The June 2012 issue of Public History News begins with an interview of James A. Banner, historian and author of the new book Being a Historian. Banner believes that the work of historians includes a moral obligation to society. He states:
“we … have a moral obligation to struggle to understand the past as the past actually was. … [W]e also have an obligation to present at least some of our knowledge to our fellow citizens in ways that they can understand it, apply it… .”
Banner’s comments are especially resonant for public historians. I have been contemplating the different ways that public historians can fulfill that obligation, while still respecting the needs of the public. This past Memorial Day, I attended commemoration services at Bohemian National Cemetery. The most poignant speeches were not from Americans. Dana Hunatova, the Czech Consul General in Chicago, and other Czech dignitaries came to pay homage to Americans who died fighting for freedom around the world. As Americans, we sometimes forget that peoples in some other countries do appreciate the United States and its moral authority. For nations like the Czech Republic, America was/is a key ally first in the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in defeating the Nazi menace, and in crushing Communism. The Czech dignitaries were expressing their appreciation of American assistance over the past century.
On June 10th, I witnessed the opposite ceremony: Americans commemorating the destruction of Lidice in the Czech Republic. Seventy years to the day prior, the Nazis killed all the men, some women, and some children in Lidice in retaliation for the Czech underground’s assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. The rest of women and children were sent to concentration camps, and the town was bulldozed. As word spread across the globe, towns around the world renamed themselves Lidice or built Lidice monuments so that the town would not be forgotten – a direct repudiation of Hitler’s intent. Crest Hill, Illinois built and maintains a Lidice Memorial. Crest Hill never had a Czech population; its Slav population was primarily Croatian. Town folk in 1942 were so offended by Hitler’s orders that they wanted to support their fellow Slavs and oppose evil.
In this instance, the American speakers, including the Mayor of Crest Hill Ray Soliman, Illinois state Senator Pat Maguire, and local Sokol leaders, spoke emotionally about the lost lives, Nazi tyranny, and the need to remember. Though no one verbalized an explicit “why we should remember”, a letter from the current mayor of the rebuilt Lidice thanking Crest Hill for holding Lidice commemoration ceremonies for 70 years and the Czechoslovak American Congress for planning the ceremonies; some of the few Lidice survivors have returned to the village and teach children from all over the world about what happened and how the town was reconstructed.
Both the Memorial Day and Lidice ceremonies used the language of good and evil, freedom and oppression, commemoration and willful amnesia. Perhaps historians might be uncomfortable with such stark contrasts and simplifications. Returning to the moral obligation of the historian, books and articles can be written to fully investigate the details and nuances of the various historical events to academic satisfaction. As public historians, we are supposed to engage with people, help them preserve and tell their stories. At these ceremonies, the people involved had created their rituals and told their stories, respecting the sacrifices of their dead. In circumstances like these, is our moral obligation simply attendance at the ceremonies? Or should we record/preserve the rituals? How do we share these ceremonies with others?
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