Politics of memory

The politics of memory is the political means by which events are remembered and recorded, or discarded. The terminology addresses the role of politics in shaping collective memory and how remembrances can differ markedly from the objective truth of the events as they happened. The influence of politics on memory is seen in the way history is written and passed on.

Memories are influenced by political and cultural forces. Government policies and social rules, as well as popular culture and social norms, influence the way events are remembered. In one example, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl instituted a politics of memory for the generation born after World War II. His policies reflected the belief that there was no reason to continue the guilt of the past and that the time had come for getting past the negative historical experiences. 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]


Hitler's actions and ethnic cleansing programs during World War II were widely condemned, especially in the Western world that Germany is in, the country faced something of an identity crisis in coming to terms with their "misdeeds," or coming beyond a Schadenfreude. Many condemned the past and the need to control the rise of extreme right elements (Germany's electoral laws hinder the progress of the far right as opposed to Austria because of the need to garner at least 5% of the votes to get state support for the next elections and grow further (In Austria, there is only a 4% threshold[4])). In this regard, such moments as the first official "Day of Commemoration for Victims of National Socialism", on January 20, 1996, led to the 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."[5]

The politics of memory (Geschichtspolitik) has occupied a central place in its self-understanding. In similar, but somewhat opposing measure, Schroeder 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. In like measure, an attempt to build a holocaust memorial as a national monument to victims of such past conflicts and beyond was met with protests.

The site for the monument was a former World War II prison and a monument during the Nazi era. A statue portraying a mother grieving over a dead son was resurrected with an inscription reading "To the Victims of War and Tyranny". This, however, met criticism, with critics saying the site was inappropriate, and that the statue fails to portray the horror that Germans inflicted on their fellow citizens and on foreigners, while the inscription failed to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, a consequence of the aforementioned identity crisis.[6]

This was also met with another exhibition on the Germans forced to migrate following the war. Which consequently led to something of a diplomatic conflict between Germany and its eastern neighbors—especially Poland— since the exhibition organisers called on Poland to pay compensation to former German owners of Polish property, while even opposing Poland's accession to the EU. The historical conflict between Germany and Poland, and the reasons behind the paradigm shift from culprit to victim in the German view of its history, conflicted with the enduring and very different memory in Poland of the German occupation.[7]

Another effect of the politics of memory in Germany was to alter the citizenship laws from an jus sanguinis to an jus soli philosophy in recognition of the new dynamics in Germany. Such results of an open immigration policy in stark contrast to Hitler's principles pertaining to "Aryan first."

This also resulted in a reluctance to expand Germany's military from a purely defensive measure to one of peace keeping even, though not to mention the use of the military for aggressive or preemptive measures.[8]

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.[9]


During the period of 1972 to 1984, Uruguay had the highest ratio of political prisoners in the world: one in every fifty citizens was detained, and over six thousand were held long-term as political prisoners (despite a small population of barely three million at the time). A disproportionate number, one-tenth of the total population, or an estimated three hundred thousand, were forced out of the country between 1972 and 1984. Over two hundred Uruguayans vanished without a trace.Despite the deep influence of such crimes on Uruguay’s cultural, political, economic, and social fabric from the late 1960s through the 1990s, the elite-driven policies in place from 1985 to 2000 denied the abuses and silenced public debate about them in the name of reconciliation. In the aftermath of the dictatorship, the first transitional regime (1985–1986) engineered a politics of oblivion aimed at social amnesia, institutional impunity, and denial.[10]


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.

Similarly, the commemorations of wars are held in places like Bosnia, which hosted a concert on the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war.[11]

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?" Literature in the past has largely ascertained 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.[12]

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, 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.

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.[13]

Winston Churchill is purported to have said that "history is written by the victors." The accuracy and significance of this statement is still debated.[14]

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).
  2. http://www.cyprus-conflict.net/papadakis.diss.htm
  3. [Rivera, L.A. (2008). Managing “Spoiled” National Identity: War, Tourism, and Memory in Croatia. American Sociological Review 73(4), 613-634]
  4. "Austria. European Parliament Elections". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  5. "Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. - The Nation | HighBeam Research". highbeam.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  6. "Berlin Memorial Bibliography". utexas.edu. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  7. "Eurozine - The burden of history and the trap of memory - Philipp Ther". eurozine.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  8. Huyssen, A. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford University Press. p. 73. ISBN 9780804745611. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  9. http://www.ruc.dk/upload/application/pdf/f51d6748/Malksoo.pdf
  10. Fried Amilivia, Gabriela (2016). State Terrorism and the Politics of Memory in Latin America: Transmissions Across The Generations of Post-Dictatorship Uruguay, 1984–2004. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press. p. 6. ISBN 9781604979190.
  11. Edin Krehic, Selma Milovanovic. "Sarajevo hosts a concert 20 years after siege - Al Jazeera English". aljazeera.com. Retrieved 2015-02-26.
  12. http://bostonreview.net/BR28.3/linfield.html
  13. Milan Kundera: A man who cannot forget By MICHIKO KAKUTANI Published: January 18, 1982 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE5D91138F93BA25752C0A964948260&scp=2&sq=book%20of%20laughter%20and%20forgetting%20politics%20of%20history&st=cse
  14. 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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