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History and conflict: How can historians contribute to conflict resolution and conflict prevention


Erkki Tuomioja´s opening remarks at the International Students of History Association Seminar in Helsinki 25.7. 2017


2015 was the centenary of the events in the Ottoman Empire in which up to a million and a half Armenians met their deaths. Historians on all sides are more or less in agreement on what took place, but present-day Turkey and Armenia continue to be in open disagreement on whether to call these events a genocide or not.

Even if this disagreement is highly unlikely to lead to any kind of armed conflict between Turkey and Armenia, it continues to prevent a rapprochement between them and a normalization of their relations.

This is merely one example of how different views and interpretations of history continue to play a role in creating and stoking conflicts and in hampering efforts for conflict resolution. And even when conflicts are resolved with peace agreements, the unaddressed history you think you have buried can return as zombies to haunt you and at worst lead to a renewal of the conflict.

Post-conflict work also entails writing the history of the conflict in a way which meets the approval of all parties to it. We can well imagine how challenging this is for example in writing a common history for Cyprus, not to mention how to write Middle Eastern history if and when a lasting peace can be made between Israel and Palestine.

Most historians will deplore those in our profession who have willingly lent their names and work to instigating and amplifying conflicts. These maybe a small minority and we are more likely to encounter cases where the work of historians has been misused without their consent by politicians and demagogues for questionable purposes.

We have to ask ourselves what should be the proper role of politics and politicians vis-a-vis history? It might be easier to begin by laying down what it should NOT be; i.e. historical truths and interpretations of history should not be made into legislative issues. This is equally true concerning the many resolutions various parliaments have passed on the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire as it is concerning of the legislation passed or pending on how to write and present history in countries like Poland, Russia or Ukraine.

One should also question the way in which Holocaust-denial has been criminalized in many countries. Those who dismiss the concentration camps as mere details and deny the systematic genocide of Jews and other people designated as sub-humans are anti-Semitists intimately linked with racist and Fascist ideology and politics. There is enough legislation criminalizing defamation and incitement on the books and in binding international agreements on this, without extending the law to explicitly regulate how history should be studied and taught.

As desirable as it is that politicians should have an adequate knowledge and understanding of history so as to be able to address historical issues, they should not do it by resorting to legislation. Their task is to see to it, that historical research is adequately resourced and that it can be carried out freely without governmental guidance or other restrictions. This does not rule out politics identifying issues and items where research is needed, nor establishing and funding specific research projects. A good example of this is the project carried out in Finland on all our war deaths between 1914 and 1922, which produced valuable information and enhanced common understanding of the tragedy of our Civil War in 1918.

Politicians should also see to it, that historians have unlimited and open access to all historical archives, documents and other sources. Notwithstanding the proliferation of international agreements, regulations and directive on almost everything, there are no binding agreements on access to archives and their use. There is, however the International Council on Archives who’s Code of Ethics adopted more than 20 years ago are a good starting point for working for international and bilateral agreements to enhance open access to archives. At the same time it should be born in mind that that the principle of openness also calls for the sufficient protection of privacy.

History and politics have always been intertwined, even if the links have not always been recognized. These links and the use – and abuse – of history for political ends are much older then the concept of Politics of History, for which there is still no commonly agreed definition. One could give precedence for the concept to Germany, where the roots for the Politics of History lead. Research into the Politics of History seeks to delve into history debates and is interested in everything that comes under the concept of vergangenheitsbewältigung.

 This does not mean the management of History in the sense of manipulating it, but rather refers to addressing one’s history with an open mind and coming to terms with it, warts and all. In this respect Germany provides the best model for dealing openly with the most challenging and awful periods of its own history.

The list of countries who have achieved anything close to this frankness with their own history is very short compared to the long list of countries where this has not been possible and where any attempts to do so have been rejected. A positive example could be Post-Apartheid South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The list of bad and even frightening examples is long. Japan and Russia come easily into mind. This is especially problematic when the country in question is a Great Power which can allow its views of history to be directly reflected in its foreign policy.

In the authoritarian atmosphere prevailing in Russia with growing restrictions on freedom of speech and civil society it has also lead to a situation where independent and critical historians may have been put under pressure and intimidated even with physical threats.

