2015 was the centenary of the events in the Ottoman Empire that led to the death of 1.5 million Armenians. Historians from various backgrounds generally agree on the interpretation of those events, whereas present-day Turkey and Armenia continue to clash over whether this episode of their common history constitute a genocide or not. Although this disagreement is highly unlikely to lead to any kind of armed conflict between the two countries, it does prevent their rapprochement and the normalisation of their relations. Furthermore, since other countries have taken a stand on the issue (through parliamentary resolutions, government statements and even legislation), the problem has affected international relations more broadly. This is merely one example of how different views and interpretations of history continue to play a role in creating and fostering conflicts, and in hampering efforts for conflict resolution. Even when conflicts are resolved with peace agreements, controversial historical issues can reemerge to renew disagreement and compromise a settlement reached with great difficulty.
Peace processes often entail writing the history of the recent conflict in a way that meets the approval of all parties. We can well imagine how challenging it is to, for example, write a common history for Cyprus. Although some in our profession have willingly lent their names and work to instigating and amplifying conflicts, they are a small minority, and we are more likely to encounter cases where politicians and demagogues have misused the work of historians without their consent for questionable purposes. But what should be the proper role of politics and politicians vis-a-vis history? It might be easier to begin answering this question by laying down what it should not be.
Historical truths and interpretations of history should not be made into legislative issues. This is equally true concerning the many resolutions that various parliaments have passed on the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire, as it is concerning the legislation passed or pending on how to write history in countries like Poland, Russia or Ukraine. Politicians should provide historians with unlimited and open access to all historical archives, documents and other sources. Notwithstanding the proliferation of international agreements and regulations on various topics, there are no binding regulations on the access to archives and their use.
The concept of the Politics of History has its roots in Germany. The study of the Politics of History investigates history debates and everything that comes under the concept of vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means addressing one’s own history with an open mind and coming to terms with it. In this respect Germany provides the best model for dealing openly with the most challenging and awful periods of its own history. Few countries have achieved anything close to this frankness with their own history, whereas in some cases in which efforts were made they were rejected. A positive example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa.
While authoritarian regimes need to be critically examined, it is important to remember that not all countries regarded as liberal democracies pass 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, Vietnam, Kenya and elsewhere. Even in Germany, despite the praise it has earned for its vergangenheitsbewältigung, it took much longer for the country to recognise the atrocities committed in its South-West African colony. However, this has not lead to restrictions on revisionist and critical historiography of the kind affecting states actively engaged in history denial.
In my own country, Finland, History also has had a central role in constructing our national awareness and state institutions in the 19th century. When Finnish nationalism and Russian Pan-Slavism gained ground, they inevitably came into conflict regarding the history interpretation. Following independence in 1917, the Civil War in Finland left deep wounds in our society. Like all civil wars, it was brutal and caused 40,000 casualties, only a minority which were killed in battle, while most deaths resulted from summary executions and squalor in the prison camps where the losing Reds were confined. The wounds left by the War were kept unhealed by the way the events were commemorated by the opposed parties. Neither did historians always contribute to the healing, often actually exacerbating the situation. But when commemorating the Civil War last year, we finally found a dignified and constructive way to address this past. It was now possible to view the events of the Civil War as a tragic catastrophe, without linking different interpretations and opinions in any meaningful way to issues concerning and/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 shared responsibility, and to intervene to prevent human rights violations and war crimes. We established an International Criminal Court to ensure that nobody responsible for war crimes goes unpunished because of the inability or unwillingness of the courts in any country to bring them to justice.
