In a Race to Shape the Future, History Is Under New Pressure

In Russia, an organization dedicated to remembering Soviet-era abuses faces state-ordered liquidation as the Kremlin imposes a sanitized national history in its place.

In Hungary, the government has ejected or assumed control of educational and cultural institutions, using them to manufacture a xenophobic national heritage aligned with its ethnonationalist politics.

In China, the ruling Communist Party is openly wielding schoolbooks, films, television 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 retelling of the 2020 election, in which Democrats stole the vote and the Jan. 6 riot to disrupt President Biden’s certification was largely peaceful or staged by Mr. Trump’s opponents.

Rioters confronting law enforcement inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

History is continuously rewritten, whether by scholars updating their assumptions, activists reframing the record, or politicians massaging collective memory for their own ends.

But a wave of brazenly false or misleading historical revision, from democratic and authoritarian governments alike, may be threatening an already-weakened sense of a shared, accepted narrative about the world.

The trend, scholars believe, reflects some of the century’s defining forces. Polarized societies receptive to identity-affirming falsehoods. Collapsing faith in central institutions or arbiters of truth. Rising nationalism. Despots growing savvier. Elected leaders turning increasingly toward illiberalism.

As a result, “we should be more likely to see the sort of historical revisionism” pushed by these leaders, said Erica Frantz, a Michigan State University political scientist.

In some places, the goals are sweeping: to re-engineer a society, starting at its most basic understanding of its collective heritage. Emphasizing the importance of that process, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has repeated a 19th century Confucian scholar’s saying: “To destroy a country, you must first eradicate its history.”

Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2020.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
On June 4, 2021, it was empty.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

But often, the goal is seemingly more short-term: to provoke rage or pride in ways that will rally citizens behind the leader’s agenda.

Mr. Trump’s election lies appear to be a successful example. They have splintered Americans’ shared sense of reality in ways that could strengthen Mr. Trump’s allies, justifying efforts to control the machinery of future elections. If küresel trends that enable such tactics continue, there may be more like this to come.

Members of  Russia’s Youth Army  practiced assembling rifles, first aid skills and martial arts last month in Noginsk, near Moscow.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

A Changing World

One set of changes may be particularly important in driving this trend: how governments tend to govern.

Understand the Jan. 6 Investigation

Both the Justice Department and a House select committee are investigating the events of the Capitol riot. Here’s where they stand:

  • Inside the House Inquiry: From a nondescript office building, the panel has been quietly ramping up its sprawling and elaborate investigation.
  • Criminal Referrals, Explained: Can the House inquiry end in criminal charges? These are some of the issues confronting the committee.
  • A New Focus Emerges: In addition to the better-known Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, the 1st Amendment Praetorian, a right-wing paramilitary group, worked in the shadows with pro-Trump forces.
  • A Big Question Remains: The prosecutorial effort is of unparalleled complexity and scope, but will the Justice Department move beyond charging the rioters themselves?

Authoritarianism “is undergoing a transformation,” one recent academic paper said, summarizing the growing view among scholars.

Since the Arab Spring and “color revolution” uprisings of a decade ago, dictators have shifted emphasis from blunt-force repression (although this still happens, too) to subtler methods like manipulating information or sowing division, aimed at preventing dissent over suppressing it.

Among other changes, the blaring state newspaper has been replaced with arrays of flashy, state-aligned outlets and social media bots, creating a false sense that the official narrative is not imposed from on high but emerging organically.

More sophisticated propaganda, aimed at persuasion over coercion, often manifests as a particular sort of historical rewriting. Rather than simply excising disfavored officials or government blunders, it cultivates national pride and collective grievance meant to rally citizens.

The Kremlin, for instance, has massaged memories of the Soviet Union and its fall into a heritage of Russian greatness and besiegement, justifying the need for a strong leader like Vladimir V. Putin and encouraging Russians to gratefully embrace him.

This manifests in smaller ways, too. Mr. Putin has falsely insisted that NATO pledged never to extend east of Germany, justifying his recent aggression toward Ukraine as defensive and necessary.

Democracies are changing just as dramatically, with leaders growing more illiberal and strong-fisted.

The widening social divides, along with the growing popular distrust of experts and institutions, often help elevate those leaders in the first place.

This can be a source of support for a leader willing to throw out the official history and replace it with something closer to what his or her supporters want to hear. And it gives such leaders another incentive: to justify power grabs as essential to defeating enemies abroad or within.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, for instance, has revised Hungary’s history to that of an innocent victim of Nazis and Communists that was finally made safe by his patriotic guidance. In this way, he champions skepticism toward immigration as a continuation of a great national battle — one that also requires him to suppress rivals, critics and independent institutions.

President Donald J. Trump said in 2020 that he would promote a new “pro-American” school curriculum.Credit…Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

Why Revision Works

The most effective propaganda of any sort, research finds, often focuses on an appeal to some group identity like race or religion.

