Historians and the Politics of Memory

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Historians and the Politics of Memory


Today in Warsaw, a few hundred historians from all over Poland met in one of Warsaw University’s most distinguished rooms, the aptly named “Sala Kolumnowa” (see the picture above). It was an unprecedented gathering—perhaps the largest assembly ever of specialists in modern (mostly 20th century) Polish history. But this was not a scholarly conference in the traditional sense: it was an emergency meeting, organized to address the growing crisis surrounding the Polish government’s “polityka historyczna.”

That term can be alternatively translated as “historical politics” or “historical policy,” and both senses are appropriate. Since coming to power last year, the PiS government has:

  • replaced the leadership of the yet-to-be-opened Museum of the Second World War, on the grounds that the planned exhibit would present the war from a comparative, international perspective, thus diminishing the distinctive heroism of the Polish nation;
  • purged the administration of the Institute for National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, or IPN), which manages the archives of the communist-era political police, investigates “crimes against the Polish nation,” and carries out public history efforts dealing with WWII and the communist era;
  • replaced the editorial directors of the journal Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość, a scholarly periodical associated with the IPN;
  • launched plans to rewrite the history curriculum for primary and secondary schools, with the goal of promoting national identity, patriotism, pride, and unity;
  • announced a law (now in its final stages in the sejm) that would make it a crime subject to up to three years in jail to “ascribe to the Polish nation or the Polish state responsibility (or co-responsibility) for Nazi crimes carried out by the Third Reich, or other crimes against peace or humanity, as well as war crimes.”

A group of historians planned a meeting for early November to prepare a joint protest on behalf of the profession, but this gathering was delayed when a number of scholars complained that such a move would be inappropriate, given that the profession was in fact divided on this matter. After a series of unpleasant e-mail exchanges, it was agreed to hold a debate on the more general question of “polityka historyczna,” including both those who oppose the current government and those who support it. That event was held today.

Based on my very impressionistic assessment of the patterns of applause, and on the balance of opinions expressed by those who spoke out at the meeting (over 30 people took the floor), it seems that those who oppose recent government interventions outnumber those who support them by a significant margin. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that a large minority of those present sympathized with the broad goals of the regime, if not necessarily with each of the aforementioned actions.

The texts presented today will be posted soon at http://pth.net.pl/artykuly-i-polemiki/forum-badaczy-dziejow-najnowszych. The organizers are also working on a resolution that might smooth over all the differences of opinion, or perhaps a protest letter that individual scholars can decide to sign or not sign. At the end of the meeting, it was still not entirely clear how this would play out. A consensus statement would refer very generally to the value of academic freedom and independence, and the need for a plurality of opinions and perspectives.

Very generally, those who support the current government argued that democratically elected authorities have a right and a responsibility to monitor how public funds are spent, and to use those funds to pursue the policies and values endorsed by the electorate. They made a distinction between freedom of research (which they too claimed to value) and the public history efforts of museums, monuments, primary and secondary education, and other activities of commemoration and memory. Precisely because those things were public and (to a greater or lesser extent) publicly financed, then they should be shaped by the policies of the state. Perhaps most importantly, they argued that every government has a “polityka historyczna” whether they admit it or not. The only different now, they insisted, was that the government was restoring a historical vision that prioritized national solidarity and unity, that promoted pride and collective dignity, and that focused attention on the crimes of the past so that the individuals, movements, and worldviews that buttressed the Polish People’s Republic (as well as the III Republic from 1989-2015, some would add) could be exposed and delegitimized. As I overheard one person say away from the microphone, it will finally be possible to use history to “differentiate between the heroes and villains,” and establish “moral clarity” about the past.

The historians who opposed all this articulated various degrees of anger, frustration, and fear. They mentioned the principles of academic freedom, the need for diverse perspectives, the professional norms of respect for those with differing views, and above all, the foundational value of nuance, complexity, and empathy in all historical research and writing. Several speakers evoked the memory of the Polish People’s Republic (a personal memory for many of them), saying that the moves of the current government are disturbingly similar to what happened then. Recognizing that during the communist era a gathering such as today’s would have been impossible—making any precise analogy hyperbolic—they argued that using state power to enforce one and only one perspective on the past was authoritarian and antidemocratic. Several speakers described the historical vision of the regime as “infantilized,” too simplistic, too ideological, and based on mythologies and half-truths.

