“To concede nothing to those who would erase the past because it does not suit their image of the present.”
That was the purpose of the speech France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, delivered last week to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.
At barely four pages, the speech is short, balanced and measured. But coming after a sustained onslaught on Napoleon’s legacy by the French equivalent of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is perhaps the ﬁnest rebuttal of the current attacks on historical truth delivered by a Western leader.
Macron’s goal, as he addressed an audience of secondary school students amid the
architectural grandeur of the Institut de France, was not to gloss over the complexities of a historical ﬁgure he evocatively described as “both eagle and ogre”. On the contrary, as well as explaining Napoleon’s soaring achievements, the President highlighted the appalling errors the “Little Corporal” had made, and their tragic cost in human life.
What stood out, however, was not the details of that carefully crafted assessment; it was the object lesson on the importance of truth in history. “You are not responsible for France’s past,” Macron told the students, “nor are you its guardians.”
“It comes to you as an inheritance, without a testament attached,” he went on to say, using a phrase every French student would recognise as a quotation from the poet and resistance hero, Rene Char. “You may choose to love it; and so too you may choose to criticise it.”
“But ﬁrst of all” — and here he paused for emphasis — “you must learn it”: which means
“facing it directly and as a whole”, imbued “with a love of knowledge” and “resisting the
temptation to judge yesterday by today”. That is the foremost duty “a free people” owes its ancestors who secured the freedoms it enjoys — but it is also a free people’s greatest privilege, because it is only by “understanding its past” that it can freely “forge its future”. And just as those who shred their map are condemned to lose their way, so those who abandon historical truth are condemned to forsake their liberty.
Whether Macron’s young audience grasped the signiﬁcance of his words no one can say. But they would surely resonate in China, where — under regulations extended just a few weeks ago to Hong Kong — any mention in a classroom of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward or of the Cultural Revolution is severely punished. Nor would their meaning be lost on students in Turkey, as the Erdogan regime’s ongoing “reform” of the history curriculum slowly but surely removes all references to the secular, modernising principles of Kemal Ataturk, while portraying the country’s difﬁculties as the result of an incessant struggle against “inﬁdels” and “crusaders”.
And the relevance of Macron’s speech would have been readily apparent in Russia, too, where schools have, since 2016, been forced by the aptly named “Ministry of Enlightenment” to adopt a “uniform” history curriculum based on “the one true history” — a history that downplays the crimes of the KGB and promotes Vladimir Putin’s territorial expansionism.
It would, however, be a mistake to view the message Macron so clearly articulated as bearing solely or even mainly on those brutally repressive regimes. After all, authoritarianism has never been a friend of the truth; it is certainly not on its soil that the battle over truthfulness in the teaching of history will be won or lost. Rather, it is in democracy’s very heartlands — and what is at stake there is not merely this or that aspect of the past but the Western tradition of historical analysis.
That tradition was distinguished from the outset by its emphasis on disinterested, unvarnished accuracy. Indeed, the word “history” comes to us from the Greek word for “an investigation” (historie), which in turn evolved out of the roots for “to have seen” (idien) and “to be a witness” (histor).
It was therefore not in giving an account of the past that the three great founders of the
Western historical tradition — Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus and Thucydides — effected an intellectual revolution; that had been done before. Rather, as Arnaldo Momigliano, the leading scholar of the study of history in the classical world, showed many years ago, the revolution lay in the unprecedented stress they placed on ensuring their accounts were as thoroughly evidenced as they were fair-minded.
Additionally, and every bit as importantly, they insisted on the distinction between history and rhetoric: only the imaginative language of poetry could convey the deeds of the gods, but the deeds of men were a matter of fact that demanded the language of plain speaking.
It is that tradition which some aspects of the proposed national curriculum jettison. The issue is partly one of balance: the development of Australian society, for example, cannot be sensibly explained without giving considerable weight to the impact of Christianity.
But it is also because the draft, in confusing the teaching of history with the quest for its vision of social justice, at times entirely disregards factual accuracy. It is, to take just one instance, foolish to claim that Indigenous Australians have “worked scientiﬁcally for millennia” — a statement that robs the scientiﬁc method, which only emerged in the 17th century, both of its substance and of its immense historical signiﬁcance. Hunter-gatherers certainly proved extremely adaptable; but it is nonsense to conﬂate the gradual accretion of customary knowledge with the structured testing of competing hypotheses.
To mandate the teaching of such absurdities would plunge schoolchildren into a world of
Orwellian newspeak where they would learn to prefer soothing, politically motivated,
ignorance to uncomfortable, potentially contentious, insight. And as well as robbing
tomorrow’s decision-makers of their right to truthfully understand their country’s history, it
would make them less capable of deciding responsibly about its future.
We are, no doubt, scarcely alone in facing those perils; but in a country that seems to live in an eternal present, enveloped by a misty sentimentalism that all too readily accepts the distortion and denigration of its past, the worst tendencies of the age can work with
devastating speed and effectiveness. That is why Macron’s message is of such overwhelming importance. And that is also why we too should listen again to the Little Corporal.
“The only real conquest,” Napoleon once said, “the only conquest one can never regret, is
victory over ignorance.” He did not always live up to that precept. But, with the preachers of historical untruth gathering strength, we should.
(Reproduced with permission)
Henry Ergas AO is an economist. is an economist who has worked at the OECD, Australian Trade Practices Commission as well as at a number of economic consulting firms. He writes for The Australian.