Vilified for recording the wrong truth

Censorship of Historical Thought
April 16, 2004

Although the organisation of this book leaves much to be desired, it fulfils the useful purpose of underlining the absurdity of most studies of historiography with their focus on a small cast of western scholars and their refusal to consider the situation elsewhere in the world.

Antoon de Baets, formerly Amnesty International's publications officer in Costa Rica and now professor of contemporary history at Groningen University, organises his cases of censorship and persecution of historians alphabetically by country. The coverage includes non-historians persecuted or censored for reasons relating to history, for example Boris Pasternak for writing Doctor Zhivago , and historians so treated for reasons outside the field, such as the arrest in the Maldives in 1995 of a former civil servant and active historian for critical comments about the cost of a newly constructed presidential palace. This range gives the collection an eclectic feel.

So too does the treatment of historians, spanning assassination to cases of tenure and boycott. Thus, for Zambia, there is one case of permission for fieldwork refused, the questioning of a historian for greeting defendants in a treason trial, and the censorship of a television series for allegedly presenting Africans in a bad light.

The coverage of countries is uneven - the entry on the Vatican City is disappointingly brief - but there is much of interest. In Mali in 1976, the Mandenka oral traditionalist Waa Kamisoko was allegedly killed for his criticism of Malian society, while in Mauritania in 1986 three history lecturers were imprisoned for being part of a group that had alleged discrimination by the ruling Arab-Berber military government against the southern black population.

The book usefully includes the destruction of archival material and attacks on archaeological sites. In 1955, the Chinese Communist Party launched a campaign against the capitalist mentality in archaeology and the handling of cultural relics. The entries on China make for some of the bleakest reading. Chinese action was also directed against minorities - the Uighur historian Turgun Almas was placed under house arrest from 1989 because his book on the history of the Uighurs was accused of supporting separatism.

De Baets defends his methods with what he terms his principle of distance, which leads him to note that "the guide is not necessarily a list of morally inspiring examples". He also calls for more research on the subject. A more suitable model than this for work on the control of the past, albeit one that does not focus on historians, is presented by Patricia Grimsted's thoughtful Trophies of War and Empire: The Archival Heritage of Ukraine, World War II, and the International Politics of Restitution (2001).

Such studies serve to underline the widespread politicisation of historical studies, and it would be instructive if De Baets and others could extend their material to consider such topics as the reworking of pre-Soviet history by the Soviet Union's successor republics.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945-2000

Author - Antoon de Baets
Publisher - Greenwood Press
Pages - 694
Price - £66.00
ISBN - 0 313 31193 5

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