On Monday 20 February, Historians without Borders and the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) organised a seminar on “Politics and History – What Should be the Role of Politicians Dealing with History?” Professor Timothy Garton Ash delivered a keynote speech followed by a panel discussion with the HWB Network’s Coordinating Committee members Margaret MacMillan and Carl Bildt. Chairman of HWB Finland Erkki Tuomioja and Director of the SIIA Mats Karlsson acted as moderators.
Garton Ash rejected the idea of memory laws and legislation on historical issues by noting that they are not compatible with free speech. History progresses with claims and counterclaims and the state should not interfere in this process. He argued that while knowledge and public acknowledgment of historical issues are crucial in dealing with difficult pasts, we should avoid entering a state of hypermnesia where the past is not left as past but continues to distort and dictate present politics.
Instead, according to Garton Ash, we should consider how politicians and historians could cooperate in order to promote and maintain our open, democratic societies. For one thing, politicians should not avoid being challenged by historians when they present new interpretations of history. They should aim to keep up an open discussion about history even if this sometimes raises difficult or controversial issues. Politicians should engage historians in these discussions as a resource for knowledge and research-based persepectives.
Margaret MacMillan warned that while history can be used to inspire people, it can also be used to inflict harm. Many politicians and other political actors – such as Donald Trump and Daesh – now call upon a mythical golden past and have been able to use history as tool to benefit their own goals and aims. She saw historians’ role here as challengers of those myths which – she admitted – does not always make them very popular. We are all – as individuals and groups – products of our pasts, she continued, and therefore to understand today’s politics or politicians we need a better understanding of the historical background they come from. She ended her remarks by noting that history can also teach our political leaders a sense of humility.
As politicians, both Tuomioja and Bildt pointed out the necessity of acknowledging the vast impact that interpretations of history continue to have. It is impossible to understand any present society without understanding its history. This, however, also creates a great risk to unconstructive identity politics and harmful nostalgia that can be used to justify various kinds of political interests. Bildt, in particular, argued that politicians should be aware of history but be insightful enough to stay away from it.
Overall, the panel admitted it was quite unanimous about not seeing history laws as a good way for politicians to contribute to history. However, it was considered a responsibility for both politicians and historians work together to identify and overcome misuses and abuses of history.
Watch the whole discussion at SIIA’s YouTube Channel.