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Who Is in Charge of Using History?


The publication event of the Finnish version of the anthology ‘The Use and Abuse of History’ (Siltala 2016) took place 20 April at the University of Helsinki. Some of the contributors to the anthology also took part in a panel discussion moderated by Janne Virkkunen, Vice-Chairman of the Board of HWB.

The Chairman of the Board of Historians without Borders in Finland (HWB Finland) Erkki Tuomioja explained in his opening words that the book explores different uses and interpretations of history, particularly with regard to their role in the development and resolution of conflicts. Thus it also presents some of the main points that the Historians without Borders initiative intends to be working with.

The opening words were followed by a short introduction to the anthology presented by the editor of the anthology, Antti Blåfield. He identified four main themes on which he had also based the structure of the book. First, the central topic of the uses and abuses of history is presented in the opening article by Erkki Tuomioja. This is followed by a number of articles that elaborate either theoretical or practical perspectives to the general topic, such as Martti Ahtisaari’s personal experience of the need for history in peace mediation or Timothy Garton Ash’s thoughtful discussion concerning history and freedom of speech. The third theme introduces case studies of the uses of history in contexts as varied as current politics in Russia, the changing perceptions on World War II in Germany, or the complicated democratisation process in Indonesia. Finally, Marko Lehti wraps the book up with his thorough article on interpretations of history in peace-building processes.


“History Is Too Important to Be Left to Historians”


The panel discussion revolved around questions, such as the need for legislation on historical facts and the role of historical education, and was actively challenged by the audience. Adjunct Professor Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna talked about the role of urban structure and buildings in our historical perceptions. Cities may be mute themselves, but through the writing of history they come to reflect pervasive political choices and power relations. The problem is that in public discussion physical structures are often seen as indisputable and used to justify all kinds of subjective views.

The question of power came up in other points of view as well. Accoding to University Lecturer Heino Nyyssönen, the crucial question is who is in charge of using history. It may be true that history is too important to be left to the historians, but it cannot be left in the hands of political interests either. He cited the example of Hungary, where the anniversary of the uprising of 1956 is to a great degree hijacked by the government to further its own political goals.

Jussi Nuorteva, Director of the Finnish National Archive, pointed out that archives too often are at the mercy of political whim. This was once again evidenced recently as Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to move historical archives under his direct subordination. Although this was followed up with the publication of a vast amount of previously classified materials, severe doubts remain whether such a move could ever contribute to the openness of archives. Nuorteva acknowledged, however, that archives nowadays are faced with problems even beyond political pressure. One big challenge is digitalisation, which presents a huge opportunity in terms of public access but also raises crucial questions about the choices of what is digitised and how this might narrow sources used for research in the future.

Meanwhile, Counsellor Petri Hakkarainen effectively flipped the question about power and history around by asking how history could, in fact, be better utilized in political decision-making. In his view, there nowadays is an increased need for historical perspectives. Many seemingly new topics, like climate change and migration, have actually been brewing for a long time and have their own histories that need to be understood to fully grasp their impacts. These issues also tend to be marked by a considerable degree of inter-connectedness, making it necessary to trace how one process has influences another and sometimes contributed to a seemingly unrelated problem. Hakkarainen emphasised the need for increased, long-term dialogue between historians and policy-makers, and credited Historians without Borders for attempting to create a platform for that.

Instead of attempting to come to a conclusion, the panel highlighted the need for a continued discussion about different interpretations of history. However, that discussion can only be constructive if it is based on appropriate sources and coherent arguments. This only goes to further underline the need for open archives and independent historical research.

An English version of the anthology will be published in May. The publication date and instructions for purchase will be announced on our website. The Finnish version is already available in bookstores and through the Siltala e-store.

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