Hitler and the Tudors

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The Independent Online

Anyone tempted to argue that the study of history is less important in this day and age should look towards the present state of relations between China and Japan. Diplomatic ties between the world's second largest economy and its fast growing neighbour have been stretched to the point of breakdown over the question of what version of history is taught in Japanese schools. Yesterday, Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Premier, reiterated his "deep remorse" over his country's great crimes in the 20th century - but it is unclear whether this will appease the Chinese.

Anyone tempted to argue that the study of history is less important in this day and age should look towards the present state of relations between China and Japan. Diplomatic ties between the world's second largest economy and its fast growing neighbour have been stretched to the point of breakdown over the question of what version of history is taught in Japanese schools. Yesterday, Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Premier, reiterated his "deep remorse" over his country's great crimes in the 20th century - but it is unclear whether this will appease the Chinese.

All of this, of course, serves to emphasise the truth of William Faulkner's words: "The past is not dead; it is not even past." The way a country constructs its "national story" is still of enormous importance - not least to other nations that feel that their own historical suffering has been whitewashed. Japan is by no means alone in its efforts to downplay certain shameful aspects of its past. It is also time that we in Britain looked to our own record.

Thankfully, the days when schoolchildren were routinely taught about the virtues of the British Empire are no more. But this has been replaced with a history syllabus that seems fixated on Tudor England and the rise of Hitler in Germany. We do not so much whitewash the great injustices that Britain has had a hand in over the centuries - in the manner of the Japanese over Nanking - as ignore them completely.

Children - quite rightly - learn about the horrors of the Holocaust in the Second World War, but they should also be taught about the firebombing of Dresden. This is not to draw any sort of moral equivalence. The fact that tens of thousands of civilians died in Allied bombing raids is simply something schoolchildren ought to know. And how many British schoolchildren learn about the brutal handling of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya?

From Britain's central role in the transatlantic slave trade to our invention of concentration camps during the Boer War, we have been responsible for a host of atrocities. And consider how many of today's schoolchildren are descended from immigrants affected by these acts. Is it right to keep them in ignorance of the viciousness of the "Black and Tans" in Ireland, the Amritsar massacre, or the killing fields of Culloden?

Edward Gibbon once described history as a "register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". It would, of course, be utterly wrong to teach children solely about the dark side of our nation's past. But it must be taken into consideration. Our "crimes, follies and misfortunes" have been neglected for too long.

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