Report on the KNHG evening debate: ‘History as (a)political science?’

On 5 June the Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap [Royal Netherlands Historical Society] (KNHG) and the Duitsland Instituut [Germany Institute] Amsterdam (DIA) organized an evening debate at the popular Spui25 venue in Amsterdam about ‘History, an (a)political science?’ They invited historians in the Netherlands to debate the relationship between politics and history and the potential role of the professional association in this discussion. The evening comprised a panel debate between KNHG Chairwoman and Political History Professor Susan Legêne, Assistent Professor and cultural historian Jeroen Koch, post-doctoral researcher and publicist Geerten Waling and Associate Professor and DAAD fellow at the DIA Christina Morina. Historian Krijn Thijs, also affiliated with the Germany Institute served as the moderator. The audience of about one hundred historians and interested individuals engaged in the debate. 


In his opening address Krijn Thijs described the reasons for this evening debate. Both in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the role of historians is sharply polarized in political debate, as is the way politicians relate to the past. In Germany this debate may be the most heated. This is understandable, in a country where coming to terms with its Nazi past is extremely sensitive. Instrumentalization of this German past by the extremist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland and Pegida in political debate has instigated shock waves. In this context, the German organisation of historians [the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen (VHD)] and the counterpart association of the KNHG adopted a sharply criticized resolution circumscribing the role of history and historians in political debate at their general members’ meeting on 27 September 2018. The VHD urged historians and politicians to use historically sensitive terminology, condemned political abuse of history and urged adopting a humane refugee policy. The resolution was harshly criticized. Left-wing and liberal historians alike were said to have deliberately taken charge of the content of this resolution, depriving conservative historians of their right to provide input. 

Although the Dutch context and interaction with the past differ markedly from the German approach, the relationship between history and politics is hotly debated in the Netherlands as well. The substance of this debate is focused mainly on how the Dutch have come to terms with their history of slavery and decolonization. Historians also discuss whether historical scholarship is ideologically diverse. Like Germany, in the Netherlands especially the extremist right-wing party Forum for Democracy invokes highly traditional Dutch impressions of history. This party moreover contests academia, labelling it overall as largely left-wing and then discrediting it. 

Unlike the German VHD, however, the KNHG, as the professional organization of Dutch historians, has thus far deliberately avoided taking a stand in this debate. At the evening ‘History, an (a)political science?’ the KNHG invited primarily fellow historians to debate the relationship between history and politics and address a variety of related positions and controversies. The debate concentrated in part on: the questions how political or apolitical is history in the Netherlands at present, should historians maintain some reserve, or do they have a duty towards society, and what role should the KNHG as the professional organization adopt in these debates? The questions put forward were in some respects known and longstanding but have become more current and urgent in the present political context. German experts on the panel, especially Morina and Thijs, offered outside impressions of the Dutch debate and elaborated on the German debate. After a brief opening statement from every speaker the debate started.

Inclusiveness and identity politics 

In her statement Legêne emphasized that politics was inextricably linked with history as a science. She viewed the question as to how ‘politicized’ the discipline has become as a different and far more complex issue and advised historians to be circumspect, both in how they engage in the current debate, and in how they approach each other. Legêne explained that under her aegis the KNHG board addressed the inclusive and exclusive effect of the study of history to have historians to reflect more on determining their point of view, and on who or what they exclude, when they select and analyse archives.

Waling presented the exact opposite view, as an advocate of an extreme multiplicity of perspectives and he positioned himself as a non-ideological historian. Adding immediately that he was an adherent of liberalism, Waling apparently did not qualify this conceptual framework as an ideology. He objected to the moralizing approach of historians and the KNHG, supporting more diverse and inclusive historiography. Historians who specialize in the history of minorities, of women and of colonial history, argued Waling, often wrongly claim that they are not politically engaged and in turn exclude divergent and different perspectives, leading to intolerance. Waling advocated a balanced, non-ideological approach to history, for example by propagating neither shame nor pride about the Dutch past. 

In the ensuing debate Waling associated studies on the history of women, minorities, and the colonial past in general with identity politics, a concept that Waling, despite requests from various panel members, did not define clearly. The question as to whether this so-called identity politics is a new phenomenon in historiography or in fact presents new wine in very old casks – given the strong focus among nearly all nineteenth-century historians on national identity and among Marxist historians on the emancipation of (male and Western) workers – was therefore neither posed nor answered. 

