Stalin was once reported to have said: “Half a million liquidated is a statistic, but one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy,” and he was right: the memory of a loved one is hard to erase; people disappear far faster under the accumulating debris of history – within living memory of the Holocaust, five per cent of UK adults do not believe the Holocaust took place, according to a recent survey.
I’ll give you a modest example of my own of the fragility of historical memory. Just outside the Cornish village of Porthleven, high up on the cliffs, there is a memorial to those drowned at sea off the coast, a small cross framed by the roiling sea and the Western sky – a little stone for all sailors, smugglers, pirates, holidaymakers even perhaps, swept out under the waves.
It’s a strange place, and a beautiful place. But I’ve missed something out from the scene – a large poppy draped over a corner of the filigreed cross. For me, this wholly farcical object introduced a note of grotesquery to the scene – its unthinkingness casually obliterating the memory of the drowned dead, who did not fight in the wars of the twentieth century.
With that in mind, I would like to direct you towards the latest iteration of the ‘Was Churchill good or bad?’ debate in the British media. Winston Churchill was a “white supremacist mass murderer”, Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer, 24, tweeted in response to a Tory party post celebrating the anniversary of Churchill’s death.
Well, as you can imagine, the tweet has caused a bit of a row: Good Morning Britain presenter and Twitter luminary Piers Morgan called Greer a “ginger turd” and said that he would be “goose-stepping his way to Holyrood”, if it hadn’t been for Churchill’s efforts in the Second World War.
Comedian David Baddiel took a more reasonable line, tweeting: “Questioning the idealisation of Churchill is fine, but doing it in such extreme language just fucks up the parameters of language itself: calling WC a white supremacist mass murderer leaves no room to describe, say, Hitler. A ‘worse white supremacist mass murderer?’”
Cue Ash Sarkar, Corbynista commentator: “Can there only be one white-supremacist mass murderer in history?” She added: “Stalin’s forces liberated Auschwitz, and the Red Army was the first to reach Berlin. That the Soviets arguably won WWII doesn’t negate the fact Stalin was a mass murderer and a totalitarian dictator. And pointing out that he was those things doesn’t mean Hitler wasn’t one too.”
Conclusion? “So… if we can hold complex views all at once when it comes to Stalin, why can’t we hold complex views all at once about Churchill? It couldn’t be that we’re biased towards exculpating our own history, is it?”
This kind of debate intrigues me, as it illustrates rather neatly that, as Henry Ford noted in an admittedly rather different context, “History is bunk” in twenty-first century Britain. When the popular discussion of history is so dominated by one-upmanship, the past becomes little more than a series of anecdotes (‘Yeah but, Paul Pot…’, ‘Yeah but, Pinochet…’), a trash heap of half-remembered gobbets.
We end up with the historical record blurred out of all recognition, and the victims of history obliterated by a grotesque overlaying of completely discrete historical phenomena – an immiseration of what it means to properly remember the dead, the drowned bodies lying at the bottom of the Atlantic smothered by soldiers glazed over by the Flanders mud.
If having ‘complex views’ about history ends in indulging meaningless equivalences and arguing the moral toss between mass murder, totalitarianism and Empire, then I would like to know what a ‘simple view’ of Empire, totalitarianism and mass murder looks like? Perhaps the more modest claim that not all things can be reduced to the same plane and that the evil of Stalin’s Great Terror can no more be given a judicious treatment when set alongside the singular experience of Auschwitz than it can against the singular degradation of the Bengal Famine.
“Communism is back, baby,” chirped journalist Owen Jones in a video published in July last year, introducing Ash Sarkar in the wake of her “I’m literally a Communist” comment on Good Morning Britain.
According to Jones, the premise of the interview was to work out whether it’s possible to “disassociate” Communism from “the horrors of the twentieth century”.
For Jones, public perception of Communism is too simplistic: “Gulags, queuing a lot, Ukrainian famine and big statues with big moustaches.”
He continues: “Mao and Stalin were terrible, murdering dictators.”
“My Mum met Mao! Have I ever told you this story?” pipes up Sarkar. She adds: “Flatulent was what she told me!”
“A flatulent Mao,” chuckles Jones. Gosh!
And puff! The Gulags are gone – disappeared in a bathetic juxtaposition with long queues and drooping moustaches. And gone too are Mao’s victims – blotted out a second time, smeared over by the picture of a jovial, kindly uncle, who can’t keep from passing wind.