By Sven Widmalm, PL of SciConf
Presentation at the HERA Joint Research Programme Conference “Humanities in Crisis, Crisis in Humanities”, Wrocław, 8–9 September 2022, panel 9: “Crisis in the public sphere”.
This panel concerns the misuses of humanities and the undermining of scholarly expertise in the public sphere. History currently offers perhaps the most damaging examples of this tendency.
“Bad history can kill”, Simon Schama (2022) recently wrote. And later in the same text, like many others have done recently, he quoted George Orwell: “who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past”. As humanities scholars we must reach out to policymakers and politicians with this message.
Bad history is an important aspect of the current crisis; it is a symptom as well as a cause. Sometimes, as with the war in Ukraine, it has lethal consequences; sometimes its effects are not as dramatic but nevertheless insidious. The idea that politics is downstream from culture is popular among the extreme right. Things are more complicated, but we ignore the importance of culture, including bad history, for politics at our peril.
I will comment briefly on the uses of history since the Second World War, from mainly a Swedish perspective. As the uses of history are to some extent determined by national contexts some of what I say will have broad and some perhaps more local relevance. Among European nations that fought and/or were occupied in the war there has been extensive discussions and attempts at historical revision over the past decades. What sticks out in the case of Sweden, a non-belligerent, has been the importance of neutrality. During the war, Sweden was neutral, a policy which included quite a few concessions to the belligerents, not least Germany. Foreign policy from the 1950s to the 1980s was characterized by what has been called neutral activism – a tendency to engage in sometimes strong criticism of western as well as Soviet imperialism but also, clandestinely, close collaboration with NATO. In the 1990s, when the cold war ended and Sweden joined the EU, neutrality lost much of its former relevance. A re-evaluation of Swedish history took place from this time. A revision of a semi-official historiography began, according to which neutrality had been integral to a Social Democratic welfare-state success story, which has continued in fits and starts ever since.
It was historians but above all journalists who began problematizing Swedish war-time neutrality as well as the premises of the Swedish welfare state, now sometimes described as verging on the authoritarian. Policies that had been presented as egalitarian could, with a little help from Michel Foucault, be described as oppressive. Other matters that attracted attention were the institutionalization of eugenics around 1920 and the programme of sterilizations that started in the thirties and continued to the 1970s (forced sterilization however almost ceased in the 1950s). Similar discussions were incited in other Scandinavian countries at this time. According to the historian Bo Stråth (2008), they marked the beginning of a moralistic turn in the historiography of Scandinavian modernity. From now on, history would more and more be discussed in terms of present-day values, pulling it more and more out of its original context.
More recently there has been an increase in public history with a right-wing tendency that tackles these issues in a populist fashion, not so much revising history as rewriting it altogether. This trend has had a lot to do with the rise of right-wing populism in general, in Sweden as in other countries. The so-called Sweden Democrats party was founded in the 1980s by a group with strong fascist or Nazi leanings. In 2010 they gained seats in parliament for the first time; they have now become the second largest party in Sweden, forming a coalition with two other right-wing parties and the centrist Liberals that narrowly won the recent general election. For some years the Sweden Democrats have engaged in an indirect whitewash of their own history by vilifying that of the Social Democrats. One example is a “documentary” published on YouTube in August 2018, called One People One Party, which claims that the Social Democrats inspired the Holocaust. Its point is that the history of Social Democracy is more fascist than that of the Sweden Democrats.
A similar strategy lies behind a book published a couple of years ago by Aron Flam (2020), a popular right-wing culture-warrior and comedian. It is a 560-page doorstopper claiming to reveal truths hidden through a decades-long conspiracy among Social Democrats and professional historians. A central allegation is that the welfare state was founded on gold stolen by the Nazis from Jews and transferred to Sweden as payment for services rendered under the guise of neutrality. The book is now in its 7th print run. The historian Mikael Nilsson got so upset by this that he recently published an even thicker volume (2022) refuting Flam’s book in meticulous detail.
A tendency towards bad history is noticeable in other areas of great general concern as well. Appalling simplifications have been bandied about in otherwise serious media and also by academics in connection with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in particular with the rushed decision to file an application for NATO membership after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Realist-oriented political scientists who argue that one must look to history to figure out the logic behind Putin’s geopolitics have been accused in mainstream media of running his errands, or worse (Hagström 2019). It has been claimed by an established political scientist that Sweden has been on the side-lines of European politics since 1815 since we have not fought any wars, but that we are now, with the upcoming NATO membership, finally becoming normal Europeans. (Fägersten 2022) No matter what you think of NATO, the naiveté and presentism of such claims is astonishing.
