empires and the ineffaceable global imprint they have left, encouraging greater engagement with the colonial era and creating a new postcolonial vocabulary. In particular, migration from former colonies brought the ‘empire home’, meaning its legacies were now visible within national as well as transnational contexts. The reversal of population exchange across the former colonial space provoked urgent questions about how the colonial past continues to inform contemporary constructions of national identity and citizenship, particularly the extent that racial, religious, and ethno-cultural ideologies and practices closely associated with the colonial era resonate in post-colonising societies.

Indeed, the presence of migrants from the former colonies has encouraged a ‘post-colonial anamnesis’. This has encouraged a new generation of postcolonial scholars, including a growing number who originated from former colonies, whose research has highlighted porosity and interconnected nature of debates about colonialism and post-colonialism (Cooper, 2005). For example, a new generation of scholars of the British Empire adopted a post-colonial focus which emphasised its culture rather than politics or economics, engaging in ground-breaking research exploring the literature, arts, and history of colonised peoples and their migratory descendants. This has been complemented by the emergence of ‘new imperial history’, which has seen significant growth in the scale and scope of research about empire by intellectuals both within post-colonising states and elsewhere. The often agonised or tempestuous reappraisal of the colonial record and its legacies is now a major feature of both the historiographical and the public-cultural landscape in post-colonising states (Howe, 2009). A notable feature has been the preparedness to undertake critical explorations of the ‘dark pages’ of empire, particularly colonial violence, bigotry, and exploitation, while also revealing the multiplicity of forms of colonial rule, networks, and experiences within and between empires (Ballantyne, 2010).

In most cases, national and colonial history has remained largely segregated though. This compartmentalisation continues to fracture the resonance of colonial past while also reproducing racialised exceptionalism that excludes many post-colonial migrants (Bijl, 2012). Some politicians, academics, and other public intellectuals have however interpreted shifts in the historiographical foci and criticality of the colonial era as a deliberate and ideologically driven undermining of the positive legacies of empire. A common theme has been that post-colonial revisionism has proven overly apologetic and distorting in terms of its objective analysis of the progressive contribution of colonialism across the globe. Political leaders from diverse colonial backgrounds, such as Britain, France, and Russia, have thus revived ‘missionary nationalist’ narratives established during the colonial period, expressing pride in the values and legacies of empire and even regret in its passing (Mycock, 2010). As such, many post-colonising states have witnessed a nascent ‘politics of empire’ which has drawn some imperial historians and other post-colonial scholars into increasingly politically contentious and confrontational public disputes which have reflected differing intellectual and ideological positions (Ghosh, 2012).

Debates about how and why the colonial past should be disseminated to current and future generations have emerged as one of the critical public arenas for post-colonising societies. The ‘politics of empire’ has thus proven closely intertwined with debates over national identity and citizenship, particularly the integration of post-colonial and other migrants. Central to these political machinations is the extent to which the promotion of historically embedded national frameworks of political and socio-cultural values is complemented or compromised by the colonial era and its post-colonial legacies. These debates have mapped explicitly onto the structural parameters of the ‘history wars’ outlined earlier in this chapter in terms of politicised disputation regarding the content and purpose of state-sponsored history education. A range of responses have emerged though, which reflect the diverse metropolitan experi?ences of empire and its contemporary influence on post-colonial nation- and state-building which suggests a correlation between the extent of migration from the colonial periphery to the post-colonial metropole and the intensity of the ‘politics of empire’ and history education (see also Oostindie, 2015).

In states where there has been extensive migration, such as France, the Netherlands, and the UK, the post-colonial ‘history wars’ are particularly pronounced and contested. In the UK, criticism about the narrow and fragmented nature of the history curriculum and its excessive focus on the Second World War has encouraged calls from across the political spectrum for the history of the British Empire to be taught in greater depth (Mycock, 2010). However, the election of a Conservative-led right-wing coalition UK government in 2010 intensified debate about the reform of the content of the National Curriculum in England, with draft proposals seeking to increase the time devoted to a largely celebratory history of the British Empire to underpin a progressive British national identity (Haydn, 2014). The UK government found support for its proposals from sympathetic, mainly right-wing historians who also saw history education as a vehicle to promote the positive global political, economic, and cultural contribution of the British Empire (Guyver, 2014).

In response, a wide range of historians and left-wing commentators derided the preparedness to overlook the coercive and often violent history of British Empire and its contentious legacies both within the UK and across the former imperial space (e.g. Evans, 2011). They implored the UK government to develop critical awareness amongst young people of plurality of historical experiences within an increasingly multicultural society. But although final National Curriculum guidelines published in 2013 took note of some of these concerns, the ongoing discourse about the historical and contemporary implications of empire for British society is far from resolved.

