National Fictions: Editing the Past

Jul 20, 2021 3:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


This month, Dr. Woolf writes about the historical amnesia about colonization and how countries reinterpret their history to support national identity.

Selective Amnesia

Protest movements generally have two targets; the first is to alter the circumstances to which the protesters object. At the same time, dissent exposes contemporary or historical situations that may have slipped out of collective memory, or indeed may never have been there. Such movements aim to counter indifference or selective amnesia. Thus, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement employed the power and influence of the American voice to highlight unlawful acts of violence against African Americans. The agenda went deeper of course. Events such as the killing of George Floyd were placed within a history of discrimination and persistent racial bias manifest at many levels of American society, and within a wider international context.

There are very good reasons for education abroad to be interested in populist protest movements. They raise ethical and political issues that enrich understanding of social dynamics. They offer alternative perspectives, challenge mainstream concepts, and often reveal more complex versions of national identities, obscured or hidden histories.

There are many ways to interpret events associated with BLM from a European perspective. Clearly, the relatively recent colonial past has observable consequences and legacies. Much of that legacy is symbolized in statues, street names, monuments, and the like. Those visual symbols have, in many cases, been separated from history.

In London’s Trafalgar Square, for example, resides the pigeon-splattered statue of Sir Henry Havelock:

Henry Havelock in Trafalgar SquareHenry Havelock in Trafalgar Square.

Havelock lived from 1795‐1857 and was famed for his militaristic subjugation of the colonized. He took part in The Burma War (1824–26), the first Afghan War (1839), the Sikh Wars (1843–49), and led the effort to defeat The Indian Mutiny of 1857. The inscription on the plinth reads:

Soldiers! Your Labours, your privations, your sufferings and your valour will not be forgotten by a grateful country.

Havelock’s exhortation to his troops is intended to be invested with permanent significance. It is cast in stone and located in the heart of the city. Its message is one of confidence in the persistence of memory and military values. What it celebrates, of course, is imperial power; it creates a historical narrative based on past victories and glories intended to be relevant in the present.

The statue is also more or less entirely ignored by locals and tourists alike. Few of those, if any, could tell you much about it at all. Ironically, that “which will not be forgotten” has indeed been more or less entirely forgotten.

Sir Henry’s statue is one of any number of ways in which history may be reinterpreted. It is an example of what had once mattered so much that it was commemorated with patriotic enthusiasm, now is just a thing—about as significant as the traffic lights upon which Sir Henry’s gaze is fixed. Perhaps someday activists will notice it and pull it down, as they did the slave trader Edward Colson’s statue in the English port of Bristol.

Historical amnesia and reconstruction are by no means limited to the USA or the UK.

Occupation Theories

The histories of many European countries and cities have also been reimagined to support a particular view of national identity. Austria, for example, has two versions of German annexation in 1938. One version avoids any implication of complicity with the Nazis; Austria was invaded and occupied. The other is embedded in the notion of “Anschluss,” a term that translates as “unification.” From 1919, there had been considerable enthusiasm for the creation of a greater Germany. The “invasion” of Austria was, in practice, widely supported by its citizens.

Enthusiastic Austrians welcome the Nazis into Vienna.Enthusiastic Austrians welcome the Nazis into Vienna.

The outcome was disastrous for dissidents, Jews, marginalized peoples. The occupation theory, however, positions Austria as a victim of Nazi oppression rather than as a willing participant in inhumane atrocities.

For Poland and the Czech Republic, a double-occupation theory obscures support for both Nazi Germany and post-war Soviet regimes. That is not to suggest that there was no significant resistance, but it is inaccurate to offer the resistance story as the only narrative The Polish Institute of National Remembrance is designed to edit national identity. Through the the politicization of history, its mission is both to criminalize Holocaust denial and to eradicate responsibility for collaboration with Nazi and Soviet ideologies. Indeed, Poland recently attempted to make it illegal to suggest that the country had any responsibility for what happened within its borders between 1938 and 1989. The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance of 2018 was a naked attempt to repress evidence of Polish active support for anti-Semitism and Soviet repression.

Prague, in the Czech Republic, offers another example of editing the past. Tourist promotions and education abroad marketing customarily presents the city through two lenses: as one of the major centers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and a creative, youthful center of contemporary Europe. Indeed, both of these characterizations are true, evident in the architecture of the past and the inventiveness of the present. Conspicuously missing, however, are the years 1938 to 1989.

