By Antony Beevor
3 February 2018
According to an old Spanish proverb, “history is a common meadow in which everyone can make hay”. It has also long been a battleground for the perpetuation of nationalist myths and political attempts to reshape the past. In recent decades there have been encouraging developments, with many more international history conferences and foreign academics recruited by universities. All of this has helped to reduce the tendency of countries to view the past uniquely from their own patriotic perspectives. At the same time governments of all shades still long to impose their versions of the past through education, pressure on the media and if necessary outright censorship and even legislation.
Motives vary. In France, attempts by the former president Nicolas Sarkozy tocriminalise denial of the Armenian genocide were strongly suspected to have been aimed at attracting the votes of the large Armenian community. Meanwhile, Holocaust denial laws in Germany and Austria in 2000 were no doubt brought in with the best intentions, yet the conclusion of the Irving-Lipstadt case in Britain – in which historian David Irving sued US academic Deborah Lipstadt for branding him a Holocaust denier – triumphantly proved that open debate, if necessary in court, is a far better way of nailing the lies of extremists. Irving’s short term in jailin Austria in 2006 simply encouraged him to play the political martyr.
In Turkey, censorship becomes more and more ferocious, and not just about the Armenian genocide, Kurdish matters, Fethullah Gülen and the attempted coup of 2016. Today’s Russia is at times just like the Soviet Union in its attempts to preserve past legends. Yuri Dmitriev, the highly respected Gulag researcher in Karelia, north-west Russia, was arrested on trumped up charges in 2016 of taking pornographic photographs of his adopted daughter and is still held more than a year later for “psychiatric evaluation”.
Most Russian archives, especially the military ones, were closed to foreign historians back in 2000 after the tantalising glimpses we had enjoyed from 1992. Friends teased me, blaming the closure on the storm caused by my book Berlin – The Downfall, but it was not published until 2002. This was also some time after the FSB (the new version of the KGB) had started to investigate the work of foreign researchers. One friend, more than a year after he had published his book, found that in one of the archives every file he had quoted from had been withdrawn on orders from on high. Grigory Karasin, the Russian ambassador in London at the time, and now deputy foreign minister, condemned my account of the Red Army’s mass rapes in the Berlin book as “lies, slander and blasphemy”, although it was mainly based on Russian archival sources. And in 2014, when historian Catherine Merridale and I were in Estonia for a literary festival, we heard that the Russian defence minister, Sergey Shoygu, had finally managed to pass a law condemning anyone who insulted the Red Army in the second world war with up to five years in prison. During his first attempt, six years earlier, to introduce the law, Shoigu had said that the offence was the equivalent of Holocaust denial, which was an interesting comparison.The following year an already bowdlerised version of Berlin was banned in part of Russia on the grounds that it might corrupt the minds of students and teaching staff. According to the regional minister of education, the book “propagandises stereotypes formed during the Third Reich”. My Russian publishers, who have been issuing new translations of my books, are working to find a way in which they can be published in their integral forms without coming into conflict with the authorities. It is not easy.
I certainly did not expect this latest contretemps, following the Ukrainian government’s sudden banning of a Russian language edition of Stalingrad, especially 20 years after the first publication. This was basically because one passage recounts how the SS forced Ukrainian militiamen to massacre 90 Jewish children in August 1941. The Ukrainian government’s “committee of experts” claimed this story was taken from Soviet propaganda. In fact the source notes show clearly that it was based on reliable German accounts, especially one by an anti-Nazi officer who was so horrified that he wrote to his wife to say that Germany did not deserve to win the war. There is also a harrowing eyewitness account of the killings written by an SS officer.
At least there has been one encouraging aspect to the whole sorry story. I received a bewildering array of support from Ukrainian human rights groups, Human Rights Watch in the US, the Canadian foreign minister and the Foreign Office in the UK. (This prompted my daughter to observe: “And what about people who have real human rights problems?” She had a point.) Fellow historians naturally regarded the decision to ban the book as ridiculous. Philippe Sands, the president of English PEN, immediately offered to change his mind and accept an invitation to the Kiev book fair for his book East West Street so that he could put the case there. It was an astonishing own goal by the Ukrainian committee of experts when the country wants to be seen as more democratic and western than Vladimir Putin’s Russia to their north, and, finally, mainly thanks to representations by the British embassy, the committee has backed down. There is no longer any suggestion that the story came from Soviet sources.
They did, however, have one complaint outstanding. My Russian publisher’s translator had changed “Ukrainian militiamen” to “Ukrainian nationalists”, which implicitly tars all Ukrainian nationalists with the reputation of having helped the SS Einsatzgruppen. But now my Russian publisher believes that it was right to change the word on the grounds that the militiamen were operating under the aegis of the OUN, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. This may seem a trivial spat over nomenclature, but it is a pertinent reminder of how powerful the grim legacy of the war remains three-quarters of a century on.
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