History and Film: an uneasy relationship

The power of film is no longer something to be marvelled at but simply something to be expected. The capacity for motion pictures to arouse emotive action and prompt spirited debate have long been recognised and used by individual directors and governments alike. Historical films often give exposure to events unknown, overlooked or forgotten by society. This can provoke a positive response by stimulating interest in a particular historical topic. However, it can also raise tension. The most recent example of a historical film dividing movie-goers and politicians equally is Yimou Zhang’s Flowers of War, a study of the atrocities committed by invading Japanese forces in Nanjing, China in 1937. The film claims to depict “the rape of Nanjing”, which is how the event is referred to in China, whose experts claim at least 300,000 civilians were brutally slaughtered. Yet, many Japanese historians and politicians do not acknowledge that a massacre took place in Nanjing, rather suggesting that the people that died were legitimate casualties of war. Considering the traditional enmity between the two nations such cultural productions carry an added political burden. Whether The Flowers of War can be considered a propaganda film is open to interpretation. Most impartial historians agree that a massacre did take place at Nanjing in 1937, but there is no consensus on the number of civilians killed given the lack of documentation and ruining power of war.

There is still no consensus as to how many people died at Nanjing in 1937

Perhaps the reason The Flowers of War has received added attention from the world’s media is because of its release date. 2011 is the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its officials have marked it accordingly. Aside from brash naval displays and military parades, a number of overtly political films have been released. Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Party, starring famous actors like John Woo and Andy Lau, chronicles the events leading up to the CCP’s creation. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan’s 1911 depicts the Xinhai Revolution of that year, which saw the end of the Qing Dynasty and would set in motion the events that led to the rise of the CCP. Both these films have been criticised for their lack of historical accuracy and pro-Communist stance. Similarly in 2009, during the sixtieth anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power at the expense of the nationalist Kuomintang, Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Republic was released. Featuring a host of nationally-known actors, the film has also been derided as a propaganda piece for the ruling party.

Here lies the problem of historical films. Whilst they have the power to captivate and inform, they are often used to popularise a particular, controversial message. Perhaps more worryingly for the historical profession, filmmakers are happy to manipulate factual evidence if it means creating a more exciting story. To then say that the film in question is “based on true events” is more misleading than an overt propaganda piece. There is thus a difference between clearly-discernible propaganda films and historically manipulative films which both have an adverse affect on the educative powers of history.


Overt Propaganda Films

From its conception, cinema has been used for propaganda purposes. One need only watch D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation, with its denigrating portrayal of the African-American race and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan to see the early manipulative power of film. Indeed, the second incarnation of the Klan grew significantly in popularity in the period after the film’s release, showing the direct links between propaganda movies and social events. The reason the film’s message was so influential was because it was excellently made, on a grand scale and using techniques never before seen in the cinema. This would be a recurring feature of early propaganda films.

Black legislators - portrayed by white actors in blackface - were portrayed as drunk and ignorant

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever films, from both the silent and sound era. Using fast editing, dramatic acting and a plethora of extras, the film depicts the mutiny aboard the said battleship during Russia’s disastrous naval defeat to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The political message comes from the fact that the ship’s incompetent and barbaric officers are part of the Tsarist elite, whereas the brutalised sailors are clearly working-class. Furthermore, the famous massacre scene on the Odessa Steps, when innocent civilians supporting the mutineers are mowed down by the guns of royal soldiers, is a clear sign of the ruthless, autocratic nature of Tsarist rule. This message was something the Communist Party perpetually emphasised throughout their cultural depictions, even after the 1917 revolution gave them power. Eisenstein therefore helped solidify the “enemy” in the people’s minds as the petty bourgeoisie and Tsarist remnants that were depicted so menacingly in his film.

Perhaps the epitome of the brilliant director/propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl. A filmmaker of great daring, capable of arousing fierce emotions through sweeping camera angles and dramatic displays of pomp and reverence, she became an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Her Triumph of the Will (1935), depicting the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremburg is a cinematic masterpiece. Stunning aerial shots, long focus lenses, thrilling music and exemplary editing of the Nazi leaders’ speeches create a spectacle of raw power. Those watching at the time would have found it difficult to dismiss the Nazi message of a return to German greatness. It remains the finest propaganda film ever made and, despite its overt support of the Nazis, was not dismissed as such.

One of many awe-inspiring stills from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will

Any attempts today to present a similar message through film struggles to succeed. For a start, Riefenstahl’s success offers a stark reminder of the detrimental role film can play on one’s emotions and reasoning. People have become more wary of such presentiments. Additionally, despite its overt nature, The Triumph of the Will still possessed a subtlety in its message. It let the footage speak for itself. No need for a voiceover or dramatic reconstructions by actors; just a powerful message from a powerful party in an arena of mass jubilation. When looking at Sanping Han’s recent propaganda efforts for the CCP, they pale in comparison. Overly-explicit dialogue, coupled with blatant historical revisionism, means the films possess none of the subtlety of the earlier propaganda cinema. Rather, they offer a rather embarrassing spectacle that serves to diminish the CCP’s reputation rather than enhance it.