However it has to be said, that not all the countries we regard as liberal democracies pass critical scrutiny without remarks. This can be said of the United Kingdom, France and former Colonial powers in general, which still have difficulties in openly addressing the dark corners of their colonial wars in Algeria, Kenya and elsewhere.

Even in Germany, notwithstanding the praise it has earned for its vergangenheitsbewältigung, it took much longer for the country to recognize the atrocities committed in its own colony in the country then known as South-West Africa (today Namibia). But it has to be added, that this has not in these countries lead to restrictions on revisionist and critical historiography of the kind we have seen in states actively engaged in history denial.

The use of history in Asia, where relations between China, Japan and the Republic of Korea are still burdened by different historiographical interpretations of events prior to and during the Second World War. These and most other countries also have disputes concerning the writing and teaching of their own national histories.

In my own country Finland, History also has had a central role in constructing our national awareness and state institutions in the 19th century. As an answer to the russification policies at the end of the 19th century historians were mobilized to testify how Alexander I at the Porvoo estates meeting in 1809 elevated Finland to the status of a nation among nations and made the commitment to respect Finland’s law and autonomy.

At the heart of the controversy was how to interpret the significance of the Imperial speech in Porvoo; was Finland recognized as a state entity already in 1809 or was this the starting point for a long process which step-by-step lead to Finland attaining the features of a separate state with its own senate (domestic government), parliament and even its own currency.

Only towards the end of the 20th century has it been possible to take a more balanced approach and show understanding that the Russians too may have had valid arguments when criticising the Finnish-Nationalist arguments used in the struggle to defend Finnish autonomy.

Also after our independence in 1917 historians have been used before and during the Second World War to support nationalist ambitions for a Greater Finland. After the armistice in 1944 historians were again needed to propagate the thesis of Finland as Germany’s cobelligerent conducting a completely separate war against the Soviet-Union and to explain how Finland was drawn like a piece of driftwood into the Continuation war in 1941. The next generation of historians sank this so-called driftwood theory and today there are no controversies among historians about the historical facts of our wartime policy or even their interpretation. Nevertheless there are still sensitivities involved which surface from time to time.

During the Cold War Finns resorted to historical narratives which were useful for us living in the shadow of the Soviet-Union. One example is the way President Urho Kekkonen personified and overstressed the role of Lenin in recognizing the independence of Finland. The calculating Kekkonen knew exactly what he was doing but this understanding did not necessarily apply to all of his followers, who may have swallowed hook line and sinker the simplified view of Finnish independence as a gift from Lenin.

The 1918 Civil War in Finland left deep wounds in our society. These wounds were kept unhealed by the way the War was commemorated by the opposing sides. Neither did historians always contribute to the healing, often actually exacerbating the wounds. But new writers both in literature and in historiography have since the beginning of the sixties promoted understanding and reconciliation. Today it is possible to view the events of the Civil War without linking different interpretations and opinions in any meaningful way to issues concerning or dividing Finns today.

What happened in Finland in 1918 was not unique in the world, neither at the time nor today. Fortunately we have been able to gradually establish and strengthen a mind-set emphasizing a common responsibility to intervene to prevent and stop all Human Rights violations and war crimes. We have established an International Criminal Court which should in the last instance see to it that no-one responsible for such crimes has impunity because of the inability or unwillingness of the courts in any country to bring them to justice.

When we today follow news from Rwanda, Srebrenica, Chechnya, Syria or Darfur and as responsible members of the international community take a stand on these events and conflicts we cannot fail to see the similarities with what took place in Finland almost a hundred years ago. We now have to address our own history on the basis of the universal and binding humanitarian criteria we are committed to respecting today.

In Finland we do not have cause to seek out the guilty or to pass sentences, and no need either for artificial and belated apologies or amnesties. What we will always need is correct knowledge of what happened and making this knowledge known. And even more we need common understanding based on facts and understanding rooted in respect for our common human values. And above all we need to commit ourselves to do everything in our power to prevent a repetition of events like those in 1918 in Finland and to stop them with all means available to minimize human suffering.

Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has not undergone any sudden or violent regime changes during it’s almost one hundred years of independence. Neither have we had to recourse to any political censorship of history books or other literature, apart from briefly after the war in 1944. Even then it was not based on any legislation but rather a form of more or less voluntary self-censorship primarily directed against war-time propaganda material. But almost all the material pertaining to the pre-war and war periods survived in archives or library basements.

