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As the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising approaches, the history wars in Ireland still rage

Will poking around in the embers of Irish history rekindle old flames?

The creeping barrage of First World War centenaries moves inexorably on. Gallipoli 2015 is now behind us. In 2016 the French will turn their sights on Verdun while the British target the Somme. In both cases the commemorations will tell us as much about the present as the past, exposing divergent national attitudes on either side of the Channel towards European reconciliation and integration. But the most present-centred anniversaries in 2016 will take place in Ireland. Here, history remains particularly raw.

The Easter Rising of 1916 has become the foundational myth of the modern Irish state. The revolt itself was a quixotic act, involving no more than 1,500 people, and the whole thing was crushed within a week at the cost of 450 lives, more than half of them civilians. But the crass brutality of the British military afterwards, including several thousand arrests and 16 executions, helped turn the “rainbow chasers” into national martyrs. The ruined General Post Office on Sackville Street in Dublin, the rebels’ short-lived headquarters, became the iconic symbol of the rising.

For Irish nationalists Easter 1916 signalled the rebirth of the nation – a stepping stone to Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the 1918 election, the war of independence against Britain from 1919 to 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State. The Easter Rising seemed all the more attractive as a dramatic symbol because the larger story of national liberation was complex and messy. The independence achieved was incomplete, since Ireland was denied both sovereignty and unity. Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 Eire remained part of the British Commonwealth, owing ultimate allegiance to the Crown, while the six largely Protestant counties of the north-east stayed within the United Kingdom as the statelet of Northern Ireland.

The treaty was therefore completely unacceptable to hardline republicans and nationalists. Their opposition sparked a vicious civil war in 1922-23 between former comrades-in-arms, the death toll from which exceeded that of the war of independence against Britain. In this struggle, the iconic equivalent of the GPO of 1916 was the Four Courts, a neoclassical complex on Dublin’s waterfront where the anti-treaty forces had been headquartered. The building was shelled into ruins by government troops using artillery loaned by the British. Although the pro-treaty forces were victorious in 1923, Irish politics for much of the 20th century remained polarised between political parties rooted in the opposing sides during the civil war.

Clinging tight to Easter 1916 – told as a ­heroic saga of national resurrection, of good v evil – has therefore been a convenient, even necessary, narrative in Ireland. But this will be much harder to sustain a century on, as is clear from two recent books by Maurice Walsh and Diarmaid Ferriter, and from others in the pre-centenary literary build-up. For one thing, rich new sources have become available in the past decade or so. In 2003 the Irish government finally opened the records of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), including over 1,700 statements taken in the 1940s and 1950s from veterans of the rising and the war of independence. And in 2014 it started to make available online the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), nearly 300,000 files from veterans of 1916-23 who set down detailed accounts of their service to the state in order to secure pensions or compensation.

These new materials have to be read with care because their authors had every incentive to exaggerate their own importance to make their name or make money. Nevertheless, the BMH and MSPC archives allow historians to construct accounts of the period that move away from a few embalmed leaders and a few streets in Dublin to offer broader social histories of the era, ranging right across the country and highlighting the diversity of individual experience.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an academic ­historian, sticks close to the sources, at times offering perhaps too much detail. But in A Nation and Not a Rabble (Profile Books) he powerfully shows how the mythology has taken shape, digging in the first part through the sedimentary layers of history-writing, and tracing how patterns of commemoration have shifted over time in the third. The middle section, drawing on the rich documentation newly come to light, offers a 200-page analytical narrative entitled “Revolutionary Ireland, 1913-23”.

The title of that section has been chosen with care. Ferriter wants us to appreciate how the conventional nationalist narrative has concealed the pressures for social and economic change pulsating through Ireland in the 1910s. He deliberately begins not with the 1916 rising, nor even in 1914 when the Great War began and Westminster conceded the principle of Irish home rule. Instead his starting point is the Dublin general strike of 1913, the city’s celebrated “lockout”. Ferriter pays particular attention to James Connolly, a nationalist hero today because he was executed by the British in May 1916, sitting, tied to a chair, unable to stand after near-fatal wounds. Yet Connolly was not only a nationalist but a Marxist, one of the leaders of the 1913 lockout; he brought his Irish Citizen Army (ICA) into the rising only late in the day because he believed the rebel leaders were woefully indifferent to the class struggle.

