The malleable past: How easy is it to “fake” history? – Sean Munger
On the previous incarnation of my history blog, in December 2013, I did an article about the Rape of Nanking, the horrific orgy of violence visited upon the Nationalist Chinese capital when Japanese troops took it over in 1937. Months later I received a comment that I did not let through the moderation queue. The comment, very short, questioned: “But did Nanking really happen? Or is this Chinese propaganda?!”
I chose not to approve the comment because it was not productive or germane to the real issues in that article, nor did I want to enter into a pointless debate with the commenter on the existence of an indubitably true historical fact—one which the tone of the comment led me to believe the person who made it does not believe. This is far from the first or most prominent example where I’ve heard basic historical facts that I present in my work questioned or even flat-out denied. It is certainly not an isolated point of view. There are many people out there who seem to think it’s fairly easy to “fake” history, and that doing so is a common occurrence.
The truth is, though it’s quite easy to misconstrue, misinterpret or draw the wrong conclusions from a real historical event—this happens a lot, for instance, when politicians start misusing the word “appeasement”—it’s actually very hard to flat-out fake a historical event, especially a major one. Historical events, especially ones in modern history, leave considerable and often overwhelming evidence in their wake. For the Nanking massacres, which happened 84 years ago, there are voluminous eyewitness accounts from people of many nations, not just Chinese, but also Americans, Britons, Germans, and the Japanese themselves. (There was an international settlement in Nanking at the time). There are also photographs, newsreels, newspaper accounts filed from the scene and nearby, military reports and government documents. In the gruesome case of the Nanking affair there was plenty of human and environmental evidence. At least 200,000 civilians were murdered. Their bodies lay strewn around Nanking and surrounding areas. Rivers ran red with blood. The effort it would take to manufacture all of this evidence, if the Nanking massacres did not really happen, is so staggering as to be impossible.
Of course, this presumes that these pieces of evidence—especially the physical ones, like graves—actually exist. Those who believe in historical “fakery” presume that what is known about history generally comes from books, and if it’s a question of writing a few books or creating some false documents, as opposed to manufacturing false physical evidence, a large-scale fake becomes a much more conceivable prospect. It is true, I have never seen a victim of the Nanking massacre with my own eyes, not least because the event occurred decades ago in a different country than the one in which I was born. What I know about what happened there in 1937-38 does come principally from books. But books do not just crib from other books. Real works of history—responsible works—rely not on secondary sources of an event, which is to say what people said happened after the fact, but primary sources, which are documentary pieces of evidence from the time itself.
History is not a vast weight of hearsay that hangs on the slender reed of one or a handful of accounts whose veracity is taken on faith.
Good history is a distillation of vast bodies of evidence, some bits reliable, perhaps others not, but whose compasses generally point in the same direction. This is the essence of history as a discipline. You can easily tell good history from bad history. In academic writing historians have to show their work: that’s what footnotes are for.
Nanking is obviously not the only contentious event in history, nor the only one around which accusations or suggestions of “fakery” have been leveled. In 1915, the government of Ottoman Turkey deported vast numbers of Armenian Christians to remote desert locations and left them to die. The Armenian genocide is well-documented with exactly the same kind of evidence we have for the Nanking horrors, but some people—mainly for reasons connected to nationalism—deny that it took place or suggest it is greatly exaggerated. A tiny but very vocal minority of racists maintain that the Shoah (Holocaust) against Jews, Roma, LGBT people, the disabled and other enemies of Nazi Germany did not take place or is exaggerated.
Some particularly extreme forms of conspiracy theorizing about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 argue that the hijacked airliners that struck the World Trade Center were holographic projections—an incredibly bizarre claim bereft of any sort of intuitive sense, much less any evidence to support it. Yet real people do believe these things. I teach a class on the history of conspiracy theories, so I am well versed in these sorts of subjects.
Belief in the ability to “fake” history stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how we know what we know about the past, and how pervasive the past really is. The statement “history is written by the winners” has some truth to it, but it’s also deceptive, in that it suggests the past is infinitely malleable and that control of sources of information is relatively easy to achieve.
In the real world it’s a bit tougher than that. History textbooks that are written badly, whether from incompetence or some sort of political or social agenda, can and sometimes do distort the past; the Republican Party in the U.S. is, for example, right now trying to make sure that false narratives about the Civil War and racism in U.S. history are taught in schools. Inexcusable as that is, though, it does not change the fact that thousands of books have been published utilizing the first-person narrative accounts of slaves who testify to what they saw and experienced with their own eyes. All one has to do to find them is go to a library.
More recent events are much harder to control. There are literally tens of thousands of people, most of them still alive, who saw planes strike the World Trade Center Towers. If you went to New York City with the intention of finding one of those people, and stood in Times Square and shouted, “Was anyone an eyewitness to 9/11?”, within seconds you would be talking to someone who was actually there, and no one who wanted to “spin” the event would be able to control what they told you. If there was no reality to an underlying event, the lack of real-world corroboration would be instantly recognizable.
History is not a process of blind trust. It’s not about simply parroting what someone else said, as if all historical knowledge is a big game of Telephone where one generation of historians whispers something into the ear of the next, and truths are assumed to be true because you trust who told it to you. This is not how history works.
History is a messy, complex, unwieldy process of making sense of traces that exist in the present of what happened in the past. You can’t fake something like the Rape of Nanking, the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust. It’s just not possible. The implications, interpretations or meaning placed upon historical events is complicated and easy to get wrong, but the actual reality of events in the past is, in the vast majority of cases, absolutely verifiable. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world. So the short answer is, yes, the Rape of Nanking did happen. If you doubt it, go find the evidence for yourself—no one is hiding it.