“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” This quote from George Orwell’s world-famous novel “1984” describes in a single sentence the significance of historical past in politics.
The quote finds a spot within the preface of the just lately revealed e book “Dancing on Bones,” authored by journalist Katie Stallard. In the e book, she described how the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea use historical past for their very own functions.
“Authoritarian regimes recognize the power and the resonance of history. They see history as a crucial tool to generating popular support,” Stallard advised DW.
History generates legitimacy, is intently linked to the id of residents, and gives a bonus to authoritarian rulers in that it may be manipulated as required, she stated. “Economic fortunes come and go. History is the thing you can rely on.”
History as justification for the Ukraine battle
Russia’s battle in opposition to Ukraine exhibits the lethal penalties historic revisionism can have.
In July 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed an essay, titled, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
In it, Putin accused the West of pursuing a “dangerous revisionism” and careworn that he — as an “all-knowing statesman” who is aware of the “one historical truth” — wished to counter this, historian Andreas Kappeler described in an evaluation for the journal Osteuropa.
The reality, in line with Putin, is: Russians and Ukrainians have at all times been a single religious folks. It is the West that’s making an attempt to show Ukraine into an “anti-Russia” entity.
Russia would by no means permit this and would forestall it by power of arms if essential, he careworn. On May 9, when Russia yearly celebrates victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Putin repeated his view of issues and went even additional, claiming that the West had deliberate an assault on Russia.
Putin’s Cold War worldview
The narrative of supposed Russian-Ukrainian unity, which the West is pushing in opposition to, is a part of a bipolar worldview and pondering in nice energy classes, Kappeler famous.
For Putin, solely massive powers — like Russia, the United States and China, for instance — matter, and “small” states like Ukraine haven’t any agenda of their very own. The nice powers, in flip, are engaged in an ideological competitors that’s waged by any means essential.
This view of Putin, which Kappeler describes as a conspiracy idea, is mixed with ethnic nationalism and the thesis that allegedly Nazis have taken energy in Ukraine.
All this helps join it to “the most important element of Russian integration ideology: the Soviet victory over Hitler’s Germany,” Kappeler stated, including that Putin’s worldview is that of a secret service agent of the now collapsed Soviet Union.
Xi Jinping: Helmsman of historical past
Many patterns of the ethno-nationalist view of historical past of Putin and his supporters within the Kremlin can be noticed amongst Chinese leaders.
Yet China needs to do higher than the Soviet Union, which Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly cites as a cautionary story.
Xi believes the Soviet Union disintegrated as a result of its leaders did not eradicate the “historical nihilism” that undermined religion within the communist trigger.
To keep away from the destiny of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) got here up with, amongst different issues, an up to date official historical past of the celebration in 2021 that’s closely tailor-made to serve Xi’s pursuits.
“Entering the new era, General Secretary Xi Jinping has led us to analyze the mechanism of evolution and explore the laws of history from the long river of history, the tide of the times and the global storm, and has made the right choice at every major historical juncture,” the People’s Daily, the celebration’s mouthpiece, wrote of Xi.
The CCP’s narrative is disseminated within the press, social media, cinema, and laptop video games. Alternative views are unlawful.
The celebration ensures unity
The official Party narrative determines what could also be thought and written in China.
Xi’s conception of historical past gives “an ideological framework which justifies greater and greater levels of party intervention in politics, the economy and foreign policy,” says Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and China professional.
The CCP makes use of historical past to justify its energy: Before the Communist takeover, China was weak and divided. The disunity enabled the West to humiliate the nation. Only the CCP, the subtext goes, was in a position to unify the nation and lead it to its former glory.
The CCP is continuous what Chinese nationalists had began within the 19th century, as Bill Hayton identified in his e book “The Invention of China.”
At that point, China’s historical past was retroactively reinterpreted to determine a Han-Chinese unitary tradition. The traditions of the Manchus, the Mongols and plenty of different ethnic teams had been written out of historical past to make method for the imaginative and prescient of a China that had at all times been united.
Today the Uyghurs and the Tibetans are on the receiving finish of this historic revisionism, with them being compelled into re-education camps and having their language and tradition suppressed.
It is becoming on this context that in 2013, Xi, addressing the CCP Central Committee on the significance of historical past, quoted Confucian scholar Gong Zhishen as saying: “To destroy a country, you must first eradicate its history,”
He meant this as a warning to those that query the 5000-year unity of China.
While it’s true that there was some continuity of language and Confucian doctrine, it’s inaccurate to say that the Han-Chinese tradition has at all times been dominant in what’s now the territory of the People’s Republic of China.
In truth, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was the final through which the Han Chinese dominated. For centuries earlier than that, dynasties from different peoples, such because the Mongols, dominated over most of what’s now China. The final dynasty was based by the Manchu and dominated from 1644 till the proclamation of the republic on January 1, 1912.
In the desire to create a unified historical past from which at the moment’s Russia and the People’s Republic of China emerged with out rupture, issues have come full circle to a degree the place Putin, who denies or distorts the historical past of Ukraine, is now in a position to declare that Russians and Ukrainians are one folks.
In addition, there may be an obsession with territorial points in each programs. Putin’s historic statements largely exclude the crimes of the Stalin period, however dedicate appreciable consideration to the territory of the Soviet Union, which additionally included Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, the states of Central Asia, and others.
China, in the meantime, has laid declare to the complete South China Sea — a waterbody the scale of the Mediterranean — based mostly on what it says is its historic proper to the realm.
At the identical time, it refuses to acknowledge the choice of the International Court of Arbitration, which declared all historic claims null and void.
Laying emphasis on territorial disputes has two capabilities, in line with Stallard.
On the one hand, it emphasizes the humiliations of the previous: one thing was taken away from us that was rightfully ours. And on the similar time, it highlights the energy of the present leaders: we’re taking again what’s ours, she defined.
“This is part of defending sovereignty, of the idea that you are a strong country which can be proud of itself and defend yourself.”
No competing views allowed
Even if there are variations within the content material of the historic narratives in Russia and China — China’s extra pronounced persona cult round Xi, for example — the patterns are clear.
Both programs declare a unity and continuity that by no means existed. Anyone who questions them in Russia or China should count on extreme punishment.
They assemble an exterior enemy, the West, from which solely they — Putin and Xi respectively — can save the nation and hyperlink historical past to territorial claims.
“The impulse to manipulate history for political purposes is not a uniquely authoritarian trait,” Stallard stated. But solely authoritarian programs clamp down on dissent.