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George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) describes an authoritarian government that distorts history through a Ministry of Truth that constantly changes historical records to meet its government’s needs. The authoritarian government in Orwell’s novel eliminates all traces of individual lives and past political actions. Although its logic is often contradictory and inconsistent, the Ministry of Truth reveals how control over history can enhance power. Orwell’s novel focuses on authoritarian governments; however, similar censorship of history also exists in democratic nations.
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The onset of the Cold War in the 1950’s and the subsequent ideological battle between Soviet-sponsored communism and Western democratic capitalism had a profound impact upon American historiography and ushered in a period of self-censorship in American education. Before World War II, U.S. historians debated the legitimacy of some of the nation’s most exalted historical beliefs. Scholars during the 1920’s and 1930’s questioned the democratic character of American politics, and suggested that American foreign policy was driven by the same economic imperialist motives that shaped European foreign policy.
The Cold War and the subsequent attacks upon the American Left by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and others eliminated most overt political dissent from U.S. college campuses. Since the government did not directly control this process, the censorship came from within and serves as a classic example of self- censorship. Universities, faculty, and college administrators viciously attacked any scholar who had been a member of the Communist Party or continued to endorse radical historiography. Hundreds of scholars from all facets of academic life ranging from the Ivy League to large state schools to small private liberal arts colleges were dismissed from their jobs.
This form of censorship had a significant impact on American education. Only historiography that celebrated the supremacy of American cultural values; espoused the sanctity and democratic virtues of the political system; downplayed all evidence of racial, ethnic, and class conflict; and insisted that American foreign policy followed a high moral code of conduct was considered acceptable for publication. American students were required to learn often incorrect views on history that fostered national unity rather than pursue critical inquiries into the nation’s past. Criticism of American history was censored for its lack of patriotism. A climate of fear permeated college campuses. Unofficial blacklists prevented dissident scholars from obtaining employment elsewhere, and academic freedom of speech was dramatically curtailed until the 1960’s.
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Censorship has not targeted only radical historians. Some scholars have suppressed historical evidence in order to alleviate a nation’s responsibility for war crimes. The Nazi Holocaust of World War II, for example, resulted in the deaths of approximately six million European Jews. Despite the fact that it is one of the most well-documented acts of genocide in modern history, some people have maintained that it never occurred. They have attacked the accounts of survivors of the Holocaust as being incredulous, and have maintained that such accounts are intended solely to generate international support for the state of Israel. This style of historiography has secured a significant following in some eastern and central European states that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, as well as in states that ignored Jewish pleas for help as the news of the Holocaust became known.
In Croatia, for example, a state that not only aligned itself with Nazi Germany but participated in the murdering of Jews as well, the overall extent of the Holocaust has been minimalized. In his book Wastelands—Historical Truth (1989), Croatian president Franjo Tudjman accuses the survivors of exaggerating and issuing biased stories regarding their experiences in the death camps, also hinting that instead of being murdered, many Jews in Europe may in fact have committed mass suicide. Similar allegations have appeared in Slovakia, France, Great Britain, and Austria. If the Holocaust is viewed as a fabricated exaggeration, then states and people can no longer be morally condemned for their collaboration with the Nazis. In contrast, postwar Germany enacted a law making Holocaust denial a crime.
High school and college teachers in the United States have also been affected by this development. As Holocaust denial has attained some acceptance, students are increasingly questioning the validity of truthful Holocaust accounts and wondering why it is even necessary to study the topic. Deniers fully understand that they cannot eradicate all of the evidence accumulated on this event, but by issuing numerous doubts and accusations, they hope to fan the fires of anti-Semitism. Although opponents of academic censorship insist upon academic freedom of speech, an idea must have some factual legitimacy to be acceptable, and it should adhere to ethical codes of conduct and methodology. Historiography that denies the Holocaust denies fact, evidence, truth, and ethical methods of research and presentation. Such historiography is the worst, but not the only, example of how those who write history may suppress knowledge and distort facts in order to further personal and national interests.
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Since history serves as a vehicle for forging national identity, its content is frequently the subject of debates. Some politicians, special interest groups, educators, and parents maintain that students should be taught a certain core curriculum in order to develop a personal sense of patriotism and pride in their nation’s accomplishments. Others, however, declare that history should attempt to adhere to certain objective methodological guidelines, and it should not ignore a country’s past sins and transgressions.
This conflict has aroused nationalist passions and has generated a fiery discussion over the role of history in education in the United States. In 1995, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum organized an exhibit featuring the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Instead of portraying the mission of one of the bombers used, the Enola Gay, in a celebratory victorious fashion, the museum planned to exhibit photographs of the victims and to mention the devastation inflicted upon the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American veteran organizations cried foul and lobbied Congress to prevent what they perceived to be an unjustifiable moral condemnation of U.S. military strategy. As a result, the Smithsonian revamped its presentation.
A similar controversy surfaced in 1994 following the publication of the proposed National Standards for United States History for Grades 5-12. Concerned that students were leaving secondary education with an inadequate understanding of history, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education funded this project—along with similar projects in other subjects—and hired historians to devise national guidelines for local school districts. The resulting report angered many. Some maintained that the standards were too critical of American institutions and overly sympathetic to other cultures and non- Western exploits. Why, they argued, should American students be required to learn more about the Gupta empire in India than the U.S. Constitution? After repeated attacks, the Senate passed a resolution censuring the standards and declared that the standards would neither be certified nor implemented. Perhaps wishing to avoid future controversy, the Senate also ruled that such projects would no longer be funded by the federal government. Thus, in effect, the senate decreased its power to censor the teaching of history in American classrooms.
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Biased historiography can be found outside Europe and the United States. Instead of focusing upon Japan’s militaristic expansionism in China during the 1930’s, some Japanese nationalist historians have tended to emphasize the postwar devastation in Japan caused by the atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They highlight how the Western Allies utilized racist doctrines to justify the destruction of prewar Japanese society. Consequently, they place Japan in the role of victim rather than the aggressor. Critics of this historiography maintain that Japan was also driven by its own racist beliefs, and as a result, Japan must accept its responsibility for the war. This issue has remained controversial in Japan’s school systems since it clearly affects whether or not students will develop a positive or negative view of their nation’s past.
Historical disputes have always existed, but instead of allowing all interpretations to compete in a free marketplace of ideas, the elite typically have exerted their authority and eliminated opposing or critical views through censorship. In democratic and communist regimes, history has been manipulated for nationalist interests. Instead of being granted the luxury of academic freedom, scholars have often been forced to restructure the historical record in order to accommodate special interests. Ironically, it is the historical record that best indicates that many have attempted and failed to exert control over history through censorship.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 174
Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War, 1931-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), examines the debate surrounding racism and the Japanese in World War II. Mark Leff, “Revisioning U.S. Political History” in The American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (June, 1995), outlines the political controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit and the National Standards for United States History for Grades 5-12. Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust (New York: The Free Press, 1993), uncovers the various motives and agendas surrounding Holocaust denial. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988), describes how censorship and nationalism influence the teaching of history. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), is a classic novel that demonstrates how censorship shapes historiography. Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), reveals how and why communists and political radicals were excluded from academic life during the McCarthy era. Hedrick Smith, The New Russians (New York: Random House, 1990), exposes the role of censorship in the writing of Soviet and Russian history.
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