Laitetaan tässä nyt vielä viime viikolla Jyväskylässä esittämiäni pohdintoja kansallisen historiankirjoituksen tiukasta otteesta, tulevaisuudesta ja tutkijoiden (mahdollisesta) roolista siinä. Kommentteja saa ja kannattaa heittää, otan ne sitäkin mieluummin vastaan, kun kirjoittelen parhaillaan laajempaa katsausta toisen maailmansodan muistamisesta ja tutkimisesta inhimillisen toiminnan foorumina.
Paper presented in Second Jyväskylä Symposium on Political Thought and Conceptual History “Politics of the Past”, 8.-9. June 2007
NATIONAL HISTORIOGRAPHY AND PUBLIC USE OF HISTORY
“It is historian’s duty to bend the facts”
As at least some in the audience are aware of that I come from the background of Second World War history. My 2004 dissertation dealt with the relationship between Finland and Hitler’s Germany during the so-called Continuation War from 1941 to 1944. As you know Finland fell victim to the Soviet aggression in November 1939 and after a brave but bitter fight had to conclude a peace on terms that were back then deemed to be very harsh. After having unsuccessfully sought for political support from Great Britain and Sweden Finnish leadership crossed the Rubicon and joined sides with Hitler when the opportunity presented itself in 1940 and 1941. In general Finnish conceptions of history it has been stressed that the country had no other alternative, and that the cooperation with the Germans didn’t amount to a genuine alliance, only to a so-called co-belligerence or comradeship-in-arms (Waffenbrüderschaft in German). The main point in my doctoral dissertation was to say that Finland had been a de facto ally of Germany all the way from the start. The common war effort against Soviet Union were negotiated and agreed upon already well before the start of operation Barbarossa. The fighting capacity of Finnish army had been recovered with German war material, and there were 200.000 German troops on Finnish soil already before the start of hostilities on 25 June 1944 and some Finnish units had been given to German command. Throughout the war Finland’s food supplies were dependent on German deliveries, and Germans on their part received from Finland many raw materials that were vital in arms production. Maybe the most important strategic support of Germany to Finland was that it stationed its Army Group North in the Baltic Area and withdraw it only after Finland had executed a complete volte-face and concluded a separate peace with Moscow in September 1944.
Although I got the highest academic degree from my work I was subjected to strong criticism from certain sectors of general public and also parts of the research community. The life span of my book was delightfully and surprisingly extended by the acts from highest spheres possible. In March 2005 President Tarja Halonen said in a speech given for the French Foreign Policy institute in Paris that in second world war Finland fought a separate war and had no debts of gratitude to anybody. She reminded the audience about the Russian offensive against Finland in 1939 and then jumped right on to the great defensive victories of Finnish army during the summer 1944, without saying a word about the alliance with Hitler’s Germany or the fact that for the better part of three years Finland occupied large territories in western Soviet Union that had never belonged to it. Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to President’s speech by commenting that these kinds of utterances run the risk of distorting the historical truth. Moreover Ministry said that we should not try to rewrite the history books and avoid our own share of responsibility by silencing about Finnish-German military cooperation. Comments like these from official Russia made all hell break loose in Finland. What followed was a huge public discussion, which surely at least Mr. Doctor Erkki Tuomioja, who will be speaking here tomorrow, remembers well, for he was serving as the foreign minister at the time and had to answer a bunch of difficult questions. With the elegance of a merited historian he stated that it would be better to leave history to historians and not to make it an intellectual battleground between the states.