In France, debates about empire and its historical legacies have highlighted that French post-colonial nation-building has proven an unstable product of specific historical forces in which certain events have been consciously forgotten and others are deliberately remembered (Conklin, 2000). As Dubois (2000: 15) notes, French colonial history, particularly the struggles around slave emancipation and political equality in the Caribbean that developed during the French Revolution, simultaneously continued to underpin a Republican tradition of anti-racist egalitarianism, and ‘Republican racism’. The revision of the history curriculum, triggered by extensive post-colonial immigration, has thus gradually challenged the ‘public forgetfulness’ of French society and provoked intense and often divisive debates about its potential implications for contemporary French national identity and citizenship (Hargreaves, 2005).

Aldrich (2006) notes the passing of a law, in February 2005, mandating the teaching of the ‘positive role’ of colonialism provoked great controversy involving historians, politicians and the public in France and its former empire, especially Algeria. The ensuing debate saw a significant majority of French historians unified and influential in their opposition to political manoeuvring to teach a largely celebratory view of the French Empire. Although the law was subsequently quashed in 2006, the polemic surrounding the interference of politicians in history teaching highlighted the contentious and incendiary nature of France’s colonial past (Dwyer, 2008).

In post-colonising states where comparatively few colonial migrants have settled, the resonance of debates about empire and its legacies appears less pronounced or politically contested within the public realm. Although there has been growing interest in states such as Belgium, Germany, and Italy in the colonial past, the lack of sizeable post-colonial migrant diaspora would appear to diminish engagement with the colonial past when discussing questions of citizenship and national identity. Moreover, although scholarly investigations into the colonial past have increased, this work does not appear to have stimulated interest in reviewing the content of history education curricula or textbooks.

In Belgium, a number of anniversaries have provoked greater interest in the colonial period, and it has formally acknowledged mistakes and post-colonial contrition. However, Belgian politicians remain reluctant to publicly criticise Belgium’s imperial past and continue to present an overly positive portrait of its distinction as idealist colonisers (Goddeeris, 2015). The growth in new imperial history or domestic post-colonial studies exploring Belgium’s colonial past has not yet influenced the content or design of Belgian history curricula or textbooks (van Nieuwenhuyse, 2015). Indeed where Belgian history textbooks do address the colonial past, it is the Catholic mission and the Belgian monarchy that continue symbolise a redemptive liberation from savagery, barbarism, and primitivism (Van den Braembussche, 2002).

In Italy and Germany, the colonial past has proven a peripheral factor in shaping public debate about migration and post-colonial identity. Pinkus (2003) notes that empire and decolonisation remains a ‘non-event’ for many in Italy, with politicians and other public figures displaying little interest in engaging with the colonial past. While some history textbooks now address selected aspects of Italy’s colonial period, the ‘myth of the good Italian’ endures presenting a positive self-image of progressive Italian colonialism (Cajani, 2013; Leone & Mastrovito, 2010). Indeed De Michele (2011) argues that the failure of history education to address the roots of Italian colonialism and or assess its contemporary impact on Italian politics and culture, as well as on the populations directly affected, has ensured that racist attitudes to migrants continue to be overlooked.

Schilling (2014) notes that public and academic debates about Germany’s colonial past have intensified in the period after reunification. But although large numbers of migrants have settled in Germany over the past 40 years or so, very few have come from former colonial territories. German history curricula across its federated education system have instead sought to enhance post-reunification nation re-building while maintaining a strong focus Nazism and the Holocaust (Langenbacher, 2010). Recent growth in post-colonial and imperial studies has not yet had a significant impact on the federal curricula. Lassig and Pohl (2009) note that when German colonialism is addressed within history curricula, there is little evidence of any sustained critical post-colonial perspectives.

Japan and the Russian Federation offer interesting case studies that highlight the conflict between revisionists and counter-revisionists which further emphasise the importance of ideological aspects of history education. Controversies about the content and focus of history textbooks have emerged as a marked feature of post-colonial Japanese domestic politics, with successive conservative governments seeking to revise history textbooks to adopt a more strident nationalist tone (Beal, Nozaki, & Yang, 2001). Disputes over the colonial past not only reveal tensions between conservative (political and bureaucratic) authorities and progressive academia but also highlight the centrality of history education in public debates concerning Japan’s conduct before and during the Second World War (particularly in Korea and China) (Nozaki, 2008). The preparedness of the Japanese government to intervene and initiate the editing of textbooks to present a more positive view of Japan’s colonial period are a part of a domestic struggle over national identity. Such actions are however motivated by the disjuncture caused by defeat and occupation after the Second World War and the challenges of linking Japan’s national and transnational past rather than in response to post-colonial migration (Algarra, 2013). Bukh (2007) notes depictions of Japan’s national victimhood have often underpinned historical narratives presented in many textbooks, thus limiting the extent of critical postcolonial revisionism of its colonial past. Debates about the content of history education textbooks in Japan have, though, emerged as an increasingly integral part of regional politics among states in East Asia, particularly in the context of the recent decline in Sino-Japanese relations (Vickers, 2014).

