Public Historians and Sensitive Stories

This morning Hinke Piersma (NIOD) told the attendees of the conference about her research project concerning the policy of the government of Amsterdam after the Second World War. How was it possible that the government behaved as it did, and ignored what happened to the victims? 

This research has a highly sensitive subject, the persecution of Jews. It is a painful conclusion that the Netherlands were involved in this persecution even after the war. NIOD wants to know why the government behaved as it did, they want to know the background and the context of their decisions. While researching, Piersma was confronted with the fact that the public doesn’t want to know this information. They simply want to know who is guilty and if the city of Amsterdam somehow has to ‘pay back’. They want to make the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. How do we deal with this as public historians?

Piersma suggested we should make a distinction between the irreversible past and the irrevocable past. As an example she gave the highly debated ‘Zwarte Piet’, the black servant of the Dutch version of Santa Claus. It provokes the history of slavery, this was part of the irreversible past, but because of this discussion it has become part of the irrevocable past. As public historians we can not and should not make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Today, the solution is to offer context information and emphasise that a subject is part of the irrevocable past.

The attendees of the conference asked some critical questions to Piersma. Where does the social responsibility of historians end? Are we responsible for offering context information in courtrooms? Is this a task for historians? Also: How do we deal with people who don’t want to talk about these sensitive subjects? It very difficult to let people speak if they don’t want to and if they eventually speak, but don’t want the information to be open for the public it causes new problems. How do you deal with this as a public historian? What we know for sure is that this lecture brought enough material for thought for a long time.