Rewriting History

December 2009 • Volume 3, Issue 12
Can nations come to terms with their own legacies?
By Alan Greenblatt


Scene of protests at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun)
A former South Korean “comfort woman” — one of tens of thousands of women forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II — protests at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul over the publication of Japanese textbooks that soft-pedal Japan's atrocities during the war. (Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun)

Every nation argues about its own history, seeking to find glory and a sense of identity by celebrating its heroes while downplaying the dark side of the past. Nations also argue with each other about the past, with one side's glorious victory still rankling as the other's ignominious defeat. And, frequently, a neighboring country that has been harmed by another's actions complains that the guilty nation is whitewashing the worst incidents. Currently, an attempt to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia is proving a tough sell due to arguments about a mass slaughter that occurred more than 90 years ago. And Russia and its neighbors are engaged in heated debates about revealing the crimes of the Stalinist era. Like individuals, nations need to confront their own ghosts, but finding the balance between acknowledging past wrongdoing and learning to get along in the present can be a difficult feat. Such conflicts raise a fundamental philosophical question: Is historical accountability a human right?

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
World War II Aftermath
Dec. 2009  Rewriting History
Dec. 18, 1981  Europe's Postwar Generations
Apr. 06, 1949  Occupation Feeding
Jun. 12, 1946  Compromise
May 22, 1946  Treaties of Alliance
May 01, 1946  European Peace Settlements
Apr. 17, 1946  International Information
Nov. 10, 1945  Nationalization
Sep. 26, 1944  The Great Powers and the Dardanelles
Feb. 23, 1944  International Cartels
Sep. 04, 1942  World Organization After the War
World War II