I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.
“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”
Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.
“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”
Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.
“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.
In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”
That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.
“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.
To correct the record, Mr. Dew gave talks about his book in the early 2000s, as part of the National Park Service’s efforts to clarify the causes of the war. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery?”
“I’m not trying to denigrate your ancestors,” Mr. Dew said he told those people. “I’m trying to explain why the war came and ask everyone to consider the issue with an open mind.”
In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.
Germany is the exception. It took a generation, but German society faced its Nazi past and has emerged as an exemplary democratic culture. That is partly because of the extreme nature of the Nationalist Socialist regime and the devastation of the war it brought. Germans had to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Nazi regime had perhaps overcome the depression, but its increasing brutality left no redeeming qualities.
“In the United States, slavery was embedded in a constitutional regime that at least verbally offered universalizing rights,” said Charles Maier, a professor of 20th-century history at Harvard. “The German cause had no equivalent.”
But while top Nazis were put on trial right after the war, with the world watching, mainstream German society did not fully grapple with the crimes until the 1960s. There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.
In the years immediately after the war, Japanese society was actually ahead of German society in terms of facing its past, said Ian Buruma, author of “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.” Leftists then had a strong voice in the media and universities, encouraged by liberals in the American occupation, and the history being taught was starting to grapple with Japan’s wartime atrocities against other Asian peoples. But that early reckoning got bogged down in politics: The United States, together with Japanese liberals, decided the problem was Japanese militarism and gave the country a pacifist Constitution. That alienated the right, causing a rift that persists to this day.
“In Japan, history became politicized,” Mr. Buruma said. “Whenever you hear a right-winger say, ‘It’s all a left-wing myth, we’re not as guilty as people are saying,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘We want to revise the Constitution and postwar order imposed by the United States.’ ”
The argument over Confederate monuments has surprised historians like Dr. Blight, who has studied the war for decades. It is a moment for public education like no other, but with risks. When history’s losers get to define the story, it can create rifts — with allies, with adversaries or even with our fellow citizens. But so can a sudden, emotional rush to rectify it. Historians say the Confederate statues should be removed slowly, with deliberation, not destroyed in the middle of the night.
“This sudden, almost rage to get rid of monuments kind of violates our instincts as historians,” he said. “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”