Cultural Memory

Paul Connerton. Handbook of Material Culture. Editor: Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, Patricia Spyer. Sage Publications. 2006.

A girl born in 1950, in time to have witnessed the events of May ‘68 in Paris, or the other student demonstrations of that year in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, and Britain, would have reached adulthood at a time when the word ‘memory’ lacked the cultural resonance it now enjoys. Neither the 1968 edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, nor Raymond Williams’s Keywords, published in 1976, thought fit to include an entry on the subject. The intervening years have seen a sea-change. References to memory are now omnipresent in scholarly discourse and in wider public debate. ‘Social memory’, ‘collective remembrance’, ‘national memory’, ‘public memory’, ‘counter-memory’, ‘popular history making’ and ‘lived history’ jostle for attention. Heritage, museology ethnohistory industrial archaeology, retrofitting, retrochic, lieux de mémoire and counter-monument all allude to a common constellation of interests.

Memory’s new position as a key word is signalled by a cluster of symptoms, some closely connected, others related together more tenuously. First of all, there is the vogue enjoyed by books devoted to producing an inventory of the contents of national memory. This vogue is, admittedly, less original than is sometimes claimed. For one thing, some of its exemplars derive inspiration from a work written long ago, Maurice Halbwachs’s Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (1925); this and other texts by Halbwachs first began to exert a serious impact long after their author had died in Auschwitz in 1944. For another thing, many contributions to what is now perceived to be a new field of inquiry elaborate research agendas previously pursued vigorously under other names; specialists have long explored the history of mentalities, or myth, or oral history, or popular culture, or commemorative rituals, or autobiography, without seeking to link these strands together, as is now commonly done, by subsuming them under the general, overarching concept of memory. The elevation of this category, the crystallization of a conscious discourse about memory, is marked, above all, by collaborative scholarly enterprises: the publication of the first volume of Lieux de Mémoire, under the direction of Pierre Nora, in 1984; the translation of Nora’s essay, ‘Between memory and history’, in a special issue of Representations dedicated to memory in 1989; and the founding of the journal History and Memory in the same year.

Closely related to this are a number of historical controversies concerning particularly tragic episodes in the past: regarding the Third Reich and its place in German history; the Vichy regime in France and its policy towards the Jews; fascism in Italy; Japanese war crimes in China and Korea; communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and in the countries previously annexed to the Soviet bloc. For many participants these disputes represented an opportunity to come to terms with a disputed past, and nowhere more stridently so than in Germany. If the Historikerstreit of 1986 opened for the first time a discussion of the relative status of Nazism in the context of other contemporary state crimes, particularly those in the Soviet Union, what gave that debate its peculiar intensity, its sting, was the fact that it offered the participants what they most probably felt to be a last chance to settle accounts. Most of those involved in the dispute belonged to the same age group, the ‘Hitler Youth generation’. They were the last group active on the public scene whose members had a personal memory of the Nazi period, and, for this reason, there was in this group a powerful impulse to fix that experience in some kind of final form. The German controversy about the national past not only fascinated a larger public than that of professional historians, it also took other forms than that of historical writing. This was the case not only in Germany. Thus although in France the work of historians on France’s collaboration with the policy to exterminate the Jews surfaced into the public realm when a particularly flagrant case, that of Klaus Barbie or Paul Tournier for instance, caught the headlines, the one indisputably great French work on the massacre of the Jews was not a book but a film, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The fact is symptomatic. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the return of the repressed not only as history but also, and often more impressively, as film: in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun; in Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Germany, Pale Mother; in Edgar Reitz’s Heimat; and, earlier than all of these, in Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, which created a new type of historical film, setting up a confrontation between what people said in 1943 and what they said some thirty years later, before the camera.