Every reader of this blog knows that I am harshly critical of this Law and Justice (PiS) government. I am outraged by precisely the issues discussed in today’s meeting, and I’ve written about that on this blog, on multiple occasions. The propagandistic use of history to promote nationalism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and authoritarianism is worthy of contempt and should be opposed in every way possible.

And yet….what is the moral foundation for my opposition? One speaker who supports PiS leveled the charge of hypocrisy against those who today are calling for tolerance and diversity of viewpoints, because prior to 2015 these very same people were trying to marginalize and ostracize those who challenged the scholarly consensus about, for example, Polish-Jewish relations or the value of the peaceful transition of power in 1989. He’s right: those who refuse to accept that Poles murdered Jews during WWII (at Jedwabne, for instance), and those who believe that Lech Wałęsa was a communist agent who participated in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the nation in 1989—those who make such arguments are widely considered unprofessional (to put it mildly), and not worthy of the label of “historian.” In my opinion, justly so.

It follows that I don’t really value a “diversity of viewpoints” in an absolute sense. I accept that Holocaust deniers, racists and antisemites, apologists for slavery, purveyors of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, etc. deserve to be ostracized. The American Historical Association has a code of ethics, and while some of its language is less precise than I might like, I would definitely agree that anyone who violates that code has stepped outside of our scholarly community and should be treated as such. Consider this section of the AHA’s code:

Historians understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience.… Furthermore, the different peoples whose past lives we seek to understand held views of their lives that were often very different from each other—and from our own….Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.

Amen. But notice that this argument precludes anyone who would argue, for example, that the point of history is to cultivate social cohesion, or that history should be used to demonstrate the way God’s will works through His creation, or that the past demonstrates the continuity and centrality of the nation as the primary agent of history, or any number of other viewpoints that are quite common among those who would support today’s Polish government.

In other words, the AHA’s code of ethics, and the values that most of the participants of today’s Warsaw meeting hold dear, have their own ideological foundation. It is one that takes diversity to be both inevitable and good, that values tolerance and pluralism, and (perhaps most important) considers humanity to be irreducibly mutable and contextualized. Within those values, there is a lot of space for diverse political views, but not for all political views. A vanishingly small number of historians in the US supported Donald Trump in the last election, and it is undeniable that we are “biased” against the views he articulated during his campaign.

My point is not to endorse the idea that there is an equivalence between the way right-wing historians have been treated, and the way liberal and leftist historians are being treated by the current Polish government. Professional criticism, even general ostracism, are not the same as systematic institutional purges. But let’s face it; when PiS eventually falls from power there will be a reckoning: the leadership of the WWII museum and similar institutions will be replaced, the IPN will be either deeply reformed or even (as more and more people are arguing) liquidated altogether, and editorial boards of leading journals will be changed. This will happen, because those currently installed in all those positions do not respect the values discussed above, and thus they have violated key principles of our profession.

But let’s own the fact that this is based on a set of specific values, and that those values are not ideologically or politically neutral. Let’s embrace the idea that our profession is necessarily committed to the idea that all human phenomena change over time (including foundational things like gender relations, family norms, definitions of race and ethnicity, economic relations, etc.). If you believe that, certain conservative principles are indeed foreclosed, in the same way that the discipline of biology forecloses a belief in creationism, or the discipline of climate science forecloses the denial of global warming, or the discipline of anthropology forecloses a belief in fixed racial hierarchies.

There’s a lot of room for ideological diversity among historians. But not endless diversity. The limits of that diversity are grounded in what I hope are shared values, not just a content-free acceptance that people can use historical arguments in whatever way they wish.  These shared values insist that there really is such a thing as historical falsehood, even if there is not (cannot be) one single and unalterable historical truth.  The belief in never-ending and all-encompassing historical change, and in the irreducibility of historical experience to singular narratives, is fundamental to our discipline.

And those beliefs have ideological and political consequences.  As scholars and citizens, we must be ready to defend those consequences, because today they are very seriously threatened. That’s our polityka historyczna.



About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.

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