"Law, History and the Obligation of Memory"
The loi 23 février 2005 (the one that said that colonization benefited the colonized) not only angered politicians in Africa and the Carribean (as well as minority leaders in France), it also annoyed a group of prominent historians: they petitioned the government to abrogate all memorial laws, including those concerning the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. So far, it seems that Chirac will ignore the offending article of the law(saying that it is unconstitutional because it is regulative in character rather than legislative.) Sarkozy, as the chief of the ruling UMP, asked Arno Klarsfeld to report on the law, as well as the other French memorial laws, and their relationship to history. (It wasn't helped that Klarsfeld has dual citizenship with Israel.) Thinking that this might be of general interest to historians, I've translated a number of passages (don't take it for my opinion.)
For the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that struck Europe in the 20th century, the memory of past events constituted an essential issue in the writing of history to conform to the dominating ideology. For parliamentary and democratic regimes, these issues were considerable for entirely different reasons.
All memories are different, sometimes they are antagonistic, but all have been painful and all are part of the French collective memory. The respective obligation of memory forces [those who suffered] to militate so that collective injustices and the suffering are solemnly recognized by the State, whether it is the nation, the republic, or France.
The historians who signed the petition of 13 December say that they are “disturbed by the frequent political intervention in the interpretation of the events of the past ... .” This emotion is astonishing. Does it mean that, according to them, it is not for men of politics to appreciate, according to their convictions and the public nature, the events related to our history .... The signatories claim that it is only for historians to ‘write history.’ Historians do not write history, men, people make history; historians content themselves to write about history. The petitioners conclude: “History is not a juridical object. In a free state, neither Parliament nor judicial authority defines the truth of history ... We demand the abrogation of these legislative provisions that are unworthy of a democratic regime.”
These historians are wrong. Interpreting the past is also a domain of politics, especially for the parliamentarians representing the nation. Sometimes one must promote memorial laws, like those of the past that favored the union of the nation and the people and also that recognized the ensemble of identities that coexist in the republic. If the historian establish facts with rigor and precision, he cannot assume the task of legislating who is to be protected and consoled in the interest of national cohesion.
In the past legislators often organized commemorations of historical events in giving them a political meaning, and organized compensation for victims of global and colonial wars, or even domestic events .... France is not alone among the democracies where the legislatures “write history.”
Memorial laws exist above all in relations to the obligation of memory that primarily concerns recent history and a brief succession of generations. They can only concern the contemporary era and recognition of an important event: the Armenian Genocide, that of the Jews, slavery which perpetuates itself in certain regions of the world, global and colonial wars.
The loi Gayssot punished disputations of the existence of one or more crimes against humanity .... It does not restrict the liberty of opinion because denial constitutes an aggression against history; historical research does not involve itself with the conscious falsification or manipulation of facts.
The aggressions of deniers had been painfully resented by surviving members of victimized families of the Shoah. The law permitted the injured, insulted, defamed, whose private lives were revealed or even those who reported collaborators, to start legal proceedings, but the law did not furnish any specific recourse .... The loi Gayssot filled a void. Finally, the loi Gayssot was voted to avoid the abrasive debates between historians and pseudo-historians in the courts. The loi Gayssot did not prevent historical research done in good faith and the necessary corrections that it imposed. No one thought to accuse Raul Hilberg of revisionism when he estimated the number of victims of the Shoah at 5 million rather than 6 million ....
We emphasize that deniers had not known true success in the western academic world .... The veritable protection that the loi Gayssot accords and the sanctions that it anticipates is that which benefit the survivors of the Shoah, whom it saves from an intolerable confrontation with anti-Jewish hate in its most obnoxious form.
The law on the Armenian Genocide is not of the same nature as the loi Gayssot. It is only declarative and has a single article: “France publicly recognizes the Armenian Genocide of 1915.” The first genocide of the 20th century was the Armenian Genocide, caused by the systematic repression of tens of thousands of Armenian families by the Turks. If this genocide had been followed by a work of legitimate justice ... this first genocide would not have been followed by another .... Furthermore, there exists in France an important community of French Armenians. History should bind them to their country as well as their ancestors, their memories.
The loi Taubira sets out that “The French Republic recognizes that the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as well as the trade in the Indian Ocean and slavery, ... constitutes a crime against humanity.” France was implicated in this process. The oversees territories are part of the republic and communities whose ancestors suffered are present on national territory. It is necessary to commemorate that which was the organization of the inhuman “trade in blacks” .... Fixing a date for the national commemoration of suffering due to slavery is desirable, moreover that slavery endures in numerous parts of the world and should be eradicated.
Article 4 of the loi de 23 février 2005 sets out that"scholastic programs recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa" .... The first part of article 4 is unacceptable, because it evokes only the"positive role" of the French presence without recalling the considerable wrongdoings of colonization and the acts of the great European powers: military conquest, massacres, exactions, police repression, economic exploitation, times of disregard and times of dismembering. This article wounds the descendants of those who suffered from this colonization and who have considered it a provocation. The rewriting of the articles is indispensable.
In the past, textbooks have bragged about the merits of colonization without revealing the slightest negative aspect. Today the balance sheet of colonization, such as it is presented in textbooks, does not indicate any of the positive aspects .... It is not reasonable to pass in one half-century from a panegyric of colonization to its total denigration. If the two opposing memories cannot be reconciled, it one refuses to recognize the wrongdoings and the other admit the positive aspects, perhaps it is more reasonable that a neutral term should be adopted ....
The reproaches of historians regarding the intervention of politicians in the domain of history are not well-founded: history is not the field of the historian. The idea that a people makes its own history is a considerable factor in its future and it is legitimate that Parliament, which represents the nation, can occasionally intervene so as to fix perspectives and moral benchmarks. To this end the elected proceed democratically and publicly with their political convictions – no more or less present that among the historians.