All history is propaganda. Or, as Napoleon put it “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” It is generated through the complex interaction of story-teller and audience. The audience commands a story that tells them what they wish to hear. The storyteller spins the yarn that his or her audience wish to believe in. Thus history is concocted as more alchemy, not science. Whilst scientific experiments can be revisited & repeated in a laboratory, history cannot. There is no time machine we can use discover the facts. Only endless re-runs & revisits through the lens of opinion. Hence history is whatever you want it to be.
Understanding that all history is propaganda has implications for who has power and why. For the people the meaning of history is often viewed through the fog of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be easily weaponised as a facet of history to achieve contemporary politics. When the historians turn history into art then that is called nostalgia. Nostalgia kills. British MP Jo Cox was cut down by Thomas Mair in 2016 because he viewed her as a “traitor” to white people. 1 Mair naturally assumed that there really was a “race” called “white people” and that it was possible to betray them. No doubt this had much to do with his reading of the ‘glorious’ history of the British. To give but another example; in March 2018, when the leader of a major British opposition party in the UK suggested that
‘…many older people who voted for Brexit were driven by nostalgia for a Britain when “passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink”. ‘ 2
….it was considered somehow controversial. Yet there is little contentious with the concept of weaponising the past. Pretty much all of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”3 & the subsequent rise of the National Socialist state system was an ode to the past glories of Germany past. They lead the World into catastrophe with dreams of recapturing the lost essence Germanic exceptionalism.
To understand today we must understand how little we choose to understand about yesterday. History is pivotal in how we view ourselves and, also, how we understand what we must do. Politics involves choosing economics that reproduce some part-imagined distant past. Economics is derived from history. History that policy-makers dress up as science. This history is chosen to support the form of economics that consolidates power with people those politicians identify with. Economic and political cycles rely upon the short span of human memory and attention. Monetarist theory that was so popular in the 1980s was founded based upon examples picked from the 1920’s.4 It didn’t work but that wasn’t the point. History was re-invented to build an economic case that was then used as policy. Thus economics & history can be endlessly recycled to serve the needs of power.
Much of history is based upon our achievements in war. War is a statement whereby to people are told who the goods guys are and who the bad guys are. By definition WE are the good guys and THEY are the bad guys. It is mass virtue signalling. Orwell gave us the concept of perpetual war in his novel “1984”5. It mattered not who we were at war with, only that there was a conflict that was existentialist in nature hence had priority above all other social policy. The state of emergency is of infinite length because not state of peace can exist. Peace requires the state to conduct difficult policies that disadvantage the powerful in favour of the powerless. The people are not meant to understand this thus war is forged through appeals to patriotism and stories about the imminent threat from an evil enemy. Just look at World War One or the War against Iraq.
The public are mostly willing participants in the charade. We choose the history we wish to believe in because it makes us feel good. Take the example of just one national hero that seldom is discussed. Churchill denied rice to Bengal through World War Two as a scorched earth policy designed to keep the Japanese out of India. Food across Bengal was destroyed by the British as were all means of transporting it in. Bengal had been perceived as a troublesome pro-democracy area so, for the elite of the British Empire, this was going to be a ‘win-win’. Three and a half million Bengalis died of starvation. 6 This appalling genocide is never ranked alongside the crimes of Stalin or Hitler. Churchill is defined as one of the good guys. Cantankerous, eccentric, but one of “ours” – white, male, upper-class, establishment-elite. Most people would be repelled if such a British icon were to be torn down. We prefer our heroes as Hollywood portrays them. Anything else is an insult.
Propaganda is as much created by what we choose to ignore. Historians can choose to not write about such forbidden histories because people who buy books about history may not wish to read such uncomfortable truths. Publishers do not wish put out unpopular ideas as they don’t sell well. Some may contest that controversy sells well. It is true that society handles some controversy well. Controversy becomes acceptable when it is so far gone that it can be re-classed as ‘ancient myth’. Even myths have power. Take two examples: Santa Clause and Saint George.
Santa Clause has enormous magical appeal to young and old alike. Children are encouraged to write to him. Yet the truth of Saint Nick is nothing like the Hollywood glitz.
“The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas (a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra), the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas). Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.”7
Father Christmas delivers social utility. He is a way of making children good. Somewhat less cynically he is also part of the magic and romance of the Yuletide period. He is, for want of a better phrase, harmless.
Saint George is may be less so. He is more powerful as he is a Nationalistic icon. Yet the truth about George and the Dragon denudes much of his appeal. However it seems to matters nothing to his appeal as an icon.8 The real St George is believed to have been a soldier from Syrian Palestine. He is the patron saint of Lithuania, Portugal, Germany and Greece, as well as cities including Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice.9 Despite his somewhat foreign origins White British Nationalists feel no issue in embracing this Syrian boy to their chests – even if it is to justify the expulsion of other Syrians from Britain.
