kolmapäev, detsember 12, 2007

ametliku ajalugu

I recently picked up a book by Mart Laar called The Estonian Way or Eesti Tee. At first glance, it is a history book written by an Estonian holding a doctorate in history from the University of Tartu. Laar has authored many books on Estonian history, and has recently published three about the Second World War, Sinimäed 1944, Emajõgi 1944, and September 1944.

After browsing through the latter three, I found them welcome additions to the history of the eastern front during World War II. But in the first book, The Estonian Way, I was a bit confused -- this is the best word -- when I noticed that not only did Laar cover the period of Estonian history that included himself, but also addressed the actions of some of his longstanding political rivals, like Edgar Savisaar.

To me, this was both odd and normal. One could imagine any contemporary politician writing about themselves and their relationships with other politicians. But the historical backdrop gives the book the appearance of a history textbook that just happens to be authored by one of the major players in that history. It would be as if Thomas Jefferson wrote a history book about the American Revolution and ... oh, by the way ... he wrote the Declaration of Independence too.

What are we to make of these writings by a historian cum politician? Are they official history or just one version of history expounded by a restorer of the state? I think some in Estonia might easily confuse Laari ajalugu with eesti ajalugu. But Laar ajalugu is but one component of a healthy debate about the past. There have been great debates about history, and indeed attempts by certain political parties to enshrine parts of history in law. But most of these debates have only led to more debates, or, on occasion, symbolic gestures from the state.

In a reconstituted state, the efforts to find a definitive new interpretation of history is fleeting. Under Stalinism, a genuine account of Estonian history could not be written. Since the mid-1980s, various trends have been discussed and the debate has enveloped younger generations for whom these events are actually quite immaterial to their daily lives.

At the very top, the state cannot leave this interpretation alone to historians, because, as we have seen, historians can wear other hats too. I was recently impressed with a speech by President Ilves about the soomepoisid, Estonian students who volunteered to fight in the Finnish Winter War and Continuation Wars.

While few, even in Russia, question the state's tributes to the Estonian Army of 1918 that liberated the country from Bolshevik and German troops, the role of Estonians in World War II is highly controversial. Even at the supermarket, you can find books about "Estonian soldiers through the ages" and World War II is represented by three uniforms -- the Red Army, the Waffen SS, and, in between them, a plain-clothes metsavend guerrilla fighter.

In the thick of this, Ilves' approach stresses a) cooperation with Finland; b) personal sacrifice; and c) defense of democracy -- which seem to be recurring memes in his speeches, as much as Laar's work continuously references the partisan struggle as a symbol of Estonian resistance to foreign-imposed tyranny.

All of these values and ideas are part of a wider effort by Estonia's entrenched political generation to purify Estonians institutions -- it's army, it's parliament -- into a psychological unwillingness to surrender sovereignty or its values to external actors. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip struck a similar tone recently when asked about his decision to remove one controversial war monument from the city center last April. For him it was about reassuring the public of Estonian sovereignty -- in other words, pushing a button the Kremlin told him not to push to prove that he is capable of pushing Estonia's buttons.

But in the midst of all this use of ajalugu in politics, where does it leave, well, real ajalugu, the work of non-politically aligned historians digging through Politburo archives or examining the failure of Baltic cooperation in the 1920s? In the book stores of the US you can read about the American Revolution from multiple sides. I am sure there exist even books about the Quebecois interpretation of the American Revolution. Do these perspectives exist yet in Estonian historiography and are they as well known among the public to the extent of the more politicized history?

All countries have [and need] their Thomas Jeffersons. They need their critical historians too.

18 kommentaari:

Kristopher ütles ...

I don't think Laar needs to recuse himself or have Anatol Lieven or someone step in and write the chapters on the independence era just because Laar was personally involved in some of the events. (Though Laar does not write as well as Jefferson, and he should not try to write in English.)

It's not like Laar covers Savisaar's wiretap scandal (which would be like Jefferson writing about Burr-Hamilton?) or his own, Laar administration. I don't have the book, so I don't remember exactly.

There is a significant deal of agreement about the events of 20years ago... about who wanted Estonia to take what way...

And everyone is still alive. (Even Savisaar, I think.) So there's a kind of peer-review built in for now where any B.S. gets called.

It's not like in the US, 200 years after the fact, where the Right can twist and spin things, and make the claim and get away with it that the Deist founding fathers wanted a "Christian nation", for example. Or any number of things.

In NY state ütles ...

I think it's a perfectly legitimate thing to write. All histories, ultimately, are only a point of view.

And one of the best histories of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was written by Trotsky, not a minor politician.

Frank ütles ...

From a German point of view one might envy Estonia for "intellectual" politicians like Mart Laar, Hendrik Thomas Ilves and first and foremost Lennart Meri ...

So I cannot see any harm in an "intellectual-turned-politician`s" attempt to deliver his version of the affairs he witnessed and more or less co-designed when in office. Rather I would welcome them as a considerable contribution to the discussion. One might even argue such contributions are sort of compulsory to draw the attention of those who think otherwise.

The intellectual training of Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and the like is not noticeable. Some will have it, that it is either non-existent or well-hidden since the voter / the plebs does not love anybody obviously intelluctually their superior. So the establishment of visions of history is all too often left to the mass-media, les terribles simplificateurs ...

As an American, Justin, you might know what I am hinting at.

One former German Bundespräsident, Ernst-Richard v. Weizsäcker, sort of turned from politician to intellectual (once appointed Bundespräsident, he was above the melée and the need for camouflage and opportunism was felt no more) once coined the phrase: referring to general training and intellectual prowess a (German) politician is but a limited generalist, though he is a highly competent specialist in the trade to fight political foes AND friends alike.