That is not to say that effective propaganda films do not still exist. Michael Moore’s documentaries are a fine example. For instance, his Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) presented a completely prejudiced account of the Bush administration’s response to the Twin Tower attacks, using cleverly-scripted voiceovers to give an impression of gross incompetence on the Republican government’s part. Yet, the politicians targeted were given no opportunity to expand on their decisions through interview. The film being released shortly before the 2004 US Presidential Election was surely no coincidence, as campaigns to remove Bush began in earnest in democratic circles. Moore’s “ultra-liberalism” is therefore as potentially dangerous to the historical record of events and people as any other propaganda film message. This did not stop Moore from being showered with awards for his clearly biased portrayal of a watershed event in global history.

Moore's much-heralded film was a sinister propaganda piece

The history of film is thus infused with propaganda pieces, ranging widely in their effectiveness and subtlety. The best films of this nature are invariably those made by pioneering directors who used cinematic techniques to sidetrack the audience from the more radical elements of a particular message. When Riefenstahl portrayed Hitler at Nuremburg people got the impression of a man of great power and leadership, rather than concerning themselves with what he was actually saying. Whether we are historians or not, we should always be wary of overt propaganda pieces in film. They may often appear phoney and unbelievable, but their appeal to emotion is a powerful mass weapon.

Historical Inaccuracies in Film

In contrast to overt propaganda movies, which willingly distort the truth for political effect, other history films alter fact in the name of fiction. This may seem a harmless enough procedure given that the purpose of movies is to entertain. However, when depicting real events and real people, one must be careful not to portray their fictitious versions as a definitive characterisation of the original. Too often history films claiming to be based on archival research and academic advice fall somewhat short of scholarly accuracy, making them just as misleading, if not as politically potent, as deliberate propaganda films.

A recent example of this historical perversion in film comes from The King’s Speech (2010) by Tom Hooper. Focusing on King George VI’s difficulties in overcoming a debilitating stutter with the help of an Australian speech therapist, the film suggests “Bertie” struggled for years to overcome his problem. It is even shown in the film that the impediment had not been brought under control by the time World War Two began, seven years after George VI acceded to the throne. In reality, Bertie’s stammer had been overcome in the space of a few months in the 1920s, before he was king. It also offers a rather debatable characterisation of King Edward VIII, who abdicated in favour of Bertie, and the royal family’s political involvement in general. Such changes for the sake of drama may seem trivial to the average movie-goer. Yet they irk historians. In a profession keen to improve its engagement with the public at large, such movies play a detrimental role in historical education. As with the propaganda films, the power of cinema makes the events being viewed seem believable, meaning more people are likely to take their historical cues from a film rather than a well-researched book. When politicians and social theorists continue to emphasise the importance of having an appreciation for one’s national history, such films hamper the process of awareness.

Colin Firth as King George VI - The King's Speech was entertaining but historically misleading

Biographical dramas are particularly vulnerable to historical alteration. Making a movie about a boring, unpleasant or uninteresting individual is hardly going to have people flocking to the cinema. Therefore, mythologizing becomes a reality of these films. Take Amadeus (1984) by Milos Forman for instance. Yes, it was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer, thus hinting at its fictionalised nature. Yet the film still claimed to be based on real events. Which parts are real are naturally not elaborated upon. Therefore, with Tom Hulce portraying Mozart as a childish buffoon whose demise is brought about by the scheming of F. Murray Abraham’s insanely-jealous Antonio Salieri, we have a film whose only historical accuracy is the names used. How such seemingly innocent historical misinterpretations come to be taken as fact by so many is brilliantly highlighted by an episode of The Simpsons. In “Margical History Tour”, Marge Simpson takes the liberty of enlightening her children about the life and works of Mozart. However, as Lisa quickly points out, Marge’s “history lesson” is based on the movie Amadeus rather than real historical events, to which Marge acts dismissively. Therefore, though it is unlikely that Forman wanted to mislead people over Mozart’s history, it is surprising how easily popular culture is taken at face value, particularly when a film begins with the fated words “based on true events”. From King Arthur to William Wallace, Michael Collins to J. Edgar Hoover, people from history are “dressed-up” for a wider audience. Though directors quickly point out after the film that they never intended their works to be completely historically accurate, they are happy enough for you to believe that they are while you are watching them.

Tom Hulce clowning around as Mozart in Amadeus

This may seem like a petty attack on a popular medium which provides entertainment to many and spruces up the dull aspects of history. Yet the fact remains that, whether it is desirable or not, history is often far less glamorous than it is portrayed on screen. Such portrayals lead to misunderstandings, inaccurate nationalist convictions, and a devaluing of proper historical research. They may not be as blatant as the overt propaganda films of the Nazis or the Chinese government flunkies but in their own way contribute to the misrepresentation of history and reality in the public domain.

