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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Changing the State's Story: Continuity and Change in Official Narratives of Dark Pasts

  • Author(s): Dixon, Jennifer Margaret
  • Advisor(s): Hassner, Ron E.
  • Silverstein, Gordon
  • et al.

This theory-building dissertation investigates how states' narratives about dark pasts are shaped and contested over time, employing macro-historical analysis to trace the trajectories over the past several decades of Turkey's narrative of the Armenian Genocide and Japan's narrative of the Nanjing Massacre.

In a time of unprecedented access to information and increased scrutiny of how the past is represented, how are some states able to maintain national narratives that are at odds with widely accepted versions of the underlying historical events? Why do some states attempt to come to terms with the past perpetration of genocide or mass killing, while others deny wrongdoing for decades? Despite dramatic increases in truth-telling, truth-seeking and state apologies for historic wrongs, there remains both a great deal of variation in how states deal with their own dark pasts and insufficient understanding of the sources of this variation. Given that narratives about past atrocities can increase threat perception between states, can be used by leaders to justify war to domestic audiences, and can create tensions and prejudices that contribute to future conflicts, there are compelling reasons to investigate the dynamics underlying this variation.

The core question answered in this dissertation is: What are the sources of change and continuity in states' narratives of past crimes? Existing research tells us that domestic regime change, transnational activism and shifts in international alliances can bring about changes in states' narratives of dark pasts. Offering an integrating framework that incorporates the domestic and international spheres, I argue that while international pressures can increase the likelihood of change in official narratives of dark pasts, domestic actors largely determine the content of such change. Moreover, in contrast to observers who have warned that progressive changes in states' narratives threaten a backlash from the right, I argue that actors across the political spectrum contest and shape narratives of the past. My findings are based on more than eight months of fieldwork, including archival research in Turkey, and over seventy-five elite interviews conducted in Turkey, Japan and the United States.

Building on comparative research on institutional change and feedback effects, this research contributes to literature on the impact of international norms, institutions and law on states' behavior, to scholarship on the politics of memory and transitional justice, and to work at the intersection of Turkish studies and genocide studies. My research will also help policymakers better deal with controversies over the past, by revealing the sources of change and continuity in narratives of the past and the longer-term dynamics set off by pressures on and changes in official narratives.

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