Review of Henry Rousso: La dernière catastrophe

Henry Rousso, La dernière catastrophe: l’histoire, le présent, le contemporain. Paris: Gallimard, Nrf essais, 2012.  Pp. 338. 21 euros.

Henry Rousso’s essay offers a wide-ranging reflection on what it means to write the ‘history of the present’, a field which, in recent decades, has moved from the margins of history to its very centre.  His aim is to trace the evolution of the ‘history of the present ‘, the forms it has taken and the problems it has posed over the centuries and poses now. In his first chapter, Rousso outlines the historiography of the history of the present: he explores what it meant to write this history in classical times, in the middle ages, in ‘modern’ times – a term which, he notes, is open to uncertain dating. But the principal focus of the book is to trace and explain the emergence of a particular form of the history of the present from the 1970s on, with a focus on the French, German, English and American historical fields (although, understandably, the French field receives most attention).

Discussing the evolution of the theory and practice of the history of the present in the late twentieth century, Rousso pays close attention to the impact of the two World Wars, these ‘catastrophes’ that placed new demands on the historian and transformed the relationship of public and historian to the past and to the present. The trauma of WWI encouraged the public’s engagement with history and accorded an increasingly prominent role to ‘witnesses’, as veterans demanded that their experience be remembered – and never repeated. Rousso notes the collections that were begun in the midst of the war, to preserve the items, documents, etc that might capture the experience of the soldiers and the brutal reality of combat. The Australian reader is reminded of the role that Charles Bean played in ensuring that such items were collected from the battlefields towards the end of WWI, and his campaign for the establishment of a permanent institution of memory and record that became the Australian War Memorial. Bean saw such a memorial as, in part, fulfilling his notion of a debt owed to those who died, and this notion of a debt owed to the victims is one that, Rousso argues, began to emerge in the aftermath of WWI and even more strongly after WWII.

The recent past became the object of increasingly close attention after WWII, in the context of the war trials, the ideological confrontations of the Cold War and the construction of the European Community. But it is above all from the 1970s that the history of the present became a major preoccupation both in the discipline of history and amongst the public and media as war crimes and above all the extermination of the Jews re-emerged as central preoccupations of academic focus, public commemoration and judicial examination. A ‘second wave of purges’ took place in France, with the trials of Barbie (1987), Touvier (1994), Papon (1997), drawing historians into playing the role of expert witness and even moral arbiter. Nuancing Hartog’s category of ‘presentism’, Rousso argues that it is less the hegemony of the present that characterises our contemporary collective imaginary, than the persistence of a past that summons us to pass judgment and ensure compensation for events that took place several generations ago, as if they were contemporary.

How to define the boundaries of the present? Where does it begin? Rousso’s title, La Dernière catastrophe [The latest catastrophe] contains his answer: catastrophic events force the ensuing generations to attempt to re/write their recent history, to give meaning to the rupture with the past, to re-establish individual and collective identities (251).  In his final chapter, Rousso reviews the various candidates for the catastrophic events that might mark the start of our ‘present’ – 1917? 1945 ? 1989? 2001 ? If it is still too early to assess the impact of the terrorist attacks on the USA of 2001, the events of 1989/1991 seem to Rousso to mark the end of the cycle that began in 1917 with the Russian Revolution.

Finally, what does Rousso say about the nature of our contemporary approach to writing the history of our present? This particular conjuncture is characterised by five principal features: the weight of the (catastrophic) events; social demands on the historian; judicial involvement; the importance attached to witness and to memory. Rousso reflects on the challenge posed to history by those who claim that direct experience trumps the perspective of the historian: his book opens with an anecdote that suggests the extent to which the witness to an event is felt to have a special insight that the historian cannot replicate, a prejudice shared even by certain historians. Rousso stands firm for the role of the historian in combatting the immediacy of events through the mediation that history offers, though he does not under-estimate the challenge involved in establishing a sufficient critical distance.

It is impossible in this short review to do justice to this very rich and detailed reflection on such a wide range of topics and issues in the theory and practice of the history of the present: the problem of periodisation; the reasons behind the contemporary ‘era of commemoration’; the increasing attention paid to WWI since the 1990s ; discussion of the work of other major historians such as René Rémond and Pierre Nora. It is to be hoped that an English translation will soon be available to ensure wider access to this work.