Remembrance of things past: history without an airbrush
In the town of Caen, in Normandy, is one of the most remarkable museums I’ve ever visited.
I went there in 1994, the week of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, and what I remember most clearly about the Memorial de Caen – the Caen Peace Museum – is the long spiral ramp down which you must walk to enter it.
You can read about it here: or if your French is up to it, take a virtual tour here: but nothing will really reproduce the experience of walking in person down the spiral of history that led to world war and genocide.
It’s brightly lit at the top, with white walls and pictures of the victorious end of the First World War and the Roaring Twenties that followed. But the lighting, and the mood, darken into claustrophobic near-blackness as you descend through the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, the internecine chaos of French politics, into the rout of France’s army, and then the division of France into two zones – one Nazi-occupied, one willingly collaborationist – from both of which an estimated 75,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps.
I’ve been thinking a lot about history this last week, and whether we journalists pay it too much attention, or too little.
Two major anniversaries fell in the last seven days – the twentieth of the Tiananmen Massacre, the sixty-fifth of D-Day.
All media dutifully marked them, but anniversaries are only arbitrary dates after all. Should we not give more attention to human rights in China as stories emerge, rather than descend on the subject in a flurry once every decade? And why is sixty-five years so much more significant as a milestone than sixty-four?
In China’s case, the Beijing government itself helpfully supplied an answer, by adding to their already draconian internet censorship with a ban on Facebook and Twitter, (they’d already blocked YouTube months ago), putting vast numbers of police and military on to the streets, and, as our correspondent Stephen McDonell found out at first hand in Tiananmen Square, doing their best to stop foreign reporters from doing their job. In the old definition “News is what someone somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising’.
As if to illustrate the point, the memoirs of the late Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist leader who wanted to talk to the students, not murder them, sold out instantly in Hong Kong last week, though banned on the Chinese mainland
Zhao’s translator, Bao Pu, who I interviewed on PM recently, says “Are we rewriting history? We are restoring history”, an accurate assessment because the Chinese Government has done everything it can to blot out Tiananmen. Now we know, from Zhao’s own account, a little more of what they didn’t want us to hear: that there was a genuine debate at the highest levels about whether to follow the path of economic reform alone, or whether to loosen the reins politically as well; and that that debate was ended not by argument among the top echelons, but by brute force. Zhao Ziyang spent the rest of his life under house arrest; some still hope that a more democratic China will eventually emerge, but no expert I know thinks it will happen soon.
So history is a weapon of power, and power is or should be the principal subject of serious journalism.
They know this in Russia, where President Medvedev last week set up a commission “to prevent attempts to falsify history”.
In a country where a recent opinion poll found the second most admired figure in history (after Ivan the Terrible) was Josef Stalin, this is seen as an attempt to airbrush out the crimes of the great dictator, who historians now conservatively estimate killed twenty million people.
Two historians of the Russian Archives whom I spoke to last week – Jonathan Brent of Yale, and the author of ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Berlin, the Downfall’, Antony Beevor – both told me their work would henceforth be far more difficult.
Beevor told me the historian of the Gulag, Anne Applebaum, had said to him only half-jokingly that neither of them would probably ever be allowed back to Moscow.
How has this happened? Jonathan Brent’s book ‘Inside the Stalin Archives’, which I read last week, chronicles the period from 1992 to now, and the way the openness of the post-Gorbachev era has given way to a new nationalist authoritarianism, and a furtive return to the cult of Stalin.
Back to Caen, and the question of whether there’s still anything new to say about the Normandy landings. Yes, says Beevor, whose latest book, D-Day accuses Britain’s ‘Monty’, General Bernard Montgomery, of a near-criminal blunder in reducing the town to rubble at a cost of nearly 15,000 French lives and scarcely any German casualties. In case you clicked though to the Museum’s website, and wondered why there was no English translation, now you know.
But the Caen Museum showed me that the French, for all the insistence that they liberated Paris in August 1944, as though the Allies had nothing to do with it, are on a historical journey of profound self-examination about occupation, collaboration and resistance. It may be painful, but as Russia and China will surely have to find out some day for themselves, it is the only path to a stable and mature society.
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