Radical Revival?: economic depression and political extremism

With persistent panic and media scaremongering over the “Eurozone crisis”, coupled with genuinely unstable global financial conditions, the economic malaise of the past few years looks set to deteriorate once again.

Historically, periods of economic hardship have been accompanied by an increase in popularity for extremist politics. The most obvious example to cite is the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany after hyperinflation and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Yet, many other examples from the twentieth century exist. Therefore, with several prominent economic analysts and doomsayers claiming the current “crisis” as the worst since 1929, are we seeing, or going to see, a revival of mainstream radical politics?

This article shall endeavour to answer this question by comparing historical precedents with contemporary trends. Particular attention shall be given to the three main reasons why people have historically looked towards extremist politics during times of economic woe. Namely, the offer of a radical alternative to the centrist parties widely regarded as culpable for economic collapse; the use and denigration of scapegoats to direct the anger of the economically oppressed; and the presence of charismatic leaders, whose populism rather than policies lifts people in times of gloom.

In an attempt to offer a broad spectrum of political extremism, historical examples shall be taken from revolutionary Russia, Nazi Germany, and Spain during the Civil War.

Political extremism as an alternative to centrist parties

A period of sustained economic malaise is often seen by the people as a failure of the political system to protect their interests. When that system is well-established, with traditional powers of hierarchy and bureaucracy, a change is usually deemed necessary. Whether this just means the election of a new party into the existing corridors of power or an upheaval of the system itself often depends on the severity of the crisis.

In pre-1917 Russia, the imperialist Tsars of the Romanov dynasty had held power for several centuries, governing in an autocratic and apolitical fashion. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had done little to improve the lot of the Russian peasantry, many of whom gradually migrated to the growing urban centres in the hope of finding work. There they were exposed to radical new political ideas, which advocated an overthrow of the existing Tsarist system as a means of alleviating the poverty and mistreatment of the common man. The Communists, led by the charismatic exile Vladimir Lenin, saw the persistence of monarchical rule and its loyal servants as the reason for the mass impoverishment of the Russian people. In 1917, during a period of acute starvation and destitution during the First World War, the people finally embraced this new left-wing ideology as their saviour and overthrew the Tsarist regime. When once before the revered status of the Tsars may have prevented mass politicisation and agitation amongst the working class, now was the time for change. With Russia having been dragged into a brutal war by the monarchy and its economy all but destroyed, the peasantry sought the radical overthrow of the existing system to be replaced with an extreme form of government.

Bolshevik forces march on Red Square during the 1917 Revolution

Whilst not as revolutionary in terms of political upheaval, the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany also resulted from an unprecedented downturn in economic conditions. Having held onto power during the hyperinflation years between 1921 and 1924, during which Hitler’s failed Munich Putsch occurred, the Weimar Republic appeared to enter a more stable economic phase where it had staved off the rise of extremist politics. The new Rentenmark currency and American loans papered over the cracks for several years. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 resulted in the US calling for its loans to be repaid and revealed the massive structural debt of the country as a whole, and that of its struggling citizens in particular. This worsened economic environment gave Hitler and the Nazi Party the platform they needed to orchestrate the overthrow of the Weimar regime, which was quickly being regarded as overly-archaic and bureaucratic by the German population. Whilst Hitler worked within the existing political system for several years, during which support for the extremist Nazi vision rose steadily, on being appointed Chancellor he seized his opportunity to dismantle the Weimar regime and establish a dictatorship. The reason such a momentous manoeuvre was even possible was because of the population’s detestation of a political establishment that had not only surrendered to the Allies at the end of the First World War, but led them into an economic climate that made mere survival a struggle.

Thrown into a similarly undesirable economic situation after 1929, Spain saw an explosion of radical politics and contradictory ideologies gain popularity in the early 1930s. Unlike with the Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany, no one political grouping received majority public support in Spain after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931. The Second Spanish Republic that replaced the monarchy was at first welcomed as a progressive change to a traditionalist institution associated with the financial strife of the country. However, when it soon became clear that the new Socialist-Republican government was unable to reverse the economic woe, the various political factions that had developed during the unpopular monarchical period gained in prominence. For the conservatives, fascists and military factions, the democratic reforms embedded in the new Spanish constitution of 1931 were too left-leaning and represented an undesirable break with the traditional values of the past. For the communist and anarchist factions that had also surged in popularity, the reforms did not go far enough to overthrow the hated political and economic system. Consequently, an unstoppable process of factional rivalry evolved in a bid to eliminate the centrist politics of Spain along widely diverging ideological lines. Without the economic depression and monarchical inefficiency after the First World War, these factions may not have arisen with such popularity. However, such was the desire to overthrow the system held responsible for imparting these troubling times on the people that wildly-different groups of radicals emerged in a process that would lead to civil war.

