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Spurný: Limity a možnosti v psaní univerzitních dějin

Autor: admin - Thursday, 14.10. 2010 - 12:27:16

Nedávná mezinárodní konference archivářů vysokých škol a vědeckých institucí Jsou archiváři historikové? přinesla i příspěvek Matěje Spurného, jednoho z členů našeho výzkumného týmu. Konferenci pořádal Ústav dějin UK, Archiv UK, Masarykův ústav a Archiv AV ČR. Na čtyřdenní konferenci se v Praze počátkem října sešlo téměř pět desítek odborníků z 19 států: České republiky, Francie, Španělska, Norska, Barbadosu, Švédska, Spojených států, Velké Británie, Spojených arabských emirátů, Kanady, Polska, Jamajky, Lotyšska, Severního Irska, Rakouska, Belgie, Švýcarska, Rumunska a Brazílie. Více o konferenci zde, příspěvek Matěje Spurného pak čtěte zde.


Are  historians  archivists?
Limits and possibilities of writing University histories

Matěj Spurný

I am a historian, not an archivist, and I will speak about the problems of contemporary Czech historians. Although this issue touches the questions of differences between archivists and historians dealing with the traces of the past, I am not sure, if my view is really useful for you. However, the organisers of this conference were convinced, it will be. That is why you are compelled to listen to me.


On 14. February 2007, an important press conference took place in the Czech Interior Ministry. There, the director of the powerful Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes announced, that the project „open past“ had been initiated. According to the press report, the opening and future digitalization of archive documents of the security services should ensure a quick access to them for any Czech citizen, not only for historians and archivists. The possibility to get quickly to any of these particular archive documents was declared to be the best way to understand our past and to serve as an anti-totalitarian prevention.1

I will not argue against the uncomplicated access to documents of state security services or the Party, which probably really is the only possible solution in today´s context. What I will argue against, in my paper, is the illusion, that opening the files automatically means learning about the past. And that the work of historians consists in bringing the facts from the archives to the day light, where everybody can get to know them. This illusion has been influential not only among the broader population and politicians in the last years, but also among many historians. I will show the consequences of this idea in two steps. In the first step, I will show the absence of theoretical and methodological framework in the Czech historiography, on the particular example of a topic, which I am working about; namely the university histories. In the second step, I will analyze, how the unreflected and naive sacralization of „opening the files“ can very well serve to political abuse of history and memory, for which the mentioned institute is a brilliant example.

I. The discourses of contemporary Czech historiography
Since 2006, I am collaborating in a project about the normalization period (1969-1989) on the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University. As the project, actually a student initiative, started, there also was a lot of enthusiasm concerning the above mentioned „opening of the past“ among us. Thanks to the University Archive we very quickly got to unique archive files of the Communist Party Organization on the Faculty. This of course was the very precondition of our research, however, the plenty of material complicated at the same time our view on the past reality. The question was now, how to deal with it, which of the very often contradictory documents to present in our first edition (which was published in 2009) and how to write a collective monograph about the issue, which is our task now. In the process of rethinking our approach and searching for inspiration, we not only realized, that the so called „opening the past“ (in the sense of learning about history threw presenting all significant documents) is a naive illusion, but we also experienced the interpretative poverty of Czech historiography, at least in our research field. On the example of describing the history of the Faculty of arts in the two decades of communist order, I would now paraphrase the dominant approaches of the existing Czech historiography, which, from my point of view, do not fulfil what the work of a historian should be about:
According to one of these dominant ways to present modern history, the description of our topic would look somehow like:
The Faculty of arts was neither divided nor abolished after 1968. Also the basic structure and division into particular institutes remained. Abandoned were just the institutes of political science and history of workers movement. After the withdrawal of the reform dean Kladiva, Karel Galla, Václav Ráb and Antonín Vaněk succeeded him in this function. The Communist Party organization went threw a fundamental transformation, when 51% of their members were suspended after 1968. However, afterwards, the organization stabilised and the amount of members extended four times between 1973 and 1980. At that time, 1980, the organization also achieved the maximum amount of members among students, 305. Etc. (end of the paraphrase)

Approximately this mostly is the message of studies, which I call „the institutional historiography“.  It is an approach, which aims not to offer any stronger interpretations, but adheres to the relevant primary sources and describes in detail only what is unambiguous according to that sources. The problem of this approach, from my point of view, concerns in the inability to describe anything beyond the general conditions, dimensions, changes of institutional or power structures. However, one can not analyse the roots and the impact of all this. Universities are being renamed, divided or fused, the number of student rises or declines as well as the amount of professors and also the political structures are changing, which one can measure by different numbers of organizations or members and their changing functions. Those changes are part of every epoch – but their substance, reasons and impact on everyday life of students, professors and intellectuals can be very different. „Institutional historiography“ often focuses on not substantial, but very well realizable, areas of life, whereas it leaves aside those changes, which one can analyse only if formulating contestable arguments. To focus on cardinal questions, one has to construct interpretations, which part of the Czech historians are still afraid of. The biggest problem of the „institutional historiography“ is, that it describes a history of certain institution without the ambition to show by means of her problems a more common context. The inability to communicate this institutional approach beyond a narrow community of experts is not a problem of style, but a problem of the content. Just transforming the so called facts from the archive documents to a text is not a meaningful way to write history.

