She has the proud gaze and direct manner of someone who isn’t willing to lay down her arms, even in the face of history. Annette Wieviorka has devoted her whole life to the passion for truth, through the collection of testimony and the detailed study of the mechanisms for the construction and destruction of memory. She refuses to allow historical facts to be manipulated and instrumentalized. This is how she saves history from the risk of becoming “a museum display that serves only to celebrate a false present,” or a false truth.
Wieviorka is one of the most renowned French historians and the director of the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research, the most prestigious academic institution across the Alps) at the Sorbonne in Paris. But she doesn’t like honorific titles: “The position of director is no more and no less than a job title like any other, but in the end I am, and I will always be, a scholar doing research.”
She is the author of numerous essays and books: among her works available in Italian, we will note The Era of the Witness (L’era del testimone, Raffaello Cortina, 1999) and Auschwitz Explained to My Child (Auschwitz spiegato a mia figlia, Einaudi, 2014). Wieviorka is now in Italy as a guest of the Festival of Philosophy in Modena, where, tying in with the theme of this year’s edition of the festival, she is lecturing on the commitment to historical truth through the role of testimony.
“At first glance, appealing to testimony for the reconstruction of historical truth may seem to be a contradiction,” she explains, “because witness testimony is in some ways lacking in standards of objective assessment and verification of data, which are typical of the work of the historian.”
To put it simply, witness testimony might also be false.
In a certain sense, that is the situation. And no matter how trivial an observation, this is a very important historical problem, because there is always a risk in practice that a collective heritage might be built based on a falsehood. In my lecture at the festival, I referred to some examples of false testimony, such as the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, the Swiss writer who published a book that was very successful (Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, in Italian Frantumi. Un’infanzia 1939-1948, Mondadori, 1996). He reconstructed scattered moments from his supposed childhood in Auschwitz, with a wealth of detail that made the story plausible. Much later, however, it was discovered that the author not only had never been in a Nazi concentration camp, but wasn’t even of Jewish origin. Or, I could mention the case of Enric Marco, the Spanish union leader who boasted of being a survivor of Nazi prison to legitimize his credibility from a political point of view. His story has been skillfully reconstructed by the writer Javier Cercas (The Impostor, in Italian L’impostore, Guanda, 2015).
But it is always possible to check the facts and to give them the correct interpretation?
It is difficult—but that is not the point. I believe we should also avoid considering a “fact” in itself as a purely objective, almost completely neutral matter. We shouldn’t be too enamored with “the facts.” The love that the historian has for the truth cannot be a naïve one. One must always bear in mind that social and narrative distortions affect the facts, and that historical memory is often influenced by phenomena such as the cinema, forms of narrative, and art in general. Memory integrates, overlaps, and reworks what we experience as simple events, almost unconsciously. It is a type of symbolic recodification, by means of different factors, narrative devices and ideological mechanisms, which are absolutely external to the historical facts as such.
Can you explain that a bit more?
The most important aspect is that when we remember something, we don’t just recount the facts, but we rebuild a logical thread running through them. When remembering, we try to make sense of a series of scattered and fragmentary objects. Without this reconstruction, without a narrative and reconfiguration, these would remain mere facts without any historical function, and without any real utility for understanding what happened. What we call “history” is essentially the sense that we make of these facts: this is something that we bring to the mix ourselves, something that we add from the outside. For this reason, historical reconstructions become transformed, and even the meaning of what we call “memory” changes: there are psychological reasons, or social reasons, that we need and that we use to make sense of our memories. This “sense” is useful not only for us, but also for those to whom we want to entrust our stories, our memories.
But this implies that history is always subject to the constant risk of ideological manipulation, to being used for rhetorical and political purposes.
That’s true. And this is an ever-present risk. Because the work of the historian is not a work where you can rely on objective reconstructions. Such a scholar can claim objectivity only insofar as they are able to provide plausible, consistent, or—even better—sensible interpretations of a series of related events. History takes on meaning and value, and thus becomes useful for the present, only if we see something sensible in it.
I study the Holocaust, and the risk of experiencing historical distortions is always present, and not only because there is a risk of false testimony, as I just mentioned. You cannot be so naive as to rely solely and exclusively on the history deposited in the archives, on the memories cataloged in official records, because archives and records are often written by those who held power at that time.
“History is always written by the victors.” Do you agree with this assumption?
This is partly true. But it is always possible to avoid commemorating a false present. From a methodological point of view, one way is to avoid using just a single source, one testimony, and to collect as much data as possible and compare it. This is, in very simple terms, the work of a historian. But even when using such tools, the risk of distortion is ever-present. You have to be able to look at those spontaneous relationships that develop between people, places and spaces, and all the elements that have helped make memory more than just simple individual recollection, but something like a collective historical heritage. This means, if you will, to be able to open oneself up to a free use of memory.
Doesn’t the witness end up playing a paradoxical role? Thinking about the testimonies of death camp survivors, you have the feeling that, because of repeating their story over and over, it is just as if, in a sense, they never left Auschwitz at all.
I understand what you mean, and I understand very well the problem that this raises: why repeat the same story over and over? Once, they asked a Holocaust survivor this very question, wondering if it was too painful to constantly recall that tragedy. And he said, with a disarming calm, that this was not painful, because he was no longer the boy he was back then, when he was deported: it was as if he was telling the story of another. That doesn’t mean pushing the past away from us, but rather welcoming it with awareness and responsibility.