Then again there is the contemporary culture of retributive justice and public apology. Since the Second World War, and ever more insistently towards the close of the twentieth century, scenes of legal judgement, repentance and pardon have multiplied on the geopolitical scene. Judgements at Nuremberg, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Paris, Lyons, Bordeaux and The Hague have generated a special branch of criminal legislation in international law defining crimes against humanity, among them the crime of genocide. In the aftermath of administrative massacre, the movement for recovery of the facts of injustices perpetrated has almost invariably appeared—in Russia, the former Soviet Bloc societies, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala. The damage claims recently brought by comfort women, forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers in the Second World War, have received considerable public support in Japan. In the United States and in France there has been a plethora of apologies for past actions by politicians and Church leaders. In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was charged with the task of collecting evidence of crimes committed under apartheid, of providing a forum where the victims could ventilate their hatred face to face with the offenders and in the presence of witnesses, and of granting amnesty to those who admitted that they had committed political crimes. In the wake of these events, there already flourishes an international debate regarding the relative merits of the various options—official truth commissions, criminal trials, parliamentary inquiries, sponsored scholarly inquiry into newly opened government archives—which might be adopted in response to the clamour for retributive justice. The cumulative effect of all these public proceedings is that the process of how people are made to vanish has become a distinctive feature of the contemporary conception of what constitutes cultural memory.

People are not the only things to vanish. The material culture of former lives does too. Indeed, it disappears more rapidly as the value attached to it diminishes. Between Elizabethan and Victorian times, for example, goods once valued for evidence of durability were replaced by goods valued for disposability. In counterpoint to this, the strategy of cultural salvage, no less than that of retributive justice, now belongs to the memory boom. Increasing importance is attached to what is thought of as cultural patrimony. The number of museums multiplies, especially museums of local identity, of everyday life and of working practices. What is sometimes referred to by the unlovely term ‘museumification’ is no longer bound to the institution of the museum but is extended to all areas of everyday life: to the restoration of old urban centres; the preservation of museum villages and landscapes; the flourishing of retro fashions. As the acceleration of technical and scientific innovation produces ever larger quantities of obsolescent objects, the monument as a category is unloosed from its reference to the privileged objects of the cathedral, the castle and the stately home, to embrace also the vestiges of the agriculture, industry and habitat of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. In England, the number of designated monuments, 268 in 1882, had risen to some 13,000 by the 1990s; English Heritage, charged with the task of preserving historical buildings, is now responsible for an entire town, Wirksworth, in the lead-mining district of Derbyshire; and at Wigan Pier Heritage Centre you can pay to crawl through a model coal mine and be invited in by actors dressed as 1900 proletarians. In France the Commission for the Ethnological Heritage promotes studies of life on the narrow boats on the canals of the Midi and the production of an inventory of the first cinemas in the Ile de France area; and the term la patrimoine, having been extended to refer to songs, dialects and good local wines, now includes the marble counter top from the Café du Croissant at which Jaurès drank his last cup of coffee.

If this is the evidence for the memory boom—academic studies of national memory, historical controversies concerning tragic episodes in the recent past, the culture of retributive justice and the public apology, the strategy of cultural salvage and invented tradition—what of its causes? Two in particular deserve to be singled out.

The first is the repercussions of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Totalitarian regimes revealed the existence of a danger hitherto unsuspected in history, that of the intentional systematic effacement of memory. There had, of course, been systematic destruction of the documents and monuments of opponents previously. The Spanish Conquistadores burnt and extinguished all the material traces which might have remained as evidence of the greatness of the peoples they vanquished. But they attacked only the official sources which transmitted the memory of conquered peoples, and allowed many other forms of the memory of vanquished peoples to survive, for example their oral narrations and poetry.

Both the Third Reich and the former Soviet Union, by contrast, waged an obsessive and total war on memory. Himmler said that the Final Solution was a glorious page in history which had never been written and never would be. The Nazi apparatus of genocide was to be responsible both for the murder and for the forgetting of the murder. Under the pressure of defeat, starting in 1943, the Nazis burnt the corpses and systematically destroyed the weapons of their crime; hasty efforts were made to get rid of potential witnesses through death marches. Victims who did in fact survive have told how they were terrified that the attempted cover-up might in the end succeed. Compared with twelve years in Nazi Germany, a time span of many decades shaped the attempt to asphyxiate the memory of victims in the former Soviet Union. Remembering had been dangerous since the 1920s, and only with the beginning of Glasnost in 1986 did it become politically possible to initiate openly the project of collecting oral histories. In the countries of East Central Europe annexed by the Soviet Union, too, memory was censored, whether because it had a religious character, or because it testified to the crimes of the Soviet Union, or because it related to political forces which were judged by the state apparatus to be anti-communist, or nationalist, or Jewish. In East Central Europe, as in the Soviet Union, the history of the revolution had been mythologized and official memory was in conflict with a memory which could be transmitted only orally, in families, and could attain a public hearing only through the secrecy of samizdat or through emigration.

