Politics in history

My recent post on the European Union's new law on Holocaust denial got me thinking about the effect our views of history have on our political opinions and vice versa. It's obvious that political views and historical views correlate. Reading a debate on the Finnish Civil War, for example, it's not difficult to tell the left-wingers and right-wingers apart. If an author makes prominent note that the non-socialist dominated Parliament had been democratically elected and that Svinhufvud's Senate was the country's legal government, he's probably a right-winger. If an author writes extensively about conditions on post-war prison camps and the Whites' dalliance with monarchism, he's probably a left-winger.

Historian Anthony F Upton wrote an essay on nationalism in Finnish history writing, "History and national identity: some Finnish examples" (PDF), which mostly deals with the period of national awakening and the Continuation War. The latter topic illustrates how historical views change over time, influenced by the political situation. Arvi Korhonen's driftwood theory has long been held as an example of unacceptable apologia for portraying a Finland as a piece of driftwood floating in a rapid, with no control over its course. Nowadays just about everyone agrees that Finland did actively pursue a close relationship with Germany and plan for war. However, this hasn't destroyed the reputation of the leaders Korhonen wanted to protect from blame, because many see the chosen course as the best one available. That's an argument that few people interested in their reputation would have dared to make when Korhonen was crafting the driftwood theory, so in effect this modern view is to the right of past conservative apologia. At the same time as this reinterpreting has taken place, Communist influence in Finnish society has collapsed. That's not a coincidence.

The recent ministerial appointments are another case in point. A person's view on Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Paavo Väyrynen (Centre Party) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Ilkka Kanerva (National Coalition Party) will be very different based on his view of Finlandization and their role in it. The kind view is that Finlandization served the best interests of Finland and centre-right politicians like Väyrynen and Kanerva were wise to play along to limit the influence of actual Communists. The unkind view is that a different political course could have been taken, a course that would have created a healthier political climate, and that the likes of Kanerva and Väyrynen were untrustworthy opportunists advancing their own interests. The flip side of the coin is that a right-wing Coalitionist is much more likely to adopt the unkind view - and to see the Kekkonen era opposition as the good guys - than a long-standing Centrist.

I've gone on a bit here, but my basic point is simple: history is much too politically important to let politicians to define what's acceptable in historical discourse. In the best case scenario they'll limit themselves to scoring cheap points; in the worst case scenario they'll severely limit the bounds of political speech.

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