These are trivial examples. History as propaganda becomes a hot topic when we move from ancient myth into the history of the last 100 years. If those who witnessed and suffered that history are still around, or their children and their children’s children… Then the matter becomes harder to discuss. The founding myth of contemporary nations is based upon relatively recent history. Our interpretation of such events effects the entire way a society views itself. Such history has incredible power – for good and bad.
We headed this piece with a postcard produced shortly after the execution of British Nurse Edith Cavell in 1915. She was killed by the Germans who accused her of being a spy. Her innocence by the British public was always assumed and it was classed as a heinous crime by an evil enemy. In fact as early as 1920 the British Government had concluded that her execution was legally justified. Yet this fact was not admitted publicaly for one hundred years.10 In 2015 Former director-general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, admitted that the Cavell network smuggled secret information to British intelligence services. It was a curiosity at the time and such a revision caused no real embarrassment.
However, revisionist historians can court far more notoriety by reworking history on more sensitive topics. Such transgressions can earn a jail sentence and a severe loss of reputation – or worse.11 Some history is sacred and beyond question. It is a remarkable and much over-looked fact that any attempt by renegade historians, engineers or chemists to rewrite the story of the Holocaust is met with utter hostility by society. That is true unless it fully endorses the traditional historiography. It cannot be debated and facts have no role to play in any defence. It would be an insult to every victim.
The Holocaust is an interesting example, maybe the only example, of history enforced as apocryphal tale. The crimes of the Nazis are very real beyond doubt but no discussion about the extent of those crimes or the methods used are acceptable. It is taboo. It just “is”. The reasons it just “is” are complex. The Holocaust has a very unique place in history for if those crimes were not unique then we lose the “north” on our moral compass. This presents an extraordinary dilemma for contemporary society. If we measure the acts of our governments relative to the sins of the Gas Chambers then it indemnifies us against almost everything. Nothing we do will ever be as bad as what Nazis did.
Thus the problems pile in. Certainly the modern state is equally capable of atrocity. The Nuremburg war crimes trials were an illustration of the winning side inventing law based purely upon the crimes of the Nazis being unique. Thus there would be no defence of “self defence”. There were genuinely successful attempts at Nuremburg to defend against the prosecution by showing, in the case of aerial bombing and the war at sea, that the British Bomber Command12 and Navy had committed equal mis-deeds. That is why the Holocaust has such a special place. All history since 1945 has been understood relative to it. To question it is to unseat the very cornerstone of democracy and liberal values. It would be as unsettling to our society as the discovery of an alien intelligence in space.
It leads to an important question: should the Holocaust remain as a “lesson from history” or should we explore its more literal truths? There are two possible answers to be debated. Firstly the answer could be “yes” – the Holocaust is a tale with a moral, and that moral is more important than the actuality of the details. This means acknowledging that our society must have a moral framework concreted down to a solid foundation. Without it our world would fall apart. Thus no uncertainty about the truth can be entertained because it is an example of the ultimate evil, no further details are required for fear it would wash away that example leaving us unsure as to our place.
The second school of thought would take issue with the need for a drastic example of evil. It stands in stark contrast to enlightenment principles. Should we still frighten children with tales of the Salem Witch trials long after we have dismissed witchcraft as just superstition? Is this not simply a patronising attitude by an intellectual elite? Would the truth set us free? Do we need this bogeyman? Arguably this bogeyman isn’t working. The Nazis are once again on the march and the extremist Right are resurgent. All we have now is the mystification of the Nazis and the obfuscation of the Holocaust. It could be counter-productive.
Beyond such sociological consideration there are also Nationalistic problems arising. At least two nations on Earth have their roots deep in the Holocaust story – Israel13 & Germany. As long as sensitivities there remain offended, raw & sensitive to the potential insults & blasphemies, arising, no progress can be made. Beyond that there is the dilemma of moral relativity that would disturb the former Allied nations. Since the Americans and French stand accused of killing up to one million German former combatants (after the war ended) then their crimes become commensurate with those of the Third Reich.14 If it emerged that the Concentration camps of the the Allies were no better – or even worse – than those of the Nazis then our moral compass would spin out of control.
Thus these truths dare not speak their name. Reality is just too disturbing. Even attempting to uncover what that reality could be is utterly forbidden. Probably most of us are happy that way. We simply refuse to believe that our great Uncle Bob participated in the wilful destruction of the lives of innocents. THAT is something that ONLY the Nazis would do… We are not Nazis. Case closed. Ignorance truly is bliss. The entire history of the German people from the fall of Berlin in 1945 through to start of the Marshall Plan starting in 1948 is buried.15 Their suffering was ignored, even deserved, because only bad guys do bad things to innocent people. What we did to them is un-history. It never happened. The Holocaust is the only lesson we require.