Hence the high prestige of memory among all enemies of totalitarianism. Every act of recollection, every attempt to disinter and reconstitute the past, was perceived as an act of principled opposition to state power. There was always a group of people who, throughout their imprisonment, nurtured the determination that what had happened to them and to those with them should be recounted. Many of them felt an imperative need to tell an account of wrongdoings precisely because they were convinced that the loss of the capacity to tell was one of the meanings of annihilation. They wanted to survive as moral witnesses, witnesses to the fact of evil and to the suffering it produces. Some poets and writers who have broken their silence may have paid with their life for that deed: Celan, Améry Levi, Bettelheim. But from their pens there issued, as Elie Wiesel has said, a new literary genre, that of testimony. So Memorial, a large movement of moral witness in the former Soviet Union, has set out to document the victims of Stalinism, collecting written autobiographies, records and photographs, and recording and transcribing interviews. So the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies was established at Yale. And so too the overthrow of regimes in East Central Europe led to the collective rewriting of the past, from retrials to the rehabilitation of those imprisoned by previous regimes, from the replacement of statues and the names of streets to the rewriting of school history books.

There has been at least one other major cause of the memory boom. This is the fundamental transformation in the means by which cultural memory is transmitted and sustained. If an educated European or Chinese had been asked 200 years ago how the memory of their culture was passed on from generation to generation they would most probably have singled out, in the first instance, the crucial role played by the handing down of canonic texts. But the last 150 years have witnessed a revolution in communication as radical as that which resulted from the invention of printing, and, long before that, the invention and diffusion of writing. Photography, phonography, the cinema, radio, television, video and the Internet have together created a new collective memory. Superimposing a new stratum of memory on to that circulated by writing, these inventions have made ever greater quantities of memory potentially accessible. They have also introduced a qualitative change into the way in which memory is experienced, because, in the objective form of images, films, discs, magnetic tape and cassettes, they seem to allow us to relive parts of the past, to see it again and to hear again its sounds, so long at least as these have been registered by a mechanical apparatus; by conferring on parts of the past a sensory presence previously absent, they generate the powerful illusion that it is actually possible to be in the presence of this past reality itself. As a consequence, it has become no longer possible to think of any historical trauma as a serious political issue outside and apart from the ways in which it is assimilated by the manner it is represented in photographs, films, docu-dramas and Internet sites; and these new forms of representation are so variegated and so ubiquitous that it has become difficult to think of anything as being in any sense not a representation.

This type of what might be called ‘prosthetic memory’, when it takes a mainly visual form, can sustain the existence of imagined communities as effectively as does, according to Benedict Anderson, the diffusion of printing. Film and video, by virtue of their narrative sequence, their temporal immersion, insinuate the suggestion of ‘being there’. An archive of images yields objects around which collective remembrance may coalesce by contextual association. It was in this way that the instant captured in the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination acquired mythic status as representing the moment when the United States underwent the transformation from being a nation of promise and optimism to becoming one of cynicism and violence. Similarly, the collective viewing of television images of the Challenger explosion and of the first Gulf War made the explosion and the war national experiences. For those Americans who lived through the years of the Vietnam War the most iconic documentation of the time were black-and-white photographs: the 1968 photograph by Eddie Adams of the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head at point-blank range; and the 1972 photograph by Huynh Cong Ut of a young girl running naked down a road towards the camera and away from a napalm explosion. And for an American generation too young to have witnessed the Vietnam War at the time on television, the history of the war is represented by Hollywood narrative film produced for popular audiences.

Many studies of cultural memory have clustered around three main areas.