What is the second of these existing and dominant narratives? Again, I will use the example of the faculty of arts in the normalization period and paraphrase:
After 1968, the faculty of arts became a victim of the renewed terror, aroused by the Communist Regime. More than a half of the Party members of the faculty were expelled from the Party, both to them and to the majority of the non-party people, the regime disabled any pedagogical activity on the faculty. Educated people occupied the places at kettles and diggers, whereas characterless servants of the regime gained control over the faculty and experienced academic carrier very quickly. The faculty became an eldorado of the omnipotent security service, observed, interrogated and expelled were also many students, who anyway before had to go threw a totally fake admission exams, by which political reliability was cadred. Not until 1989, the faculty was able to get rid of the omnipotent power of the Party.
This approach to historiography, which builds on the classical totalitarism theory from the 1950s seems, in contrast to the institutional historiography, to offer an interpretation and also perceives some important issues as politicization of the public sphere, repression and persecution or power strategies. This is, why this approach is more communicative, also towards non-historians. Despite of that, this way of narrating history shares many of the problems with the above described approach.  

We don´t have enough time here for a deeper polemics with this approach, but anyway, the results of primarily western research of last 20 or more years have shown convincingly, that also dictatorships can gain relative stability only if accepted as legitimate by a significant part of the society. The picture based on the dichotomy between today criminalized „power“ and, on the other hand, controlled and purged victims, diminishes the historical reality to a schematic stereotype. Actually, this picture of the guilty powerful and mostly glorified victims reproduces the communist selfinterpretation, just with different plus and minus signs. Also the communist ideologists believed, that the Party rules over the whole society and its development and has to fight with a narrow and clearly defined group of enemies. This reproduction is not surprising, because lot of works according to this paradigm are being produced by unreflected taking over of the documents, which had been produced by the Party leadership and especially the security service.

The „institutional historiography“, which doesn´t offer any interpretation, can´t play any important role in the discussion about modern history. However, the „totalitarian historiography“ conforms the contemporary political ideology about an unbroken tradition of a democratic nation, which just became a victim of totalitarian regimes in its 20th century history. The very common aspect of both of these approaches is their insufficient emancipation from the archival sources. In this sense, historians are replacing the work of archivists (systematizing the archive documents and enabling the access to them for a broader public) with their own role, that means helping to understand the context of the past reality.

II. The case of ÚSTR: „Opening the files“ between an unreflected distortion and political abuse of history

The reasons, why the – actually ahistorical - totalitarian paradigm forms not only the popular discourse in post-communist countries but also influences the historical research, are both political and structural. By structural reasons, I mean the character and organization of the remained archive fonds. Both the Communist Party and the Security Services attempted to evidence their omnipotence in their own documents. Especially the Security Service structured their files according to the assumed dichotomy between the loyal citizens and the enemies of the regime. This character of one particular archive is now being used to convince the society about the character of the past regime. The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes plays a central role in doing so. I consider this institution to be an exemplary case of an unhealthy close relationship between a very peculiar archive and the historical research.

It is not that the repressive nature of socialist dictatorships should not be remembered. However, there are fortunately no longer any obstacles to this. Even the archives which have not yet been digitalised are accessible. Moreover, the access to the archives of the Communist Party and security services is markedly more liberal than that to other archives. Yet massive funding for the digitalisation and presentation of the State Security Services Archive’s documents and presenting them as the only true and unbiased revelation of the past promises neither quality research outputs nor a better grasp of our modern history. At best it can lead to a displacement of the significance of other equally important aspects of the past regime.  

To stress once more, how much the current understanding of the communist past is structured by the different access to particular archives, let me come up with an example:  Which would be the picture of the communist past, if the central institution mediating the historical picture of the socialist dictatorship were founded by assigning an education and research department to the archive of the Revolutionary Labour Union Movement (ROH)? Even the ROH social network, symbolised by the popular free holiday vouchers, was one of the system’s pillars. By the way, many more people came into contact with this side of the system than with the offices of the State Security Services. But who today would want to fund such a picture with annual sums in the hundreds of millions of crowns?

The Security Services Archive was artificially separated from all other archival documents at the former Ministry of the Interior, and its return to its rightful place in the structure of the National Archive is to be expected at some point in the far future. To a certain extent it is understandable that the state is currently reacting to society’s demands. The simplification of access to documents on surveillance and repression is an attempt to accommodate these. However, the publication of documents without interpretation is of little general value, and it is absurd to consider such action as understanding the past. Moreover, the digitalisation of any archive is neither a guarantee nor a precondition for an understanding of the past. Its advisability is to be judged in the context of possibly putting the substantial funds generally necessary for digitalisation to more pertinent and effective use in other spheres of understanding contemporary history.

III. Conclusion: Historians are not archivists

Let me conclude. The popular belief in objective historical truth and concerning documents as the unquestionable evidence are the reasons, why archivists can gain „power over history“ in some cases. This might be seductive for some historians – and can be the reason, why they are pretending to be archivists. However doing that, historians are resigning on their real task, which is not detection, but rather construction of the past.

In other words: there is a big difference between historians and archivists, which, at least in the case of modern history, should be reflected. Historian is not a person, who „opens“ the way to historical documents (or other sources) to a broader public. Remained historical documents and the organisation of archival collections structure the historical reality in a certain way. The main task of a historian is to deconstruct these existent categories, which do not mirror the history, but rather the way of archiving and the logics of different institutions, and to reconstruct history in a different way. In interpreting history, sources of course play a crucial role, but an interpretation also has to be embodied in a greater theoretical framework – otherwise, the historian is, as a slave of the logics of archiving in the past, not opening useful perspectives on the past reality. Trying to understand the past is much more than searching for interesting historical documents. In this important but complicated process, both, archivists and historians play an important role. However, historians, who concern their role just in disseminating the wisdoms of the archives, are neither good archivists, nor good historians.

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