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InsiderOnline Blog: October 2008

Are Historians the Galileos of Today?

If you’re anything like us, you’re more than a little bit suspicious of the idea that crimes against humanity need an officially sanctioned version of history, enforced by government penalties against heterodox teachings. Since government is the usual suspect in crimes against humanity, do we really want government to be in charge of deciding what the truth is?

Timothy Garton Ash, writing recently in The Guardian, notes that today in Switzerland “you get prosecuted for saying that the terrible thing that happened to the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman empire was not a genocide” but in Turkey “you get prosecuted for saying it was.” The French actually convicted historian Bernard Lewis for suggesting that the treatment of the Armenians might not technically fit the definition of genocide under international law. Now, the German minister of justice has proposed a “framework of decision” that “suggests that in all EU member states ‘publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes’ should be ‘punishable by criminal penalties of a maximum of at least between one and three years imprisonment.’”

Fortunately, reports Garton Ash, a group of historians have pushed back against this nonsense by issuing a statement called the “Appel de Blois.” Published in Le Monde, the “Appel de Blois” argues that in a free country “it is not the business of any political authority to define historical truth and to restrict the liberty of the historian by penal sanctions.”

Garton Ash points out what most lawmakers don’t seem to understand: History, like science, is a process of discovery, of finding and sifting evidence, and submitting arguments for public criticism and debate. You can’t find historical truth by shutting down debates about history.

To join Appel de Blois e-mail

Posted on 10/22/08 06:49 PM by Alex Adrianson

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