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Professor Henry Reynolds

The Public Role of History

What public role does history have, particularly when issues such as Reconciliation are being discussed?

I’m sure that many of us would agree with Graeme Davison’s recent observation in the opening sentence of his The Use and Abuse of Australian History that: "It is both exciting and unsettling to be a historian in the late 1990s."

In the Universities' departments age and shrink—or in the case of my ex-university, disappear entirely—subsumed within a larger disparate schools. Fewer courses are offered; students fly to work related subjects. At the history teachers conferences which I have recently attended in Brisbane and Melbourne participants lamented their increasingly marginal status in the minds of Education Departments and curriculum planners.

Meanwhile professional historians feel under threat from critics who question the intellectual base of the whole enterprise. In his recent book On History the distinguished scholar Eric Hobsbawm wrote: "Theoreticians of all kinds circle round the peaceful herds of historians as they graze on the rich pasture of their primary sources."

In his Defence of History Richard Evans observed that the question was not so much "What is History?" as "Is it possible to do history at all?" Historians at the end of the twentieth century, he believed, were "haunted by a sense of gloom" because doubts had been cast on core beliefs about the ability to gain objective knowledge about the past and about the nature of truth itself, or as Hobsbawm put it "essential but imperilled element in the writing of history, the idea of truth."

But despite epistemological doubts and shrinking student demand history stands tall in popular interest and estimation. Was there ever a time in the past when history was so central to the political debate; when Clio was consulted so readily? Individuals, families and communities are researching their history. Old buildings, old artefacts, old locations are restored, renewed and rediscovered. Mainstream Australia seeks to affirm its roots in the continent. The past is consulted for explanations about present dilemmas and future prospects. Like the community, politicians turn to history for justification and inspiration.

Paul Keating’s ‘big picture’ was as much about the past as the present. Speech-writer/historian Don Watson saw to that. The two men sought to persuade the electorate that to navigate our way into an uncertain future we had to correctly orientate ourselves to the past. For his part John Howard appeared to be obsessed with history in the early part of his prime-ministership. He declared that he wanted the community to feel relaxed and comfortable about the past. He refused to apologise to the stolen generation and he denounced what has come to be called the ‘black arm-band’ version of history. In his Future Directions document of 1988 he declared that people had been taught to be ashamed of their past:

"Even people’s confidence in their nation’s past came under attack as the professional purveyors of guilt attacked Australia’s heritage and people were told they should apologise for pride in their culture, traditions, institutions and history."

In his Playford lecture of 1996 he declared that the attempt to rewrite Australian history was "one of the more insidious developments" over the past decade.

The political leader’s engagement with history is not surprising. It has been deeply implicated in many of the most controversial issues, which have emerged during the 1990s. The High Court’s Mabo judgement of 1992 was about both law and history. The six judges defined and supported their arguments by reference to copious and diverse legal judgements. Their main business was jurisprudence. But the passion, which drove the judgement, came from a deep sense of the need to remedy historical injustice with Justices Deane and Gaudron referring to a legacy of unutterable shame.

If anything history was even more important in the Wik case which turned on the question of how to assess the nature of pastoral leases. The Commonwealth and the State governments argued that they had to be considered in terms of common-law doctrine. The Wik people asserted that pastoral leases had to be considered historically as a unique product of Australian colonial development, created specifically to allow for the mutual use of land by pastoralists and traditional owners.

The whole native title process has drawn historians into its quasi-judicial machinery. Whereas the Northern Territory Native Title legislation of 1976 required anthropologists and linguists to help establish customary ownership, the post-Mabo world requires historians who can establish if, when and how pre-existing native title had been extinguished. Even then Australian experience is dwarfed by the functioning of the Waitangi Tribunal which is by far the largest employer of historians in New Zealand.

History was even more directly involved in the Human Rights Commission’s report Bringing Them Home which was based on the testimony of 535 people who gave evidence both publicly and in camera. One theme which ran through much of the testimony was the insistence that governments both apologise and explain why the policy had been implemented in the first place. One anonymous witness argued:

"The Government has to explain why it happened. What was the intention? I have to know why I was taken. I have to know why I was given the life I was given and why I am scarred today. Why was my Mum meant to suffer? Why was I made to suffer with no Aboriginality and no identity, no culture?"

The collection of testimony was not just a method to compile a history from below but was an expression of an overwhelming desire for recognition and a need to speak and hear the truth. The Report explained:

" For victims of gross human rights violations, establishing the truth about the past is a critically important measure of reparation. For many victims and their families, an accurate and truthful description of past policies and practices and of their consequences is the first requirement of justice and the first step towards healing wounds."

Insistence on the truth has echoed through Indigenous politics for the last decade. The demand is that white Australia acknowledge the past. The popular slogan "White Australia Has a Black Past" sums it up well. Aborigines want European Australians to accept and to admit that their territories were invaded, their ancestors shot and brutalised and their land expropriated without negotiation or purchase. Over and over again Indigenous leaders have warned that without truth there can be no reconciliation. At the Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne in May 1997 the Chairman of the Reconciliation Council, Patrick Dodson, looked forward to the prospect of a nation at peace with itself because it had the courage to own the truth of its past, to heal the wounds of its past, and therefore free itself from the chains of the past. He sought from the Government and people an apology so that Australia could become a nation "one part of which apologises for the wrongs of the past" and the other part which "accepts that apology and forgives."

