Recent history and the new dangers of politicization
Until recently – roughly the second half of the nineteenth century – history was always a thoroughly political activity in the widest sense of the word. It dealt in myths about origins, pronouncements about foundation and claims to legitimacy, glorious genealogies, models for living and lessons in how the great should behave. It was only history’s desire to become a science that turned it into a pursuit for its own sake, that was professional, based on methodical and critical analysis of documents and closely bound up with teaching. And the first duty of teaching was, as all the world knows, to instil understanding and love of one’s homeland. In other words, it was to write the celebrated “story of a nation” – an approach that I am flatteringly credited with having invented or popularized and which is in serious danger of foundering.
Over the last thirty years, a profound change has occurred that needs to be emphasized. Insidiously but radically, a process has taken place that has resulted in what could be called a very different kind of general politicization of history.
This term should not be taken to mean a ferocious politicization of historians themselves but as the inevitable process of transforming what they produce into an ideology, of transforming the world in which historians work and with which they have to deal into an ideological system, just as once they had to deal with the discovery of their own historical authenticity.
Recent history and the rise of the witness
This profound change is due to the fact that, today, the most recent history has taken centre stage. This is a very new phenomenon, dating from the end of the 1970s. It is difficult to imagine that, before then, universities did not allow theses to be written on post-1918 topics. Nowadays the reverse is the case. The major confrontations and upheavals of the last century call for a kind of historical perspective on and explanation of what we have seen or experienced, of what we or those close to us participated in directly. These upheavals were in one area related to totalitarian regimes, in another to the independence of former colonies and, everywhere, to the runaway transformation in general living conditions. And, to take only the case of France, to the weakening of the traditional reference points of the state and the nation, a process that has been continuous since the collapse of 1940. How could the war, Vichy, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the confrontation between Nazism and Communism, Gaullism and all the rest fail to awaken the interest of historians, and how could they interest only historians? All of history has become a sensitive area – sensitive for everyone.
It may be that we have not fully grasped the implications of this downward trend in a traditional kind of history based on a break with the past. A famous “Report to the Minister”, Victor Duruy, on historical studies in 1868, signalling the beginnings of critical and scientific history, began with these proud words: “The province of history is the past; the present belongs to politics and the future to God.”
In fact, it is the present that has, essentially, become the province of history and it is the present that has even extended its methods to interpretation of the distant past. It is a present that is being written by and beneath the gaze of those involved in it: the living, witnesses, or victims. It is a kind of history which, by the same token, is reawakening the age-old rivalry between memory and history.
To take just one example from the area of such encounters: the Algerian war, with which I began my own life as an historian. At that time, Charles-André Julien and André Nouschi were about the only established historians to peer beneath the leaden veil of colonial history. But, in twenty years, Algeria has become the very essence of what Benjamin Stora has called “the war of memories”. From 1962 to 1982, a period of twenty years, he was able to count 2500 pieces of testimony (!), mostly from soldiers, from those who were nostalgic for an Algeria that was no more, from pieds-noirs who felt hard-done-by: the recollections of those who were beaten, who were victims. In the 1980s we witnessed a reversal of this trend at the instigation of French historians who, during the war, were committed to independence: “suitcase carriers”1 and militants of various kinds. One can find them in the anthology La Guerre d’Algérie, published in 1982 under the editorship of Henri Alleg, who was himself very committed.
The opening of the military archives in 1992 (they have since been closed again) enabled the arrival of a new generation of researchers: the first generation not to have been personally involved in the Algerian war. They include Raphaëlle Branche, with her thesis on La Torture et l’Armée (“Torture and the Army”)2 and Sylvie Thénault, who researched military justice.3 These historians triggered off a whole spate of new viewpoints from high-ranking military figures such as General Massu and General Aussaresses.
This is no more than a sketch of the events for which Raphaëlle Branche herself produced a systematic inventory, just as Jay Winter and Antoine Prost did for the 1914-18 war, Henry Rousso for Vichy and Laurent Douzou for the Resistance. It appears that, on the morning after the battle, the historian is called upon to be a witness for the witnesses.
