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Interview with Tulio Halperín Donghi. On History and historians
History for a depoliticized society


Interviewer: Miranda Lida


Tulio Halperín Donghi does not require an introduction. He is the Argentine historian most deservedly renowned both in our country and around the world. He could no doubt talk to us about a vast range of subjects.
We have asked him to share his reflections with us about history, historians and their reading public in the Argentina of today. Nowadays History appears to be – pardoning the expression - fashionable. At the same time there is a growing tendency towards professionalization of History as a discipline – a tendency which appears to become more and more consolidated. Historians, both professional and the others, public and markets are witnesses of the birth of “neo-revisionism”. Who better than Tulio Halperín Donghi to define this phenomenon?

Is it legitimate to speak of a “neo-revisionism” to refer to a large series of history books and essays currently enjoying a huge commercial success? Do they display an internal coherence that would warrant treating them as a current of thought “emulating” the old revisionism?
If from its inception the motor driving revisionism was the search for a vision of the past echoing the momentary climate, then I believe that already the privatisation, and even erotization, of the past, a trend which had as its vehicle historical accounts of Manuel Belgrano’s love life or that of Aurelia Vélez – accounts in which María Esther de Miguel excelled – was, in its own way, neo-revisionism. It offered a past adequate to the era of Menem (1). In similar manner, the mode predominant today – especially in its most successful practitioner, Felipe Pigna – owes its success to the fact of extending to the past the motto “que se vayan todos”, [they must all go]: it attempts once again to unmask those occupying a place in the Pantheon of national heroes, such as the first revisionism had also done, but without accompanying the intent with an equally firm proposal of alternative heroes (even Moreno (2) or Dorrego (3) are commemorated as victims rather than celebrated as heroes).

What has the reader found in those publications?

The reader has found, on the one hand a manner to evoke the past which was interesting to a depoliticized society and on the other hand he has found confirmation that, in the past, Argentina had been the same as the one that had inspired in him such a total rejection of its entire political class.

By contrast, what has been the access to their audience for the principal works produced by professional historians in the past 25 years? Is this audience made up only by professional historians (and History students) or is it broader?
I believe the audience is somewhat — but not much — greater than that formed only by historians and those who aspire to become historians. This would mean several — but again not many — thousand readers. This explains why not only commercial publishers (desiring neither to make a big profit with all the books they publish nor to suffer a loss) should publish some history books all the time, but that in addition to these, specialised bookshops with a privileged access to this readership — which is no doubt comparatively reduced yet not insignificant — should do so too.

What contribution have professional historians made to the debates about the legacy of the last military government? And what public resonance have their interventions elicited?
The contributions — whether they come from professional historians or not — which explore that period from a historical perspective (such as La dictadura militar by Marcos Novaro and Vicente Palermo, to mention just one example I consider admirable) draw a panorama which is too complex to provoke a widespread echo from public opinion. At this time, public opinion is called upon to decide between the simplest alternatives put forth by various conflicting memories, knowing that its verdict will have important consequences that will affect the nation’s present and future.

What balance do you draw from the development of History as a discipline of study in the Argentina of recent years?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it has progressed much more significantly in recent years than in the preceding decades of the twentieth century, and that this has occurred thanks to the conjunction of various favourable factors, the most important of which was the very rapid expansion of the institutional apparatus. However, this could not have produced the results it did in fact have, if, in the climate following the return of democracy in 1983, not so many had perceived the fact that they were in the presence of a perhaps unrepeatable chance to place historiographical production on a path which ought to lead to full professionalization and – at the same time – to the concentration of efforts on subjects whose study would bear fruits that would also be useful for the understanding of a present moment which was felt to be promising at the time. This made possible both the creation of a true school for historians at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires, and the increasing introduction of more ambitious issues and more up-to-date investigation methods in the centres where history work is carried out in universities of the interior of the country.

What have the main achievements been? What tasks are still pending?

Within the context of a more highly professionalized activity, the imperative of having to add lines to one’s c.v. weighs negatively, and with increasing weight. But everything, which since 1983 has come to belie the expectations concerning the new era opened in the life of the nation with the return of democracy, that too, has left its mark. And the course embarked upon by the country already in the 90s rendered the hope outdated that the perspectives matured from the vantage point of historiography could be able to offer any inspiration to those facing the dilemmas of the present time. Moreover, such a hope could hardly be reborn in the climate of closed scepticism left as a legacy of the crisis which at the end of 2001 disastrously terminated the course embarked upon ten years before. All this suggests that this founding stage is being left behind; but although it is hard to foretell what the future holds in store for us, it is encouraging to know that those who are going to face it already constitute a critical mass of historians capable of carrying on the effort within a framework which can no longer be the same as that of the formation stage.

(1) Carlos Saúl Menem (1930 -) president of Argentina from July 1989 to December 1999. His administration was characterised by widespread privatisation of public utilities (including the oil company YPF, the post office, telephone, gas, electricity and water utilities)
(2) Mariano Moreno (1778 – 1811) Argentine lawyer, journalist and politician, he played a decisive role in the May Revolution of 1810 which led to the declaration of independence from Spain. Named Secretary of the first Junta that replaced the viceroy, he was of the most radical conviction. Having been sent on a diplomatic mission to Britain, he died in March 1811 under obscure circumstances, giving rise to the suspicion that he was the victim of political assassination.
(3) Manuel Dorrego (1787-1828) was an Argentine statesman and soldier. He was governor of Buenos Aires in 1820 and again in 1827-1828. He was a firm supporter of Federalism, and this led to his execution at the hands of Juan Lavalle on December 1, 1828.

Traducción y notas: Robert A. Franklin


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