Ferriter’s socio-economic take on 1916 is hardly novel: Sean O’Casey, one of Connolly’s aides, developed it in his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars – the Plough constellation being the symbol on the ICA’s banner. But Ferriter makes the experience of workers, and also women, central to his account of a period in which revolution and not just nationalism was in the air. Less than  a year after the Easter Rising, the tsarist regime in Russia – Europe’s most brutal autocracy – collapsed in a couple of weeks and by the end of 1917 the Bolsheviks had seized power, inspiring leftist movements across the globe.

Drawing on the BMH and a rich variety of other archives, Ferriter explores the grass-roots experience of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. The “land war” in the spring of 1920, for instance, was the worst such agitation against big landlords since the 1880s, spreading from the west across 16 counties. For impoverished tenants, economic rights were as important as national liberation, yet that whole issue has been downplayed in conventional nationalist accounts.

Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom (Faber & Faber) concentrates on 1918-23, the period from Sinn Fein’s election victory to the end of the civil war. A journalist by training, Walsh is less interested than Ferriter in historiography and memory. He does not dissect the sources but uses them to compose a vivid narrative with a reporter’s ear and eye for a telling anecdote or revealing vignette. He offers, for instance, a chilling impression of how law and order progressively broke down. In the 1900s local members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) functioned, rather banally, as “a one-man government agency” – making sure the pubs closed on time, collecting statistics about animal disease, registering new owners of horses and cars, and so on. Although an Irish policeman, unlike a British “bobby”, was trained to use firearms, he rarely had to deal with actual violence apart from bar-room brawls. Historically most officers in the RIC had been Protestant and most constables Catholic, but by the 1900s many Catholics had been promoted from the ranks, while men with strong sectarian views from either side of the religious divide were excluded.

Yet the Easter Rising exposed a fundamental tension between the RIC’s ingrained local familiarity and its basic loyalty to the crown: after 1916 it became progressively harder to be “Irish” and also “royal”. First came local ostracism, as members of the RIC were barred from social events and sports teams or shunned as dates. By 1919 they had become the targets of threatening letters or occasional shootings. Isolated rural police stations were closed and constables moved into fortified barracks in larger towns. Whereas in 1914 there had been roughly 1,400 police stations dotted around Ireland, by the mid-1920 almost a third lay abandoned and burned.

As British rule crumbled, an alternative government took shape. In the UK general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the House of Commons but, honouring the party manifesto pledge, the MPs did not take up their seats in Westminster, convening instead at the Mansion House in Dublin as the Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland). Even after being declared illegal by the British in September 1919, the Dail continued to develop as what Walsh terms “a virtual republic”, gradually taking over the functions of government.

Nowhere was this process more evident than in the success of the Dail’s network of courts. These started out as local arbitration hearings about land disputes or sheep rust­ling, held in schoolrooms, farmhouses and even barns. They soon developed into a rival system of justice, from a high court downwards, with the full apparatus of judges and clerks, summonses and arrest warrants. Banned by the British, the Dail courts had to operate in secret, their functionaries often on the run. One leading figure, the barrister Kevin O’Shiel, travelled the country posing as a quack salesman for a heat-rub ointment. The underground courts were popular – dispensing prompt, simple justice free from legal gobbledegook and archaic procedure –
and their reach spread during 1920 as intimidation and violence gradually closed down the British courts system. Republican justice proved a sharp riposte to London’s claims that Sinn Fein was merely a bunch of thugs and gunmen. As the Daily Mail put it in July 1920, “the futility of trying to govern a people against its will is demonstrated by what happens at the Sinn Fein courts”.




In line with other recent books on the 1916 era, Walsh moves beyond ingrained Irish exceptionalism to set the story in an international context. At the start he summons up the ubiquity of Bolshevist revolution, quoting Mussolini (“The whole earth trembles”), but he is more interested in the global appeal of the then US president, Woodrow Wilson. Walsh is surely right to situate Ireland’s struggle for independence within the larger nationalist moment of 1918-20, when protest against imperial rule spread across Europe and beyond, and the Paris Peace Conference became the global forum for nationalist leaders to plead their cause. As Walsh notes, Wilson was their hero because he voiced the imprecise but inspiring slogan of “self-determination”. Here, Walsh says, we can see “the beginnings of the Americanisation of the whole world”.