In a few short years, the proliferation of witness statements and memoirs has, in all areas, had a multiplying effect, even, if I may put it like this, an explosive effect, one equivalent to that which, in the last third of the nineteenth century, recourse to archives had on positivist history. A different kind of history has been brought into being, but it is history that is fragmented, torn, defensive, affirmative or accusatory. It is a history that calls for a periodic, often collective, process of orchestration, involving professional historians. An example, still on the subject of Algeria, would be La Guerre d’Algérie et les Français, published in 1988 under the editorship of Jean-Pierre Rioux, or the survey published in 2004 by Mohammed Harbi and Benjamin Stora, two first-rate professional historians though not ones whom one could claim were devoid of personal commitments or a political past.
It is historians’ own relationship with the object of their study and their commitment to it that is changing completely. Staying within the enormous corpus of work on Algeria, it is striking that all those historians who have dedicated their efforts to it have, almost without exception, felt the need, usually in a preface, to pour out their “ego-history”, to “come out”, to examine their conscience in order to explain, confess or brush aside the specific character of their commitment to the subject. How they do this depends upon their political and ideological connections, their sense of identity and feelings of ethnic or religious affiliation, or their personal or family sense of belonging. “Writing on a topic of this kind necessarily implies taking up a political stance”, writes Guy Pervillé, one of those to have done most to free himself from any such stance. Even Charles-Robert Ageron, who is regarded as an historiographical sage amidst the commotion and who, although a major specialist on colonial Algeria, refused for a long time to venture into the field of the war itself, admits that he only dedicated himself to the study of Algeria because he had spent time there himself.
This downwards shift in history’s centre of gravity has prompted what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called “public use of history”, and what Jacques Revel and François Hartog have frankly translated as “political use of history”. It has meant an intensification of the quarrels between historians, for example the particularly painful spectacle provided by the round table discussion organized by Libération in May 1997 about the arrest of Jean Moulin at Caluire. It has taken the form of increasingly frequent interactions with the judicial system, with historians finding themselves summoned as experts, as in the Papon trial. Some, such as Jean-Noël Jeanneney, have considered it to be their duty as citizens to become involved while others, such as Henry Rousso, have felt that it was their duty as historians to refuse to comply. This shift has also taken the form of an increase in the number of channels providing access to an experience of history: a proliferation of museums, huge developments in cultural-historical tourism, the use and the abuse of television documentaries. Which did most to discredit the “Resistance narrative” of the war that De Gaulle had managed to impose: Le Chagrin et la pitié (1969), the Touvier affair (1971) or the American historian Robert Paxton’s Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order, 1940-44 (1973)?
There has been an increase, too, in the number of “customers” for history: those who distribute, produce and consume it. Journalists were the first into the field, journalists whom Camus called “the historians of the present” while historians were “journalists of the past”. But there were also the witnesses, especially the victims, who bore this history in their flesh and blood, in their memories and who felt – this is the crucial point – that the immediacy of experience provides a truth that can never be accessed by long-distance judgments or stale documents. This is precisely the category of witnesses that has become more numerous. It ranges from individual protagonists to those who form part of some group, all the previously marginalized minorities – sexual or social, religious, provincial or, nowadays, colonial – whose emancipation is achieved through the recovery of their own history and the affirmation of their historical identity, by keeping alive their “memory”, the new, all-purpose word for the past. The “age of the witness” proclaimed by Annette Wieviorka has become what I call “the age of commemoration”.
With the traditional kind of history, based on exploration of the past and exclusion of the present, the historian had a monopoly on the past. The weight of contemporary witness has robbed him of that mastery. And by the same token, the past has ceased to be a body of knowledge and has become an issue.
Positivist history and the idea of the nation
This hidden, insidious and widely disseminated politicization of history represents a break with the system that had become the rule throughout nineteenth-century Europe, a system involving an official national history, supported by the state, based on the authority of science. National history and scientific history used to march in step, each supporting and reinforcing the other in a form of symbiosis that was secure and apparently indivisible.
