‘Facing up to the Past’: a comparative venture along the trajectories of two truth commissions – The Independent Commission of Experts (Bergier Commission) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Monday, 6 May, 2013 - 15:00

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A study of the Independent Commission of Experts, popularly known as Bergier after its president, set up in Switzerland in the mid 1990s to establish, once and for all, the degree of complicity of the Swiss banks and authorities with the Nazi regime, has inspired me to return to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) convened in the same period. In this paper, I am principally concerned with the criticisms made of the TRC and, more especially, of its Final Report, by scholars around a decade ago, which it has been argued have contributed to deterring historians from engaging more fully with the TRC archive. In the early 2000s, Posel and Wilson, among others, had delivered excoriating critiques of the TRC’s Final Report, mainly because it had failed to meet the standards of ‘history’. Unlike the TRC, the Bergier Commission in Switzerland was composed almost entirely of professional historians and consciously attempted to employ historical methodologies in its examination of the voluminous evidence from the Nazi period. Switzerland’s Federal Council invested a great deal of faith in the Commissions’ work as an historical exercise that would appease international critics without alienating the Swiss population. As it turned out, neither hope was particularly well realised and, in fact, the first two interim reports from the Bergier Commission precipitated what its scientific advisor, Marc Perrenoud, described as a series of ‘tidal waves’ of public hurt and indignation within Switzerland. Thinking about the TRC in the light of a commission that did adhere to the most rigorous standards of the historical profession but still encountered enormous obstacles, throws up fascinating questions about the nature of the TRC and the potential of its archive. It also provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the old, but still perplexing question: what is history?


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