Meanwhile I had the pleasure of giving dozens of interviews on this or that angle of the Second World War to television, radio, newspapers and periodicals. At one time I already started to feel like whenever something was on that had even the remotest link to Second World War or Hitler’s Germany, the media people would call me. Don’t get me wrong though, I really enjoyed it and keep doing so. At the same time I was touring around the country giving my take on Finnish involvement in the war in some 150 presentations and lectures to different audiences stretching from university students to associations of war veterans. The basic thrust in both the public criticism and the sometimes surprisingly angry comments I got from the members of my lecture audiences was the same: I was accused of being unsympathetic to Finnish leadership, who at the time were basically just cleaning up the mess cooked up by aggressive great powers, most importantly of course, being in Finland, Soviet Union. Instead of trying to shed a critical light on the effects of leaders’ decisions I should have given them credit of always managing to choose the least bad alternative among the hideous choices that were on offer. I was also accused of exercising hindsight, although it still remains a mystery to me how a historian could not do that and still be competent. Interestingly I was also told that I was not entitled to deal with such a precarious matter because I didn’t have my own experience of either the war or fundamental aggressiveness of Soviet Union. In the less intelligent end of the commentary line I was blamed for being an unpatriotic fifth columnist, commie-lover or myself a commie, ungrateful for the sacrifices that the war generation made for me, even, excuse my language, an escapist faggot who was hiding from the reality in his university research chamber, and so on.
It was during the course of these three years that I really got to understand what professor Arvi Korhonen, an icon of Finnish historiography, meant when he said that if the truth and national interest collide, it is historian’s duty to bend the facts. For Korhonen and his generation the national mission was at the very core of historical research. Historians had the holy obligation to step in to help and defend their nation whenever this was needed. Consequently they saw national history, in their case Finnish history, as a realm reserved exclusively for native and devoted members of that same national community. Foreign historians trying to write more critically about Finland’s coalition with Germany, like professors Charles Leonard Lundin, Hans-Peter Krosby and Anthony Upton, were facing a more or less united front of Finnish scholars rejecting their arguments. From the point of view Finnish historians they were outsiders trying to meddle with something they couldn’t possibly understand. Because my own experiences were so similar I really began to get interested about the power of these sanctified versions of national past and the role of scholars in constructing them. At first I had thought that this was something of a Finnish peculiarity, but soon I became to realize that this in no way was the case. This kind of official or semi-official national history is an inextricable component in all nationalism and can be found behind any nation-state.
Problematic prevalence of national history
Development of history as well as that of other humanities into professional academic fields of study was closely intertwined with the birth of the modern nation state. Scholarly interest was from the start directed firstly at historians’ own state, secondly to other nation-states. Nationalist ideology became embedded in historical interpretations. People without a nation-state of their own were either left outside of history altogether or alternatively pictured as non-civilized and incapable of forming a state. For a better part of two hundred years national histories have guided the public discourse and teaching of history in order to construct, sustain and strengthen national identities. The position of these narratives has been so dominant that the idea of nation as the natural and most important carrier of history has gone largely unquestioned for a long time.
Talking about the politics of past as we are today, we have to ask, what then are the major shortcomings of national history? What are the risks involved in studying the history of one’s nation as a self-contained and self-sufficient story? What kind of political goals can be found behind these stories? To put it shortly, national histories have an inherent and often deliberate tendency of limiting people’s capacity to understand the central characteristics even of their own history, let alone those of general global human history. The contents of these national versions of the past are always a reflection of, if not determined by, the political, social and cultural power relationships in the respective national society. National master narratives or grand narratives are always linked to the socio-political realities that they are constructed, molded and upheld in. Self-contained, almost obsessive concentration on the national level obscures the actual experience of national societies, hiding or even denying the transnational elements of nation’s past and producing a narrow parochial perspective on things. It is impossible to adequately understand a nation’s history without taking into account the transnational and global contexts. This is increasingly evident in the multicultural and interconnected realities of the globalized world.
Not infrequently national history can be regarded as being ignorant or even hostile towards those individual experiences that depart from or are at odds with the national canon. Throughout their existence national histories have provided tools for promoting narrow and exclusive notions of citizenship, thus creating a potential breeding ground for political and social injustice and possibly even racial hatred. With the coming of nationalism other potential affiliations and solidarities like class, ethnicity, religion, language and geographical region were subordinated to national identity. National history has been one of the most important tools in promoting the national elite’s dominant version of history, subordinating and silencing, at times also actively repressing all other possible interpretations of the past.