The complexities of the challenges of post-colonial and post-communist transition have seen school history texts emerge as a key instrument in the post-Soviet Russian government’s process of ideological transformation and nation-building and are thus closely monitored by the state (Zajda, 2007). In part, this has been a response to the challenges of post-colonial migration and multi-ethnic diversity within an explicitly multinational state. Although initially reformed to promote an inclusive civic Russian state nationalism that embraced pluralistic, interpretative, and analytical approaches, history education under Putin has increasingly been utilised as part of a wider attempt to inculcate a particularistic ethno-national Russian identity and citizenship among young people (Linan, 2010).

School history textbooks thus emphasise the historical greatness of the Russian state from its professed origins within the ancient Rus, through Imperial Russia, to the Soviet Union as a super power (Zajda, 2012). Historians and textbook authors who have sought to encourage a more critical approach to the Russian colonial past have found themselves isolated and their publications publicly denigrated or even banned by the state. Moreover, the presentation of a largely celebratory revisionist history of the Russian state is therefore framed within national and transnational contexts, and has initiated various ‘curriculum wars’ with other former states of the Soviet Union, such as Moldova

(Worden, 2014) and Ukraine (Korostelina, 2011), while also encouraging a more strident anti-Westernism.

It is evident that teaching the colonial past can prompt various approaches which are driven by a range of internal and external challenges that are reflective of the distinctive historical and contemporary circumstances within each post-colonising state. However, Rothermund (2015) notes that the ‘challenge of repentance’ is a common phenomenon to all post-colonising states and this has implications for how the colonial past is perceived and articulated within history education curricula and textbooks. Although some post-colonial states, drawing on greater intellectual and public scrutiny, have displayed contrition for aspects of the colonial past, these apologies are often fused with reticence regarding culpability, applicability, and the concerns over the potential of claims for material compensation. One area of particular difficulty would appear to be engagement with the history and legacies of colonial violence, exploitation, and coercion in the expansion, maintenance, and decline of empire. Howe (2009: 16) notes that stories of colonial violence and genocide provide an everpresent challenge to the formulation of a progressive national narratives which universally incorporate the colonial past and thus leads to ‘selective amnesia’.

Bijl (2012) suggests that violence linked to major national and transnational conflicts, such as the two world wars, are significant elements of the histories of most nation states. However colonial violence, often informed by racialised ideologies and superior technology, is typically exceptionalised from nationalised historical narratives which seek to sustain liberal forms of citizenship and nationalism through compartmentalisation of colonial history in the Netherlands and other post-colonising states. While the growth in Dutch postcolonial studies has seen colonial history permeates the Dutch national canon (Oostindie, 2015), Dutch history textbooks continue to draw on a Eurocentric master narrative framed by social forgetting of slavery and scientific colonialism (Weiner, 2014).

The Dutch experience is not unique. Lassig and Pohl (2009) highlight that German colonisation rarely addresses history of exploitation or colonial violence within history textbooks. In the UK, colonial violence and the bloody ‘wars of decolonisation’ are largely overlooked in school history curricula, thus extending the myth of a peaceful and dignified transfer of power (Haydn, 2014). Carretero et al. (2002) note that while Spanish history textbooks engage with themes of colonial expansion and cultural imposition, colonial violence is a peripheral theme and the empire is framed in predominantly positive terms. The history of colonial violence is therefore segregated from national narratives, with responsibility associated with colonialists and settlers whose place within the increasingly nationalised historical narratives of the post-colonial state is typically overlooked.

Indeed, history education in post-colonising states often focuses on slavery rather than colonial violence, as responsibility for the slave trade is typically framed in transnational rather national terms meaning culpability is more ambiguous. For example, Grindel (2013: 38) notes that current approaches to teaching empire in the UK ‘stops short of claiming a specifically national responsibility for the collective remembrance of slavery’. Conversely, the notion that colonialism and decolonisation were transnational ventures defined by mutually constitutive interconnections, interactions, and entanglements continues to be almost completely overlooked in most post-colonising state textbooks.

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