Historical Memory

Bernhard Giesen & Kay Junge. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Memory can appear in various forms. In its broadest sense the concept covers embodied habits as well as information or semantic patterns that have been acquired in the past. In contrast to these forms of memory that do not contain an explicit reference to the past (Tulving, 1983), historical memory refers to some past episode that can be recounted in a narrative format. Narrative accounts frame the social constitution and continuity of its main characters, and it is only within such a narrative frame that individual and collective identities can take form and be communicated (Somers, 1994).

Memory can be attributed to different carriers. While individual memories do not have to be communicated and shared with others, historical memory exists only in a collective mode—it has to be communicated, mediated and represented in social relations (Assmann, 1992; Connerton, 1989; Le Goff, 1992). Historical memory is, therefore, not based on personal experience and it is not inscribed into the body of its individual carriers like a specific skill or a trauma that can even resist all attempts to express it out or to forget it. Instead, historical memory constructs a common past of a social community that extends beyond the life-span of its individual members. In this respect it also differs from the collective memory of a generation. Generational memory refers to the common experiences of contemporaries, to a life-world that is regarded as largely inaccessible for those who were born later on (Mannheim, 1970). It exists only during the life-span of its carrier group and vanishes with their death. In contrast to memory as based on specific individual or generational experience, historical memory imagines a past that reflects the present culture of a social community instead of relating to direct experience. Therefore, it differs from other institutional modes of reconstructing the past, such as, for example, religious confessions of sin and psychotherapy (Hahn, 1998) or jurisdiction in court. Institutional memory refers to social community and can range from relatively small units—a family or a town—to very large ones—a nation, a religious confession or even the community of humankind.

Extending beyond direct personal experience and recalling a common past, historical memory is one of the most basic references for the public construction of collective identity and history. Two different modes of historical memory have to be distinguished. First, historical memory can be conceived of as the intentional attempt to store and to reproduce knowledge about the past. This conception of memory is at the core of the classical ars memoriae, that is, the mnemotechniques which were to enable the precise reproduction of texts. Memory as reproduction tries to counteract oblivion. Media for the storage of historical knowledge and social institutions—like monuments or rituals—are related to this conception of memory as intentional reproduction. In distinction to this, historical memory can also be considered as a non-intentional recurrence of past phenomena, which may be triggered off by certain situations or encounters. Here, memory is not a technique or an art but a vis, that is, a force that intrudes upon our mind and can hardly be surpressed. In this case, too, memory is opposed to oblivion, but in a different way. Even if we would want to forget, the power of the past is stronger. Memory as recurrence is at the core of a traumatic reference to the past. We will return to this in the final section.

Both conceptions of historical memory, intentional reproduction as well as non-intentional recurrence, take into account that memory is not necessarily a true and accurate description of the past. It is selective and maybe erroneous. What passed unnoticed when it happened can appear as a major event in retrospection, and what once received the attention of contemporaries may, later on, pass into oblivion.

History of the Concept

Organicist notions of collective memory, which have been around at least since the end of the eighteenth century, became quite common in the romantic period and still had a wide currency among nineteenth-century historians. Theoretical accounts of how the conceptual twins of collective identity and historical memory work were still rare. In the second quarter of the twentieth century several authors laid the path for research on collective memory. Most important among them is Maurice Halbwachs, a pupil of Durkheim (who in turn was inspired by Fustel de Coulanges), who studied the legendary topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land. He first focused on the distinction between individual and collective memory, insisted on the dependence of the former on the latter, and pointed to the social constructedness of memory in the present (Halbwachs, 1980; Hutton, 1993). Around the same time the German art historian Aby Warburg was working on his Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (2000), edited posthumously. Warburg tried to explore to what extent certain pictorial images became part of collective memory and thereby influenced later artists and artisans in their work. From quite a different background the psychologist Frederick Bartlett showed experimentally that cultural conventions control individual perception and recall (Bartlett, 1932; Douglas, 1986). In 1928 Milman Parry related all distinctive features of Homeric poetry to the constraints enforced by oral methods of composition and transmission (Ong, 1982; Parry, 1971). This question of how specific modes and media of communication and storage influence or even determine what can be said and remembered became a main area of research in the last quarter of the twentieth century (Goody and Watt, 1975). Today the topic of historical memory has gradually evolved to a specific academic discipline with its own research agenda. Encompassing research programmes on the construction of national memory have been launched in France (Nora, 1996-7) and Germany (Francois and Schulz, 2001). The tradition of Halbwachs was continued by Connerton (1989) and others. The Egyptologist Assmann (1992) attempted to integrate different strands of research into a general model of history of memory. His most famous studies centred on transformations of Moses, his roots in Egyptian cults and his latter-day reception, that is, on the cultural invention of monotheism and its long-term consequences for Western culture (see Assmann, 1997).

