Carol Gluck


George Sansom Professor of History, Department of History, Columbia University

Carol Gluck Webpage

ABSTRACT | National Pasts as Political Presents: A Dilemma for Our (All) Time

Two premises: First, national pasts are always present, always political, and always selective. Second, current historical revisions do not differ in essence from earlier manipulations, social media and mistrust of authority notwithstanding.  Three questions: First, why do we see the wave of nationalism (a more widely salient category than populism) in such diverse contexts at the same contemporary moment, and why is history so prominent an instrument in the nationalist arsenal –why the weaponizing of the past?  Second, What are the patterns of past revision (suppression, distortion, falsehood) and what impels them to persist or to change? Third, what are the limits on ideological or even fanciful reworkings of history and what is the role of historians in the realm of public memory? The subject here are the vexed geopolitical memories of the Second World War in East Asia, the recent chronology of which parallels those in Eastern Europe. Focusing on the comfort women, the sex slaves of the wartime Japanese military, now so central in the politics of war memory in Asia, I trace how the comfort women “came into memory” during the 1990s, with global reverberations in five areas (law, testimony, rights, politics, and notions of responsibility).   This positive arc is countered by the newly heated politics around the “comfort women issue” in the present decade, leading to what I call “hate nationalism” among  youth and to geopolitical conflict between China, South Korea, and Japan.