The same can be said about history’s use in politics. The culture of monuments is a perfect example.
The American southeast is studded with statues of heroes of the Confederacy and defenders of slavery, put up in the 1890s to put paid the Reconstruction project of creating a more racially equitable society.
Likewise, the United Kingdom is well-supplied with statues of slave owners and colonialists, whose presence legitimises their massacres of indigenous peoples, human rights abuses and racism.
The interlocking of war, politics, and history cuts particularly close to the bone in those moments when historical events are the grist for the propaganda mills of modern states.
The instances of this are legion. Instrumentalising history is not new. Nor is deception, characteristic of former times, no less than our own.
Still, on the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in Stalingrad, it is hard not to be angered by Vladimir Putin’s attempts to draw parallels between that decisive battle and the war in Ukraine.
Putin may want to be a new Stalin, but he hasn’t carried home the same trophies. If anything, the conflict in Ukraine has been a horrible embarrassment for Russia’s armed forces.
Still, the capacity to lie in today’s political environment must be acknowledged. It’s not so much a cover-up as it is an expression of wish fulfilment, and the faithful hear that. Like Stalingrad, the fight goes on.
When the German Field Marshall Friedrich von Paulus exited his bunker in the basement of a former department store to surrender to the Red Army, it brought to an end a battle that had, according to one historian, “plumbed new depths of squalor”.
Much can be said about the seven-month struggle for the city, and the extremities of human suffering and barbarity it encompassed.
To anyone not inclined to do serious violence to history, what is clear is that Nazi Germany initiated the most brutal battle of WWII, claiming over two million casualties.
The Soviet regime wasn’t an alternative, having starved millions to death in Ukraine as part of the Great Famine, a decade earlier.
Stalin was also guilty of shockingly bad judgment for having trusted Hitler enough to sign the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing Eastern Europe between the USSR and Germany in 1939.
Also called the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, having been granted Poland, the pact helped position Hitler to invade Russia two years later.
The Battle of Stalingrad constituted the high-water mark of Nazi aggression in the east. From then on, the Wehrmacht would be on the retreat until surrendering to Allied forces in May 1945.
In remarks earlier this week, Putin emphasised the similarities between Stalingrad and Ukraine by saying that for the first time in 80 years, Russia would be facing off against German tanks.
Historical comparisons ought to be made with caution. For example, Ukraine is getting far more Russian-designed tanks from international donors than German Leopards by a scale of 30 to 1.
The presumption that history is getting repeated is a standard sort of hubris. It is especially dangerous when scholars and politicians fall victim to it.
Comparing this or that political figure (Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, etc.) to Hitler, conflating any leftist government action with communism, and designating every kind of right-wing authoritarianism as fascism, are some of the more pernicious varieties.
This breezy attitude toward historical comparison is prone to forget or ignore context’s importance.
Thus, while it is true that German tanks will get used against Russian soldiers for the first time since World War II, the context in which it is happening makes all the difference.
In part, the inclination to compare is rooted in the wholly justified desire to learn lessons from the past. Having stuck one’s hand into the fire, one wishes to avoid making the same mistake twice.
But history seldom offers grounds for straightforward comparison. The simplifications and elisions that facilitate easily digestible comparisons also ease the path to making history an instrument.
People who lie about history tend to be the same as those who lie about politics, and more often than not in the same measure.
Hitler’s comments about the usefulness of the big lie are as applicable to one as to the other.
Vladimir Putin’s policy toward Ukraine in the last decade has been marked by a willingness to utter demonstrable falsehoods.
Much of this has been for consumption by the Russian media, which has had most of its critical faculties subdued through violence and intimidation. It’s back to repeating the Kremlin verbatim.
Blame the government. Putin’s foreign policy has been characterised by full spectrum warfare against perceived enemies, involving action from the battlefield to the Internet and every point in between.
To be clear, Vladimir Putin’s dishonesty and his pursuit of regional hegemony are by no means unique.
Certainly, one could point to Donald Trump, whose propensity toward untruth is a defining feature of his character. But Trump is only a more extreme version of American politicians more generally.
His dishonesty is greater by a degree that approximates a difference in kind, but lies and cynicism are the coin of the realm in the United States.
The comparison between Stalingrad and Ukraine makes sense if, and only if, one accepts the premise that political and economic incursions into what Putin viewed as Russia’s sphere of influence represented, in any meaningful sense, an existential threat.
That the supreme leader might believe this or that any thinking person might give it credence only makes sense in the context of the other side’s hypocrisy.
US involvement in Ukraine has been more complicated than the convenient cover story about promoting democracy that the State Department promoted when Viktor Yanukovych was getting turfed out of office.
Involvement in the internal politics of Ukraine is inherently provocative, in precisely the same way and measure as Russian interference in the regime politics of Mexico or Canada would be.
Or, for that matter, interference in the internal politics of the United States, in which Putin’s government also appears to have engaged.
But, of course, Washington has so often cried wolf about matters relating to its own interests and inclinations (most spectacularly in the lead-up to the second Gulf War) that its protestations ring a bit hollow, even when it’s clear that they are true.
Where and by whom the first blow in this conflict was struck is academic at this point. The world in which liars seek advantage by naming others as liars is the world that we now inhabit.
We are living in an era of full-spectrum warfare. If Foucault is to be believed, this is nothing new. Indeed, on his account, this was a defining feature of politics per se.
In any case, it is our world today. It is a world in which the distinction between politics and war is becoming ever more challenging to draw.
Nietzsche once famously characterised animals as happy because they live in the moment, easily sloughing off the past and these living lives of immediacy unburdened by it.
He neglected to mention that this is one reason why animals are so easily controlled and led to slaughter.
The past does not offer us easily defined and communicated lessons. But neither is it the case that nothing is true and thus everything is permitted.
Historical facts cannot be ascertained with the precision and certainty of the natural sciences. Even scientific truth has become subject to systematic falsification, like denying climate change.
There is no obvious answer to the problem of truth in an era of war. What is clear is that extremes of credulity and scepticism are equally dangerous.
We live in a world without heroes, in which the villains persistently claim they are the least bad option.
At some point, the left will have to abandon its self-defeating melancholia to discover where a politics of truth can drive history again.
Until then, we’ll be stuck living in fake Stalingrads, unable to distinguish between the present and the past.
Photograph courtesy of RIA Novosti/Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.