Media of Memory

Information about the past has either to be stored in order to be retrieved, recalled and represented at a particular moment later on or it has to be kept in continuous circulation. While personal memories can be stored privately, that is, just in the mind and body of an individual, collective memories are articulated within the public sphere and, therefore, require external material carriers and symbolic media of communication—from oral language to printed texts. The constraints of these media impinge on the form of historical memory and can induce very particular social dynamics of memorization (Goody and Watt, 1975; Innis, 1964). The most basic media of collective memory consist of vernacular language and oral transmission from person to person by songs and sagas, tales and plays. Oral memories are often reproduced in a concerted mode when members of the audience or a chorus respond to a storyteller and thus complete and detail the presentation (Ong, 1982). Ancient Greek and Latin rhetoric contained special mnemotechniques for the accurate oral reproduction of the past by referring to imagines et loci (Yates, 1966). Orality allows for the easy transmission of complex stories, but it is also elusive and particularly susceptible to distortion, interruption and oblivion and it can result in conflicts and debates (Goody and Watt, 1975). Indeed, oral modes of commemoration have been characterized by a floating gap or blind-spot with reference to the time-span between the recent past of the community in question and its mythical origins (Vansina, 1965). Therefore, since ancient civilizations collective memory was stored by enduring material carriers that could persist beyond the life-span of individuals and resist decay and destruction (Shils, 1981). Sculptures and wooden engravings in the early days of humankind (Leroi-Gourhan, 1993) and later on stone constructions like pyramids, palaces, temples or churches carried information about the past, about the glory of kings and the grace of gods, about the sequence of dynasties and the size of empires (Assmann, 1992; Innis, 1964). The past could be represented by the sheer age of the building, by spatial relations within the construction, and by depictions of kings and gods, demons and battles. Such depictions, however, can represent a person or an event of the past but they cannot show sequential change, motion and the continuous unidirectional flow of time as texts can (Lessing, 1788). They embody and present the past in a direct way—it does not have to be re-enacted or renarrated; it has never ceased to exist. Understanding these depictions does not require the knowledge of reading. Its basic meaning can often be disclosed even when, centuries later, the chain of oral transmission has long been discontinued.

Three inventions of symbolic media opened up new spaces of storing and encoding collective memories: pictorial or phonetic writing (Leroi-Gourhan, 1993; Ong, 1982), lists and tables for book-keeping (Goody, 1977), and systems of numbers to mark sequential orders and construe calendars that gave rise to the projection of historical events onto a linear and continuous timeframe—a framework which allowed for the easy identification of events by abstracting from their particular historical horizon in equating time and tense (Koselleck, 1985; Motzkin, 1996).

Because pictorial writing systems required long learning and because the act of writing in stone was physically demanding, the amount of stored information remained very limited it had to be condensed to the most important messages accessible only to those few who were able to read. The written historiae about the remote past were mostly an exclusive knowledge of virtuosi that conveyed power and the aura of the sacred. This situation did not change much after stone and chisel had been replaced by paper and ink. Handwritten books and document remained precious and rare and their reproduction was the task of specially trained individuals. Whoever wanted to know about the past had to travel to the libraries and ask for the privilege of reading the classical writings. Even if errors and distortions could hardly be avoided, the art of reproducing texts by handwriting engendered a strong sense of continuity between the texts and a sacralization of the most ancient texts historical memory was turned into a written tradition.

