History for Americans or American History? The role and responsibility of Historians

American Values: Public Virtues, Private Vices? The 24 th biannual NAAS Conference on American Studies, Oulu 11.5. 2015

In today’s world we should be increasingly concerned about both the ignorance and abuse of history in politics and how this impacts on international relations.

To claim that we have entered a new post-modern world dominated by the short-term where future generations will have 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 concerns about short-termism and the ”end of history” (although not necessarily in Fukuyama’s meaning) is valid.

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.

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.

Ignorance also fosters abuse and abuse fosters conflicts. Historical myths are used to create and sustain enemy images and justify aggressive policies.

This year is the centennial year of the events leading to the death of up to a million and half Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. That these events took place is not disputed, but the question of whether or not to call it genocide has become a source of conflict and soured relations between Turkey and many countries, where politicians and parliaments have raised their profiles by issuing statements and passing resolutions on the issue.

Efforts to alleviate the contradictions by getting historians from all parties to come together to discuss and reach consensus on how to treat and interpret the facts have not been successful. Indeed, many historians have become willy-nilly parties to the conflict of words.

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.

What then should the role of politics and politicians be vis-a-vis history? It is easier to say what it should NOT be, i.e. legislating about historical truths or untruths. While the motives and other activities of Holocaust-deniers are rarely free of anti-Semitism and are most often intimately connected to racist and fascist ideology and politics, we should nevertheless 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.  This applies equally to resolutions on what to call the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, let alone on passing legislation on yet another Holocaust-denial.

While individual politicians 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 research 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 project in Finland to  study and examine all war-related deaths in Finland during the period 1914-1922, which has been a controversial subject for decades afterwards.

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 exist concerning freedom of information in general or access to archives in particular. International agreements are mostly concerned with data security and privacy protection – without much success there either –  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.

As a positive agenda politicians and governments should welcome and support independent and international research and contacts between historians from all countries to encourage them to work together on defusing conflicts on the facts and interpretation of historical events and building cross-border understanding of all parties perceptions and interpretations of such events.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy example of a nation addressing its history is Germany. We should all learn from the way that Germany has endeavoured 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.

There are numerous and obvious examples of this failure, starting with Japan and Serbia ending up with Russia, perhaps the most challenging case today, a country where independent and critical historians can meet many obstacles, up to including physical threats.

But not all of the countries we like to think of as liberal democracies pass rigorous examination. This can be undoubtedly said of the United Kingdom , France and other former colonial powers that have dark corners which should be illuminated and more openly examined and addressed, as the examples of their colonial wars in Kenya and Algeria indicate.

And how does the United States fare in this regard? In countries such as the US with no formal censorship or state-sponsored efforts to control the free dissemination of information – as distinct from monitoring of and eavesdropping on private information – we have to recognize that there is no single body of historians with like-minded views. Thus we can find someone calling himself a historian representing almost any possible view on any aspect of American or world history, from David Lesile Hoggan to Noam Chomsky.

Of course singling out American historiography as particularly problematic, is unfair. It is by no means the worst offender, if at all. Thus my title could equally well be applied to all countries and nationalities. Are Finnish historians writing history for Finns or Finnish history? If there is a difference between American, Finnish or any one else’s way of writing history it maybe that smaller nations have less possibilities to view their own history in isolation and may have learned through hard lessons to better understand or at least take note of other nations’ and neigbours’ views on history. This said without implying any moral superiority to smaller nations policies just because they are small.

Exceptionalism may also come easier to larger countries. Certainly there is no school in Finland openly marketing Finnish exceptionalism or a Finnische Sonderweg, whereas American Exceptionalism has been frequently and consistently evoked for almost a hundred years, at least.

Perhaps the most often quoted description of American historical exceptionalism is from the Scottish political scientist Richard Rose who, in noting that most American historians endorse exceptionalism, suggested that these historians reason as follows:

“America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.”

How did the theory of American exceptionalism arise? Alexis de Toqueville is most frequently invoked as the originator. Politically it is most frequently  invoked by the Republican right-wing today, who are probably ignorant of the embarrising fact that it was also used in internal US Communist Party debates, to which Joseph Stalin is said to have reacted by condemning this “American exceptionalism” of some US comrades.

The problems with exceptionalism arise when different cultures, attitudes and practices which are unique to almost all countries and their histories, are endowed with virtues with the explicit aim of proving the superiority, moral or otherwise, of the exceptional country compared to others.

We are today living in a world characterized by increasing interdependence, in things both good and bad. In this no country is an exception, as it applies equally to Superpowers with nuclear weapons or Small Island states. Whether we like this or not. no-one can escape this interdependence. And as is my wont I will also remind all of us that world population growth, which has meant that there are more than three times more people in today’s world than there were at the end World War II, is the most important reason for this.

Exceptionalism, which historically seems to be closely linked with a penchant for Power Politics, may have served a purpose earlier, but it can be argued that it has outlived its usefulness and can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes leading to costs and losses in todays interdependent world.

Historians need to recognize, describe and analyze the different features of their own history as well as that of other countries. The history of any and every nations has always been by the interaction of countries and cultues. Therefore it is obviously at least as important to study and understand what is common to all history and human endeavour with the aim of overcoming the rivalries and conflicts which we can ill afford in today’s interdependent world wher we have, at best, only a few decades time in which to adjust all of mankind’s activites and habits to meet the requirements of ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development. Exceptionalism of any kind will not enhance our possibilities of achieving this.