This emphasis on telling the truth, confession, forgiveness, apology and reparation can be seen in many parts of the world during the 1980s and especially during the 1990s. It is as if the approach of the millennium called forth a ubiquitous desire for a clearing of the decks, for atonement and new beginnings. In the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe, in the new democracies of Latin America and in post-apartheid South Africa whole communities have been drawn into the process of reconciliation.

The instrument used for this end is what has been generally called the Truth Commission. It has taken a variety of forms. The United Nations has set up Commissions to deal with Bosnia, Rwanda, El Salvador, Guatemala and Somalia. There have been government bodies in South Africa, Argentina and Chile and unofficial ones in Brazil and Uruguay. Writing of these commissions in the Duke Journal of International and Comparative Law the American scholar, Michael Scharf, argued that they served four primary purposes:

  1. to establish an historic record;
  2. to obtain justice for the victims;
  3. to facilitate national reconciliation; and
  4. to deter further violations and abuses.

He believed that creating a credible account of human rights crimes prevents history from being lost or rewritten, and allows a society to learn from its past in order to prevent a repetition of such violence in the future. Justice, he argued, was promoted by imposing moral condemnation and laying the groundwork for other sanctions. National reconciliation and individual rehabilitation were facilitated by acknowledging the suffering of victims and their families, helping to resolve uncertain cases, and allowing victims to tell their story, thus serving as a therapeutic purpose for an entire country, and imparting to the citizenry a sense of dignity and empowerment that could help them move beyond the power of the past.

A central concern of the societies in question was to investigate and interrogate the past in order to prevent a return to the tyrannies, whether practised by communist party officials, death squads or police and para-military forces of right-wing dictatorships. The main weapon available to fledgling democracies was thought to be the truth. The El Salvador Commission on Truth was established in order that the "complete truth be made known." The Argentine Commission into the Disappeared Persons was instructed to "ascertain the truth of what had happened" under the generals. In the then Czechoslovakia the authors of Charter 77 declared:

"We call only for the truth. The truth about the past and the truth about the present are indivisible. Without accepting the truth about what happened it is impossible to address correctly what is happening now; without the truth about what is happening now it is impossible to substantially improve the existing state of affairs."

Victims of torture and oppression, like members of Australia’s stolen generation, are often insistent that what they want above all is an investigation which establishes the truth about what happened to them both in order to come to terms with their suffering and to ensure that it will never be forgotten. A Chilean commentator who followed the proceedings of the local Truth Commission noted that:

"If anything, the desire for truth is often more urgently felt by the victims of torture than the desire for justice. People don’t necessarily insist that former torturers go to jail ­ but they do want to see the truth established."

The exposure of the truth has been seen as necessary for both individual victims and for societies endeavouring to recover from periods of oppression and tyranny. The Deputy Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Alex Boraine, observed that for the process of healing it was essential that the truth about gross human rights violations came out into the open. "To be able to forgive", he wrote, "one needs to know whom one is forgiving and why." Without the truth it was impossible to do that.

On reflection it is easy to see why the assorted investigative bodies have been given the generic name of truth commissions. Voices from many different parts of the world—South Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Australia—join in chorus to demand that their societies discover and proclaim the truth, to record the facts about brutality and repression. The exercise is seen as playing a critical role in the process of democratisation, reform, reconciliation and reparation.

Historians are called upon to play a forensic role of uncovering and proclaiming the truth. Society expects much of them—at the very time that they are care consumed by epistemological doubt and are not sure if they can find out what actually happened in the past. The irony was not lost on the American legal scholar, Mark Osiel, who wrote in his recent book Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory and the Law of "this social movement for factual recovery."

"Before there is any debate about who is morally or legally responsible for what, about which lessons must be learnt by whom to prevent the catastrophe’s recurrence, people want to know ‘the facts’. The banners they proclaim through the streets might just as well carry the motto of the nineteenth-century German historian, Leopold von Ranke: to discover the past ‘as it really was’—a view today treated as the object of ridicule by many professional historians."

There is, he observed, something about large-scale administrative massacre that brings out the residual positivist—in virtually everyone … Even when deeply repressed among post-modern intellectuals.

In Argentina, El Salvador and the old Soviet Empire he noted much of the population

"rises up in support of the view that there is a bedrock of basic facts about who did what to how many, when, and in what fashion. These must be authoritatively established, to provide the foundation for any legitimate public discussion of these events. It is not enough that the facts be generally known; they must also be publicly acknowledged."

The critical question which arises from the discussion to this point is whether the search for justice and reconciliation is dependent on a bedrock of basic fact and, by implication, on the ability of historians to discover what actually happened in the prisons, the torture chambers, the police cells, the government committees, the military barracks, the fringe camps, the missions and the Aboriginal Children’s Homes.

Norman Geras, Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester has argued strongly:

"If there is no truth, there is no injustice…if truth is wholly relativised or internalised to particular discourses or language games…final vocabulary, framework of instrumental success, culturally specific set of beliefs or practices of justification, there is no injustice…The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes."

This paper began with the observation that it was both a good time and a bad time for history. In Australia the Prime Minister has accused history of undermining the community’s pride in its past and of donning the black arm-band of mourning. History has a very high profile and has been central to many of the major debates in the community but it struggles for survival in both schools and universities.

To the circling theoreticians traditional history appears old-fashioned, unreflective, unsophisticated. But events outside the academy re-affirm the moral authority and political potency of history. While it has always been used by the rich and the powerful it is a weapon within the reach of the poor, the oppressed and the disregarded. Though still dressed in her dowdy late-Victorian clothes, Clio can move the world. Even if she has not yet touched the heart of a recalcitrant Prime Minister.