Reinventing Stalin: Modern Historical Trends

Reflecting on a recent post, High Heeled Historian commented that though Stalin may have been responsible for 35 million deaths (which someone computed at about 18% of the entire population) at least he saved the USSR from Nazi Germany.

There seems quite a trend about modern historians to reinvent Stalin; to move him from “Monsters of History” category to “Flawed Messiah.” Why is that?

Luciano Canfora is the 63-year-old author of “Democracy in Europe.” He is a reknowned historian in Italy and author of a well-respected biography of Caesar. And yet in this recent study he suggests that Stalin’s politics offer a possible third way alongside western parliamentary democracy and fascism. The question rises: Are we allowed to re-write history? Maybe there is a thin line between re-assessing and re-inventing, but re-inventing is pretty much what Canfora does here.

Canfora is an Italian Euro-communist. He dedicates much space in his book to the Paris Commune of 1871 and to the French torture of Algerians during the Algerian war, but forgets to mention the Gulags or Stalin’s purges. For him, Stalin was a great statesman and he believes the communist “people’s democracies” developed a higher level of democracy than parliamentary democracies. This is what he writes of the pact between Hitler and Stalin:

“We know that the Russians felt they had been cheated by the deliberately inconclusive way in which the English and French conducted the negotiations. They repeated the decision of Brest-Litovsk, so-to-speak in a totally different political situation, extracting themselves from the coming war as then they had come out of the anti-imperialist war. Over the years, a myth has sprung up over the ‘partition’ of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, yet another episode in the long history of partition.

The truth is that in 1938/39 Poland was a hysterically anti-Soviet and compliant towards Hitler’s Germany, on whose behavior Poland’s foreign minister Beck, modelled his own (including withdrawal from the League of Nations on August 11, 1938). After the Munich Agreement of September 1938 Poland played a part in the partition of Czechoslovakia annexed by the Reich, receiving, as its share of the spoils, the mining area of Teschen. Polish policy in the months leading up to the Nazi-Soviet pact is described in the following terms by Hugh Seton-Watson, the greatest Western historian of eastern Europe, in his fine study ‘Eastern Europe Between the Wars, 1918-1941′(1945). ‘Confident of their hold on army and police, “cleverly” playing off against each other the different sections of the Opposition, the bosses of the regime prayed that the crisis would last as long as possible, and meanwhile made small preparations either on the home front or on the frontiers.’ For its part the USSR, through the pact, regained the territories it had lost in the peace imposed upon it by Germany in 1918 (a loss which the Versailles treaty had not remedied).” (quote taken directly from “Democracy in Europe”, Blackwell Publishing)

The absurdities and misrepresentations are really overwhelming. Canfora doesn’t only ignore the secret ammendment to the pact between Hitler and Stalin, which defined the border of a further partition of Poland, he also keeps quiet about the 1921 peace treaty signed in Riga and Stalin’s breach of the 1934 Non-Aggression Pact. He skims over the fact that Hitler was determined to wage war against the USSR but Poland repeatedly rejected the proposition. However, Stalin and Hitler’s preparations for war against Poland are depicted by the Italian professor as a “pre-emptive peace,” which created “a convenient framework for the expanison of Soviet influence.”

Think of this: less than one generation after the collapse of communism and here is Canfora fully embracing the basic principle of Stalinism; everything that served the USSR was historically right. That’s not very far removed from Putin’s comment that the break-up of the USSR not only spelled disaster for the fate of Russia, but also for Europe.

Even if the book is written with great effect, it has neither an intellectual nor a moral justification. It’s a scandal that it was incorporated in the valuable international series “Making of Europe” which is edited by the well-reknowned French Medievalist Jacques Le Goff.

In 1993, when Le Goff began the “Making of Europe” series, he wrote the noble words, “Europe is being built. Born on great hope. But the hopes will only be fulfilled when they do justice to what has gone before. A Europe devoid of history would have no past and no future.” To date there have been 20 publications. Among the authors are reknowned historians, such as Hagen Schulze, Joseph Fontana, Charles Tilly, Aaron Gurjewicz, Umberto Eco, Massimo Montanari, Werner Rösener, Peter Brown… Their books are written stuninngly, using daring hypotheses and razor-sharp argumentation. But, after all the plaudits we come to Canfora…

Well: I’m just asking the question. When does reassessment become irresponsible re-invention? Irving’s reworking of the Holocaust myth? Churchill was a vampire, Genghis Khan loved meccano. If you go in that direction, as P.G.Wodehouse said, “the world is your lobster”.

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6 Responses to Reinventing Stalin: Modern Historical Trends

  1. Ludwik Kowalski says:

    This is not a reply. I want you to know about my new book. Anyone can now read it ONLINE. And it is FREE.

    The URL is

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html

    2) Please share this URL with all who might be interested. Thank you in advance.

    The title is: “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

    This 2010 book is my autobiography. It is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

    3) Comments, as always, will be appreciated. I expect my book to be readable by all browsers and under all operating systems. (Please send me a private message immediately if the content is not clearly displayed on your computer screen.)

    Ludwik Kowalski
    Professor Emeritus
    kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu

    • kenbaker says:

      Dear Dr Kowalski,
      Thanks you very much for the link. It’s extremely interesting. Why not create a website for it to make it more generally available?

  2. This is a very interesting link, thank you Dr Kowalski

  3. Re-assessment is certainly essential in all aspects of history, particularly with emotive topics such as our recent conversation about Stalin. Perhaps today we have a different insight to those historians 30-50 years ago and in this respect re-assessment can be an interesting, valuable exercise. Since when was having a new perspective on something a problem? In my opinion, re-assessment only becomes ‘dangerous’ when we lose sight of the solid evidence and facts that we based our original assessment on. There certainly seems to be a trend of an unnecessary warping of reality in history, particularly school history, that is distorting the reality of history and changing it into a palatable ‘story’.

    • kenbaker says:

      Dear HHH,
      Yes, of course I agree with you. Check href=”https://kenbaker.wordpress.com/are-we-allowed-to-rewrite-history/”> and see what you think. It’s just the balance between reassessing and revisionism, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with a fresh perspective, but everything wrong with suppressing truth to develop an agenda. Hence we get David Irving insisting that the gas chambers were constructed after the 2WW to discredit Hitler. etc etc.
      Yours Sincerely,
      Ken Baker

  4. Dear Ken,

    That’s an interesting article, thanks for the link.

    Check out this post, just something I was thinking about today:
    http://highheeledhistorian.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/was-the-catholic-church-still-healthy-in-1500/

    Yours sincerely,

    highheeledhistorian

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