The following is a sample of descriptions in education abroad marketing that have been shuffled around to avoid any sense that this is a practice of one organization. It represents, instead, an industry norm:

The City of a Hundred Spires, one of the world’s most beautiful, Prague’s hidden courtyards, winding streets, traditional pubs, and eye-catching architecture from every period and style in its millennial history. Prague’s rebellious and young spirit … everyone who comes here falls in love…. modern and traditional literature, art, architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Art Nouveau.

Claims are made for the importance of the novelist Milan Kundera without mention of the fact that his citizenship was revoked by the Czech government in 1979. Moreover, he describes himself as a French writer. The vaunted architectural styles omit Soviet-style buildings.

Soviet architecture in Prague.Soviet architecture in Prague.

The national identities of Poland and the Czech Republic (and others in Eastern-Central Europe) are based upon the notion of victimhood. The question we should ask is to what degree does this obscure collaboration and complicity?

The Paris Paradox

There is a view of France in general, and Paris in particular, as a haven of freedom and tolerance. Paris between 1871 to 1914, known as the Belle Époque, was a magnet for painters and sculptors. Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a young Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, were among those inventing new ways of seeing reality. Into this cosmopolitan ethos came two Russian Jews, Marc Chagall and later, Chaim Soutine. Amedeo Modigliani, a Sephardic Jew from Italy also lived and worked in the city. Thus, a version of Paris emerged in which the environment was hospitable to creative artists seeking to escape the conventions of the past.

That story was recreated in the 1920s in particular and was, to a large degree, made in the USA and written by expatriates. In Paris, it was possible to reinvent a self freed from bourgeois constraint symbolized by Prohibition and embodied in the America of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Harding’s election slogan in 1920 spoke of a “return to normalcy.” Coolidge asserted that “the chief business of the American people is business,” while Henry Ford asserted that “Machinery is the modern messiah.” Statements of this kind did not suggest an environment conducive to artistic experimentation and innovation. In contrast, the idea of Paris as liberated space attracted Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, the Crosbys, Robert McAlmon, Malcolm Cowley, and African Americans, the dancer Josephine Baker, the poet Countee Cullen, and a host of others.

This idea of Paris was reinvented again after World War II by a group of African American writers and musicians including Chester Himes, Sydney Bechet, Langston Hughes and, most notably, James Baldwin. In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin envisages a version of Europe that empowers him to escape an identity imposed by the color of his skin:

"I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem there… I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer" (Nobody Knows My Name, 1965: 17). [1]

For Baldwin, Paris offers an unfamiliar environment in which it becomes possible to redefine the self (a process also noted in the context of education abroad). The persistence of African American expatriation to Paris illustrates the power of this construct. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s comment resonates, however ironically, with the notion that the African American abroad may become the author of his own identity: “In the global context, perhaps we Americans are all white” (Coates, 2017). [2]

Baldwin understands that he enjoys a particular status based upon a synthesis of circumstances. As a celebrated author, an American abroad, in a city where some African Americans enjoyed significant privilege, Baldwin knows that his liberation was conditional on not being Algerian:

"This freedom, like all freedom, has its dangers and its responsibilities. One day it begins to be borne in on the writer, and with great force, that he is living in Europe as an American… as a European, he would be living on a different and far less attractive continent. This crucial day may be the day on which an Algerian taxi-driver tells him how it feels to be an Algerian in Paris" (Nobody Knows My Name, 21).

The paradoxical coexistence of myths of freedom with a darker colonial history is also noted, over 55 years later, by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

"The 19th [arrondissement] reminds me that … Parisians are people of Europe and Africa and Asia and with various native born and immigrant stories. Also, in a city where Richard Wright and James Baldwin and others came to in some sense to distance themselves from American racism, the 19th reminds me that this is also an old capital of empire, a place that with all its stunning lights and cultural achievements would like to push its colonial history to the margins, out of view" (Coates, 2013).[3]

At some level, the African American expatriates in Paris must have been aware that this center of social and racial tolerance was, at the same time, determinedly and violently defending its colonial authority in Algeria. The struggle for Algerian independence (1954–1962) was vicious and bitter, marked by guerrilla resistance, torture, and summary execution. In 1956 the French authorities sent an army 500,000 strong to repress Algerian resistance. At the end of a bloody, prolonged, and chaotic conflict, it was impossible to count with any accuracy the human cost. French military losses were estimated to be around 26.000 while up to 6,000 French residents may have been killed. Algerian casualties were estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million.

Algerian immigration into France was substantial (during the colonial period, Algerians were legally French citizens) and continued after independence as immigrants sought to escape political turmoil, much of it a legacy of French rule. Algerian arrivals did not experience the welcome and tolerance that creative African Americans enjoyed. Instead, from the 1950s onwards shantytowns (bidonvilles) grew in the suburbs of Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles.

