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Stalin Was a Sweetie

If you've read or seen Alan Bennett's play "The History Boys" — turned into a fair movie last year with the same West End/Broadway cast — you'll know how the subject of historical revisionism is treated. The younger instructor Irwin … Read More

By / September 5, 2007

If you've read or seen Alan Bennett's play "The History Boys" — turned into a fair movie last year with the same West End/Broadway cast — you'll know how the subject of historical revisionism is treated. The younger instructor Irwin is called in to sex up a group of public schoolboys' curriculum in preparation for their A-levels, the test that will determine whether they get a fine Oxbridge education or merely a "red brick" university one. The boys' hard-earned pearls of poetic wisdom — "gobbets," as Irwin terms the boys' wordperfect recitations of Auden, Hardy and Larkin — are to be used to bedizen unconventional takes on major narratives. Here's how Irwin puts it:

"If you want to learn about Stalin, study Henry VIII. If you want to learn about Mrs Thatcher, study Henry VIII. If you want to know about Hollywood, study Henry VIII…. History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so."

Another word for "entertainment" in Bennett's play is "journalism," and another way of describing the foregoing approach to history is to argue that Churchill was a war criminal and "Stalin was a sweetie." The nice thing about satire is that it alters your interpretation of real world evidence which supports satire's rather extreme point of view. Here is Andrew Bacevich reviewing Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953, a new book by Geoffrey Roberts:

In brief, the story that Roberts tells goes like this: Josef Stalin, uncontested leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 until his death in 1953, deserves to be remembered as a great statesman—indeed, as the greatest of the age. Although Stalin made his share of mistakes, especially in the early phases of World War II, he learned from those mistakes and thereby grew in wisdom and stature. Among allied chieftains, he alone was irreplaceable. He, not Churchill and not Roosevelt, was the true architect of victory, "the dictator who defeated Hitler and helped save the world for democracy."

And here's the best line you'll read all day:

Whether intentionally or not, Roberts suggests that Stalin’s penchant for ordering people shot qualifies as a sort of personal quirk, akin perhaps to FDR’s infidelities or Churchill’s fondness for drink.

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