While visiting Berlin during the meeting of our Coordinating Committee, we also had the opportunity to speak with German historians at the Embassy. 11 local historians from different German and Danish universities took part in the event. At the meeting all the attendees also had the opportunity to sign our Declaration and become members of the International Network of Historians without Borders.
A brief introduction of the HWB initiative by Erkki Tuomioja was followed by vibrant discussion mainly focusing on the fields of activity and measures of action that HWB should take in order to be both effective and relevant. The range of ideas shows that historians themselves see the value in taking the results of their academic work to a wider audience among diplomats, politicians and the general public.
While the participants agreed that academic historians already engage in a great deal of dialogue to exchange ideas, it was considered more difficult to communicate these to the policy-making field. New channels therefore have to be found for example through digital and online formats.
The general view was that historians can bring in an understanding of the complexity of conflicts and political controversies. Sometimes this can be considered an obliging responsibility, as was remarked with regard to the so-called history laws. In a seemingly increasing tendency, parliaments have been using legislation to decree on past events and interpretations. While this may create the sense of coming to terms with past wrongdoings, politicians do not necessarily always understand the risks involved with establishing historical facts on the basis of law.
Another issue strongly related to strengthening mutual understanding concerns history teaching and, particularly, the challenges of compiling textbooks to pupils of various ages. International projects to come up with shared history books have been carried out for example between Germany and Poland, the Balkan countries, and Japan, China and South Korea.
Meanwhile, it is important for both historians and the wider public to keep in mind that there may be competing interpretations about the society, past or present, that are all equally valid. History is not an exact science thriving for positivist conclusions, rather than a field of knowledge formulated through carefully justified, sometimes competing analyses and explanations. It is precisely this variety of perspective that Historians without Borders should be able to offer, whether as a background for conflict resolution or to promote constructive discussion in the public.
In the discussion in Berlin, it was considered important that the Network of HWB focus on specific issues in order to increase its policy impact. These should especially take into account ‘hot topics’ that dominate public discussion and create a need for in-depth information. In addition, HWB should work as a resource for historians, enabling an efficient exchange of ideas and best practices.
Historians without Borders wants to thank all attendees for a good and thought provoking discussion!