Places, Relics, and Monuments

The past as imagined by a social community is not evenly represented in material objects and places. Particular places are supposed to recall the history of a community and connect us to its past, in contrast to their further geographical surroundings, which are considered as a historical and mundane and therefore free from the obligation to remember the past. The earliest and most elementary site of commemoration is the place where the remainders of the dead ancestors or the founding heroes of a community are buried. These places or relics are regarded as sacred, and any attempt to use them for mundane purposes is met by collective outrage. The sacredness of a place can hardly be negotiated.

Lacking any external storage, the memories of oral cultures, for example, hunters and gatherers, rarely reached back beyond two or three generations. The invention and continuous maintenance of burial sites changed the range of memories. If the dead ancestors were not to be forgotten, they had to be represented in the midst of the community. In ancient Egypt and Rome families united annually with their dead ancestors in festive meals on the burial site. But the cult of the dead extended beyond the limits of families and clans and could also integrate larger social communities (Fustel de Coulanges, 1980). Remembering the dynastic sequence of kings not only revived and represented the dead, but also linked the present rule to the authority of the immovable past. The remainders of the dead founding hero marked the core of early political communities, and a change of this core is reflected by a corresponding displacement of relics. Thus, the transfer of the relics of early Christian martyrs from cities in the eastern to the western Mediterranean area substantiated the famous translatio imperit from ancient Rome to the medieval Frankish empire on religious grounds. The possession of famous relics attracted pilgrims and visitors and symbolized the spiritual power of a city or a ruler.

In the high Middle Ages a hierarchy of universal saints and their relics, most important among them the Eucharist, emerged—reflecting the increasing power of the pope in Rome. With the rise of super-local saints and the spread of relics brought by the crusaders to northern Europe, the movement of pilgrimage to the places of famous relics gained additional salience. Crusades and pilgrimages set the Christian community of the high Middle Ages in motion (Geary, 1978; Webb, 1999). Collecting relics became a passion for kings as did the collection of representative art five centuries later. In collecting the relics of saints, the prince could expand and extend his power, deprive the local communities of their spiritual centre, and justify his position as a representative of the sacred. After the twelfth century the cult of saint’s relics lost importance as the structural backbone of Christian society and was increasingly regarded as a laic mode of religious devotion, but it never faded away.

The veneration of relics is not limited to religious communities. It can also be found in the early modern princely state. The monumental tombs of the rulers in the crypt of churches they had sponsored connect the two bodies of the king—his hidden dead corpse and the artful image of the immortal hero thus guaranteeing the continuation of the political unit in time (Kantorowicz, 1957).

Later on, with the rise of the modern nation-state, the rulers and their dynasty are succeeded by the great men of a nation, by their founding fathers, political leaders and cultural heroes. Their relics, too, are sacred places frequently located in churches, temples or mosques like Westminster Cathedral in London, Santa Croce in Florence or the Dôme des Invalides in Paris. This concentration of memory in particular places and its embodiment in particular objects can result in debates and doubts, in contested claims and bloody conflict. Whoever owns the places of memory has the key to collective identity, and, if it is not his own, but the collective identity of others, can humiliate them by preventing access to the sacred places or even by abusing the sacred places for mundane purposes. Reconquering the land of the ancestors and bringing the founding heroes’ bones back to their homeland is, therefore, the ultimate ritual of remembering the embodied past.

Debates and feuds about the possession of the bones of saints between medieval monasteries or cities were, therefore, not insane aberrations, but desperate cultural wars about collective identity and the access to the sacred past. Of course, there were economic interests at stake. The Venetian theft of the relics of Saint Marc from Alexandria in 827 or the transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari in 1087 are stories of armed robbery and paid treason, of faked documents and distorted justifications (Geary, 1978).

Relics are, by their very nature, rare. Their power is local and fades away if distance increases. The members of the community have to travel to approach the sacred. With the rise of larger territorial orders and citizenship, new forms of collective representations of the past were required (Giesen, 1998). Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, the invention of traditions reached the scale of mass production and allowed for the nationalization of the masses (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). The representation of the founding hero had to be decoupled from material relics that are considered as a part of him or her and brought to the centres of public life. This was achieved by images and monuments erected by the living in memory of the dead. In contrast to relics, they are less demanding on piety and not particularly sensitive to the presence of outsiders. Like their predecessor, the heraldic sign, they are constructed by the members of the community, but presented also to outsiders; they can penetrate everyday life, but they can also represent the sacred core of the community.

Some of the monuments that have been constructed by rulers themselves during their lifetimes in order to represent their fame to subsequent generations mark the transition between remainders and true monuments (McLuhan, 1996). They hint at remnants and relics but these are hidden or entirely subsumed underneath the monumental architecture.

Pure monuments can no longer claim a special connection between their symbolic content and the particular place where they are erected. This turn towards explicit and therefore reflexive representation engenders new risks: the tie between the sacred and the monument may be questioned. In order to counteract this evanescence of the sacred, the monument has to present an unmistakable mark of identity: the representation of the founding hero’s face is, therefore, at the core of the monument.

Most important in the Western transition from relics to monuments is certainly the advent of sculptures in the central place of the city showing the prince on horseback, thus representing how princely power integrated the early modern territorial state despite the physical distance of the prince and his court from the population. The relics of the rulers were still special places but usually removed from the large cathedrals and located in private chapels. Monuments representing the victorious liberator of the nation imagine the nation rising against the ancient regime. Monuments of cultural heroes relate to the rising bourgeoisie, which defined itself by reference to culture instead of capital, acquired education instead of inherited titles. In all these cases an embracing invisible social order, the territorial state or the nation, has to be rendered visible and represented. Because of the very invisibility of this order, it has to be imagined as a face and a name—as the hero who mediates between the invisible sacred order and the visible mundane locality and thus creates the supra-local community.

This type of representation was challenged to a certain degree by the impersonal identity of the modern democratic nation. The democratic nation, by its very constitution, no longer has a personal centre. The nation is embodied in all its citizens and the commonality of all its citizens is the nation. The founding hero has in a literal sense—thousands of faces (Campbell, 1971). This crisis of representation started at the end of the nineteenth century, was fully developed after the First World War, and finally led to the monuments for the anonymous fallen soldiers (Koselleck, 1997).

A different, even opposite, reaction to this crisis of representation can be found in monuments where the symbolic connection to historical persons is abandoned completely monuments of Germania and Britannia, for example, symbolize the triumphant and victorious nation as an ahistorical goddess. Because every citizen knows that this figure is fictitious, it is no longer considered as truly sacred. Therefore the awe inspired by the presence of sacred relics or the vivid memory of the hero’s life has to be replaced by the awe provoked by the sheer size of the monument the figures of the heroes are blown up to gigantic proportions.

Monuments can be erected at any place where the community of memory wants to mark its centre. Because this is usually also the centre of urban everyday life, awe and piety with respect to the sacred past are difficult to sustain. Even if they are of gigantic size, monuments are easier to blend into ordinary life than are relics. Below the monument mundane life can continue to flourish. This blending of the monument into citizens’ everyday life goes even further when streets and places are named after the founding heroes or founding events of the community. Here the name has entirely replaced the image and citizens’ everyday lives can continue without remembering the sacred core of the community’s past. Thus monumentalization also discharges individuals from the obligation to remember the past constantly. Monuments risk becoming the depositories of collective memory.

Monuments may be difficult to construct but they are easy to destroy. Changes of political regimes and religious authorities result frequently in the destruction of monuments, in a damnatio memoria: the Egyptian Pharaoh Akenaten ordered the statues of the old Gods to be destroyed; Christian missionaries engaged in a destructive war against the pagan statues of devotion; radical Protestantism banned the statues of saints from the churches; the French revolutionaries converted churches into stores for grains and guns; the monuments of Hitler were crushed and blown up in the German cities after 1945, as were the Lenin monuments after 1990; more recently, the Taliban destroyed massive Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Because these monuments represented the charismatic core of the past community, the new community could not just reduce them to mere aesthetic objects or pieces of tourist interest. If the triumphant hero is turned into a haunting demon, his symbolic representation is destroyed in a collective act of purification.

Times of Remembrance and Memorial Rites

In principle, historical memory is publicly accessible for every member of the community. Elaborated rituals that re-enact and represent the past have, however, to be limited to special occasions; they must not overwhelm and suffocate the mundane affairs of everyday life. This holds particularly true for modern societies, which stress the rupture between past and future and challenge the idea of life as celebrated recurrence (Connerton, 1989). Therefore, differentiation takes over. The ritual remembrance of the past is concentrated on special times, when the extraordinary event of the birth of the community is celebrated, when the founding myth is re-enacted on stage in dances and plays, when the traditional masks and costumes are put on, when the community celebrates by consuming special food and beverages (Nora, 1996-7).

But it is not only the effort to open up spaces that are discharged from the burden of memory that fosters the separation between times of remembrance, on the one hand, and everyday life, on the other. A common date of remembrance also allows the construction of a supra-local community: all members—wherever they are—are united in a simultaneous celebration of memory, but return to their everyday businesses when the day of remembrance has passed. It even gives way to a complex integration of different locally separated communities of remembrance by one embracing principle. Thus the calendar of saints that emerged in the late Middle Ages connected different parishes and fraternities, monasteries and religious orders; each of them was devoted to a particular saint and celebrated his or her day in a special way, but all of them knew about the all-embracing calendar, the times of memory for the others (Cronin, 1963). This spread of a common calendar of saints and heroes indicates a new pattern of societal integration: the unconnected diversity of local calendars is replaced by an encompassing temporal order that travellers can account for if they move from one local community to the other.

Of course, these constructions of collective identity by common days of remembrance are not limited to premodern societies; they are part of the ritual backbone of many contemporary communities. Christmas and Easter customs in Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic communities, the annual celebration of the respective saints in Catholic fraternities and parishes, the celebration of feasts like Chanukah and Passover in Jewish communities, Ramadan in Muslim societies, and so on, are central for the construction of the respective religious identities, as are the establishment and observance of national memorial days for national identities. Here, not only are the independence day of a nation or the birthday of the founder celebrated but also the heroes of minorities and movements: Martin Luther King Day in the United States is a case in point.

In modern democratic communities these rituals of remembering frequently shift the focus from individual founding heroes to the heroification of entire groups that, by rising against repressive rulers, gave birth to the national demos. In the myth of the revolutionary uprising that broke the continuity of an authoritarian rule, collective action marks the mythical and violent transition from a state of nature to history (Eisenstadt, 1978; Koselleck, 1985). At least it is remembered that way, for what was celebrated as a triumphant birth of the demos later on rarely attracted the attention of contemporaries when it happened.

If the ritual of remembering constructs the beginning of history, it can also be deconstructed by a damnatéo memoria, by a ban on its remembrance. A change in political regime usually also affects the calendar. The founding heroes of the old order vanish and new days of remembrance are institutionalized—sometimes turning the victims of the ancien régime into the heroes of the new one.

Social Carriers of Memory: Education and Profession

Collective memory varies not only with respect to times and places, but also with respect to its social carriers and the social relations involved in its reproduction. Social carriers of memory are those, often self-acclaimed, groups or social positions that store, imagine and reproduce history in the name of their respective community. In its most elementary form these social carriers are old persons, who orally transmit the collective memory to the next generation, or gifted storytellers, singers or actors, who narrate the old tales and mythical events to a local audience. However, public access to personally memorized knowledge can also be highly restricted. Memory and secrecy often coalesce, mark social status and, as Frederik Barth (1987) has shown, can give rise to the dynamic development of primitive cosmologies.

