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In recent years, History has once again become a political issue. Politicians, media personalities, seize it to try to (re) create a discourse on the nation, a nation fantasized in a national novel, which would like to make believe in the existence of an eternal France threatened today by all shares, especially through globalization and immigration. At the same time, these same characters violently attack scientific and taught history. In this short book of conversation with Régis Meyran, the historian Nicolas Offenstadt analyzes this offensive, and defends a learned and critical history, as well as the social role of the historian in the public space.
Uses and misuses of history
This first part puts in opposition the work of the historian, in particular around the narrative and the historical fact, and those who manipulate history for ideological and political ends. If historians, in their interpretation of historical fact, must always "analyze the interval of uncertainty in which [they work]", politicians and publicists, on the contrary, strike out "truths", knowingly twist the facts in order to of history "a political weapon". Nicolas Offenstadt here takes the example of Nicolas Sarkozy's recovery of the death of Guy Môquet, or how the young man's communism is evacuated to retain only his heroism, and make him a national hero (and even a nationalist), a character of the national novel that the former President and his advisers (Henri Guaino, Patrick Buisson) were trying to impose. Along the same lines, Offenstadt shows how the debate on national identity, or even the failed attempt at the Maison de l'Histoire de France project, were instruments for using history for political ends.
The historian then attacks the media and media personalities who participate in this offensive. The weekly “Valeurs Actuelles”, for example, which complains about the alleged disappearance of “great men” from French history in education; or even "the historians of guard", from Lorànt Deutsch to Stéphane Bern, passing by Jean Sévillia who, to varying degrees, unfold in the media, like a steamroller, a nostalgic discourse of an eternal, Christian and royalist France. .
The part concludes with a very interesting return to the notion of the national novel, which would have known “its most complete form” under the Third Republic. Here, Régis Meyran and Nicolas Offenstadt rightly point out that the national novel was also "leftist", and that it is not a solution to respond to the attacks that history is experiencing today. The historian, according to Offenstadt, is a “citizen”, and he must not write a “committed” history, but take part in the public debate to give keys of understanding, in no case to “tell people what they owe. think ".
Should we invest public space?
The second part of the book opens with the debate around national identity, and the public's interest in heritage. Nicolas Offenstadt, as a historian, and as a citizen, “rejects notions of national or European identity [...], because it [him] seems dangerous to summarize an individual or a people with a single fixed identity ". Very active in the commemorations and the work around the centenary of the Great War, Nicolas Offenstadt is well placed to know the importance of heritage, and the debates surrounding its uses. For the historian, heritage is "a fabrication of the past in the present [...], politically neutral", but whose uses can be very different, and not only linked to the national novel. Offenstadt takes the examples of the Cathar heritage, or how the Aisne is marked in its heritage by the memory of the mutinies of the Great War. To respond to this interest of the French for heritage, the historian pleads for "a history of the outdoors", on the part of historians and teachers, in particular to "reflect on the links between the past (of the place), that the one sees, or does not see, and the present ”.
Further, it is more broadly the way in which the story is treated in the media, which is approached. France has "a very strong social demand for history", which can be seen in the press, radio, television or on the internet. “Political groups” also recover the story, provoking often caricature debates on controversial subjects, around “memorial questions (or laws)”. Nicolas Offenstadt thus returns to the debates around the Gayssot law, the Taubira law or the article recognizing the positive role of colonization, which is in part at the origin of the creation of the CVUH, whose historian is l one of the founding members.
For Offenstadt, it is not a question of refusing the State to legislate on memory. This in no way restricts "the freedom of historians"; in this, he is opposed to “Liberty for History”, and to Pierre Nora, whose posture he judges “aristocratic”. History must be "a public stake", a debate that the historian would accompany. Fundamental idea: "history does not belong to historians". The latter must participate in public debates, not shut themselves up in their ivory towers, but nevertheless not consider that only they can speak of history. Nicolas Offenstadt, taking inspiration from Gérard Noiriel, decides to adopt a posture which is “neither that of the hermit, nor that of the expert”. The historian agrees to participate in the public debate, but refuses "to respond directly to questions which do not relate to historian logic, but to common sense". He must also intervene on subjects that he knows firsthand only.
To end this part, Régis Meyran and Nicolas Offenstadt return to the role of the CVUH, and to the difficulty of reconciling freedom of expression and respect for history. The example chosen shows very well the role that the historian can have in the public space: how the historian of the Revolution, Guillaume Mazeau, showed the problems posed by the "reconstruction" in 3D of Robespierre's face, which had a strong media coverage a few months ago. Or how, behind the veneer of science, we could see an "ideological work" taking up all the clichés on the "monstrosity" of the character, and therefore of the regime to which he is assimilated, just as caricatured, the Terror.
As this example and others show, the historian therefore has his place in the public space, even if he cannot, in the short term, compete with large media machines. His critical work always ends up infusing ...
Make history today
Contrary to what those who want to return to the national novel would wish, history is not a frozen science, including national history. Historians like Nicolas Offenstadt are often criticized for rejecting national history in favor of a history that is global or only interested in minorities. The historian here refutes this simplification, asserting "that we can make a history of France"; however, it should not be made a political issue, or given as a goal the love of France, or the French identity. He does not deny the fact that there are conservative historians, and returns to the example of Sylvain Gouguenheim and the controversy over the work “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel”, and opposing positions on how to approach certain historical periods, which reflect political oppositions. However, it would seem, according to Régis Meyran (and Offenstadt confirms it), that "the political opinions of historians [are] less present in their work" than, for example, in the 1960s ...
Nicolas Offenstadt then deplores “the disjunction between scholarly space and public space”, with the words of the former Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, on the notion of gender, caricatural and far from the reality of studies on this theme. The historian insists on the fact that, contrary to what politicians think, history is "a living discipline, [...] which is never fixed". The teaching of history must therefore also be open to new ways of doing history, and to the new territories that this science explores. Students are more interested than is often believed in how history is made, and learning the historian method allows them to exercise critical thinking, while making them reflect on "the meaning of time" and “societies of the past”. We are far from the history desired by the defenders of the national novel, who swear by chronology and great men.
We will leave the conclusion to Nicolas Offenstadt who, after pleading for an “interdisciplinary approach”, affirms his desire to make “an outdoor story, [...] which leaves the walls of the university to teach and transmit on places of the past, with them, but also which faces the questions of the contemporary world, of course, on condition that the historian has his own tools to answer them ”.
Exciting and very stimulating, this book is strongly recommended to all historians, history students, teachers but also history buffs, who love history for what it has to offer alive and exhilarating, far from it. mothballs and rancid story still too present in the media.
- N. Offenstadt (with R. Meyran), History, a fight in the present, Textuel, 2014, 91 p.