Janne Lahti

Societies are built on pre-existing foundations – understanding history helps us better interpret the context and subtext behind today’s events.

Finnish Academy research fellow and docent of history at the University of Helsinki, Janne Lahti, specialises in the history of the American West, colonialism and global history. His research focuses specifically on settler colonialism in the American West and its comparisons with the German Southwest Africa.

“To understand the present we need to understand our history”, says Janne and explains: “Society is built on pre-existing foundations – understanding history helps us better interpret the context and subtext behind today’s events”. As a researcher of colonialism, Janne studies for example the development and identity of the United States and Europe from a global perspective: “Even though the age of colonialism is officially seen to have come to its end, its legacy still lives strong in the world today. The USA, for example, does not see itself as an empire with a colonial past in the sense that European countries do. This self-perception has a bigger effect on the American identity than we realise.”

According to Janne, these thought-patterns derived from history can cause conflicts and disputes still today: “The stories of the Native Americans and settler colonialism cannot be reconciled with the current American understanding of their own history which causes conflict in our time”. Janne emphasises that Finnish history also should be examined from a global perspective: “One interpretation isn’t necessarily more accurate than the other and old interpretations form the foundations for new ones. However, it would be important to steer away from traditional ways of studying national histories in isolation and move towards more transnational and global understandings of the past and present. We don’t want to exclude the interactions between peoples and nations from our examination of history.”

HWB as an actor between the academic world and the wider society offers a possibility to create dialogue and have deeper conversations, says Janne. Most history organisations are either strictly academic or concentrate on very specific issues and therefore are oriented more towards deepening our understanding on issues and not towards creating debate and dialogue. In Janne’s mind HWB is an excellent way for historians to develop their role as public intellectuals.

Janne’s interest in HWB’s activities started with the publication of the Whose History Report in the fall of 2018. He is active in our working group on colonialism whose mission he sees as bringing difficult issues in to the public conversation: “When I worked as a history teacher I always wondered why, for example, the history of the Sami people is practically overlooked in the teaching materials. This is directly projected on the public discussion and therefore it is important to work tirelessly to strengthen marginal and silenced voices”.

Janne has been a member of HWB Finland’s board since 2019.

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