News / 16.05.2014

“Never admit a lie – simply keep repeating it”

In recent years, the world has demonstrated steady tendency to use history as a political tool. Once I happened to listen to a speech of Macedonian representative to the OSCE who endeavoured to explain the contemporary problems between his country and Greece by references to Alexander the Great and contemporary Greeks’ alleged attempts to seize the glory of the great emperor. This is definitely an extreme case. However, less far-fetched arguments have become common talk in political debates over history.

In the last two decades there have been initiated numerous projects and initiatives all over Europe and in the rest of the world on the history and memory of the twentieth century. It led Solidarity Foundation at the University of Barcelona and the Research Group on Memory and Society to establish the European Observatory on Memories, an organization composed by various European institutions. Their aim is to analyze different historical and memorial processes as well as promote for the right of the public to have the right to have their own interpretations of historical facts.

I am not a historian. I am a journalist covering conflict zones. It is my experience which has taught me to be cautious and aware of the danger such manipulations with historical facts can present. In the circumstances of a crisis they serve politicians’ purposes to justify their bellicose statements. Consequently, they bring nothing else but disaster upon innocent people.

George Orwell stated in his Homage to Catalonia, “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” He has proven to be a great prophet of the XX century predicting not the events but moods and tendencies. disastrous mostly. Being in Barcelona and speaking on the need to have the right to freely interpret historical facts, I paid my homage to Orwell like he had done to Catalonia.

In his novel 1984 Orwell imagined a future world where a government at war could switch loyalty with the country's enemies and allies and a docile public would accept the revised version of history unquestioningly. Orwell recognized that history itself could be manufactured and manipulated in the service of broader purposes, not necessarily positive. It was he who said, "He who controls the past controls the future." A country in war with the enemy, either internal or external, is the country united in fear. It's people, due to their fear, are happy to hand over power to the ones who they regard as their leaders. As Orwell wrote, "The consciousness of being at war, and therefore, in danger makes the handing-over all power to a small caste seem the natural unavoidable condition of survival". 

There is a shocking confirmation of how easy it might be to take control of the people in fear in the documents of the Nuremberg Trials. Goering stated then, "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger". In the current circumstances of the crisis in Ukraine it is the peacemakers who are attacked by both sides. As soon as there is one voice trying to call to people's empathy and compassion, to demand neutrality in investigation the barbarous crimes already committed and attempt to prevent new crimes and further escalation of the conflict, they are immediately labelled as "putinists" or "banderovits" depending on the side the belligerent observers are with. The least accusation which can be heard is that you as a peacemaker is "naive", you "don't understand the reality of the war time in which violence is "normal".

Orwell knew better than most the power of words in defining our reality and our behavior. He wrote in 1984, "War is Peace". Control language and you control people's thoughts. In 1984 Orwell asserts the control of language and go complete elimination of selected vocabulary is a prerequisite for establishing tight control of the people. "Don't you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought". The same can be applied to the attempts to introduce just one "common" interpretation of history. Russia imposes her version of history while there is attempt in Europe to eliminate broader vision of history and impose just one "common" interpretation of national histories by other peoples.

We all know the infamous saying by Dc Goebbels, "Never admit a lie - simply keep repeating it". This still works miracles for government intent on misleading its citizens. The difference is the contemporary variety of ways how to deliver a lie and how to repeat it.

In the circumstances of the crisis in Ukraine social media is serving the best of this nasty purpose. If you have a bunch of paid "commentators" who keep leaving comments on every stream of discussion without even changing the sequence of words, sooner or later you will see the same comment already posted as a "fact". Just a few hours after the tragedy of Odessa House of Trade Unions of May 2nd when the building with people inside had been set on fire leaving more than 40 dead, there appeared dozens and dozens of comments about alleged "5 citizens of Transnistria and 15 Russians" among the victims of the House of Trade Unions. The comments were left by various people who, by accident, used exactly the same words and even put them in the same sequence. It was a matter of a few more hours when other people started to post the injected lies already as their own posts. It doesn’t matter that according to the information we are getting from Odessa now[1], it is the local families who are burying their dead[2]. It doesn’t matter that the official claim by Ukraine

