Encounters with History – Institut Français, 9th November 2015

Many key debates in the United Kingdom centre on the role of historians in society. In assessment exercises, we are encouraged to break beyond the boundaries of academia. In the media, research is repackaged and offered to the general public. There is can be an intervention in popular discourse, or serve simply as entertainment. Popular projects seek to engage and foster partnerships between researchers and those whose lives are affected by the stories uncovered. Likewise, in politics, the sense that historical examples can inform policy is one that underpins the engagement of many.

The nature and scope of this role was the subject of discussions at the Institut Français on Monday 9 November, 2015. The impressive panel featured Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Jürgen Kocka and Peter Mandler, and was organised by Catherine Robert, the Higher Education Attachée for the French Embassy, and Susan Wittek, Cultural Attachée for the German Embassy. The discussion was chaired by Michael Binyon of The Times.

151109 Institut Francais - Encounters with History - edit

Binyon posed a series of questions to the panel, which I will address in order.

  1. What is the role of history and historians in society?

Jeanneney contextualised the long-running professional and civic engagement of historians with French politics and society. He cited figures like Guizot and Mignet as examples, before describing the positive influence of experts in the Dreyfus Affair. From his own experience, he described Professors at the Sorbonne addressing students in 1958 to denounce French conduct in Algeria. Such examples, he felt, showed the way that history suffused French debates. Today, he felt, such debates offered 2 principal dangers: the first was the fast-paced, technologically oriented “présentisme” that could minimise the influence of historians; the second was the political “hi-jacking” which he described in Sarkozy’s presidency. Despite such dangers, the debates themselves were subject to the rhythms of history, which bled through individual conjunctures. His own personal engagement in public discourse, he said, was a function of “giving back”. Addressing his research beyond the academy was, for him, both a pleasure and a social duty.

Kocka saw affinities between the work of historians and the desires of the public, yet saw a necessary delimiting because of specialisation. The contrasting habitus of the public sphere, he said, was both necessary and important to respect. In this, he felt that affinities should be nurtured and maintained. History should be an orienting force to exercise an indirect influence in public life. Such an influence, he felt, could be salutary and should be pursued. As positive examples, he spoke of textbooks which could help to frame national identity, and historical debates (notably the Historikerstreit) which had played an important definitional role for the nation.

Mandler described British society as also saturated with historical consciousness, but not always in the sense that it craved a litany of anniversaries. He described personal and familial engagement, with the growth of genealogy bearing witness to this trend. He also pointed to a “topographical” sense of history, which drove many to engage with the heritage, preservation and exploration of local communities and spaces. Likewise, he saw the Museum space as crucial to accommodating different focusses and resonances of history. This broad and diffused historical consciousness, he felt, mandated enthusiastic popular collaboration from academic historians.

  1. What are your views on the way that history is used in contemporary society:

              – Is it possible to imagine a common textbook that transcends national borders?

              – Do you feel that politicians are guilty of hi-jacking history when it suits?

Jeanneny discussed the difficulties surrounding textbooks, and the controversies that could arise. He described the difficulties faced when overt attempts to shape national history were heavy-handed and imposed. In particular, he discussed the scandal that developed around the introduction of “The Correct Textbook of History” in South Korea by its government. Peter Mandler interjected to highlight similar controversies in India, where textbooks represented direct political engagement. Jeanneny considered political engagement to be predicated on historians being clear of their own baggage. He cited the famous challenge of 1968: “D’où parles-tu camarade?”, Where are you speaking from, friend? For him, awareness and consideration of this was crucial. He mentioned his own criticism of the rebranding of the UMP in France as Les Républicains. For him, speaking from the left, he felt the term had been hi-jacked by the right, and that the left’s legacy of defending the Republic ought to be recognised as the basis on which one existed for the UMP to make claims against.

