The uses and abuses of history


History is nowadays not only written by the victors, but by anybody who wants to use history for their own ends.


Rodric Braithwaite
8 June 2015

Christopher Clark, the distinguished author of a bestselling account of the outbreak of the First World War, has come up with an ingenious explanation of why the Russians are currently behaving so badly: they are suffering from ‘false memory syndrome.’ In a piece which Mr Clark wrote with Kristina Spohr in the Guardian on 25 May, he picks on the way Mr Putin has justified his annexation of Crimea when the Russian President claims that the West ‘has lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs… This has happened with NATO’s expansion to the east.’

But, says Mr Clark, the Russians never asked for any guarantees that NATO would not enlarge, and none were given. Putin’s wayward handling of history matters, he contends, because it calls into question the European settlement, which emerged after the dramatic reunification of Germany in the autumn of 1990. 

Putin is indeed rewriting history to encourage and exploit Russians’ sense of humiliation and so fuel his current adventurous and aggressive policies. But Mr Clark’s own account omits important facts, evades difficult issues of interpretation, and leaves unanalysed the practical and political pressures that surrounded the German negotiations and the events that followed. 

Mr Clark is quite right that the Western side gave no written guarantees about NATO enlargement during the reunification negotiations. No responsible Russians have claimed otherwise. But he fails to ask why it was that no one raised the issue. 

The great prize for the West was the reunification of Germany and its inclusion in NATO.

The great prize for the West was the reunification of Germany and its inclusion in NATO. But when the negotiations began in early 1990, it was not at all clear that Gorbachev would or could agree to either. His negotiating position was weak. Even if he realised that he would in the end have to concede, he also feared that domestic opposition to a deal might become overwhelming. The Western negotiators were acutely aware of that, and were anxious to nail the deal down before things fell apart in Moscow.

For either side explicitly to have raised NATO enlargement in that context could have derailed the negotiations entirely. So both sides had a motive for keeping their mouths shut: the West because they might have lost the prize, Gorbachev because he might have made his domestic position impossible. The fears were justified. Anger over Germany was one reason for the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. And it remains one reason why many Russians now regard him as a traitor.  

The underlying emotions bubbled to the surface on the morning of the signature of the reunification treaty in Moscow in September 1990. The British were still arguing about the language governing the deployment of NATO troops to East Germany. The Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze threatened to boycott the signature ceremony, and Genscher, his German opposite number, had a fit. It was indeed a very fraught moment, but it was successfully papered over. 

But the story does not stop there. Vaclav Havel, the Czech President, then called for Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary to enter NATO. In the spring of 1991, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary privately assured Soviet ministers that there was no such intention. Manfred Woerner, NATO’s secretary general, added publicly that enlargement would damage relations with the Soviet Union.

One can argue that Woerner was not expressing a settled NATO policy, or that what British ministers told the Russians in private didn’t matter, or that oral assurances have no force, or that what was said in 1991 was overtaken by events and became irrelevant. But it is not surprising that Russians took seriously these statements by apparently responsible Western officials, or that they now believe they were misled. Mr Clark does not tackle these matters. 

It is not surprising that Russians now believe they were misled.

In early 1991 the West had not yet thought seriously about enlarging NATO. Western spokesmen were not being deliberately misleading, though there is little doubt that they would not have wanted to tie their hands, and that they would have rebuffed any Russian request for something in writing. But then their intentions changed.

The East Europeans wanted guarantees against a Russia that, they believed, would one day resume its menacing behaviour. NATO gave those guarantees in a fit of wishful thinking, apparently in the belief that Russian objections could be ignored because Russia would be flat on its back for the foreseeable future. Western politicians nevertheless tried to soothe Russian feelings with a one-sided ‘partnership’ with NATO, and assurances that enlargement would bring stability to Europe and thus benefit Russia too. The Russians failed to believe it. NATO is now left scurrying around to make its guarantees to the East Europeans look credible against a Russia that is indeed resurgent. 

All these things are an essential and documented part of the story. They need to be brought into the historical narrative. It is a mystery why good historians ignore them.

Mr Clark argues more grandly that Putin’s behaviour is all of a piece with what he sees as the Russians’ unique ‘tendency to misremember past debacles as humiliations’, going back at least as far as their misjudged attempts to recover from the defeat they suffered at the hands of the Japanese in 1905. But there is nothing particularly unusual in this Russian behaviour. Historical memory and myth significantly affect the behaviour of other countries too: think only of France after the humiliation of 1871 or Germany after 1918. 

Whether we choose to recognise it or not, many, perhaps a majority, of Russians nevertheless did feel humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loss of international prestige, the political and economic chaos of the 1990s, and the brush with famine. Putin has plenty of promising raw material to work with. To ignore or downplay these things also distorts the historical record. And it makes it harder to understand what is going on in Russia today, and to devise appropriate policies to deal with it.

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