Social relevance 

Morina countered this with a different approach to history and politics. Despite her position that history always serves society, she defended the Weberian view of a neutral and objective value-free history. She invoked the longstanding argument that historians derive their social relevance not so much from the present – in which current controversies may backfire against historians – but from the past. The value of history lies in providing insight into the present by highlighting the historical causes underlying current debates. German historians, according to Morina, are tasked with explaining the rise of AfD in East Germany, rather than with drafting a resolution steeped in paternalism.  

Koch steered clear of explicit engagement as well. He described from a historical perspective how Dutch historians have dealt with politics over time, discerning growing involvement in contemporary historical scholarship. Especially the Foucault-type analyses of power structures are in his view more likely to take cognizance of the past than to account for it. According to Koch, this involvement is in some respects at odds with the rise in individualism and the disappearance of views of history offering universal explanations as a cornerstone for historical analysis, as did Marxism in the work of Romein and Calvinism in that of Groen van Prinsterer. He attributes the relevance of historians to their expertise and skills. Historians have a duty to respect the variegated character of history and to use their expertise to correct baseless statements and false sentiments, such as tempo doeloe. 

Multiplicity of perspectives

Following Koch’s defence of the variegated character of the past and Waling’s advocacy of diversity of opinions about the past, the panel members examined the idea of a multiplicity of perspectives. Despite the divergent views among the speakers on the relationship between history and politics, they appeared to agree on the importance of multiperspectivity, especially during lectures and seminars, where students have to form their opinions on the value of divergent approaches to history. Legêne noted that the interest of the KNHG in diversity derives from the idea that the voices of groups not previously heard merit consideration, alongside and in contrast to dominant narratives. Morina defended her view by emphasizing that considering only one perspective yields poor historical scholarship, whereas listening to several positions is a historical skill. 

At the same time, multiplicity of perspectives became a meaningless catch phrase during the debate, leaving some ambiguity as to whether all speakers interpreted this concept the same way, and whether consensus on the substance of this concept is even possible, given the different positions adopted. If a multiplicity of perspectives is the preferred solution, and all voices are to be included, how does Waling accommodate critical reflection on the dark chapters in Dutch history, and how does Legêne reconcile perspectives that exclude the voices of minorities? In other words, neither the substance nor the contours of a multiperspectivity were explored.

Who writes history? 

Waling illustrated his criticism of current historical scholarship that in his view often derives from a moralizing and unidimensional perception of gender and race by explaining that this type of history does not align with the ‘experience of the masses.’ In turn, Morina warned of the consequences of overly biased historiography. The concrete example she provided concerned the dominance of postwar West-German histories that exclude East-German perspectives and in her view explain the rise of the AfD. Historians need to ensure that, argued Morina, all people feel they are heard in the dominant historical narrative. 

This discussion about ‘feeling heard’ in Germany raises an important question in Dutch historiography. Is it true, as Waling argues, that the history of minorities and of the colonies dominate Dutch history in the broadest sense: from heritage studies, archives through museums, and from history education at secondary schools to history as an academic discipline? Or does this contemporary interest in gender and race have a correcting influence, as Legêne argues, on a perception of history, in which postcolonial and labour migrants and women long lacked representation? This approach of history was and may still be dominant in the Netherlands. 

In conclusion, Bas Kromhout, senior editor at Historisch Nieuwsblad, from the audience, asked the speakers to reflect on present-day Dutch history politics. In the course of the evening the speakers considered mainly how historians related to politics and hardly at all how Dutch politicians dealt with history. In this context, Kromhout wondered how the KNHG felt about the newly reinstated Canon commission and more specifically about the substantive statements by the minister. Legêne replied that the KNHG was actively involved in revising the curriculum and was therefore indirectly involved in the canon as well. She qualified the statements by the minister on this topic as ‘unfortunate’ but expressed confidence in the chairman recruited. 

This evening debate convened very different voices and views about the relationship between history and politics in the Netherlands and made for a lively discussion. It also raised a wide variety of new questions. The KNHG will continue this debate during the Historians’ Days in Groningen on 22-24 August that focuses on ‘Inclusive History’. 


Dr. Tessa Lobbes

Managing Editor BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review



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