Fake news is bad. But fake history is even worse

By .

From Turkey to China, strongmen rewrite the past to suit their ends. But democracies are not immune to this revisionism.

Controlling memory is at the heart of the Putin regime in Russia. Not only has Stalin been rehabilitated, with new monuments built to honour him across the country, but historians and human rights activists who work to document Stalinist crime have come under political pressure…

In Xi Jinping’s China, any mention of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or of the Tiananmen square massacre is stamped out because it’s seen as a challenge to Communist party rule. Collective amnesia is what the regime seeks on issues that risk undermining its legitimacy. It’s not enough to throw dissidents in prison or censor information; the past is purged

And while it’s tempting to think the rewriting of history is something found exclusively in illiberal or dictatorial systems, it has increasingly become a feature of democracies. Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw last month strove to cast Poland’s historical struggle for freedom and independence as a “civilisational” battle for family values, “tradition” and “God”, rather than an aspiration to democracy…

In Britain, Brexiteers have proven willing to supply their own version of history. Nostalgia for the days of empire and their “swashbuckling spirit” comes accompanied with the mantra that the European project was a tyrannical straitjacket all along…

George Orwell’s 1984 contains a well-known phrase about history and its importance: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”. We worry rightly about the impact of fake news, but today’s nationalist passions are even more deeply rooted in the distortion of history, which citizens in many countries lap up despite the fact it is poison. The past has always been a battleground. The 20th century showed to what extremes state control over memory could go. Primo Levi, who experienced the nightmare of Nazi concentration camps, once wrote that the entire history of the Reich “can be re-read as a war against memory”…

Read the full feature here.

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