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Dr Antoon De Baets: ‘Historians pay too little attention to the ethics of their subject.’

08 December 2009

Not only dictatorial regimes try to ‘rewrite’ history – in democratic countries, too, historians are hindered in their work, day in, day out. This is why historians should be much more aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document provides them with a basis for a responsible approach to their subject, is the opinion of University of Groningen historian Dr Antoon De Baets, published on the occasion of Human Rights Day, 10 December.

As long as history has been studied, historians have been aware that their work can be misused. However, whereas other fields have had clear guidelines and codes for centuries – doctors have been taking the Hippocratic Oath since 400 BC – historians have had very little systematic interest in the ethics of their subject. The most important international forum for historians, the International Committee for Historical Sciences, only included a single sentence against the misuse of history in its statutes four years ago. ‘It may be clear, but it’s also taking the easy way out a bit’, Antoon De Baets feels, ‘because every day, all over the world, there are ethical breaches of the field.’

Murder in the name of history

No matter how abstract views of the ethics of historical research can sometimes be, misuse of history can adopt very serious, tangible forms. In the Rwandan civil war of 1994, for example, genocide was instigated by historical claims. All over the world, historians, archaeologists, archivists, forensic anthropologists and other ‘history workers’ are being put under pressure, and even tortured and murdered, and their work is censured in all possible ways, De Baets knows. ‘Particularly in democratic countries historians barely pay attention to this. They think that the misuse of history belongs to the past, to the times of Nazism and Communism. But it’s something that’s always been with us and occurs all over the world, even now, and even in the Netherlands. The only difference is that misuse of history in democratic countries soon comes to light and is quickly a topic of debate.’

‘Rely on the Universal Declaration’

Anyone who works with history at an academic level is obliged to search for the truth in an honest and systematic way. However, that is not yet a sufficient foundation for an ethical underpinning of historiography, in De Baets’s opinion. ‘Historians should systematically and explicitly set out what they consider a responsible use of history, and what their rights and obligations are.’ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, contains the basic elements, states De Baets. ‘Although it is not a treaty, and thus not enforceable, this Declaration is the ultimate arbiter in the field of human rights. The document has been translated into 370 languages and has a high level of acceptance. If you base the ethical guidelines of your field on it, you’re on strong ground. I’d go even further, without an explicit link to the Declaration, no ethical system is complete.’

Society for concerned historians

In order to put the spotlight on the responsible use of history, in 1995 De Baets took the initiative to found the international Network of Concerned Historians. This network collects and disseminates information about the misuse of history across the world. If it were up to De Baets, universities would pay a great deal more attention to the ethics of historiography, and national and international societies of historians would take a public stance on the ethics of their work. De Baets: ‘Freedom of speech, and academic freedom too, is not a right we have gained for ever and ever Amen – we have to keep fighting for it. We need ethical colleagues who understand that these principles are always under threat.’

For information on the Network of Concerned Historians, see

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Antoon De Baets is a historian at the University of Groningen. His most recent writings are about censorship and the misuse of history, and the ethics of historians. De Baets is the author of Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945-2000 (2002) and Responsible History (2009). He has coordinated the Network of Concerned Historians since 1995. His most recent publication is ‘The Impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the Study of History’, History and Theory (February 2009), 20–43.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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