Fake news is bad. But fake history is even worse

Roundup
tags: Erdogan, Trump, Fake News



Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian. She was previously executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde

On 22 July, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán stood before university students and delivered a speech titled “Will Europe belong to Europeans?” It contained rambling passages about how a “Soros plan” was in place to bring in “hundreds of thousands of migrants every year – if possible, a million – to the territory of the European Union from the Muslim world”. The aim was to transform the continent into “a new, Islamised Europe”. This, Orbán argued, was what lay behind “Brussels’ continuous and stealthy withdrawal of powers from the nation states”. Orbán has form when it comes to this kind of paranoid vision. He’s an authoritarian populist who has made a habit of stoking xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. He eagerly amplifies far-right conspiracy theories about the Christian majority being threatened by demographic “replacement”. His message isn’t just fake news about the present, however. It comes laced with historical distortion.

“Not since the treaty of Trianon”, he gloated, “has our nation been as close as it is today to regaining its confidence and vitality” – a reference to the post-first world war treaty that deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. Orbán’s guiding idea is that Hungary must seek redress for historical humiliations. The suggestion is that, as his government clashes with the EU on migration quotas, it is avenging grievances rooted in the 20th century. Orbán’s manipulations go further, and involve completely rewriting dark chapters of the past. He’s on the record as saying Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian leader who cooperated with the Nazis, was an “exceptional statesman”.

Of course, he’s not alone in twisting history to further his political goals. In Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, school books have been modified to de-emphasise Ataturk, the founder of the secular republic. It’s all part of an effort to reverse that legacy and glorify the Ottoman past, as Erdoğan carves out ever more powers for himself.

Controlling memory is at the heart of the Putin regime in Russia. Not only has Stalin been rehabilitated, with new monuments built to honour him across the country, but historians and human rights activists who work to document Stalinist crime have come under political pressure. Some, like Yury Dmitriyev, have been tried on trumped-up charges. And rewriting the Soviet past doesn’t just serve domestic political purposes. Negating the crimes of Soviet occupation in central and eastern Europe, and excusing the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact with the Nazis, provides justification for Moscow reclaiming its “zone of influence”.

In Xi Jinping’s China, any mention of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or of the Tiananmen square massacre is stamped out because it’s seen as a challenge to Communist party rule. Collective amnesia is what the regime seeks on issues that risk undermining its legitimacy. It’s not enough to throw dissidents in prison or censor information; the past is purged. ...




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