“Whoever controls the past controls the future: whoever controls the present controls the past.” This quote from George Orwell’s world famous novel “1984” describes in one sentence the importance of history in politics.
The quote finds its place in the foreword to the recently released book “Dancing on Bones,” written by journalist Katie Stallard. In the book, she described how the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea use history for their own purposes.
“Authoritarian regimes recognize the power and resonance of history. They see history as a critical tool to generate popular support,” Stallard told DW.
History generates legitimacy, is closely tied to citizens’ identities and gives authoritarian rulers an advantage because it can be manipulated as needed, she said. “Economic fortunes come and go. History is something you can rely on.”
History as justification for the Ukraine war
Russia’s war against Ukraine shows the deadly consequences that historical revisionism can have.
In July 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an essay entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
In it, Putin accused the West of pursuing a “dangerous revisionism” and emphasized that he — as an “omniscient statesman” who knows the “one historical truth” — wanted to counteract it, historian Andreas Kappeler described in an analysis for the magazine. Eastern Europe.
The truth, according to Putin, is: Russians and Ukrainians have always been one spiritual people. It is the West that is trying to make Ukraine an “anti-Russian” entity.
Russia would never allow this and would prevent it by force if necessary, he stressed. On May 9, when Russia celebrates its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II every year, Putin reiterated his view and went even further, claiming that the West had planned an attack on Russia.
Putin’s Worldview During the Cold War
The story of the supposed Russo-Ukrainian unity, which the West is opposing, is part of a bipolar worldview and thinking in major power categories, Kappeler noted.
For Putin, only major powers – such as Russia, the United States and China, for example – are important, and ‘small’ states such as Ukraine have no agenda of their own. The great powers, in turn, are engaged in an ideological competition waged by all possible means.
This view of Putin, which Kappeler describes as a conspiracy theory, is combined with ethnic nationalism and the claim that Nazis allegedly seized power in Ukraine.
All of this helps tie it to “the most important element of the Russian integration ideology: the Soviet victory over Hitler’s Germany,” Kappeler said, adding that Putin’s worldview is that of a secret service agent of the now-collapsed Soviet Union.
Xi Jinping: helmsman of history
Many patterns of the ethno-nationalist view of the history of Putin and his Kremlin supporters can also be seen in Chinese leaders.
Still, China wants to do better than the Soviet Union, which Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly quotes as a warning.
Xi believes the Soviet Union fell apart because its leaders failed to eradicate the “historical nihilism” that undermined belief in the communist cause.
In order to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released an updated official history of the party in 2021 that is highly geared to serving Xi’s interests.
“Entering the new era, General Secretary Xi Jinping has led us to analyze the mechanism of evolution and examine the laws of history from the long river of history, the tide of time and the global storm, and he made the right choice at every opportunity. important historic moment,” wrote the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, of Xi.
The CCP’s story is being circulated in the press, social media, the cinema and computer games. Alternative views are illegal.
The party guarantees unity
The official party story determines what is thought and written in China.
Xi’s view of history provides “an ideological framework that justifies an increasing degree of party intervention in politics, economics and foreign policy,” said Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister and China expert.
The CCP uses history to justify its power: before the communist takeover, China was weak and divided. The division allowed the West to humiliate the country. Only the CCP, the subtext reads, was able to unite the country and lead it to its former glory.
The CCP continues what Chinese nationalists had begun in the 19th century, as Bill Hayton noted in his book “The Invention of China.”
At the time, China’s history was retroactively reinterpreted to establish a Han Chinese unitary culture. The traditions of the Manchus, the Mongols and many other ethnic groups were written out of history to give way to the vision of a China that had always been united.
Today, the Uyghurs and Tibetans are on the receiving end of this historical revisionism, forcing them into re-education camps and suppressing their language and culture.
It is fitting in this context that in 2013, in a speech to the CCP’s Central Committee on the importance of history, Xi quoted Confucian scholar Gong Zhishen: “To destroy a country, you must first wipe out its history. ”
He meant this as a warning to those who question China’s 5,000-year unity.
While it is true that there was some continuity in language and Confucian doctrine, it is incorrect to say that Han Chinese culture has always been dominant in what is now the territory of the People’s Republic of China.
In fact, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was the last in which the Han Chinese ruled. Centuries before that, dynasties of other peoples, such as the Mongols, ruled over most of what is now China. The latter dynasty was founded by the Manchu and ruled from 1644 until the proclamation of the republic on January 1, 1912.
In the will to create a united history from which today’s Russia and the People’s Republic of China emerged without a break, the circle has come full circle to a point where Putin, denying or distorting Ukraine’s history, is now able to explain that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.
In addition, there is an obsession with territorial issues in both systems. Putin’s historical statements largely exclude the crimes of the Stalin era, but pay close attention to the territory of the Soviet Union, which also includes Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, the states of Central Asia and others.
China, meanwhile, has laid claim to the entire South China Sea — a body of water the size of the Mediterranean — based on what it says is its historic right to the area.
At the same time, it refuses to recognize the decision of the International Court of Arbitration, which has nullified all historic claims.
Emphasizing territorial disputes has two functions, according to Stallard.
On the one hand, it emphasizes the humiliations of the past: something was taken from us that was rightfully ours. And at the same time, it highlights the strength of current leaders: we are taking back what’s ours, she explained.
“This is part of defending sovereignty, of the idea that you are a strong country that can be proud of itself and defend yourself.”
No competing views allowed
Even if there are substantive differences in the historical narratives in Russia and China – China’s more pronounced cult of personality around Xi, for example – the patterns are clear.
Both systems claim a unity and continuity that never existed. Anyone who questions them in Russia or China should expect severe penalties.
They are constructing an external enemy, the West, from which only they — Putin and Xi, respectively — can save the nation and tie history to territorial claims.
“The impulse to manipulate history for political ends is not a unique authoritarian trait,” Stallard said. But only authoritarian systems cut down dissent.