The Embassy of Switzerland in Romania in partnership with the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile organized on June 14 and 15, 2011, in Bucharest, a symposium on the role of historian’s commission in the process of dealing with the past. The event featured scholars from both countries who were either directly involved in the functioning of such commissions or who have written extensively on their role and significance.
The creation of scholarly, state validated bodies of experts for the clarification of contentious issues related to guilt, retribution, reparation, and trauma in the recent history of various countries have become an established practice in contemporary world. Depending on the object of inquiry and the mandate given by public authorities, historians’ commissions have acquired certain characteristics from case to case. Nevertheless, for each country where they functioned in a significant amount of experience, certain lessons and conclusions have been reached. Comparing these situations has the potential for better understanding the complexities of working through a painful past, which in itself holds special significance in building and consolidating democracy in societies riddled with the lasting legacies of exposure to or direct involvement with dictatorships.
The cases of Switzerland and Romania seem different at first glance. The historians’ commissions in Switzerland dealt with the country’s responsibility during the Second World War, with particular focus on politics of reparation and retribution. In Romania, the two commissions created in 2004 and 2006 dealt with the direct involvement of government in 20th century totalitarianisms. More precisely, the first body was created for the purpose of studying Romania’s involvement in the Holocaust, while the second analyzed the nature and development of the communist dictatorship. However, in both cases these commissions’ activity was centered on the principle of overcoming unmastered silences and responsabilites. Moreover, in terms of the methodology of the functioning of these commissions possible common ground can be also found.
In this context, the organizers of the symposium wanted to raise several key issues that could shed light on the challenge to provide conclusions and policy agendas in dealing with the past by means of expert analysis. In what (political) context did the commissions work? What were the advantages and disadvantages of state-appointed historians’ commissions? How was the work of the historians’ commission perceived in the academic world and by the broader public? Did the results of the commissions’ work have an influence on schools and teaching materials? What was the impact of these commissions on the access to archival material? Did their activity result in a democratization of research on the periods in question? Did the commissions make concrete recommendations? Have the recommendations been taken into account? What was/could be/should be the link between the historians’ commissions and the judiciary? Did the historians’ commission have an effect on combating impunity, restoring the rule of law and rehabilitating victims (moral, financial or other types of rehabilitation)? The organizers believe that a comparative discussion along the directions suggested by the above questions will give the participants the chance to make general assessments on the role and expected results of historian’s commission in the process of dealing with the past.
In 2011, Switzerland and Romania celebrate a century of diplomatic relations. The anniversary of our countries’ mutual friendship and historical partnership is an excellent framework of academic dialogue. The symposium was therefore an opportunity for common, shared knowledge on the difficult task of working through the responsibilities and traumas our recent histories.