The use of historians

The ideological, political or any other use of history is not new. Thucydides (as translated by the statesman Eleftherios Venizelos) notes: «[…] most Athenians believe that Hipparchus was actually a tyrant when he was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and ignore that it was Hippias who, as the eldest of Peisistratus’ sons, exercised power, while Hipparchus and Thessalus were merely his brothers.» Nonetheless, the two assassins went down in history as having rid the city of tyrants and were honored as such – evidently because it was politically expedient – and not as the ill-fated heroes of the kind of love tryst that was common in ancient Athens. History has been used for millennia as a tool for didactic, political, ideological or any other purposes. Just as is true of every instrument, it has to acquire, in each instance, the shape, texture and capabilities that are necessary for it to perform the job desired by its user – who is usually not a historian himself. For this reason, the passionate narrators of «public history» are either ethnocentric orators or Oscar-winning directors who invariably exaggerate, downgrade, conceal or distort the facts and their significance. And so we only see the atrocities of other nations and faiths against our own, or see the talented Roberto Benigni showing the Americans – and not Stalin’s Soviets, in actual fact – liberating a concentration camp, which reminds us of Auschwitz, and who went on to win an Oscar. The selective critique of the ideological use of history by intellectuals cannot be hidden. It is intrinsic to their ideological fervor but is also dictated by their duty as active citizens. The problem lies with some professional historians who appear – in the name of their discipline, of course – as ardent opponents of the ideological use of history and as critics only of the orators who, unlike them, have not joined the spirit of the supranational «empire» that has always blunted and continues blunting national passions to its benefit. It is for this reason that we may legitimately speak of the use of some historians.