Public Uses of History: Expectations and Ambiguities

Jacques Revel, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

In 1876, the first issue of the Revue historique was published in Paris. The birth of the journal is commonly seen as a founding moment. History was now defined as a professional discipline, with explicit scientific and more precise methodological requirements, with specific and codified forms of training and a strong sense of academic community. There is nothing here that is specific to France: actually, the German model of historical erudition had inspired a number of national communities in Europe and outside Europe. On the occasion of the first issue of the new Revue, one of the directors, Gabriel Monod, a leading figure of the time, addressed future contributors. In his editorial, he recommended “avoiding contemporary controversies, addressing the subjects of their studies with the methodological rigor and absence of bias required by science, and not seeking arguments for or against any theory involved indirectly only.” Monod then explained the insufficient progress of the discipline in France as resulting from “political and religious passions” which, “in the absence of scientific tradition” had not been curbed. Hence the utmost restraint was called for. A new time was open to science, method and objectivity after decades of tense, dense, and exhausting ideological conflicts on the French Revolution, the absolute monarchy and the conflicting relations between Church and State over centuries. Historians would better choose to cool their objects of study down and avoid contemporary topics. Distancing the past now was a pressing requirement.

Two decades later or so, such reasonable views have already been severely challenged. This was the time of the Dreyfus Affair. True, scholarly expertise and the use of the positive method did play a crucial role on this occasion. They made it possible to historians, then judges, to distinguish true and false and to reveal criminal forgeries. But the Affair had also made clear that professional historians remained exposed to the public sphere. A whiff of suspicion clung to overly contemporary history, which would remain a lasting sensitive point for a longer period. Actually, it could possibly affect any historical enunciation and interpretation. Remote events like the fall of the Roman Empire, the Investiture Controversy or the Wars of Religions in the 16th century could similarly become the stakes of ideological and polemical involvements in the time of the European Kulturkämpfe.

As an academic, scientific discipline, history was therefore required to warrant a critical distance both with the past and with the present or, more precisely, with the past as it could be reenacted in the present, with the present as it might bias our understanding and account of the past. Another distance was demanded from the larger public. History should now be a professional matter, shielded from the passions of time.

Scientific communities exist, no doubt, and they usually manage to organize controlled areas of circulation, exchange and confrontation within their field of expertise. Yet they have never been able to subtract historical topics (or at least some of them) from the public debate. This has obviously to do with what might be called the “porosity” of the discipline. Few people have personal views on the quantum theory, or on molecular biology. Even fewer would dare to express their views on those points. On the reverse, history is seen and experienced as a public matter. No real proof of knowledge is required from its would-be commentators. Professional historians may pretend to live and practice in a separate world, but, on repeated occasions, they are confronted with non-professional protagonists. True, some topics are more appealing than others. Let us keep apart the enduring success of a traditional repertory of famous events, reigning families, great lovers and criminals of the past. The trend of prices and wages in 19th century Britain is usually less attractive than the origins of World War I, the colonial experiences or the nature of totalitarianisms. The more or less technical aspect of the matter certainly explains the difference. But there is more. Non-professional users of history tend to favor historical narratives, which they think to be already constituted and which they think as well to be ready for a personal judgment – whatever the nature of this judgment. In most of the cases, they expect historical precedents to confirm and to reinforce a set of personal convictions and creeds. They approach history from an axiological perspective, which often happens to be a prescriptive perspective as well, which clearly differs and even contradicts what professional historians try to do and to teach.


I would like to suggest that for the last three or four decades, the relationship between history, historians and the public sphere has experienced crucial changes. But it is probably not enough to mention a “public sphere” globally defined. It might be useful to try to specify some of the forms and mediations through which such connections work nowadays.

I will be taking the French situation as an example. I have no intention here to overvalue it, or to deal with it as such, but rather to identify a number of concerns, themes or keywords arising from it as a way to get a better grasp on the present situation within the historical discipline as well as in its relations to a larger context.

Historians are permanently confronted with new questions and, sometimes, with new requirements. They are requested to play (or not to play) new roles. It may be that they might also wish to play or not to play such roles. If we were to use the analytical categories proposed by Reinhart Koselleck, we would focus on the meeting point between a change in experience (Erfahrungswandel) and changes in method (Methodenwechsel) – as well as on the inevitable discrepancies between the two.