As of yet, Europe has not succumbed to political upheaval on this level, which was a result of the bitter economic legacy left by the First World War and the Wall Street Crash. However, that is not to say that radical politics have not once more taken root in certain countries, albeit within the existing political systems. The largely centrist and moderate parties that led Europe’s leading countries through the years of economic boom no longer command the sort of respect they once did, whilst more marginal groupings have begun to make political ground.

Since the global economic downturn of 2008, more radical political parties have made progress within the parliamentary system. In Scandinavia, for instance, the True Finns and Danish People’s Party, both considered as socially right-wing, have become the third largest parties in their respective countries. The Slovak National Party, which many critics deem as having ultranationalist tendencies, now forms part of that country’s coalition government. Even in Great Britain, the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament in 2010, despite its overtly extreme policies. Whilst none of these parties can consider themselves to have the support of the majority of their country’s population, this “turn to the right” in Europe has alarmed some analysts, given the historical link between economic depression and extremist politics.

The response to the True Finns parliamentary success was not entirely appreciated

Fortunately, there has yet to be any sustained extra-parliamentary movements against existing political systems in Europe. This was the phenomenon that made the Nazi Party and the Russian Communists so dangerous and contributed to the civil strife in 1930s Spain. Whilst large-scale demonstrations and riots have been evident in many European cities over enforced austerity measures, Athens being the most obvious example, they have not been tied to any extremist political movements. However, the potential for radical politicians to exploit such public anger is a cause for concern.

Even in the USA, a country that prides itself on its liberal and democratic principles, the right-wing has made a revival. The Tea Party movement, associated with ultra-conservative social beliefs and Christian evangelism, has become such a prominent force in American politics that the current nominees for the Republican presidential candidacy have had to pander to their desires. All the leading contenders have set out their stance as anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage candidates who favour massive tax cuts despite the economic situation. This is an example of how radical political groupings, no matter what their size, can influence public opinion to such an extent that leading political parties have to alter their stance. Thus the potential exists for traditionally centrist parties to take more radical policy lines simply as a means of retaining power, rather than allowing their votes to be subsumed by more marginal and extreme groups. Whilst no threat is currently posed to the existing political systems of the Western World, another economic downturn could see radical politics infiltrating traditional power structures, which could have a significant impact on society.

Scapegoats for economic depression

A further reality of an economic depression is that people naturally look for a person, or group, to blame for the unwanted situation. Very often, large swathes of the population neglect to factor in the geopolitical circumstances in which an economic downturn has occurred, or remain ignorant to the fact that they have been outliving their means. Whatever the situation is, people look for scapegoats. This tendency is consequently exploited by ruthless political parties seeking to popularise their radical ideas.

In revolutionary Russia, the Communists sought to exploit existing class-based tensions to make the “rich” the culprits for the mass impoverishment that existed amongst the lower classes. Never mind the fact that Russia was immersed in a brutal war and had suffered consecutive years of atrocious weather and bad harvests; the aristocracy and bourgeoisie were presented as the economic oppressors. Through effective propaganda, and the harnessing of existing distrust between the classes, the Communists convinced a majority of the working population that the bourgeoisie were the unscrupulous minions of the capitalist elite, seeking to squeeze every penny from the poor through their ownership of the means of production. As a result, the Communists engineered sufficient support against a shared enemy, which helped lead to the 1917 revolution and the murder of the Romanov rulers. Not only that, but during the subsequent establishment of the Communist state, hundreds of thousands of “bourgeois” collaborators were sent to the GULAGs or executed by state-sponsored death squads. Countless other professionals from the Tsarist period fled into exile, where their talents were put to good use. Whilst some of the bourgeoisie undoubtedly increased the burden of the poor through the imposition of low wages and long hours, to discriminate so freely against an indeterminate proportion of the population was a ploy of the Communist exploitation of the economic depression. Without it, their creation of a repressive state may have proved impossible.

With regards to Germany, the scapegoats for the post-war depression were not class defined, but race defined. After 1929 the Nazis accelerated their anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns, exploiting traditional anti-Semitic beliefs in the country and the status of Jews as the chief money-lenders and financiers of Germany. Rather than focusing on their industriousness, the Nazis pointed to Jewish greed and economic subversion which resonated with millions of Germans desperate to pin the blame for their destitution on a tangible entity. How anti-Semitism degraded to such horrifying levels is still difficult to comprehend. Yet the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, seized their chance to portray the Jews as the economic enemies of the people, from which developed their more renowned ideologies regarding racial impurity and physical degeneration. Again, without that particular economic climate that existed after the Wall Street Crash, compounding the misery of war reparations, it is unlikely the Nazi Party would have been able to ride to power on predominantly anti-Jewish sentiment. By identifying the Jews as the cause of economic woe, the Nazis had a ready-made solution to fix the problem: eliminate the Jewish presence in society.

