Both politics and war can serve good ends, as well as bad. However, current views of past politics and wars change. In line with current expediency yesterday’s good may become today’s evil, and vice versa.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with historical revisionism as such. It can correct a wrong perception and put forth a correct one. It can also do the opposite.
Two current examples illustrate both possibilities. One restores a truth, the other perpetuates a lie. In both cases a statue of a military leader has been seen as offensive in today’s political climate.
Two months ago, a statue of the Soviet marshal Ivan Konev was taken down in the centre of Prague. That created a stir both at home and abroad.
Putin and his mouthpieces screamed bloody murder, accusing the Prague mayor of retrospectively fighting on Hitler’s side. Czech President Milos Zeman, Putin’s acolyte, echoed the screams, as did the Communist Party leader Vojtech Filip.
Putin’s totalitarian propaganda includes an historical component: the entire history of the Soviet Union, brought close to reality in the 1990s, is being rewritten again according to the previous Stalinist model.
That especially includes the war, with the Soviet Union portrayed by Stalin and his heirs as an innocent, peaceful victim of dastardly aggression. The Secret Protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, kept under wraps until the 1990s, is now again praised as the acme of morality and sagacity – not what it in fact was, a collusion between two predators to divide Europe between them.
At the end of the war, the Soviets liberated half of Europe – and Marshal Konev was one of the principal liberators. The liberators commemorated their advent by disfiguring European capitals with the stigmata of statues (the most disgusting one, an obelisk adorned with quotes from Stalin, still stands in the centre of Vienna).
However, most liberated people didn’t regard Soviet occupation as particularly liberating. Seeing it as one revolting oppressor replacing another, they rebelled occasionally and seethed all the time.
Konev led the Soviet troops that occupied Prague in 1945, and perhaps if his career had ended then, a statue to him would be appropriate. But it didn’t.
In 1956 his troops drowned the anti-Soviet Hungarian Uprising in blood. In 1961 Konev, then in command of the Soviet forces in East Germany, supervised the construction of the Berlin Wall.
And, more to the point, in 1968 he masterminded the crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Hence the removal of his statue in Prague corrects a historical wrong pepetrated by the Soviets and perpetuated by the present regime.
Score one for truth. But the decision of Virginia’s governor Levar Stoney to remove a statue of General Robert E Lee from the centre of Richmond evens the score.
Robert E Lee, who led the Confederate army during the Civil War, was a brilliant general. Before the war he had served in the US Army for 32 years, distinguishing himself during the Mexican-American War.
When his native Virginia announced its secession from the Union, Lee (incidentally married to George Washington’s great-granddaughter) was upset. He wanted to keep his country intact and, on a more personal level, had just been offered a senior Union command.
However, Lee felt he was honour-bound to fight for his native state. He thus accepted the Confederacy command and led his army to some great victories against prohibitive odds. Eventually the South was crushed and Lee survived the Confederacy by only five years.
His place in history depends on understanding the Civil War for what it was, not how it’s depicted in popular mythology. And mythology insists that the war was fought against slavery. This is a fallacy.
Interestingly, some Northern commanders, such as Grant and McClellan, were themselves slave owners, while many Southern generals, such as Lee himself (who had freed his slaves two years before the shooting began) weren’t.
This emphasises what has to be obvious to any unbiased observer: the war wasn’t about slavery. True enough, the Southern states seceded largely because the federal government had put obstacles in the way of spreading slavery into the newly acquired territories.
However, Lincoln and his colleagues had no quarrel with slavery in the original Southern states. Their bellicose reaction to the secession was caused not by slavery but by their in-built imperative to retain and expand the power of the central state.
“If that would preserve the Union, I’d agree not to liberate a single slave,” Lincoln once said. Note also that his Gettysburg Address includes not a single anti-slavery word – and in fact Lincoln dreaded the possibility that he himself might be portrayed as an abolitionist.
The war was fought for political centralism, characteristic of post-Enlightenment modernity, against political localism, characteristic of pre-Enlightenment Christendom. The North’s aggression denied the Southern states’ right to secede, stipulated in the Constitution. Thus the South, though itself a sinner, was sinned against even more.
That slavery is a blot on American, especially Southern, history is beyond doubt. And, judging by his actions, Lee would have agreed with that.
But the North’s conduct during the war and in its aftermath was equally inhuman. The aim wasn’t just to win the war but to destroy the South. That desideratum added to the conflict the distinctly modern touch of total annihilation.
The term ‘scorched earth’ entered the language courtesy of Gen Sherman’s March to the South that left whole cities burned down to ashes, not to mention countless manor houses and plantations.
What happened after the war was equally vile. The South was left at the mercy of carpetbaggers (poor whites moving down from the North) and freed slaves. Murder, vandalism, rape and looting were actively encouraged as a way of finishing the job started by Sherman.
Even though America suffered greater casualties in the Civil War than in all her other wars combined, it was that orgy of encouraged violence that left festering wounds in the American psyche. And in the South the wounds aren’t just festering but still bleeding.
The South, with its despicable Jim Crow laws, made a bad situation much worse, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act was supposed to heal the racial lesions. So it would have done – but for the existence of powerful groups with a vested interest in continued racial strife. Parallels with the on-going mayhem are irresistible.
Yet again white liberals are conferring an eternal status of victimhood on the blacks, tacitly encouraging conflict. In the 1960s this used to take grotesque forms, such as Lenny Bernstein treating his liberal guests to the delicious presence of Black Panthers (Tom Wolfe brilliantly sent up that event in Radical Chic).
Today’s white liberals are less inclined to make fools of themselves. Instead they rely on more subtle and less direct incitement, mainly by implementing policies guaranteed to perpetuate, enlarge and enrage the black underclass.
As in the case of Putin’s current attempts to rewrite history the Stalin way, US history is conscripted to serve the cause of social disintegration. Hence the historically false account of the Civil War, taught as gospel truth in American schools.
Hence also the distortion of Robert E Lee’s role in history. The honourable and courageous general is shamelessly portrayed as a white supremacist who would have had Martin Luther King lynched had their lifespans overlapped.
Rather than closing the racial rift, this conscious policy serves only to widen it. That, evidently, is its intended purpose, rather than an unfortunate side effect.
Unlike the Czechs, who removed a statue to uphold historical truth, the governor of Virginia is removing one to serve a lie. He ought to be ashamed of himself.