Friday, September 04, 2009

Europe view 146, Criminalising history



No comparison

Aug 21st 2009

Criminalising historical investigation is wrong

HOW far does context determine blame and praise? That is a question facing anyone who wants to pass a judgment or make an observation on Hitler, Stalin or the weather. Taken to one extreme, when every attribute is seen in complete isolation, morals and reason disappear. Hitler was nice to animals. Stalin loved children. Churchill drank too much. John F Kennedy was a philanderer. It is a cool day in summer, so global warming is a nonsense.

At the other extreme, when everything is connected, judgment becomes impossible for fear of leaving out some important comparison. Why complain about Stalin when you could write about Mao? What about the 19th century colonial empires? They killed millions more than the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Who are you as a British/American /German/Chinese/Russian commentator to say anything about Russia/Germany/China/America/Britain? That may be a good debating tactic, but it leads to mental paralysis: when everything matters, nothing matters.

The stormy response to a recent column about an OSCE resolution equating Stalin and Hitler highlights the issue. One line of attack goes like this: the article “forgot” to mention the crimes of the British. It is certainly true that Britain has much to be ashamed of before, during and after the second world war. The Munich agreement with Hitler to eviscerate Czechoslovakia is one (which the article mentioned); the deportation of Cossacks and other anti-Soviet forces to certain death after the war in Operation Keelhaul is another. A third was decades of denial that the Katyn massacre was the work of the Soviets, not the Nazis (that subject occasionally surfaces in this column too).

But the article was not trying to argue Soviet history is more (or less) wicked than Britain’s. Any such comparisons are fraught with difficulty, not least over how you measure wickedness. It does not come in convenient units (evils, giga-evils, tera-evils) that can be neatly added up to produce a balance sheet of murder and mayhem.

What can be said, quite clearly, is that Britain, like almost all other countries that claim to be civilised, does not criminalise investigation into its history. If you are an Australian who wants to research the genocidal treatment of Tasmanians, or an American who wants to write about the bombing of German civilians, you may even get a scholarship. Unlike in Russia, you certainly don’t risk a jail sentence. The resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe is chiefly admirable because it challenges the Kremlin’s attempt to put this area of inquiry off limits.

The OSCE resolution is open to legitimate challenge. John Laughland, a British historian at the pro-Kremlin Institute for Democracy and Co-operation in Paris, argued on the Russia Today channel that politicians make bad historians. Nobody comes out well from the run-up to the second world war. Poland, he noted, helped dismember Czechoslovakia, seizing the town of Cieszyn/Tĕšin. Hitler’s plan to attack Poland predates the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so that deal, shameful though it was, did not provide the definitive go-ahead for the invasion. Mr Laughland also argues that Nazism’s central features were war and racial persecution, whereas Soviet communism was neither racist nor (under Stalin) expansionist.

These are indeed good subjects for historians. But it does not mean that politicians should ignore them. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is not a uniquely iniquitous event. Even Mr Putin (shown here speaking on the issue at a press conference on May 10th 2005) seems a bit hazy about the details. So the 70th anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler deal is a good time to raise it in discussion—particularly in countries where doing so runs no risk of prosecution.

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