Jun 14, 2022 - World

How autocrats twist history to gain power

Illustration of a cursor hovering over a history book, about to click "Edit" from a drop down menu.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The leaders of China, North Korea and Russia have spent decades manipulating or even fabricating 20th-century history in order to justify their rule, according to a new book by a correspondent who reported from all three countries.

The big picture: Leaders in all three countries have focused on World War II and its aftermath, telling the history selectively or rewriting parts to suit their changing political needs over time, author Katie Stallard tells Axios.

  • The official histories are accompanied by varying degrees of controls on competing information, including censorship, state control of media, and punishment for academics who challenge the state narrative.
  • "In all three cases, there is quite an effort to tell a story about why the government must be in power, and an effort to dominate the discourse," Stallard, author of the book "Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea," tells Axios.

"Casting themselves as patriots and defenders of the nation also helps frame their opponents as traitors and enemies of the state," Stallard writes.

  • Leaders in democratic countries may tell their own versions of history, but they don't have the same absolute power to criminalize alternate narratives. Elections also keep their power in check.

Details: Stallard dives into how leaders of North Korea, China and Russia have edited history books to justify their autocratic rule and garner popular support.

North Korea: Kim Il Sung, the country's founding leader, fought against the Japanese army in Manchuria in northeast China. By 1941, however, the Japanese had consolidated control of the area, and Kim was forced to cross the border into the Soviet Union, where he joined a Red Army unit and remained until after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

  • But Stallard says, ask a North Korean, and they'll tell you Kim himself led the liberation of Korea in 1945 at the head of an army he had built up himself in Manchuria — the official state line that is largely fabricated.
  • "Over the years, the story of Kim's guerilla heroism would be used to fuel an extraordinary cult of personality and to explain why he alone — and then his son, and his grandson — deserved to rule North Korea," Stallard writes.

China: According to official Chinese Communist Party history, it was the CCP that liberated China from the invading Japanese army.

  • World War II, known in China as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, interrupted a civil war between the ruling Nationalists and the rebellious Communists. The two warring factions entered into an uneasy truce in late 1936 and turned their attention from fighting each other to fighting the Japanese.
  • The Nationalists were better equipped than the Communists, though neither side was particularly successful in their resistance. The Japanese army was still in a strong position in China when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing its total surrender. A few years later, the CCP defeated the Nationalists and took over the country.
  • In China today, and with increasingly intense emphasis under Xi Jinping, the CCP is portrayed as the sole savior of China, the Nationalists are portrayed as corrupt and traitorous, and the U.S. role is essentially erased.

Russia: Joseph Stalin's approach differed. When the war ended, Russia was a victor, but the country lay in ruins. He discouraged Russians from dwelling on the war and, fearing that the popularity of generals and war heroes might threaten his hold on power, cast the war as a triumph of Russia's communist system in abstract.

  • Public memorialization of World War II was more widely embraced starting in 1965 under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
  • When Vladimir Putin came to power, he immediately emphasized Russia's World War II victory, offering it as a key justification for Russia to reclaim its role as a major world power.
  • Beginning in 2013, there was also a big push to promote the idea that neo-Nazis were rising again in Europe and that "the Nazis are controlling Ukraine and torturing citizens in the east," Stallard tells Axios. To justify his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has cast the war as an extension of the righteous fight that Russians won in 1945.

Behind the scenes: Stallard lived in Russia and China as a correspondent for Sky News and traveled to North Korea as well.

  • "The stories and the version of history that you hear on the ground are so different from what I learned growing up," Stallard told Axios.
  • The book "started with my personal interest in understanding what is the version of history you would learn if you grew up" in these countries, Stallard said.

The bottom line: Winners write the history books.

Go deeper