• 【By the Way】史林雜識|戴啟思
  • 2020-06-06    

 

"Don't know much about history"-Sam Cooke, Song, Wonderful World

Given the current debate about a DSE history examination question about Japan's impact on China in the first half of the last century, it is ironic that a Japanese film made in 1950 shows what History, especially of the analysis of recent events in living memory, is all about.

Rashomon is a psychological thriller. It is about a rape and murder told by four protagonists who each tell a different story about the violent events. Their accounts are plausible, but they are clearly self-serving. Their memories are selective, and objectivity is lacking in the narratives. Each of them has something to hide, but it is difficult for the observer to say who is telling the truth.

The point of the film is precisely this: no one can really know the truth of past events. One version of what occurred may seem more likely to an observer to be true than another, but you cannot usually be sure.

Rashomon is an object lesson in historical problem solving: trying to reconcile what appears to be with what is real. As the English playwright, Harold Pinter wrote in 1960 in the introduction to a play, "The desire for verification is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. There are no hard distinctions between what is real and unreal. The thing is not necessarily either true or false: it can be both true and false."

The study of History is the attempt to elicit a form of truth from competing versions of past events so that we may navigate our way in the present and perhaps forecast what may or may not happen in the future. We often cannot ever be sure that a past event occurred in a particular way, or for one specific reason, but we owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to do our best to understand historical events.

The need to tackle difficult facts and then to make sense of them is the task of the historian. History can be said to be the rear-view mirror that we need to look at from time to time to make sure that we continue an onward journey with a degree of confidence.

Trained historians know how to interrogate the past for this purpose. They look at texts, records, and other sources to discover facts and motives. Sometimes they have a live source, a witness to events occurring within living memory. They can differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. Even if a source is credible, the historian can identify prejudices and biases, which may explain the source's world view and how he or she came to regard events.

The historian may examine matters which seem remote and unconnected with present times, like an archaeologist excavating pottery fragments in the dusty remains of an ancient desert settlement. But another historian's research may be more obviously relevant to present times because it throws light on an immediate and uncertain future.

Take, for example, historical research into the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918 known as 'the Spanish flu'. That disease is thought to have killed worldwide up to 50 million people. It was from the family of viral infections that produced Covid-19.

Even today, no one is sure where the Spanish flu originated. Some medical historians believe its source was in China, imported to Europe by labourers recruited to help the Allied war effort; some think it began in Army camps in France in 1916 and yet others believe it came from somewhere in the U.S.A.

No one today can seriously dispute that historical research into where this extremely deadly virus originated, how it spread, and how communities coped with it, is academic because it happened so long ago. Historical research on what happened a century ago throws light on the current pandemic. It may teach us what to do and what not to do to escape from this horrid virus.

To offer a version of the past which might be useful for the here and now the historian needs to be prepared to challenge received truths. Historians must do this even if this is discomfiting as is sometimes the case with the History of recent events which are within living memory or just beyond it.

When I was a teenager the received opinion in England was that Irish Republicans fighting British troops in Northern Ireland were cowardly terrorists. The latter resorted to indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians on Mainland Britain. The former could do no wrong.

On 30 January 1972 ("Bloody Sunday") an unauthorised protest march by Republican sympathisers in Londonderry ended when shots were fired by the British Army which left 13 marchers dead. A senior judge, Lord Widgery, was appointed to head an inquiry into the incident. It reported in April 1972 and exonerated the Army of the blame for the deaths and suggested that marchers had fired on soldiers first. The U.K. Government welcomed the findings, and they were generally accepted because they matched national consensus.

Nearly 40 years later, another judicial inquiry into the incident demonstrated that the first inquiry's findings could not be sustained. It found that the Army had fired on unarmed protesters. There was no contingent of armed and hostile Republicans amongst the marchers. The U.K. Government offered an apology for the 'whitewash' that was the first inquiry.

As for the British public's reaction to the later report, they were not surprised. They had learned to be sceptical of the 'official' line on some aspects of the Troubles. In the period 1989 to 1991, many Irish prisoners in English jails were freed by the Court of Appeal. Their release was because their convictions for bombings were proved to have been secured by forced confessions and dubious forensic evidence.

Such dramatic turnarounds prove that Governments can make History, but they cannot be its custodian.

The fact is that Governments sometimes dissemble and deceive or' in the words of one British Cabinet Secretary, 'are economical with the truth'. Mature Governments know this. When historians begin to pick over records and question 'official' narratives, there may be a Rashomon moment.

At such times there are competing plausible versions of events but, with more digging and questioning, the 'official' record becomes to be seen as the least likely account, or it is even seen to have been fabricated. Then is the time for a responsible Government to acknowledge that History has caught up with it.

The eighteen-year-old British student who takes an 'A-level' in the subject 'Modern British History 1951-2007' will find Britain's handling of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland from 1970 to 1998 a topic for study.

The student may be provided with contemporary materials about subjects as political gerrymandering, internment without trial, the abolition of trial by jury, sectarian policing, vigilante justice, collusion between Protestant paramilitaries and the security forces and direct and undemocratic rule from London rather than Belfast. They will then have to offer a view on what these materials disclose or, as is often the case, what they may hide

Much of what the student will study does not reflect well on the Governments, both Conservative and Labour, that were responsible for security policies in Northern Ireland at the time. On the other hand, the rise of a Republican movement encouraging a Catholic majority to agitate for more civil rights with a hostile Protestant minority on the defensive was a nearly impossible task to manage. The good student will realise that some bad decisions were made by civil servants and members of the security forces who were only doing their best in trying circumstances.

Although the question in the DSE history examination was clumsily worded, there is nothing wrong in the underlying structure of the question. Asking questions which are designed to test received opinions and the ability to argue a position which may run counter to them is an established way of testing analytical skills. Only by careful questioning and analysis is a new historical viewpoint established.

If History teaches us anything, it is that we need to take the rough with the smooth in studying a country's past. Inconvenient facts cannot be ignored forever or reassembled to suit an official version of events.

The last word on the subject goes to the Indian statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru. He met Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Khrushchev was a man who knew a thing or two about rewriting Russian History for the Communist Party's needs. Nehru warned him about this, saying "You don't change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall."



About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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