One could think that globalization coupled with increasing political, social and cultural fragmentation could lead to a weakening, possibly even termination of state-based national histories as dominant master narratives. Historiography has undergone a transformation where the relative significances of historical events, processes and persons have been renegotiated. Traditional ideas of what is important in the past, what is the proper way to study and write about it, and who has the right to do so, have been put to question. Despite all this, however, national histories seem as strong as ever.
National history is integral to collective memory, national identity and national consciousness. The 19th Century scholarly history was established with the purpose of legitimizing and supporting the nation-state. When writing history became a respected and highly-thought-of profession, it was also institutionally and intellectually nationalized. National paradigm has been very strong and popular not only in scholarly history but in almost all forms of history-writing. National histories have shown to be able to resist other historical master narratives like class, gender, religion and race. Notwithstanding the globalization era predictions of the downfall of the nation-states and all things national, the national histories can even be said to have enjoyed a renaissance of a sort at least as a political tool starting in the 1990s and still going on. Interestingly the universalistic trends of globalization seemed not only to leave the national grand narratives intact but actually give them added strength and appeal. For example in Europe the reemergence of national histories can be seen at least partly as a reaction to Europeanization stemming from the political processes of European integration. Like in so many other areas of life, national affiliations and loyalties have also in history proved to be stronger than many commentators have expected.
European integration has done little to decrease the diversity of national histories in Europe. At least so far one can hardly speak of the emergence of any genuinely European public sphere or a sense of European identity rooted in history and shared by all Europeans. Majority of people all over the world still identify mainly with their nationally particular versions of history and think about their past in terms of the relationship of their own nation with other nations. As of now there is no sign of weakening, let alone disappearance of the appeal of these national versions of the past.
The strong grip of national histories is of course not exactly unknown to professional historians. In Europe there even is a special all-European project to analyze the institution of national history, called “Writing National Histories in Europe” and funded by European Science Foundation. I know that at least some of the scholars present now here in Jyväskylä have participated in the work of this project in one form or another, myself included. In its not too modest program statement the NHIST-project, as it is abbreviated, says that it aims to “facilitate the development of a truly European historical culture”. To counter the colonialist interpretation of this the statement moreover says that “in order to prevent the emergence of a ’fortress Europe’ mentality” the project will also “consider the relationship between national histories and trans-European, global and/or world histories”. One of course has to take these kind of definitions with a grain of salt, but on the other hand they are very telling about the big questions that at the moment are puzzling the larger European community of historians. The general background for this project, as well as motivations for its rather hefty financing from the European Science Foundation, can be found in the political project of reconciling diverse cultures, nationalisms and histories of Europe to the extent that would unite them around shared values of democratic participation, European commitment and constitutional patriotism.
Critique and challengers
One of the most important trends in scholarly history in the past 20 years or so has been the boom in the interest towards memory and remembrance. Today majority of professional historians acknowledges the value and fruitfulness of memories as a historical source. This can have major implications also for national histories, as memory earlier was seen largely as a useless, unreliable and even harmful from the point of view of “real” history. The growing interest towards oral history sent scholars looking for a different version of the past, a past that had been hidden or invisible in the traditional source materials like official declarations and written documents. The factual validity of the information conveyed was no longer the key question, as attention was increasingly directed towards the different ways of remembering and the meanings people gave to their memories. Many scholars began to see individual memories as correctives to the earlier, more official and top-down versions of the past. Interviews and contemporary commentaries of the so-called ordinary people were seen to deliver a more genuine picture of the everyday experience of individuals and communities.
The rise of new histories like microhistory, everyday history, oral history and gender history coincided with and borrowed from the postmodern critique of metanarratives. Postmodernist were skeptical and distrustful of meaning systems based on single, unifying principles and rejected all universalizing categorizations as blindness towards specificity, diversity and particularity of everyday life. Not surprisingly national histories ranked high on postmodernists’ critical agenda. National versions of the past were precisely the kind of master narratives produced by the Enlightenment and Western philosophy that the postmodernists set out to dethrone.
The growing importance given to individual remembrance has posed a powerful challenge to national histories that mostly concentrate on the high-level events and processes, on the nation-state, politics, warfare and great men. As it can be assumed that individual memories and experiences are closer to each other than the politically motivated national versions of the past, oral history seems to have great potential for bringing the conceptions of history of people from different national cultures closer to each other. Individual experiences have at least a certain amount of universal elements that can be shared by people across national boundaries. By observing these culturally independent and non-territorial common features of individual experience people then might shake off the official versions of past imposed on them by their respective nation-states. However the relationship between individual and national histories is far more complicated than this. Although individual histories in some cases have questioned, undermined and eroded the national master narratives of the past, we also have evidence of exactly the opposite taking place, namely that individual remembering further strengthens the already dominant national versions of history and adds to their legitimacy. It is very common that people interpret their own experiences through these national narratives and often try to adapt and model their individual memories to fit into these national grand narratives.
National histories are inextricably linked to nationalism. Consequently when we try to outline the future of national histories we have to consider the future prospects of nationalism. Is it realistic in the foreseeable future that some other force would emerge as a competitor for nation as a source of individual self-understanding and sense of community? During the past two or three decades national history has been accompanied and sometimes even challenged by research approaches that are not necessarily tied to the nation-state. The abundance of studies on gender, class, ethnicity, minorities, diasporas and other areas of social history hasn’t, however, in any way replaced the traditional default narrative of national history. Today we now know a lot more about for example the historical status of women in different societies and the hardships suffered by various minority groups, but the dominant national narrative structure remains more or less intact.
According to the traditional view territorial integrity is a prerequisite for any nation to develop a functioning national identity and to unite its population. As interdependent realities of globalization instill in a growing amount of people a sense of belonging to various de-territorialized, flexible, virtual and transnational, even global communities, nation no longer necessarily functions as the only or even most important source of cultural, social and political identity. With increasing international and intercultural exchange and mobility people become detached from their traditional national affiliations and acquire a more impartial perspective on the world. One of the most interesting questions is what will happen to the potency and relevance territorial, state-based identity. Many commentators have predicted that increasing cultural fragmentation and differentiation eventually makes it impossible to uphold shared world-views, value systems, myths, images and the collective sense of national belonging based on them. Should this happen, it would of course mean the end of national history as an institution as well.
It is undeniable that globalization and revolution in information and communications technology are creating completely new kinds of communities that necessarily don’t have anything to do with nationality. The communal attachment based on language, religion, territory, social customs and ideas of national destiny is currently being challenged by more voluntary patterns of association. These new communities are potential threats for cultural integrity of nations and political power of nation-states. Globalization critical movement and other similar grassroots transnational or even global mass movements offer schoolbook examples of the possible new patterns of political organization. Jürgen Habermas has stated that the 15th February 2003 mass demonstrations all across Europe were a step closer towards the creation of a thick European Union identity and “could retrospectively go down in the history books as the signal for the birth of a European public sphere”.
Example given by Habermas aptly highlights also the challenge that regional histories are posing for the national versions of the past. In the European context political integration has been accompanied by a deliberate effort of creating a historical consciousness that would eventually transcend the national level. Habermas, one of the leading academic proponents of constructing a postnationalist European identity, has even tried to find such common elements in European history that would be shared by individual member states and would help to unite them, a sort of history for postnational Europe. Interestingly enough he invokes the shared experience of negative aspects of European history as such potential unifiers: wars, imperialism, colonialism, destructive nationalism and the Holocaust. According to him Europeans have productively worked through their belligerent past and can now draw on it together to achieve a common sense of identity and solidarity.
