Getting back to the fundaments on which everybody may stand A case for dialogue in history

A case for dialogue in history

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

During the past 40 years, personages in responsible positions of many states of the world contemplated the question what the fundamentals were on which the otherwise different peoples, states and cultures might come to a common understanding. Two world wars with about 80 million dead, immeasurable destruction and inconceivable suffering had been cause enough to profoundly reflect and find an answer to the question how to focus not on the separating but on the connecting elements – not the battle for power but the obligation to preserve law and peace.
The fruits of these considerations were the principles laid down by the UN Charter of 26 June 1945 and the General Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948. Both documents as well as many other contractual results of international law grapplings were not perfect and suffered and are still suffering from power political influences. But they do exist and are worth while building on and trying to be brought to perfection. At presence, however, we are far from succeeding.

History and political instrumentalisation of history

This has certain consequences, even for historiography. Reflecting one’s history – be it the general or individual history – is an essential part of forming and securing one’s identity. It is certainly the task of historical science to help therewith, even to call certain life-lies into questions.
It is by no means illegitimate to be politically motivated when giving one’s view on historical issues. If, however, history is being instrumentalised by power politics in order to justify one’s own policies and in the course of that attempt to over-emphasise one thing and to withhold another or even to bend reality – if that is the case we have to be on our guard. Added to – as is now the case with the European Parliament (see below) about a current draft law in Poland1 – that if historical thinking is to be inhibited on the part of the state, there is even danger at hand.

Political cut and thrust

At present we are spectators to a fierce political cut and thrust. It is about the question as to what extend the Soviet Union was guilty for the war in Europe since 1 September 1939 and about the question what Poland’s role was at the time. And it is also about the question what part the former Western powers France and Great Britain had played. Above all, however, it is about the question, whether today’s Russia has a legitimate right to ceremoniously celebrate the victory of the Red Army over the German “Wehrmacht” and Nazi-Germany and its allies in May 1945. This day has its 75th anniversary in 2020. Or whether today’s Russia is following in the steps of a totalitarian Soviet Union, a Russia, which to fight with all means possible is necessary – just as it was the case with the Soviet Union after 1945.
For some time now, there have been controversies on these questions. There have been different historical and political judgements about the German-Soviet Nonaggression-Pact of 23 August 1939 filling many volumes as well as the manifold controversial studies about Poland’s policy from after the first founding of its state in November 2018 until the year 1939.
On 18 September  2019 there was a resolution in the European Parliament2 answered by a speech  by Russia’s President Putin on 20 December.3 Official Polish, but also US-American and German responses followed4 as well as a second statement by the Russian president of 24 December5 – so this discussion about significant historical issues is now in the centre of politics. But what is it all about? Is the question that is to be answered, a serious one about what really happened? Or is it just another variation on a very actual political conflict about what the future world order is to be?

Many anniversaries of the world wars …. and many controversies

The many anniversaries of the past years – time and again in relation to the First and the Second World War – have led to an accumulation of also politically motivated analyses and statements about the history of these two wars. This is going to continue  this year and in those to come. And is it not a good thing, if results that were formulated and considered to be proved so far, will once more come under close scrutiny? And is it no legitimate to confront a biased politically motivated historiography with an otherwise directed politically motivated historiography?
Just because the two World Wars are still or once more in the centre of attention, which raises again the questions about the responsibilities – as well as the projection of these responsibilities onto the present – it is comprehensible that critics of the mainstream historiography declare: “History is written by the victors.” However, this sentence can also point in the wrong direction; namely when all the historiography of the 20th century is subject to this verdict.
The author of this article studied history during the eighties and he is grateful of being taught a certain methodology, which helps him up to this day to examine historical works as to their evidence base and to exercise caution when pronouncing any judgements on contemporary history.
It would indeed be desirable if more studied historians capable of critical expertise would speak up publicly on these issues which today underlie a strong political bias. However, there are some so-called renowned historians who are actually embedded in the political business and will not become more trustworthy by a historical professorship.6

Tools of the trade … but unconventional approaches as well

The historian’s tools of the trade are all kinds of historical sources and the assigned critical methods. Therefore he must claim that all sources concerning contemporary history be publicly available, at least for scientific historical research. Such requirements need to be improved.
However, unconventional approaches to history are not in all cases wrong. In this field we may find personalities, who did not study history academically, however, they may apply more courage and commitment as academics themselves would. That way we may obtain some  valuable contributions, for instance in case research questions are being raised which nobody had thought of before. They may even give the public a wake-up call where current political issues are concerned and the political misuse of history is at stake.

Freedom of thought and discussion

Of highest importance, however, are the freedom of thought and the dialogue of those freely thinking. I am not referring to the professional historians’ conferences, which are of course well-justified, but to the free dialogue among all those who are seriously and honestly making an effort to come close to answer the questions what the reality was like then, even in cases where not all sources are fully available today.
Current Concerns frequently publishes historiographical contributions, intended as contributions to this dialogue, as well.•

1    cf vom 7.1.2020
4.    cf. vom 31.12.2019
5 vom 2.1.2010
6.    A well-known example in the German speaking area is the Professor for newest history Heinrich August Winkler

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