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 honor also fall. All regime changes will also entail a close scrutiny of the individual responsibility that supporters and officials of the previous regime had for any crimes committed.  This kind of lustration has been done in very different ways, from summary executions and show-trials to long-drawn-out 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 make their knowledge, experience and research results available 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 the judgments passed by history and historians should not have any direct links 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. Nobody would think of demanding that the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome be demolished because people were tortured and killed there in gladiator games.

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. Memorials to those have lost their lives in wars and conflicts should be and usually are respected irrespective of the nationality of the victims.

As a historian and in my work of as Minister for Foreign Affairs I have in both capacities been frustrated by the all too frequent misuse of history. It also lead me to ask, could we turn this the other way and ask what can historians do, not only to prevent the misuse of their work but also to actively engage in conflict prevention and resolution.

Discussing this with historians and diplomats engaged in mediation both in Finland and elsewhere gave us the impetus to found Historians without Borders in Finland as an NGO in June 2015. Our membership today includes most of the history professors in our universities and hundreds of others working in one way or another with historical issues and conflicts.

Our founding meeting was addressed by the Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who recalled the numerous occasions on which he as a mediator was faced with the difficulties that history kept making for mediation efforts.

Our purpose was to make the initiative truly global. We therefore arranged the international Conference on the Use and Abuse of History in Conflicts at the University of Helsinki in May last year. The Conference ended with the 300 participants agreeing on a declaration creating the network of Historians without Borders.

In this declaration the signatories to continue working together in order to

– deepen general and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of history;

– promote open and free access to historical material and archives;

– encourage interactive dialogue between different views and interpretations of history to

assist in the process of mutual understanding;

– support efforts to identify the abuse of history in fostering and sustaining conflicts,

– help defuse conflicts and contribute to conflict-resolution processes;

– promote the teaching of history in the spirit of this declaration;

– incorporate an understanding of the role of women and gender perspectives in efforts

to build peace and resolve conflicts;

Accordingly we invited all professional historians and others working with historical issues and international relations, who wish to build better mutual understanding of history and want to prevent the misuse of history to create and foster conflicts, to join our network.

In the numerous meeting with historians I and others have had in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa both before and after the conference the initiative has been greeted overwhelmingly positively. This of course puts pressure on us to able to live up to the expectations the Network has aroused. We will do our best to be able to deliver. While we are happy to have the human and other professional resources of the community of historians at our disposal, we also need the financial resources so as to be able to use them fully.

This work means i.a. bringing historians dealing with conflicts together, making their knowledge, experience and expertise available to international organisations and others engaged in mediation efforts and initiating research on issues that can contribute on the fulfillment of our aims.

One concrete example of our work is the process we initiated last January in Helsinki when we brought together a group of Ukrainian and Russian historians to discuss common issues of 20th century historiography in the two countries. Not surprisingly the participants had some very different views and interpretations on this, but they nevertheless agreed to continue the process with the next step being a larger meeting of Ukrainian, Russian and also German historians in Helsinki in September.

This is the kind of work we hope we can contribute to elsewhere as well, including the Western Balkans. And next February we will  bring together historians in South Africa to discuss the way the history of colonialism has been addressed mostly by historians from the former colonies and the former colonial powers separate from each other.

We are living in increasingly ahistorical times, by which I mean that peoples awareness and understanding of from where and how we have arrived at where we are today is diminishing rather than increasing. One consequence of this ignorance is that it also makes it more difficult to see into the future and shape it, fostering what is sometimes described as postmodern here-and-now short-termism.

An additional challenge is the proliferation of so-called “alternative facts” as part of the new wave of politics and journalism where facts, if at all acknowledged, are treated as opinions with no concern for establishing what actually has happened in history or respect for and commitment to the methods of scientific research.

To assert that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it may or may not be true, but ignorance will always increase the risk of being made an unconscious prisoner of history and prey to the machinations of politicians seeking to exploit history for their own ends.

As historians without borders we must  actively contribute to removing history as an instrument in fostering conflicts and hampering efforts at conflict resolution, and we must try and use it as a means for creating more common understanding and enhancing conflict prevention.


Erkki Tuomioja
Historian without borders in Finland

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