Erkki Tuomioja PhD, MP
African dialogue lecture series University of Johannesburg 16th October 2015
Everyone, the general public as well as politicians, would benefit from a better knowledge of history, and I say this not only as a historian who shares the profession’s vested interest in getting more attention and money from the powers-that-be. I say it particularly as a citizen-politician who has become increasingly concerned about both the ignorance and abuse of history in politics.
It may or not be true that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. What is more certainly true is, that those who do not know how and from where we have arrived to where we are today, cannot see the into the future either and be able to influence it.
To say that we have entered into a new post-modern world dominated by the short-term and where coming new generations will more and become part of what some people call the precariat with nothing solid or enduring to rely and build ones future maybe somewhat 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 I think a lot of the concern about short-termism and the ”end of history” (although not necessarily in Fukyama’s meaning) is valid.
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.
We have some experience of this also in Finland, Coming to terms with the worst moments in our history particularly our bloody 1918 Civil War, was not easy and took decades, but happily this is no longer a dividing or controversial issue, neither among historians nor the general public. This coming to terms with a dark side of our history has also been helped by some publicly funded research projects to catalogue and account for every single death in the armed conflicts affecting our country between 1914-1922 irrespective of the victim’s status and background.
I will spare you the details of our small history battles. Significantly they have always in one way or another touched on our relations with Russia, from how to interpret the 19th century history of Finland as an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar, the relationship of the Civil War parties with Germany and Russia, our role during the second world war and how to understand the post-war decades of adjusting to live with the Soviet-Union as our Super Power neighbour.
Finland has been fortunate in not having undergone any abrupt regime changes during our independence. Except for a period immediately after the end of the Continuation War in 1944 history or other books have not been censored and even then it was not based on actual new legislation, but on a voluntary form of self-censorship which was mostly directed at wartime propaganda material. But almost all the material, public and private, survived in archives and the basements of libraries, the only really significant archival loss being the transfer of the Army’s intelligence material in September 1944 to Sweden and onwards to other destinations, in which process some high-ranking officers also ensured their pecuniary status. This material has not been returned to Finland.
While Finland has not needed anything like the history debates in Germany, we too could 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. Management of history would be an incorrect translation, because it is not at all about manipulating history but rather opening your history and coming to terms wirh it.
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. Obvious examples of this failure are countries like Japan, Serbia and Russia. But also liberal democracies, such as the United States have also experienced difficulties in dealing with their past particularly dealing with the history of slavery and colonialism.
It is certainly true that the United Kingdom, France and other former colonial powers have dark corners which should be openly examined and addressed. The whole issue of colonial history is still a difficult subject. Prime examples of this are the British and French colonial wars in Kenya, Algeria and many other places. And I sometimes wonder, notwithstanding the deserved praise I and others have given to German verganheitsbewältingung, if this also to some degree applies to German colonial history in Africa as well?
Even so it has to recognized, that revisionist and critical historians in these countries will no longer meet the same kind of institutional or other obstacles (up to and including physical threats) which such historians may meet in Russia, which is the most obvious, saddest and potentially most worrying case of history-denial today.
When regimes change, this almost inevitably leads to some purges and rewriting of history. When dictators and dictatorships fall, it is understandable and maybe to some extent also necessary that the statues and monuments erected in their honour also fall. All regime changes will also entail a close scrutiny of the individual responsibility that supporters and official of the previous regime had for any crimes committed. This has been done in very different ways, from summary executions and show-trials to long-drawnout legal processes and truth commissions.
Communist and Fascist takeovers have usually been followed by the former methods; democratic changes have tried to do better. But many still ongoing processes and recurring crisis situations in the former communist countries in East and Central Europe are evidence of the many difficulties and challenges this entails. Post regime-change situations will always entail a demand for the work of historians. While they should be ready to offer their experience and research results to those directly engaged in these processes, they should not allow themselves to become institutional parts of them, much less take any role resembling that of a judge.
Let history – and historians – judge is a good and correct slogan, but only provided this judgement has no direct or indirect connection to or dependence on formal judicial processes.
A regime change, whatever the viciousness of the former regime, should not and cannot entail erasing history, or the eradication of all the very concrete marks and monuments the ancien regime has left. A cultured approach to historical monuments should leave an environment where traces of all our history, the more unpalatable and unsavoury parts of it included can be seen and, as times passes, can be regarded as historical relicts which need not unduly bother future generations but will serve as focal points in understanding our common past. This respect and comprehension is even more needed when these relics may still arouse contradictory memories, feelings and passions among different groups of the population.
