Lecture to the Brussels Dialogue Youth Forum, 09 October 2020

“Shared History and Common Future” Discussion platform No. 1: “History Lessons: facts and fakes”

Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Brussels

I would like to bring some general perspectives of historical science to this discussion. Let us take a brief walk through the history of history, what is called historiography. This can give us a proper context for considering what we all surely consider to be dangerous distortions in current accounts of World War II, its causes and aftermath, without being overwhelmed or greatly discouraged by what we see going on.

First, history is always being re-written. That did not start yesterday and it will not end tomorrow. In itself, this is not cause for concern. “Revisionism” is a natural phenomenon.  And it is not just the result of new facts coming to the surface as archives are opened and memoirs are written.

Each generation seeks in history narratives that are relevant to its problems, challenges, ambitions.

Once upon a time, history meant the study of dynasties, monarchs.  Once upon a time there was interest in great men who were assumed to have shaped the world we know.  Once upon a time there was a focus on diplomatic history.

Today, only a few specialists work in these areas.  Over the past forty or fifty years, history as a discipline moved into areas that the public has wanted to hear about:  social history, the history of women, the history of various minorities in multicultural societies, such as Black History in the United States.

These developments are all healthy and the natural evolution of history as a social science that answers questions of interest to the general public and not only to a few scholars.

It is also understandable that with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new state structures in Central and Eastern Europe history has been enlisted and encouraged in each of these countries to assist in the task of nation building and establishing or reestablishing national identity.

The problem arises when the political leadership, when national elites encourage a propagandistic turn in the creation of national narratives, when these narratives are used to strengthen the hold on power of one or another faction within a given country and when historical grievances are used to justify flagrant distortions of fact, as is often the case today in how the Baltic States, Poland and even seemingly reasonable states distant from the front lines like the Czech Republic characterize the role of the Soviet Union – namely as conqueror, enslaver rather than as liberator from the scourge of Hitlerism or as initiator of the war with the same or even greater culpability than Berlin.

We all are aware of the destruction these past several years of monuments to the Red Army and its heroic soldiers in Estonia, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic, to name only the most egregious offenders.  However, this also did not start yesterday.  

As I was reading through my diaries in preparation for a book of memoirs that I will soon be publishing, I found notes from a visit I made to Prague on Sunday, 16 June 1991.

“We are unwittingly witnesses to the removal of the now famous ‘pink tank’ statue symbolizing the Soviet liberation of Prague in WWII. It has been defaced since the revolution and now is unceremoniously removed by cranes as Czechs gawk. “ 

Of course, the failure to pay due respect to the overwhelming contribution of the Soviet Union to the victory over fascism in WWII exists as well in Western Europe.  Here the distortions have a different basis: in the wish of the sponsors and leaders of European integration to put behind them the past murderous hatreds of French and Germans that devastated the Continent.  It is not for nothing that Angela Merkel was given all possible attention and respect at the various ceremonies marking the start of WWII whereas Vladimir Putin was marginalized. You could almost be confused over who was the winning coalition and who was the losing aggressor when watching Euronews coverage.

More generally, in Western Europe the murderous emotions of past conflicts over the centuries have made history a very dangerous subject.  Indeed, here in Belgium a couple of years ago very controversial changes were made to instruction of history in the public school system. The number of hours a week devoted to history in the classroom was sharply reduced in favor of other less controversial social sciences dedicated to the present and future.  Can you wonder then that the West European public does not know how to respond here to the awful lies being propagated by our friends in Poland, Lithuania, etc.

I can appreciate why in Western Europe history is a problematic subject for instruction when I think of our own family experience.  Our daughter was schooled here in Brussels and for a time when she was twelve or so was enrolled in the Lycee Francais.  Over dinner one day we asked her about what she was studying. She said they were reading about Napoleon, who was a very great man.  My wife objected: but Napoleon killed so many people.  Our daughter replied at once:  but they were only English! 

