Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

History, Social Construction of


By - Alan B. Anderson

Alan B. Anderson is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.  He is the author of numerous books and articles on subjects such as ethnicity and ethnic conflict. 

Historiography is the telling of history; yet there are different ways to tell and retell history. Just as humans consistently tend to reinterpret their past and present lives, so too is history perpetually reinterpreted. Historical memory, the way that history is remembered in the present, can often contribute to the negative stereotyping and misperceptions that fuel persecution and genocide. 

Ethnic histories often reveal myths or at least distortions. Ethnic groups often claim “first origins”. For example, in Canada many aboriginal peoples prefer the designation “First Nations”. Such a claim, common among indigenous peoples worldwide, to be the original inhabitants of a land may seem justifiable, however every ethnic group on earth in this sense must have originated somewhere so could equally claim to be “indigenous” somewhere. In Sri Lanka the Sinhalese people like to claim that, in contrast to their Tamil neighbours, they were the original people of the island of Ceylon, when in truth their very name suggests their distant ancestors originated in northern India and migrated southward, followed centuries later by the Tamils of southern India; yet Tamils have been on the island for many centuries, so are hardly newcomers, and have a very longstanding claim to island territory where they predominate. In any case, the Sinhalese were preceded by an indigenous population, the Vedda. Similarly, the Hutu people of Rwanda often consider themselves to have been in Rwanda longer than the Tutsi, and therefore that the Tutsis are foreign interlopers seeking to dominate the region in conjunction with external forces.[1] Of course, claims to “first origins” may rather conveniently support the legitimacy of claims to territoriality.
The claim to “first origins” reminds us of another claim to being first: historically Europeans claimed to have explored various other world regions, and to have discovered them – indeed, a rather presumptuous claim when almost invariably people were already inhabiting these regions. Yet history, as told by the descendants of Europeans, constantly referred (and still does) to “explorations” and “discoveries” (as well as to “conquests”).
Another aspect of ethnic histories has been the propensity to exaggerate the relevant ethnic populations. Thus a particular ethnic population may be described by historians (or other spokespersons of the group) as more numerous than is actually the case. Of course, this is easily done unintentionally when a census – such as Canada’s – counts ethnic origin both as single or as multiple (the multiple cases, when respondents claim more than just one ethnic origin, overlap by definition). At any rate, the inevitable presumption is that the ethnic group is stronger than if it were fewer in number. Shifts in relative demographic strength can therefore contribute to the perceived vulnerability of an ethnic group and perceived threat/vulnerability often underlies the rationale for gross human rights violations such as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Historical revisionism especially has applicability to genocide. For example, Holocaust denial serves to question that there ever really was a genocide during the Second World War against Jews (and Gypsies), or at least attempts to reduce the number killed. Similarly, Turkey continues to officially deny or downplay the Armenian genocide, and takes legal action against any Turkish citizen who may seem to recognize this genocide. Again, the Soviet government long denied Stalin’s mass starvation in the Ukraine during the 1920s. Serbian nationalists have also constructed a mytho-historical narrative of persecution at the hands of other ethnicities and nations.
And on a more individualized basis, one might think of the lack of German guilt over Nazi atrocities exhibited by many Germans (especially the older generation but also neo-Nazi groups). Or the attempts still being made in Japan by ultra-nationalist organizations (including Chuko-Juku Aikoku Renmei, Issui-Kai, Nihon Seinensha, and Tatenokai) to revise and positively restore Japanese imperialist history, especially during the Second World War. And in Rwanda Hutu militants have taken pains to reinterpret the Tutsi role in national history.
Ethnic groups may look back at history from different viewpoints. In Kosovo the Serbs, who constitute only a small minority, remember that Kosovo was the scene of the most important battle (during the fourteenth century) in the history of Serbian opposition to Ottoman Turkish control, hence fervently believe that Kosovo was the very cradle of Serbian nationalism. In contrast, in Sri Lanka the dominant Sinhalese are a large majority, yet somehow feel threatened by the relatively small Tamil minority (often pointing out that a far larger Tamil population exists just across the strait in India), hence their effort since independence to impose Sinhala as the only official language of Sri Lanka.
Conversely, ethnic history may relate to a separatist cause and minority militancy. The prevalent Kosovars (Kosovo Moslems) counter Serbian nationalism with their own historical claims and press for independence from Serbia. Tamil militants have advocated for the independence or at least autonomy of a separate state of Tamil Eelam from Sri Lanka.
Internationalized minorities present an interesting case, priorizing ethnic histories over national histories - for example Basque and Catalan history over Spanish and French; or Kurdish history over the history of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.
Irredentists claims – concomitant with different overlapping versions of historical territorial claims – have characterized Balkan peoples who continue to produce maps illustrating the maximum territorial extent of Greater Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria…. and similarly in Africa, a Greater Somalia which would incorporate parts of contemporary Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.[2]
Perhaps such claims could, in turn, exemplify the maxim “if the shoe doesn’t fit….”, in that ethnic cleansing may result if ethnic minorities inconveniently remain within reinvented nation-states, in which case the state may simply attempt to get rid of such minorities, so that human geography is effectively readjusted to conform to historical claims.

[1]  Extremists have often alleged the existence of a ‘Hima-Tutsi conspiracy’ seeking to dominate the region. The Hima are an ethnic group found in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that physically resemble the Tutsi.

[2]  In Serbia nationalists often use the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox patriarchy as being indicative of the extents of Serbia (or Serbian demographic majorities) in spite of the fact that much of this territory was never historically a part of Serbia. For more discussion see Branimir Anzulovic, Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide, (London: Hurst & Company, 1999).