Bruno, you have published The Revenge of History (La revanche de l’histoire), a book devoted to the role of the past in today’s world. Do you see the “return of the past” as an unavoidable element of globalized societies in which everything is or seems to be immediate?
Yes, that is a major reason. When things spin around you, you need something to which to anchor yourself. We had twenty years of rapid globalization, from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China to the financial crisis of the early 2010s, resulting in massive flows of people, goods, services, and data. Added to that was the now-constant flow of instant information and images. We can discuss whether history is “accelerating,” but there is an impression that it is. This has triggered identity crises around the world. The past is a mooring.
But it is also a “revenge” in the sense that just like individuals, states that have not come to terms with their past, or that have tried to push it under the rug, are inclined to be imbalanced. And they may be more inclined to repeat the same mistakes. One might say that countries, just like individuals, can suffer from neuroses… There is a kernel of truth in Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” although it is incomplete: it is one thing to remember the past, it is another to look it in the face and grapple with it. I prefer Winston Churchill, who wrote “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
How is this “revenge of the past” connected to the notion of geopolitics? The past is not only about time, but also about space, correct? Why does territory matter in the nostalgia tsunami we are witnessing around the globe?
The past serves not only as an identity-building device, but also as a justification for a political project. Territory matters in three different ways. First, territory is “home.” Globalization and the rise of the info-or data-sphere reinforce the need for individuals and nations to feel territorially anchored. Second, acquiring territory—whether “lost” or “new”—is the most visually impressive instrument of imperialism. Third, territory is also about resources. Retreating from a globalized world means ensuring that you are less dependent on foreign countries for gas, for oil, for rice, for wheat. And resources may include population: for Russia, the annexation of Crimea meant that two million more people became citizens.
I would distinguish between what I call “sick empires” and “healed empires.” Russia, China, and, to a certain extent, Turkey have not come to terms with their pasts. Russia is even actively rewriting its past, to the point that one recalls the old Soviet trope: its past has become “unpredictable.” Meanwhile, former Western empires, from Belgium to Japan, have been able to “heal”.
Where do you see similarities and divergences in the ways that Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are using their respective pasts to claim the right to revisit their status on the international scene?
First, they both use founding myths—with the help of history and archeology—to sustain their territorial claims on land and at sea, from Crimea to the South China Sea. While they are not (yet?) totalitarian regimes in Hannah Arendt’s sense, their national narratives now come uncomfortably close to those of the 20th century. One cannot help but recall that in 1935, the Nazi regime created the Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral Heritage, a scholarly department devoted to hunting down and publishing archaeological evidence of the purity and superiority of the Aryan race and its past settlement in much of Central and Eastern Europe.
The second way they use the past is through the claim of having been “humiliated by the West.” Russian claims are essentially about the recent past—that is, the late 20th century and the “lost decade” of the 1990s. Chinese claims are more about European colonialism of the 19th century.
Other differences relate to the nature of these neo-empires (Russia is an inclusive country, whereas China represses minorities) and their expression (China mostly makes maritime claims and, throughout the world, relies mostly on economic power).
Russia’s war against Ukraine is entirely framed as analogous to the Second World War. For their part, Ukraine and many Western observers also use historical analogies to denounce Russia as repeating Nazi Germany’s crimes. Why do we need to refer to the past to make sense of events today?
We need the past to make sense of the present, and also, obviously, to justify ourselves—including, in the cases of Russia and Ukraine, to mobilize national populations. There is no better time than war to do so.
Russia has referred to the past ad nauseam. In 2014, Putin described Crimea as the cradle of the country. Today, references range from the old Kievan Rus’, allegedly the predecessor of Russia—although it is in fact the polity that also gave birth to Belarus and Ukraine—to Catherine the Great’s New Russia (the South-Eastern part of Ukraine) to, of course, the fight against Nazism. The May 9 parade was a reminder that, under Putin, the “Great Patriotic War” has replaced the Leninist revolution as the most important event to commemorate—even as the Kremlin has suppressed memories of Stalinism by dissolving Memorial. That is, of course, an approach straight out of the Orwellian playbook: dictatorships control the present, which allows them to control how the past is taught, which in turns influences the nation’s culture and thus its future.
Ukraine consolidates its national identity by referring to the heroic times of the Hetmanate and the Cossacks—even though they often acted as mercenaries who would fight for Poland or Russia as well as Ukraine. The irony is that Ukraine could now turn the myth of the Great Patriotic War against Russia…
Is it possible to rebuild a récit national that would be meaningful today but still forward-looking, not backward-looking?
Most major Western countries—in particular those with an imperial past—have their history wars, and France is no exception. I propose to distinguish the récit national (a useful narrative) from the roman national (a debatable fiction). Granted, this distinction is not always clear-cut.
In France, we used to teach children about “our ancestors the Gauls.” It’s obviously a myth or a half-truth. Myths may be useful for national cohesion—just as the Ukrainians of today like to think of Cossacks as their ancestors—but this one goes a trifle too far. Or take the baptism of Clovis: this too was taught in all French schools as a fundamental step in the existence of France, even though Clovis was no more “French” than he was “German.” Also debatable is the idea that Charles Martel, by defeating the Arabs at Poitiers, singlehandedly halted the Islamic invasion of Europe.
In the end, there remains a difference between an embellished fact and an outright lie or fantasy—such as, say, when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov rehashes an old conspiracy theory according to which Hitler was of Jewish ancestry. So the récit national is, for me, something in between such nonsense, on one end of the spectrum, and a history that seeks to do away with all the founding myths of a nation, on the other end.
My preference is to emphasize those key moments of national history that have both symbolic and real significance, such as, for France, the battle of Valmy, the creation of mandatory schooling by Jules Ferry, the law of separation of Church and State… or the defeat of 1940, a national trauma if ever there was one. But what matters the most is teaching pupils how to think critically.
There are many ways to cope with the past, including with national traumas. A good example at one end of the spectrum is South Africa’s famous “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” At the other end is Spain’s “Pacto de Olvido,” the Pact of Forgetfulness. There is no good or bad way; it depends on cultures and moments. We constantly need to fine-tune and find the right balance between never forgetting the past and living a life that is free of the burden of the past, failing which we risk getting stuck in a time warp.
How is the past connected to the rise of populism and illiberalism? Could you discuss the terminological overlaps and gaps and why you think insisting on the past is a more relevant prism?
There is an intense debate about the origins and causes of populism and illiberalism, and that may be partly because they are flexible and rather vague notions. The economic context generally matters, but not always. I believe they are most often about identity, and identity is always connected—one way or another—to the past.
Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS), a leading French think-tank on international security issues. He is also an Advisor for Geopolitics at the Institut Montaigne. A graduate in law and politics, he obtained his doctorate under the supervision of Pierre Hassner. After working at NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, he worked for the Ministry of Defence and the RAND Corporation, and joined the FRS in 2001. He was a member of the committees in charge of the White Papers on Defence and National Security in 2007-2008 and 2012-2013. He has been a contributor to Institut Montaigne’s studies since 2017 and published Le défi démographique (2018). His latest publications include: L’Atlas des frontières (Les Arènes, 2016, Prix de la Société de Géographie); Le Président et la Bombe (Odile Jacob, 2017, Prix du Livre géopolitique); La Revanche de l’histoire (Odile Jacob, 2018); Le choc démographique (Odile Jacob, 2020). Twice every month, he publishes a column in L’Express called “Le Regard du stratège”.