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Introducing Historians Without Borders

In the summer of 2015 the former Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja, together with a group of Finnish historians, took an important initiative and established the organization Historians Without Borders (HWB).

With this action, historians joined the world of the already existing Sans frontière network system. The background to the development of the organization was to understand the benefit and assistance that historians can offer to modern society, especially in the areas of peace negotiations and conflict resolution. The general aim of the organization is to recognize the importance of consulting historians both within and outside of academia. In the words of the organization:


“In a globalized world, it is increasingly important to be aware of both history and of the various interpretations of it, not to mention their influence on politics and events in the world today. Historians Without Borders in Finland (HWB) was established as a response to these challenges.”


The initiative took wind and was quickly developed to an international conference with several hundreds of participants held here in Helsinki between the 18th and 20th of May 2016, from where I am reporting. The conference is co-organized by Helsinki University and The Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs, among others. It has attracted several historians and other public speakers from all around the world. Different keynote speakers such as Professor Margaret MacMillan (Oxford University), Bernard Kouchner (co-founder and president of Doctors Without Borders) and Ibrahim Gambari and (Founder and Chairman of Savanah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development), all pointed to the important role that historians must play in society, and voiced concerns that historians are often missing from participation in discussions regarding conflict prevention and resolution. All of the speakers agree with the organization that historians have a lot offer to the discourse surrounding these topics. During the first day of the conference the Noble Peace Prize winner, President Martti Ahtisaari, pointed out that historians are quintessential in understanding and having the right skills to analyse the past, and are a valuable asset for even peace negotiation initiatives. Ahtisaari strongly encouraged the audience for a stronger participation of historians in such endeavours.

Another central goal for the organization is to raise awareness regarding the use and misuse of history in politics. This aspect is shared by all of the members and participants of both the organization and the conference. Because of the active and occasionally inaccurate usage of historical events and processes in current politics it is becoming increasingly important to benefit from the in-depth knowledge that historians could provide to politics and to society as a whole.

The conference itself offered a wide range of cross-pollination and stimulating presentations. The days were divided into two main categories. During the morning sessions the keynote lectures were given, which were accompanied by panels that discussed specific aspects of each keynote talk. The keynotes focused on the themes: history and the memory; using history to understand the present; historians and public intellectuals; and historians in peacekeeping and peace mediation. The afternoons were divided into slightly smaller workshops focusing on topics such as Turks and Armenians in 1915 and after to Writing common history for Israel and Palestine. I participated as an observer at the keynote lectures and workshops, and found that the common thread between all of the sessions was the great enthusiasm about the possibilities that this new organization can bring. Many examples were given and the common theme for the sessions was to cross borders and try to find solutions for how historians could assist present-day societies, both in times of peace (as an expert voice in preventing potential conflicts) but also in peace negotiations for current conflicts.

I served as the secretary of the session for colonial history, and the panellists and audience discussed and concluded that colonial history (despite its time gap with the present) has left an important and relevant legacy that should be discussed also outside academia. Historians should communicate to the outside world the impact that colonialism has had on important issues of present-day society, for example racism and discrimination against foreigners. Such themes are especially important today, as the growing refugee crisis in Europe and other crises in different regions in the world are posing difficult challenges.

The conference ended with a meeting about the expansion of the network to a global level. It was decided at the general meeting of the conference that the organization Historians Without Borders will plan to expand outside of Finland and reach as many regions as possible. As I am now writing the last words of this note, I could not stop thinking about the benefits which this organization and its activities could also have for Leiden University, Dutch academia and Dutch society in general. To give one example, the long history of overseas trade and maritime connections around the world has placed the Netherlands in an interesting position observed through the HWB perspective. A university such as Leiden already has a strong transnational and global approach, and lots of potential to offer society expertise in various ways. Perhaps HWB in cooperation with Leiden University could achieve far-reaching results through innovative and interactive scholarship at the Institute for History? For more questions and ideas, please visit the website www.historianswithoutborders.fi.

Kaarle Wirta
Leiden University
Institute for History
Helsinki 21.05.2016

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