This is the paradox of that kind of history that is called positivist, critical and methodical. It combined a method that had finally succeeded in becoming scientific with parameters for the discipline that still apply today. The national and political ideology that appeared to be part of its essence was, in reality, very much of its time, the growth of nationalities, assertions of national identity and upsurges of nationalism. The positivists believed that they were avoiding the dangers of politics and the power of contemporary passions by basing history on a past that could be studied with detachment and “objectivity”. The truth was that they were constructing the past as an endless genesis of a present that was, if not actually directly dominated by political agitation, then at least by national imperatives. Hence there was, at the heart of this type of history, that “demon of origins” to which Marc Bloch objected.4 Thus the scientific approach to history that became established in France under the Third Republic was affected by two powerful politico-historical needs that framed and determined it. The first was the “republican” need to reconcile the old and the new France in order to complete the Revolution and to strengthen those things that had been gained. This meant that it was essential to identify what had been good within the Ancien Régime and had led to the Republic, and what had been bad: a story under which a line could have been finally and emphatically drawn. Then there was another need, this time of a national kind, after the defeat of 1870 and in a spirit of revenge: to catch up with Germany, since it was the latter’s scientific superiority that was supposed to have ensured Prussian victories at Sadowá5 and Sedan. By achieving this, France would define its very identity as being the opposite of the German type of nation.
These two components, the scientific and the civic and political became, in many respects inseparable. Very often both became caricatures, with the scientific being transformed into a sterile recitation of dates and an entanglement of political-military-diplomatic negotiations, whilst the national dimension recruited history to the cause of patriotic propaganda, as during World War I. Even though we may have got over them to a large extent, both dimensions are surely still present at the heart of the activities of historians today.
If we wish to locate the core of this type of history, the focal point where history and politics, science and the nation are bound together, the place to look will be the archives, in the vast network of stored documents which was built up across the whole of nineteenth-century Europe. Having been the arsenal of public authority, the instrument of political authority, they have been transformed into a laboratory of national history. State archives have, by virtue of the ways in which they were constructed and accumulated, predisposed history to become for a long time the history of the state and statesmen. In 1876, Gabriel Monod, one of the founders, if not the founder, of the scientific and positivist school, and one of the first historians to become involved in the Dreyfus Affair in the name of justice and truth, wrote his famous editorial in the first issue of the Revue historique. Entitled “Concerning progress in historical studies”, one may discern in it the founding charter of this new kind of history, namely its exhumation of the tradition of erudition and record-keeping that ranged from sixteenth-century precursors such as Nicolas Vignier or Claude Fauchet to the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres,6 via the royal historiography of Duchesne and Du Cange (“to whom Louis XIV decided to entrust the management of a major collection produced by French historians”). Monod’s approach was then hammered out by the big names of the time, including naturally Lavisse, who began his major speech for the 1881 course to students together for the first time at the Sorbonne with the words, “The true historian is a philologist”, and put forward as a model the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, whose epigraph is Sanctus amor patriae dat animum (The sacred love of our fatherland is our inspiration). Or, in the next generation, Langlois and Seignobos, the first sentence of whose 1898 Introduction to Historical Studies, the bible of the new history, drives the message home: “History is produced from documents”.
I will not dwell on the question of the founding moment of what was to become the “national story”, nowadays a controversial topic. I would simply like to stress that, throughout the whole of Europe, in the Germany of Ranke and then Mommsen, in Namier’s Britain and Croce’s Italy – everywhere, this kind of national history became the central axis around which all the rest of history was ordered. It was the universal truth of archives that served as a basis for the legitimacy of national history, into which the history of Europe and the world was made to fit, as the world’s exploration and colonization gradually fell into the pockets of Europe.
I would even venture to say that the traditional alliance between scientific and national history was paradoxically confirmed in the Annales School, which claimed to be the movement that shattered and abolished that national history in all its positivist narrowness and political impoverishment. The spearhead of the Annales School was the struggle against a form of history based on events, based on the nation. Everyone remembers, for example, the savage attack mounted by Lucien Febvre on Seignobos, who quite rightly can be seen as representative of the “national historian” standing between science and politics. The Annales type of history was, in France, the embodiment of an opening up to the world, to social sciences, a history purged of the distractions of political turns of events, dedicated to exceptional individuals. Down, it cried, with narrowly political and national history as typified by the struggle against history based on events. Yet, as Krzysztof Pomian demonstrated in his article on “L’Heure des Annales” (“The Time of the Annales”) in Les Lieux de mémoire, the national preoccupation never abandoned the Annales historians. When one sums it up, what one ends up with is a national history that was totally renewed by the fact that it drew on the social sciences. The evidence is there in the extraordinary flourishing of national histories, the abundance of which in the 1980s is truly remarkable. It includes the three volumes by Georges Duby published by Larousse, the six volumes by Jean Favier published by Fayard, the six volumes by Georges Duby, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, François Furet and Maurice Agulhon published by Hachette, the four volumes by Jacques Revel and André Burguière, published by Seuil, not to mention the individual Histoires de France by Pierre Chaunu, Pierre Goubert and Marc Ferro. And all of these were crowned by L’Identité de la France by Fernand Braudel himself.
