History and hysteria


It is not often that History is as much in the news as it has been for the past few weeks. Sadly, there has been more hysteria than history in the media and the debates taking place around the world. From Austria to London to the Excited States of America, we have seen a great deal of nonsense being talked in surprising quarters.

We’ve all been very aware of the confrontations and controversy surrounding the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and leaders in the U.S,, and how the subject has been exploited by the extreme right, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. This is a serious matter: symbols of oppression and defiance, or genuine reminders of historic events? It seems to depend on when they were put up, and why. Ironic fact: Robert E. Lee was asked by Lincoln to lead the Union forces, and he considered it. In the end, he took the Confederate cause because he wouldn’t lead an army against his home state.

But the conflicts are not all happening in that disturbed nation to the south. In Austria, the city of Salzburg, which earns a great deal of revenue from its links to The Sound of Music and the Von Trapp Family, has rejected calls to name a street there after Maria Von Trapp, played by Julie Andrews in the movie. The reason? Maria used corporal punishment on her children when they misbehaved. Salzburg officially denounced what they said would, today, be considered a crime. Now, I got spanked, as did almost all children of my, and earlier, generations. Were our parents criminals? Salzburg is happy to make money from the Von Trapps, but holds its nose when it comes to a parent disciplining her children in the manner universally accepted at the time.

It gets more interesting. It has been suggested in the United Kingdom that the famous statue on top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London should be removed because Nelson, to quote a recent article: “was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it”. The significant clause there is: “what you would now call”. Forget his pivotal role in defeating Napoleon at sea, or that many of his contemporaries shared his views on all political and social matters. Forget the fact that the U.K. is hardly a racist-free society today. None of that is important compared with the fact that Nelson did not speak out against the slave trade.

But the worst example of this kind of historical revisionism has come here in Canada with the suggestion that schools that are named after Sir John A. Macdonald should be renamed, because Macdonald was a racist who, according to the instigator of the idea, had a “central role as the architect of, really, what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.” It is hard to know where to start with this. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about it, is that the statement came from a schoolteacher, and his resolution that schools drop Macdonald’s name was passed by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Should we not expect the teachers of our children to be better informed of our history than that? True, indigenous leaders have welcomed the initiative, but in the most formulaic way. They know how shallow it is. I have never been a fan of Macdonald. As a Canadian historian who has worked for First Nations for thirty years, he was never a hero of mine. But he was not unusual for his time, and the idea that he was an architect of genocide is stretching the facts far beyond what they can bear. The so-called “Civilisation Policy” of the British Government began in 1830 and residential schools were in existence long before Macdonald was Minister of the Interior. There are many others more responsible than he for the treatment of native people in Canada. In fact, the system Macdonald oversaw is still largely intact today.

I wish our educational system was more interested in aboriginal history as a rule, not only when it suited their political trends, in order to really grasp the dreadful way in which indigenous people in this country have been, and continue to be treated. There is a really important story to be told there, one which Canadians seem determined not to hear. But it is disrespectful to use it as an easy weapon to use against individuals like the awful Macdonald just as part of a general moan about historical figures. It also displays a woeful ignorance of actual historical events and facts on the part of those we trust to educate our children.

History is being used to justify acts which have a highly dubious logic or rationale. It is being applied without consistency and in ignorance of facts. Hysteria is replacing history, even by our teachers. If they are so eager to point fingers at the past, the least they can do is get the history right.


  1. David
    If everyone looked at things through your eyes, and truly respected history as you do. There might be a larger group respecting it, and remembering, it is just that, …. History.
    I always enjoy reading your articles on history, and have learned a great deal. I was never interested when in school… My bad!
    Let’s concentrate on the present, so we actually have a future.
    Robin Hopkins


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