A major change, it seems to me, has been the recent, accelerated rise of the categories of “contemporary” and “present” in our collective perception of time.[1] While the grand narratives were questioned and losing their power of conviction, those categories now seem to work as the passwords of time. The present is an imperative. A pressure, at least vague but sometimes very specific and emphatic, is being brought on historians, who are now expected to focus more on the present and to respond better, faster, to a “social demand” that remains loosely defined – or even to anticipate it. In the historical discipline, this shift has been reflected in many and different ways: in courses, syllabi, in the distribution of student numbers and faculty positions. Over the last thirty years, contemporary history has shifted from the margins of the discipline to its very center. The “other” histories – modern, early modern, medieval, ancient – had played a leading role during the postwar decades in terms of methodological innovation. Until the 1970’s, they constituted the face of the discipline in the eyes of larger audiences. They now appear to have retreated as if they were perceived as less meaningful. As if what they have to say or can say found it difficult to permeate the thick layer of the present, as if the questions they were suggesting were by now unfamiliar to a public which now seems to be caught up in the circle of the present.

It is attested as well by the demand for and success of such an expression as “histoire du présent” (the history of present time).[2] Let me also stress the fact that the “present” which is covered by “the history of present time” has been significantly expanded. It works as well with a series of keywords: if not a system, they constitute at the very least a network and maybe a dictionary of received ideas or dominant convictions. One anticipates them, expects people to relate to them: memory, identity, responsibility, witness are probably the most visible and recurrent ones among them.

But the present is by no means an empty place, and in a sense, historians are here latecomers in a sphere, which is already largely settled. They are therefore confronted with a number of protagonists and, to some extent, of challengers. To begin with journalists: nothing new, one might object. Yet we are living in a time of high-speed – almost day-by-day – historicization of the present. So, who is to play what role, what role sharing is to occur, since the respective temporalities in which journalists and historians work and the resulting agenda are not the same? Are historians able to provide the posterity’s point of view on the very day that events happen? Is this something they can refuse to do? In any case, what is the price to be paid?

Such a rise has been accompanied by an intensification of the public use of the past, to quote the formula proposed by Jürgen Habermas at the time of the German Historikerstreit, twenty-five years ago – an actual public controversy played out in the Federal Republic’s main newspapers. Uses of the past? Probably of any past, as I have already mentioned it, but more specifically if not exclusively, of this recent past “that does not pass” (Henry Rousso on the Vichy period) and which therefore remains obstinately present.[3] History is no more the exclusive of professional historians. There are more players in the game now. Among them, eyewitnesses are taking up more and more importance and it has been suggested that we might be living the “eyewitness time”[4] – and reign. Today, an eyewitness is first and foremost the face and the voice of a victim, of a survivor who deserves to be listened to, who is encouraged to speak, recorded and filmed. Let us remember the larger project of the Spielberg Foundation, the explicit goal of which was to collect the testimonies of all Nazi camps survivors and present online a “true” history of the Genocide. Such a project raises a crucial and, in a sense, inescapable question: who is the historian and who actually decides to reopen the files? Is the eyewitness a 
”source,” or a “voice,” which is best heard, without the mediation of the historian? Is he expected to offer a more telling and sincere history? Willy-nilly, historians are now required to take those questions seriously.

Major waves of commemorative events, to begin with the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, now mark the cycles of public life, conjoining memories (forgotten, recalled, triggered, and so forth) and political agendas. Here again, historians are clearly no more in control of the calendar, nor always of the questions or terms of the debates, which are triggered by these celebrations. Yet, it cannot be denied that they have an impact on research directions as well as on publishing programs.[5]

Politicians appear to be protagonists as well. One might object that there is nothing new here as history has traditionally been used and sometimes manipulated for political purposes. Yet new concerns and new practices have recently made their way. Since the 1990’s, the French National Assembly has adopted a series of legal texts, which pretend to fix the qualification, meaning and the very existence of some major historical facts. In 2001, Congressmen decided on their own initiative to pass a bill including one single article: ”France publicly acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915.” Having at length been appealed to and entreated by the Armenian activist associations who finally managed to make themselves heard, do the legislators intend to fix history? The preamble begins as follows: “Our country and the world’s democracies have a pressing duty of memory. This memory cannot be restricted to each nation’s history. It must also expand to include the memory of humanity, which has been tragically affected in the course of this century by several genocides.” The transition is made from the specific to the universal via the mandatory “duty of memory”: from the memory of the Armenians to the memory of mankind, via the intermediary of law. The legislators now see themselves as teachers of and responsible for memory, if not as historians. A path has been opened. Since this first try, a series of “memorial laws” have been proposed and voted on, such as in the same year of 2001, a text retrospectively defining slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity (remember that slavery has been abolished in France in 1848). Let me be clear at this point: I have no doubt about the reality of the Armenian genocides and no intention to justify the slave trade. But we may doubt that it is up to the political representation to decide on the existence or the qualification of the past. What if they had denied the reality of the genocide? What if, as it almost happened with a different majority in power in 2005, Congressmen had voted on a text in recognition of the merits and values of the French colonial experience? (The text has raised such strong reactions that it has finally been withdrawn). The problem, it seems to me, is not only nor centrally an ideological one. The obstinate claim for the duty of memory is no doubt a symptom of a changing relationship with the past in our societies. I shall get back to this question in a moment.

