The Past – Practical and Historical

The French enjoy grand declarations. The organisation Liberté Pour l’Histoire, which campaigns against ‘memory laws’ pronounces: ‘liberty for history is liberty for all’. It is headed by the distinguished and influential historian Pierre Nora whose work on memory is the standard reference on the subject. In a recent article, Josie Appleton interviewed Nora about the organisation’s concern about French memory laws.

Liberté pour l’Histoire’s 2008 petition, Appel de Blois,announced: ‘In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions’. In short, the proposition is that memory laws ‘aim not to protect rights but to lay down historical truths’. For Nora, the state ‘prescribing limits’ for historians means telling them ‘what they should research and what they should find’.

In previous posts, Arkiv has pointed to the dangers of allowing the political identification of ‘themes’ to set the framework for ‘dealing’ or ‘contending’ with the past in Northern Ireland. Of course, this is not on a par with the memory laws against which Liberte pour L’Histoire campaigns. Nevertheless, there is some common concern. In both cases it is the principle that the distinction between the historical past and the practical past should not be collapsed. To put that otherwise, it is an intellectual imperative to maintain the distinction between (political/ideological) arguments designed to justify or approve and (historical/scholarly) arguments designed to interpret or understand. Or to put that even more radically, as did Michael Oakeshott (43), the distinction it is crucial to maintain is somewhat analogous to a theology (concerned with the intelligibility of belief) and the sentiments of a popular religion (collective immersion in faith). One recent local example concerns the intention of The Detail to (re)investigate the Dublin Arms Trial. It is Arkiv’s view that the very predictable comments by the leaders of Fianna Fail and the DUP in response to that intention is a very good example of why politicians should steer clear from picking themes and why ‘thematics’ is not the way to deal with the past. For in both cases the past is already defined, irrespective of the evidence.

Interestingly – and provocatively – in that interview Appleton associates a distinctly modern political interest to control the past. The term she uses is ‘the moralisation of history’. By this she means ‘more specifically, a shift from victory-history, whereby nations exaggerated their past heroics, to victim-history, where groups emphasise their past sufferings. The demand for recognition of historic suffering is implicitly a claim made through the state; it is ultimately a demand for compensation for wrongs suffered, whether in the form of monies or ideological protection’. Though we think Appleton goes too far here (it is an ideological proposition reflecting her Manifesto Club campaign against the hyper-regulation of everyday life) there is certainly evidence of the disposition she identifies in the Haass/O’Sullivan draft. As Oakeshott once argued, the error towards which the practically-minded tend is the wish to transform ‘history into a gallery, not of rogues, but of moral abstractions’. Understanding the past in this way no longer means understanding agents (individual or corporate) responding to situations as they thought them to be. Rather, it means denying people their very agency, understanding them as either victims of circumstantial forces or fragments of larger social forces. There are two possible consequences of following through the logic of that perspective on the past. The first is what might be called ‘the human tragedy’ response.

The historian Dominick LaCapra, for example, has argued that a discernible body of opinion (if not quite a coherent school of thought) looks to the idea of a ‘machinery-of-destruction’ to explain historical events: in other words, a system or ideological framework that facilitates political violence, whether that violence be state or anti-state. He believed that we find this motif recurring in the work of some historians, philosophers, sociologists, and in the work of artists. He referred specifically to the popular German novel The Reader, written by Bernard Schlink (1997), as a classic example of the reduction of otherwise extraordinary actions into an ‘indiscriminately empathic, “it-could-happen-to-anyone”’ feeling.

LaCapra’s assessment was that the book presents the banality of evil in the passivity of the main protagonists – almost devoid of agency, they seem to sleepwalk into their fates. One of the central characters, Hanna, ‘falls’ into her job as a concentration camp guard and thus becomes a representative of perpetrator victimhood. From this perspective – and to switch from Germany to Northern Ireland – the relevance becomes clear. We are all responsible for the conflict just as we are equally all victims of the conflict and the truth is both collective and yet a very personal one (like Hanna’s experience in The Reader). This is at the heart of what might be called the ‘reluctant guerrilla’ syndrome: those individuals who ‘got caught up’ in a situation of violence and, for a variety of motives, became ‘involved’. This was our common human tragedy and there but for the Grace of God went everyone. That is an attractive view for some as it serves not only to deflect blame from act to circumstance. However, for others it probably does explain much of their experience – though the book by Dennis relates a story of avoiding the madness that resulted in 800 murders in 1980s Jamaica (2008).The human tragedy response, if it were a universal truth, would explain everything and exonerate everyone.

The second consequence of this historical logic is what might be termed the ‘due time’ response. It can be found in the thinking of some paramilitary ex-prisoners, loyalist and republican, who add another dimension to the ‘human tragedy’ response. It is this. If everyone was indeed bound up in a historical situation which explains everything and exonerates everyone then only some (ex-prisoners) have been held to account for their actions. If it could happen to anyone then only some have been punished. It is now due time for others to pay. Those others, in this view, are the ‘state actors’ mentioned in Haass/O’Sullivan – a large category undoubtedly, all the way, one supposes, from individual police officers through civil servants to political leaders. It is a response which involves moral equivalence. Its view of the past is that equivalence has had unequal effect. State actors mainly avoided the consequences of their acts but it is now time to redress the balance. At the end of this vista may not be the gallows but certainly more inquests; more police ombudsman reports; more criminal case review commission referrals; and more Article 2 cases at the European Court of Human Rights. The consequence in this case is to redeem history by setting the balance to rights, even if it means ignoring the vast majority of unsolved Troubles murders.

Both of these perspectives, we suggest, are practical ones and not historical ones. They have little at all to do with dealing with the past. Rather, they are either concerned to settle consciences or scores in the present. They are politics and not history. They confuse – as we think Haass/O’Sullivan ultimately confuse – issues of justice, reconciliation and redress with the purpose of understanding the past. ‘To grasp how we have come to our present condition’, according to Oakeshott (2006:42), ‘will not solve problems, but it may well help us discard some of our grosser illusions’.

That is why Arkiv recommends differentiating between law, justice and the process of historical enquiry. This is an enterprise modest but also ambitious. It is modest (it does no claim to solve problems) but also ambitious (expecting the outcome of historical enquiry to encourage us to dispel grosser illusions). One argument against our proposal for a Historical Clarification Commission (see older posts) is that historical enquiry can only deliver different interpretations. The argument against historians is also an argument against human rights lawyers or any other professional group which might populate the institutions mentioned in Haass/O’Sullivan. It has been well said that we should listen to philosophers only when they talk philosophy. If we want to come to terms with the past perhaps we should listen to historians.

To make the archives at liberty for historians may be the best opportunity, as some might wish, to liberate all of us from the past.

Dominick LaCapra, ‘Fascism and the sacred: sites of inquiry after (or along with) trauma’, in The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism, edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone. Routledge, 2014.

Bernard Schlink, The Reader. Phoenix, 1997.

Michael Oakeshott Lectures in the History of Political Thought Imprint Academic ,2006

Colin Morgan Dennis The Road Not Taken: Memoirs of a Reluctant Guerrilla Booksurge Publishing; Rev Upd edition 2008