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Historians without Borders

Historians without borders.

Outline for an initiative.

P.M. by Erkki Tuomioja PhD, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs   3.5. 2015

In today’s world we should be increasingly concerned about both the ignorance and abuse of history in politics and how this impacts on international relations.

To claim that we have entered a new post-modern world dominated by the short-term where future generations will have nothing solid or enduring to rely and build ones future on is exaggerated, at least regarding the novelty of the phenomenon – after all it was already in 1848 that Marx and Engels wrote how ”all that is solid melts into thin air, all that is holy is profaned”. Nevertheless concerns about short-termism and the ”end of history” (although not necessarily in Fukuyama’s meaning) are valid.

It may or not be true that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. What is more likely to be true is, that the less you know about your history, the more difficult it will be to see the into the future either and be able to influence it.

Knowing your history is not the same as becoming a prisoner to it. On the contrary, it is much easier for those who know their history to avoid becoming its prisoner, through the manipulative and nefarious efforts of those who will seek to misuse it for political ends. After all also myths about history thrive on ignorance.

Ignorance also fosters abuse and abuse fosters conflicts. Historical myths are used to create and sustain enemy images and justify aggressive policies.

This year is the centennial year of the events leading to the death of up to a million and half Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. That these events took place is not disputed, but the question of whether or not to call it genocide has become a source of conflict and soured relations between Turkey and many countries, where politicians and parliaments have raised their profiles by issuing statements and passing resolutions on the issue.

Efforts to alleviate the contradictions by getting historians from all parties to come together to discuss and reach consensus on how to treat and interpret the facts have not been successful. Indeed, many historians have become willy-nilly parties to the conflict of words.

What then should the role of politics and politicians be vis-a-vis history? It is easier to say what it should NOT be, i.e. legislating about historical truths or untruths. While the motives and other activities of Holocaust-deniers are rarely free of anti-Semitism and are most often intimately connected to racist and fascist ideology and politics, we should nevertheless resist proposals to make holocaust denial a criminal offence as has been done in some countries. Other laws criminalizing anti-Semitist and racist defamation are enough, without making historiography the subject of legally-defined truths.  This applies equally to resolutions on what to call the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, let alone on passing legislation on yet another Holocaust-denial.

While individual politicians should have a good knowledge of history and an ability to speak out on issues of history, they should not do so through legislative acts. What they should do is to see that  historical research in general is adequately funded. They can also identify areas of research were more work is needed and also establish special projects, such as the project in Finland to  study and examine all war-related deaths in Finland during the period 1914-1922, which has been a controversial subject for decades afterwards.

How can historians contribute to mediation and conflict resolution?

As a positive agenda politicians and governments should welcome and support independent and international research and contacts between historians from all countries to encourage them to work together on defusing conflicts on the facts and interpretation of historical events and building cross-border understanding of all parties perceptions and interpretations of such events.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy example of a nation addressing its history is Germany. We should all learn from the way that Germany has endeavoured to address the question of its awful 20th Century history. Finnish is one of the few languages into which the challenging concept of verganheitsbewältigung can be translated easily with the word menneisyydenhallinta. If Germany is the good example there are unfortunately plenty of other countries, which have not made any serious efforts to come to grips with their dubious past.

There is no need to point to the many obvious examples of this failure. We can castigate these countries and their leaders and the historians who surrender to the with good reason but we should also engage with them as researchers and scholars in dialogue, and try support and sustain the possibilities for independent and critical historiography, which in worst case contrives can be downright dangerous.

We feel that the time has come for independent historians in all countries to come together and place their knowledge and experience at the service of efforts to prevent and solve internal or external conflicts. We believe that historians can and should be used as experts in helping mediation by bringing opposing parties together to address issues of common history and reach agreement and at least reduce differences concerning facts and their interpretation.

To this end we have decided to establish Historians Without Borders as  an independent and international Non-Governmental Organisation.

The aim of HWB is to

– Promote common knowledge and positive and inclusive understanding of history with the aim bridging the gap between different and conflicting perceptions of historical developments and events and to prevent the use of history to foster and sustain  conflicts, enemy-images and distorted historical myths.

HWB will work for this by

– promoting positive and inclusive historical understanding

– arranging both public and private meetings, seminars, conferences

– maintaining a roster of historians available as experts, lecturers, panellists or members in working groups and commissions

– making its resources available for assisting mediation

– taking the initiative for historical mediation where possible

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