This is due to the role of the political parties in Germany, who control the access to many jobs and offices also outside the political circus. To pursue a career outside private enterprises you need to obtain your "smelling of this or that (political) stable". In order to do so you have to sacrifice lots and lots of your time serving your political party, building your clique and your band of claqueurs. The earlier you join the party´s ranks and get into close contact with the manure, the better for your career prospects. Intellectuals proper (and entrepreneurs) consider that a waste of time and a limiting of their possibilities. So we suffer from a lack of intellectuals and simulteneously from a plethora of "party-soldiers" and other apparatschiks in politics and political discussions.

By the way, Angela Merkel might be considered an exception to the rule here as in other places. Grown-up in the GDR, the Sovietized part of Germany before 1989, she joined the political circus quite late and has tricked many old-school party politicians since. To your notice: after the recent meeting with Poland´s Donald Tusk you could hear in the news that the much-discussed pipeline is to be reconsidered ...

Let´s hope for the best. God bless Estonia.

Giustino ütles ...

And everyone is still alive. (Even Savisaar, I think.)

Savisaar does it too. His books similarly cover recent history. The exception is that Savisaar's books don't cover the Northern Crusades ...

Ultimately, I don't think Laar is in the wrong. It is the readers who should be careful to remember that just because Laar is a politician and has been prime minister, doesn't make his version of history any more "official" than Anatol Lieven's.

There should be no such thing as an "official history."

martintg ütles ...

All countries have [and need] their Thomas Jeffersons. They need their critical historians too.

Since Henry of Livonia, foreigners have been writing Estonia's history, so I don't see anything wrong with Estonians like Laar wanting to redress the balance.

Recall that Estonia's Jeffersons were shipped off to Siberia. So I see no problem with them building up the ediface of "official" Estonian history.

Frank ütles ...

Some - including Jaan Kross - have it that the author of Balthasar Ruessow´s «Chronica der Provintz Lyfflandt» was everything else but no foreigner.

And there is no certainty that Henry of Livonia was born in Germany, he went (back?) to Riga as a child and spent most of his life-time in Livonia. He could well have been the child of autochthonous parents educated in Germany (a parallel to B. Ruessow).

It happened all the time.

Giustino ütles ...

Since Henry of Livonia, foreigners have been writing Estonia's history, so I don't see anything wrong with Estonians like Laar wanting to redress the balance.

Me neither.

Recall that Estonia's Jeffersons were shipped off to Siberia. So I see no problem with them building up the ediface of "official" Estonian history.

I don't think states have an official history. They have positions that can change with time.

The United States interpretation of its involvement in the Baltic States changed from the time of the Potsdam Conference to 1992, that's for sure.

martintg ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
martintg ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
martintg ütles ...

Giustino said...
I don't think states have an official history. They have positions that can change with time.

The United States interpretation of its involvement in the Baltic States changed from the time of the Potsdam Conference to 1992, that's for sure.



Given that there are two formal "ex-officio" members of the board of governors of the Smithsonian Institute, the Vice President of the USA being one of them, and three members from the US Senate and three from the House of Representatives as well, the USA certainly does have an "official" history.
http://www.si.edu/about/regents/members.htm

Giustino ütles ...

The USA certainly does have an "official" history.

Ronald Reagan didn't author any of my elementary school history books (thank God). I am sure he would have presented, say, Jimmy Carter in a balanced way.

But I digress. The issue here isn't whether or not people should write books. It's what we think of those books based on who writes them.

If a former prime minister writes a history book about Estonia starting with the ice age, right up to his government's crucial early 1990s reforms -- what are we to make of this "history book."

Is it a real history book that you use in schools, or is it more equivalent to one of those many books you find on the shelves in the US authored by Barack Obama or Ted Kennedy?

martintg ütles ...

Well, with over 300 million Americans, you certain don't want or need Ronald Reagan to write your elementary school history books. With less than a million native speakers, Estonians have to multitask by necessity.

Estonians have to both walk and chew gum at the same time, something that Reagan reportedly couldn't do. :-)

Giustino ütles ...

I bet every chapter of Reagan's history book would begin with, "Nancy and I ..."

martintg ütles ...

Meri famously had a screw driver in his pocket to do the odd maintenance job around the Presidential office. Laar was a trained historian before he became a politician, just because he became a PM, doesn't mean he should give it up entirely. Obviously people would treat his writings about his contemporary political colleagues with a grain of salt, But I don't think him being a former PM would devalue his work on Estonia's WWII history.

martintg ütles ...

PS, I think the citizen-politician is a wonderfully evocative concept. One day passing the nation's law, then next day moon-lighting as a local mayor, historian or maintenance man to suppliment their meagre parliamentary incomes. How grass roots is that!

Kristopher ütles ...

Better Laar than, say, Küllo Arjakas.

The only other historian I can think of off the top of my head is Lauri Vahtre.

But wait a second -- he's a politician, too.

Hell, Savisaar should probably write the history. First of all, he's not a historian -- he's an economist, and they're more objective.

The big reason is that he has the best tape collections -- including the original magnetic media. He probably even recorded his conversations with Moscow.

Invaluable...

plasma-jack ütles ...

Vahtre is rather a writer than a historian.

nipi ütles ...

Bureshin and economist?
The qualification of a head of Plaanikomitee (Gosplan) for me seems not enough.
And credibility is really low.