War remains a regular feature of world history. Nations and tribes used to fight wars against each other to occupy land or plunder hard-earned wealth as war booty. However, each party found some pretext to justify war, and inspire people to fight valiantly and sacrifice their lives.
But there are no decisive answers to questions over who is responsible for violating treaties between countries, initiating wars, and destroying enemy territories. More often than not, historians have either blamed the occupiers or exonerated them from all crimes. For example, Greek historians pinned the blame for the war fought between the Greek states and Persia in the 4th century BC on the Persians, and have portrayed them as oriental despots. Since Persian historians have not responded to this criticism, Persia continues to be viewed as the aggressor in this conflict whereas the actions of Greek states are considered to be ‘defenders’.
Perceptions of wars and those who are embroiled in them have changed when the European nations assembled in Vienna in 1814, and the Treaty of Vienna with France was concluded after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. The entire responsibility for the wars fought during Napoleon’s rule was placed on the French statesman alone and France was treated as an ally. Napoleon was subsequently imprisoned at St Helena. Monarchy was restored in France and an attempt was made to erase the revolutionary spirit and establish a conservative system.
However, the notions of war changed further when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 between Germany and the Allies after the former was defeated in the First World War. Germany was accused of starting the war. As a result, a war guilt clause was also included in the treaty. A similar situation developed after World War II when the Nazi Germany was declared guilty for starting a ruthless and aggressive war.
Since then, German historians have been finding ways to deal with this guilt. Meanwhile, Japan didn’t encounter any war guilt because it had witnessed a great deal of suffering due to nuclear bombings during the final stages of WWII.
However, the question of war guilt has changed the way history is written. In the past, victorious nations had imposed the provision of war guilt on the vanquished. But a few progressive historians have applied this guilt to those European nations that had colonised Asian, African and South American countries.
Imperialist historians had consistently admired the role of European powers in civilising and modernising the backward colonies and uplifting their social and political status. To counter this trend, anti-imperialist historians went through the archives of the European powers that had colonised and exploited the resources of Asian, African and South American countries. On the basis of historical evidence, they were able to prove that the European powers had orchestrated massacres against locals, usurped their land, and forced them to work in plantation and mines.
These historical accounts brought to the fore the horrific crimes that were committed by white people in various colonies. When historians published the details of these massacre against the indigenous people in Tasmania and other parts of Australia, it drastically weakened the claim that white settlements in the continents were more of a blessing than a curse because they had civilised the Aboriginal people.
With time, Australian historians managed to prove the crimes that were committed against the Aborigines. Soon after, the Australian government also recognised this fact. In 1992, Paul Keating, the then prime minister of Australia, publicly apologised to the indigenous population for the genocide committed by white settlers. Keating maintained that they had occupied the land of the indigenous people, annihilated their cultural traditions, and deprived them of all fundamental rights.
In 2004, a German minister visited Namibia, a former German colony, and apologised for the atrocities committed against the Herero tribe that had killed more than 80,000 people. According to an historian, the apology wasn’t entirely genuine. The underlying motive was to protect the property of German settlers that stood the risk of being nationalised by Namibia’s independent government.
The major European powers – England, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal – and the US haven’t experienced any war guilt. England has yet to apologise for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and the genocide against political activists in Kenya and Malaysia. Spain hasn’t offered an apology for the crimes it committed in South America. The US has remained tight-lipped about its atrocities against locals in Vietnam. In 2005, the French parliament passed a law that advised history teachers at schools to portray the role of France in North African colonies in a favourable light. Algeria vehemently protested the law as it had endured the brutalities of French colonial rule.
The question of war guilt has triggered a new debate in our approach to writing history. While a group of conservative historians continue to justify colonial rule and have made attempts to erase the memories of crimes committed by imperialist powers, historians from former colonies are challenging this point of view by drawing attention to the struggle and humiliation endured by their people.
The former colonies gained political independence a long time ago and it is now time that their people should start decolonising their minds. We can only hope that all those countries which indulged in war crimes in other countries realise their mistakes and apologise for their actions.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.