I think Walsh, like other latter-day historians, exaggerates what has been called “the Wilsonian moment”. The president failed to deliver on the hopes he had aroused, and nationalist dreams soon evaporated, from Egypt to India. But, in the Irish case, Walsh’s allusions to the global tide of Americanisation highlight the limits of freedom in “a flawed revolution”, because modernity seemed to pass Ireland by until at least the 1960s. This was a theme developed eloquently last year by Roy Foster in his book Vivid Faces, about the rise and decline of the “revolutionary generation” of 1916 – the ’68ers of their day. One of them lamented four decades later how “the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it”. The authoritarian Ireland that emerged from the civil war was a far cry from their youthful dreams: politically conservative, sexually repressed, in thrall to the Catholic priesthood.
Yet, Walsh notes, the post-independence order “was not merely imposed on an unwilling population. It suited many people that the country should be run this way.” After years of anarchy, they were ready to pay a high price for order. As Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter, 1916”, “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.”

Thinking of Ireland comparatively, the country was distinctive among national revolutions of the era in at least three important respects. First, a serious national rising took place during the war – in fact, right in the middle – rather than at the end, amid the turmoil of 1918. The latter was the pattern across central and eastern Europe, resulting in new states such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Second, Ireland’s war of independence was waged successfully against a victor power, not – as in the Balkans or the Baltic states – against one of the defeated empires. This was part of the global appeal of the Irish struggle, not least in the United States, where it could easily be enfolded into the American saga of 1776 and all that. And yet, third, the victor imperial power hung on in the north-east of the country – not just for a few years but right up to the present day. Hence, for hardline republican nationalists, then and now, the continuing affront of an unfinished revolution.

Of course, there have been huge changes within Ulster and in British-Irish relations since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 helped end thirty years of “the Troubles”. But the peace process remains fragile. Poking around in the embers of history could easily rekindle old flames. The island of Ireland will mark two contrasting centenaries in 2016. One is the Easter Rising on 24 April, the other the first day of the Somme on 1  July – a sacred day in the calendar of Ulster Unionists. On that dreadful morning in 1916 the 36th (Ulster) Division went “over the top” near Thiepval, penetrating further than any other unit in the British army, but then was forced back. It suffered over 5,000 casualties – a third of the division’s strength. For decades, fervent unionists commemorated Ulster’s “blood sacrifice” in the struggle for peace and freedom against the Hun, in contrast to the treacherous “stab in the back” inflicted at Easter in Dublin. The Thiepval story is still depicted today on murals in east Belfast and around the Shankill Road. Marking the First Day of the Somme remains largely a sectarian act of memory: Protestant Ulster’s counterblast to the Irish republican 1916.

At the time of the 50th anniversary, in 1966, only loyalists commemorated the first day of the Somme, while nationalists remembered the Easter Rising. Their rival versions of history played a part in fuelling the Troubles. Yet, as Diarmaid Ferriter reminds us, some 200,000 Irishmen, Catholic as well as Protestant, from all over the island, fought in the British army during the First World War. Since 1998 the idea that 1914-18 was “our war” has gained currency south of the border and has been acknowledged by British and Irish leaders through various joint ceremonies in London, Dublin and on the Western Front.

Perhaps in 2016, a century on, the history wars will have abated and Ireland’s two ­centenaries can be commemorated in tandem and without pain. Might it now be enough, as Yeats mused about the men of 1916, simply “To know they dreamed and are dead”, consigning them reverently to history? Or perhaps the embers of the past will be rekindled again? After the election last month of Dublin’s first ever Sinn Fein lord mayor, the centenary celebrations will be under republican control: their plans, announced in 2014, include 3D projections on to the rebuilt General Post Office: “Watch as the GPO comes under shell fire and catches fire, see the rebels escape and their last stand. Witness the trials and experience the executions . . .”

A general election must take place in the Republic of Ireland by 9 April 2016. It may prove irresistible to play politics with ­history, as Sinn Fein goads its rivals to flaunt their nationalist credentials and show that Easter is still Rising. In that case, to borrow once more from Yeats, the “terrible beauty” of 1916 will continue to define the political landscape and haunt our contemporary imagination.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

David Reynolds and Ronan Fanning adiscuss the Easter Rising with the New Statesman assistant editor Michael Prodger at Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 9 April 2016 at 7:30pm

Sebastian Barry returns to his Man Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, set during the 1916 Rising, in a conversation with New Statesman culture editor Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 5:30pm

Easter 1916: From the New Statesman Archive, an anthology of archive pieces about the events of Easter 1916, is out now. Get your copy now, priced only £0.99.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap