Historians and the Politics of Memory (part two)

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Historians and the Politics of Memory (part two)

After the meeting of historians of modern Poland held last Saturday in Warsaw (described here), the organizers issued a statement of principles, which I’m translating below. The original Polish can be found here.

For the most part it is a valuable document, but in my personal opinion it contains one line that raises concerns: “Historical policy, also known as memory policy, should build the national and civic community based on a plurality of worldviews and respect for diverse points of view.” I fear that this concedes far too much, because it accepts a national project as both inevitable and necessary. We now have more than three decades of scholarship analyzing and critiquing the concept of nation, pointing out the political and ideological agendas at its foundation, and (more recently) showing how profoundly it oversimplifies the complexity of identity. If it is true, as I argued in my last post, that the discipline of history is based on a search for the historicity of all of our political, social, and cultural institutions, then surely a critique of the concept of nation is included in that.

A historian can certainly use the past to convey certain values, and as scholars we carry our values into everything we do. For example, knowing that the ideal of racial equality has its own history, and teaching about the ebbs and flows of that ideal over time, I can both promote that ideal and explain it.  The same is not true about the nation, because accurately and honestly teaching about it would demonstrate that it is a recent historical construction without any consistent definition.  I suppose that one could proceed from that starting point to an argument about the ethical or moral utility of the nation as a form of political organization well suited for the modern world, but that hardly sounds like a solid basis for “building the national community.”  That phrase seems to me to inherently encompass the spinning of mythologies linking selective communities from the past together in order to form communities of identity in the present.  Describing how that process works in social and political life is the historian’s job, but performing that process strikes me as a violation of the mandate that we critically analyze every historical construct. Once you historicize the nation, how can you then turn around and participate in its construction?

Some values (for example, equality, liberty, tolerance) function independently of their historicity. They remain important values even when we recognize them as recent constructs. Other values are at some level embedded in a claim that they represent something transhistorical (for example, claims that nations, gender norms, or racial hierarchies are grounded and stable).  The latter must wither under the historians gaze. Once historians demonstrated that concepts of femininity and masculinity are fluid over time and place, rather than embedded in any consistent understanding of “human nature,” we could not then take as our project the construction and defense of any stable understanding of what a “proper woman” ought to be. Knowing what we do about the history of gender, we have no choice but to be the critics of any such attempts to fix that which is inherently mutable. The same goes for nations. The historian is not and cannot be a nation-builder, but rather a perennial deconstructor of nations.

Here is a translation of the official statement. (I’ve emphasized precision rather than eloquence, so some of the wording might seem a bit awkward in English).

We advocate the autonomy of historiography, the academic world, and cultural institutions, for their independence vis-à-vis the authorities without regard to political orientation.  We are opposed to the instrumentalization of history for purposes of current political objectives or anyone’s particularist interests. Historical policy, also known as memory policy, should build the national and civic community based on a plurality of worldviews and respect for diverse points of view. The foundation is a respect for historical facts, which come from the critical analysis of sources and an awareness of the complexity of our history.  The ethos of the scholar has no space for the selectivity of knowledge or its banalization, and even less for insinuation or invective. Divisions and disputes are the essence of a democratic public life, including in the realm of history, but they may not negate the principle of mutual respect, or lead to treating as enemies people with different views of the past or the shape of the national community.  We will not introduce the methods and attitudes that we know from the world of politics to the scholarly community.  We value dialogue and the search for understanding in the most important questions. 

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.