Key Figures in the Jan. 6 Inquiry

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The House investigation. A select committee is scrutinizing the causes of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which occurred as Congress met to formalize Joe Biden’s election victory amid various efforts to overturn the results. Here are some people being examined by the panel:

Donald Trump. The former president’s movement and communications on Jan. 6 appear to be a focus of the inquiry. But Mr. Trump has attempted to shield his records, invoking executive privilege. The dispute is making its way through the courts.

Mark Meadows. Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, who initially provided the panel with a trove of documents that showed the extent of his role in the efforts to overturn the election, is now refusing to cooperate. The House voted to recommend holding Mr. Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress.

Scott Perry and Jim Jordan. The Republican representatives of Pennsylvania and Ohio are among a group of G.O.P. congressmen who were deeply involved in efforts to overturn the election. Mr. Perry has refused to meet with the panel.

Phil Waldron. The retired Army colonel has been under scrutiny since a 38-page PowerPoint document he circulated on Capitol Hill was turned over to the panel by Mr. Meadows. The document contained extreme plans to overturn the election.

Fox News anchors. ​​Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade texted Mr. Meadows during the Jan. 6 riot urging him to persuade Mr. Trump to make an effort to stop it. The texts were part of the material that Mr. Meadows had turned over to the panel.

Steve Bannon. The former Trump aide has been charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena, claiming protection under executive privilege even though he was an outside adviser. His trial is scheduled for next summer.

Michael Flynn. Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser attended an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 18 in which participants discussed seizing voting machines and invoking certain national security emergency powers. Mr. Flynn has filed a lawsuit to block the panel’s subpoenas.

Jeffrey Clark. The little-known official repeatedly pushed his colleagues at the Justice Department to help Mr. Trump undo his loss. The panel has recommended that Mr. Clark be held in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate.

John Eastman. The lawyer has been the subject of intense scrutiny since writing a memo that laid out how Mr. Trump could stay in power. Mr. Eastman was present at a meeting of Trump allies at the Willard Hotel that has become a prime focus of the panel.

There’s a famous experiment: People are given a test, told their score, then asked to rate the test’s objectivity. People told that they have performed well tend to call the test fair and rigorous. Those told that they have scored poorly are more likely to see the test as biased or inaccurate.

Historical revisionism plays on this same impulse, telling people that the established record is an attack on their identity, like a poor score on a test, so it should be rejected.

“Our youth will be taught to love America,” Mr. Trump said in announcing a commission to “restore patriotic education to our schools” in 2020. His goal, he said, was to counter “left-wing indoctrination.”

In another example, Christian Americans told that Christianity is under attack, one study found, became likelier to embrace falsehoods about American history and politics in general.

“We want to believe that we are capable and decent, that our friends and favored relatives share these traits, and that the groups we belong to are on the right side of conflicts,” Andrew T. Little, a scholar of propaganda at the University of California, has written.

When people feel that this belief is being challenged — even intelligent, educated people who would otherwise know to reject falsehoods — they will often gratefully accept a version of history that defends it, as well as whatever leader is offering it.

In India, for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has risen partly on a promise to redefine India’s polyglot history as one of rightful Hindu dominance.

Chinese aerospace workers wearing Long March-style costumes in Shaanxi Province.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Choosing to Forget

For opportunistic leaders, a country’s uglier moments of history are not a sorun to solve — they are a gift. A discomforting truth that citizens might prefer to forget, or, better yet, replace, gives them an opening to impose their own narrative.

Social media, initially seen as a force for liberation, is likely to help that process, enabling citizens to circumvent traditional media for a crowdsourced version of the truth that most appeals to their emotions.

Rising nationalism has contributed, too, increasing appetites for stories portraying one’s country as righteous and pure.

Poland’s nationalist government, in 2018, passed legislation making it a crime to suggest that Poland bore any responsibility for Nazi atrocities on its soil. The law was framed not as suppressing memories but as protecting an identity of unblemished national heroism whose accuracy was almost beside the point.

Social polarization has deepened those appetites even further. As more people feel that their in-group is locked in a battle for racial or partisan dominance, they grow more receptive to versions of history that say they should and will prevail.

These revisions, Dr. Little said, often look more like reframing history than rewriting it.

In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch far right has risen by repositioning Dutch history as a great conflict between Christianity and Islam. Though few historians would accept this portrayal, it has been a factor in those parties’ growth.

Even China’s ruling party, with all its power to manufacture facts, puts growing emphasis on matters of interpretation — playing up the unbroken heroism of its leaders — to real effect. In 2019 alone, “red” museums and memorials, aggrandizing Communist Party history, drew 1.4 billion visits, making them among the most popular destinations in the world.

For all the warnings from 20th century writers like George Orwell that history would be forcibly stamped out, the graver threat may that people, offered a choice, turn their backs on it voluntarily.

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