Such attitudes fostered in the Lycee Francais at that time go a long way to explaining why history as a discipline is avoided in our present age of political correctness.

Then let us look across the Atlantic to the United States where it would seem that history has no future as a discipline. Just a few months ago we watched on television how bronze and marble statues to generals of the Confederate Army in the South were being taken down in the presence of hostile mobs which were very emotional and were fired up by the Black Lives Matter movement.  At the same time we heard arguments discrediting the Founding Fathers of the United States. It was pointed out that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others were all slave-owners.  There were calls to rename the capital of the country to blot out Washington, D.C. 

These same historical revisionists published materials showing that the President who took the United States into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson, had been a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.  Princeton University administrators lost no time removing his name from what had been till now the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Remember, this was the man who promoted a “values based” foreign policy that challenged the traditional “interests based” foreign policy of the Realist School of political science.   And though the decision of Princeton took place in the midst of great public uproar, just a few years ago, in much calmer times, when attending my 50th anniversary reunion at Harvard University, I heard administrators explain how they had changed the names of several old buildings in the Harvard Yard and had installed plaques to show in which buildings slaves had been quartered in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

I can point to a similar movement striking at ‘great men’ whose values of their day violate our values of today in the tearing down of monuments to great patrons and founders of charitable works in the UK, in Bristol, due to their association with the slave trade.  Here in Belgium there have been acts of vandalism against memorials to King Leopold the Second, for the atrocities committed in his name in The Congo.

The problem all these acts pose is what will remain of history in general if we apply the values of today to the distant past.  It is cheap populism to attack the memory of prominent people who lived hundreds of years ago and lived under different value systems.  Take care: our value systems of today also will not last forever and in time the descendants of the same champions we see in the streets today will expunge us from their past.

I argue that the brave and commendable thing to do is to fight for one’s values against today’s violators – something which you hardly see happen here in the West. If that were done we would have seen the trial for crimes against humanity committed in Iraq by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former US Vice President Dick Cheney. Nothing of the sort happened.

Returning to the questions before our expert panel today, what can I recommend to youth to counter the propagandistic distortions of history surrounding World War II and in particular the vile accusations brought against the Soviet Union by politicians in the Baltics, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe?  My recommendation is to do your best to study the facts as they are set out in the archival documents that are freely available in your libraries, and from the best professional historians in Russia, in the United States, in the United Kingdom.  There is no way you will win an argument with the current generation of nationalists in Eastern Europe who care not at all for objective truth.  But with the passage of time, reason will return even in those countries now blighted by anti-Russian prejudice.

In support of this recommendation, I urge our local governments to do more to honor good teachers and to provide them with incentives.  History like other subjects can be dull or exciting depending on the instructor. A charismatic teacher who challenges young people by feeding their curiosity, by bringing them into the discovery of historical truth will be the best force for combatting the fake history put up by propagandists.  I urge history teachers to give their students source documents, archival documents to read and interpret already in secondary school.

One further thought in response to those colleagues who today expressed concern at the distortions and “fake news” over World War II that are being disseminated not by politicians and the third rate historians they hand feed but by private extremist portals and loudmouth bloggers in the social media: the notion that Facebook, Twitter and similar media should be enforcers of the moderate, irreproachable consensus and should prevent the ‘deplorables,” as Hilary Clinton so colorfully called them, from polluting the minds of our youth shows contempt for the right of free speech and complete misunderstanding of what education is all about. 

There always were and always will be those who advocate censorship to keep the population on the straight and narrow path. They are by nature elitists who fail to see the common sense so abundant in the overall population and so uncommon in their own midst.

The best protection against “fake news” in the social media is providing a solid education to youth.  The purpose of education is not a corpus of knowledge, though that is essential. The purpose is to support thinking for oneself, arriving at an internal compass and ability to scrutinize incoming information.  Those in possession of their own North Star and an ability to reason that is cultivated by discussion and debate will have no need of censors to protect them from the falsehoods disseminated in social media.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]