Another classic way of manipulation that justifies any harsh treatment against "the enemy" is to vilify the opponent. Dehumanization blocks up any attempt to try to understand the motives and feelings of perceived enemies. Talking about "colorados" (as Ukrainians from the East of the country are nicknameв) or "banderovits” from the West as if all those who live there are devoted fans of Stepan Bandera[3], makes people deaf and blind towards the suffering of an “alien”.

It is intolerable to see open statements by politicians rejoicing about "Odessa being cleansed from Colorados" or "the fifth column as internal enemies" which is a common discourse for both putinists and anti-putinists. One fingerpoints at an opponent screaming, "A communist… Hoick an enemy" setting all the newspapers under their influence on the unfortunate. The other label their opponents "as traitorous liberals" or "pro-Americans", "pro-Russians", "pro-terrorists" and so on and so forth. The only difference is the polarity of tension and direction of an attack. The content and its danger are the same.

There is an assumption that trying to understand the motives of someone who has performed an evil act or intends to perform an evil act is the same as condoning such act. It is "easier" to find a string of fall guys and girls and make them scapegoats for criminal decisions made by politicians which helps them screen their responsibility. It is not political decisions but some “backwardness” of the people who are leading to conflicts, the common explanation offered by such politicians is.

Didn't we, human rights defenders, warn scores of times that "the approach to avoid” to make “Putin angry" would lead to disastrous consequences? Didn't we warn that Chechnya would bring more and more suffering on the innocent people living in the North Caucasus as well as elsewhere and that Putin needs Chechnya for his political purposes? Didn't we ask to react not only to LGBT issue as a reason for the campaign to boycott the Sochi Games as it was a very sophisticated way to divert attention from more acute problems.

The situation in Ukraine is developing according to the worst possible scenarios. When Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the situation in the East as something “which neither Kiev nor Moscow are in control of”, I could not but agree more with his evaluation. Just the first two weeks of May have demonstrated escalation of violence in the East and South of Ukraine, numerous cases of illegal detention of journalists, OSCE observers and just common people who look suspicious in the eyes of an armed person.

In addition to all the victims of Maidan who make the legendary “hundred” of the Heaven, there are now victims of Odessa, Krasnoarmeysk and Mariupol. There are cases of children being killed and wounded. On May 9, a 12-year-old boy in Slavyansk was wounded by a sniper. He has, fortunately, survived. But the same day a 10-year-old girl was mortally wounded when her parents were trying to drive out of the town of Antratsyt of Luhansk Region and didn’t stop their cars at the check-point manned by separatists. Her parents died on the spot and she died in hospital 2 days later. I really don’t care a bit whose bullets kill a child, a bullet of someone who positions himself as a separatist or bullet of someone who declares his adherence to the united Ukraine.

It is still not late to stop further escalation of violence. It is just necessary to condemn it all, regardless of what party is applying it and what kind of justification they are offering. A new case of violence generates a higher level of violence. It is the reality of all conflict zones. Such situations are rapidly developing. Therefore, the reaction from the public is always two steps behind. Nevertheless, it is still important to react by condemning not only violence as such, but anything which leads to its unleashing, including manipulations of historical facts, fantasies of some journalists with very rich imagination which they “sell” for reality, attempts to “diabolize” the opposite side of the conflict or present all those who are unfortunate to be born in some particular part of Ukraine either for “ultra nationalists” if they live in the West or “pro-Russian scum” if they live in the East.



[1] http://timer.od.ua/news/mayskaya_boynya_obnovlenniy_spisok_pogibshih_sredi_nih_nesovershennoletniy_826.html

[2] http://timer.od.ua/news/utochnenniy_spisok_pogibshih_v_odesse_2_maya_811.html

[3] http://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stepan_Bandera


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