The introductory outlines of the session are as follows: ‘The most critical point of view possible at this time is that the current academic discipline of WWII is developing towards being an applied science at best: purely catering to societal interests and dominated by actors from outside the academic discipline. A harsh assessment would be that the field has no longer sufficient legitimacy as such, and thus may be a victim of its own success? It may now have reached the point that it is unable to innovate its own particular set of questions, approaches and separate longer term goals.’
Chair Nico Wouters (academic coordinator at CegeSoma Brussels and University of Antwerp) asks the panellists to tackle the following questions regarding historical research agendas and intellectual autonomy of historians:
1) Do others outside the academic world impose research questions on us war historians (‘Are we colonised?’) And if so, is that a problem?
2) How should we shape a new history of the WWII?
Ilse Raaijmakers works as a policy adviser for the WWII programme at Arq Psychotrauma Expert Group and as such an applied scientist. She states there is a false contrast between pure historical research and applied science. From her point of view the two could and should be combined. For example, historians should definitely not sustain from the public debate. Raaijmakers refers the debate on national commemoration of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. Every single year the same question is being brought up: What should we remember on 4th May and in what is it that we should remember? In the end it is politics that decide on the matter but as a historian, one should involve in the debate and provide for a historical context. According to Raaijmakers It would be ridiculous if historians would sustain from discussions such as the one mentioned. Another important issue pointed out by Raaijmakers is the ‘accountability of historians’. She suggests the existence of a generation gap regarding the issue. The ‘elevator pitch generation’ to which Raaijmakers belong, may be more used to the idea that the research you undertake must have a wide impact.
Remco Ensel teaches cultural history at the Radboud University Nijmegen and is affiliated with the NIOD. He states that the profession of ‘doing history’ involves debate in one way or another. He himself participated – in collaboration with Evelien Gans – in an academic and public debate on the history of the Holocaust. They published a critical review of a book written by historian Bart van der Boom in a Dutch weekly magazine. ‘Wij weten niets van hun lot’ received in general positive reviews in the non-academic world. However, up until Ensel and Gans’review, there had not been an academic account of the book. ‘There is an artificial divide between the academic and public domain’, says Ensel. The book was very popular and paradoxically precisely because of its popularity, historians did not feel responsible and did not react to its content. Ensel stresses the importance of debates, be it public or in the margins – as in marginality interesting debates ignite.
Bruno De Wever is full professor at the Department of History of Ghent University where he leads the research program War, crisis and society. On the one hand De Wever agrees with Belgian historian Pieter Lagrou that historiography of WOII is too moralizing, only in favour of those whose only aim is to glorify human rights. On the other hand he disagrees with Lagrou regarding his urge to ‘withdraw from society’. Lagrou calls for war historians to withdraw into a marginal position. According to De Wever academics have to be in society- at the same time you have to keep your own agenda. Being involved in public debates urges you to take a stand.