Facing the past

Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott, every period is for God at the same distance. This dictum by Leopold van Ranke has often been used to harshly criticize and ridicule his views. It has definitely harmed his reputation. How close are historical periods to a historian? Are some periods not closer to them because of a familiarity fostered by years of research? Are some periods not much farther away from us because we do not readily respond to them? Specialisation can be a hindrance to perceive other subjects, periods and approaches. Historians have to face the temptation to behave like Gods at a safe distance, with the ultimate view and judgment of history and people. Doing academic history is not always and automatically a safeguard against bias and prejudice, but it definitely can help preventing the worst excesses.

A few weeks ago Eric Hennekam, a Dutch archivist who devotes much time to his blog, a website with news on archives and several other online activities including Twitter, almost lamented the launch of www.tweedewereldoorlog.nl, a new Dutch portal about the Second World War. Again a website on this period! At first I intended to share his view, but after visiting this portal I changed my mind. I am afraid I am a medievalist, with admittedly knowledge of and interests in other periods and subjects, but there’s no undoing my focus on medieval history. I have my copy of the multi-volume official history of The Netherlands during the Second World War by Lou de Jong, but apart from that I have only a few books on this period. The services of a portal which leads you to both written and audiovisual sources, to both educational resources and research institutes, can be really useful. Combining the strengths of the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), the audiovisual archives of the Dutch broadcasting organizations and other institutes is not in itself a bad idea. The use of the term erfgoed, “heritage”, on this portal is probably more alarming. It points to the different perceptions and representations of history which can lead you away from a more distanced way of doing history.

It is now four weeks since the appearance of a new study on the role and behavior of Dutch barristers during the Second World War by Joggli Meihuizen, Smalle marges. De Nederlandse advocatuur tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Amsterdam: Boom, 2010). Meihuizen is a researcher at the NIOD. The research for this study was supported by the Dutch Bar Association. The reactions on Sans égards, a study published in 2007 by Meihuizen on Adriaan Pitlo, a famous law professor at the University of Amsterdam, and his behavior towards Carel Polak, a Jewish lawyer, during and after the Second World War, contain for me the warning to keep here a safe distance. In Dutch historiography about the Second World War much stress has been put on the discernment between morally justifiable and immoral behavior. In 1983 former NIOD director Hans Blom gave his inaugural lecture at Amsterdam University the title In de ban van goed en fout? (Enthralled by good or wrong?). Chris van der Heijden’s Grijs verleden: Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Grey past: Holland and the Second World War) (Amsterdam 2001) was often seen by the general public as a defamation of historical truth.

Using words as accomodation, indicating the many hues and grey zones, is difficult to swallow when this does not seem to fit in with one’s own recollections of the war period. Few things are probably more confronting than comparing your own memories with more general views of any event: your own view might appear to be biased, you might have created your vision of things, others might have a very different view of affairs. Things are perhaps made more heavy for Dutch people because of the sheer impact of the first war on Dutch territory since 1813. The Second World War has become The War. However, it is normal for historians to distinguish between continuity and change, and it is perfectly sensible to look for both also when studying the Second World War. Two generations after the end of this terrible war it is still living memory, a period to which people are sensitive.

The Dutch Bar Association wanted the NIOD to do research on Dutch barristers precisely because of the diminishing powers of memory, the small number of lawyers still living who were practising at the bar in these years, and because archival records about barristers are relatively scarce and difficult to trace, and finally to break the silence and to penetrate the mists of time. Meihuizen entitled his study Narrow margins. How much scope for behaving differently actually existed? How much scope could one perceive? Only after reading his study carefully one can say whether he has succeeded in bringing to light in a valid and consistent way the officium nobile during a most challenging period. What can we really ascertain at this distance in time, with the particular difficulties of the sources used, with due respect to the people living in a period where angels fear to tread? Facing the questions of war in the midst of a war is different from looking at it from a safe distance in time or place. I have no idea of my own response to such challenging situations.

As for portals on particular historical periods, some periods are indeed almost hidden behind portals and websites, others suffer from unjust neglect by the world of virtual access to information. Bringing together information, giving judicious comments on websites, and pointing to easily overlooked information available online, is really important.

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