How not to tell history

It is difficult to have a good reputation. However, it is easy to lose it. This truth is known to every sober-minded person.

Such a person must also realize that a good reputation helps one find valuable partners for cooperation; it also helps in situations where we have to compete with others. Exactly the same applies to states and nations. If they want to be valuable, to be a desirable partner to work with, they must take care of their own reputation. They must therefore be rated as a predictable partner, one that can be relied upon. A partner that is viewed in a positive light, one that is described using favourable terminology. The terms "Swiss Precision", "German Order" and "Swedish Quality" do not surprise us, even though they do not necessarily reflect the reality that a person faces in a particular situation. However, we are surprised when we hear "Swiss imprecision", "German mess" or "Swedish bad work", because these terms go against the positive, deeply ingrained stereotyped language.

Our reality, however, is also filled with a language that reflects and sometimes even creates negative stereotypes. Obviously, such language is not used to build good repute by these states or nations. On the contrary – they can damage or hamper the process of developing a good reputation.

Nowadays in the media, the phenomenon of using completely defective terms - "defective narrative codes" - has become increasingly prevalent. A misleading narrative does only present reality in an untrue manner. The worst forms of defective codes even reverse the right order of things. As Czeslaw Milosz said, "the information given by the tongue can be relatively easily assessed by us, but the translations of meanings in the language itself, the elimination of certain words, the reversion of concepts, even syntax, are difficult to discern." Hence we do not even realize that we are being cheated and deceived.

The erroneous term “Polish concentration camp”, a defective code used on occasion by foreign media outlets, is one such example. At a time when in many countries of the world the memory of the martyrdom and the destruction of millions of people in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other German concentration camps is slowly starting to fade, the term could make many people assume that Poles held some level of responsibility for the creation of these camps and the crimes that took place within them. The frequent use of the term can lead its perpetuation as a "necessary" expression that will be automatically used by the media.

It is not only Poles that have a problem with this. Dear readers, ask yourself the question of what is meant by "Tutsi genocide." Are you sure that it was always clear that this was a crime carried out in Rwanda at the beginning of the 1990s on this very people and not “by this national group?" And yet this term is also commonly used by irresponsible mass media. Does the term "Ukrainian Katyn list" tell the entire truth and only the truth about the Katyn massacre?

One must identify defective memory codes because they falsify history. With regard to the crime of genocide, they blur the distinction between the perpetrators and victims and reverse the fundamental moral order of historical narrative. It destroys the good reputation of states and nations, obscuring or even brutally falsifying the truth. And yet this truth is what nations and states need very much as the backbone of their own identity and for dialogue among themselves.

Even the most painful history can provide us with clues on how to avoid evil in the future. If this history is falsified, then the lessons flowing from it will be false. In Poland and in Germany we therefore owe the truth both to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany and to ourselves. We should also have a shared memory for our common future. This can also serve to improve the quality of the media itself. The media will be better if their ignorance or even malice manifested in the use of defective memory codes will be exposed, as a result of which their reputation will be weakened. The lie needs to be called and branded for it is.

Author: Artur Nowak-Far

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”



Artur Nowak-Far

Senior professor at the Warsaw School of Economics (WSE) and the Institute of European Studies in the University of Warsaw.

Author of over 250 academic publications.