Today, as we follow news from Rwanda, Srebrenica, Chechnya, Syria or Darfur, and take a stand on these events, as responsible members of the international community, we cannot fail to see the similarities with what took place in Finland a hundred years ago. Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has not undergone any sudden or violent regime changes during our one hundred years of independence. But when regimes change, this almost inevitably leads to purges and rewriting of history. When dictators and dictatorships fall, it is understandable and, to some extent also necessary, that the statues and monuments erected in their honour also fall. All regime changes entail a close scrutiny of the individual responsibility that supporters and officials of the previous regime had for the crimes committed. 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 summary executions; democratic changes have tried to do better. But many still ongoing processes and recurring crisis situations in East and Central Europe or Latin America well demonstrate 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 or 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 entail the erasing of history or the eradication of all the very concrete marks and monuments the previous regime has left. A cultured approach to historical monuments should leave an environment where traces of all history, the more unpalatable and unsavoury parts of it included, can be seen and, as times passes, can be regarded as historical relicts that need not unduly bother future generations, but that will serve as focal points in understanding the past. Nobody would demand the demolition of the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome because people were tortured and killed in gladiator games there. This respect and comprehension is even more needed when relics still arouse contradictory memories, feelings and passions among different groups of the population. Memorials to those who have lost their lives in wars and conflicts should be and usually are respected regardless of the nationality of the victims.
As a historian and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have in both capacities been frustrated by the frequent misuse of history. This has lead me to ask, what can historians do to prevent the misuse of their work and actively engage in conflict prevention and resolution? Discussions with historians and diplomats engaged in mediation convinced me to found the NGO “Historians without Borders” in Finland in June 2015. Our membership today includes most of the history professors in Finnish 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. We then arranged the International Conference on the Use and Abuse of History in Conflicts at the University of Helsinki in May 2016. The Conference ended with 300 participants agreeing on a declaration creating the network of Historians without Borders.
In this declaration, the signatories agreed to work 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.
We invite all professional historians, as well as all those working in this field and in that of international relations, who wish to improve the understanding of history and to prevent its misuse to create and foster conflicts, to join our network. The invitation is open to all members of EuroClio. Joining Historians without Borders is easily done by accessing our website, www.historianswithoutborders.fi, and sign the Declaration. More information on our activities is also available.
In the numerous meeting with historians we have had in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, both before and after the conference, our initiative has been greeted overwhelmingly positively. This of course puts pressure on us to able to live up to the expectations that our network has aroused. We will do our best to be able to deliver. While we are confident that we have the human and professional resources of the community of historians at our disposal, we also need the financial resources to be able to make the most of them. Our work aims at bringing together historians dealing with conflicts, making their knowledge, experience and expertise available to international organisations and other bodies engaged in mediation efforts, as well as at initiating research on issues that can contribute on the fulfilment of our aims.
One concrete example of our work is the process we initiated in January 2017, when we brought together a group of Ukrainian and Russian historians to discuss common issues of 20th century historiography in the two countries. Unsurprisingly, the participants had some very different views of this time period, but they nevertheless asked us to continue facilitating their dialogue. This we did in September 2017, when a larger group of Ukrainian and Russian historians, and also Finnish and German historians, met in Helsinki. Another initiative brought together Nordic and Belarusian historians at the University of Lund to discuss how to deal with difficult issues in Belarusian history, and the country’s relations with its neighbouring countries. Finally, in March 2019, we brought together historians from Europe and Africa to discuss the writing of the history of colonialism. This is the kind of work we hope we can bring export to, for example, the Western Balkans.
We have also been in contact with many international organisations under the UN umbrella, as well as with the OSCE, the Council of Europe and others to discuss how Historians without Borders could contribute to conflict resolution with experts, commission members and/or advisers. For example, we could provide a list of expert historians who are available to take on such work.
We live in increasingly ahistorical times, when people’s awareness and understanding of how we arrived where we are today is diminishing rather than increasing. This ignorance 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. The statement 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 becoming unconscious prisoners of history and prey to the machinations of politicians seeking to exploit this beautiful subject for their own ends. As historians, we must actively contribute to removing history from the instruments fostering conflicts and hampering efforts at conflict resolution, and we must try to use it as a means for promoting mutual understanding and conflict prevention.
Erkki Tuomioja, MP, PhD, is the Founder and Chairman of Historians without Borders (HWB), a Helsinki based organisation that aims to further public discussion about history and to promote the use of historical knowledge for peace-building and conflict-resolution. He is a member of the Finnish Parliament.