Thursday, March 14, 2013

Collective Memory

In 1946 Winston Churchill gave a speech at the University of Zurich, now known as ”The Council of Europe Speech”.  Churchill called for the former foes, the French and the Germans, to look towards a future in order to build a new peaceful Europe.  In order to attain this he called for the leaders of Nazi Germany to be punished. But then he also called for all Europeans to “turn our backs upon the horrors of the past. We must look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years that are to come the hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be an act of faith, in the European family and indeed an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past”. 

Churchill seems to have been calling for Europeans to forget their recent past. Yet, after World War Two, nothing of the sort happened.  Just a year after Churchill’s speech, German philosopher Karl Jaspers published The Question of German Guilt, in which he called for the necessity to remember.  Even Churchill himself went on to write his own six-volume The Second World War.   Far from condemning the past to oblivion and embracing forgetfulness, in 1948 he wrote that “it would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future” and that it was his great hope that “pondering upon the past may give guidance in the days to come.” 

Although the peaceful Europe that Churchill envisioned was achieved, it was not through condemning the past to oblivion.  On the contrary, the “injuries of the past”, particularly the Holocaust, have become an embedded part of contemporary Europe’s collective memory. Indeed, since Churchill’s speech, the recent past that he spoke of has become even more alive, being remembered, commemorated, celebrated in minutes of silence and solemn gatherings, at memorial monuments and historical reconstructions, in official speeches of repentance and the payment of reparations, in state leader’s visits to the graveyards where the fallen of the former foe rest. Away from these official acts of remembering and state ceremonial occasions World War Two is continuously revived, reinterpreted and remembered in professional historiography but also by means of myriad bestselling novels, blockbuster movies, memoirs, documentaries and visits to places that once hosted mass atrocities – so called “Dark Tourism”. Europeans today, born decades after the end of the war, can claim to still remember the war, realizing the slogan “We shall never forget”.

These memories, which together constitute a collective memory, are mediated memories. Unlike individual memories which, though influenced by social frames of reference, are biological (they ‘live’ somewhere in an individual’s brain) and are limited to the individual’s experience, collective memory is manufactured and distributed, passed on and passed down, through a huge variety of media. The Holocaust, for instance, is remembered by an inevitably ever dwindling number who had first-hand experience of it, both victims, perpetrators and by-standers, but an ever increasing number remember it through listening to grandparents’ stories, through reading The Diary of Anne Frank, through doing a project at school, through viewing Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist, through visiting Dachau or Auschwitz during a visit to Germany or Poland, through listening to Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrows, through seeing the television series Heimat, through reading a novel like Elie Wiesel’s Night or a graphic novel like Art Spiegelmann’s Maus or an historiographical work such as Saul Friedman’s A History of the Holocaust, through participating in a solemn ritual on International Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27th), through seeing Peter Eisenman’s  Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe during a visit to Berlin, through accessing the website of Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, through noticing the numerous plaques that dot many of Europe’s cities commemorating sites that once hosted thriving Jewish communities. In this mediated way we are continually being reminded of the Holocaust and each act of reminding and remembering is the opposite of casting the injuries of the past into oblivion. Rather, they each contribute to creating a sense of collective memory based on representations of a past reality.
Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Although the word ‘memory’ is a noun, to believe that memory is a thing is to succumb to a form of bewitchment that language frequently casts over thought; just as the wind never blows (despite what language says) but is itself the actual process of blowing, so too memory never remembers (or does anything) nor is memory ever remembered but memory is simply short-hand for the process of and result of remembering. Collective memory is thus only the process or result of individual members of a group remembering. Consequently, collective memory contains no essence, no hard, indivisible core, no immutable, metaphysical status or being. It does not exist in some ethereal sphere nor is out there waiting to be discovered. It is born in representation.

It is French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who is considered to have been the founder of the modern study of collective memory. For Halbwachs, even our personal memories are structured by social frames of reference. We are born into society and, as such, we are thrown into an ocean of memories, just as we are thrown into a reality of social class. Our identity is forged within a family and a nation state and social class and gender, none of which we have chosen. Our being is embedded within and shaped by a language that is given to us.  None of this negates our individuality, but it does mean that our individual development takes place within certain given parameters not of our making and our identity is formed within these givens.  Gadamer, in his modern classic Truth and Method, expressed this well: “history does not belong to us; we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live.”  [Truth and Method. New York: Crosswood Publishing, 1975, p. 277] Marx had the same thing in mind when he wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”   [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978, (1852), p. 9]

We are initiated into the memories of our social group soon after birth, as soon as we start learning language. We encounter memories from a past beyond our narrow experience by simply listening to conversations and children’s stories, looking at pictures in a book, learning to sing songs and recite nursery rhymes. Soon we are watching the television and, increasingly, exploring the internet. Before we are even conscious of it, mediated representations of the past abound, helping to form our identity within various collectives or groups – from the family to the nation state.

Which seems to imply, correctly as it turns out, that there isn’t one collective memory but many collective memories; just as there are many identities, even within the same individual. Just as an individual inhabits a multiplicity of identities (national, economic, ethnic, sexual, professional and so on) the individual can also participate in a variety of collective memories. Even within that great modern collective, the nation, there are subsets whose identities are forged within the parameters of a collective memory that forms an alternative to that of the majority. These are often based on language, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and frequently a mixture of some of these (and more – the list is far from exclusive). The confrontation between one of these sub-sets and the majority often leads to contested collective memory.

One process that invigorates the instability of collective memories is that they are frequently contested. Examples of contested collective memories increasingly abound: May 14th 1948 is remembered by Israelis as the Day of Independence but is remembered by Palestinians as Al-Naqba or Catastrophe; Orange Parades in Northern Ireland evoke collective reminders of the survival and flourishing of a proud protestant past for one community while provoking the collective remembering of the bigoted, sectarian oppression of an embattled catholic minority for another community; 1992 was widely celebrated as a collective reminder of 500 years since the triumphant discovery of the New World, but it was also collectively remembered as marking 500 years of oppression and even genocide.
Some national collective memories clash with others. In Britain today the wearing of a red poppy is commonly claimed to be a gesture of collective remembrance for those who gave their lives in war for their country, particularly during the Great War. During a visit to the People’s Republic of China, British prime-minister David Cameron and his fellow ministers insisted on wearing their red poppies despite the knowledge that it was offensive to the Chinese authorities.  To the Chinese, the image of a British leader proudly wearing a poppy was a brazen reminder of the Opium Wars, when Britain humiliated China during the 19th century. The poppy is not innocent. For one collective memory and identity it is a marker of patriotism; for another, it is a marker of imperialist triumphalism. Collective memory has a way of becoming contested terrain.

Read More on Collective Memory here.


  1. Great topic!

    Contested memories are inevitable, and to some large extent warmly welcomed. The idea that only the military winners can write history according to their own needs would be unthinkable. So as much as I don't like Churchill, he was clever about not dragging forward the hatreds from, and revenges for the past.

    I understood why the Allies plunged Germany into crippling reparations after the 1914-1918 World War, but all it did was destroy industry, create massive unemployment and create a new generation of hatred. There had to have been better ways of stopping Germany from re-militarising than that.

    1. Hi Hels,

      Thanks for your comment. I am writing this in Luxembourg, where I am attending a conference organised by Global Issues Network. My hotel is in the centre of Eurocrat territory and is a reminder of the incredible cooperation that follwed World War Two in Europe, when former foes decided to work together rather than focus on old hatreds.

  2. Headstones and memorial plaques both serve as permanent reminders of a life well-lived. They are, however, different in several significant ways. greek memorials