Other examples come from the intense discussions concerning the Swedish Covid strategy that was laxer than in many other countries. There have been papers and a book on this by established academics who attribute Swedish covid policies both to totalitarian Social Democratic traditions (Lindström 2021) and to a national mentalité according to which Swedes are too individualistic to ever accept being locked up with their own families for extended periods of time (Gustavsson 2021). Some of these examples illustrate a general disregard for historical knowledge which you find in mass media and sometimes also among professional academics. Others indicate that the ground is being prepared for a politicization of Swedish history, encompassing heritage studies and museums, similar to what we have seen in countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary, and the UK.
One of the important tasks of the humanities and especially history in the current crisis is to preserve our credibility by doing what the historian Mikael Nilsson (2022) has done: To tackle propagandistic or shoddy uses of history, not by engaging with them on the levels of ideas or ideology, which currently seems to have no effect, but on the level of footnotes. We should become better at explaining the nitty gritty of historical research, including what is meant by empirical evidence and what constitutes historical agency. But we cannot, in most cases, do this individually; we must organize.
In my HERA-funded project group we study the history of international scientific conferences, including policy-oriented meetings, of which there has been an enormous number after the war. These have been spaces – more or less public – for advertising the critical importance of issues like nuclear armament, climate change, and the AIDS and Covid pandemics. They have also constituted a forum for dialog between policy makers and scientists, and for initiating action among those groups.
One of our observations is that the conferences themselves are only the tip of an iceberg of committee work, networking, and policy planning, the effects of which – in the long run – go way beyond those of a single meeting. As one participant in the famous UN conference on the human environment in Stockholm in 1972 put it:
We had frequently said, and we meant it, that the Stockholm Conference would prove to have been a success even if it never took place. Preparing for it was the vital thing. (Stone 1973, p. 122)
Unfortunately, even those policymakers who care deeply about such things as “knowledge resistance” are not as interested in engaging with historical research as with science or social science. As history is currently used to muddy the waters of public discourse, to undermine democracy and to promote war in Europe they should be. One way of encouraging a dialogue that might lead to action would be to organize large international meetings on the problems we face. Just as science and scholarship are international ‒ of which the enormous growth in international meetings since the early 1900s is proof ‒ resistance against the current onslaught on fundamental principles of academic knowledge production should be. If ambitiously conceived, such meetings may forge networks that can disseminate knowledge and yield blueprints for action. This has happened in the sciences since the Second World War, with Pugwash as an important early example.
Ganging up with scientists, like those grappling with anti-vaccine or climate-change disinformation, would be a good idea. We have common interests: our credibility is undermined when our institutions are no longer trusted by those who are not themselves experts. Trust is a fundamental issue, as the sociology and history of science have taught us. All science and scholarship depend on it. Cross-disciplinary international conferences mobilizing concerned policy makers, scientists and scholars in democratic countries might be a good start to get to grips with how to tackle this issue.
Other works cited or referred to:
Fägersten, Björn, “Med Nato kan svenskarna bli européer”, Utrikesmagasinet (May 2022), https://www.ui.se/utrikesmagasinet/analyser/2022/maj/med-nato-kan-svenskarna-bli-europeer/ (consulted 28 September 2022)
Flam, Aron, Det här är en svensk tiger (Stockholm 2020)
Gustavsson, Gina, Du stolta du fria. Om svenskarna, Sverigebilden och folkhälso-patriotismen (Stockholm 2021)
Hagström, Linus, “Becoming a Traitor”, Life Writing (May 2019), DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2019.1644986
Lindström, Martin, “The New Totalitarians: The Swedish COVID-19 strategy and the implications of consensus culture and media policy for public health”, SSM – Population Health 14 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100788
Nilsson, Mikael, Historiemissbrukarna: Ett korrektur till lögnerna och villfarelserna om Sverige under andra världskriget (Stockholm 2022)
One people, One Party – The history about the Swedish Social Democratic Party (2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W56ZKUVECWs (consulted 21 April 2022)
Schama, Simon, “When history is weaponised for war”, Financial Times (May 6 2022)
Stone, Peter, Did We Save the Earth at Stockholm? (London 1973)
Stråth, Bo, “Nordic Foundation Myths After 1945: A European Context”, in Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg and Johan Östling, eds., Nordic Narratives of the Second World War. National Historiographies Revisited (Lund 2008)