On this ground of the contemporary, historians are often confronted with further protagonists: more and more frequently, judges, directly or indirectly, actually or metaphorically speaking. This does of course tie in with the striking process of judicialization of the public sphere. Judges may now decide on everything. They are expected to heal public and private ills, past and present, if not future. People now talk of “judicial therapy,” which includes the possibility of noticeable differences between historical truth and judiciary truth. We may no longer refer to or speak in the name of the judgment of history, but, on the other hand, we are facing a proliferation of questions about the respective tasks of judges and historians, whether a judge passing sentence, or, more frequently, an investigating magistrate in the inquisitorial French system, with a reappraisal, in this light, of the status of proof, evidence and the relevance of context. For the last twenty-five years, a number of trials – often on charges of crime against humanity – have worked as moments of memory (it should be possible for the victims’ complaints to be spoken, heard and to receive some kind of reparation), but they were also to work and remain as instruments of history (which is why the proceedings were recorded). Moreover, they posed specific questions about the presence of historians as witnesses, certainly by virtue of their expertise, yet nevertheless as “witnesses” (as defined in the French Code of criminal procedure).

In most of our countries, memory now also mobilizes a growing number of groups who want to ground ethnic, territorial, professional, gender or other identities in the past. Through most of the past century, a powerful historiographical move toward a history of the anonymous, a “history from below,” was generally understood as a more comprehensive approach to the society as a whole. It has given the rise to the History Workshop movement in Britain, later to Alltagsgeschichte in Germany and, to some extent, to the Italian microstoria as well as to a larger outpouring of ignored accounts, giving a voice to the anonymous, forgotten actors, who had until then been silent or silenced: workers, women, migrants, exiles, people on the margins of the past societies. But things have changed and now work quite differently. The current memorial wave appears to be a new and privileged way to capitalize on the past. Every single group claims to be its own historian, to write or word its own history, insisting on what makes it irreducible to other histories and even more to one shared history. This shift, it seems to me, is especially sensitive in the old European countries where the traditional format of a unified/unifying national history had been so powerfully prevailing and compelling for a longer period.

We know that this old pattern has been severely challenged over the past decades, in favor of a multiplicity of particular, diverging histories, which in most of the cases are conceived and work in terms of memory and of singular identity.


Why such an emphasis on the present? Why such an obsession with memory? Both are linked, I think, and they may be understood as symptoms of a deeper change in our relationship to historical time. Since the 18th century, our societies had been sharing a vectorial conception of time. Actually, times could be hard and uncertain. But the conviction was there that they would bring a plus at the end of the process. Implicit or explicit, the trust in progress commanded a view of history. History was not expected any more to provide timeless lessons (as the older conception of Historia magistra vitae had done for many centuries). It now offered milestones, precedents with which the present could be confronted and evaluated. A significant continuity was therefore acknowledged along time.

Is this true any more? We may doubt it, especially in the case of the European countries. Since the 1970’s, a rampant crisis of confidence has been underway which can be understood as a “crisis of the future.”[6] This may seem quite paradoxical: ours is a time of spectacular scientific and technological innovation, of major political transformation as well. But such accelerated changes are not able to warrant the conviction that a better future is ahead of us: this future is blurred; the present is opaque and, consequently, the past itself has turned uncertain. A continuity over time has been shaken. It may explain the unexpected public success of some forms of “anthropological history” during the 1970’s and part of the 1980’s: the many versions of “the world we have lost” were not expected to offer meaningful precedents in history anymore, but, on the reverse, estrangement and exoticism.

But there is more. For a longer period, history had served as an introduction to and a commentary on the nation, that is to the entity which was supposed to bind together the members of a community that was precisely defined as a historical community: people sharing a common destiny. It insisted on the aspects of continuity, even of resilience, of the group and presented it as both natural and obvious. History was also understood as a crucial part of civic education through the schooling system. Historians were on the front lines of this great concern. They were expected to produce the more or less authoritative versions of the past and to address larger audiences. Michelet, Lavisse, Ranke and many others were responsible for the circulation of representations, arguments, and a repertoire of signs and forms, which have been embodied in the common culture since the 19th century.

