I recently finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, one of a few books I’ve read that I would say deserve to be termed ‘essential’ – certainly none I’ve read deserves the title more. It collects a large number of remarkably powerful testimonies from people witness to the appalling tragedy of Chernobyl and its dreadful and ongoing aftermath. It is a harrowing read – some passages almost unbearably so – but it is also compelling. The witnesses are, by turns, moving, sentimental, desperate, appalled, angry, philosophical and funny. But what stands out, above all, is the utter determination of Chernobyl’s damaged and grieving survivors to tell their story, in the face of lies, distortion and indifference. It is an important read for any politician who believes the facts do not matter or that they have a right to ‘control’ the reality in which their citizens live.
I was reminded as I read of a passage in one of Primo Levi’s books where he describes how camp guards at Auschwitz would taunt prisoners by telling them that even if they survived to tell their stories no-one would ever believe them (I can’t, I’m afraid, recall which book). A recurring nightmare of many who did survive the Holocaust was of relating what had happened and not being believed. Their suffering was appalling, but it was made immeasurably worse by the prospect of the reality of their suffering being denied or excised from history. That is why the annual UN International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, marked today (on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz), is so important. It is an affirmation of a commitment both to remembering one of history’s most dreadful crimes and to the value of education in overcoming divisions, combating racism and defending the truth against those who choose to distort it. In the era of post-truth politics, ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and fake politicians, this commitment has never been more important.
When Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper published its now notorious frontpage headlined ‘The truth’ in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster it, the impact on survivors and the families of the victims was enormous. I refuse to believe that the decision of the newspaper’s odious editor was anything other than a calculated act of distortion. The headline must have had, for him, a delicious irony, as he personally insisted on presenting a litany of inhuman crimes, alleged to have been committed by the victims, without a shred of evidence, in contradiction of almost all eye-witness testimony. This man’s actions added significantly to the burden of guilt carried by survivors for more than a quarter of a century, while the families of the victims, locked in a seemingly endless fight for justice, were driven by the fear that their truth, the real story of what happened to their loved ones that day, would be erased from history. When justice campaigner and mother of one of the victims Margaret Aspinall stood on the steps of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall shortly after the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, she told the survivors, finally, to ‘forgive yourselves’. People in the crowd wept.
One of the witnesses in Svetlana Alexievich’s book wonders ‘whether it’s better to remember or forget’. The struggle to tell the truth can be exhausting and demoralising when you feel yourselves to be so small, and the forces of distortion are so very great and all-pervasive. And there are other personal costs too, not least the uncomprehending contempt of those who saw the victims as scroungers in search of ‘Chernobyl benefits’. I think we owe the author a huge debt of gratitude for collecting these untold stories and for ensuring that these forgotten people have a voice. Her book should be on every politician’s reading list. It is important that they understand the consequences of what Orwell termed ‘reality control’. When politicians offer their citizens an ‘alternative’ truth, the ‘truth’ they want them to invest in for own reasons (and there can be no good reasons here), it is a first step on a very dark road, along which people are dehumanised, victims blamed, rights overlooked and dignity overridden. History shows us where this road leads. This is why it is so important that we continue to remember, to recognise that telling the truth can be a powerfully defiant and profoundly political act. It is also a reminder, as one Holocaust survivor said this week, that civilization is ‘veneer-thin’. It needs constant care and reinvestment. By committing to truth, justice and remembrance we not only assert the value of human dignity and civilisation, we make a statement of confidence in people and the future as well.