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Pierre Nora “Recent History and the New Dangers of Politicization”

Nora, Pierre 2011. Recent History and the New Dangers of Politicization. – Eurozine. (http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-11-24-nora-en.html)

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.

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.

It appears that, on the morning after the battle, the historian is called upon to be a witness for the witnesses.

It is historians’ own relationship with the object of their study and their commitment to it that is changing completely.

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”.

There has been an increase, too, in the number of “customers” for history: those who distribute, produce and consume it. […] 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.

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 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.

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