The state and the responsibility of historians

Not a real Chosen period photo, of course, but a recent dramatisation.

Not a real Choson period photo, of course, but a recent dramatisation.

I find myself at a conference in the wonderfully medieval looking city of Ghent (getting here proved to be not as complicated as I had feared, given the fact that Brussel is still under lock-down due to the terrorist threat), a conference on state-sponsored history. The place to be for a historian working on Korean history, whether that be South or North Korean history. History in the real sense of the word (as the –as much as possible- independent study and writing of history) does not exist north of the 38th parallel of course, I hardly need to remind you. The transcendentally coercive charisma of the Great Leader occasions everything he and his predecessors did to be considered history and to be taught as such. Any history that is mobilized into serving a higher purpose loses its essential qualities as history and becomes propaganda. The Great Leader know this full well and I hope that this is fully realized at the other side of the 38th parallel as well. Although the ongoing controversy in South Korea about whether the state should or should not interfere in the writing of history books for educational use – or worse, to compose it itself – is getting increasingly serious (and one would have thought the answer to this question is slamdunkingly easy: no, it shouldn’t, but apparently it is not). Newsflash for those who think that the state may tell you what history is: read Prof Antoon de Baets’ long exposition on the laws governing the free expression of historians. Historians are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (aka ICCPR), which was derived directly from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by 168 states (representing 80% of the world population) in 1948, oh no, in 2015. Do take note. Here are two of the important articles:

Article 19 ICCPR

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive 
and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in 
print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and 
 It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 20 ICCPR

  1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
  2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, 
hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Now I am under no illusion where Pyongyang is in this regard, but I’m hoping Seoul will position itself on the right side of the divide. Let it not be forgotten that traditional Korean historiography (the principles upon which the Veritable Records depended for their Veritable-ness) was written independently (really, truly, f*ck-with-this-rule-and-you-lose-your-throne-ly independently) from the ruler. The ruler had no right to interfere with or to even look at what was being written about him by the state’s historians. Indeed, it would be a reason for deposement if this sacred rule was broken. That’s the kind of fiercely independent state historians any state needs, not historians whose allegiance to the state is one of facile obedience and superficial protection. There always have been enough of those. But I digress.

Conferences such as this confront the historian with his/her duties, rights, methods, legal context, et cetera. They show the importance of, to name just one example, the expert committee of historians who took a long, hard look at how the Swiss behaved before, during and after WOII. This particular paper, by Dr Friedrich von Petersdorff, talked about a ‘rediscovered sense of responsibility” for the Swiss state, about the significance of “the act of remembering” “in its material sense” as restitution by that same state, which is particularly meaningful with regard to Swiss transgressions against humanity I’d almost say connected to its role in WOII. Historians need to push, shove, pull & speak truth to power to make this kind of (state-led or not) reflections happen. ‘Frapper, toujours frapper’ as my grandmother used to say. For those of you who want to take a closer look at the final report describing and judging Swiss (mis-)behavior during WOII, here is the PDF.

In the end, it is simultaneously very simple and rather difficult: historians (also/ mainly/only?) have the duty to speak truth to power, to present the provocative argument (not because it is provocative, but it cannot be avoided on account of its provocative nature), to go against what is given/known/believed. That’s some task, but fortunately Antoon de Baets’ presentation also made clear that historians also possess the legal ‘right to err.’ Phew. Not sure where this leaves the profession in terms of legal accountability, but the speaking of truth to power should not bother too much with legal niceties, because that would, in the long run, be self-defeating. Who needs historians, unless as antiquarians or identity watchmen, after all when the law fully regulates what can/cannot and should/should not be said? That situation (which is a bit of a strawman-cum-laboratory-situation, in all honesty) is yet to present itself, of course, and in the context of North Korea fully unimaginable. Even in South Korea, it is a far way off, if indeed such a situation is desirable in the first place. Speaking truth to power is a continuous process and not a single action. Unless you’ve been so unfortunate as to replicate the fate of these historians/scholar-officials who spoke truth to power and then spoke no more. There is always a price to be paid for speaking out.

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