In his 1943 essay, “Thoughts on the Spanish Civil War,” George Orwell spoke of his fears about the falsification of history. “Nazi theory,” he wrote, “specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science.’ There is only ‘German Science,’ ‘Jewish Science,’ etc.” He went on: “The implied objective…is a nightmare world in which the Leader…controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened…This prospect frightens me much more than bombs….”
These lines were written when much of the world was dominated by two great totalitarian powers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Both fascism and communism—but communism especially—rejected the concepts of objective truth and the neutral interpretation of history. Once in power, communists acted on the Orwellian idea that “who controls the past controls the future.” Among the first steps in the Sovietization of Eastern Europe was the rewriting of history, going back centuries; the suppression of inconvenient facts; the airbrushing of national heroes from the historical narrative; and the establishment of what amounted to ministries of truth throughout Moscow’s vast empire.
While the age of totalitarianism has passed, the falsification of history remains an important instrument for autocrats, including the strongman leaders of illiberal democracies like Poland and Hungary.
Russia Leads the Way
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has built a propaganda apparatus that rivals the Nazi machine under Joseph Goebbels and is far more nimble than the lumbering system developed under Stalin. Early in his tenure, Putin decreed an overhaul of history teaching with the particular goal of rehabilitating Stalin and burnishing the image of the Soviet state. The reinterpretation of Stalin’s leadership was formalized with the publication of a new curriculum guide for teachers of Russian history.
The manual’s content dovetailed with Putin’s broader promotion of a narrative in which Russia is a great power that overcame the hostility of determined enemies, especially the United States. According to the manual, Russia’s dark chapters—its domination of Eastern Europe, Stalinist purges—were the understandable responses to the country’s underdevelopment and encirclement by foreign enemies. The new history portrays an all-wise Russian state, under both Stalin and Putin, whose requirements always take precedence over the needs of the individual. Putin took unusual interest in the preparation of the history manual. He called for history textbooks “written in proper Russian, free of internal contradictions and double interpretation.”
And in unveiling the new guide, he struck a theme that runs through Russian propaganda in the Putin era: “We can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us.” More broadly, Putin was saying that a sovereign state has the right to interpret its history in whatever way it wants, to ignore or distort the tragic chapters, and to burnish the reputations of mass murderers and thugs.
The Ukraine Factor
The reinterpretation of history has been intensified in the wake of the seizure of Crimea. A recurring theme of post-Crimea propaganda is the notion that Russia faces the same threats from the West today as during the Cold War. To make this point, Russian television aired a documentary meant to justify one of the more shameful events of the Soviet period, the 1968 Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. The invasion was undertaken to crush the reformist Prague Spring movement, whose leaders were moving away from state socialism and seeking a neutral geopolitical status much like Austria enjoyed at the time. The documentary used archival footage to build a concocted case that the invasion was necessary to thwart a NATO-inspired coup. The clear purpose of the film was to portray NATO as a permanent threat to Russian interests, now as in 1968.
To further bolster the case for the invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda devoted great energy to demonstrating the fascist nature of the Maidan revolution, relying heavily on invocations of Soviet history. The Ukrainian activists who helped drive out corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych and the European-oriented politicians who replaced him were labeled as present-day followers of Stepan Bandera, a controversial nationalist leader who fought the Soviets and at times cooperated with the Nazis in a doomed campaign for an independent Ukraine during World War II. Russian media also featured a number of documentaries that emphasized Russian, as opposed to Soviet, resistance to Hitler. The objective was to equate contemporary Ukrainians who favored full independence from Russian influence with Nazi collaborators.
Assaults on Academic Freedom
Since the occupation of Crimea, it has become increasingly dangerous to express dissenting views on Russian foreign policy in Russia’s schools and universities. Putin made the point when he referred to a “fifth column” and a “disparate bunch of national traitors” sowing discord within Russia. He also signed a law that criminalized the purposeful distortion of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. Historians who make the “wrong” interpretations of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the huge casualties suffered by the Red Army, or the rape and plunder committed by Soviet troops as they marched toward Berlin might also risk criminal penalties.
In late 2016 the Russian Security Council discussed the establishment of a new center to counter the “falsification” of history. A group of experts identified six topics from Russia’s past that they claimed were being actively distorted as part of an anti-Russia strategy. Among the topics: the Soviet Union’s ethnic policies, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Soviet Union’s conduct during World War II, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Union’s suppression of uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany during the Cold War. In each case, the most serious and respected historical accounts have been written by foreign scholars, due largely to the pressures, including outright censorship, brought to bear on Russian historians during Soviet times and more recently during the Putin era.
China: Evading the Past
Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward ranks among the most deadly politically -inspired catastrophes in human history. From 1958 to 1962, Communist Party authorities, under orders from Beijing, herded millions of farmers into communes and proceeded to seize grain harvested in the countryside to feed the urban population. The result was the death of some 30 million people.
To this day, Communist Party officials have refused to acknowledge anything approaching the full dimensions of the tragedy. Nor have they admitted that the party, and especially Mao, were responsible. Often, they blame the weather. There are no official monuments to the victims, no serious histories available to the general public, and most significantly, no effort to place accountability where it belongs. Indeed, under Xi Jinping, unquestioning support of the Communist Party, including reverence towards Mao, is demanded of party officials and public servants, including teachers.
