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And even Time is not saying it saw what it calls, 'the slaughter' [in] Tiananmen Square. -- The Statesman of India


The Statesman

India, June 17, 2001


It's All Part of a Propaganda

By Manohar Malgonkar

EARLY in June 1989, Chinese students who had been carrying out an agitation for freedom and democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were fired upon by units of the Chinese army, resulting in the deaths of -- in the words of Time magazine -- "hundreds, perhaps thousands."

Nonsense! -- retort China's own official news services. For one thing, the agitators were not students, but unruly counter-revolutionaries. And they were dispersed with methods which have now become conventional for dealing with mobs in street demonstrations: by using tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and the like. And no one was killed. But but did we not see it all on TV?

In fact we didn't really really see anyone actually being killed -- the sudden uncontrolled lurch of a body hit by a bullet is quite unmistakable. True, we did see the confrontation and it was, well, toe-to-toe, but no bullets flying. And even Time is not saying it saw what it calls, "the slaughter". It took place "on the avenues that lead to the Tiananmen Square. None was shot in the square," we're told. What we saw on TV was confined to the square itself. Groups of teenagers in blue jeans moving about restlessly, some reading posters stuck on a wall, and that quite rivetting master-shot of a lone protester in a white shirt standing in the path of a regiment of rolling tanks.

How could he have escaped being crushed? Still, we didn't see it happen. And now, eleven years later, what really happened to that young man and to his fellow protesters is still a matter for argument and not a fact of history.

Unbelievably as it might seem, even a recent book, "The Tiananmen Papers" said to be based on official Chinese documents, admits that there is room for doubt. Those who have sponsored the book explain: "We still have no basis for proclaiming their authenticity with absolute authority."


If there can be such diametrically opposite versions of an event which happened only eleven years ago and under the hawk-eyed TV coverage of the western media, how can we assume that what passes for history is largely a record of facts? History is written by people like ourselves; men and women with emotional hangups, prejudices, blind spots, points of view; prone to distort or magnify, ignore or emphasise, conceal or highlight, pander to the public mood.

Which is what makes history an easy target for scoffers, as was conspicuously brought out in a recent court action in London. The basic issue before the judges was the assertion by a British historian, David Irving, that while, during the second world war, a large number of Jews might have been killed by German soldiers, Hitler himself had nothing to do with the killings, and indeed that Hitler was "probably the biggest friend the Jews had in The Third Reich," and that what is called the holocaust never happened, and no gas chambers. Indeed, Irving had openly challenged a professor of Jewish studies at an American university: "I offer a thousand dollars to anyone who can show documentary evidence of Hitler's guilt in murdering Jews".

Mind you, David Irving is no Neo-Nazi or even a crank. He is historian of repute and has been praised for his scholarship. Even if, by throwing a challenge to a Jewish scholar about the reliability of hard evidence of Hitler's participation in the holocaust, he may have been playing to the gallery, he knew he was on safe ground in asking for "documentary" proof, meaning that the testimony provided by the writings of survivors of the death camps and those who liberated them and of subsequent investigations was all part of a propaganda campaign to malign Hitler and the Nazis. The sort of documentary evidence he demanded was a notary-certified copy of an order by Adolph Hitler to the Camp Commandant of Auschwitz telling him to send the inmates of his camp to the gas chamber at the rate of so many every day.

Understandably, at that lecture in Atlanta or even later, no one took up Mr Irving's challenge. But what is of importance in his argument is the vulnerability of historically established truths. Could it be that our ideas of the Holocaust are coloured by our prejudices?


After all, in times of war, it is not permissible to think of your enemies as ordinary human beings: It is almost a patriotic duty to think of them as mindless savages, capable of the vilest excesses. In the second world war, our own troops were put through some rough and ready brainwashing. Our human-figure targets for rifle practice acquired Japanese faces and helmets, and as we charged making blood-curdling noises and thrust bayonets into straw-filled gunnybags, we were told to think of those sacks as the bellies of Japanese soldiers.

But of course, the Japanese too had their own methods of teaching their people how detestable their enemies were. John Dean Potter, a British journalist who went to Japan soon after its surrender reports how the citizens of Nagasaki dreaded the arrival of the American Marines on their island "even more than they did the Atom bomb." Their propaganda "had told them that no man could join the Marine Corps in America unless he had first killed his father and mother."

That the unfortunate citizens of Nagasaki should swallow this nonsense is altogether understandable. After all people who callously obliterate entire cities with atom bombs must be beyond the pale of human instincts. What is astonishing is that relentless propaganda can affect the judgments of otherwise civilised adults and break through their powers of disbelief.

Here is Rudyard Kipling, writing to his American friend, Frank Doubleday at the beginning of the First World War:

"The record of horrors committed is something ghastly. (The Germans) cut the hands of a surgeon - in order that he might never practise again... In Belgium, women and girls were publicly raped by the command of their officers."

But of course, Kipling is known for his contempt of the Germans whom he referred to as the "Hun" and "The Teuton with large cold eyes".

O.K. It did not take much convincing for Kipling to believe in the barbaric acts of the Germans. What I found difficult to come to terms with was Marghanita Laski's accusations in her famous novel Little Boy Lost. She was a lady of infinite charm and grace and, above all scholarship. Here is what one of her characters tells us, ostensibly from first hand knowledge."... many children they have packed naked into trains with quicklime on the floor, so that when these trains arrived at the gas chambers, it was quite economical because nearly all the children were dead already ... They have killed children (by) ...throwing acid at their naked bodies."



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