Few aspects of memory have received more sustained attention than has the work of mourning. It is central in the studies by Paul Fussell and Jay Winter on the universality of grief in Europe in the wake of the First World War; it is the key theme in post-Holocaust literature, as in Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes; it reappears in George Santner’s and Anton Kaes’s studies of belated mourning in German films of the 1970s and 1980s; it resurfaces in the dissection of the way the post-liberation French have dealt with the skeletons in the nation’s closet, what Henri Rousso calls the ‘Vichy syndrome’, dating from the episode between the fall of France in June 1940 and the liberation in 1944; and it is announced once again in Yosef Yerushalmi’s demonstration that the Jews have explored the meaning of their history more directly and more deeply in the prophets than in historical narratives, and that their collective memory of diaspora, pogroms and expulsions has been transmitted more actively through ritual than through chronicle. Studies of trauma, by Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub and Cathy Caruth, among others, belong in this context. In his major work, Remembering, Edward Casey has contrasted habitual bodily memory and traumatic bodily memory; whereas the former implies the continual resynthesis of the body, the latter implies the dissolution of the intact body. One particular case of traumatic bodily memory as a process of mourning has been investigated in detail by Arthur Kleinman: this is the experience of those who suffered social disorientation and a crisis of cultural legitimation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. The most striking physical symptom suffered by the victims was dizziness. For them to experience dizziness was to relive the memory of trauma; for them to tell about their dizziness was to give voice to an oblique criticism of the Cultural Revolution. Theirs was no arbitrary somatic symptom, as Kleinman shows. Given a medical tradition where balance was understood as constitutive of health, dizziness has particular salience as a physical work of mourning and memory, and the narrative of that illness becomes a sanctioned piece of utter-able memory.

Topography—the study of monuments, buildings, and entire landscapes as media of memory—has also been a key concern in recent debate. Perhaps this is in part a response to the fact that the last half-century has experienced, as has no other, an end to the tyranny of distance; place, as evocative of shared memories, has become a surrogate for the territorial belongingness previously so central to the life of the nation-state. But in any event the classic works of Maurice Halbwachs and Frances Yates prefigure this contemporary preoccupation. No reader can fail to observe the dominance of spatial metaphors—‘framework’, ‘place’, ‘space’, ‘localizing’, ‘situating’—in Halbwachs’s descriptions of social memory, or to appreciate the persuasiveness with which Yates excavated a long tradition of Western rhetoric with its stress upon the explicit spatialization of sequences of argument in imagined loci as the support to a trained memory. Their stimulus has been taken up most comprehensively, of course, in the vast collection of studies partly available in three volumes in English under the title Realms of Memory and completed under the direction of Pierre Nora. As a celebration of national identity in an era of national decline the design of Nora’s enterprise is easily discernible, as a study in the mnemonics of place its lineaments are more difficult to decipher. Nora’s enterprise is a confusing cornucopia. When he speaks of lieux de mémoire the word lieu fulfils two distinct types of function. Sometimes it is used literally to refer to features of topography: Lascaux, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, street names. At other times it is employed figuratively to refer to tokens of cultural identity: the Marseillaise, Bastille Day, gastronomy, the memoirs of Chateaubriand, Stendhal and Poincaré. Nora’s enterprise loses in logical coherence what it gains in comprehensiveness of treatment. No such incoherence mars other studies of place as a site of memory: Rudy Koshar’s From Monuments to Traces, or Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory, or James Young’s The Texture of Memory.

A further theme of discussion has been the experience of memory in the era of modernity. Beginning from the general assumption that memory has a history, a number of scholars have argued that the history of memory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is unlike that of any other period. Focusing on the generation and a half between 1870 and 1914, Matt Matsuda has documented the ways in which it was obsessed by the meanings and uses of memory: how clinics, hospitals and laboratories were staffed by psychologists and neurologists who located memory in the tissues, organs, muscles and structures of the human body; how print memory proliferated in the new availability of mass-circulation newspapers; how the cinematic image was able not only to represent but also to preserve visual reality; how knowledge of the file, the accumulation of documents and images, was increasingly an instrument of state. Others have suggested that there is a paradoxical relationship between remembering and forgetting characteristic of modernity. Andreas Huyssen has pointed to a major and puzzling contradiction in our culture: the undisputed waning of historical consciousness, the lament about political, social and cultural amnesia, and the various discourses about posthistoire, have been accompanied in the past twenty years by a memory boom of unprecedented proportions. Jacques le Goff joins him in linking the valorization of memory to cultural forgetting when he argues that the public at large is obsessed by the fear of losing its memory in a kind of cultural amnesia, a fear that is awkwardly expressed in the taste for the fashions of earlier times and shamelessly exploited by nostalgia merchants. Richard Terdiman, too, focusing on French culture, argues that, beginning in the early nineteenth century, people worried both about forgetting and about difficulties which seemed to be associated with a persistence of recollection, so that we could say that, from the nineteenth century onwards, disquiet about memory crystallized around the perception of two principal disorders: too little memory and too much.

