Empowering History: On the Role of Historians in Today’s Society
The present blog post is a personal one and engages my opinion as historian and as citizen. It is an attempt at dealing with the question of why history is important and why society needs history and historians. But does the adverb ‘why’ not imply the possibility that history could not be important? Could it imply any doubt? I posit that ‘doing’ history does not contradict a commitment to social causes. I believe that historians, in their own way, need to be socially engaged, even if this social engagement might take different forms.
Though history should not be politicized or used for partisan purposes, historical research bears a bigger purpose that outgrows the act of analyzing the past and turning this analysis into a narrative. Historians are not isolated from society. They need to respond to current issues by historicizing them, by calling out conspiracy theories and fake news, by adding a human dimension to debates. As a historian, I cannot remain neutral when it comes to what I perceive as hate, exclusion and violence in present times. Between my work as a historian and my attitude as a citizen to contemporary issues, there is a link, even if unconscious. I think that our perspectives as citizens and historians stand in a constant dialogue. If one is not interested in the situation of migrants and refugees or has absolutely no awareness about gender inequalities, this person will likely not consider these aspects in a historical study. My own sensitization to such debates was formed through the exchange and interaction with colleagues. Some years ago, I was not as sensitized to gender roles as I am now, for instance. This does not mean that I do not need more education on the subject. Shifting perspectives leads to new questions and brings previously ignored issues to the fore.
I might take my own research on the history of cultural policy in Luxembourg as an example. I need to constantly confront not only the lack of sources, but also the fact that sources are produced by certain people who have their own perspectives and their specific backgrounds. A critical source analysis reveals such biases, but it does not mean in the least that these sources become worthless. The problem I face is that most of my written sources are produced by the elite, by intellectuals, by state officials. Not by working class people, not by migrants. Women are by far underrepresented. Yet, this should not prevent me from at least highlighting certain issues and raise awareness. In the period I focus on, the 1920s until the early 1970s, public authorities did not take migrants and foreigners living in Luxembourg into consideration when they devised policies related to culture. Furthermore, cultural policy was implemented exclusively by men for a very long time.1This is also visible in the attitudes towards women. In January 1958, the Luxembourgish State Ministry sent a circular to ministerial departments pertaining to the “study of the problem concerning the admission of women to public service” (“L’étude du problème de l’admission de la femme aux fonctions publiques”). The State Ministry requested evaluations, for instance, on employments that did not “raise difficulties” for the admission of women, and those that “cannot be entrusted to women”. Source: Circular from the State Ministry to the ministerial departments, 25 January 1958. In the State Museums, the case study of my research, women were limited to lower administrative positions.
As a historian, I need to refrain from judging the past. I do not categorize between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, as much as I refuse to use the qualification of ‘hero’ for any individual in my research. Such labels are not helpful in grasping the complexities and the nuances. Yet, this is no excuse for a falsely understood neutrality or objectivity towards what happens in the present. This is where my role as citizen comes in. I might refer to how it was in the past and call to attention that we should not revert to a former situation out of touch with what we know today, or go against anything that stands for equality, respect, and human rights. In some cases, drawing (limited) comparisons between the present and the past, as in the case of SARS-CoV-2 and the Spanish Flu in 1918, might reveal interesting similarities about human nature. To give another example, knowledge about the Holocaust, about past mass killings and ethnical cleansings, can be used by citizens to condemn any persecution happening in present times, any practices that would open the road to mass killings again. In my opinion, this is a question of empathy, humanity, and humility.
I see history as a discipline that can and should enable and promote empathy. In fact, I came to see history this way only during my PhD, through some colleagues and my acquaintance with public history. Oral history, collaboration with communities, or collection of life stories are extremely valuable approaches that enable empathy between historians and the people they are working with, between witnesses and ‘outsiders’ who read or listen to their stories. As human beings, we tend to be more touched by personal histories. The promotion of empathy, though, is not simply limited to public history. Even a history book with no apparent links to public history can achieve this, if it is only to provide an opportunity of reflection and encounter with the narrated past, a reflection on identity or on the nation. I think Jill Lepore’s These Truths (2018) and the much shorter and more outspoken This America (2019) are fitting examples in this context.
