There are many conservative, intelligent people who will happily tell you that there is no such thing as the absolute truth of history, only different, mutually complementary versions. History, they will say, is a mutable, fluid continuum, whose multiple truths are constantly undergoing revision and revaluation in one another’s reflected light, as well as in the light of other, ever newer truths, ceaselessly emerging from darkness and oblivion. This is all very well, I say in reply, but what about the absolute lie of history? Surely there is such a thing.
To begin with a rather extreme example, there are those versions of history which I periodically read about in national news magazines in the wake of some big education survey: 64 percent of all urban 14-year-olds questioned believe Fidel Castro is president of the United States, every eighth 15-year-old in America imagines that The Waste Land was written by Minnie Mouse, half of all teenagers in Pennsylvania mark Brunei as “(D), a cathedral town in Shropshire” . . . Surely the historical falsehood contained in such statements, made out of nearly absolute ignorance, is for all intents and purposes absolute?
No doubt it is. Yet, laughable as these private untruths are, they are hardly more mendacious than the public untruths to which I, along with a billion others in China and elsewhere, was born just a few decades ago. “The Russian Revolution,” “The Civil War,” “The New Economic Policy,” “The Collectivization of the Peasantry,” “The Kirov Assassination and the Show Trials of the 1930’s,” “The Unprovoked German Invasion and the Great Patriotic War” . . . To these, with fresh hindsight, one may now add “The Twentieth Congress and the Great Thaw,” “The Years of Stagnation,” “The Gorbachev Revolution,” and “The Collapse of the Soviet Union.”
The amazing fact about the text implicit in these textbook entries is not that it consisted of shameless lies dictated from above and instilled in young minds by a totalitarian regime intent on world domination. That, after all, is what totalitarian regimes sometimes like to do, just as public schools sometimes like to produce statistically significant proportions of the population who believe that Beria was the inventor of the lightbulb. No, a far more amazing fact is that the Western version of that text can now be shown to have consisted of as many lies, which were just as shameless, ever-shifting, and self-contradictory as the original totalitarian version.
Indeed, the two versions grew out of the same source, namely, the perfectly natural attraction of the individual interpreter of history to political power—especially unlimited political power—and to the blessings, material and otherwise, that he expected would accrue to him by way of reward, not necessarily earthly, for more or less toeing the line. When these individual liars, East and West, are viewed collectively, what one observes is a kind of magnetic field whose energies are distributed along a whole panoply of public and private channels, from university tenure to journalist accreditation, from peer pressure to clean conscience, from family tranquillity to professional perk. The cumulative result, in every case, is a nearly absolute conformity enshrining a brazen falsehood.
The study of the magnetic field of conformism is complicated by the inherently revisionist nature of the discipline. Since so much of the history written by liars is made up of their overturning of the history written by the liars who have come before them, the intellectual credibility of lying is peripherally, and effectively, renewed. Thus the historian who, many decades after Stalin is dead and buried, ridicules one of his scholarly precursors for disseminating Stalin’s lies, thereby garners the credibility he needs to disseminate the lies of Khrushchev, and becomes universally respected as a fiercely incorruptible truthteller whose books get published simply because they are wonderful. Equally, the academic who exposes his predecessor’s venal folly, such as his going to work with the Soviet archives under Brezhnev and being used by the Kremlin in the process, boosts his credibility before accepting Andropov’s invitation to work with those same archives, or indeed in order to pen a cautiously optimistic, yet thoughtful and balanced, article about Gorbachev in Foreign Affairs.
I have not the space for names, and anyway to cite more than a few would likely upset the pose of emotional detachment which I am at pains to affect here. All I am asking the reader to bear in mind when it comes to the truth of history is that it is always easy to laugh at yesterday’s conformism and the day before yesterday’s lie while remaining solemnly serious with respect to the operative myths of the moment, whether these be global, such as “The Collapse of the Soviet Union” or local, such as “The Independence of the American Press.” Yet it is these very myths that, in their turn, are certain to conceal the lies of the moment, lies that may be more blatant, more relevant, and more destructive than any of their laughable forerunners. Thus, those who now firmly believe that Khrushchev exposed Stalin, that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn brought down Lenin, or that Walter Laqueur is a good guy while Walter Duranty was a bad guy are no less gullible and, ultimately, no less culpable in their naive conformity than those who, once upon a time, believed that the sun revolves around the Earth and that Oswald, a lone assassin, shot and killed Kennedy.
