The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good


Marine Le Pen delivers a speech at the Front National’s annual celebration of Joan of Arc in Paris. Photograph: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

As a reporter in the Bosnian war, in 1993 I went to Belgrade to visit Vuk Drašković, the Serb nationalist politician and writer who was then leading the mass opposition against the Slobodan Milošević regime. Drašković had drawn liberal as well as ultra-nationalist support in Serbia for his cause. As I was leaving his office, one of Drašković’s young aides pressed a folded bit of paper into my hand. It turned out to be blank except for a date: 1453 – the year Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans.

Friends of mine who had worked in the former Yugoslavia during the Croatian and Bosnian wars had similar experiences in Zagreb and Sarajevo, though the dates in question were different. It seemed as if the “sores of history”, as the Irish writer Hubert Butler once called them, remained unhealed more than half a millennium later – at least in the desperate, degraded atmosphere of that time and place.

And yet, while alert to the possibility that history can be abused, as it unquestionably was in the Balkans in the 1990s, most decent people still endorse George Santayana’s celebrated dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequence of this is that remembrance as a species of morality has become one of the more unassailable pieties of the age. Today, most societies all but venerate the imperative to remember. We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorialising of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations.

But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?

This is what happened in the American south after 1865, where after the guns of the civil war fell silent, another form of battle raged over whose version of the conflict – the victorious Union or the defeated Confederacy – would prevail. As the recent debate in the US over the Confederate flag demonstrated, that battle over memory, though diminished, still goes on today. And just as collective historical memory blighted the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, today the same is true in Israel-Palestine, in Iraq and Syria, in the Hindu nationalist populism of India’s Bharatiya Janata party, and among jihadis and Islamists both in the Muslim world and in the Muslim diaspora in western Europe, North America and Australia.

This is not to suggest that there is an easy solution. On the contrary, it is probable that the need of human beings for community, already compelling in times of peace and plenty, comes to feel like a psychic and moral necessity in troubled times. But at least let there be no turning a blind eye to the high price societies have paid and are continuing to pay for the solace of remembrance.

Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past. This is not simply a matter of inaccuracy, wilful or otherwise, of the type one encounters in the many contemporary television miniseries that attempt to re-create a past historical era – Showtime’s The Tudors, say, or HBO’s Rome. When states, political parties, and social groups appeal to collective historical memory, their motives are far from trivial. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, the goal of such appeals was almost invariably to foster national unity. It would be comforting to believe that damnable regimes have been more given to this practice than decent ones. But the reality is that such efforts to mobilise and manipulate collective memory or manufacture it have been made by regimes and political parties of virtually every type.

There have even been times when rival political movements have vied for “ownership” of a particular historical figure who is thought to incarnate the nation. A case in point was Joan of Arc in 19th-century France. For the right, she was seen as the emblem of France’s determination to repel foreign invaders, while for the largely anticlerical French left, she was a victim of the church that had condemned her to be burnt at the stake. Once the Roman Catholic church beatified her in 1909 (she was then canonised in 1920), the left could no longer credibly claim her as one of their own. Yet the “memory” of Joan of Arc continued to be contested. It became a rallying point for the right, first for the extreme conservative Catholic movement, the Action Française, and the Vichy government during the second world war, then, beginning in the late 1980s, for the French ultra-right party, the Front National. The FN commemorates Joan of Arc every 1 May, not coincidentally the date of the left’s most important annual holiday.

The effort to inculcate a “collective memory” – to suggest that just as Joan of Arc incarnated France’s struggle against the English foreign invaders of her time, so too does today’s Front National, this time against Muslims and other immigrants – represents a gross distortion of history. Yet the right’s manipulation of Joan of Arc is no more inaccurate than the determined efforts of the social democratic Scottish National party to appropriate the figure of William Wallace, the late-12th-century nobleman who was an early leader of medieval Scotland’s wars of independence, for its own ideological and electoral ends.

