Antoon De Baets is Professor of History, Ethics and Human Rights at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Author of more than 200 publications, he notably wrote Crimes Against History (Routledge, 2018). Since 1995, he has been leading the network of historians Network of Concerned Historians.
What does the notion of “Crimes against history” cover, of which you are the promoter?
This concept is inspired by crimes against humanity. It is based on large-scale and systematic attacks against the producers of history, that is to say all those who deal with historical sources, through the assassinations and disappearances of historians, personal attacks, arbitrary persecutions. , the intentional destruction of a country’s cultural heritage, but also infox, disinformation which includes the denial of atrocities, war crimes and certain parts of history. I have a fairly comprehensive list of historians persecuted in 75 countries, a fifth of whom worked in the USSR. As early as January 1918, Lenin said: “The revolution does not need historians. “
The USSR has disappeared, but are you worried about today’s Russia, which claims its heritage in the Constitution?
The context in Russia is fundamentally different from the Soviet period. The assassination of historians is certainly not comparable with the 1930s, but the report published by FIDH [Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme] strikingly proves that all forms of crimes against history come together. A historian like [Sergueï] Koltyrin died in custody, Natalia Estemirova [historienne et journaliste, membre de l’ONG Mémorial] was murdered, just like Paul Klebnikov [historien-journaliste américain d’origine russe] because they wrote about Chechnya… Others had to leave the country, or are persecuted like the historian Yuri Dmitriev.
Realize, too, that a massacre like Katyn’s [l’assassinat de milliers d’officiers polonais par le NKVD au printemps 1940], confessed for years, is now stifled. It is hardly believable after so much work. Denial is the last stage of the crime against history.
The situation has deteriorated since the 2000s under Putin’s authoritarian regime, and it is getting worse. There are quite a few constitutions in the world that prescribe how to write history, as was done in 2020 with the introduction of the concept of “Historical truth” in the Basic Law! As in China, the Russian leader turns history into a battlefield to legitimize his power by developing a coherent vision, supported by a logic that should not be underestimated, and the most important weapon at his disposal concerns obviously the legislation. The legal framework is coercive, comprehensive and effective. It testifies to a remarkable ambiguity because the few commemorations or official initiatives, intended to undermine legitimate criticism, leave the observer sometimes confused.
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