Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021

The wide angle

The book examines three cases: the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-6, at the end of the Second World War; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa at the end of the apartheid regime in 1996; and the ongoing movements in the United States for reparations for slavery. In the first two cases, there is a clear idea that the judgment of history is being enacted. At Nuremberg, the Nazis were defeated in war and the victorious powers hoped they would forever put to rest the crimes against humanity committed by Hitler’s National Socialist Regime. The TRC sought to expose the crimes of apartheid (to render a judgment about the atrocities committed) without, however, being able to indict or punish those responsible. There had been no victory in war, but rather a negotiated settlement to end apartheid and usher in black political majority rule.

At Nuremberg, while the Nazis were condemned for “crimes against humanity”, the more mundane racist aspects of their nationalism, the belief in the homogeneity of the national body, were left in place, thus protecting the domestic treatment of minorities in the victorious powers. That, in turn, left open the return of the repressed—an ethno-nationalism expressed as racist violence within nation-states and in their colonies. In South Africa, what began as an examination of the structures of power of the apartheid regime became a Christian narrative of individual forgiveness, enabling racist economic inequality to persist into the new post-apartheid state. Political equality there did not mean economic or social equality for the African majority. There was only a partial “judgment” of what had constituted the inequalities of the past and so some of those persisted into the present.

The chapter on movements for reparations for slavery in the US presents a different story, one in which those movements call for a revised history of state actions to end slavery and then racial discrimination. The state actions always fall short of their promise, leading reparations movement activists to call for a critical revisionist history that recognizes that things like the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, or Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, for all the progress they accomplished, did not end the structural racism that characterizes the United States to this day. For these movements, more a demand for accounting than a judgment of history, the moral as well as political reckoning of the legacy of slavery is yet to come.

I came to do this book in the wake of the Charlottesville riots in 2017, when I found myself asking “what ever happened to the judgment of history”? Weren’t Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen consigned to the past by a consensus of democratic peoples in the United States and elsewhere? I knew, as a historian, that this was a naïve question, but I was struck by my knee-jerk response. My work in history has been about modern France and about gender and women’s history, informed by feminist theory. So it did not seem a stretch to ask what it meant to think of history as able to make definitive moral as well as factual judgments. When I was invited to do three lectures at Columbia University in 2019, there was a good opportunity to explore the question. The book is a revision and expansion of those lectures.