Persecution and Censorship

by Lutz Raphael

During the twentieth century, political control over historiography and ‘historical truth’ was a major issue in Europe. Censorship, propaganda, and work restrictions imposed on professional historians became commonplace in many parts of Europe. Only at the end of this ‘century of extremes’ did liberty of scientific research and teaching, and the freedom to publish the results of historical inquiry without political restrictions, come about in most European countries. In the second half of the nineteenth century, these liberties began to emerge throughout Europe – but censorship in Russia or the Ottoman Empire still prevented the reading of critical historians and the creation of associations or learned societies opposed to the regime. These practices, however, were seen as scandalous, and they were subject to widespread criticism. More efficient than open censorship, restricted access to archival sources was, and still is, a refined tool of censorship and political control over historical scholarship. It is even used today in democratic countries when, for example, controversial issues concerning national or international affairs are involved. Hence the fight for the liberty of research and teaching in historiography is still on the agenda in Europe, especially in countries like Belarus or Russia.

The decades from 1920 to 1990 saw an unprecedented wave of persecution against historians almost everywhere in Europe. This was due to the general advent of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes after the 1920s, first in Russia during the Civil War and in Italy with the fascist takeover after 1922, and then, after the economic crisis of 1929–33, in all the states in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe, with the remarkable exception of the Czechoslovakian democracy. The Iberian states joined this world of dictatorship at the end of the 1920s and in 1936/9 after the victory of the Franquist rebellion in Spain. These dictatorships combined censorship and control over the archives with the use of a new, ideological, historiography as a propaganda ‘weapon’.

Liberal, socialist or democratic historians were expelled from their academic chairs (as was Gaetano de Sanctis, the ancient historian, in 1931 after he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the fascist regime). They had to give up their positions on the editorial boards of journals or the historical commissions of academies, or they were transferred to secondary posts. Because the number of conservative and national-minded historians was generally higher than that of their democratic, liberal or socialist colleagues in those countries, the percentage of the persecuted was not as high as one might expect. A considerable proportion of the historians in the countries under authoritarian or even totalitarian rule agreed with the new official line of an overtly nationalist historiography, and they served the nation by joining the official propaganda machines of the regimes. Others sought to maintain their distance from the new rulers in private, but complied with the official guidelines on historiography in public. German historiography is an evident case in point, because the majority of national and conservative-minded historians adapted to the new rules under the Nazi dictatorship. Only around 15 per cent of the members of the German professional community were evicted from their posts during the Nazi period. But in the case of many countries, any openly dissenting historiography could only be written abroad. Indeed, the number of historians who went into exile grew steadily during the 1920s and 1930s. However, after the list of the expelled historians, a second one should be drawn up of those who were murdered or executed, thereby demonstrating the brutalization of repressive measures against dissenting intellectuals in general. Some examples may stand for the many, certainly several hundred, historians who met such a fate. One of the first was the Italian historian Nello Roselli, a prominent member of the anti-fascist group Giustiza e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), who was killed in 1926 during his exile in France. Many would follow him, such as the prominent Romanian historian Nicolae Jorga, murdered in 1940 by the Romanian fascists. During the terror years in the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1938, historians were more or less systematically killed, as were members of all other professions and social strata. The Ukrainian and Belarusian historians who had started to establish national historiography in their republics during the 1920s were harshly persecuted: all of them were accused of nationalist deviation and many of them were shot; the others were condemned to the Gulag. Thus a great number of the first generation of Marxist historians in the Soviet Union were persecuted by the Stalinist regime. This form of violent repression was repeated when the Soviet Union occupied the Eastern parts of Poland and the Baltic republics in 1939 and 1940.

The Nazi occupation of large parts of the European continent between 1940 and 1944 brought this first wave of persecution to its culmination. In 1942, only in Sweden, Switzerland, and Great Britain could historians opposed to their government, or critical of mainstream opinions on history, express themselves freely without being harassed for their liberal, democratic or socialist convictions, or their ethnic or racial origins.

During the war period, between 30 or 50 per cent of Poland’s historians were killed as a result of the extermination policy pursued by the German and the soviet invaders against the Polish intellectuals.

A number of European historians joined the Resistance movements: as did Marc Bloch, the famous French medievalist, and co-founder of the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, who after being expelled from his university joined the French Resistance. He was captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo in Lyon in 1944.

Anti-Semitism had become the most important single reason for the mass persecution of historians during this period. It began in Hungary and Nazi Germany, with the exclusion of Jewish students and scholars from universities, and it ended in deportation and slaughter. After 1945 anti-Semitism continued to play a role in the next wave, which began in the final phase of the Second World War in Central and Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union imposed its political regime on the newly annexed countries (the Baltic states, Moldova, Eastern Poland) or those under its occupation. The persecution of non-Marxist, ‘bourgeois’ historians on the generic accusation of collaboration with the German occupiers, fascism and nationalism affected a large number of those who had survived the prosecutions of the Nazi period.

In the new socialist countries, censorship and the political control of historical scholarship was institutionalized as a bureaucratic routine with many faces in each country. ‘Historical truth’ became a political matter, and historiography was systematically controlled; if it proved useful to the rulers, it was falsified. This political regime imposed a language of political loyalty and lip service paid to the official doctrine of Marxism-Leninism even on those who dissented from this elementary consensus. Censorship went much further when contemporary, especially twentieth-century, themes were touched on by historians. For this period, access to sources was severely restricted, and the choice of documents was always politically prescribed. Historians engaged in study of earlier periods, or concerned with more esoteric themes, had greater freedom and were less subject to direct control. But in all socialist countries some sort of consensus arose between historians and their ideological and political counterparts on the ideological demarcation lines to be respected and on the limits of individual freedom.

At times of political crisis – as in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Poland in 1970, 1976 and 1980 – this system of control that constrained all historians to ideological conformism and pragmatic quietism broke down, and as a result, dissenting and critical historians could be heard and read publicly. After repression or normalization, some of them fled to the West; the others were persecuted. Whilst in Hungary the rulers retreated from direct political control over their historians after 1956, Polish and Czech historians, like František Graus or Bronislaw Geremek, still had to go abroad in order to continue their historical research in full liberty. After the 1950s, fewer historians were killed for their professional convictions or for political reasons, but the system of tacit censorship and bureaucratic control in Eastern Europe still determined the working conditions of some thousands of historians in Europe. The Iberian dictatorships maintained their systems of censorship and control under the new ‘umbrella’ of the Cold War, but they provoked a growing wave of international criticism and internal opposition at universities. The democratization of Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, followed by the Revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989, brought to an end a long period of the massive political manipulation and persecution of historians.

Raphael, L. (2010). Persecution and Censorship. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (p. 40). Palgrave.


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