This Nazi propaganda poster from 1932 links Jews with the development of capitalism, communism, and socialism.

Because of the confused state of Spanish society and politics in the 1930s, a number of economic scapegoats were identified by equally-persuasive factional groups. This unique situation helped contribute to the beginning of a civil war, rather than a dictatorship. For the socialist and communist radicals, the monarchical legacy of rich landowners and patronised nobles created an endemic economic weakness that the majority of the population suffered under. As with the Russian revolutionaries, their attribution of blame was class-based. For the extreme left-wing anarchists, on the other hand, it was the political establishment in general that was the culprit for economic depression. In perhaps the most popular anarchist movement in history, the state itself was targeted as a useless entity that engendered mismanagement of funds and the impoverishment of workers.

On the right of the political spectrum, meanwhile, the conservative military saw the agitation of the workers as the cause for economic struggle in itself. Rather than working at full capacity, they were deemed to be preoccupied with counter-productive protests, supported by a socialist-led government that upset traditional hierarchies. The extreme-right Falange, the Spanish Fascists organised in 1933, held the left-leaning government in even greater contempt. Yearning for a return to state intervention and planning, as well as the nationalisation of key industries, the Falange saw Bolshevism as the cause of economic meltdown. They detested the infiltration of foreign ideologies, which they believed heightened agitation amongst the workers. In a country with low levels of foreign immigration, any outsider was considered a subversive by the Falangists, who demanded the return of a strong Spain. Perhaps most bizarre of all these factions, however, were the Carlists. With their supporters largely congregated in the agricultural north of the country, the Carlists were ultra-traditionalist Catholics who deemed modernity itself as the economic enemy. Distrusting any ideological strand of thought, from liberalism to communism, the Carlists called for the return of a Bourbon monarchy, which they believed the only sound form of government. With so many well-supported factions identifying their own scapegoats for the economic troubles of Spain, a “blame culture” developed within the Iberian nation that led to a confrontation of society on the grandest scale. It was a unique event in history, borne out of the economic circumstances of the time.

So, who is to blame for the current economic crisis in the Western world? Have political groups identified their own scapegoats? Thus far, blame has largely been restricted to individual political parties within the democratic systems of the West. Unlike in the post-1929 era, there has been little significant parliamentary challenge to traditional methods of rule. Governments have been toppled, but the system has remained in place. Rather, the causes of our current economic struggle have largely been seen as three-fold: 1) The greed of bankers and the failure of the banking system; 2) the apathy and expense of the ‘Welfare State’; 3) the over-bureaucratisation of society.

Public anger at the economy has largely been directed towards bankers

Unlike in the past, these perceived contributors to economic criminality cannot be easily-defined as targetable groups. Yes, protests have been launched in most capital cities against bankers’ bonuses and unsafe lending. But is anyone really suggesting getting rid of bankers? If so, it would be a minority. For the reality is, we need them now more than ever. As for those benefitting from the ‘Welfare State’, they are typically the people who have been the driving-force of radical politics in the past. Because the poorer classes suffer most during economic depression, they are often those most tempted by radical alternatives, and take heart from the identification of scapegoats. But when they themselves are the scapegoats for economic waste, there is unlikely to be the same level of enthusiasm for changing the system. Bureaucrats too are difficult to single-out because of their close ties with the existing political establishment, which is not yet under serious threat.

However dissatisfied some people might be, the level of anger directed against the contemporary political and economic systems is not comparable to the early twentieth century. Equally, there does not seem to be a shared opposition to particular societal groups, as there was against the Jews in Nazi Germany for instance.

It is true that the people of the Scandinavian nations have shown a degree of general mistrust towards foreign immigrants into what are their traditionally homogenous societies. This may explain the rise in popularity in right-wing political parties there. However, as of yet, none of these groups threatens to take control of the country. Meanwhile, individual acts of terror by right-wing lunatics like Anders Behring Breivik are often highlighted as an example of a society becoming infused with extremist ideologies. Yet, as with the recent discovery of a vicious neo-Nazi cell in Germany, these are one-off incidents. They are not linked to a wider mass movement that threatens political control, as was the case in the turbulent days of post-WWI.

Populist Leaders

Perhaps the most obvious absence from today’s economic climate compared to the past is that of the populist leader. Historically, economic downturns have offered charismatic, radical politicians the opportunity to spread the appeal of their particular ideologies. With people far more willing to listen to extremist ideas during periods when mainstream policy is deemed to have failed them, the more opportunistic leaders take their chance through utilising their own personal appeal.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, the Communist Party was effective in championing the personal virtues of Lenin, even when he was consigned to exile. Such an aura was developed around his persona that when he returned to Russia in April 1917, Lenin was revered as a saviour of the people. Exploiting this chance, Lenin outlined his most radical vision of communism to date in his ‘April theses’, using his persuasive public speaking powers to secure his popular mandate. The combined effects of his exploits, real and imagined, coupled with effective propaganda ensured Lenin was able to direct the building of the new communist state, a monumental challenge given the departure from monarchical rule.

