Erasing shameful moments in history is central to the white populist playbook

While Trump casts doubt on the cause of the Civil War, French and German populists try to minimize the crimes of the Holocaust.

Far-right candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Marine Le Pen in Paris, France, Saturday, April 29, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michel Euler
Far-right candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Marine Le Pen in Paris, France, Saturday, April 29, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michel Euler

The president of the United States began this week by expressing confusion over the root cause of the American Civil War.

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” President Donald Trump said during an interview on Sirius XM. “People don’t ask the question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The reasons for the Civil War are, of course, well documented — and for those who are still perplexed, multiple news outlets had already answered Trump’s rhetorical question within hours of when it first went public. The simple truth is that the Confederate states seceded in order to protect the slave labor system.

There isn’t any reasonable debate to be had over this. But by pretending otherwise, Trump was participating in a time-honored American political tradition. Segregationists, neo-Confederates, and other white populists have spent the past century and a half trying to retcon the Southern cause into something more innocuous or noble-sounding — something like “states’ rights.”


This is not just an American pastime. In fact, Trump’s fumbling attempt at revisionism mirrors the current efforts of French and German right-wing populists to erase their own national guilt.

Three weeks ago, Marine Le Pen, the French presidential candidate from the far-right National Front, claimed that France’s wartime Vichy government had not participated in the Holocaust. And just last week, the National Front’s interim party leader was forced to step down after he was discovered to be a Holocaust denier.

German politicians, for obvious reasons, have a harder time denying their country’s guilt in perpetuating genocide. But in January, a top official in the right-wing party AfD, drew serious heat for declaring that Germans need to stop atoning for the sins of the Third Reich. Referring to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Bjoern Hoecke said that Germans are “the only people in the world who planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital.” After some initial dithering, the AfD removed Hoecke from his post a few weeks later.

All political movements mold history to their own ends. But right-wing populists have a particular way of doing it that generally involves erasing or obfuscating the worst crimes their nations committed in the past. They replace a narrative of culpability with one of national victimhood, in which outside forces are to blame for unfairly sanctioning them and their ancestors. In the United States, that means redrafting a slave state as a noble lost cause; in France and Germany, it means handing off responsibility for one of the worst mass murders in history.