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The Seventh Leonidas Donskis Conference

From black and white to shades of grey

Town hall, Vilnius || September 20, 2024


History and historiography is an never-ending process of investigating, assessing, re-assessing and trying to understand what really happened. With time, it is possible to take distance and get a deeper understanding. But even that process is affected by the course of history and the related emotions and perceptions.

Truth is not a one-dimensional concept, but rather like a diamond, with endless facets that sometimes only show themselves when new light is shed, sometimes from unexpected and sudden sides and sources. We try to understand what really happened, but never reach the final “truth”.

Following large-scale and momentous events, a first history is written. Yet often it is still quite superficial, in broad strokes, and predominantly through the eyes of the main actors. In times of war or occupation it is usually the story of the victor, who uses “history” to glorify his deeds and justify the military actions that led to victory. The story of the conquered is swept under the carpet, and usually only comes out in full glory when occupation ends and the original victor is defeated.

Then a new history is written, again with broad strokes, with much emphasis on the suffering caused and heroism displayed by the oppressed. In some cases, past history is rewritten, sometimes to create a more balanced view of the past and counter the narrative of the oppressor.

This is the definitely the case when re-assessing colonial history, when for centuries history, science, and culture were dominated by the ruling elite closely associated with the colonial victor and oppressor.

However, a rewriting of history can also lead to an equally disbalanced view of the past, like a pendulum swinging from one side to the other, influenced not only by continued research but also the prevailing spirit of times, the socio-cultural context of the moment in which the revision of history is formed.

For example, in Western Europe, a revision of the history of the Nazi occupation started in the 1970s, some thirty years after the end of Nazi rule, when new historians came to the fore and started re-assessing what actually transpired. It revealed that the heroic resistance against Nazi occupation was not always that heroic, that collaboration had been much more widespread than generally portrayed, and that compliance and collaboration were more the rule than exception.

In particular the involvement of the local population in the Holocaust
was a sore spot that continues to fester to this very day.
In the Eastern part of the now defunct Soviet Union, this discussion started much later, as a result of the fact that Nazi occupation was succeeded by a resumed Soviet occupation that repressed any attempt to an honest assessment of the past. In this part of the world, a more truthful understanding of the Nazi period is only now emerging, after fifty years of imposed silence, and almost simultaneous with a more thorough and multi-faceted assessment of the communist period.

This gradual “modification”, or process of creating a deeper and muti-faceted view of the past, is again influenced by current political developments, with a war of destruction raging in Ukraine and the increasing threat of further military action by Russia against its neighbors. Apart from the ostensible military actions we face an ongoing hybrid war, that not only influences opinions among the target population but also tries to influence historiography as such, even if only by creating so many versions of history that people discontinue to believe any version.

Yet if we believe that we need to learn from history, we can only do so when we know what truly happened. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, there is no doubt that the death of 800,000 Tutsis was mainly caused by a horrific combination of extremely disconcerting factors. These range from a total disinterest on the part of Western governments in the fate of the victims of the genocide, the double role that France played as part of its semi-colonial policy towards Africa and in particular towards the Francophone part of the continent, which is now finally acknowledged, and the detached and super-bureaucratic attitude of the United Nations Headquarters in New York that basically told its peacekeeping forces in
the country to stand by and watch while hundreds of thousands of citizens were slaughtered. The remark of the then US Secretary of State that they would have intervened if they knew what was transpiring, is shocking in itself: the world knew, and decided to look the other way. Just like the Allies actually knew what was happening in Auschwitz and decided to look the other way. It is no wonder that the head of the UN Peacekeeping Forces, General Romeo Dallaire, like many of his men, was deeply traumatized by the events and several times tried to commit suicide.

While history can be a powerful tool to mobilize people against an external or even internal enemy, it can also have disastrous consequences. It has the tendency to portray a black-and-white image of reality, a reality that in fact does not exist. It creates heroes, and that makes it very difficult for regular citizens to do heroic deeds. Because most heroes are in fact normal people, who committed acts because they were there, because they could not look the other way, or because they were triggered by a variety of factors at that moment, and might not have done anything if these factors had been different.

It is important for us all to understand these complexities, to discuss them and give them a place in historiography. Only then we understand the complexity of life, and that “truth” is indeed a diamond, with beautiful colors, but also with dark depths we often do not visualize, or would rather not see.


The Andrei Sakharov Research Center contributes to the development of a pluralist and democratic society in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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