Thursday, June 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (George Orwell, on Totalitarianism and ‘The Continuous Alteration of the Past’)

“From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”—English novelist and essayist Eric Blair, aka George Orwell (1903-1950), “Books v. Cigarettes,” originally published in 1946, later reprinted in Essays (Everyman Library, 2002)

George Orwell wrote these words with two totalitarian rulers in mind: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich crumbled at the end of WWII, and the Soviet Union that Stalin turned into a superpower collapsed from within more than 40 years later.

But Vladimir Putin has learned the lesson these two dictators taught about using fake history to control the present moment. He exploited fear and resentment over the loss of national power to manipulate his people.

Lucian Kim’s March 2022 article for the Wilson Center explored Putin’s “dangerous hobby”: a grasp of history “highly selective and distorted by politics” (a blueprint for control, I might add, that is increasingly envied, if not emulated, by Western proto-strongmen). Kim’s analysis of the Russian leader’s obsession with the wrong lessons of the past is best summed up with respect to Ukraine:

“If Russians are not allowed to condemn past crimes committed in their name, they will not be able to liberate themselves from the Soviet mindset. And as long as they are not free of the Soviet past, Russians will be unable to accept the paradox that the Soviet Union could be both liberator and occupier of half of Europe—and that they themselves were prisoners in their own country.”

(Jordan M. Poss’ blog post from May of last year contains another interesting reflection on “Orwell on History and ObjectiveTruth.”)

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