History, like the sea, is a harsh mistress. Russian Bolshevik Nikolai Yezhov learned this the hard way.
Rising quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party, he attained the pinnacle of power as head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs — the feared NKVD that largely carried out the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. After executing hundreds of thousands and imprisoning even more, Yezhov was executed by his successor in another purge.
If he is remembered by history at all, it is because of a famous photo of him standing next to Stalin, and the revised photo where he was cropped out. He became an “unperson” in an Orwellian memory hole.
South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley’s call that the flag of the Confederacy should be taken down from above the state capitol and placed in a museum was correct given its representation to many of America’s bloodiest conflict. But in the rush to find a tangible cause for a murderer’s rampage in Charleston, the feeding frenzy to purge a portion of America’s past is spreading. Companies have refused to manufacture or sell any item with the Confederate flag, including images and toys of the former television series “Dukes of Hazzard” car, the General Lee. TVLand has stopped airing the program itself. Even historically-based Civil War board and computer games have also begun to disappear from vendor sites because one side of the war had Confederate flags.
Calls for replacing Alexander Hamilton or Andrew Jackson on U.S. currency had already been proposed but the Confederate flag decision has led to other calls to purge history. One cable anchor questioned whether the Thomas Jefferson Memorial should be removed since the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Renewed calls to change the names of U.S. Army forts named after Confederate generals have been opposed by the Pentagon. The mayor of New Orleans proposed removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. And a Georgetown University Law professor suggested in one article that Woodrow Wilson ought to be expunged because of his racist views.
On the far side of the world, a more violent eradication of the past has continued. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the fifth-century Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In 2012, Islamic militants destroyed mausoleums and libraries in Timbuktu, Mali. In the past year, ISIS has wreaked a path of eliminating the past from museums and landmarks; as the U.S. removed Confederate flags, ISIS continued their rampage in the ancient city of Palmyra. They were destroyed because Islamic radicals believed they were idols, affronts to their religion and, therefore must be purged from viewing.
History had no meaning. Dissent and a different view had to be erased. The U.S. and most nations are not in a position to stop ISIS from destroying world heritage, but the country can have a legitimate and open discussion about its own past without eradicating that past.
John Quincy Adams wrote that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Domestically, America has found those monsters with flags, statues and merchandise. If the nation aspires to teach its own history and ensure the next generation is aware of its civic duties, then we must ignore the call to turn our back on the past — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When a nation dissolves traces of its past, even one pock-marked with deviations from our founding aspirations, political disagreements today will be treated with the same ignorance as the Stalinst purges or the intolerance of ISIS.
Real education of the past cannot occur when part of that past is destroyed or purged. History need not be embraced, denounced nor feared. It should be recognized, studied and understood for what it was.
Source: USA Today
Claude Berube is director of the Naval Academy Museum. His second novel, “Syren’s Song,” will be published in November. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Department of the Navy.