Politics of memory

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Politics of memory is the organisation of collective memory by political agents; the political means by which events are remembered and recorded, or discarded. Eventually, politics of memory may determine the way history is written and passed on. Memories are also influenced by cultural forces, e.g. popular culture, as well as social norms. It has also been connected with the construction of identity.[1]


The two sides in the conflict in Cyprus maintain widely divergent and contrasting memories of the events that split the island. The term selective memory is applied by psychologists to people suffering from head injuries who retain some memories, but have amnesia about others. Societal trauma, such as war, seems to have a similar effect. Recollections that are shaped out of a phenomenon common to many countries traumatized by war and repression, may be remembered in radically different ways by people who experienced similar events.

The selectivity may also serve a political purpose, for example to justify the claims of one group over a competing group. Cyprus is a poignant case for this phenomenon. The longstanding conflict on the island reflects deep roots in the "motherlands" of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot peoples.[2]


Lauren A. Rivera (Harvard University) studies how states "manage reputation-damaging" events "on a global stage". Rivera decided to conduct a study on the state of Croatia in order to determine how the government represented its country to international audiences following the wars of Yugoslavian secession. She hypothesized that the main catalyst for this change in international opinion was due to cultural reframing. This empirical study included textual analyses of travel brochures printed by the Croatian government (study 1), interviews with 34 tourism professionals from the Croatian government (study 2), and observations of popular attractions during the peak of Croatia's tourism season (study 3). Study 1 and study 3 came to the conclusion that the nation's new cultural identity draws parallels with western societies while creating "strong symbolic boundaries between Croatia and its Eastern neighbors" (Rivera). Tourism professionals explain this shift in culture as an attempt to make the country of Croatia seem like a more stable place for Western investment and travel (study 2).[3]


In Germany, Politics of memory (Geschichtspolitik) is most often associated with how to memorise the national socialist era and World War II. Often different events of this era have been measured against one another and, in this way, evaluated, e.g. the Holocaust, the war against Eastern Europe with its ethnic cleansing programs, but also the bombings of city's by German and Allied forces alike or the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe.

Speeches by politicians often deal with issues of how to memorise the past. Richard von Weizsäcker as Bundespräsident identified two modes of memorising the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945 in his famous 1985 speech: this date can be seen as defeat or liberation. Weizsäcker backed the latter Interpretation. In this regard, such moments as the first official "Day of Commemoration for Victims of National Socialism", on January 20, 1996, led to Bundespräsident Roman Herzog remarking in his address to the German Parliament that "Remembrance gives us strength, since it helps to keep us from going astray."[4] In similar, but somewhat opposing measure, Gerhard Schröder sought to move beyond this in saying the generation that committed such deeds has passed, and a new generation does not have the same fault because they simply weren't there to be responsible.[citation needed]

Good examples for politics of memory could be seen in national monuments and the discourses surrounding their construction. The construction of a holocaust memorial in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe at a central location in Berlin was met with protests but also with strong support. Likewise the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny was deemed inappropriate by some onlookers and a discussion revolved around the question whether the lack of a differentiation between victims and perpetrators is adequate or not.[5]

The question if and how to memorise Germans expelled from Poland in the aftermath of World War II has been constantly debated in both West Germany and Poland. Such questions are so difficult because it requires a moral judgement of these events. These judgements differ remarkably. For instance, the Federation of German Expellees called on Poland to pay compensation for lost property to Germans from what after 1945 became Polish territory, a claim that is consistently declined by Poland.[6]

Similarly there have been debates in Germany whether the legacy of World War II implies that Germany's military should be confined to purely defensive measure like peacekeeping or, contrary to this, this legacy can be a justification of an active enforcement of human rights which also might involve preemptive strikes.[7]

Soviet bloc: politics of history

Although this has not received considerably coverage, there have been studies to saying that the Soviet Bloc's repressions and the consequent "traumatic repercussions" deserve the same mention as that of post-World War II, which has been insititutionalized.[8]


Memorials keep alive the memories of conflict, as with the removals of memorials, often for political purposes, such as in Lithuania's removal of Soviet era statue from the city centre of the capital to a cemetery that evoked an adverse reaction from Russia.[citation needed]

Similarly, the commemorations of wars are held in places like Bosnia, which hosted a concert on the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war.[9]

Efficacy and moral relativity

While the German example's moral relativism has led to a lesser political fascism, others have questioned whether politics of memory is a good thing. Is it that "Those who cannot remember the past, are doomed to repeat it?" A large body of Literature has been written with the view that it is so.

Looking at truth commissions and at efforts by ravaged societies to "come to terms" with the past has caused various writers, human rights activists, lawyers, political theorists, psychoanalysts, journalists, historians, and philosophers to argue that "forgetfulness equals impunity, [while] impunity is both morally outrageous and politically dangerous." It was also argued that forgetfulness is bad, however, it is still different from proving that memory is good. It was said that memory, like everything else, could be clumsily or unintelligently used, or even used for false purposes or in bad faith.[10]

W. G. Sebald sees the opposite end of the conventional determination in showing that German amnesia surrounding the Allied carpet bombings of 131 German cities and towns turned many German cities into vast necropolises, and resulted in an estimated 600,000 primarily civilian deaths, with millions of internal refugees. It was also said,[by whom?] however, that the politics of memory could contribute to the formation of strategies for achieving reconciliation in post-conflict situations. It can be used by activists, equity workers, policy analysts and academics to address existing paradigms in order to achieve some semblance of justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of deep internal conflict.[citation needed]

In literature

Milan Kundera's opening story in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting is about a Czech official posing with other officials for a photograph in winter. The man gives his fur hat to cover his superior's bald head and the photo is taken. Later, when he falls out of favour and is denounced and removed from official records and documents, he is even air-brushed out of photographs; all that remains of him is his fur hat.[11]

Winston Churchill is purported to have said that "history is written by the victors." The accuracy and significance of this statement is still debated.[12]

Raul Hilberg's autobiography is titled The politics of memory.

See also


  1. ^ The Politics of Memory by Laura Nasrallah. Harvard Divinity Bulletin Autumn 2005 (Vol. 33, No. 2)."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-22. Retrieved 2012-03-01.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-07-24. Retrieved 2008-11-08.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ [Rivera, L.A. (2008). Managing "Spoiled" National Identity: War, Tourism, and Memory in Croatia. American Sociological Review 73(4), 613-634]
  4. ^ "Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. - The Nation | HighBeam Research". highbeam.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  5. ^ "Berlin Memorial Bibliography". utexas.edu. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  6. ^ "Eurozine - The burden of history and the trap of memory - Philipp Ther". eurozine.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  7. ^ Huyssen, A. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford University Press. p. 73. ISBN 9780804745611. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  8. ^ http://www.ruc.dk/upload/application/pdf/f51d6748/Malksoo.pdf[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Edin Krehic, Selma Milovanovic. "Sarajevo hosts a concert 20 years after siege - Al Jazeera English". aljazeera.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  10. ^ http://bostonreview.net/BR28.3/linfield.html
  11. ^ Milan Kundera: A man who cannot forget By MICHIKO KAKUTANI Published: January 18, 1982 https://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE5D91138F93BA25752C0A964948260&scp=2&sq=book%20of%20laughter%20and%20forgetting%20politics%20of%20history&st=cse
  12. ^ Finding a roadmap to teach kids about Mideast Study examines history textbooks for Israelis, Palestinians By Jill Wagner NBC News Fri., May. 6, 2005 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7759863
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