In translocal societies the differences between local communities of memory are superseded by the boundaries between classes and status groups. These boundaries are marked not only by differences in material power and access to resources, but also by cultural distinctions and lifestyles. Above all, this cultural distinction separates those who are able to read and have access to the written tradition as stored in libraries from those who are excluded from this classical education. Since cultural distinction is difficult to acquire and difficult to forget, it is closely associated with the identity of its carriers and therefore stabilizes the boundaries between classes. Cultural distinction is neither a matter of technological knowledge or business activities nor is it tied to a particular locality. Instead, its social arena is leisure and translocal communication among educated elites. Here the educated classes display their knowledge of the classical writings, read the histories of ancient heroes and write their own memories. This exclusive reconstruction of historical memory among educated people later on resulted even in special associations devoted to the cultivation of knowledge about the common past.

But in distinction to these non-professional modes of historical memory there were also individuals who offered their services as teachers, artists, poets or writers of chronicles to the educated elites. These intellectuals constructed dynastic lineages, praised the founding heroes, renarrated the mythical beginnings of a community, reinterpreted the old texts and stored the available historical memory in special archives. At the beginning these virtuosi of historical memory were devoted to the support of princely authority and to aesthetic ideals rather than to describing the past ‘as it really was.’ Truth, art and morality were still merged in a mythological fiction of the past. However, with the advent of writing and owing to the competition among the intellectuals themselves, textual coherence now became a new constraint on collective memory (Assmann, 1992).

The situation changed again with the advent of modernity. The past was now discovered as a field of objective truth, professional division of labour and functional differentiation: historiography became an autonomous scholarly discipline taught at universities. Museums, archives and libraries opened their doors to the general public, the historical heritage was administered by professional experts funded by public money. National history was standardized and became a mandatory subject at school. The charismatic position of myth-producers did not disappear in modern societies, but it was increasingly separated from the professional routine of the experts, who are strictly obliged to rely on the facts and to pursue the objective of impersonal truth. The professional experts are subjected to a complex division of labour and mutual control. They therefore have to limit their attention to a special aspect and a narrow section of facts, but they can claim that the total of their combined research findings could be integrated into one encompassing universal history. Since historians as professionals are only loosely connected to a particular collective identity, they can also study the history of a community that is not their own and reach out to universal and global history. In short: collective memory and historiography increasingly diverge.

The rise of professional experts of the past also affects the relationship between experts and laymen. While the eighteenth century still praised the talented and broadly educated gentilhomme and despised the merely trained narrow-minded pedant, the nineteenth century reversed this relationship: laymen who interfered in the business of experts were now denounced as dilettantes.

This transition from the cleavage between the written memory of educated elites and local vernacular memories to the distinction between professional experts and laymen developed gradually in the nineteenth century. At first the public interest in historical issues was articulated by voluntary associations of educated citizens who collected the remainders of the past in their leisure time. Later on, officials were charged with caring for the historical heritage, qualifications for special professions were standardized, and experts like historians or conservationists united in special associations. Finally legal regulations for the training of these experts were established and the education of professionals was connected to universities. At the end the construction of historical memory was firmly established in the hands of professional experts who define the past and decide about its appropriate presentation for the laic people. These experts can achieve an almost monopolistic position if they can avoid internal dissent and rely on the support of political power and reputed scholarship.

