Everyone, the general public as well as politicians, would benefit from a better knowledge of history, and I say this not only as a historian who shares the profession’s vested interest in getting more attention and money from the powers-that-be. I say it particularly as a politician who has become increasingly concerned about both the ignorance and abuse of history in politics.
It may or not be true that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. What is more likely to be true is, that the less you know about your history, the more difficult it will be to see the into the future either and be able to influence it.
To say that we have entered into a new post-modern world dominated by the short-term and where the new generation will more and become part of what some people call the precariat with nothing solid or enduring to rely and build ones future on is exaggerated, at least regarding the novelty of the phenomenon – after all it was already in 1848 that Marx and Engels wrote how ”all that is solid melts into thin air, all that is holy is profaned”. Nevertheless I think a lot of the concern about short-termism and the ”end of history” (although not necessarily in Fukyama’s meaning) is valid.
Knowing your history is not the same as becoming a prisoner to it. On the contrary, it is much easier for those who know their history to avoid becoming its prisoner, through the manipulative and nefarious efforts of those who will seek to misuse it for political ends. After all also myths about history thrive on ignorance.
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Finland is also a country where history has played an important role in nation-building. Faced with the threat of Pan-Slavic nationalism and efforts to russify Finland and curtail its autonomy in the late 19th century Finnish historians were recruited to prove how the Emperor Alexander I had ”elevated Finland into the ranks of nations” at the estates meeting in Porvoo 1809 and pledged to respect the constitutional rights and autonomy of Finland. The later controversy over the exact nature of the estates meeting and the pledge made by the Emperor is centered around the issue whether or not Finland was recognized as a state already in 1809, or if it was only started on a path which gradually led later during the century to Finland acquiring the features and institutions of a separate state. Even J.V. Snellman was reprimanded by Finnish nationalists when he unguardedly wrote in article in 1861 that Finland had not yet been a state in 1809 but had later developed into one, as this undercut the basic historical and judicial arguments of the Finns. He did not repeat the mistake.
Finnish mainstream historians held on to their views and interpretations which became part of the nationally adopted established truth. Only much later as the 21st century approached has it become possible for historians in Finland to become more relaxed about the issues and admit, that, maybe, the Russians too had a point when they questioned some of the historical and legal premises on which the Finns had based the defence of their autonomy.
Historians were very much in demand during the inter-war period and the war years to lend their reputations as researches in the nationalist cause and for the irredentist dreams of a Greater Finland. After the war the same historians were employed in promoting the thesis of the Finland’s separate war with the Soviet-Union and portraying Finland as a piece of floating driftwood with no control over events or real choices concerning its action during the war. But a younger generations of historians already during the Cold War effectively sank this so-called ”driftwood” theory. Nevertheless the subject remains sensitive, as witnessed by some of the Finnish reactions to Henrik Arnstad’s recent biography of the Swedish wartime Foreign Minister Christian Günther, where Finland is portrayed as a rather willing and active ally of Nazi Germany.
With the Cold War and the Soviet shadow over Finland also new politically convenient historical narratives were taken into use, such as over-emphasizing the role and personal commitment of Lenin in recognizing Finland’s independence, which in more extreme interpretations made our independence look like a gift from Lenin. When president Kekkonen promoted this interpretation it was also a calculated pre-emption of possible future Soviet tendencies to call this independence into question.
With the end of the Cold War arose also a new more revisionist historiography which , helped also by improved access to documents in former Soviet archives, begun to evaluate more critically the role of Kekkonen, the concept of finlandization and that of ”rähmälläänolo”, i.e. the craven , opportunistic and subservient submission to Soviet interests. This is, on the whole to be firmly welcomed, even if one does not necessarily have to share the views of some of the more peremptory writers.