Aha, I hear the reader say, so he is a conspiracy nut, and all that talk about the truth of history is just a fancy variant of the usual barmy single-spacing: The Martians got my daughter pregnant, the telephone company is poisoning the wells, the Jews are all in it together. I can only reply that not every minority, dissident, or unorthodox view of history is not based on a lie just because it appears to run contrary to one or more of the established myths, and that, like the lowliest platitude-monger, the truth-seeker is obliged to make a case in support of his thesis if it is ever to be taken seriously by anyone other than a member of his own family.
For my part, I can think of no myth of modern history more pervasive than that of June 1941: Germany’s treacherous invasion of the Soviet Union. If all the political lies of the 20th century have a central stem, it is the conception of World War II as a battle of good and evil that grew out of a mortal conflict between two wicked regimes, each represented by a wicked, and probably mentally unstable, mustachioed giant. That conception can be anatomized in the works of at least five generations of historians—beginning, perhaps, with the Nazi leaders not hanged at Nuremberg—all cribbing each other’s notes, all eyeing one another’s sources, all mouthing the same slogans, all bowing and scraping before power.
Their books number in the tens of thousands. Their articles, both scholarly and popular, are as the grains of sand in a curse of some bearded patriarch of the Pentateuch. Their television and radio programs, with all those gravelly voices and all that archival footage, are as much a part of our historical consciousness as . . . Since I cannot think of anything equally pervasive, I will have to repeat myself: as the view that the absolutely evil and supremely powerful Hitler attacked the just plain old bad and militarily unprepared Stalin, whereupon the absolutely good, democratic, and powerful alliance of the free world, led by Churchill and Roosevelt, brought down the more dangerous tyrant and cut the other down to size.
It was only ten years ago that there came along a man, writing under the pen name Viktor Suvorov, who began publishing books that challenged, and with time began to overturn, the established myth. In his earlier life, before his defection, Vladimir Rezun had been an officer in Soviet military intelligence, attached to an embassy and engaged in espionage. As a young man, a military-academy cadet, a tank commander, and then a special-forces ace, Rezun discovered the talent which he was later able to parlay into becoming the writer Suvorov: Apart from being blessed with the gift of photographic memory, he had an encyclopedic interest in weapons. As the information gathered by means of this faculty filled his brain, almost against his will he became an historian: Far too many technical specifications of far too many items of Soviet weaponry did not seem to square with what he had been taught in school about the uses to which these items were to have been put. Out of such rarified inconsistencies grew an unorthodox view of Soviet history; out of that secretly held view grew a heightened sense of personal responsibility and morality; out of that sense of responsibility came the decision to defect to the West and become a writer.
So far, so good, even taking into account that, after the publication in England of his earliest book, Aquarium, to the first death sentence on Suvorov’s head already pronounced in Moscow (for defection) was added a second, thus making him the only spy alive to have been condemned to death twice. The British secret services were protecting him, and—more important—the new Kremlin leaders were suddenly eager to dissociate themselves from all those mad Bulgarians of yesteryear, running around London with poison umbrellas and shooting the first pope they see. But what Suvorov had not reckoned on, and only gradually began to realize, was that the orthodox Soviet view of World War II that he was now writing his monumental Icebreaker trilogy to debunk was also, with negligible variations, the orthodox Western view. The first volume of Icebreaker sold 800 copies in Britain, despite the insignia of a respectable publisher, Hamish Hamilton, and my own unrestrainedly complimentary review of the book in the Times. The second and third volumes-entitled, respectively. Day M and The Last Republic—did not sell at all, for the simple reason that no publisher was willing to touch them, despite the revelation that, when published in Russia as they now have been, Suvorov’s masterwork achieved combined sales in excess of five million.
