An afternoon with Christophe de Voogd

Christophe de Voogd, @Julien Chatelin, de Volkskrant

Professor de Voogd was kind enough to accept our request to interview him, and after the last session of our Great Thinkers of Political Modernity class, he met Zeynep Aksoy and Sebastián Torero at Bistrot on Rue Longue, answering questions over a glass of rosé.

Zeynep: In our Wars of Memory class, we’ve been discussing the process of collective memory. In your opinion, what has been the best use and manipulation of memory in recent times?

De Voogd: I think Israel is one of the most significant successes in the use of memory. Ben Gurion was a master in using memory. He combined the long term memory of the Jewish people and mythology, with the short term memory of the Holocaust in the nation-building process. Israel, through its state policy makes a great political resource out of the collective memory of the Jewish people.
Of course, I also have to add Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who uses memory splendidly. He managed to combine both the national and the religious memory in Turkish politics in a very impressive way, to say the least. A third example is [Charles] de Gaulle of course. De Gaulle combined a short-term memory of the war and resistance with the longer term memory of France, Joan of Arc, et caetera… At the same time, the Algerian war was completely trivialized and put aside as ‘‘les événements d’Algérie’’. De Gaulle was an excellent manipulator of memory.

Zeynep: In our Wars of Memory class, we defined two ways to utilize memory: sanctification and trivialization. For example, Turkey trivializes the Armenian Genocide and simultaneously sanctifies the War of Independence that led to the founding of the Republic. What can you say about this amnesia and hyper-amnesia?

De Voogd: The expression, and the remembrance of the War of Independence (1919-1923) is already meaningful, because Turkey was never actually colonized. But it rightly refers to the domination of the country by the French, the Italians and the English after 1918. From the French historical perspective, this period has long been named the “Greek-Turkish War” — this is what I learned at your age — and not a “War of Independence”. More and more this latter expression has been prevailing, even in France, and I became more aware of this shift through reading your [Mentonese] papers. But it was also a Turkish civil war between the ancien régime of the Sultan and Mustafa Kemal. That is exactly the kind of thing that the study of memory puts in full light.

Sebastian: The ways of naming wars is very interesting. For instance, the use of “Six Day War” by the Israelis in an intentional way to underline the short time it took for the Israelis to defeat their enemies, as well as the fact of six days having a religious connotation because God created the world in six days. On the other hand, it is also called the “Arab-Israeli War” or the “June War”, but I have rarely heard of it as that. I have only heard of it as the “Six Day War” while growing up. Aren’t those conflicting narratives?

De Voogd: Of course, but you also must understand the Arab point of view. To be always reminded that in six days you were completely crushed is not a good memory, is it? And they were crushed in six days.

Zeynep: If you had to name just three influential political speeches in the last five decades, which three would you pick?

De Voogd: Oh there are so many!  You know how I make it as a joke, but it is not a joke, we had the chance to have a [Roger] Federer — I am an ardent tennis fan — but not all generations have a Federer.
I am referring to Obama, of course. He is for this generation the Federer of oration — that would be my comparison.

Zeynep: It evades me how we go from Obama, who is an excellent orator, to Trump who seems to have trouble with basic sentence formation. Obama had gravitas and authority, which Trump obviously lacks.

Sebastian: I’ve always loved the way that Obama spoke, but he attracted criticism. People thought his style was pedantic. That he did not speak the way the people spoke and that there was a constant professorial, didactic tone.

De Voogd: There are moments in his rhetoric which are stronger and weaker. But as a whole, Obama’s skills are splendid. Whether you like it or not, the main reason he won the presidency was because of his speeches.
Obama is an excellent speaker but there are also other great public speakers worth mentioning. Such as [Nelson] Mandela. Mandela single-handedly achieved national reconciliation through two decisive speeches. His first speech as president is absolutely decisive, and secondly, his speech at the [1995] Rugby World Cup.

