References to "Historical Justice" as a Long-Established Practice
22 June, 2017

With the help of Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko, Hromadske is launching a new series of articles on the history of international relations.

While the current geopolitical storm in Eastern Europe may seem unlike anything that’s come before it, the history of international relations can provide some much needed context. This is particularly important as world leaders, politicians and diplomats continue to reference historical justice to legitimize their political actions.

Writing for Hromadske, Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko explains that referencing so-called historical justice is not a new development in international diplomacy, but rather an age-old practice.

Russia's takeover of Crimea revealed a great deal of immediate and particularly baffling challenges for international law. This list includes the policy of praising a blatant land-grab as "the restoration of historical fairness." In the shadow of such rhetoric, we may wonder how the existing system of multilateral diplomacy is to withstand this peculiar style of legitimization.

While searching for the desired answer, one should remember that the idea of "correcting the wrongs" or "making the country great again" has been around for quite a while. The agenda of restorative justice has brought about war, destruction, and subjugation since earliest antiquity.

The mythological tradition of Ancient Greece, for instance, labeled the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese as the "Return of the Heracleidae." According to the story, the descendants of legendary Heracles took possession of the peninsula on the pretext that their glorious progenitor had ruled there in his time.

The Spartans were descended from the Dorians, who, as the "grand-children" of Heracles, reduced the local inhabitants of Laconia to serfdom. Painting on a Spartan vase. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1066, the Normans produced a very similar argument to justify the Conquest of England. The kingdom’s crown, they claimed, had been promised to William, ducal sovereign of Normandy, because he, along with his barons and knights, had every right to rule the invaded land. Such entitlement, in addition to other notions, was explained by the duke’s and his people’s descent from the ancient Trojans. The legends of the medieval epoch heralded that the monarchical polity of Britain had been founded by a band of Trojan drifters. Their leader and the first king of the Britons, as this fabula tells us, was a noble prince by the name of Brutus –the grandson of famous Aeneas. At the end of the 10th century, Normandy’s court historians concocted a genealogy that was to represent the dukedom’s population as the progeny of Antenor –another prince of the Trojan House. The dynasty of William the Conqueror and its Plantagenet successors (1154-1485) used said lineage to portray the 1066 debellatio as the Trojans’ return to the Trojan country.

The Bayeux Tapestry. Scenes depicting the Battle of Hastings. Commissioned after the Conquest of 1066, this very long piece of decorative cloth, is known as one of the brightest products of medieval propaganda. Using the magnificent artistic imagery in a comics-like or a documentary style, it represents William’s enthronement in England as a fully legitimate and historically inevitable act. Source: Wikimedia Commons

England’s Edward I (1239-1307) referred to the same patrimonial roots in order to vindicate his Scottish affair. The king’s "wise men" composed large volumes of documents "showing" that Scotland had been a province of Brutus’s original kingdom. The latter’s central territory, as this "historical" doctrine emphasized, was an exact geographical and political match of medieval Anglia. From Edward’s perspective, such ‘strong evidence’ clearly meant that the whole Scottish realm was to be subjected to him and to his offshoots.

King Edward I of England, "the Hammer of the Scots." Line engraving, mid 17th century. Edward’s ambition to rule Scotland as the ‘true heir’ of the Isle’s Trojan scepter resulted in the Anglo-Scottish wars of 1286-1371. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks, eager to legitimize the capture of Constantinople, proclaimed their Trojan ancestry as well. According to the happy victors, the "Greeks" of the Byzantine Empire were merely driven off the lands that the Greeks of pre-Homeric times had brutally stolen from the rightful owners.

Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432-1481). In his letters to the rulers of Europe, Mehmed referred to the "history" of Troy and, in particular, to the "fact" that the Turks descended from one of the bunches of the Trojan people. That "meant" that the Ottomans were related to the French, the English, and the Italians – the nations, which had been proudly associating themselves with the Trojans since the Early Middle Ages. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

About three hundred years earlier, an almost identical idea inspired the crusaders –the other self-appointed antecessors of Trojan seed. The surviving defenders of Troy, as many texts of the era pontificated, had been forced to leave the ancient Middle East for Europe. The crusading Christians, based on this logic, simply set out to reclaim the old homeland in the name of their god.

A 14th-century depiction of the crusaders' capture of Antioch from a manuscript in the care of the National Library of the Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Either tacitly or ostentatiously, the concept of "historical justice" was implanted into the ideologies of medieval and early modern elites. The members of privileged groups explained their social and political dominance by the "primeval order of things." The nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example, regarded itself as a race of Sarmatian origin. The Sarmatians, as the official story went, had conquered the local Slavs, whose children, grand children, and further offspring were to obey the breed of the bellicose vanquishers. The nobles in France, in a parallel fashion, saw themselves as the scions of the Franks, who, after the downfall of the Roman Empire, had supposedly subdued the Romanized Gauls. The latter were thought to have been the ancestors of the "non-noble" or "servile" classes –in other words, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie.

The 17th century depiction of a Polish noble of allegedly Sarmatian descent. Source:

In the same early modern period, Western Europeans tried to exonerate the enslavement of Africans by pointing to one of the Old Testament’s most popular story. The Book of Genesis, as most Christians knew, spoke of the curse imposed by the biblical patriarch Noah upon his second son Ham. The descendants of this unlucky character were doomed to serve the descendants of the other two sons, Shem and Japheth. The then Europeans insisted that they had sprung from Japheth’s loins, whereas the peoples of Africa had originated from Ham.

Although no racial differences were mentioned in the story, Europeans regarded Ham as the progenitor of the enslaved Africans. Noah’s Curse. Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th and the 20th centuries, the governments and other political players learned to allude to "historical truth" on a much larger (truly massive) scale. Hitler and his propaganda machine seemed to enjoy absolute leadership in this dimension, while Putin’s Russia, many would say, is steadily approaching the level and the methodology of the Third Reich.

Discourses on "History," politicized and inevitably pompous, constituted a commonplace pathology of all pushy regimes. States with seemingly good reputations, more often than not, were not immune to it either. As the case of Crimea has proven, the situation in our own time is no different at all, and it will be up to us to deal with it in one way or another. Preventing every country’s political class from any poppycock about "the Glorious Past" or "Our Great Forefathers" seems to be a good remedy –the one, which the present-day international community must consider in a most thorough and comprehensive manner.

/ Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD, historian and policy analyst at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU in 2002-2010.