If anything, the William Wallace that the SNP held out as a model for Scottish voters bears even less resemblance to the historical figure than does the Joan of Arc touted by the Front National. We probably have Hollywood to thank for this: the SNP capitalised on Mel Gibson’s preposterous biopic of Wallace, Braveheart, using the launch of the film in Scotland in 1995 to jump-start a massive recruitment drive for the party. Volunteers handed out leaflets to filmgoers as they left cinemas all over Scotland that read, in part: “You’ve seen the movie – Now face the reality … Today, it’s not just bravehearts who choose independence, it’s also wise heads.” The juxtaposition was patently absurd, and yet the SNP’s then vice-president, Paul Henderson Scott, seemed to have no problem drafting into his party’s cause a figure about whom, apart from his military campaign of 1297–98 and the ghastly details of his public execution by the English in 1305, virtually nothing is known. “In modern terms,” Scott told an interviewer, “the desires of civic nationalism are exactly the same [as those of Wallace].”

I am not prescribing moral amnesia here. To be wholly without memory would be to be without a world. Nor am I arguing against the determination for a group to memorialise its dead or demand acknowledgment of its sufferings. To do so would be to counsel a kind of moral and psychological self-mutilation of tragic proportions. On the other hand, too much forgetting is hardly the only risk. There is also too much remembering, and in the early 21st century, when people throughout the world are, in the words of the historian Tzvetan Todorov, “obsessed by a new cult, that of memory”, the latter seems to have become a far greater risk than the former.

Hyperthymesia is a rare medical condition that has been defined as being marked by “unusual autobiographical remembering”. The medical journal Neurocase: The Neural Basis of Cognition identifies its two main characteristics: first that a person spends “an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past”, and second that the person “has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from [his or her] personal past”.

To the sceptical eye, the contemporary elevation of remembrance and the deprecation of forgetting, these can come to seem like nothing so much as hyperthymesia writ large. Remembrance, however important a role it may play in the life of groups, and whatever moral and ethical demands it responds to, carries risks that at times also have an existential character. During wars or social and political crises, the danger is not what the American historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called the “terror of forgetting”, but rather the terror of remembering too well, too vividly.

These are the cases in which it is possible that whereas forgetting does an injustice to the past, remembering does an injustice to the present. On such occasions, when collective memory condemns communities to feel the pain of their historical wounds and the bitterness of their historical grievances it is not the duty to remember but a duty to forget that should be honoured.

In these situations, at least, is it possible to state with confidence which is worse, remembering or forgetting? There can be no categorical answer. But given humanity’s tendency towards aggression, then it is at least possible that forgetting, for all the sacrifices it imposes, may be the only safe response – and as such should be a cause for a measure of relief, rather than consternation. There are many historical examples of such forgetting taking place far sooner than might reasonably have been expected. As an illustration, when General Charles de Gaulle had his historic change of heart and decided that France would have to accede to Algerian independence, one of his advisers is said to have protested, exclaiming: “So much blood has been shed.” To which De Gaulle answered: “Nothing dries quicker than blood.”

To put the dilemma even more bluntly, remembrance may be the ally of justice, but it is no reliable friend to peace, whereas forgetting can be. An example of this is the so-called pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting) between the right and the left that, while never formalised, was essential to the political settlement that restored democracy in Spain in the 1970s after the death of the dictator General Franco. The democratic transition came on the wings both of rewriting and of forgetting. The myriad avenues and boulevards that had been named after Franco himself or his prominent subordinates following the fascists’ victory in 1939 were renamed. But instead of replacing them with the names of Republican heroes and martyrs, the Spanish leaders chose to use names from the royal past.

The pacto del olvido was meant to placate Franco’s loyalists at a time when the right’s willingness even to acquiesce to the transition was anything but assured. From the start, the pact had many detractors, not just on the left. And even a substantial number of those who did not oppose it in principle thought that it would not succeed unless accompanied by a South African or Argentine-styletruth commission. But it eventually fell to a magistrate to try to initiate through judicial procedures what the politicians continued to steadfastly refuse to contemplate. In 2008, Judge Baltasar Garzón opened an investigation into the deaths of the 114,000 people estimated to have been murdered by the fascist side both during the civil war itself and in the subsequent decades of Franco’s rule. Garzón also demanded that 19 mass grave sites be opened and the bodies exhumed.

Continue reading here. (Original excerpt published on The Guardian)