Historians are great in understanding and analyzing things that have passed, but when they are just happening, it is another question…

Zeynep:Anthony Pagden states that the two most significant issues that came to shape the contemporary Middle East are the rise of nationalism and the creation of Israel. To what extent would you agree or disagree?

De Voogd: I often agree with Pagden and I also often disagree with Pagden! What is always interesting with Pagden is that you have a lot of material, stuff, events that students don’t always know, so it’s good to read Pagden to know your basic historical facts as it is generally accurate, and he knows a lot. But about his analysis, I disagree. Pagden falls short when it comes to the contemporary radical uprising we now observe in the Middle East. Which has proved more decisive compared to Arab nationalism — no one is able to define what “Arab nationalism” is anymore. So what I would say is the big issue now shaping — or destroying — the Middle East is religion, not as a faith but as a political resource. Just see Saudi and Iranian policies.

There is a German historian named Koselleck, who said, ‘‘one should never forget that the past had a future.’’

Zeynep: Why choose the field of History and specifically the study of memory? Can you perhaps share an early memory that shaped your political career and initiated your interest in this field?

De Voogd: There is a book, edited by Pierre Nora — he is the one who was a pioneer in the history of memory all over the world… So first, I had the chance to be his assistant 20 years ago, and we taught together French historiography at Sciences Po. It was really years of intellectual discovery. Pierre Nora was the editor of a book, “Essais d’ego-histoire”, which discussed personal motivations in becoming a historian… He asked many prominent scholars and historians of the day: why did you become a historian? It was evident that all historians are interested in history because they have a personal memory. They are obsessed with the past and have a special relation with it. It’s almost a kind of constant nostalgia. This is exactly what Pierre Nora’s book is about, and if you read this book, one of the historians, Pierre Chaunu, gives the exact reason why I am a historian as well.
The personal commitment of a historian is always linked to his personal memory, perhaps that is why these two notions of history and memory are not contradictory at the end of the day.
My personal political memory is an early one. The speech Charles de Gaulle gave on May 30th 1968 had a deep effect on me. I remember thinking that he spoke splendidly, but I didn’t know how or why it was so powerful. It was one of the reasons why I became interested in political rhetoric.

Zeynep: France has a very divided political scene at the moment. What is your take on the first round of the elections? From what I know, Marine Le Pen still has a significant chance of winning the first round because her electoral base is more motivated. And so do you think [Emmanuel] Macron is a convincing adversary to Marine Le Pen, as they are speaking of very different things? It is so divided the political scene, what do you say about that?

De Voogd: If I knew, I would like to tell you! Historians are great in understanding and analyzing things that have passed, but when they are just happening, it is another question…
There is one sure thing within the study of history, one thing that every good historian knows: there are no absolutes, no certainties. That is the only lesson of history; that precisely nothing is sure. To be a real historian is to know that the future is open. There is a German historian named Koselleck, who said, ‘‘one should never forget that the past had a future.’’  If you want to be a historian, you must see the past as always having a future, and historical actors acting according to their own “horizon of expectation”, which the historian must find out and understand. That is also the case for France these days.
I consider myself a good Machiavellian, and I believe that Fortuna is there, and she is very much there, now in France. So the question is: who, among the candidates, will handle her best?

Christophe de Voogd is a Professor and researcher at Sciences Po, teaching numerous courses on the Menton campus such as Wars of Memory, Great Themes and Thinkers of Political Modernity, and the Political Workshop. He has authored several books and is a regular political contributor to news sources in France and abroad.

This interview was recorded shortly before the end of the semester, in April, and subsequently edited to fit the online format. Transcribed by Sara Elbanna.

Zeynep Aksoy

A long lost daughter of Tristan Tzara, Zeynep is on a quest to hug every single person on Earth before she finally gets some rest. Hailing from the only place where chaos is called home, Istanbul's very own will sharper her pen this year to tackle the most important global issues in her own way. This political drama geek is actually living a political drama herself, and you will definitely see what we mean in the upcoming issues.

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