Kocka was, perhaps, more optimistic on the possibility for textbooks that could cross borders. He spoke specifically of France-German cooperation on textbooks, mentioning wryly that the biggest hurdles to overcome were not the 1930s and 1940s, but that both countries tried to claim Charlemagne. He hoped that the transnational turn could offer more opportunities for such textbooks, citing useful examples between Germany and Poland where historical entanglement could be better told beyond national borders. Importantly, he felt, the variety of textbooks had to be maintained, and uniformity would lessen the benefits garnered by this new approach. For Kocka, one of the pitfalls of engagement was that the “seduction of the media” could lead to condensed and undifferentiated answers. He felt the danger of politicisation was lessened in the countries represented on the panel, and that a greater danger was that entertainment could trump historical rigour. In particular, he warned against the influence of visual media on creating “false authenticity”.

Mandler agreed with Kocka in his assessment of the dangers of politicisation. He felt that the idea of a “British narrative” was perhaps of diminishing value to the political class. Indeed, he stressed that short-sightedness often precluded politicians fishing in the pond of history for details to support their policy.

  1. Do historians have a duty to prevent their work being instrumentalised?

Mandler discussed the reworking of the national curriculum under Michael Gove as Minister for Education that took place in 2008. This example, he stressed, showed both the dangers and the potential for engagement. When he commented on the curriculum, it was to criticise the “politician’s view of history”, focussing solely on the creation of national and political structures. Yet, these comments were considered, and the curriculum was indeed altered. For Mandler, this demonstrated an enduring liberal spirit at the heart of such historical engagement.

After these questions, there was a presentation from the teams of the Rendez-vous de l’Histoire festivals in Blois and Weimar. Eric Alary spoke about the event at Blois, and Andres Braune introduced its younger relation at Weimar. They stressed that both events were festivals for the public, not closed scientific congresses. They developed the themes discussed by the panel to stress the importance of such festivals in maintaining the affinities between historians and the broader public. Both noted that there was not yet a British Rendez-vous de l’Histoire…

Questions followed the presentation, and took some unusual turns, though the panel dealt well with the fairly eclectic variety of interests that manifested. Issues around the ‘toxicity’ of history and its potential for reconciliation were perhaps the main lines to emerge from the discussion.

Kocka described the potential for history to be shaped by its popular engagement. Toxicity, he felt, could be overcome through public debate: a “mechanism for correction”. He felt the institutional setting of historians was important, to avoid curbs on creativity and freedom of expression. He felt history could be a useful tool in fostering reconciliation between aggrieved communities, though historians could not be expected to carry that task out alone. Citing earlier examples of textbooks which were breaking down barriers between national identities, he proposed a hopeful note.

Jeanneny agreed that the differing successes of historians to foster reconciliation showed the potential for this approach, and not a fixed model. He highlighted the need for a broad variety of educational resources to support conflict resolution. He also agreed about the need for the freedom of historians to write without constraint, and to seek input from debate and public discourse. He ciriticised the notion of “memory laws”, in particular.

Mandler pointed out that history cannot replace a moral compass. Its political instrumentalisation could be considered neither unblemished nor omnipotent, but these need not preclude attempts to engage. Jeanneney in turn observed that history does not imitate itself, though fragments could show resemblance. In studying these fragments, he advised, we could sharpen our civic engagement. Kocka echoed these sentiments, though stressed that there was no monopoly for academic historians. He stressed that history could be a space of retreat, a major actor in national and civic engagement, and also entertainment.

Benyon closed the discussion at this point, framing Kocka’s summary as a useful summary of the evening and the festivals being promoted.

For me, the resonant theme of the night was that of duty: that engagement in popular discourse is not an optional extra for historians, but a vital activity. Warnings about misrepresentation and political interference were well made, and important to remember, though they could not eclipse the obvious enthusiasm of the panellists for ensuring that we engage both with the communities we are part of, and those beyond our immediate surroundings.

Thank you to Catherine Robert and Susan Wittek for organising a stimulating and enjoyable evening, and to the Institut Français for hosting the event.

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