Ursula Carlson: Seeding successful myths worldwide
Recently, I read two articles, one about Germany and one about Russia, both of which serve as warnings to us as we find ourselves inundated by lies on many fronts.
Jochen Bittner writes for the German paper Die Zeit which has offices worldwide as well as for the International New York Times. In his “1918 Germany has a warning for America,” he recounts how a “legend” was manufactured by Germans who refused to accept the literal fact that Germany had lost World War I.
Bittner points out that the “powerful conservatives” of Imperial Germany insisted that “defeat was declared, but not warranted.” That it was all a “conspiracy, a con, a grave betrayal.” It didn’t matter that the claim was false, because among “a sizeable number” of Germans the idea of defeat “stirred resentment, humiliation, and anger.”
By 1918, German forces were demoralized. Sailors went on strike, the citizens were starving, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, and the army leaders signed the armistice. It was all too much. “Military officers, monarchists, and right-wingers” spread the myth that German soldiers were “stabbed in the back” — that is, were betrayed as a result of “political sabotage by Social Democrats and Jews.” Because the legend was that German soldiers would never give up.
A year later, with the Treaty of Versailles, the myth was already “well established.” It was incomprehensible that in just a couple of years Germany “had gone from one of the world’s most respected nations to its biggest loser.” And the one who knew best how to exploit the Germans’ frustration was Adolph Hitler.
Stalin, deceased tyrant of the Soviet Union, has a world-wide reputation for inhumanity. Andrew Higgins, Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times, in his long front page article, “Road of Bones to the Gulag, haunted still,” writes that Stalin, thanks to Putin’s diligent myth making, has been born again as a savior and hero.
Putin’s emphasis on “Russia’s triumph over Hitler” in World War II, as a sanctification and “touchstone of national pride,” has raised Stalin’s popularity. One Russian Higgins interviewed declared that Stalin was not only great, but he “turned a nation of peasants into an industrial power.” In addition, he said, “compared with the countless Native Americans killed in the U.S., nothing really terrible happened here.”
Putin has also rewritten history by discounting the truth. Graves of prisoners shot by Stalin’s secret police, were falsely attributed to Finnish soldiers allied with Nazi Germans. The amateur historian, Yuri Dmitriev, who uncovered the actual truth, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on fabricated evidence of sexual assault on his adopted daughter.
An opinion poll published last March revealed that 76 percent of Russians view the Soviet Union favorably and Stalin is far ahead of all other Soviet leaders “in public esteem.” Another survey disclosed that nearly half of young Russians had never even heard of Stalin-era repressions. A historian of the “road of bones” Kolyma gulag faced abuse and threats from die-hard Stalinists after he pointed out the mass executions and more than 100,000 deaths the inmates suffered through starvation and disease. And perhaps one of Russia’s most famous writers, Varlam Shalamov, a graduate of Moscow State University, who wrote what are considered the definitive chronicles of labor camp (gulag) life in “Kolyma Tales” is dismissed by Stalin’s fans as fiction.
I am dismayed by this dishonest myth-making, whether it is to deify a demon or demonize a hero. Truth, as the philosopher John Dewey said, is “the mainspring of all human progress.” Truth relies on facts; on science; on logic; on an educated, well-read, thoughtful, public.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.