In 1878, the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed that ‘our Empire is an Empire of liberty, of truth and justice.’ Disraeli’s contemporary, the anti-imperialist Frederic Harrison, very much disagreed. He replied that Britons ‘hold themselves free from all the laws of war… and at the blood-stained altar of colonial extension’. Fast forward to 2020, and the struggle over the British Empire and its legacy continue! The reason for such a struggle lies in historical amnesia, or our collective ability to forget the past.
While every generation and society has grappled with its imperial reckoning in one form or another, this article puts the spotlight on Britain and its colonial past. The study of empire and its legacies involves challenging sacred national narratives, and the pains of migration and empire continue to play a central role in Britain.
For instance, the Windrush scandal of 2018 is the perfect example of people failing to grasp the realities of imperialism and the disgusting systematic racism which formed as a result. British colonials who had moved to Britain from the Caribbean were wrongly detained, deported, and denied their legal rights. Lives were ruined as a result, with some dying in the Caribbean, unable to return to the UK before the scandal broke in the national press. Such events occur due to our inability to correctly account for the past and demand a realistic appraisal of history.
The problem of historical amnesia is not confined to Britain and reaches beyond the scope of empire and migration. For instance, has the world forgotten the presidency of Donald Trump, or rather glossed over the his mistakes, failures, and faults of the last few years? As we move away from the events of January 6th, many elected Republicans seem to be settling on a strategy of collective amnesia. Some propose to forget the unpleasant past in the cause of national ‘healing,’ while online and elsewhere, this organized forgetting is summarised by phrases such as ‘Donald Trump is gone! Stop talking about him!’ or ‘Who cares! Donald Trump isn’t president anymore!’ or ‘Please stop. I don’t want to read about Donald Trump anymore!’ or ‘Biden is president now!’
Many wish to move on from the Age of Trump because they crave a return to ‘business as usual.’ However, the end of the Trump presidency has left an absence of some sorts. While deeply polarising American society, his presidency has the country in economic ruin. Families have been torn apart by Trump’s regime and his de facto declaration of war on migrants, refugees, and undocumented immigrants, which has caused an increase in hate crimes against minorities and other marginalised groups. The situation resembles quite literally the 1960-70s in Britain that witnessed the heights of racism and, for those familiar with the term, Powellism. Thus, it may be worth drawing our attention to the problems of historical amnesia!
Lastly, and more surprisingly, we see the effects of forgetting the past when talking of democracy. In Europe, the inability to acknowledge the recent past has left many growing disdainful of democracy and wishing for dictatorial models of government. For instance, a recent study found that one in every ten Germans want their country to be led by a ‘Führer to rule with an iron fist for common prosperity.’ Likewise, 61% of Austrians favour supporting a ‘strong leader who does not have to worry about a parliament or elections!’ A similar dictatorial nostalgia is flourishing in former communist countries and over the past two decades, the share of the vote for populist authoritarian parliamentary parties in Europe has increased by 50 percent!
While analysts point to several factors to explain this trend, like the loss of faith in political institutions, a major structural driver for this is historical amnesia. Most of the people in these surveys did not witness the horrors of the World Wars or were too young to understand the problems that dictatorships posed. For instance, according to a study by the Berlin Free University, half of German teenagers ‘don’t know Hitler was a dictator,’ a third believe he protected human rights, and a quarter of British schoolchildren do not know what Auschwitz was. Thus, this historical ignorance continues to undermine support for democracy and increases the longing for ‘strong leaders’ like Trump, Putin, Le Pen, and Lukashenko, who want to limit the rule of law and undermine the separation of powers in their countries.
Participating in choosing what to remember and what to forget involves constructing a particular narrative that emphasises the good and ignores the bad. History is complicated. Therefore, we must have an honest appraisal of our past and never forget it.
Chatham House- Lesson in historical amnesia- https://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/the-world-today/2020-08/lessons-historical-amnesia
LSE Blog- https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/historical-amnesia-is-undermining-european-democracy/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BritishPoliticsAndPolicyAtLse+%28British+politics+and+policy+at+LSE%29