Excerpted from The New York Times' Magazine: The War on History Is a War on Democracy
By Timothy Snyder
A scholar of totalitarianism argues that new laws restricting the discussion of race in American schools have dire precedents in Europe.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author of histories of political atrocity such as “Bloodlands” and “Black Earth.” His most recent book is “Our Malady.” In his recent essay, he lays out the history of "a growing international body of what are called 'memory laws': government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past," that are cause for concern.
Memory laws started out as a noble idea and "generally [were] designed to protect the truth about victim groups. ...The most important example, passed in West Germany in 1985, criminalized Holocaust denial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, other countries followed that precedent, and banned the denial of other historical atrocities."
"Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction."
However, beginning a little over a decade ago, Snyder writes, Russia "turned the original logic of memory laws upside down. It is not the facts about the vulnerable but the feelings of the powerful that are to be protected."
"[In 2009, President] Medvedev established the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests, a panel of politicians, military officials and state-approved historians ostensibly tasked with defending the official history of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. It did little in practice, but it did establish an important principle: that history was what served Russia’s national interests, and that all else was revisionism."
After that commission, a number of laws have been passed that make it a crime to acknowledge history that addresses some Russian actions in World War II. Snyder chronicles instances in which the state has prosecuted Russian citizens, including one "who mentioned in a social media post that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland."
And this spring, he writes, "memory laws arrived in America."
"Republican state legislators proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. As of this writing, five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Department of Education of a sixth (Florida) has passed guidelines with the same effect. Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws.
The particulars of these laws vary. The Idaho law is the most Kafkaesque in its censorship: It affirms freedom of speech and then bans divisive speech. The Iowa law executes the same totalitarian pirouette. The Tennessee and Texas laws go furthest in specifying what teachers may and may not say. In Tennessee teachers must not teach that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.” Nor may they deny the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, words that Thomas Jefferson presumably never intended to be part of an American censorship law. The Idaho law mentions Critical Race Theory; the directive from the Florida school board bans it in classrooms. The Texas law forbids teachers from requiring students to understand the 1619 Project. It is a perverse goal: Teachers succeed if students do not understand something."