For several decades now, Simon Schama has been an historian capable of reframing the past in unique ways using frameworks that other commentators seldom use. In this piece for the FT he explains why ‘militant nostalgia’ (i.e. a yearning for a past in which my country ruled the world) is on the rise globally.
Using Putin as an example, Schama begins by explaining that most autocrats have this yearning to be seen as scholarly, guru-type figure: “…somewhere within the mind of tyrants lies the strange urge to be a professor; to cloak Machiavellian brutality with the gravitas of scholarly authority.
Posing thus, autocrats can persuade themselves — and those to whom they feed their deluded claptrap — that their belligerence is at the service of some higher mission: the recovery of national self-respect, the righting of grievous wrongs and humiliations inflicted by wicked foreigners. Invariably it’s history, or rather, their mangled version of it, that gets wheeled out to vindicate those obsessions. Should actual, factual history, with all its complexity and nuances, resist being nailed to the Procrustean bed of grievance, then the inconveniences of truth can always be trimmed away.
So it was in July of 2021 that Vladimir Putin, in his own wannabe professor mode, published a lengthy screed, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which manages to be stupefyingly dull while also exhaustively untrue. Putin is not the first autocrat to weaponise ancient history for armoured rage.”
What this does is that multiple versions of history come into play – the fake version concocted by the autocrat and alongside that the real story (which is usually very very different). Using Putin & Russia as an example again: “Putin’s essay makes the medieval Kyivan Rus the original Russian state, but its founding rulers in the 9th and 10th centuries were Vikings, not Slavs. The word Rus means “men who row” and its etymology is Scandinavian.
Following the Mongol conquest in the 13th century, Rus was divided into different tribute states, the orientation of which cast a long shadow over the subsequent centuries. A north-eastern Muscovy was inevitably more Asian, while a Galician-Volhynian state in what is now western Ukraine had its ruling prince Danylo blessed by the Pope and, while still paying tribute to the Mongol khans, enjoyed freedom of government within its borders.”
Schama’s article contains also examples of the crazy things Hitler did to reinvent an Aryan past for the German people with Tibet of all places being deemed by Hitler to be the cradle of Aryan civilisation. So why do autocrats go to such lengths to falsify the past? Schama steps up the tempo to go into the messed up mind of the autocrat:
“The Russian Supreme Court’s closure of Memorial International, which for decades has been committed to documenting Soviet atrocities, was a backhanded compliment to the threat posed by the obstinate temerity of historical truth. But it was yet another demonstration of the truism uttered by the sinister obliterator of memory, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984, reminding Winston Smith that “who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past”…
Booster histories are pumped with grievance: the ressentiment that Nietzsche identified as a condition of impotent but unassuageable rage at some sort of imagined, unjust loss; and the projection of that anger towards those cast as the agents of humiliation. Putin mourns for the empire lost by the collapse of the Soviet Union and attributes the debacle to the designers of what he calls an “anti-Russia project”, salivating to inflict yet another humiliation. In his view, post-Maidan Ukraine after 2014 allowed itself to be co-opted into that nefarious Euro-American strategy and so must now be punished for presuming to control its own destiny.
None of this, of course, began (or will end) with Putin. Victimhood and the need to avenge the “stab in the back” that robbed Germany of victory in the first world war runs through Hitler’s Mein Kampf like a slow-burning fuse. When Viktor Orbán rants about Hungary’s role as defender of Christian civilisation, he is feeding on the bitterness left by the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 imposed by the victorious allies, which reduced the country to a third of its prewar territories and a third of the population of the Kingdom of St Stephen that had ruled coevally with Austria over an immense empire.
Ironically, the state against which Hungary had historically defined itself — Ottoman Turkey — is now governed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is himself gripped by neo-Sultanate fantasies, embodied in his 1,100-room presidential palace, albeit more Albert Speer in looks than anything that would have passed architectural muster with Suleiman the Magnificent.”
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