Wikipedia acts as a brake on the false view of Putin’s history

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If you had searched for Adolf Hitler on Wikipedia in early May, you would have seen a particular description at the top of the article. Hitler, the introduction concludes, is “almost universally regarded as gravely immoral”. This oddly worded phrase appears periodically on Wikipedia as a description of Hitler until an editor stepped in to remove it and instead highlight a more biting assessment, such as that of historian Ian Kershaw calling Hitler “the ’embodiment of modern political evil’.

Whether to call Hitler gravely immoral or bad is one of hundreds of discussions on this article, which is among the most viewed ever on the site – more than 125 million times over the past 15 years. twice the total for Jesus and in the vicinity of the number for soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo. Discussions of Hitler on Wikipedia mostly take place and oscillate between the trivial (whether Hitler’s infamy doomed Hitler’s mustache, also known as a toothbrush), the bizarre (how to describe the Hitler’s painting skills) and the profound (if there is even such a thing as “evil”).

It is important to set the record straight, because historical misinformation goes hand in hand with current misinformation. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Vladimir Putin described as a battle to “denazify” Ukraine’s leadership.

Collectively, the debates testify to the awareness of Wikipedia editors of the seriousness of the task. Wikipedia is the de facto research library for platforms like the Google search engine. Just as we rely on Google and others to explain the world to us today, Google relies on Wikipedia to provide users with a sort of Cliffs Notes version of world history.

VIPs expect special treatment. On Wikipedia, don’t even ask.

Last fall, I wrote about an avid Wikipedia editor, Ksenia Coffman, who said she was denazifying Wikipedia. When she used the term, she meant the process of rewriting or suppressing articles that relied on myths about the supposed courage and honor of Nazi Germany’s fighting forces, the Wehrmacht. She showed that tales of so-called “aces” – fighters who heroically fought off much more powerful enemies with a single tank or aircraft – were based on propaganda. She also found sources to expose the lies of Nazi generals and field marshals who insisted, after the fact, that they had opposed Nazism in their hearts and had no idea of ​​the war crimes committed by Nazis. their own troops.

In carrying out these repairs, Coffman faced resistance from a group of publishers who were primarily military enthusiasts and wanted to write about battlefield bravery without too much scrutiny. She, however, kept coming back to facts and sources – how do we know what we think we know? – and an insistence that Wikipedia not be carried away by mythology. At the time, his cause seemed remote from today’s issues – about capital T truth in the abstract – until Putin and his advisers began to explain why history was on the side of Russia.

In a speech last year, Putin walked through 1,000 years of battles and alliances to substantiate his claim to “the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It tells the story of the ancient Rus people who made kyiv their capital and Vladimir the Great their leader after rejecting Islam and Judaism and embracing Eastern Orthodoxy, according to the story. Putin has two claims which he says are supported by historical records: that there never was a separate Ukrainian nation and that people who claim there is a separate nation must have another motive, that it is for personal gain or an ideological cause like Nazism. When Putin describes the brotherly fighting between Russians and Ukrainians, he speaks in a tone of sadness that a family has been divided; when he identifies the figures he believes are responsible for these divisions – for encouraging a separate Ukrainian identity – his tone turns to rage, comparing its consequences “to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”.

Since the Russian invasion, English Wikipedia articles on historical figures and topics invoked by Putin have racked up pop-star numbers. The article about Stepan Bandera, a far-right leader of Ukrainian nationalists before and during World War II – whom Putin considers an evil force guiding Ukraine even today – has had a million views since the invasion. The one on the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, an obscure entity within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that Putin credits as having enabled Ukraine’s current distinct political identity, has been viewed by more than half a million since the invasion. Also with Bandera-like numbers, the article on kyiv Russia (just under a million views), the ancient kingdom ruled by Vladimir the Great (225,000).

Regarding claims of Nazi collaboration by prominent Ukrainian nationalists like Bandera, Wikipedia has spared no effort. Even though Putin has emphasized these Nazi connections as the reason for his invasion, Wikipedia has resisted attempts to water down this story. In April, an editor posted to say, “Stepan Bandera was not a Nazi collaborator and theorist,” adding, “You have to verify the information and then publish it. The response from another editor, who won, was quick: “It was, it’s been checked and the references are in the article. If Ukrainians don’t accept historical facts, that’s their problem. Bandera’s anti-Semitic views section has only grown since Putin put him on the international stage.

Conspiratorial videos? Fake news? Enter Wikipedia, the “good cop” of the Internet

Overall, however, Wikipedia offers a compelling counter-narrative to Putin: for starters, the very existence of a separate article on Ukraine is a refutation of Putin’s central theory of joint Russian-Ukrainian history. . Digging in, there is the article on the history of Ukraine, which describes how the idea of ​​the Ukrainian nation crystallized in the 17th and 18th centuries as part of a national cultural revival. Putin glossed over this period in his speech, pausing briefly to ask, “How can this legacy be shared between Russia and Ukraine? And why do it?

The highly controversial article on Hitler was also a bulwark. When Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked how Ukraine could need denazification if its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was Jewish, Lavrov replied: “I could be wrong, but Hitler had also Jewish blood. [That Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jews say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually the Jews. It was an appalling response for which, according to the Israeli government, Putin apologized.

The day after Lavrov’s claim, more people viewed Hitler’s article than on a single day in the past year – nearly 70,000 views, compared to a daily average of 28,000. an unusual step, the English Wikipedia article brings up this particular lie to explicitly refute it. The claim has appeared regularly in discussions since 2005, according to the records, most recently in 2021 when various editors mentioned a new article on the subject. This last call was closed: “We went through this and it was debunked. These are just speculations, conjectures and suppositions.

The Wikipedia Project comes with a stubborn confidence that facts can guide us through the darkness. In Wikipedia’s 20-year history, this belief has never been asked to do more.


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