There is, in this enduring state of affairs, something that is peculiar to France. Traditionally stress has been laid on the diversity of France: a diversity of regions, populations and languages. This was the other face, a face that was visible and perceptible, of that unity pursued with such determination in the temporal construction of politics and history. Unity and diversity form the antithetical and complementary pair that appears to have constituted the way in which history has generally been understood. It was precisely through the historical synthesis of the Third Republic that this view was consolidated. It had barely come to an end before the principle of division appeared to be fundamental. France, the oldest of the nation-states, is also the only one to have constructed itself on the basis of a twofold myth about its origins: the Franks and the Gauls. In my view, the overall organic unity was established not on the basis of a harmonic continuity in history and territory, but rather on the awareness of an identity that continually feeds on the rifts and radical divisions on which it was constructed: divisions that are political, religious and geo-historical. The bond between history and nation was forged by this internal tradition of divisions. What gave France its original character in the alliance of history and politics that affected all of nineteenth-century Europe were in fact two features that only France can claim. One was the heritage represented by that initial form of national history that had grown up during the wars of religion with Henri de la Popelinière’s Histoire des Français and Etienne Pasquier’s Recherches de la France. The other was the brutal shock of the Revolution. It caused a generation born at the turn of the century and raised under the Empire to become historians, in order to recover the life and the taste of a world that had been wrecked and to explain to themselves the monstrous enigma of the Revolution. This was a generation that embarked on a search for the past in order to explain, support or justify their political opinions and aspirations. Many were to divide their careers between history and politics. Marcel Gauchet, in his great article in Lieux de mémoire on “Augustin Thierry’s Letters on the History of France”7 has clearly shown that it was at that time that history, in the modern sense of the word, became history governed by the idea of the nation.
World history and the colonial question
Over the last ten years or so, the colonial question has brought about a sudden increase in the tensions between history and politics. History’s internal politicization has been placed centre stage. This has been intensified by the fact that, at around the same time, colonial history received impetus from the arrival on the scene of world history.
Two old disputes have acquired renewed political intensity. One was prompted by the reality of financial and economic globalization. The other was triggered by the criminalization of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in the 2001 (the Taubira Law) and the publication in 2003 of the Livre noir du colonialisme (“Black Book of Colonialism”),8 edited by Marc Ferro. Then came the battle over the law on “the positive presence of France overseas” passed in 2005, and in particular its Article 4 requiring teachers and course books to support this viewpoint, which was, in the end, withdrawn.
In a sense, the colonial question is only the most recent explosion of remembering that has occurred since the 1980s in connection with all the minorities, brought about primarily by African and West Indian immigration. What it appears to be demanding is of the same order as previous explosions, be they on behalf of Jews, workers, feminists, Corsicans, etc. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch spelled it out clearly at the beginning of her book, Les Enjeux politiques de l’histoire coloniale (“Political Issues in Colonial History”):9 “Must our national history include the history of colonization and of French colonial slavery as part of our common historical and cultural heritage or not?” When you put it like that, the question leaves scarcely any room for discussion.
In reality the question goes much further, because it sets off against each other those who think that the colonial aspect of our history has had little effect on the constants of national identity and those who consider it necessary to rethink the whole of national identity in post-colonial terms, since they feel that national identity is close to revealing its true nature in colonial oppression and its denial. They argue that what is needed is not just to include colonization in the grand chronicle of our national history, but to rewrite that national history in the light of colonization. Bonaparte reinstated slavery in Haiti in 1802. Yet because slavery has been declared a crime against humanity, Bonaparte is to be seen as guilty of a crime against humanity. Since he is no longer here to answer the charge, historians must do so in his stead.
