Editorial: history and the truth

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Attitudes toward historical truth draw line between free society and totalitarianism

The news about Russia planning to legally determine ways of speaking about World War II and the Red Army, in historical context, is actually no news – the same also having been attempted in 2009. However, considering the overall developments in Russia, this is still troubling, being a matter of censorship, seeking to punish expressions of any other truths except the one authorised by Kremlin.

Attitudes toward historical truth are one of the issues drawing the line between free society and totalitarianism. The way how historical truth is created and who has the right to create it reflects how society is understood to function. If it is assumed that society functions by an inflexible «from the top down» principle, centralised truth is formed. Should a society function democratically, historical truth is shaped in step with the society’s own development.

Even if historians have started to deeply doubt in the existence on a single historical truth, this does not mean that a uniform treatment thereof is ruled out. Because historical truth does resemble the use of words in a language. Both may be considered a social phenomenon: meanings of words indeed being conventional by nature, not inevitable of absolute; still, this would not mean that anyone may arbitrarily alter their meanings or, on the other extreme, declare a meaning of any word as the only right one – all other meanings being punishable. In a free society, historical truth is shaped as an agreement, quite like the meanings of words. In a totalitarian society, the central power says what is to be agreed.

State(s) trying to achieve a single history in the midst of diversities thereof – or contradictions, at times – is not limited to totalitarian regimes. A couple of years ago, Germany tabled the idea of Europe needing a common history textbook. However, here lies a basic difference: Germany was rather thinking of a list of events and topics, to be treated in European schools’ history lessons. The plan never aimed at reaching the «right» treatment of all topics. And how could it: seeing that up this very day, Europe lacks a common understanding even in whom to count among the World War II winners, not to mention how many crimes to ascribe to the Red Army.

In his book on Polish history, God’s Playground (1981), the British historian Norman Davies came to the conclusion of historians, as movie cameras, always lying. In an interview to Postimees, a couple of years ago, he explained the idea this way: a historian is ever reaching towards the truth, yet never arriving at the fullness of it. In order to avoid major distortions, history always needs to be written from as many angles as possible.

Russia’s way of establishing historical truth is quite the opposite: the truth lies not in diverse descriptions, but in the one state-prescribed doctrine, deviations from which they now want to declare punishable.