Dr. Alan Whitehorn: Renaming History

Dr. Alan Whitehorn is a poet, professor emeritus of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, and is an Aurora Forum Goodwill Ambassador and is also the author of several books on genocide, including The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide. The following article is reprinted with his permission from 168, a Yerevan, Armenia newspaper, where it was originally published on July 20, 2021. It can be found online here.

Article by Dr. Alan Whitehorn

This year has seen mass demonstrations and concerted efforts to rename streets and buildings and even remove statues that had been dedicated to past leaders, who are now being re-evaluated for their earlier problematic words and deeds. Two prominent examples have emerged in recent days. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement confronted the legacy of slavery, ongoing racial inequality and injustice and troubling police killings of unarmed black citizens. In Canada, the general public was shocked by the macabre discovery of the bones of hundreds of aboriginal residential school children found in several mass unmarked graves. These are the first of many such sites expected to be unearthed.

Reactions to these dramatic events have varied greatly. Considerable debate has emerged about the revisionist historical process. However, reassessing past leaders is not new. It was, in fact, commonplace after revolutions when the ‘ancien regime’ was overthrown. For example, the city of Saint Petersburg, originally founded by Tsar Peter the Great, became known as Petrograd in the early days of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and later with the death of Lenin in 1924, the name changed again and became the Soviet city of Leningrad. Similarly, the Volga River town once known by its royalist label Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad in the 1920s, in honour of the then dictator of the Soviet Union. Several decades later, as part of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization programme, the city was renamed once more as Volgograd.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of 14 newly independent states, prominent cities and places, once named after famous Russians and communists, were frequently renamed by local nationalist governments. In Armenia, the former Tsarist city of Alexandropol had been relabelled Leninakan in the revolutionary soviet 1920s, but after Armenia’s national independence, the city was first called Kumayri and later in the early 1990’s allocated its current name of Gyumri.

But renaming can take place not only to correct perceived historical injustices, it can also occur to promote and accentuate past criminal deeds. For example, as the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Turkish Republic after World War One, the state-sponsored renaming of cities and regions was used to mask the location of past genocidal deeds and erase the knowledge and memories about the vast numbers of victims. For example, local-based missionaries and sailors on nearby foreign ships had been witnesses in 1922 to mass killings and burning of the Aegean sea-side city of Smyrna, where hundreds of thousands of Christian civilians were forced to flee and tens of thousands perished in the Turkish arsonist attacks upon the Greek and Armenian sectors. With the Greeks and Armenians violently removed, the once Hellenic city was renamed to the Turkish Izmir.

In North America, countless aboriginal place names have been supplanted by colonial ones. The Mikmaq village name of Kjipuktuk (Chebucto) became the British naval port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Victorious conquering white military and political leaders were lauded in imperial government decrees and in compulsory state-directed school textbooks. Most older citizens have been raised on such skewed accounts. The time is long overdue to rewrite the antiquated textbooks and relabel places named after flawed historical figures. How fast and how far is still to be resolved.

But it may useful to consider that just as we 21st century citizens judge those from earlier eras, so too we will be evaluated for our words and deeds, including our woeful inaction on lessening poverty, injustice and allowing global catastrophes such as ongoing wars, genocide and environmental destruction. We have much for which to be criticized. But one thing is evident. History has been characterized by several millennia of military domination and cultural genocide, even by famous Greeks and Romans in antiquity. Just ask any Trojan or Carthaginian descendant, if you can find one. ‘Who writes history?’ is the key question confronting us all.

4 Comments

  • Doug Matthews

    September 21, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    A very timely and informative article. I would like to also suggest that there is a second question and that is, “Should we erase ‘bad’ history entirely or keep just enough to remind us it was ‘bad?'” One of the best cases in point I can think of is Nazi Germany. The Germans today have reluctantly owned up to their past and kept just enough to remind us of it horrors. There is an excellent museum in Nuremberg where many of the Nazi rally grounds from the 1930s have been preserved. The museum fully explains the entire period in German history in great detail. Of course, in terms of later years, what remains of the Berlin Wall is another reminder, also with accompanying museums. There are many other examples, and not just in Germany, that can help to guide us.

  • Nigel Van Loan

    September 21, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    Methinks that Dr Whitehorn is somewhat cavalier in his account of the Residential Schools saga: the existence of so-called “mass graves” — where that is usually understood to mean a large, single hole containing many remains —has not been established in the vicinity of any former residential school site. Rather, and as reported in the findings of the TRC Commission, there are many instances of fields of unmarked graves — some of which may have originally had markers that have since decayed or been removed.

  • Michel Charron

    September 22, 2021 at 11:44 am

    Excellent point Nigel. One must also be reminded that I believe First Nations seldom marked their own graves with the names of deceased and maintained them over time.

  • 11088 Howard Hisdal

    September 22, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    I teach both Indigenous history and military history at Okanagan College. As a Second World War historian, my idea of a mass grave is a gravel pit and a machine gun. First Nations chiefs are no longer using the term “mass graves” and instead are using the more accurate term “unmarked graves.” I like the idea of putting up more plaques and more statues to educate and re-interpret, not tearing down what little history we have. I tell my students that future generations will condemn them for things they are not aware of, or even worse, for things they are doing that they think are virtuous.