Lenin charismatically directed the anger of the masses

Whilst Lenin was a great speech-maker, Adolf Hitler was unsurpassable as an orator. His well-orchestrated, powerful speeches became a hallmark of Nazi rule and earned him the support of large swathes of the German population who might otherwise have been repulsed by his outlandish policies. As with Lenin, and later Joseph Stalin, Hitler was popularised further by an effective propaganda campaign, in his case directed by Joseph Goebbels. The “Hitler Myth” as it has come to be known, portrayed Hitler as a demi-God come to rescue the German people from economic disaster and Jewish subversion. Hitler’s populism played on people’s emotions rather than their reason, a ploy that would not have had the same success during a time of economic stability.

Hitler's oratory power captivated millions

Part of the reason Spain fell into rival factional groups of similar strength in the 1930s was because of the prevalence of populist leaders. From Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of the fascist Falangists, who relied on martial pomp and extensive political writing; to Dolores Ibárruri, known as La Pasionaria (passion flower), who spearheaded the Communist Party with matriarchal strength that attracted men and women alike; to General Francisco Franco, whose authoritarian nature and championing of a “nationalist patriotic” cause enabled him to mobilise millions of supporters during the Civil War even though he had no political policies or experience to speak of, charismatic leaders existed. They ruthlessly took advantage of the impoverishment of large segments of the population to turn Spaniards against one another in the hope that this would lead to their empowerment. The bloodshed that reigned in Spain between 1936 and 1939 is testament to the various leaders’ powers of persuasion.

La Pasionaria was a Communist inspiration in impoverished Spain

Contemporary politics in the West is not exhibiting this trend of increasing numbers of populist leaders that occurred during the economic hardships of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, it could be argued that few of today’s leaders are anything more than moderates, who prefer drawn-out negotiations to radical action. Just look at the ongoing wrangling in Europe. This perhaps explains why radical politics has largely been kept away from the mainstream despite the economic climate in which extreme ideologies might appeal.

Some current examples of populist politicians do exist, however. Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns, utilised his “brain, wit and charisma” to popularise his radical brand of Eurosceptic, nationalist politics so that he was the most voted-for candidate in the 2011 Finnish parliamentary elections. A contrasting example would be Silvio Berlucsoni, whose inexplicable retention of power amidst public scandal and huge national debt in Italy was largely a result of his unique brand of populist politics. Yet, when you think of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, or even Franco, there are no contemporary equals in the West. This will no doubt please the majority of readers, though it is somewhat of a surprise considering our supposedly awful economic predicament.

Today’s reality

This essay has tried to demonstrate that, despite many analysts claiming us to be in an economic depression comparable to the post-WWI period, extremist politics has not taken route in contemporary Western society as it did in the 1920s and ‘30s. The reasons for this are two-fold.

Firstly, notions of democracy and liberal values are far more entrenched in today’s Western world. After WWI, democracy was still a largely-distrusted political ideology that cannot be said to have been well-established anywhere, with the possible exception of the US. Consequently, the departure to radical politics in a time of economic want was not as great as it would be today, when democracy has become an accepted norm of the Western political system. Therefore, when looking for economic scapegoats, it is far harder for extremist parties to create a blame consensus towards a specific group of people when all men are considered equal in liberal-democratic societies. Such was not the case with the Jews in Nazi Germany or the bourgeoisie in Russia, when the possibility of racial and social inferiority was readily accepted.

The second reason why extremist politics are not flourishing at present is because the current economic depression has been frequently over-exaggerated by the Western media and opposition political parties. To compare our current economic status with the 1930s is absurd and, whilst people undoubtedly have to exercise more thrift in their daily affairs, this latest “crisis” is self-made. The horrific consequences of WWI created an endemic economic weakness in the Western world that could not be countered. Today’s malaise has largely resulted from greedy bankers, over-spending politicians and our own individual tendencies to live beyond our means and accumulate debt. The reason extremist politics don’t appeal to most today is because individuals know that they are largely to blame for their own situation. It is they that need to change, not the system. Analysts and “experts” need to be careful when they compare our current luxury to the destitution and terror of the 1930s.

Claiming Historical Figures for the Nationalist Agenda: the case of Jacques Cartier

It is a typicality of the present day that historical figures are taken as symbols, or representatives, of particular cultures and communities. These “great” individuals supposedly embody all the characteristics that are dear to the people that revere them. Indeed, this phenomenon is not consigned to the contemporary world but has always existed. People naturally look to the past and imbue individuals of great renown, more often than not men, with idealistic attributes. The idolisation of such men is often a part of forging a national or communal identity, and helps give a stable foundation to large groups of people.