In history, it is important to grasp the complexity of human behaviour. As my research includes the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg (1940-1944), I inevitably deal with questions concerning the way I analyze the behaviour of actors in cultural policy and cultural institutions at that time. I have been asking myself how I would have reacted then. The simple answer is that I do not know. The most probable stance would have been somewhere between the extremes. I think the same applies to most biographies in my work. Post-war narratives about museum professionals doing their patriotic duty or defying the German administration are too simplistic. These narratives might express wishful thinking; a tendency to neatly categorize our past as Carl Linnaeus did with nature. They do not reflect reality, though, and fail when tested against power relations. Yet, this has not hindered such narratives to be disseminated even decades after the end of the war. Human behavior is more complex than Manichean depictions of good versus evil suggest.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. Empathy is needed to understand, even remotely, power relations in history. Empathy is needed to question our intellectual horizon and to move beyond the comfort zone. Many years ago, I was not or only to a limited extent aware of the constructed nature of a Western European perspective on non-European cultures. The views I grew up with happened to be the normality. It is through my research that I have become more aware of such issues. Of course, I do not claim being free of any prejudice. Empathy, however, allows me to fight my own prejudice. It is not always easy, as I might not know everything about a given context or situation.
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” the Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy once said. The purpose of historians is not to take power structures for granted. The purpose of historians is, whenever possible, to become enablers and promoters of a multi-perspectivity and to critically reflect on existing perspectives. Narratives have been the fruit of power (Michel-Rolph Trouillot) and deliberately silenced people and communities. And isn’t this also happening in politics today; when facts are left out, lies are told, and the past is distorted? History bears an important responsibility in this respect. History elicits a critical mind and tears down mental walls. Yet, this is not very high on the agenda of certain regimes, who show no interest in inclusion, dialogue and critical research.
In 2018, a saddening event in Brazil painfully illustrated the fragility of human heritage. It was a synecdoche of what has been happening time and time again on every continent. Early September, only some days after I returned from Brazil to Europe, the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was ablaze. The flames consumed a great deal of its collections.2https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/03/fire-engulfs-brazil-nation… (Last access: 23 April 2020). Documents and objects related to Brazil’s past and to its people, including indigenous communities and their languages, were lost. While the institution had been facing difficulties for some time, public authorities sealed its fate by systematically cutting down budget for education, culture and research. Cultural heritage is so vital to identities and to the study of the past, yet many governments do not consider it with the attention and care it deserves.
Empathy creates interest in other cultures. Empathy stops hate from spreading. Empathy can help build and preserve identities. Unfortunately, I cannot say that empathy always prevails. The Brazilian example is a suitable illustration of the danger to the ability of confrontation and the promotion of empathy. Indeed, cultural heritage is important in the empathic process. Without cultural institutions, without conservation of cultural heritage, there is no possibility of doing critical research. Without research, there is no creation of knowledge. Without knowledge, there is no chance to raise awareness. Instead, ignorance fuels prejudice. Prejudice fuels hate. And hate fuels exclusion. Governments, individuals, organisms spread fake news and disseminate revisionist narratives without serious opposition. This happens on every continent. Even the EU does not address the past in a critical fashion, as a resolution of the European Parliament in September 2019 has shown.3See for instance the French podcast by Paroles d’Histoire. In October 2019, I published a short article on the resolution (in French) and talked about the topic on Radio 100komma7 (in Luxembourgish). This is a case where history is used for political partisanship. It serves political goals and not sensitization of citizens or critical reflection. Hurdles to critical research can exist in democracies as well as in autocracies.
I believe that historians can contribute to strengthening empathy in our societies. We can contribute to understand and (re-)humanize refugees, migrants and other minorities. This does not necessarily need an academic thesis. Raising critical questions and the change of perspective are necessary. In this sense, the act of doing history is an act of civic engagement. When cultural heritage is destroyed, when historical facts are ignored or twisted, when fake news are spread, historians need to step up and oppose such practices. This might also mean criticizing a government, which is easier said than done depending on the type of regime. An engaged history constitutes a fight for human rights, against prejudice and discrimination. It plays a crucial role in debates about decolonization of museums, in strengthening identities while promoting dialogue. An engaged history contributes to the empowerment of people and communities in various ways. History undoubtedly has its place in society. It is not only an endeavor towards better understanding, as Marc Bloch wrote, but it is also an endeavor towards empowerment.