National histories still exist whenever they offer today less prescriptive and more interrogative views on the past (think of the pioneering Storia d’Italia published by Einaudi in the 1970’s, of the French Lieux de mémoire (1984- 1992) or of their German counterpart, Deutsche Erinnerrungsorte in the early 2000’s). But they don’t play anymore the traditional role. They certainly offer fewer resources of collective identification. At least in Western Europe, history seems to be much less than sports, for instance, the target of nationalistic investments and expectations (things would certainly be quite different in Central and Eastern Europe, in the countries which have been recently emancipated from the communist rule). A sense of exceptionality and of community has been lost underway. In the heyday of the colonial Empire, French primary schoolmasters thought they might teach their African or Vietnamese students that their ancestors had been Gauls who were living in straw huts. So strong was the sense of community that sharing the same history, even in such an absurd way, could appear as a step towards recognition, if not assimilation. No teaching person would dare to do the same nowadays, in any classroom in any suburb within the Hexagon.

It is true that, in the meantime, the way history is conceived has dramatically changed. I have already mentioned that, for a longer period of time, history had been written in the light of the nation. For the last decades, it has tended more and more to be conceived as an introduction to the social. This shift has obviously to do with some major historiographical trends over the last century. As discipline, history has come closer to the social sciences – sociology, economics, and, to a lesser extent, anthropology – and it often thinks of itself as being fully part of them. I am not going to discuss the point here. It remains that a number of historical approaches now borrow concepts, hypotheses, and devices from the social sciences, with the obvious consequence that a larger part of the current historical production is more sophisticated and therefore less accessible to a larger readership. It also offers fewer opportunities of individual and collective identification as it appears to be more technical and sectorial – quite difficult most of the time to associate with a larger, encompassing narrative. Such a shift is currently being duplicated in terms of didactics. High school textbooks now teach how to understand the mechanism of an economic crisis, to compare different social distributions over time and space or to follow the transformations of a system of international relations. They certainly prepare students to get a firmer hold on the world they will live in. But something may have been lost underway: a sense of time and of chronological depth. A series of recent surveys have repeatedly confirmed that students are less and less able to order major historical figures, moments or facts along a time axis. Chronology has never been trendy as it is commonly associated with the boring learning of historical dates. But chronology also and more importantly means access to the differences of time, to its rhythms and productions – which probably is the core of what students and future adults should be able to remember from their school years.

Why so? For two kinds of reasons at least, the effects of which are cumulative. I have already mentioned the major aspects of our changing relation to historical time: an obsession with the present; an absolutization of the past, which is no more conceived as a process from which we might learn something about our present but as distanced from our current experience. A second reason, it seems to me, has to do with the lack of larger integrating narratives. Since the 1970’s (and sometimes even earlier), historians have devoted much time and efforts to the critique of the ruling master narratives – to begin with the critique of the national narrative. Such a critique was mostly welcome. It has made it possible to question a number of certitudes and prejudices, to propose new, fresh views on historical realities that had been obstinately neglected, ignored, or rejected. But we must acknowledge as well that we are currently left with no alternative substitute. Historians are certainly able to do without it, at least for the time being, and to use discontinuity as a heuristic instrument. This is far less probable for the larger public of history, which is now made of many and diverging publics.

Which history could actually match their expectations? The memorial wave has produced strong dismantling and dispersive effects. The multiplication of private memories and histories has seriously challenged the idea that a historical larger community could make any sense. The current globalization, the more modest and difficult European construction are shaking older representations and solidarities; they are responsible as well for new expectations. But they have not yet proposed acceptable and accepted substitutes. Most of us may be convinced that history might help the peoples of Europe to come to terms with their conflicting past and therefore contribute to a livable present. It has proved to be partially true, but we must acknowledge as well that the European experience has revealed gaps and discrepancies. We have discovered that we were not necessarily living in the same temporalities, that we may refer to different sets of historical experiences. Which history will be able to give an account of such discordant times? We know that the historiographical pattern which was associated with the birth and growth of the nation-state does not work any more, but we are still looking for the new narrative – probably narratives, in the plural – which will replace it.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

1.  François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps, Paris, 1983.
2.  In 1976, Pierre Nora was appointed at EHESS to a new chair entitled “Histoire du 
présent.” Two years later, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) set up the Institut d’histoire du temps présent (IHTP).
3.  To cite a few examples outside the prolific production related with the German dabate: Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy, Paris, 1987; Nicola Gallerano (ed., L’Uso publico della storia, Milano, 1995; Id., La Verità della storia. Sull’uso publico del passato, Roma, 1999.
4.  Annette Wieviorka, L’Ère du témoin, Paris, 1998.
5.  Steven L. Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution. Disputed Legacies: France, 1789/1989, Ithaca (NY), 1995.
6.  K. Pomian, “La crise de l’avenir,” Le Débat, 7, 1980, reprinted in Sur l’histoire, Paris, 1999, p. 233-262.

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