Nationalist Delusions Poison History

Recently Rahel and I visited the House of Terror Museum in Budapest, Hungary. This museum was spearheaded by Viktor Orbán (Orbán Viktor), who is currently the Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of Fidesz (a nationalist political party which holds a solid majority in the Hungarian parliament), a fact the importance of which will quickly become apparent. This museum is ostensibly dedicated to the two “terror regimes” to which Hungary was subject in the 20th century, the Nazi regime and the communist regime. However, it concentrates primarily on communist atrocities—which may be justified by the fact that communists ruled Hungary for many years while Nazis and their allies ruled it relatively briefly.

The first prominent display a museum-goer sees upon entering the main exhibit of the House of Terror Museum is a video depicting a dynamic map of Hungary, starting with its pre-World War I boundaries and showing its reduced boundaries following the Treaty of Trianon and the subsequent invasions of Hungarian territory by its neighbors. The message is clear: by the time European nations were gearing up for World War II, Hungary had been brutally and unfairly reduced in size and power. Much of the ethnic Magyar (Hungarian) population (31%) was divided among other countries like Romania and Czechoslovakia. Of course, prior to the Treaty of Trianon, many of the citizens of Kingdom of Hungary were not Magyars, a fact not emphasized by the animation.

This display serves to justify a fact which is barely mentioned in the museum, namely that Hungary, under Admiral Miklós Horthy (Horthy Miklós) entered World War II on the side of the Axis Powers and established oppressive political restrictions and anti-Jewish laws even before the Germans placed the far-right (Hungarian nationalist) Arrow Cross Party in control of the country. The museum is always careful to deflect blame for the terror and atrocities committed by the two totalitarian regimes away from Hungarians and onto Germans or Russians. Usually, this does not involve manufacturing outright falsehoods, but it often involves de-emphasizing facts that would be uncomfortable for a Hungarian nationalist. For example, there is little mention of the fact that there was a third, earlier, terror regime in which the “Whites,” reacting to the failed communist regime of Béla Kun (Kun Béla) and led by Admiral Horthy, carried out extrajudicial killings of leftists and unleashed pogroms against Jewish communities (motivated by the fact that many members of Béla Kun's government were Jewish). Even after the real terror was over, Horthy imprisoned many center-left and leftwing politicians and banned their parties unless they promised to collaborate with Horthy and his prime ministers. Hoping to recover territory lost in the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary entered World War II on the size of the Axis Powers, as part of the Tripartite Pact. To his credit, Horthy resisted excessive dependence on the Germans, a fact that would eventually lead to a Nazi invasion in 1944. Sometimes, the fascist Arrow Cross Party was suppressed, even though it was the second largest party in parliament, but many of its anti-Semitic and totalitarian policies were adopted by the state. When the Hungarian government attempted to withdraw from the war in 1944, German troops invaded and allowed the Arrow Cross Party to assume power. Jews and Roma were deported and executed en mass. Political freedoms were essentially abolished. Rather than being a foreign-imposed reign of terror, the Nazi and Arrow Cross government was a foreign-facilitated reign of terror. Massive numbers of Hungarians were more than willing to collaborate with their Nazi occupiers to the extent that they resisted the orders of Horthy and his prime minister to surrender and continued to fight for the Axis cause.

Nobody wants to hear that his or her fellow citizens fought to the death on the wrong side of history, or carried out unthinkable crimes. Ask the citizens of Germany, for example. They have spent many painful years coming to terms with the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Along the way, they have had to modify their relationship with nationalism, a change which cannot have been easy. Certainly, there is a fringe element in Germany that denies or minimizes the fundamental facts of the Holocaust and the other Nazi crimes. However, the mainstream of German society acknowledges the evils of Hitler's regime and has tried to absorb the lessons this period has to teach. For example, many Germans have come to be deeply suspicious of nationalism, authoritarianism, and militarism. This has allowed German scholars to avoid many of the sorts of distortions, in telling their history, that could be found Orbán's museum.

What about the United States? In the US, there is not a robust history of ethnic nationalism, like in Germany and Hungary, except perhaps among the descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia. After all, at no point in its history has the US been overwhelmingly dominated by a single ethnic group. However, it would be a mistake to think that the delusions of nationalism do not intrude on our attempts to tell our history in the same way that Viktor Orbán's nationalism distorts his telling of Hungarian history. This may be most clear in the recent debate regarding curricula for Advanced Placement US History (APUSH) in American high schools.

Many years ago, as a sophomore at Parowan High School in Southern Utah, I took APUSH myself. My teacher, Sandra Benson, did not shy away from any of the difficult aspects of American History, despite the fact that this was doubtless unpleasant for her. These facts were even more uncomfortable for me, a budding rightist whose idea of a good time was accusing my more liberal friend, Jeremy, of being a communist. When I passed the national exam with the highest possible score, I explained that it was not hard: I always chose the answer that cast men, whites, or the rich in the worst possible light. Essentially, I disagreed with the choices made by my instructor, the authors of my textbook, or by College Board with respect to how the history of America was portrayed in my APUSH class. Instead of being presented as an Empire of Liberty, the United States was depicted as a nation with many of the same problematic tendencies as other nations, a fact which I attributed to the malice of America-hating leftists. But did this experience of encountering difficult aspects of US history lead me to love my country any less? Not at all. No more than one loves one's parents less after entering a mature relationship with them and coming to understand them—vices, virtues, and all.

