On July 22, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, stood before university students and delivered a speech titled ‘Will Europe belong to Europeans?’ It contained rambling passages about how a “Soros plan” was in place to bring in “hundreds of thousands of migrants every year — if possible, a million — to the territory of the European Union (EU) from the Muslim world”. The aim was to transform the continent into “a new, Islamised Europe”. This, Orban argued, was what lay behind “Brussels’ continuous and stealthy withdrawal of powers from the nation states”.

Orban has form when it comes to this kind of paranoid vision. He’s an authoritarian populist who has made a habit of stoking xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. He eagerly amplifies far-right conspiracy theories about the Christian majority being threatened by demographic “replacement”. His message isn’t just fake news about the present, however.

It comes laced with historical distortion. “Not since the treaty of Trianon”, he gloated, “has our nation been as close as it is today to regaining its confidence and vitality” — a reference to the post-First World War treaty that deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. Orban’s guiding idea is that Hungary must seek redress for historical humiliations. The suggestion is that, as his government clashes with the EU on migration quotas, it is avenging grievances rooted in the 20th century. Orban’s manipulations go further, and involve completely rewriting dark chapters of the past. He’s on the record as saying Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader who cooperated with the Nazis, was an “exceptional statesman”.

Of course, he’s not alone in twisting history to further his political goals. In Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, school books have been modified to de-emphasise Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular republic. It’s all part of an effort to reverse that legacy and glorify the Ottoman past, as Erdogan carves out ever more powers for himself. Controlling memory is at the heart of President Vladimir Putin in Russia. Not only has Stalin been rehabilitated, with new monuments built to honour him across the country, but historians and human rights activists who work to document Stalinist crime have come under political pressure. Some, like Yury Dmitriyev, have been tried on trumped-up charges.

Rewriting the Soviet past doesn’t just serve domestic political purposes. Negating the crimes of Soviet occupation in central and eastern Europe, and excusing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Nazis, provides justification for Moscow reclaiming its “zone of influence”. In President Xi Jinping’s China, any mention of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or of the Tiananmen square massacre is stamped out because it’s seen as a challenge to Communist party rule. Collective amnesia is what the regime seeks on issues that risk undermining its legitimacy. It’s not enough to throw dissidents in prison or censor information; the past is purged.

And while it’s tempting to think the rewriting of history is something found exclusively in illiberal or dictatorial systems, it has increasingly become a feature of democracies. United States President Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw last month strove to cast Poland’s historical struggle for freedom and independence as a “civilisational” battle for family values, “tradition” and “God”, rather than an aspiration for democracy. The narrative entirely left out of the rich and varied political tapestry that gave rise to the solidarity movement. In Britain, Brexiteers have proven willing to supply their own version of history. Nostalgia for the days of empire and their “swashbuckling spirit” comes accompanied with the mantra that the European project was a tyrannical straitjacket all along. Britain never had a say in anything the EU decided, and now it has a chance to “free” itself, so the story goes. Never mind that Britain was at the table, a full and influential member of a club its citizens and its economy have benefited from. Fanaticism alters not only the perception of current realities (as negotiations limp forward), it also adjusts the past to suit one set of beliefs.

George Orwell’s 1984 contains a well-known phrase about history and its importance: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” We worry rightly about the impact of fake news, but today’s nationalist passions are even more deeply rooted in the distortion of history, which citizens in many countries lap up despite the fact it is poison. The past has always been a battleground. The 20th century showed to what extremes state control over memory could go. Primo Levi, who experienced the nightmare of Nazi concentration camps, once wrote that the entire history of the Reich “can be re-read as a war against memory”.

One of the blessings of living in a democracy is that researchers, students, journalists and citizens at large can all access the past without having to subject themselves to any form of centralised, censoring control. The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has described this as “one of the most inalienable freedoms, alongside the freedom to think and express oneself”. Yet, the security of memory in democratic societies may not be as assured as we think. Some politicians want to lead us in a march towards forgetfulness. But that way lies a world of senselessness and deceit. Learning about history, and being able to question some of the narratives advanced in the name of politics is as important as knowing where to get reliable news from. “Can history save us from ourselves?” asked historian Timothy Snyder at a recent conference on the nation state and the many falsehoods politicians attach to it. Perhaps it can.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Natalie Nougayrede is a Guardian leader writer, columnist and foreign affairs commentator.