If one were to assemble a list of all the books and articles worthy of consideration on the subject of cultural memory written between 1900 and the present day in English, French, German and Italian, fifty pages would hardly be adequate to contain the rich harvest. If one were to do the same for forgetting, a mere five pages would certainly suffice. Anthropologists and historians have paid a great deal of attention to the role of memory in transmitting knowledge and forming identity, but comparatively little attention has been devoted to what people forget, how they forget and why they forget. It seems possible that this disparity will be rectified, to a degree, in the foreseeable future. It may be helpful, therefore, to conclude by proposing some preliminary discriminations between types of forgetting.

  • Forgetting as structural amnesia was identified by John Barnes in his study of genealogies. By this he meant that a person tends to remember only those links in his or her pedigree which are socially important. Thus in the genealogies of the strongly patrilineal British peerage, as in those of the Nuer and Talensi, the ascending male lines are far more memorable than the associated female lines; the names of ancestors who do not give their names to units within the lineage structure tend to be forgotten. Among the Lamba, on the other hand, the matri-lineal line of descent is more important than the patrilineal; accordingly, the ascending female lines could be traced for three to five generations, whereas the ascending male lines could be traced back for only one or two generations. The same general principle of structural amnesia is exemplified by the history of cooking, in the sense that the availability of printing systematically affects what recipes are transmitted and what are forgotten. The number of recipes that can be held in written form is unlimited, whereas the number that can be held in the oral memory is limited. Both the standardization and the elaborateness of the modern cuisine depends, therefore, on the production of cookbooks and the literacy of cooks. The attraction of regional cooking, on the other hand, is tied to what Grandmother did, and the methods of country cuisine are acquired by observation rather than by reading. In these circumstances recipes are systematically forgotten.
  • The concept of structural amnesia illustrates a more general point, namely our deeply held conviction that forgetting involves a loss. This conviction is found in our European and American background, even if it may not be held more widely. But could not forgetting be a gain, as well as, or perhaps more than, a loss? This appears to apply to a particular type of forgetting, the kind of forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity. The emphasis here is not so much on the loss entailed in being unable to retain certain things as rather on the gain which accrues to those who know how to discard. Forgetting then becomes part of the process by which newly shared memories are constructed because a new set of memories are frequently accompanied by a set of tacitly shared silences. Many small acts of forgetting which these silences enable over time are not random but patterned: there is for instance the forgetting of details of grandparents’ lives which are not transmitted to grandchildren whose knowledge about grandparents might in no way conduce to, but rather detract from, the implementation of their present intentions; or the forgetting of details about previous marriages or sexual partnerships which, if attended to too closely, could even impair a present marriage or partnership; or details about a life formerly lived within a particular religious or political affiliation which has been superseded by consciously embracing an alternative affiliation. If the sections in Augustine’s Confessions devoted to forgetting read less persuasively than those on memory, that may be due, aside from the greater intractability of the topic, to the fact that for him to have thought too hard or long about what he forgot, or half forgot, might have been to disturb his projects in the present. Not to forget might in all these cases provoke too much cognitive dissonance: better to consign some things to a shadow world. So pieces of knowledge which are not passed on have a negative significance by allowing other images of identity to come to the fore. What is allowed to be forgotten provides living space for present projects.

The cognatic societies of South East Asia exemplify this. Ethnographic studies of these societies, in Borneo, Bali, the Philippines, rural Java, frequently remark upon the absence of knowledge about ancestors. Knowledge about kinship stretches outwards into degrees of siblingship rather than backwards to predecessors; it is, so to speak, horizontal rather than vertical. It is not so much a retention of related-ness as rather a creation of relatedness between those who were previously unrelated. The crucial precipitant of this type of kinship, and the characteristic form of remembering and forgetting attendant upon it, is the high degree of mobility between islands in the South East Asian area. With great demographic mobility it is no longer vital to remember ancestors in the islands left behind, whose identity has become irrelevant in the new island setting, but it becomes crucial instead to create kinship through the formation of new ties. Newcomers to islands are transformed into kin through hospitality, through marriage and through having children. The details of their past diversity, in the islands they have now left, cease to be part of their mental furniture. Their forgetting may be only gradual and implicit, and above all no particular attention may be drawn to it, but it is necessary nonetheless. Forgetting is part of an active process of creating a new and shared identity in a new setting.