Working with the history of Stalin’s and Hitler’s armaments as an anthropologist works with the artifacts of a remote and forgotten culture, Suvorov has been able to show in his books that Stalin nurtured and eventually created Hitler in 1933 in order to invade Germany in the summer of 1941 and, following a Blitzkrieg to expropriate what would by then have been expropriated, to seize all of Europe, including Britain. Hence Stalin’s code name for Hitler, Icebreaker. The military infrastructure built up by Stalin in the decade preceding the summer of 1941 was the most aggressive war machine ever assembled in the history of mankind, and it is only by reading Suvorov’s highly technical account of its hitherto unimaginable true dimensions that a Western reader, nurtured on essentially the same propaganda as his Soviet counterpart, can appreciate the extent to which Barbarossa was an act of national suicide for Germany, an act later shown to have been consistent with the character of her leader.
Any detailed review of Suvorov’s argument is obviously beyond the scope of this article, nor is he my subject here. What I want the reader to consider, in the light of an argument that I personally regard as complete and irrefutable, are its political implications. If Hitler was Stalin’s creature, were not Britain and the United States wrong to have weighed in on the side of the shrewder, not to mention more powerful, villain? If Hider’s act of national suicide made havoc of Stalin’s master plan for the conquest of Europe, the dawn surprise of Barbarossa having preempted the Day M of the Russian invasion by perhaps as little as three weeks, should not Britain and the United States remember Hitler as a hero and a martyr? If Stalin was prepared for a war of aggression but not for a war of defense, while HiHer was prepared for neither kind of war and ended up having to fight both, does this not mean that the much vaunted might of Britain and the United States from 1941 to 1945, allied as it was to that of Russia, is just so much self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement? And if Stalin was able to conceal from both Britain and the United States his preparations for total war during the period of 1933 through 1941, and his preparedness for the planned war of aggression after 1939, what does that say about the likelihood of Western democracies understanding the Russia of today, or indeed surviving long enough to see a Russia of the future?
Yet there is one political implication that is more radical still, and it is one which is by far the most relevant to my subject. If more than 50 years since the outbreak of World War II could have passed without the argument, now made by Suvorov, having been made, and the questions which I am now asking—questions that, after all, disturb the ver) foundations of 20th century historiography—having been asked, what chance has a smaller truth to survive and be heard in this cosmos of total, placid, conformist oblivion? Perhaps the Martians did get somebody’s daughter pregnant, perhaps the telephone company is poisoning the wells, and the Jews may very well be in it together. Try telling that to the New York Times, my friends.
I personally believe that Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society, was the founding and organizing force of the Central Intelligence Agency, which began life in the basement of the Sterling Memorial Library on the university campus. I further believe that this secret society, which to date has produced three American presidents, has exercised a commanding influence over American foreign policy in the last century. I believe this was shown most dramatically during World War II—in the twin debacle of Teheran and Yalta—through the figure of the society’s “Big Devil,” Averell Harriman, a Soviet agent of influence since his first business visit to Russia in the 1920’s. I believe that Harriman’s prestige increased after the war, and that the Andropov-Gorbachev dismantling of the Communist Party and the subsequent reformation of Soviet totalitarianism occurred with the naive and irresponsible connivance of the CIA, intent on broadening the business-interests Lebensraum of its Skull and Bones keepers. And yes, unafraid to echo Oliver Stone, I believe that the Skull and Bones leadership of the CIA is responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.
Well, something good about that bunch anyway, I hear the reader mutter. But the main question here is not whether this or that Kennedy deserved to die, nor whether Harriman and other “Wise Men” did what they did for love or for money, nor even whether—for the past 50 or 60 years—the American body politic has been worked like a puppet theater by a bunch of Yale milksops and ignoramuses, themselves manipulated from Moscow as carefully and farsightedly as Hitler once was. The main question is whether the absolute or nearly absolute lies of history can be manufactured, disseminated, and absorbed by entire nations without producing, by way of reaction, a deepseated resentment on the part of those people who care even a little about history’s truths, without caring if they are relative or absolute so long as they are not outright falsehoods. That reaction is called, by conformist opinion, paranoia. Those who have it are called nuts, while the truths they pursue are called conspiracy theories.
The main question, for me, is whether the writing of history—which, I repeat, has more to do with exposing confounded lies than with finding absolute truths shining like cities on hills—is ever possible without paranoia, albeit in this somewhat less than clinically accurate sense of the term. I do not think we can afford to wait another 50 years in order to hear this crucial question answered by history itself, for the simple reason that, as a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I believe that our time is running short.