Education Reform

Timothy Snyder: The War on History is a War on Democracy

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Timothy Snyder, an authority on totalitarianism, draws a straight line in this article that appeared in the New York Times from Stalin’s efforts to purge history of negative facts about the Soviet Union to the current mania among Republicans to control the teaching of American history and censor shameful facts in our history.

Professor Snyder reminds us of Stalin’s brutal campaign to crush Ukraine, where nearly 4 million people died, most from starvation, after their crops were seized.

He writes:

Ukraine was the most important Soviet republic beyond Russia, and Stalin understood it as wayward and disloyal. When the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine failed to produce the yields that Stalin expected, his response was to blame local party authorities, the Ukrainian people and foreign spies. As foodstuffs were extracted amid famine, it was chiefly Ukrainians who suffered and died — some 3.9 million people in the republic, by the best reckoning, well over 10 percent of the total population. In communications with trusted comrades, Stalin did not conceal that he was directing specific policies against Ukraine. Inhabitants of the republic were banned from leaving it; peasants were prevented from going to the cities to beg; communities that failed to make grain targets were cut off from the rest of the economy; families were deprived of their livestock. Above all, grain from Ukraine was ruthlessly seized, well beyond anything reason could command. Even the seed corn was confiscated.

The Soviet Union took drastic action to ensure that these events went unnoticed. Foreign journalists were banned from Ukraine. The one person who did report on the famine in English under his own byline, the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, was later murdered. The Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, Walter Duranty, explained away the famine as the price of progress. Tens of thousands of hunger refugees made it across the border to Poland, but Polish authorities chose not to publicize their plight: A treaty with the U.S.S.R. was under negotiation. In Moscow, the disaster was presented, at the 1934 party congress, as a triumphant second revolution. Deaths were recategorized from “starvation” to “exhaustion.” When the next census counted millions fewer people than expected, the statisticians were executed. Inhabitants of other republics, meanwhile, mostly Russians, moved into Ukrainians’ abandoned houses. As beneficiaries of the calamity, they were not interested in its sources.

The Soviet Union and Russia now have gone to great lengths to deny the Ukrainian genocide. Russia has passed laws to make it illegal to speak or write honestly about the crimes of the Soviet Union. Snyder calls such action “memory laws.”

These Russian policies belong to a growing international body of what are called “memory laws”: government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship. Early memory laws were generally designed to protect the truth about victim groups. The most important example, passed in West Germany in 1985, criminalized Holocaust denial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, other countries followed that precedent, and banned the denial of other historical atrocities. The West German law was controversial to some advocates of freedom of speech; succeeding measures were disputed on the grounds that the Holocaust was in a special category. Yet these early laws could be defended as attempts to protect the weaker against the stronger, and an endangered history against propaganda.

The new memory laws are meant to protect the powerful, not the victims of past atrocities, by denying that such atrocities ever occurred.

Then Snyder turns to the current movement in GOP-controlled states to limit or ban teaching the history of racism because it might reduce patriotic pride or it might make some students uncomfortable.

This spring, memory laws arrived in America. Republican state legislators proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. As of this writing, five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Department of Education of a sixth (Florida) has passed guidelines with the same effect. Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws. [Editor’s note: Add New Hampshire to the list of states that have passed laws limiting what may be taught about the past.]

The particulars of these laws vary. The Idaho law is the most Kafkaesque in its censorship: It affirms freedom of speech and then bans divisive speech. The Iowa law executes the same totalitarian pirouette. The Tennessee and Texas laws go furthest in specifying what teachers may and may not say. In Tennessee teachers must not teach that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.” Nor may they deny the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, words that Thomas Jefferson presumably never intended to be part of an American censorship law. The Idaho law mentions Critical Race Theory; the directive from the Florida school board bans it in classrooms. The Texas law forbids teachers from requiring students to understand the 1619 Project. It is a perverse goal: Teachers succeed if students do not understand something.

But the most common feature among the laws, and the one most familiar to a student of repressive memory laws elsewhere in the world, is their attention to feelings. Four of five of them, in almost identical language, proscribe any curricular activities that would give rise to “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up. As a teacher, I cannot exclude the possibility, for example, that my non-Jewish students will feel psychological distress in learning how little the United States did for Jewish refugees in the 1930s. I know from my experience teaching the Holocaust that it often causes psychological discomfort for students to learn that Hitler admired Jim Crow and the myth of the Wild West. Teachers in high schools cannot exclude the possibility that the history of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression will make some non-Black students uncomfortable. The new memory laws invite teachers to self-censor, on the basis of what students might feel — or say they feel. The memory laws place censorial power in the hands of students and their parents. It is not exactly unusual for white people in America to express the view that they are being treated unfairly; now such an opinion could bring history classes to a halt…

The American memory laws do not usually even refer to specific historical events over which they enforce orthodoxies; in this sense they are one step more advanced than the Russian memory laws. But the moments when the new laws do venture into specificity are illuminating. “Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards,” the Florida Department of Education’s new policy states, “include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

This is a striking repetition of the rhetorical tactic of the Russian memory law of 2014: In both, the crimes of the Nazis are deployed to silence a history of suffering — in Russia to deter criticism of the Stalin era, in Florida to forbid education about racism. And in both cases, the measures in question actually make the Holocaust impossible to understand. If it is illegal in Russia to discuss the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of nonaggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, then it is impossible to discuss how, where and when the Second World War began. If it is illegal in Florida to teach about systemic racism, then aspects of the Holocaust relevant for young Americans go untaught. German race laws drew from the precedent set by Jim Crow in the United States. But since Jim Crow is systemic racism, having to do with American society and law, the subject would seem to be banned in Florida schools.

We are living through a dangerous and absurd period in which Republican-controlled states are passing laws to criminalize the teaching of factual history. But schools are not hermetically sealed boxes. Students see television, and they know they are being taught a literally whitewashed version of our history.

How many history teachers will comply and teach lies?

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