In the same sense, no narrative of modernity as a historical project can afford to ignore its subtext of forgetting. That narrative has two components, one economic, the other psychological. There is, first, the objective transformation of the social fabric unleashed by the advent of the capitalist world market which tears down feudal and ancestral limitations on a global scale. And there is, secondly, the subjective transformation of individual life chances, the emancipation of individuals increasingly released from fixed social status and role hierarchies. These are two gigantic processes of discarding. To the extent that these two interlinked processes are embraced, to that extent certain things must be forgotten because they must be discarded. This long-term forgetting as discarding in the interests of forming a new identity is signalled by two types of semantic evidence, one the emergence of a new type of vocabulary the other the disappearance of a now obsolete vocabulary. On the one hand, certain substantives, which refer at once to historical movements in the present and to projects for the future, enter the currency: History Revolution, Liberalism, Socialism, Modernity itself. On the other hand, certain words previously employed by writers in English cease to be used and are no longer easily recognizable: memorous (memorable), memorious (having a good memory), memorist (one who prompts the return of memories), mnemonize (to memorize), mnemonicon (a device to aid the memory). Could there be a more explicit indication than that signalled in these two semantic changes of what is thought desirable and what is thought dispensable?

  • Forgetting as repressive erasure appears in its most brutal forms, of course, in the history of totalitarian regimes, where, in Milan Kundera’s often quoted words, ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. But repressive erasure need not always take such transparently malign forms; it can be encrypted covertly and without apparent violence. Consider, for instance, the way in which the spatial disposition of the modern art gallery presents the visitor with nothing less than an iconographic programme and a master historical narrative; by walking through the museum the visitor will be prompted to internalize the values and beliefs written into the architectural script. Entering the Great Hall of the Metropolitan in New York, for example, the visitor stands at the intersection of the museum’s principal axes. To the left is the collection of Greek and Roman art; to the right is the Egyptian collection; directly ahead, at the summit of the grand staircase that continues the axis of the entranceway is the collection of European paintings beginning with the High Renaissance. An entire iconographic programme establishes the overriding importance of the Western tradition and the implicit injunction to remember it. But the collection of Oriental and other types of non-Western art, as well as the medieval collection, are invisible from the Great Hall. They are included, yet they are also edited out. In exhibiting a master narrative, the museum’s spatial script is overt in its acts of celebratory remembrance, covert in its acts of editing-out and erasure. Here too the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
  • Politically expedient forgetting is distinct from this. Like erasure, it is precipitated by an act of state, but it differs from erasure because it is believed to be in the interests of all parties to the dispute and because it can therefore be acknowledged publicly. Whether after international conflict or at the resolution of civil conflict, the formulation of peace terms has frequently contained an explicit expression of the wish that past action should be not just forgiven but also forgotten. The Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end in 1648, contained the injunction that both sides should forgive and forget for ever all the violence, damage and injuries that each had inflicted upon the other. After the return of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, he declared ‘An act of full and general pardon, indemnity and oblivion’. When Louis XVIII returned to occupy the French throne in 1814 he declared in his constitutional charter that he sought to extinguish from his memory all the evils under which France had suffered during his exile, that all research into utterances of opinion expressed before his restoration was to be forbidden, and that this rule of forgetting was enjoined upon both the law courts and the citizens of France. Sometimes at the point of transition from conflict to conflict resolution there may be no explicit requirement to forget, but the implicit desire to do so is nonetheless unmistakable. For example, societies where democracy is regained after a recent undemocratic past, or where democracy is newly born, must establish institutions and make decisions that foster forgetting as much as remembering. Not long after the defeat of Nazism, for instance, it became evident that West Germany could not be returned to self-government and civil administration if the purge of Nazis continued to be pursued in a sustained way. So the identification and punishment of active Nazis was a forgotten issue in Germany by the early 1950s, just as the number of convicted persons was kept to a minimum in Austria and France. For what was necessary after 1945, above all, was to restore a minimum level of cohesion to civil society and to re-establish the legitimacy of the state in societies where authority, and the very bases of civil behaviour, had been obliterated by totalitarian government; the overwhelming desire was to forget the recent past. Again, the Spanish transition to democracy, after Franco’s death in 1975, was eased by what Semprun called a collective and willed amnesia; and a similar desire to forget was put into practice when the personal files of the old Stasi, the former East German secret service, were shredded after 1989.
  • There is yet a further type of forgetting in which, though an element of political expediency may be involved, it is not the primary or defining characteristic. This type of forgetting is certainly not solely and may in large part be not at all, a matter of overt activity on the part of a state apparatus. It is manifest in a widespread pattern of behaviour in civil society and it is covert, unmarked and unacknowledged. Its most salient feature is a humiliated silence. Perhaps it is paradoxical to speak of such a condition as evidence for a form of forgetting, because humiliation is so difficult to forget: it is often easier to forget physical pain than to forget humiliation. Yet few things are more eloquent than a massive silence. And in the collusive silence brought on by a particular kind of collective shame there is detectable both a desire to forget and sometimes the actual effect of forgetting.

