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Dr Barbara Henkes: ‘Historians can help regulate the distance between the present and the past’

18 January 2012

A society that wants to come to terms with acts of violence in its past must do more than just punish the offenders. Historical research can help this confrontation with the past. Many historians, however, are not properly equipped to participate in a social debate about how the past is currently being dealt with. This is the opinion of University of Groningen historian Barbara Henkes in the run-up to the symposium ‘Historici en de confrontatie met een gewelddadig verleden’ [Historians and the confrontation with a violent past], which will take place in Groningen on Thursday January 26th.

Barbara Henkes
Barbara Henkes

In post-Apartheid South Africa, in Argentina after the Videla years and recently in Brazil, more than twenty-five years after the military dictatorship ended – all over the world Truth and Reconciliation Committees have been founded since the 1980s to help divided nations come to terms with their violent pasts. ‘Remarkably, historians are only very rarely included in these committees’, says Henkes.

Legal judgement not enough

For a long time, judgements about violent acts in the past were left to criminal courts and war tribunals. However, in practice this legal approach has turned out to be not enough. Henkes: ‘Legal systems quickly grind to a halt because there are too many offenders to punish and because many of them are needed to help get the country back on its feet. Also, it soon becomes clear that the legal prosecution of the leading figures does not provide enough of a basis for a society in which survivors and ex-offenders can live peacefully together.’

Proper distance from the past

A society that wants to account for acts of violence in its past must do more than just punish the offenders. According to Henkes, this requires a certain distance from that painful past. However, if the past is put at too great a distance, then question of responsibilities for what happened becomes blurred. Historians can help to bring the past closer, but at the same time keep it at a distance, thinks Henkes. ‘It’s our social duty to help regulate the distance between the present and the past.’

Hobbled historians

However, many historians become ‘hobbled’ when they have to link the present and the past in a meaningful way – because they realise that a historical study can never be objective, that reconstructions of the past are never created in a political vacuum, and that any view of the past is by definition coloured. Henkes: ‘It is really difficult to do justice to the sometimes shifting positions of all involved – offenders, victims and witnesses – while at the same time coming to a judgement about who is responsible for what. Nevertheless, it is definitely possible for a historian to pass judgement on power relationships that made the violence possible.’

Moral yardstick

As an example of a historical study that does pass judgement, Henkes mentions the report by the Amsterdam professor Baud on the role of Jorge Zorreguieta as state secretary in the Argentinian junta of dictator Jorge Videla. ‘Baud studied Zorreguieta’s position in different contexts, and assessed that position from several perspectives too. He conducted careful research based on the available sources and accounted for the time and place-relatedness of various verdicts.’ If the task is performed in such a way, thinks Henkes, historical research can provide a moral yardstick that can help the social debate on its way.


The symposium ‘Historici en de confrontatie met een gewelddadig verleden’ [Historians and the confrontation with a violent past] will discuss, inter alia, the post-colonial Rawagede issue and the way that the Davids Committee is dealing with the invasion of Iraq. The symposium will be held on 26 January in the Academy Building of the University of Groningen (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.). Admission is free, but visitors are requested to register by e-mail .

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Barbara Henkes is a university lecturer in modern history at the University of Groningen. Her research studies the processes of inclusion and exclusion in relation to national communities, currently focusing on transnational family histories in the Netherlands and South Africa. In 2010, among other things, she published ‘De Bezetting revisited. Hoe van De Oorlog een ‘normale’ geschiedenis wordt gemaakt die eindigt in vrede’. [The Occupation revisited. How The War is being turned into ‘standard’ history with a happy ending].


Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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