Seven “Don’t Mentions”
In 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued a secret directive prohibiting universities from permitting the discussion of seven themes—the “Seven Don’t Mentions.” According to the directive, lecturers were not allowed to take up universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civic rights, elite cronyism, judicial independence, and past mistakes of the Communist Party.
The most disturbing item in the roster of Don’t Mentions was the leadership’s mistakes. While the authorities have never come close to permitting a serious investigation of either the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, these and other aspects of the party’s past were not considered utterly taboo, as long as the discussion did not lead to serious challenges to orthodox historical interpretations. According to the policies set down under Xi Jinping’s leadership, talking in classrooms about Mao’s errors is now forbidden.
The Communist Party’s refusal to come to terms with the crimes of the Mao era has enabled a revival of the former leader’s personality cult that has captured the support of millions of Chinese. As Jamil Anderlini wrote in the Financial Times, Mao has come to be seen as a symbol of a “simpler, fairer society—a time when everyone was poorer but at least they were equally poor.” Xi and his colleagues have used Mao-style tactics and terminology in their drive for ideological discipline and political loyalty.
“Polish Death Camps” Law
The reinterpretation of Polish history has been a central concern of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) since its election triumph in 2015. In early 2018, the PiS pushed through a law which criminalized any reference to Polish responsibility for crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. Exceptions carved out for scholarly research and works of art did not allay fears about the potential persecution of those holding to the “wrong” explanation of sensitive wartime events given that Jan Gross, an eminent historian who had published books that dealt with Polish crimes against Jews during and immediately after the war, had been harassed by prosecutors and attacked by PiS propagandists.
According to PiS officials, the law was made necessary by what they suggested were widespread references to “Polish death camps” a phrase that placed blame on Poles for Nazi atrocities. To describe this justification as disingenuous is an understatement. The phrase, “Polish death camps,” is inaccurate. But the phrase usually refers to Nazi camps located in Poland, like Auschwitz. Poles are not being stigmatized for the crimes of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich.
Poland has been the victim during a number of Europe’s darkest chapters. But serious historians have generally treated Poland with sympathy and admiration, sympathy for its suffering and admiration for its heroism in the face of oppression, including resistance to the Nazis, rebellion against Soviet domination, and role as the first satellite state to gain independence and democracy.
The comments of PiS officials suggests that the real issue is not Polish death camp references but historical writings that attempt to deal honestly with the complex relationships between Christian Poles, Jewish Poles, Nazis, and Soviets during the war period. To point to the role of Christian Poles in crimes against Jews clashes with a PiS nationalist story that seeks to minimize the role of non-Catholic Poles in the nation’s history. A similar phenomenon is underway in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has advanced a semi-official version of the country’s history that downplays such details as Hungary’s wartime alliance with Germany and the actions of the Arrow Cross, a fascist group, and the historical significance of the country’s Jewish population.
History Held Hostage
In championing the death camps law, the PiS government is ironically joining with arch-enemy Russia as vanguards of historical revisionism. Indeed, the comments of PiS officials often echo those of Putin and his acolytes. In both countries, there are comments to the effect that demands for a reinterpretation of history is evidence of a society “getting up off its knees.” There are also claims that the redefinition of history through state action is strengthening sovereignty.
In fact, all the evidence tells us that regimes that demand mangled versions of history actually surrender a measure of sovereignty by ensuring that those who write honest accounts will be scholars from beyond the country’s borders. There are many great historians of the Communist experience, but practically all are American, British, or emigres who resettled in the United States or Europe. Even today, the great histories about Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and China under the Communists are being written by Westerners like Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Frank Dikottter.
The ultra-nationalist impulse that lies behind the mandate for history falsification has other consequences as well. In Russia today, Stalin’s reputation is at high water mark, with many ranking him as the country’s greatest leader. Mikhail Gorbachev, by contrast, is treated shabbily by the new official histories and is therefore widely regarded as a weak leader whose democratic reforms contributed to Russia’s decline. In Poland, the xenophobic themes struck by the PiS government have contributed to an upsurge in anti-Semitism, a troubling development in a country that had been making, steady progress in coming to grips with its unhappy treatment of its Jewish citizens. Moreover, the current government has launched a campaign to delegitimize Lech Walesa and other leaders of the Solidarity freedom movement by refashioning the history of the anti-communist struggle to the advantage of its own favored personalities.
At the same time, in much of the world there have been major efforts to confront uncomfortable truths about the past. This is certainly true of Germany and South Africa. Latin American countries including Chile and Argentina have probed the histories of ugly conflicts between military juntas and Marxist revolutionaries. In China’s own backyard, South Korea and Taiwan have moved to address the complex legacies, including outright crimes, of dictators.
The process of accounting for the mistakes and crimes of earlier decades can raise a tangle of ethical and emotional challenges in any country. But resistance to a full examination of the past is especially bitter in societies where communism held sway.
While few people today admire totalitarian Marxism as a governing system, there is a reluctance to reject it with the same moral clarity as in assessments of Nazism. Scholars, not to mention political figures, who express even modest admiration for Hitler are immediately and properly condemned. As long as Stalin and Mao, two of history’s worst mass murderers, escape similar opprobrium in their own countries, a reckoning with historical truth and an understanding of its lessons will be postponed.
Arch Puddington is Distinguished Scholar for Democratic Studies at Freedom House.