Countless examples of these historical representatives could be selected. One need only think of Simon Bolivar, the great nineteenth-century liberator of South America, whose memory is still trumpeted in the guise of Bolivarianism by nationalist groups in Venezuela and Ecuador, looking to stave off American interference in their countries. There is Nelson Mandela, a living historical figure, who is almost universally-worshipped as a unifying force amongst disparate black South Africans; George Washington, the “founder” of a nation, who is widely regarded as a moral standard-bearer for white, protestant Americans; even Mao Tse-Tung, a slaughterer of millions, yet a person whose overpowering legacy of liberation unites a hugely unequal Han Chinese populace. The list could run for pages. Yet, what all these individuals have in common is that they are claimed by distinct groups of people, ranging considerably in size and make-up, to popularise and legitimise their cause.

Is this strange contemporary fascination with “great” individuals a positive influence on the study of history? Is it acceptable for one person’s memory to define a group of people? To examine these questions, this article will take the example of Jacques Cartier, the sixteenth-century French explorer who “discovered” Canada. For centuries, French-Canadian nationalists have invoked Cartier’s name as a symbol of a pride, and used his historical legacy as a counter to English encroachment on their lives. By studying the history of Cartier and Canada, we can see the troubling aspect of using historical figures for nationalist purposes, and the ambiguity it has for the historical profession.

Cartier in Canada

Jacques Cartier sailed from the French port of St. Malo in April 1534, accompanied by 61 men, to explore the lands beyond Newfoundland, where his fellow countrymen had plied their trade as fishermen for the previous two decades. Restricting his first voyage to the navigation and mapping of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cartier had nevertheless staked his claim as the discoverer of Canada.

Returning to this “new” territory in May 1535, this time with a fleet of 110 men, Cartier pressed on beyond the Gulf to the St. Lawrence River itself, a monumental step in the history of exploration. His guides down this majestic waterway were two Iroquoian Indians, who Cartier had seized on his first voyage the year before. Taignoagny and Dom Agaya, so they were named, steered the French to their home settlement of Stadacona by September. This location is better known today as Quebec City. In October, lured on by the mythical Kingdom of Saguenay, Cartier and a group of men traversed further down the St. Lawrence to another native settlement, named Hochelaga. Seeking a way past the rapids that obstruct the river’s natural flow at this point, Cartier climbed a nearby mountain to espy the view; he named it Mount Royal. The settlement standing there today retains the Francophone name of Montreal. Therefore, despite failing to find the riches of Saguenay, Cartier had inadvertently sealed his place as the original French-Canadian pioneer, having been the first man to visit the location of French Canada’s two greatest bastions.

It is consequently ironic that, on his third and final voyage in May 1541, Cartier’s attempt to establish the first permanent French settlement in Canada failed miserably. Under the command of the Sieur de Roberval, who remained in France to finish his preparations, Cartier led the first contingent of colonists to Cap-Rouge, a promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence, just a few miles upstream from Stadacona. Nevertheless, a combination of poor planning, indiscipline and brutally cold winter weather led Cartier to abandon his colony by June 1542, preferring to head back to France. On his return journey he encountered the outward-bound Roberval at Newfoundland, whom Cartier refused to accompany back to Canada. Roberval’s colonial attempt would fair just as badly, with the deteriorating relations with the natives Iroquoians, exacerbated by years of mistreatment by Cartier, not helping his cause.

Although he may have been the first Frenchman to navigate the St. Lawrence and discover the locations of present-day Quebec and Montreal, Jacques Cartier left no material legacy in Canada. Yet, this has not stopped French-Canadian nationalists ever since from invoking his name as the founder of their people, despite the more considerable accomplishments of his successors. Why has Cartier become such a key part of the nationalist agenda in Canada?

French-Canadian Nationalism and Cartier

In the past few decades in particular, English has become the dominant language of Canada, with 60% of the population choosing it as their first language, compared with 23% who nominate French as their mother tongue. The encroachment of English linguistics on Canadian national life, accompanied as it is by a more globalised and cosmopolitan culture, due to English’s status as the world’s preeminent language, has been seen as threat to French-Canadian culture and homogeneity. For people who see their ancestors as the original founders of white Canada, this apparent subordination of their language and lifestyle is understandably tough to take. It is therefore unsurprising that the so-called French “founders” of Canada are revered as symbols of French-Canadian unity, with Jacques Cartier being the oldest amongst them.

The reason that Cartier has seemingly assumed a status greater than the likes of Samuel de Champlain, the Sieur de Mons, Charles de Montmagny and other pioneers of “New France”, who actually helped to install a permanent French presence in Canada during the seventeenth century, has a lot to do with the way history has been used for the nationalist cause.

