Session 1: Making history public

In this first session we heard lectures by Hinke Piersma, Petra Links and Kees Ribbens, all associated to NIOD, the institute for war, holocaust and genocide-studies in the Netherlands. The aim of the session was to reflect on the ways sensitive topics about war have been made public in the 20th century. Also the panel wanted to shed light on the way of how experiences have been recorded, organized and represented by historians. How to deal with a certain audience while representing these memories and experiences is the main question here. To address this question, the three panel members introduced their own research around a variety of topics.

Hinke Piersma started the lecture after a brief opening word from Bruno De Wever (University of Ghent, BE). She has done research about the deportations of Jews in the city of Amsterdam in World War II. When Mrs. Piersma presented her research to the council of Amsterdam, they were only interested in the restitution, not in the context of decision-making in that period. In this specific case (as in many others) historians were called on to make a judgment, that is to answer a simple yes/no question. The details of how the municipal government in part enabled the persecution of Jews were not considered essential. The past had to be “resolved” so that for once and for all it could be left behind. The question that Mrs. Piersma asked herself revolved around the position of the historian in the debate between politicians and jurists. She used the example of the Breda Three to illustrate the problematic position of historians in legal debates in which there is a sensitive historical context. Although unconstitutional, these men were held after the time they were convicted to. But the public could not accept that these men’s freedom should be returned to them. It’s clear that there are several different ways the public handles it’s past: it can choose to forgive and forget or do the opposite. After her argumentation she concluded that as a specialist in historical contexts the historian must not be excluded from the debate. Mrs. Piersma referred to the theoretical frame that Berber Bevernage (University of Ghent, BE) constructed by dividing the past in an irreversible past and an irrevocable past. By using the current debate in the Netherlands about the appearance of Zwarte Piet in the festivities around Sinterklaas, Hinke Piersma claims to see a shift in the contemporary historiography: for her the past transforms from being irreversible to irrevocable. As a consequence; an eternal past presents itself to the society and it’s the duty of the historian to convince the politicians and by extension, the people, about the need to understand and to explain, rather than the need to judge. After the lectures, there was time for questions and Mrs. Piersma got the question what she or the NIOD thought about the historian as judge. She had to admit that she didn’t really had an answer to that question because there are several powers in. We have to be aware that there’s also the financial situation that can be conclusive in legal debates and that the composition of the political elite is important to analyse the process of decision-making. But Piersma does think that historians should be present in the court room to explain the historical context and because the courts are public institutions, no one can deny the historian access to the debate. Personally I think historians should indeed be consulted in legal debates. It is however important that the historian does not himself judges the past, but provides a framework and historical context.


Petra Links was the second panel member to present her research; she has collected memories from survivors of the Rwanda genocide in 1994. The purpose of this collection was to use the memories against genocide-negationism. She addressed the way the archives in Rwanda are organised and available for consultation but also had attention to the problems her research had to deal with. Due to the personal character of her research, she could only tell the story of those who had shared their memories and not the tales of non-contributors. The political climate after the genocide in Rwanda determined for a large part how the archives documenting this genocide were set up. And as a logical consequence the way the archives are composed has an impact on the narrative historians will communicate to the public. The memorial center in Kigali has as its foremost mission to preserve the memory of the genocide, this as a part of a larger ideological project that strives to create a new unified Rwanda. But at the same time the archives of the courts who were dealing with the perpetrators of the genocide are not yet fully accessible. The choice not to open up those court archives means that historians will not be able to do any real research concerning the perpetrators and thus that any real historical or even public debate concerning the topic  is at the moment out of the question. This brings us to a larger problem: What is a historian’s task when the public refuses to acknowledge the layered complexity of the past. When it refuses to explore a sensitive topic in all its layers. Do we accept this compromise of silence? Or is it our task to break this silence? Even when it might be vital for a society that’s rebuilding itself to let the past rest? Bruno De Wever formulated this tension as follows: Should we respect this desire for silence of the public when we are part of institutions whose very reason of existence is to clarify the past. In an answer to such questions, Mrs. Links stressed the right of people to not participate and that historians should honour those wishes. She also thinks that sometimes, silence can be a healing factor for a social group or ethnicity. But we have to keep in mind that people who keep silent, are maybe intimidated by others. In the case of the Rwanda genocide I think the absence of the side of the perpetrator isn’t seen as a real problem in Rwanda because of the extreme sensitivity of the item and because the victims don’t want the public to sympathize with the perpetrators. For the sake of the universal understanding of this horrible event it certainly would be an improvement to know the side of the perpetrators. Whatever the reason, silence of groups of people are harder to ignore then the silence of individuals and there is no clear path for the historian to follow if this should occur. But of course, Petra Links concludes that it would be beneficial to historical research in general if people want to participate, because there would be more information to incorporate. Answers are hard to come by but Kees Ribbens did have a suggestion. Being that we as historians aren’t here to uphold a societal compromise of silence, to make painful analyses is a part of our task both as academic historians and as public historians. The question for him is not whether we present these painful stories to the public but how we present them. There should be shed some light on all sides of history, even the delicate ones.

The last speaker in this panel was Kees Ribbens, who has studied the ways in which Wikipedia can be useful to measure how much interest there is for history in different countries or language-groups. He approached Wikipedia as a multilingual and transnational phenomenon. By the organisation of the website it is also an example of shared authority. To understand if there is a possible difference in historical interest between language-groups, Mr. Ribbens looked at the historical topics in the top 100 of visited pages. Especially both World Wars are notably present in all languages, but there were also some differences. His research showed that historical interest is a dynamic phenomenon. But it poses the questions if there is something as a collective memory in language-communities and more fundamental to his research, if the visited pages are a result of a collective memory, or more of a current unfamiliarity with the provided information. Finally, he asked if the transnational framework in which Wikipedia operates fits into our own framework, that is usually defined by local, regional or national borders. Mr. Ribbens got the question what he suggest we should do to further spark the interest of the public after they visited Wikipedia to find out more about a specific historical topic. The answer to this question is very simple: make sure that there is a link on the Wikipedia-site to more specialized websites or to bibliographies around the topic. My only remark to this question was: there already are links on Wikipedia to other more specialized topics or other websites. The most important critical note on Wikipedia seemed to me the extreme popularity and use of Wikipedia in contrary to the controversial origin of a big amount of articles as they were written by people not educated as an historian. Everyone can add an article to Wikipedia without it being checked by qualified people. Besides this point of criticism it’s important to look at the pro’s and cons of such a project that involves a lot of knowledge from non-professionals. Public historians shouldn’t just reject it.

In retrospect this session revolved mostly around the way the public handles its own past and at the same time which role public historians should play in that process. Unfortunately there wasn’t sufficient time for a real debate concerning these matters. But these questions are questions that we as public historians struggle with every day. One of the prime goals of public historians should be to contextualize the traumas of the public, to help the public understand its own past in all dimensions.


Written by Kim Descheemaeker, Anouk De Meulemeester, Tim Gistelinck and Inge Arys (students Public History at the University of Ghent, BE)

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