In this respect South Africa deserves to be commended on how it has dealt with the crimes committed during the apartheid period through the mechanism of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
If in many countries dealing openly with your own history can be difficult enough, the challenges will be multiplied when this involves the country’s relations with other countries, as any historical description and analysis inevitably does. Historiography is still a much too nationalist endeavour everywhere. The real test for writing history is whether historiansa from two neighbouring countries, who may have been enemies in the past, or historians from a colonial power and its former colonies, can come to an understanding of their common history which all involved can accept.
This is still in many places almost impossible to imagine, when even the question of with what name to give to some events is contentious. This applied to our Civil War in 1918 in Finland as well which for decades was divisively celebrated and remembered as either the War for Freedom or the Class War. Here too the international setting also was a factor, with both Russian and German troop involved, although not decisively, in the war. It is only more or less after the turn of the Millennium when this no longer is divisive and everyone is more or less content to call it the Civil War.
Already a hundred years have passed from the events in the Ottoman Empire which lead to the deaths of up to one and a half million Armenians with the parties still contesting whether it should be called a genocide or not. Proposals to set up commissions of historians from both Armenia and Turkey as well as from third countries have so far not made any progress.
What then should the role of politics and politicians be vis-a-vis history? It may be better to begin by laying down what it should NOT be, i.e. legislating about historical truths or untruths. While he 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 still 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. And as much as one may deplore the failure of modern Turkey to recognize the atrocities committed against Armenians in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, it is a subject that parliaments and governments should refrain from issuing declarations, not to mention from passing legislation on yet another Holocaust-denial.
While individual politicians can, and indeed 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 current project in Finland to study and examine all war-related deaths in Finland during the period 1914-1922,.
What politicians and legislators also should do is to ensure that historians have full and open access to all relevant archives and documents. So far no universal international rules or agreements exists concerning freedom of information in general or access to archives in particular. International agreements are mostly concerned with data security and privacy protection as well as collection and publication of statistical information for international regulatory and comparative purposes.
I will not be the first to call on the European Union to adopt directives on access to archives, much less harmonise rules on this. If that were to happen I doubt it would start out with the aim of achieving greater transparency and public access. International cooperation and agreements can, however, be used to facilitate exchange of and more open access to historical information. A good reference would be if everyone were to apply the code of ethics adopted by International Council on Archives (ICA).
Working for open access to archives also calls for a reminder of the important and difficult issue of reconciling privacy protection and the public’s right to know. Striking the right balance is not always an easy task, as many recent examples of how material from the archives of the Intelligence and Security Services in East and Central European countries of the former Soviet bloc have been both used and misused.
Historians without borders
This is the background for why we in Finland have wanted to raise the question how can historians contribute to mediation and conflict resolution?
In the many discussions I have had with historians, diplomats and politicians from Finland and numerous other countries the need for the strong role that historians could play in creating more mutual understanding and also contribute to conflict resolution has been universally recognized.
Encouraged by this positive response we in Finland 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 and of post-conflict management in cooperation to bridge diverging historical interpretations across borders. We believe that historians can and should be used as experts in helping mediation by bringing closer the views of opposing parties.
To this end we decided on June 16th at a specially convened meeting of historians and diplomats to establish an organisation called Historians Without Borders in Finland as an independent NGO.
According to the status of HWB the aim of the organisation is to
– promote and deepen general and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of history;
– promote open and free access to historical material and archives;
– promote interactive dialogue between different views and interpretations of history to bring closer diverging views of the course of historical events;
– support efforts to impede the abuse of history to foster conflicts or to sustain enemy-images and distorted myths, and to contribute to the use of history in defusing conflicts and in conflict-resolution.
We have been in contact with historians in many countries in Europe and outside Europe, East and West, and I have had fruitful meeting with historians in i.a. Berlin, Stockholm and Paris.
We are looking forward to seeing similar organisations established in other countries with the aim of bringing these as well individual historians together in an international network of Historians without borders and to put our knowledge, experience and will at the service of conflict prevention, resolution and post-crisis management. We are aiming to call a broad international meeting of interested historians together with the University of Helsinki in Helsinki in May next year to continue working on the initiative.
Such a network could have some sort of international coordinating committee. Within this network historians could take initiatives aiming at furthering historical understanding and defusing historical conflicts and perhaps even engage in independent historiography in fields where it could contribute to bridging historical contradictions. It has also been proposed that the network could establish a roster of historians available to give advice and participate in mediation efforts, transnational historical commissions etc. in areas which they had indicated their interest and expertise.
The lecturer is Adjunct professor in Political History at the University of Helsinki, M.P. in the Finnish Parliament, former Minister for Foreign Affairs (2000-2007 and 2011-2015) and Chairman of Historians without borders in Finland.