On rewriting history and the clash of civilizations
This week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auchwitz, and it has been marked by commemorative events, speeches by political leaders, articles about the Holocaust and the like.
Among these was a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin: Those who rewrite history attempt to hide own disgrace. “The Russian president has blasted attempts to rewrite the history of WWII and hide the crimes of Nazism as inadmissible and immoral, adding that people who do this often try to distract attention from their nations’ collaboration with Hitler.”
“Direct attempts to silence history, to distort and rewrite history are inadmissible and immoral. Behind these attempts often lies the desire to hide one’s own disgrace, the disgrace of cowardice, hypocrisy and treachery, the intent to justify the direct or indirect collaboration with Nazism,” the Russian leader stated.
“In places where they imprint the ideas of ethnic and moral supremacy into people’s heads, where they destroy or scoff at human values, civilization is being quickly and inevitably replaced by barbarity,” Putin noted, adding that the process is often accompanied with war and aggression.
Well, one can’t cavil at those sentiments, and I wouldn’t want to, but the problem is the subtext. All historical writing carries what one historian called “the burden of the present”, and this is no exception. If you want to understand Putin’s words, you must read them in context, and the context is the present, and relations between Russia and Ukraine.
Putin is talking about the past, but in the present there is a fight going on, and Putin has a dog in that fight, and his words need to be interpreted in that light. In his words he is having a dig at Ukraine, which, when occupied by the Nazis in WWII, in some places welcomed the occupiers and collaborated with them, including collaboration in the Holocaust.
And in this he has a point, as this article shows: How the world teaches the Holocaust – or ignores it.
So what Putin is apparently implying about Ukraine might be true, but it is nevertheless disingenuous.
I was recently told by a Ukrainian nationalist that I “supported Putin” because I referred to a civil war in Ukraine. I suppose that in the nationalist worldview anything less than enthusiastic support must mean that one sides with the enemy.
But this article illustrates what so many people seem to be at pains to deny: that there is a clash of civilizations. The conflict in Ukraine bears out, with uncanny accuracy, what Samuel Huntington wrote about “the clash of civilizations” twenty years ago.
Huntington pointed out that where a civil war took place entirely within a civilization, it would be less likely to become a clash of civilizations. The civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi 20 years ago bear this out.
But where the “fault lines” between civilisations run through a country, as they do in Ukraine, then such a civil war is likely to become a proxy war for the wider civilizations, and others become involved. The fact that most of much of the “news” about the Ukraine conflict in the Western media was composed of attacks by Western politicians on Putin bears this out. And this article on Putin’s speech about historical revisionism bears it out too, because Putin is clearly using it to have a dig at the Ukrainian leaders.
So Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory is being demonstrated every day, not merely by actual violence, but by the media spin put on events, and even the denialists sometimes show by their very denials that it is true.