Of course, world history and colonial studies belong to different fields, although the same questions must be asked about how they are to be written about and what approach should be taken to them. If the subject of these rendez-vous, the Orient, nevertheless allows these two to be brought together, that is because world history (or whatever you choose to call it: “global”, “comparative”, “connected”) leads directly to putting eurocentrism on trial, just as colonial history leads to doing the same with national history. It is also because, in both cases, an intrinsic link is established between nation and history as it is between Europe or the West and history.
This process of questioning is made up of a very wide spectrum of currents of thought which, taking my inspiration from Krzysztof Pomian’s study of relationships between “world history” and universal history, I will try, for the sake of pedagogical clarity, to identify in a simple fashion. They involve:
– Stating that the rise of western modernity was achieved through the exploitation of the rest of the world: the basic argument of Marxism and neo-Marxism.
– Establishing a parallel between scientific development and domination, between knowledge and the illusory creation of forms of exoticism and imperialism. This is the theme of Edward Saïd in his celebrated Orientalism (1978), the work that served as the pioneer for anti-occidentalist criticism and which, according to the author in an important afterword written in 2003, the Arab world wrongly saw as a systematic advocacy and vindication of Islam and the Arabs.
– Playing down the West’s contributions and its role in uniting the world and reconstructing history in such a way as to remove western specificity. The proof then lies in linking all western innovations to much earlier inventions made outside Europe: in China, India, the Arab world, ranging from the decimal system and the invention of zero to printing with movable type via the compass and gunpowder. Or it can even extend to disputing the uniqueness and modernity of capitalism.
– Refusing to accept as part of historical thought all concepts originating in the West, in particular the notion of “civilization”, on which the work of Toynbee and the theories of Huntington depend.10
– Denouncing the assertion not just of western political imperialism but also western historical imperialism, of which it is guilty when it tries to show how Europe has imposed the account of its past on the rest of the world. This is, for example, what Jack Goody aims to show in his book The Theft of History,11 about how Asia should be understood. One might measure the distance, over a period of fifty years, between this extremist position and the historical relativism of Lévi-Strauss, in his celebrated 1952 pamphlet Race et histoire (“Race and history”).12
– Rejecting the very concept of history in its modern sense, History with a capital H that saw itself as the standard for deciding who was or was not part of History and for measuring how far some distant group of people was situated from History. It was an echo of this argument that provoked the negative reaction of Africans to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 Dakar speech, for example. Even though it was a speech that included strong condemnations of colonialism, it referred to the “late stage at which Africans had become part of History”.
– Finally, rejecting any thought of universal history on the grounds that it amounts to self-glorification and imperialist self-justification, which actually invented and defined the forms that the universal was to take.
France, which just one generation ago, in the good old days of the Annales School, shone its light across the entire world, appears in this new “situation made to fit history” (as Péguy put it) arising from an exaggerated tension between history and politics, to be withdrawing from the international stage.13 Whilst it is true that the stage in question is today dominated by the search for a “world history”, it is clear that it is the Americans who are taking the lead – perhaps because, remembering that they were the first in history to be decolonized, they have a strong motive for identifying with the rejection of eurocentrism. It is also clear that, if it is attachment to national history that lies behind a delay in becoming involved in world history, then of all the countries of Europe, France is the one that has most reasons to experience this delay. There is nothing to be gained by going over this point again.
On the other hand, I should like to conclude by pointing out the difficulty that France has in accepting its colonial past without becoming apoplectic. The passion that drives it, the mental blocks that paralyse it, seem to me to have less to do with resentment and a conscience that pricks than with two historical factors.
The first is probably to do with the fact that, unlike Britain, for example, decolonization was completed, as far as France was concerned, in the course of a war, the Algerian War, following on from the war in Indo-China. Two defeats against the background of defeat in 1940. The stress on Algeria is multi-dimensional: because it was one part colony, three parts French département, it assumed the character of a war of secession. For metropolitan France it involved a change of regime and a new republic, and it was the man who had cleansed France of the disaster of 1940 who lowered the flag in Algeria. The consequences of the Algerian defeat are just as far from being a thing of the past as are the consequences of the defeat of 1940.