I believe that the reason the new AP History guidelines have been so disparaged by legislatures and school boards throughout the US is that they undermine the ideology of American Exceptionalism. “American Exceptionalism” has had various meanings throughout its history of use, most all of which are relevant to this discussion:

  1. It was introduced into modern discourse through sectarian debates among communists in the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, first appearing in a translation of an essay by Joseph Stalin. In this context, American Exceptionalism referred to the idea that the special characteristics of the United States made it immune to the Marxist economic laws that were, largely without grounds, felt to govern the histories of other nations. For the record, Stalin was not an advocate of American Exceptionalism.
  2. In the 1980s, the term was resurrected to refer to a different, but related, concept: that America was a special nation—a city set on a hill—that did not behave according to the laws and motives of other nations. When presidential candidate Marco Rubio says, “America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory,” he is alluding to this concept. One might ask whether Rubio has ever heard of the Mexican-American War or the Spanish-American War (to name but two examples of unambiguously imperialist US wars), but I digress.
  3. During the presidency of George W. Bush, neoconservatives close to his administration extended this definition of American Exceptionalism. If the United States was not governed by the motives that controlled the actions of other countries, why should it be constrained by the conventions and agreement by which other states were bound? This idea of exceptionalism as “exemptionalism” was crucial to the military and counterterrorist activities of the Bush administration (and, to some extent, the Obama administration as well).

To some degree, all of these definitions can be reduced to a single concept: that of American nationalism. While presidential candidates are asked, “Do you believe in American Exceptionalism?” rather than, “Are you an American nationalist?” the difference between these questions is only a matter of honesty. And just as Viktor Orbán's Hungarian nationalism distorted the history of Hungary depicted in his museum, American nationalism is incompatible with a productive and honest retelling of American history. It attempts to keep its audience in perpetual childhood, judging them incapable of dealing with the complexity that arises from seeing the missteps of the past or—perhaps more sinisterly—tries to insulate students from facts that would make nationalism itself untenable.

Think for a moment about the complaints of the critics of the new APUSH materials: of what do they disapprove? One frequent complaint is that the materials from College Board promote “Identity Politics.” Of course, nationalism of the “American Exceptionalism” variety is a form of identity politics. If being American is not an identity with political ramifications, I do not know what is. However, what the critics mean is that the materials highlight the displacement and slaughter of Native American nations, the enslavement of people with African ancestry and the maintenance of discriminatory laws and social conventions even after their emancipation, systematic discrimination against Irish American and the widespread demonization of majority-Catholic ethnic groups, the enactment of laws against the immigration of Chinese, Roma (Gypsies), and other ethnic groups and the continuation of racially-based immigration quotas up into the mid 20th century, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans (and some German Americans) in interment camps during the WWII era, and so on. Among professional historians, none of these phenomena are controversial, by which I mean no qualified person is going to dispute their reality. They are dismissed as mere examples of “identity politics” because talking about them places the dominant identity group in US history—white Protestants—in uncomfortable positions. It undermines the narrative in which America and Americas are on a purposeful journey through history, selflessly sacrificing blood and treasure to establish liberty, introduce justice, and bring prosperity to the world.

Another criticism of the course description—which is unsurprising given the complaint about “identity politics”—is the objection that the course framework is too negative, that it focuses too much on what is bad about America and not enough on what is great about America. Allow me to be the first to say that the United States is a great country that has contributed enormously to the world, in technology, economics, political institutions, art, and culture. The US made possible the defeat of the Nazis, Fascists, and other Axis dictatorships and rallied the West against the Soviet empire. Certainly, there is plenty to be proud of in American history. However, no honest depiction of the American past could ever be positive enough to satisfy the ardent supporters of American Exceptionalism because reality is never as simple and insipid as nationalists demand it to be. For American Exceptionalists, history must be nothing less than the “noble lie” endorsed by neoconservative forefather Leo Strauss, a deception that allows the social order to perpetuate itself. A nationalist history must be dishonest because nationalism itself is based on delusions about the past and present. Nationalists are convinced of the utility of these delusions. However, they are wrong.

I agree with American nationalists that it is desirable for Americas to feel a deep respect for their country. However, their strategy of concealing the complications and rough spots in the American past from students is not simply dishonest; it is bound to fail, and when it fails, it is bound to backfire. I am fond of an analogy from my religious community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church). We Mormons have a close relationship to our history because so many of our beliefs are tied to our past. Starting in the 20th century, our church pursued a program that is sometime called “Faithful History,” an attempt to present the Mormon past, throughout all church-published material, so it supported the conclusions that the church was everywhere, in every manner, an always guided by the voice and hand of God. Most contemporary Mormons were raised on this history. It served its purpose quite well until the Internet became widely available. Suddenly, a flood of historical information from outside the “Faithful History” corral was available to church members. This had, and is continuing to have, a dramatic and painful influence on members of the LDS church, an effect that could have been avoided if the church's historical apparatus had simply been more forthcoming about the complexity of Mormon history in the first place. I do not believe that American history (or Hungarian history) is fundamentally different.

The kind of student who is so delicate in his or her sensibilities that he or she shatters like glass when first informed that America is not utterly pristine or unsullied by the stains to which all countries are subject will never grow into the kind of American who can improve the world in the way American Exceptionalists insist that Americans do. Of course, American history should not simply be a litany of sins committed by Americans past, but it is equally foolish to teach students an American history so inauthentic that it could not be recognized by most professional historians. A history that is challenging, heart-wrenching, and thought-provoking can still be inspiring. This is only realistic if the delusions of nationalism are kept as far as possible from the writing and teaching of history.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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