Pravda and Stalin’s Terror

Noam Chomsky pointed out when he was observing the role of the press during the Vietnam War, that it had a significant role to play in atrocities.

The job of print and broadcast media, he argued, was to legitimise and explain away mass killings and to tell the story of why they were necessary.

Looking at the role of the Soviet press, there is abundant evidence for this. Chomsky was writing about a notionally independent US media which generally found itself in broad agreement with the government. Here we will look at the role of a heavily controlled newspaper in a totalitarian state:

You can hear it on Spotify

Or catch the episode on YouTube:

Getting Churchill wrong. Britain’s obsession with its ‘Greatest Briton’

In 2002, the British public decided by a considerable margin, in a BBC poll, that Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill, Prime Minister from 1940-45 was the greatest Briton of all time.

This, culturally, was a watershed moment in many ways. Firstly, it was the culmination of a war fetishism that had been developing for decades (at least since the 1950s), and which found its deepest expression in the two decades that would follow the BBC poll.

Secondly, it came at a time of immense fragility for the British national psyche. A country that had been fighting wars, both hot and cold for a century, during which time a global empire had been lost had little clear sense of its own role, (other than the one that was being written for it in Washington and Westminster at the start of the War on Terror).

Britain itself had been transformed by austerity, affluence, immigration, mass culture and relative economic decline throughout the 20th Century and the last attempt to revive its fortunes under the stewardship of Margaret Thatcher had been (despite whatever else happened in those eleven years) a resounding failure.

An unequal country, shorn of its manufacturing base, dependent on financial services and inflated property prices had found it hard to settle into a long post imperial afterglow.

For many British people, and perhaps a majority of English people (whose unease and resentment towards Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish devolution and the growing sense of new inclusive and somehow threatening identities), identity was most easily drawn from the past.

The war that ‘we’ won is consistently the easiest place to find succor and the hyper mythologised figure of Winston Churchill serves as a signifier for all that was once great and in the eyes of some, all that can be reclaimed.

It all depends on which Churchill we’re talking about of course, because there are many. Was in the supposedly liberal Churchill of the Atlantic Charter and the Iron Curtain Speech? The beligerent, defiant Churchill of June 1940? Was it the crafty, sly Churchill who wrote the percentages agreement and showed it to Stalin (and who ultimately was outclassed in sly by his Soviet opposite number)? Was it the romantic, literary Churchill? The artistic renaissance man Churchill? Was it the wartime Churchill or the peacetime Churchill?

No doubt Churchill was an immensely significant figure in 20th Century history, but as with all such figures from Cromwell to Bismarck an industry of biographies and hagiographies surround them.

In Britain, the Second World War (and to a lesser extent the first) has been elevated to the level of a secular religion, with its saints (Churchill) its sacred days (Remembrance Sunday), its rituals (Poppies) and its heresies (saying Churchill was anything other than an English Moses). British popular culture has created a cartoonish Churchill and in his nemesis, a cartoonish Hitler.

It matters a lot how we see the past, it matters a lot how we navigate it. Our sense of ourselves now and the decisions our society collectively makes as a result are directly informed by who we imagine ourselves to have been.

The Churchill industry is, for the most part, a source of mythologisation and confusion and the figure who has ruthlessly exploited the memory of our wartime leader more than any other is the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Johnson wrote a book about Churchill that can neither be thought of as biography or history, as there is a precise methodology behind both genres. Johnson, in writing The Churchill Factor, which is easily the worst book to have ever been published about Churchill repeats fabrications, myths and romantic fairy stories, perhaps knowingly, perhaps unintentionally.

The reason, as ever, is that for someone as entitled, bored, careless and disingenuous as our current prime minister, getting basic facts right doesn’t really matter. It hasn’t mattered during a public health crisis, it didn’t matter during his tenure as mayor of London and it doesn’t matter in his written endeavours (which were even ‘supported’ by well respected academics).

You can watch myself and journalist Otto English discuss the cult of Churchill and Johnson’s book here:

Temporary Delay

Hi guys, after ten years my MacBook that I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of recordings on has finally died. I’m writing trying to find an alternate way of recording the podcast (of which there are many, I have no doubt. Please be patient and the podcast will be up and running again in a couple of days. If anyone has a spare MacBook they don’t need with Garage Band, I’d be keen to hear from you…


Neville Chamberlain’s world view, 1937

British Prime Ministers in the 1920s and 1930s inherited a world created for them by David Lloyd George between 1919 and 1923, and were unable to cope with its challenges, complexities and risks.

In the case of Stanley Baldwin, who ruled for most of the period as leader of a Conservative or National Government, the strain of dealing with a rapidly worsening international situation led to his resignation in 1937 and his replacement with Neville Chamberlain.

The British public was steadfastly against war and rearmament, the memories of the First World War, which broke out to the shock and horror of many in the late summer of 1914 and most MPs of both parties knew that their reputations and careers rested on not appearing to sabre-rattle.

In 1933 the East Fulham by-election demonstrated to Baldwin the depth of feeling regarding war and rearmament, with a massive swing away from the National Government towards Labour. Baldwin, who had begun to consider a programme of rearmament in response to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January that year saw it as electoral suicide to do so. Baldwin had been particularly concerned with the development of air power and the fact that the sea was no longer a defence in the age of mass bombing. In 1932 he famously argued in Parliament that ‘the bomber will always get through’, meaning that air defences would never be a complete protection against the Luftwaffe or any other enemy aircraft.

Chamberlain agreed with much of what Baldwin had argued, but was convinced that there was a solution to these problems, and saw them in a series of grand interlocking treaties, not dissimilar to those almost achieved by Lloyd George. By 1937 the three powers, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan who presented an existential threat to the British Empire could, Chamberlain believed, be negotiated with successfully and the mounting tensions that had existed since 1919 could finally be laid to rest. Chamberlain’s embrace of appeasement seems to contemporary audiences both naive and a gross betrayal of the Czechs by 1938.

There is no denying the latter charge, but the first accusation must be judged within the context of the time. Chamberlain had inherited a weakened negotiating position, as by 1935 not only had the League of Nations been shown to be ineffectual, but the British and French had conspired during the

Abyssinia Crisis to undermine the very organisation they notionally led. Appeasement itself by 1937 was not seen as the folly it is regarded as now, and popular and elite attitudes alike had softened towards Germany, regarding the remilitarisation of the Rhineland if not entirely justified, then at least not worth fighting over. Chamberlain himself believed that he could negotiate with Hitler and that the Fuhrer was a rational actor who would not seek to risk war unless there was no other choice. It was on this last point that he was most mistaken, and he failed to understand the centrality of war in Hitler’s thinking and its desireability.

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