Freedom for History

5 July 2013, 10:32

They are suspected of “fascism” as soon as they part from the orthodox narrative of the GPW, and forced to struggle against doubts about crimes whose memory should belong without question to the universal conscience. But, like Chornobyl, GPW spin doctoring is a poison which is not confined to local devastation — it is spreading all over Europe by distorting the memory and understanding of events which shaped the continent. This is a well-known fact, but one which needs constant reassessment, since the poison was inoculated very early in the 1940s and it cannot be fought by brisk counter propaganda but only by a patient, steady quest for the truth, by unfolding all the facts and placing them into the big picture, while fostering an open historical discussion through education and media. The action of states is crucial in establishing this freedom of research and discussion, in supporting academic research, education and memorial policies.

Even in Western countries where freedom of speech and strong independent academic institutions have been established for a long time, it has not always been easy to free ourselves of the grasp of the “antifascist legend”, which muddled the facts of WWII by putting all the Allies on the same footing, colouring any criticism of the USSR as impossible or illegitimate. Of course, in liberal countries, we did not have to struggle against the bigger tricks of the Soviet illusionist, like the downplaying of the Holocaust by merging all the “victims of fascism” together, or the denial of the Holodomor or the Katyn massacre. But there was all the same a difficulty in coping with history, for instance in acknowledging and giving all its significance to the Nazi-Soviet alliance in 1939-1941, which is still downplayed and misunderstood, as if it were a strictly defensive move by the Soviets and as if they did not invade Poland (and hereby Western Ukraine). Soviet lies about Katyn and about the Holodomor were only recently fully disclosed to Western educated opinion.

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The improvement in knowledge about WWII and the political massacres perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviets in Eastern Europe is a task that remains for our time. Newly disclosed archives and testimonies, new perspectives and deeper understanding have proven more than once than it has been wrong to believe that “we already know everything that is to be known”.

Sceptics will say: “This is an issue for academics, for readers of history books, it has no political bearings.” Activists will say: “We just have to fight for the recognition of our status as victims, don’t complicate things, let’s keep the skeleton in the closet.” They are both wrong. The progress of historical understanding becomes widely known sooner or later, it spreads in the global culture, creates new standards for the historical narrative. This is a piecemeal but inevitable process. The Russian policy of forbidding free history and imposing an official (actually Stalinist) version of the GPW by law and threat, with its heroes and villains and its secrets and lies is of course a frightening policy. It seems to be finding success in corrupting the youth, imprisoning generations in ignorance and false consciousness. But it is bound to fail. Russia is no longer a closed fortress hiding the world from its inhabitants. Whenever a Russian citizen travels abroad, be it an oligarch skiing in Austria or a student studying in France, books, talks, movies, etc. put them in contact with an open history which cannot but in the long run challenge and overcome the story-telling in which they are trapped. However invasive, this story-telling is weak. Pretence, even violent pretence backed by the state is still pretence and does not have many true believers.

READ ALSO: Can Historians Be Trusted With History?

To put my point briefly, the meaning of WWII is not a mere intellectual affair but a critical political issue, a barometer of re-Sovietisation or democratization in eastern Europe, and therefore a key for its future, and GPW story-telling is bound to fail despite its temporary hegemony.That is why the fight for the freedom of history, for a liberal education, without imposed textbooks, the sharp and patient criticism of all the flaws, to say the least, of the orthodox narrative of the Great Patriotic War are important for all Europeans and, let me insist on it, for the Russians which are the first victims of a policy than can bring them no good, which is a false pride that has very little to do with authentic memory and spoils even the glorious aspects of their history.



On June 24, Russian Duma registered a United Russia-sponsored draft law to introduce criminal liability for anyone who denies the verdicts of the Nurnberg Trials, the activities of an anti-Hitler coalition armies, and spreads “intentionally misleading information on these activities by accusing them of war crimes.”One of the reasons behind this was a scandal caused by a publication of Leonid Gozman, a well-known politician and Director of Humanitarian Projects at Rusnano. He compared Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH to the Nazi SS divisions. 

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