Stephens, David: History is never settled and is always vulnerable to political manipulation: recent Russian and Polish examples

David Stephens*

‘History is never settled and is always vulnerable to political manipulation: recent Russian and Polish examples’, Honest History, 10 September 2019

Honest History has always had an aversion to complaints that someone is ‘rewriting history’. John Howard occasionally complained thus. We would prefer to say, with the historian EH Carr, that ‘history means interpretation’.

History is not a list of facts that later generations rewrite at their peril, though there are clearly some events that incontestably happened, for example, the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. ‘The discipline of history’, Alison Broinowski and I said on the very first page of our introduction to The Honest History Book, ‘is a contest between interpretations. Honest history … is interpretation robustly supported by evidence’. Later in the book, Eualeyai-Kamillaroi historian, Larissa Behrendt, wrote this: ‘There are no absolute truths in history’.

Having said all that, historians, amateur and professional, need a nose for blatant manipulation of facts under the guise of interpretation, particularly when the manipulation is done for political purposes. ‘Dishonest history’, we said in The Honest History Book, ‘is characterised by tendentious interpretation or inadequate evidence’. Under the heading ‘Using and abusing history’ we have on this website flagged some examples of dishonest history.

In this piece, riffing off some work by Canadian historian, Margaret Macmillan, we mentioned the United States, Russia, Turkey, China and Canada. Poland also featured, with a fight over the appropriate direction of a new museum in Gdansk and attempts to make it a criminal offence to implicate Poland, or the Polish people, in the crimes of the German Third Reich. Ayhan Aktar wrote about Turkish efforts to change the emphasis of Great War (especially Gallipoli) history in an Islamic direction.

Poland is in the news again. Shaun Walker reported in The Guardian that the (illiberal) Polish central government has seized from the (liberal) local authorities control of a memorial site and is moving on with plans to create a museum to commemorate the heroism of Polish defenders against the Germans in September 1939. The new controllers tweaked the emphasis of the Holocaust exhibit (to include coverage of a Polish family executed for hiding Jews) and complained that the previous managers had not said enough about ‘unquestionable Polish heroes’ and were insufficiently patriotic. The sacked previous manager feared that the museum under the new bosses ‘will become a kind of historical Disneyland’, while the liberal mayor of Gdansk said, ‘Of course Polish soldiers were heroes, but on the 80th anniversary [of the fighting in Gdansk] this should not be the most important message. The other way to show this history is to think how tragic it was, and use it to create a new peaceful way of success for Poland.’

Shaun Walker also touched on Russia’s approach to World War II anniversaries. ‘Putin has gradually transformed the war victory and the enormous Soviet sacrifice in the war into a bombastic celebration and a chance for militaristic posturing. In eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed forces have gone into battle carrying flags inspired by the second world war victory.’

Another perspective on Russia’s treatment of World War II comes from Human Rights in Ukraine, the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The group refers to recent excavations undertaken by authorities linked to the Russian Ministry of Culture to try to prove that massacres at Sandarmokh attributed to Stalin’s terror in 1937-38 were instead carried out by Finnish soldiers on Russian prisoners of war during World War II or by Poles aligned with the Germans. The Kharkiv site detects ‘a mounting tendency by the Putin regime to whitewash a dictator [Stalin] guilty of numerous crimes against humanity and the death of millions’. It notes the role in the excavations of the Russian Military History Society, which it says was created [reference in Russian] by President Putin in December 2012, in order to “consolidate the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past and counter efforts to distort it”‘.

There are a number of Russian language sources on Sandarmokh but here is more in English. There is a fairly recent book chapter (2015) on the Russian state-sponsored textbook writing industry and an article in the Moscow Times from 2017 about the teaching of history in Russia.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website. For his other writing, use our Search engine.

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