Google was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to grant members of the public the ‘right to be forgotten’. This will allow individuals to exercise more control about what appears about them (or doesn’t, in this case) in the public domain. Google has expressed disappointment, and I know that many historians will be uneasy with the implication that a company could be legally compelled to remove a piece of information if asked.
The destruction of history has been going on for a long time. One of the craziest figures of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was Akhenaten, who tried to remove the power of the cult of Amun by worshiping the Aten instead, and making himself the god’s main intermediary. It was all very Henry VIII. So anyway, things eventually went south for Akhenaten, and his rivals managed to hustle in Tutankamun, who may or may not have been Akenaten’s son, as a puppet ruler. They also committed damnatio memoriae by removing his name from a bunch of monuments, and this is one of the main reasons why our knowledge of the guy is so shaky. That said, we do still know who he was.
So, damnatio memoriae doesn’t exactly work. However, I thought it might be interesting to contrast Akenaten with Hitler. They definitely aren’t a direct comparison. Akhenaten did not, to the best of my knowledge, deliberately round up millions of ‘undesirable’ minorities and murder them. However, he did preside over a period of massive upheaval and was subject to a consensus criticism. The big contrast for this topic is that while Akenaten’s successors thought his ideas were so dangerous that they should be forgotten, the attitude to the Nazis has been that their crimes should never be forgotten, so that they are never repeated. Mein Kampf is available to buy on Amazon.
For me, the attitude towards Hitler and the Nazis is one that respects the power of history. There is an acceptance that the past cannot simply be whitewashed over. Furthermore, by suppressing the transmission of potentially dangerous ideas, you are acting like the very people you have sought to overthrow. That said, this is something of a false comparison, between two people separated by over 3,000 years, and very different circumstances. The whole world was involved in WW2, whereas Akhenaten and his successors were probably removed in a palace coup. It is much harder to whitewash over history when the whole world knows about it.
It was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings recently, and the memorials surrounding the event reminded me of something that has sat a little bit uneasy with me. ‘Least we forget’ and ‘Never again’ are phrases that are often used in conjunction with the two ‘World Wars’, but there have been many other wars with massive death tolls that are not similarly remembered. As we begin to slip out of living memory of the First World War, is it time to stop commemorating it – at least on such a large scale? It very much depends on our reasons, but if the main reason is something along the lines of ‘to make sure it never happens again’, then we have already failed. This was not ‘the war to end all wars’. I would put money on the probability that your country is currently involved in an ongoing conflict.
With the Google case, the important thing is that individuals can only exercise this right on their own behalf. The Conservatives can’t duck out of their embarrassment quite so easily. Furthermore, it seems as though there are caveats that the information has to be ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. That said, this does not seem to be the case with the precedent case, which was brought by a man called Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was annoyed that a search of his name brought up an old story about debts that he owed. Ironically Mr Gonzalez will now be suffering from Streisand Effect in that, by trying to suppress information about himself, he has made himself far more notorious.
Of course, this ruling only applies to the search engines that Mr Gonzales asks to remove links; not to the websites that host the pages themselves, or to other search engines, or to internet archives. The actual teeth of this ruling do not cut particularly deep into the facts of history, but they do set a nasty precedent; one that could lead to individuals censoring the section of the web that relates specifically to them.
If you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments section, below.