Truth must come before conveniently rewriting history – however uncomfortable that might be

The past is complex and accuracy must precede an easy narrative that reassures us our forebears behaved well

A portrait of French General Philippe Petain, published in the French newspaper ''L'Illustration" on August 4, 1917, is seen in this picture illustration taken November 8, 2018.  REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Illustration
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What unites Imelda Marcos, a 94-year-old former SS guard identified only as Johann R, and Marshal Philippe Petain of France? A dictator's widow famed for her shoe collection, a German pensioner who is currently being tried in a juvenile court for crimes allegedly committed when he was a teenager, and a French soldier who was a hero of the First World War, then accused of being a traitorous collaborator with the Nazis in the Second World War, might not appear to have much in common.

What brings the trio together now is history: the attempt to correct it, in the case of the first two, and an attempt to change it by a politically convenient but false over-correction in the third.

For history is often not settled, even when we think that it is, and verdicts that we assumed to have been final can be overturned. This can be perilous, momentous and consequential – for nothing less than the truth is at stake.

It is easy for an outside world that does not pay close attention to Philippine politics, for instance, to feel sure, given that the late Ferdinand Marcos was once declared to be the second most corrupt leader of all time (by the NGO Transparency International), that his crimes and ill repute would preclude any family members from attaining high office.

Quite the opposite has been the case, however. His son Ferdinand Jr is a former senator and nearly won the vice presidency in 2016, his daughter Imee is a provincial governor and his widow Imelda has served multiple terms in the country's congress. The Marcos family appeared to be well on the way to a public redemption that some considered premature and others outrageous – which is why the fact that Imelda Marcos was sentenced to 42 years in prison for corruption charges last Friday is so significant.

(FILES) This file photo taken on February 16, 2001 shows Philippines' former first lady Imelda Marcos (2nd L) accompanied by tourism official Marides Fernando as she looks at her shoe collection, after formally opening the suburban Marikina Shoe Museum in Manila. Imelda Marcos was found guilty of corruption on November 9, 2018 and ordered arrested in a rare conviction for the former Philippine first lady accused with her late dictator husband of embezzling billions of dollars from state coffers. / AFP / Joel NITO

Due to appeals and her age of 89, Marcos might never serve time behind bars. But the sentence is a rebuke to the indulgence recently granted to her husband’s memory. It will stand as a historical signpost that will make it harder for his misdeeds to be whitewashed in the future.

The case of Johann R shows that it is never too late for states to act on crimes and injustices and that it is in fact crucial that they still do so, decades after the relevant offences were committed, to stop false or incomplete versions of history becoming commonly accepted.

The former guard is being tried in a juvenile court because he was between 18 and 20 when he allegedly took part in the operations of a Nazi death camp in Poland. His trial is important because it is one of those conducted since 2011, when the standard of proof of involvement in such crimes was lowered. Despite there being no specific charges against him, the argument is that he must have known what was going on. A generation of Germans who previously protested ignorance are no longer being afforded that protection and presumption of innocence. This marks a notable calibration in the country’s reckoning with its history and a commendable effort to confront the truth, however painful.

With Petain, the effort is in the other direction – not to shed more light and nuance on France's history but to oversimplify it in a way that might be more comfortable. In doing so, however, there is also an outright denial of the facts. President Emmanuel Macron ran into trouble last week when he said it was "right that we honour the marshals who led France to victory" in the First World War. He specifically included Petain, adding correctly that he was "a great soldier". Mr Macron was immediately and widely attacked, with a French Jewish association saying: "The only thing we will remember about Petain is that he was the embodiment of the national shame of the French people during his trial in 1945".

That Petain ended up running a collaborationist regime in the Second World War is true. But it is also indisputable that the affection and admiration which the “hero of Verdun” earned in the previous war was one of the main reasons the country turned to him as France fell to Hitler’s armies in 1940. He was genuinely popular and his ascent to power was entirely legitimate.

A teacher holds a banner that reads, "Liquidation of the general status of the civil service. Back to square Petain" during a nationwide strike to denounce the abolition of posts in the national education system in Rennes, westen France on November 12, 2018.  / AFP / DAMIEN MEYER

In the face of the protests, Mr Macron backed down. But he should not have done. His earlier self-defence – "I'm not forgiving anything, but I'm not going to erase anything from our history" – was correct. Ironically, the way in which Petain is being viewed today is more one-sided than it was for generations after 1945, when French presidents sent a wreath to his grave every Remembrance Day on November 11 until the 1990s. Previously, they could live with the troubles of moral ambiguity. Today, apparently, that is unacceptable.

That is dangerous. History is complex and truth must come before the ease of narratives that reassure us that our forebears acted well, and that bad deeds can be blamed on an unrepresentative few. Remembering and finding out the truth is surely more necessary than ever when an American president can mix up the Baltics and the Balkans and criticise the former for what happened during the break-up of Yugoslavia, as Donald Trump is reported to have done at a White House meeting earlier this year.

Whether history will be kind or not, and to whom, is a matter for future generations. But their judgments will be worthless if they are not based on truth and accuracy. This is what these three cases are about. To quote the great 20th century Guardian editor CP Scott: "Comments are free but facts are sacred". If we are not to reduce history to distortion, propaganda and sanctimony, we must give comment due space. But we must insist above all on the sanctity of facts – and real facts at that, for the only place "alternative facts" exist is in an alternative universe.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia