A change in the political nature of a regime, from a democratic towards a totalitarian one or the other way round, will have consequences on all levels of society, including in its historiography. The interwar period and the birth of the three European totalitarian states – Soviet, Nazi and Fascist – brought about major changes in how history was written. Suddenly, historians found themselves forced to write a different history, one that favoured the new regime and that glorified the new state, doctrine or leader.
The Soviet Union and Marxist historiography
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of the USSR, in 1922, the Russia historiography changed dramatically. The new totalitarian regime changed the way history was written in Russia and it allowed the birth of a Marxist historiography.
From a Marxist point of view, Russia was far from ready for a communist revolution. Marx had predicted this revolutionary change in the Western capitalist states – Germany and Great Britain, not in Tsarist Russia, considered one of Europe’s most backward countries. It was Lenin who stated that a proletarian revolution could take in Russia, with the help of the party without whom the workers could not reach a revolutionary conscience. Therefore, a well organised and disciplined party was needed.
Lenin’s article was the most significant contribution to the Marxist theory to be written after Marx and Engels’ works. If the two German writers had talked about the Revolution from a philosophical point of view, Lenin took the analysis further and developed an action plan. Even more important is the fact that Lenin promoted the crucial element of communist development in the 20thcentury:the Party.
Russian historiography in the 19thcentury, based on the European model, had been dominated by one particular historian:Karamzin. Its main tendency was to promote nationalism and Slavism or, to be even more precise, an imperialistic nationalism and an anti-German Slavism. After the romantic historiography, historians adapted to the new modern school inspired by German writer Leopold von Ranke. In Russia, this new current was best represented by Soloviov and Klyuchevsky. However, after 1900, the Leninist revolution brought a great rupture in the Russian historiography, whose new favourite historian became Mikhail Pokrovsky (1868-19332).
In 1910-1913, Pokrosvky wrote Russian history from the most ancient times, a Marxist history book. In it, he uses the basic concepts of Marxist theory – base and superstructure – and states that the economic factors are the foundation of all social phenomena. After the birth of the new Soviet State, he publishes a new book, A short history of Russia, which will become the regime’s official history book. It is based on the Marxist historical scheme, the historical periodization is made according to the modes of production, it accentuates economical determinism and, most importantly, denies the importance of historical personalities. Pokrovsky’sbook represents a break from the old historiographical traditions because it denounces nationalism in favour of the new internationalist ideal. As such, the historian accepts the Vikings’ role in the making of the Russian state, doesn’t criticise the Mongol conquest and, obviously, denounces the Tsarist regime.
A historian who is TOO Marxist
Stalin’s rise to power brought Povrovsky’s demise because the historian had underlined the importance of economic factors and undermined the role of personalities. And, as Stalin considered and presented himself as essential to the USSR’s development, such theories had to be denounced. Basically, Povrovsky was criticised for being faithful to Marx’s theories.
The 1930s bring an important change in historiography:historians are asked to praise Lenin and Stalin’s policies and the new Soviet state and Party. Also, the economic determinism, so dear to Marx, is abandoned. Historians argue that the Soviet Union is the creation of its communist leaders, Lenin and Stalin, and of the Party. Those who are acquainted with the classic Marxist theory will notice that the new Soviet historiography is far from classic Marxism. Moreover, the internationalist current is replaced with the old nationalism. Historians come up with new concepts, such as Soviet patriotism or love for the Soviet country. This nationalism will only rise with the years preceding the Second World War and it will gain a powerful anti-German tone. As such, new historical works accentuate the importance of Slavism and the Russian personalities who have fought against the German (such as Alexander Nevky).
Another important concept of the new historiography is that of just and unjust wars. It is no surprise that all of Russia’s wars are presented as just. And, surprisingly, the Tsarist regime gains a more favourable image.
Fascist historiography:ode to the Romans
On the other side of the political spectrum are the far-right historiographies, the Nazi and Fascist ones. In Italy, the fascist regime established in 1922 favoured themes such as the glorification of fascism, the nation, the country and the Leader, who was considered an incarnation of the nation’s spirit and desires. Fascist historians write about the glorious times in Italian history, especially the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Risorgimento. Its key-concepts, borrowed from the political fascist theory, are Empire, War, Victory and Nation. The Roman Empire is presented as the ideal towards which Italy has to aspire through an expansionist policy, imperialism, a militarist regime and a pan-Mediterranean policy.
Nazi history:a providential leader and the superior race
In Nazi Germany, the main historical concepts were:the Leader, Nation and Power. A particular aspect of this historiography is that, unlike the Fascist and Soviet ones, it has a powerful racist component, with an accent on anti-Semitism. After 1933, the German academia remained faithful to the traditional, nationalist historiography. However, it was soon confronted with theories of pan-Germanism and a superiority of the German race and culture. Historians also start to emphasize the importance of a certain type of society governed by Power relations and the idea that every individual is bound to serve and be loyal to the State.
A main theme of the new historiography was the glorification of ancient German ancestors and the medieval heroes of the First Reich. Racism, a central idea of the propaganda, was also important in historical writings that argued for the existence of superior races and inferior ones (Jews, Slavs). Nazi historians also write about the Aryans’ role in history and the superiority of Western cultures.
After 1935, the Nazi government dictates a reorganisation of historical research institutes, which are replaced by the ‘Reich Institutes’, controlled by the state. Their role was to form new historians willing to comply with the new dominant ideology. Those who stood refused to accept the new historical doctrine were removed from their academic positions in universities and research centres.