The future of national histories and the role of scholars in it
National histories have had close links to nation-states and have been vital to the construction of imagined national communities. They have been challenged by emergent new narratives by various groups that contest the established version of nation’s history. National history has been criticized for neglecting and leaving out the experiences of subaltern groups like regional communities and ethnic minorities. If the challenge is successful these novel narratives can come to play an important role in reshaping and redirecting the national history. However the arrival of a fully developed postnational solidarity doesn’t seem to be taking place in any near future. The prophecies of the decline of the nation-state have proven to be premature, as the nation-states still are the only political entities that really are capable of enforcing and protecting human and citizen rights.
Even if national histories will not be ousted from the pedestal, it is clear that the playing field has become a lot more even. As historians we have some fundamental questions to answer, for example will there be efforts to replace the national master narrative be some other kind of metanarrative. In which form will the counter-hegemonic histories be provided? What will be the role of scholarly history, as non-professional historians function all the more prominently in the production of the knowledge about the past?
In certain areas of history-writing it is even possible to talk about a credibility crisis of scholarly history compared to other producers of historical information. Academic history reacted to postmodern critique by moving more and more to the direction of social constructivism. Coupled with the new methodologies of the so-called new histories this lead to a situation where universities lost considerable ground in terms of credibility and influence outside academia. This is especially evident precisely in big general topics like national history. The fact that generation after generation of university historians have attacked the traditions of their profession and questioned its earlier foundations like objectivity, neutrality and generality has done little good to the trustworthiness and appeal of scholarly history in outside world.
With their endless flow of unfamiliar special terminology, conceptual haziness, constructivist relativism and topics incomprehensible to all but a closed circle of few similarly oriented colleagues many disciplines of history have become all but marginalized in the eyes of general public. It is only a slight overstatement to say that in the prevalent academic atmosphere the scientific credibility of a historian is measured by the distance of his themes from the topics of general interest. When academic historians are regarding national history as unscientific and irrelevant, they can blame only themselves if historical conception of general public appear to be unscientific and irrational. By deciding not to participate in discussions that take place outside the ivory tower they are giving away their ability to influence the general conceptions of the past.
A complete dismissal or replacement of national histories seems unlikely indeed and, it has to be said, also undesirable. National governments still are a central loci of power and therefore they will remain as important objects of historical inquiry as well. However we need to see national histories not as self-sufficient and isolated but as local sections of general world history, as one national version of the past among a group of equal other histories. Similarly we should also find ways to incorporate the whole variety of different individual experiences into it. This would both add and diversify our historical knowledge and safeguard us against the excesses and dangers of national history by nurturing the foundations of cultural cosmopolitanism.
Academic historians can’t make the national histories go away no matter how much they disregard and shun them. Taking into account the immense influence that these narratives have not only on the historical conceptions of non-historians but also more generally people’s thinking and behavior, the current academic disinterest towards them can even be seen as avoidance of intellectual duties.
Scholars should move away from outright rejection and condemnation of national histories towards the efforts of renewing them so that they are simultaneously scholarly insightful and have the ability to produce answers that are fruitful and relevant for our own times. On historians’ part this would require willingness to participate in the public discussions about national history and formulating one’s research questions and findings in ways that are understandable and effective also outside the academia.
Historians think too highly of themselves if they believe that they are the only ones capable of producing sound and scientifically valid interpretations of the past. Declining the possibility to engage in dialogue with the public is not only academic elitism but also potentially dangerous. History is under a constant threat of being exploited by nationalism, fundamentalism and political myth-making. Although the truth is not out there and scholarly history only rarely can compete with much less overturn popular historical myths, countering the abuse and manipulation of history is at the very core of historian’s responsibilities. In this light historiography indeed is a mode of political action and historians have become politicians of the past, like the symposium organizers so eloquently have claimed.