Bidonville, le Pont des Poissonniers, Paris 18, 2017Bidonville, le Pont des Poissonniers, Paris 18, 2017.

Not all Algerians lived in slum settlements, but they were often where new arrivals necessarily found themselves. These environments align with widespread prejudice against their presence in the center of French cities. Tourists and students rarely see these sites which are literally and metaphorically peripheral, beyond the archetypal Paris of wide boulevards, quaint streets, and pavement cafes. Myopia and amnesia combined.

Largely forgotten also are the events of October 17, 1961.[4] At the peak of the Algerian war. Parisian police threw an untold number of Algerian migrants into the Seine and left them to drown. Others were summarily beaten, abused, and arrested. In October 1961, Maurice Papon was the Paris prefect of police and effectively put every Algerian Muslim in the city under house arrest. Papon was a former Nazi collaborator who sent almost 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux to German death camps.

A Sort of Perpetual Discharge

Beneath the surface of French tolerance and hospitality to the stranger, there was a long virulent and persistent history of rabid anti-Semitism.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a scapegoat for national ills was found in Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer. From 1894 until his exoneration in 1906, Dreyfus, accused of passing military secrets to the German, was tried, and twice convicted despite evidence that was clearly manufactured. The Dreyfus Case was the occasion for an eruption of anti-Jewish feeling.


This was exemplified in the work of the notorious Edouard-Adolphe Drumont. In the bestseller La France juive, he describes Jews as “a sort of perpetual discharge which is impossible to stop…dropping vermin wherever they pass, offering a constant danger for public health” (1886, v.1., 456). [5]

La France juive – a popular reprintLa France juive – a popular reprint.

The next intense manifestation of anti-Semitism in France (and elsewhere in Europe) followed the Russian revolution in 1917. The paradox was that Jews were simultaneously characterized as corrupt capitalists and revolutionary rabble who threatened European civilization.

A version of French history aligns with that of Poland and the Czech Republic. An occupancy theory is a filter through which complicity with the Holocaust is masked. Vichy France under Marshal Philippe Pétain was established as a Nazi satellite. A French paramilitary force called Milice, with an estimated 30,000 French volunteers, was formed in January 1943 to fight the Resistance and round up Jews for deportation to the death camps in the east.

In August 1941, Nazi occupiers established an internment camp in the outskirts of Paris at Drancy. This was managed by French police on behalf of the Schutzstaffel (SS) from August 1941 to July 1943. The camp primarily functioned as a holding location for French Jews prior to deportation to Auschwitz and other extermination centers. Another 5 satellite camps were established in the city to store confiscated property. Between June 1942 and July 1944, an estimated 67,400 Jews were sent to be killed with the direct assistance of the French authorities. [6]

The occupancy excuse and the availability of a scapegoat in Pétain allowed for a historical denial of guilt in the atrocities of the Holocaust. It took until 1995 for a French government under Jacques Chirac to acknowledge French responsibility. Amnesia about colonial excesses recreates history and offers national narratives edited by forgetfulness and denial. The national motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, has a hollow sound.

Conclusion: Reinventing the Past

These arguments are not intended to be specifically critical of France and its people. They have been discussed in other contexts here and, indeed, can be found in almost any story of national identity. What they are intended to demonstrate is the complex tapestry of myth, reality, fiction, truth and lies through which nations define and redefine themselves. As students enjoy the splendors of Prague, the beauty of Paris, the sights and streets of London, we have a moral and intellectual obligation to draw some attention to what may exist beneath those seductive surfaces.

What might we deduce from this wander around versions of nation? Clearly, things are not always as they seem. We need to respect and reveal histories that challenge assumptions about the places we visit and in which we live. In education abroad, where the location is frequently part of a core teaching and learning agenda, the implications are of critical significance. Without histories, in contradiction and often in conflict, we cannot see beyond the myopic lens through which we are invited to “understand” the worlds we inhabit. As teachers and students, it is imperative that we see beyond those visible surfaces and look into realities that are dark, murky, disturbing, disruptive, but ultimately profoundly necessary.


[1] James Baldwin. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. London: Corgi Books, 1965 [1963]. 

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. London: Penguin Books, 2017.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Paris Disappointed Me—and I Am Glad For It.” The Atlantic, Aug 16, 2013.   

[4] See, for example: 

[5] Edouard-Adolphe Drumont. La France juive, essai d’histoire contemporaine. Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 1886.

[6] See, for example, and 


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education