History: writing the past, drafting the future

Theory of Knowledge banner

History, it often seems to me, isn’t essentially about the past. In so many ways, it’s about the present and the future – the afterlife in records, interpretation, and impact on thought. In current news, I’m struck by what lives on from bygone days in three seemingly unlike examples: a controversial law (Poland), yet another statue (this one in Canada), and a day of national commemoration (Australia). What they share is an eerie sense that we’re watching a troubled past in afterglow – and hearing in echo the resonance of TOK knowledge questions.

Here we go again? History is one area of knowledge that is keenly attuned to repetition, with variation! The knowledge questions from the current TOK Guide (page 41) take another turn upon the stage:

  • What is a fact in history?
  • What distinguishes a better historical account from a worse one?
  • How can one gauge the extent to which a history is told from a particular cultural or national perspective?

Controversial law, Poland

Countries have often used laws to silence their citizens or criminalize saying things officially declared wrong: the FACTS have been adjudicated by legal decree. Similarly, citizens have been forbidden to say things that are officially bad: the approved VALUES have been legislated. From laws (arguably good) controlling slander and hate speech to laws (arguably bad) suppressing truth and alternative views, they merit attention and debate for the way they direct the knowledge that gets shared.

So here we go again? Poland’s new law, approved in the Senate last month and signed into law early February by President Andrzej Duda, criminalizes references to Nazi concentration camps located in Poland as “Polish death camps” – a phrasing that may sound as if Poles, rather than the Nazis, were responsible. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland,” declared the Deputy Prime Minister before the Senate vote.  “Just as the Jews, we were victims.”

The law further threatens with fines and imprisonment (up to three years) anyone who attributes crimes of the Holocaust to (ominously for its ambiguity) “the Polish nation”. Although the law permits historians and academics to discuss facts of the second world war extermination camps, critics argue that it threatens discussions by others, such as teachers or journalists, even if what they say can be supported by evidence.

Set to go into law on February 28, however, it may yet be revised according to current reports:

“In reaction to criticism, it is to be reviewed by Poland’s constitutional court which can order changes. Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki said late Tuesday that no criminal charges will be brought, but Poland might demand the retraction of untrue statements.”

If the law was genuinely intended to protect the good name of Poland abroad, it has backfired spectacularly. The Israeli Prime Minister has reprimanded the Polish Prime Minister for claiming innocence for all Poles while, in some of his remarks, suggesting that Jews were among the perpetrators of their own genocide. In Israel, vandals painted swastikas on Poland’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

In case you find useful this example of using legislation to control the terms and extent of historical discussion – or to settle the “facts” or the “truth” – I’ll put some interesting links at the end. Myself, I found the following comments from a national public radio station in Boston particularly apt for TOK:

“The bill’s originators argue that it is necessary for protecting and disseminating historical truth: The Poles were victims rather than perpetrators of the Holocaust; many of them, at great personal risk, saved Jews. Upon learning of this bill, the Israeli government protested vigorously. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others described it as an attempt to ‘rewrite’ history and whitewash the crimes of those who either assisted Nazis or stood by as Jews were burned at Auschwitz and other camps.

“On the historical record, both governments are correct. Many Poles saved Jews (in fact, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, recognizes more Poles than members of any other nationality as ‘righteous among the nations’ — gentiles who helped rescue Jews). Furthermore, many Poles fought bravely against the Nazis as partisans. And, at the same time, scores of others assisted the Nazis enthusiastically and many, many more looked away either from fear or in tacit approval as the Germans went about implementing the ‘Final Solution.’

“But the problem is not whether the bill accurately reflects what happened in Poland during the war. The problem is that history cannot and should not be adjudicated by the criminal courts. Historical truth is multilayered and complicated. Poles were both heroes and villains when it came to their attitudes and deeds toward the Jews. Sometimes the same people were both. That kind of complexity has to be discussed, debated and studied in secondary school classrooms, universities, public forums and the popular press.”

There’s a context, of course, for the particular Polish government to give attention to this particular law. The TOK Guide notes in general terms that “present preoccupations tend to affect the study of past events”, while a commentator in The Economist notes more specifically that “in a region of competing narratives, latent grievances and weak states, leaders with a taste for demagoguery will always be tempted to draw from an ample arsenal of historical memory.” From this incident, what will live on from historical memory – to influence the future?

Controversial statue, Canada

And another statue of a Great Man in History bites the dust! Indeed, governments and organizations commissioning the statues of the world might wonder if glorifying individuals is a durable long-term investment of their commemorative urge. The future might have different information on these individuals and different values for evaluating their “greatness”. Better stick to Unknown Soldiers!

The statue in this case is another one of those conquerors, to whom the conquered have come, understandably, to object. Edward Cornwallis was the British military governor who in 1749 founded the city of Halifax on Canada’s east coast. Notoriously brutal to the indigenous people, he issued a scalping proclamation – a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person. The title of the 1993 book by Mi’kmaq elder Daniel Paul is extremely apt: We Were Not the Savages.