The second reason is to do with the attitude of the Left. The Left is hesitant and equivocal about colonization. Any retrospective association made between the Left and anti-colonialism is a cliché and a fabrication. The contrary is the case. Not only were the parties of the Left late converts to anti-colonialism, but colonial expansion itself was carried out in the name of the Enlightenment, in the name of the revolutionary and Jacobin ideal. Here, too, the Algerian case proves the point. By its very nature and by definition, Algerian nationalism was doing the opposite of the French Left, which was concerned with defending the little pieds-noirs of Bab El Oued. This was so much the case that the slow development of the Algerian War was partly due to the slow and difficult conversion of the Left to the idea of Algerian independence. The intensity of the Algerian question affected the whole of the colonial question, which had become a crisis of conscience, quickly bundled out of the way and very hard to accept.
History versus politics is today’s conflict, and the word “politics” covers both memory and ideology.
This antagonistic pair has replaced those that have successively occupied the stage that is the discipline of history: erudition versus philosophy, science versus literature, structure versus event, problem versus account. However, the antagonism of history and politics goes much further than its predecessors, because it involves not only how history is carried out but the place and role of history in our modern urban life.
That place and role have become problematic and are characterized by a profound contradiction.
The very foundations of the profession of the historian have changed. Historians are no longer part of or borne by the historical continuity for which they used to be both agents and guarantors. They have lost their certainties and magisterial status. On the other hand, as interpreters and experts in social demand, as a bulwark against political and public pressure, they are more necessary than ever.
Their role has become more difficult. Where does the boundary lie between widening the range of questions that they should ask and abandonment of the classic criteria of their discipline that enabled them to draw up their list of questions in the first place? Where is the boundary between taking into account those who have memories – witnesses, victims of history – and reconstituting that history solely from the point of view of such witnesses and victims? What place should historians give to national history in a history of Europe and the world? Where does the boundary lie between including individual identities and considering the collective, and which collective should it be, anyway? These are all questions that each historian must answer in their own way, but all must ask them.
It is obviously impossible for historians to discount their own influences: to break all bonds with their country, class, religion and family, party or even profession. But never before has the situation required historians to act as ethnologists and adopt such critical distance from themselves and from their subject in the search for a truth which is everyone’s, because it belongs to no one. In pursuit of a goal that one can never attain but must always strive for, an awareness of limitations and analysis of constraints are, here as elsewhere, the necessary condition for action and freedom.
- porteurs de valises: mainly Communist supporters of Algerian independence who assisted the Algerian FLN independence movement, often by carrying suitcases full of money, documents or propaganda. Notable "suitcase carriers" included the prominent lawyer Jacques Vergès and the philosopher Francis Jeanson -- trans.
- Raphaëlle Branche, La Torture et l'armée pendant la guerre d'Algérie (1954-1962), Paris, Gallimard, 2001, 474.
- Une drôle de justice. Les Magistrats dans la Guerre d'Algérie, Paris, 2001.
- Marc Bloch, in Apologie pour l'histoire ou métier d'historien (1941) also speaks of the "Idol of Origins".
- Also known as the battle of Königgratz. French resentment at this victory and demands for revenge were said to be one of the causes of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 -- trans.
- This body is one of the five constituent academies of the Institut de France. It was founded by Colbert in 1663 and brings together persons with an interest in research in the humanities -- trans.
- Marcel Gauchet, Les Lettres sur l'histoire de France d'Augustin Thierry in Les Lieux de mémoire (ed. Pierre Nora), vol. 2, La Nation, Paris, 1986.
- Le livre noir du colonialisme, XVIe-XXIe siècle: de l'extermination à la repentance sous la direction de Marc Ferro, Paris 2003).
- Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Les Enjeux politiques de l'histoire coloniale, Paris, 2009.
- Arnold Toynbee, 1889-1975 wrote about the rise and fall of civilizations, whilst Samuel Huntington's celebrated lecture of 1992 discussed the "clash of civilizations".
- Jack Goody, The Theft of History, CUP, 2006.
- Published by UNESCO.
- As Jean-François Sirinelli has forcefully argued in his recently published pamphlet, L'histoire est-elle encore française? ("Is history still French?"), published by CNRS, 2011, in the "Débats" series.