History by Parliamentary Vote: Science, Ethics and Politics in the Lumumba Commission

Since the end of the Cold War an increasing number of countries have set up government-appointed ‘historical commissions’, often staffed or assisted by historians, to settle disputes about the past. This article analyses the phenomenon of ‘commissioned history’ by focusing on the case of the Belgian parliamentary commission of inquiry which was active between 2000 and 2002 and had to investigate Belgium’s responsibility in the murder of the Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. It especially addresses the questions how the ‘Lumumba commission’ attempted to create a hegemonic memory around the (post)colonial past and how history, politics, and ethics were combined in this attempt. Despite official assertions about a strict division of labour between experts and politicians and about the ‘absolute independence and freedom’ granted to the former, the article argues that a problematic ‘osmosis’ of history and politics took place. However, it is argued that this osmosis did not result from partisanship on the side of the experts, nor from an active interference by the politicians, but from a (probably unconscious) attitude that the experts developed in which they appropriated a part of the meta-political values and the habitus of their law-making employers.