General Impression of the 2024 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

In early January the American sister association of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society the American Historical Association (AHA) organized its annual congress. This year the annual meeting of this name took place in San Francisco.

Although the flight to San Francisco is long and expensive, the RNHS values being present at this large congress each year. We derive knowledge and inspiration there, share experiences with others, and maintain our (international) network. Accordingly, our director Antia Wiersma travelled on behalf of the RNHS to that city on the American West Coast. In addition to participating in the congress, she served on a panel at a session on open-access publishing. In this general impression of the event, she relates several of her experiences.

Antia Wiersma during the AHA Annual Meeting 2024

San Francisco

San Francisco is known as a cheerful hippie city, where all people are free to be themselves. Experience what the former prison was like on Alcatraz Island, and enjoy the quaint little trams and the multicoloured Victorian houses that dominate the cityscape. This is all true and also gives tourists an incentive to visit this celebrated city of the United States.

San Fransisco

There is, however, another side to life in San Francisco. This proved a rude awakening, when I exited the train on Market Street in Downtown and walked to my hotel. Nearly every other shop was boarded up on this major shopping street, indicating an economic slump (after some digging, I learned that the average income in this city is more than one thousand dollars below the average for the United States). In addition, I literally tripped over the many vagrants and fentanyl addicts. This addiction has by now taken on the scope of an epidemic. This is painfully visible on the streets of San Francisco, where ‘zombie addicts’ dominate the cityscape, while shoppers circumnavigate them.

Political interference

Politics figured prominently during this congress. At the general meeting of members the resolution In defense of the right to learn was submitted and adopted. Those submitting it, supported by a large group of historians from all parts of the nation, urged AHA members to speak out against censorship in education and research and in defence of academic freedom and of historians and history teachers who are currently impacted by the burden of political interference at their universities, colleges, and secondary schools.

Historian Eileen Boris (University of California) reads statement against political interference and promotes the resolution ‘In defense of the right to learn’.

Accordingly, the two plenary gatherings convened by the AHA this year both addressed politics. The first plenary was about political interference at all levels of state education in the United States. As one of the panellists said: ‘What is not controversial among historians, is highly controversial among politicians and the broader public.’ Although in the Netherlands the developments in Florida have been the main focus, that is by no means the only state where Republican and Christian politicians interfere with educational content. This interference is very extensive indeed and is impossible to distinguish from censorship. Politicians prescribe what may and may not be taught, and which knowledge is or is not acceptable. Academic freedom is in jeopardy in those states. This deeply concerns the AHA. One of the speakers likened this development to a forest fire, meaning that no immediate solution is available. After all, putting out forest fires is extremely difficult. Another speaker emphasized that the only solution would be for historians to become politically active and to exert influencer from within. ‘We will not solve this enormous educational and scholarly problem by debating or reasoning,’ he asserted.

The far right

The other well-attended plenary gathering was Far right in America. Two non-scholars were invited to this highly innovative panel for the AHA. The first was television host Rachel Maddow of MNSBC, who is very popular among liberals in America. She holds a PhD in political science but recently published the book Prequel on American fascism in the 1930s and 40s. Afterwards, fans eager to speak with her quickly formed a very long line, hoping to have her autograph her book or to have their picture taken with her. The other speaker, Matthew Sitman, was a ‘convert,’ who has rejected the extremist right-wing ideology with which he was raised. He now shares his knowledge and experience with the general public via (online) journals and a podcast. Both Maddow and Sitman encouraged historians to continue doing what they do well, i.e. providing backgrounds and context, as well as sharing their knowledge more actively with the broader public.

Rachel Maddow signs her book Prequel after the panel.

Generally, this panel reached severe conclusions and inspired little hope. They label American religious conservatism as a long-term project that is generously funded. The conservative movement has vast social influence, because it offers educational opportunities, from schools to universities and from think tanks to projects. This entails insidious moral imperialism and has conditioned the ‘people.’ They did not offer ready-made solutions but urged us to give our topics careful consideration. Moreover, they strongly advocated broad dissemination of the knowledge the historical community produces.


The influence of gender, which presumes an intrinsic power relationship between the sexes, and queer-history, which provides consideration for the history of LHBTIQ persons, were addressed at several sessions that I also attended. In addition to the interesting substantive knowledge the speakers shared from their studies, I was struck that especially the queer historians openly admitted that the current political climate gave rise to self-censorship. Research topics, instructional material, visuals, book jackets, and the like may lead to disciplinary measures, termination, and online and physical threats to historians. Not only did the speakers fear these consequences, but some had even experienced them personally. This also resulted in the sad observation that much new research is unlikely to materialize in the near future or may never even surface on the research agenda. This will impoverish scholarship in general and our field in particular. Nor is the situation restricted to the United States. Researchers studying China or Brazil, for example, reported similar concerns. It was disheartening.


This congress was an important warning signal for me. Although the political trends in the United States and other parts of the world seem very remote to us in the Netherlands, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, in the Netherlands the extreme or ‘far’ right wing achieved a huge victory at the previous elections in the Netherlands. Which council of ministers and policy will ensue still remains to be seen. We cannot, however, stand by idly and rely on everything to work out for the best, as we have learned from the developments abroad. It is therefore important that we as a community of historians throughout the field and as the RNHS as a professional association remain alert and continue to uphold freedom of education and academic freedom.

Antia Wiersma, Director


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