The past is mostly an invention that the present uses to secure an illusion that keeps lies in power.

To the British novelist George Orwell, “Those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, control the future.” The present, thus, becomes eternal — unending. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

So, are all the struggles for change illusions as well?

Most conflicts in this regard are conflicts between competing sets of the past. They are battles between histories. Those fighting the battles want their particular version of history to dominate a present in which they alone want to be in power. The future never arrives as such. The present is stuck in a vicious cycle, teeming with battles between varied tellings of history. Histories that never were. Imagined pasts weaponised in the present to cultivate power in the name of a ‘better future.’

Shaping denials and silences around past atrocities, too, are an aspect of invented histories. The memory of 19th century massacres of indigenous Native Americans in the United States was consciously suppressed by most American historians serving the ‘national interest.’ The American state has largely remained silent on the subject.

In his 2017 book An American Genocide, the historian Benjamin Madley wrote that even historians who have spoken about the killings avoided using the word ‘genocide’. Instead, they framed the massacres as ‘wars’.

Imagined pasts and invented histories have long been used by states to propound a certain narrative while denying the existence of opposing views. In recent times, the proliferation of falsehoods and half-truths has only grown

In the early 20th century, Ottoman rulers in Istanbul ordered multiple massacres of the region’s Armenian population. Over a million Armenians were slaughtered. The depleted Ottomans were ousted in 1921 by secular Turkish nationalists. But even they decided to adopt a policy of silence and denial.

To this day, the Turkish state actively suppresses the memory of the massacres, switching between silence and denial, despite the fact that there has always been enough evidence to prove that the mass killings of the Armenians were a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Pakistani textbooks have remained silent about the massacre of Bengalis during the 1971 civil war in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Starting with the suppression of the findings of an inquiry committee looking into the matter, all mention of East Pakistan was then systematically quashed. For decades after 1971, there was no mention of it in films, TV plays and even by those who were old enough to have remembered it. It was as if there was never an East Pakistan.

And wherever the civil war did manage to receive a mention, the massacres were glossed over and the commotion was claimed to be the handiwork of Hindus in East Pakistan, and the Ahmadiyya who ‘funded’ them. These are but just a handful of examples of how the aspects of silence and denial in invented histories aim to create a permanent present through the erosion of problematic pasts.

A sincere exposition of the past can help nations learn from history and break the cycle of an unending present. But this is getting even trickier to do in the ‘post-truth era’ that is upon us.

In this ‘era’, a majority of people willingly embrace half-truths, exaggerations and even outright lies. They scornfully reject anything that debunks what they have so enthusiastically accepted as truth. According to the sociologist Marius Gudonis and the historian Benjamin T Jones, this has given birth to “post-truth history.” Post-truth history is false information about a historical event that appeals to emotion or personal belief.

The ‘historian’ in this regard is contemptuous towards evidence that falsifies the information. The aim is to shape a ‘history’ that is not interested in the actual historicity of an event, but is authored to strengthen an ideology or a narrative.

Most ‘official’ histories are invented histories. They too can be dubbed as post-truth histories. But unlike the post-truth histories in today’s post-truth era, previous inventions in this context required a lot more work and effort for them to be widely accepted.

Current post-truth histories, on the other hand, are delivered and consumed like fast food. They are quickly accepted as truths, despite not even pretending to provide any convincing sources or proofs. They are shaped to evoke emotions and personal beliefs. They are attacks on so-called ‘elitist’ historians who, apparently, “serve the powerful.”

But it is not the ‘pro-people anti-elitists’ who are writing post-truth histories. They’re being written by ‘historians’ who are quite unabashedly serving the interests of new political elites. It is not about the new elites promising a new tomorrow. It’s a power struggle through which new elites hope to take charge of the permanent present.

The people are simply lapping up dubious ‘histories’ because, in the post-truth era, readily consuming fibs has been normalised. The post-truth era is also impacting invented histories that were formulated before the era.

On May 9, 1945, at 11:01 pm, the Allied Forces ceased their attacks against Germany. To the Germans, this came to be known as ‘Stunde Null’ or Hour Zero. To the British historian Michael Burleigh, in his book Blood and Rage, this meant a collective effort by ‘new Germany’ to repress all memory of anything that had to do with the rise of Nazism and the genocide of Jewish people by the Nazi regime.

The German state that replaced the fallen Nazis began to vigorously exorcise memories related to Germany’s genocidal past. German professors, teachers, politicians and parents simply stopped talking about it, as if there was never a Nazi Germany. There was no denial of Nazi atrocities by the German state. Just silence.

There is more than enough evidence to substantiate that the recent violence against the Palestinians by Israel is a systematic genocide. But the Germans simply refuse to call it that.

But Germany’s refusal is based on a problematic narrative: it cannot condemn the genocidal actions of a people who its elders tried to wipe out in a genocide. Germany is treating Israel’s violence as the outcome of a conflict between two armed foes. In the post-truth era, this line of thinking is likely to rebound to also mean that the Holocaust too was the outcome of a conflict, as opposed to a genocide.

In 1987, the researcher Gregory Stanton closely studied the Holocaust and developed eight (and later 10) stages of genocide. Israel has exhibited most of the stages in Gaza. The last stage is ‘denial’, which, ironically, is being demonstrated more by countries such as Germany, than by the far-right regime in Israel.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 5th, 2024

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