Is this cherrypicking justified & correct? Are we distorting history with good intentions yet yielding bad & unintended consequences? Writing as one who has invested a lot personally in studying, dissecting and exposing Fascism (in order to destroy it) there is a problem here. Examples of what Fascism does lay all about us. We have failed utterly to keep the genie in the bottle. If anything we have parked the Holocaust into a very special place for fear of causing any offence. It is the easiest thing to do when confronted by bitterly terrible memories that we dare hardly speak about. It is a totally valid opinion to state that presenting the Nazis as monsters has only perpetuated their glamour amongst a small minority. For the rest the Nazis are obscure bad guys. Since few of us know much about the topic it fails to act as any kind of warning from history. We may as well take our ethical framework from a pre-1940s episode of Tom and Jerry. The Third Reich is just so many cartoon cats with Swastikas. They weren’t human therefore they weren’t like us.
In 1960 the Jewish journalist, Philosopher & writer Hannah Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Hannah had herself narrowly escaped Nazi Germany with her life and, for spell in the USA, she was quite the Zionist. However her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil“16 earned the anger of the Holocaust survivor community. Author Yvonne Sherratt summarised why:
“Arendt had been disappointed to find that Eichmann, the monster who had ordered so many deaths, was merely an ordinary-looking man. She experienced no aura of power, no intelligence, no force of character, evil or otherwise, and was stunned at his ‘banality’. He had no ideological motive that she could discern, no special sadism, and was not even particularly Jew hating. He just seemed like a dull bureaucrat, merely fulfilling the role of his job.” 17
Arednt was controversial but, I believe, spot on. The problem is that the National Socialists are exactly like us. The Nazis were so very ordinary. Because we think we are different we are blind to facts that show us that we are living through a perfect remake of the 1930s Europe. We are making all the same mistakes. Maintaining the “uniqueness” of the crimes of the Nazis hasn’t worked in preventing it from happening again. The same old economic formulas that failed then are failing now. Austerity didn’t work then. It set the people of a nation against any easy scapegoat that came to hand. Jews, Muslims, Europeans, immigrants, anyone different. Elites maintained their own exceptionalism in a society of growing inequality. The only people who have learnt from history are the Fascists.
Today the ultra-Right-wing ideologues not only have mastery of our history but they have captured our language and our newspapers. Castle-born millionaires now feel justified in describing people born into Council housing estates as the “elite” if they stand opposed to the new populism.18 The people are being mislead. The perpetrators are all the usual suspects: people who have used their vast funding to buy power. This is an Establishment power that cannot be unseated. They will usher in a new era of Fascism under the cover of “the will of the people”. History will simply be weaponised by these new masters of propaganda to teach whatever lesson bring the utility of power – but power only for them.
If we wish to beat Fascism we must face up to our own history with honesty.
- Wikipedia, Murder of Jo Cox
- The Independent, 12th March 2018: “Vince Cable is absolutely right about nostalgic Brexit voters, and people like Nigel Farage know it“.
- See our blog “The Barbarian Who Came to Tea” – a reading of Mein Kampf
- See for example “Friedman vs. the Austrians: Did inflation in the 1920s lead to the 1929 crash?” https://theihs.org/blog/friedman-vs-austrians-inflation-1920s/
- See our review here http://www.post-carbon-living.com/blog/index.php/2007/02/16/george-orwell-nineteen-eighty-four/
- See our review of “The Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” by James Heartfield”
- See Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus
- Read about the Neo-fascist organisation based in the UK called “The League of Saint George” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_of_Saint_George
- See Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_George
- See “Truth and propaganda: How the execution of Edith Cavell in WW1 has been misused for 100 years” http://noglory.org/index.php/articles/497-truth-and-propaganda-how-the-execution-of-nurse-edith-cavell-in-ww1-has-been-misused-for-100-years
- See “Lectures of the Holocaust: Controversial Issues Cross-Examined” by Germar Rudolf, Castle Hill Publishers 2017 ISBN13: 978-1-59148-166-9
- See for example “Aerial bombardment and international law” here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_bombardment_and_international_law
- See “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering” by Norman Finkelstein ISBN 1859843239
- See “Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II” by James Bacque, Talon Books 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0889226654
- See “Gruesome Harvest: The Allied Attempt to Exterminate Germany after 1945” by Ralph Franklin Keeling, ISBN-13: 978-1300016762
- See “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” Penguin ISBN 0140044507
- See “Hitler’s Philosophers” by Yvonne Sherratt” Yale University Press 2013 ISBN 978-0-300-15193-0 page 252
- The Guardian 7th March 2018 “‘Elite’ is now a meaningless insult that’s used to silence criticism” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/07/liberal-elite-populism-brexit-elitist