Consider for instance the destruction of German cities by bombing in the Second World War. This left some 130 cities and towns in ruins; about 600,000 civilians killed; 3.5 million homes destroyed; and 7.5 million people homeless at the end of the war. Members of the occupying powers report seeing millions of homeless and utterly lethargic people wandering about amidst the ruins. From the war years there survive a few accounts in which German citizens speak of their stunned bewilderment on seeing for the first time the appearance of their ravaged cities. Yet throughout the more than fifty years following the war the horrors of the air bombardment and its long-term repercussions have not been brought to public attention either in historical investigations or in literary accounts. German historians have not produced an exploratory, still less an exhaustive, study of the subject. With the sole exception of Nossack, and some passages on the aerial bombardment in the writings of Heinrich Böll, no German writer was prepared to write or capable of writing about the progress and repercussions of the gigantic campaign of destruction. A colossal collective experience was followed by half a century of silence. How is this to be explained? Sebald retells a story which hints at the nature of some of the emotions involved. A German teacher told him in the 1990s that as a boy in the immediate post-war years he often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the Hamburg firestorm brought out from under the counter of a second-hand bookshop, and that he observed them being examined, surreptitiously, in a way usually reserved for pornography. We are faced here with the silence of humiliation and shame. The conspicuous paucity of observation and comment on the subject of the bombing and its long-term effects amounts, in other words, to the tacit imposition of a taboo. Confronted with a taboo, people can fall silent out of terror or panic or lethargy or because they can find no words. We cannot, of course, infer the fact of forgetting from the fact of silence. Nevertheless, some acts of silence may be an attempt to bury things beyond expression and the reach of memory; yet such silencings, while they are a type of repression, can at the same time be a form of survival, and the desire to forget may be an essential ingredient in that process of survival.

Or consider the Great War and modern memory. The colossal loss of human life gave rise to an orgy of monumentalization; memorials went up to commemorate the fallen all over Europe. But were these sites of memory the places where mourning was taking place, as the title of Jay Winter’s book on the subject implies? The International Labour Organization estimated in 1923 that about 10 million soldiers from the German, Austro-Hungarian, French and British armies walked the streets of their countries. These were some 10 million mutilated men: half or totally blinded, or with gross facial disfigurements, or with a hand or arm or leg missing, hobbling around the streets like ghosts. They were badly cared for. The war wounded went financially unrewarded for their pains, in millions of households who rarely received the material assistance they needed from the political states on whose behalf they had fought. The war dead were annually remembered at memorial sites, and, until 1939, in a ritually observed two minutes of silence, people stopped wherever they were in the street, stood still, and reflected on the loss. But 10 million mutilated survivors still haunted the streets of Europe. They were dismembered—not remembered—men; many were subject to chronic depression, frequently succumbed to alcoholism, begged in the street in order to be able to eat, and a considerable number of them ended their days in suicide. All sorts of institutional provisions were put in place to keep those mutilated soldiers out of public sight. Every year the war dead were ceremonially remembered and the words ‘lest we forget’ ritually intoned; but these words, uttered in a pitch of ecclesiastical solemnity, referred to those who were now safely dead. The words did not refer to the survivors. The sight of them was discomfiting, even shameful. The living did not want to remember them; they wanted to forget them.

There may be in some cases an overlap between these different types of forgetting, and the discriminations suggested here are intended only as preliminary; they are offered as a set of suggestions regarding directions which future thinking about remembering and forgetting might take.