In this example, the FACTS themselves are not in dispute, and are not suppressed. Perspectives on those facts, though, have changed over time, including the VALUES according to which particular facts are selected as most important. Just last month, in January 2018, the Halifax city council voted to remove the 1931 statue of Cornwallis in order to overcome a barrier to developing a better relationship with the indigenous people of the region. Removing the bronze statue, in a context of reconciliation, is as symbolic a gesture as erecting it to begin with, and probably more consciously so.

The decision did not please everyone. Some protestors argued for preserving the statue of Cornwallis out of pride in their “heritage”. Others argued that removing a commemorative piece was not the way to deal with the past, whether one is proud of it or not.

And there are surely ongoing questions: How do we ensure that the more brutal aspects of our past are not glorified, but also not forgotten? How do we, in the present, frame such artefacts in order to take into account conflicting perspectives on how to understand them? The statue of Cornwallis was removed from a Halifax park on February 4, to be put in storage. But what will Halifax do with it next – and with the historical memories it embodies?

Australia Day

If a mute bronze statue can attract controversy over the colonial past, it’s certainly not surprising that even more controversy surrounds a noisy national party. Like the statue, it commemorates a conqueror planting his flag – this time in Australia. On January 26, 1788 the British governor claimed Australia for his own country, landing a fleet of ships on land that his own laws treated as empty, terra nullius belonging to no one.

The aboriginal people of Australia, however, had existed for some 50,000 years, and this act of empire, for them, launched a history of dispossession. Many indigenous people call it “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” and call for a national celebration of contemporary Australia to be shifted to a different day, one less polarizing for the historical legacy that lives on into the present. The organization Reconciliation Australia explains this point of view:

“[Reconciliation Australia], the independent organisation, which is the national expert body on reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, says changing the date of Australia Day is “a relatively small task” that would demonstrate a willingness to address past wrongs.

“Asking Indigenous people to celebrate on January 26 is like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves,” its chief executive, Karen Mundine, told Guardian Australia. “We’ve changed the date before – in fact January 26 has only been a national public holiday since 1994 – and will have to do so again if we want to achieve a national date that unifies all Australians.”

They have considerable support in the Australian population as a whole for a move to a timing that would be more inclusive.

Nevertheless, others reject to any change, out of reasons similar to those in favour of preserving the statue of Cornwallis is Halifax – largely out of pride in what the colonial settlers achieved, a sense of legacy, and a desire to include both the good and the bad within the same day.

Also sometimes involved is impatience with a conflicting view that spoils the party. Over protests against last year’s celebrations, Australia’s deputy prime minister declared, “I just get sick of these people who every time, every time there’s something on, they just want to make you feel guilty. They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable, gutted people and I wish they would crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit.” 

The clear conflict of perspectives – with conflicting values that guide the facts selected as central – makes this example an effective one for Theory of Knowledge. The following article is a useful source and provides further links: Ben Westcott, “The arguments for and against Australia Day on January 26”, CNN. January 25, 2018.

And some final reflections

These three examples leapt out at me for Theory of Knowledge over the past few weeks as illuminating features of History as an area of knowledge. Separated by continents and entirely different in the form they take (a law, a statue, a national celebration), they are nevertheless similar in what they raise regarding the significance of the past as its consequences continue to play out in the present, and the significance of the present in how we shape and re-shape our records and understanding of the past. Yes, I’d say we’re watching a troubled past in afterglow – and hoping that our students will hear the echo of those Theory of Knowledge knowledge questions.


Ben Doherty, “Australia Day attended by growing controversy and calls for date change”, The Guardian. January 26, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jan/26/australia-day-attended-by-growing-controversy-and-calls-for-date-change

“Celebrating Australia Day on 26 January like dancing on graves, says reconciliation body”, The Guardian. January 18, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/18/celebrating-australia-day-on-26-january-like-dancing-on-graves-says-reconciliation-body

“Controversial Cornwallis statue removed in Halifax”, CBC News. Feb 4, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhOvk4yJn5I

Nir Eisikovits, “Why Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Should Have All Of Us Worried”, Cognoscenti, WBUR-FM, February 7, 2018. http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2018/02/07/holocaust-blame-law-nir-eisikovits

Anjuli Patil ,“Cornwallis statue to be removed from Halifax park after council vote”, CBC News. Jan 30, 2018. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/cornwallis-statue-to-be-removed-from-halifax-park-1.4510565

“Poland’s new law on death camps is divisive. That’s the point”, The Economist. Feb 10th 2018. https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21736546-ruling-law-and-justice-party-wants-rewrite-history-so-poles-were-only-victims-never

“Poland’s Morawiecki defends Holocaust law in Munich”, Al Jazeera. February 19, 2018. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/poland-morawiecki-defends-holocaust-law-munich-180218111647335.html

“Polish official: no criminal charges under Holocaust law”, Washington Post, Feb 21, 2018.https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/polish-official-no-criminal-charges-under-holocaust-law/2018/02/21/ffdc0ae0-16fb-11e8-930c-45838ad0d77a_story.html?utm_term=.d4c94626f261

Ben Westcott, “The arguments for and against Australia Day on January 26”, CNN. January 25, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/25/asia/australia-day-2018-date-debate-intl/index.html

“Warsaw lawmakers pass Holocaust bill to restrict term ‘Polish death camps’”, CBC News. Feb 1, 2018. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/poland-lawmakers-senate-draft-holocaust-law-1.4513814