Finland has not undergone any abrupt regime changes during our independence, and while the periodization of our history into the first (1917-1944), second (1944-1989) and third republics (1989-) is a striking way of describing changes in the relative position of societal actors in Finland, it is also misleading as these shifts have not entailed any constitutional or revolutionary changes. Except for a period immediately after the end of the Continuation War in 1944 history or other books have not been censored and even then it was not based on actual new legislation, but on voluntary form of self-censorship which was mostly directed at wartime propaganda material. But almost all the material survived in archives and the basements of libraries, the only really significant archieval loss being the transfer of the Army’s intelligence material in September 1944 to Sweden and onwards to other destinations, in which process some high-ranking officers also ensured their pecuniary status. This material has not been returned to Finland.
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While Finland has not needed anything like the history debates in Germany, we too could learn from the way that Germany has endevoured to address the question of its awful 20th Century history. Finnish is one of the few languages into which the challenging concept of verganheitsbewältigung can be translated easily with the word menneisyydenhallinta. If Germany is the good example there are unfortunately plenty of other countries, which have not made any serious efforts to come to grips with their dubious past.
Obvious examples of this failure are Japan and Serbia, where Vuk Draskovic my former colleague as foreign minister used to say perhaps as an excuse that ”we produce more history in the Balkans then we can consume”. Perhaps the United States too should be mentioned, but certainly the United Kingdom , France and other former colonial powers have dark corners which should be more openly examined and addressed, as the examples of their colonial wars in Kenya and Algeria indicate. Fortunately revisionist and critical historians in these countries will no longer meet the same kind of obstacles (up to including physical threats) which such historians may meet in Russia, perhaps the saddest and potentially the most worrying case of history-denial today.
When regimes change, this almost inevitably leads to some purges and rewriting of history. When dictators and dictatorships fall, it is quite understandable and maybe necessary that the statues and monuments erected to honour them also fall. All regime changes will also entail a close scrutiny of the individual responsibility that supporters and official of the previous regime had for any crimes committed This has been done in very different ways, from summary executions and show-trials to long-drawnout 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 offer their experience and research results 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 only provided this judgement has no direct or indirect connection to or dependence on formal judicial processes.
A regime change, whatever the viciousness of the former regime, should not and cannot entail erasing history, nor 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. 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. The recent dramatics over the monument for the Russian soldiers in Tallinn is a very pertinent example.
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What then should the role of politics and politicians be vis-a-vis history? It may be better to begin by laying down what it should NOT be, i.e. legislating about historical truths or untruths. While he motives and other activities of Holocaust-deniers are rarely free of anti-semitism and are most often intimately connected to racista and fascist ideology and politics, we should still resist proposals to make holocaust denial a criminal offence as has been done in some countries. Other laws criminalizing anti-semitist and racist defamation are enough, without making historiography the subject of legally-defined truths. And as much as I deplore the failure of modern Turkey to recognize the atrocities committed against Armenians in 1916 in the Ottoman empire, it is a subject that parliaments and governments should refrain from issuing declarations, not to mention from passing legislation on yet another Holocaust-denial.
While individual politicians can, and indeed should have a good knowledge of history and an ability to speak out on issues of history, they should not do so through legislative acts. What they should do is to see that historical resarch in general is adequately funded. They can also identify areas of research were more work is needed and also establish special projects, such as the current project in Finland to study and examine all war-related deaths in Finland during the period 1914-1922,.
What politicians and legislators also should do is to ensure that historians have full and open access to all relevant archives and documents. So far no universal international rules or agreements exists concerning freedom of information in general or access to archives in particular. International agreements are mostly concerned with data security and privacy protection as well as collection and publication of statistical information for international regulatory and comparative purposes. I will not be the first to call on the European Union to adopt directives on access to archives, much less harmonise rules on this. If that were to happen I doubt it would start out with the aim of achieving greater transparency and public access. International cooperation and agreements can, however, be used to facilitate exchange of and more open access to historical information.
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Finally a short reminder of the important and difficult issue of reconciling privacy protection and the public’s right to know. Striking the right balance is not always an easy task, as many recent examples of how material from the archives of the Intelligence and Security Services in East and Central European countries of the former Soviet bloc have been both used and misused.