Defining “Patriotic History”

History, Critical and Patriotic: Americans need a history that educates but also inspires,” in the Spring 2020 issue of Education Next, prompted a response from the director of policy research at the Jerusalem, Israel-based Kohelet Policy Forum, Yitzhak Klein:

To the Editor:

I read with interest Eliot Cohen’s article about the uses of patriotic history, yet something essential is missing from Cohen’s argument. It is not merely the relation of history common to the citizens of a particular country at a particular time that makes patriotic history; after all, as Cohen makes clear, the events of the first eighty years of America were no part of his family’s history. In order for writing to be genuinely patriotic it must reach to two foundations that go deeper than the events being described: It must be true, and it must be faithful to genuine moral values. To illustrate my point let me mention two phenomena of historical writing from a very different national and historic context: Vasilii Grossman’s historical novel Life and Fate and contemporary Russian historical writing that – if it wants to be published – portrays Stalin and Stalinism as a Good Thing.

Russia (and Germany) have a bigger problem than the United States in making their history useful. For significant periods these nations were dominated by monstrous regimes, ruled by monsters, that did monstrous things to their own people and to others. It is hard to argue that the United States contends with an equally monstrous history, though there no doubt are people who would.

Grossman’s is one of those novels which are at least as faithful to history as genuine historical accounts. It is set around the great and defining experience of Soviet Russia in 1942 and 1943: The victory at Stalingrad that prefigured the ultimate national liberation and the extinction of the Nazi predator. To have participated in that event, to have died in it or to have survived it, was to make a noble contribution to a just cause that lovers of liberty will be able to admire a thousand years hence. And yet Grossman does not neglect to explore the terrible aspects of life under Stalin: The crushing of liberty, the widespread injustice, the antisemitism which Russian society shared with Germany and which might have resulted in a second Holocaust less than a decade after the first if Stalin had not died in 1953.

What makes Grossman’s writing patriotic is its roots in genuine virtues and its measure of what is done, good and bad, in light of those virtues. Russian readers of Grossman’s account of Stalingrad can resolve to be dedicated to the values which those who struggled there so nobly advanced, and at the same time – essentially in the same act – eschew the evils Grossman depicts. Contemporary Russian glosses over the history of the Stalin era, meant to justify the Putin regime by justifying Stalin’s, can accomplish no such thing.

Cohen’s discussion of the writing of Jill Lepore is instructive. Faced with a contemporary moral challenge, Lepore abandons history-as-mockery and turns to American history to vindicate the values she feels the election of Donald Trump threatens. But in fact the opposite is happening: The values Lepore loves, and that she hopes she shares with her readers, validate history as she now chooses to relate it. Perhaps Lepore’s original error lay in a form of vanity, in being too enamored of her deft ability to use historical perception to hold up her subjects up to ridicule. Perhaps no history is mature unless the historian acknowledges and reports such positive ideals as motivated the subjects of their study. For one thing, such a perspective can elevate mockery into a higher mode of writing, that of tragedy. For another, it adds a dimension to history as events and as culture: History as the record of people’s attempts, and successes and failures, to give life to virtues worth pursuing. It is this sort of history that enables one, for example, to see Lincoln as a hero worth emulating, and at the same time to appreciate the virtues epitomized by Robert E. Lee, even while passing clear-eyed judgment on the cause Lee served.

This mode of history has fallen out of fashion. It requires of the recorder not only historical accuracy but moral sensitivity. It can easily be abused to become history-as-propaganda, Putinized history. But it is indispensable for the writing of history that is more than entertainment, that satisfies people’s quest for models of lives worth living. The object of patriotic history is to benefit and humanize one’s society by causing people to aspire to such lives.

Yitzhak Klein

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