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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Link to the original French version

by Open Forum: Claude Mazauric, historian. — Translation by Pedro

The role of historians is not the validation of social values

Translated Sunday 15 January 2006, by Pedro

There is no human community that isn’t organized around unifying symbols and founding values. Revolutions, either generalized or focalized, take place precisely when the system built from these values and symbols ends up rejected by the community that it unified. Communal memory, the recollection of a near past , or the remembrance of a distant, even mythical, past, contribute without a doubt to the moulding of collective identities, to the marking, for those depending on it, of the border between the sacred and the profane, the legal and the illegal, the reprehensible and the acceptable. It is to the representative organisms of these living communities, even more so when these organisms are held to be democratic, that falls the responsibility to shape and give authority to the expression of these values, beliefs or community symbols, and, at the same time, to be accountable before their constituents for any failure.

History, as a means towards knowledge, has no other purpose than to establish the truth of past events by repositioning them in the network in which the historian finds them and to give them at least clarity, if not an explanation. That is why history is, indissolubly, establishment of facts and interpretation of recontextualised movement of which facts, in their singularity, are the materialisation. Among those who make a living of writing and teaching history, there is a consensual minimum on which they agree without too much difficulty: refusing to submit to religious, political or moral precepts, recognizing that the product of their work is identical to neither the practice nor the “duty” of memory, neither to a legal purpose, nor evidently to a naturally intangible dogma. Society and the State, at least in France, seem to share this point of view. Which is a good thing!

However, recognition of this consensual minimum doesn’t exhaust the subject because temptation is too great, in all human communities, numerous as nations or States, less numerous like associations or groupings, to try and turn historians into “experts” whose opinion would allow to be presented as “facts” judgments and interpretations that are biased or useful to unstated ends. Sometimes, historians offer themselves to this work of expertise. Haven’t we already seen some of them improvise themselves “experts” at the request of powerful communities, such as Catholic Church when it faced the damaging consequences of "L’affaire Touvier"? As I see it, the worst possible outcome to the current debates would be that, under the well understandable pretext of having historians or public leaders’ intellectual or “scientific” dominion validated, the idea germinates and becomes official, to form a sort of “historians association” called upon to establish the truths of history - as does the medical association when it decrees on the legality of medical practice.

If public authority, or its political representation, finds it necessary to say where, when, and to what degree a “crime against humanity” begins, thus opening up the possibility of rightful restoration, or defines its criminal apology, let that authority then decide and publicly and politically answer for its decision. As citizens, historians evidently will not escape common law, but, as investigators and teachers, they must be granted simultaneously the liberty to deepen their knowledge of set “facts” and to interpret them. The “Loi Gayssot”, for example, has departed from this obligation no less than did the one related to colonial slavery. This was not the case of the law of the 23rd of February, which not only calls to memory a “fact”, the one of “colonisation”, but abusively imposes a “positive” consideration of the latter, a coercion that in itself precisely reflects a colonialist position.

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