From the late eighteenth century, French-Canadian historians attempted to undermine the “English” direction of the country that had continued apace since their annexation of much of French Canada during the Seven Years War (1756-63).  These academics invoked the spirit of Jacques Cartier as the original French pioneer, a man who had claimed the territory of Canada for his country long before the English showed any interest in the region. The teaching of his voyaging accomplishments became commonplace in French-speaking schools, and grand re-enactments of Cartier’s first visits to Canada were organised at great cost to the public, inspiring pride amongst French-speakers in the process. One particular historian, Lionel Groulx, was a dogged champion of Cartier’s cause. Despite no supporting evidence, Groulx suggested Cartier was the first to bring Christianity to the country, claiming he was accompanied by Catholic priests on his second voyage.  The fact that no sources even document Cartier attempting to convert the natives to Christianity, let alone mention anything about Catholic priests, undermines such a claim, yet it was used to support a particular strain of French-Canadian nationalism, whose roots were religious as well as cultural. This particular strain of nationalistic thought was closely linked to Ultramontanism.

Subsequent French-language historians continued this distortion of myth and reality, whilst competing with the early Anglophone scholars of the country, such as Francis Parkman, who were quick to emphasise Cartier’s failure to establish a permanent settlement in Canada. The reality seems to suggest that Cartier was an expert explorer who had little desire in becoming a colonial leader, preferring instead to search for legendary lands of riches than preserve a stable settlement. He retreated to France at the first signs of trouble and never endeavoured to return after 1542.

Therefore, to suggest he was the first French-Canadian pioneer would seem foolhardy. Indeed, Cartier appeared to have little attachment to the country and places he gave names to. Yet, it is in these names, and the fact that Cartier visited them first, that he has retained his importance as a cultural bastion. As with any nationalist cause, people are selective about their use of history and invoke it as a means of retaining their cultural integrity and unity in times of change and threat. French-Canadians have used Cartier as a claim to their country, as a means of delineating themselves as the “true” Canadians. Whilst “impartial” historians may see the “mariner of St. Malo” in a more cynical light, the optimism Cartier has inspired amongst generations of French-Canadians is hard to argue with. It subsequently seems that the claiming of historical figures for the nationalist agenda has a more ambiguous role than one might naturally conclude.

Double-Edged Sword

The reverence paid by nationalist groups to historical figures can influence historiography in both a positive and negative fashion. For instance, the mass appeal of an individual amongst a group of people can inspire extensive historical study of the person in question and the period in which they lived. French-language scholarly works on Jacques Cartier are fairly numerous considering little primary evidence exists of his life and voyages. Such works would perhaps not have been commissioned had it not been for Cartier’s status amongst French-Canadian nationalists.

On the other hand, nationalist history always engenders the possibility for bias and false “truths”. Because the historical profession has a generally sound reputation for integrity and accuracy, most historical works are accepted as correct by non-academic readers in particular. This is problematic when one considers the varying motives for writing history. In Cartier’s case, as well as attributing a false religiosity to the navigator’s voyages to Canada, French-language histories have often silenced the voice of the native Iroquoians in the Cartier story. For example, there is no suggestion in these works that Cartier’s men may have caused physical harm to the natives, yet by his colonisation voyage of 1541 the Stadaconans were openly hostile towards the French; something must explain their change from originally pliant hosts. Furthermore, the very use of Cartier by French-Canadian nationalists as the original founder of Canada overlooks the fact that the Iroquoians, and various other indigenous groups were there first. Indeed, Canada is still home to over a million people who classify themselves as having Indian ethnicity. It is unlikely they take too kindly to the Franco-English dominance of their country’s history-writing.

Jacques Cartier offers an example of a significant historical individual who has been used to further the nationalist agenda and to help create a united French-Canadian history. This phenomenon has proved both a boon and a detriment to the historical profession in Canada. Whilst far more severe misuses of history exist – one need only look at the re-writing of history in Nazi Germany or the persisting textbook controversies over war guilt in Japan – Cartier is an example of how cultural rhetoric and doctrine can imbue individuals with mythological qualities, which their lives rarely stand up well to when opened to rigorous historical investigation. It is a warning to take note of who writes history, as much as what is written.

Select Bibliography

Bideaux, M. Jacques Cartier/Relations; édition critique par Michel Bideaux (Montreal, 1986)

Cartier, J., Biggar, H.P. & Cook, R. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (Toronto; Buffalo; London, 1993)

Gordon, A. The Hero and the Historians: historiography and the uses of Jacques Cartier (Vancouver, 2010)  (A particularly good study of Cartier’s use for the nationalist cause)

Groulx, L. La découverte du Canada: Jacques Cartier (Montreal, 1934)

Parkman, F. Pioneers of France in the New World (Boston, 1865)

Trudel, M. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (Montreal, 1963)