1837) When State Interferes in History

“Task of memory”, “Obligation of memory”…

The past is increasingly called up and reassessed. An esteem which should not meddle in the history, scientific research, memory and its political usage.

Dealing with history is too much in favor. The esteem of the people and the urge of the politicians are undeniable. The federal and regional Ministers, MPs and senators enhance their initiatives having historical implications, calling on “to make memory exercise”. – Let’s give some examples - The investigation initiated by the Senate to reveal the responsibility of the Belgian authorities in the persecution of the Jewish, the parliamentary commissions to determine the responsibility of the Belgian authorities in the murder of Patrice Lumamba and the reasons of the disappearance of Sabena, the parliamentary debates in regard to the Armenian genocide and the punishment of its negation, the plan of the Flemish government to found a “museum, center of archive and research about the violations of human rights” in Malines, the financing of a future museum of Europe in Brussels by Belgium or the program of “Schools for the democracy” which organized the voyage of the hundreds of Belgian students to Auschwitz by military airplanes at the end of this month illustrate this situation. The Belgian historians would be so happy, wouldn’t they?

We, the historians, do not reject any support in these initiatives. Being the ones who take part in the projects on the request of the political world, we are many in number and we assume entirely the responsibilities stemming from our status of researcher and educator paid by the public funds. This esteem, however, sometimes renders us skeptical and sometimes concerns us; because, beyond the media effects that are targeted visibly, it does not bring a new inspiration to the historical research and it tends to establish an obligation of memory in particular.

What should be the role of the public authorities in “the transmission of the historical memory”? First of all, the commemorative acts, which organize the memories with a political aim, are entirely legitimate acts of a State, region or commune. However, they should not be confused with the historical research, which is a discipline of criticism and independent of the political usages of the memories. Although there is a relation between the memory and history, these two demarches depend on the different requirements. The memory does not give accession to the knowledge; it mobilizes the past in a political and civic project in the present. As for the history, it claims a status of scientism. The history cannot serve to the politics and it is not an emotion. It does not accept any dogma and it can be embarrassing. Though the history takes the memory into account, it cannot be reduced to the memory. We would like to see that the duty of the history and knowledge are more referred than that of the memory. The recent initiatives aiming to diversify the historical experiences commemorated in this country in order to draw a parallel between our policies of memory and the diversity in the Belgian society worth praising. We should, however, keep to ourselves such a magical belief that a journey to Auschwitz would turn the students into the tolerant and antiracist citizens. This useful and praiseworthy demarche is valuable if only it is based firmly on a historical knowledge going beyond the emotion stemming from the shock of the fears. No, the history is not a new catechism of the multi-culture, which is able to defeat the extreme right and xenophobia, to promote the democracy, the idea of Europe or the global solidarity. A memory, which is exclusively “negative” and consisted of a series of great tragedies of the History, makes little contribution to the development of the critical thinking and it can even cultivate a feeling of a moral self-satisfaction with a redeemed present facing a past of fear and violence.

Is it the business of the Parliament and the government to elaborate a nomenclature of the catastrophes in an inventory ever more exhaustive? As it is written recently by the historian Henry Rousso in a criminal history of the humanity, more and more “the State is simultaneously the source of crime and redemption”. Is it necessary to multiply the acts of repentance and apology in order to explain the attitude of the administration under the occupation, the Inquisition, the trade of the Blacks, the attitude of the German troops in August 1914, the Moscow cases, the extermination of the Indian-Americans and even the exploitation of the children by the dawning capitalism or the massacres of the Roman troops in Gaul?

The historians are the last circle to make complaint, when the State displays openness, self-criticism and transparency in the investigations initiated to shed light on a troubled past. Such investigations contribute to the achievement of the best knowledge about these dramatic events and to identify in a contestable way the politic responsibilities beyond the polemics and suspicion. That the historians are called as expert, when necessary, is welcomed, provided that this fact does not generate a new official history and that the archives are accessible by the entire world of science. Nevertheless, the demarche, which opens the archives only to selected researchers and then closes them immediately to others, is really problematic for a discipline whose scientific aspect stems from the contrastive control of the sources, the criticism and debate on the interpretations. When making researches upon order is generalized, this will be dangerous for the thematic balances as well; because the entire research, which does not correspond to the political priorities, risk to be neglected. The historians being victims of the fashionable phenomena may well lose one of the principal freedoms they have: the freedom of asking their own questions to the past. We shouldn’t, however, forget that there is no need for the parliamentary commissions in order to clarify the hot questions of the recent political history of Belgium, as testified by the works about Leopold III and the assassination of Julien Lahaut.

In conclusion, we demand the political authorities to perform their missions in order to allow the historians to make their business. How can we understand the hast of the political world to undertake numerous historical initiatives having great symbolic value, while the law on the archives, which has not been amended since 1955, is terribly anachronistic compared with our European partners? It would be more urgent that the political authorities make the access to the archives available to all the researchers, by giving the necessary means to the institutions tasked with identifying and classifying the archives and making their inventories. The accession provided in the framework of the investigatory commissions should be a rule, not an exception. If the history is so important, why don’t we make our legislation compatible with that of a modern democracy, shorten the consultation time limits from 100 years to 30 or even 20, and care to conserve our archival inheritance?

Similarly, it would be necessary to reconsider the law on the protection of private life. The law in question is very beneficial regarding the documents and files of the living individuals; but it bothers the historians considerably. It would paralyze them totally if it was implemented everywhere and anytime. To start to safeguard our all global, national, regional or local memories, we don’t wait for the great declarations, the new legislative initiatives to decode the history or ambitious educative programs; but we want well an efficient policy for transparency, the access to the archives and the respect for the autonomy and freedom of the researchers. No confusion about the priorities: these are just the fields where politicians have to assume their responsibilities.


José GOTOVICH, Professor, UBL
Jean-Pierre NANDRIN, Professor, UBL and ULB
Pieter LAGROU, Lecturer, UBL
Kenneth BERTRAMS, Researcher, FNRS/ULB



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