Markwick, Roger D.: The “sacralisation” of history and state legitimation

Roger D. Markwick

The “sacralisation” of history and state legitimation’, Honest History, 2 May 2017

The furore over the recent remarks of Yassmin Abdel-Magied raises important issues about the possibility of dissent against received – and state-promoted – views of national history. Professor Markwick’s paper compares Australia, Russia and Israel. ‘[E]ven in the most seemingly liberal of modern nation states’, he writes, ‘authorities almost universally seek to sacralise national history to the degree where to challenge it not only meets the ire of conservative politicians and public opinion but it becomes taboo or even blasphemous to do so’.

The article is a succinct and useful summary of key issues that cross national boundaries.

Historical revisionism becomes fraught; [the author concludes] self-censorship is a particularly powerful constraint on critique. But no historical question should be immune from critical, evidence-based, analysis; the lifeblood of historical scholarship. Revisionism is risky but state-sanctioned narratives left unchallenged can be dangerous, especially in our volatile, increasingly authoritarian, age.

Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan has written extensively on this subject and useful material is here and here, including some notes on state-sponsored history in Russia, Turkey and the United States. A number of chapters of The Honest History Book are also directly relevant, particularly chapter 4 (Carolyn Holbrook), chapter 8 (Frank Bongiorno) and chapter 9 (David Stephens). See also other references on this website tagged ‘Using and abusing history‘.

Roger D. Markwick is Professor of Modern European History, University of Newcastle, Australia. He is a specialist in modern Russian and Soviet history and historiography, with other interests in European fascism, genocide, and colonial settler states. This is a slightly edited version of a paper presented to a conference, History and Authority: Political Vocabularies of the Modern Age, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 28-29 July 2016.

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