The rise of historiography as an autonomous scholarly discipline and its institutionalization at the universities not only restrained the autonomy of the general public in constructing its historical memory but it also discharged the other scientific disciplines from their historical reference. The historia naturae is replaced by the modern sciences, which claim to present timeless and ahistorical knowledge. In the nineteenth century at the latest, history ascended to a powerful mode of legitimating collective identity and collective interests in the public sphere. It was not only the nation but also particular social groups who tried to stage themselves as endowed with a long and impressive history claiming respect and continuity, in particular when endangered by rapid modernization. Compensating the acceleration of technological progress, the fluidification of social relations and the large migrations from rural areas to the expanding urban centres, the attention shifted towards seemingly immutable roots, towards history and memory. The intimidating face of the new had to be covered by familiar forms and images. This modern turn towards memory engendered new conflicts and contestations about the past, about founding heroes and the beginnings of national history.

Paradigms of Historical Memory: Renaissance, Progress, Decadence, and Crisis

Historical memory is collective memory and as such it presupposes the continuity of a collectivity between past and present. This collectivity or plural subject (Gilbert, 2000) mostly reflects the elementary social bound and the basic idea of sovereignty in the present society. It can be provided by the calling of God to his chosen people, by the dynasty of the ruling prince, by the tradition of a cultural heritage, by the nation or by an ethnic community. These assumed collective identities allow the continuity and unity of history to be conceived as an inner bond connecting the diversity of events as presented in chronicles, but also transcending the life-span of a great individual as it is presented in biographies and vitae. Constructions of these continuities largely ignore civilizational ruptures and political breakdowns (Assmann, 1997). The idea of the Occident or of Europe, for example, assumed a continuity between civilizations as different as ancient Greece and Rome, on the one hand, and the last millennium of Christian principalities and nation-states, on the other. Although any historical memory has to presuppose some collective identity, there may be various options with respect to this. Even if there is consensus about the centrality of one particular kind of identity like the nation, the particular representation and public imagination of this identity is subject to contests and conflicts.

The connection between past and present construed by historical memory differs in its relation to these two temporalities. For analytical reasons we will distinguish between four different paradigms or tropes of this connection, resulting from combining two dimensions. The first dimension refers to the past. Historical memory can assume the relation between present and past as a continuity that assures the dominant position of the past, or as discontinuity that devaluates the past in relation to the present. The second dimension centres the attitude on the present. Historical memory can affirm the present in a triumphant way or it can conceive of it in sceptically or critically. Combining the two dimensions we arrive at four paradigms of historical memory.

The first regards the present as the triumphant repetition of or return to a glorious past that is seen as the insuperable horizon of history. Models of revival and rebirth or of a classicism that rediscovers the ancient forms have patterned the occidental sense of history during several periods from the Hadrianic renaissance in late ancient Rome, via the Carolingian rennaissance in the ninth and tenth century and the early modern renaissance in the fifteenth century, to the classicism of the late eighteenth century. Following the path of the great masters of the past set the frame for traditions in politics as well as in arts and religion. The question of whether or not the greatness of the ancient masters could be surpassed led to the famous querelle des anciens et des modernes in the seventeenth century. The model of revival and classicism was not limited to European civilization: China revived the Confucian tradition several times in its long history.

The second model of connecting the present to the past takes the opposite position. It considers the past as the inferior predecessor of the present and thrusts for the acceleration of history into the future. These models of enlightenment and progress, of development and growth, conceive of the present as a turning point of history between the dark and repressive past behind us and a bright and open future ahead of us. It is the cult of the new in the festive life of the French Revolution that marks the beginning of the first national commemoration (Ozouf, 1988). The experiences of the past are devaluated, old wisdom is despised as superstition, new knowledge and the movement towards utopia are expected to overcome the toils and sufferings of the present. A missionary and inclusive drive to convince others of the new message of salvation is commonly engendered by these models of progress and enlightenment. Originally this optimistic vision of history was based on an eschatological expectation of the return of Christ at the end of times, but in the course of modernity it was translated into secular terms and applied to science and enlightenment, economics and politics.

The third model reverses this relationship between past and present. It assumes a decline and decadence between a superior and golden past and an inferior and decaying present. The good old ideals and virtues are abandoned, corruption, pollution, decay and crime take over—only a radical return to the natural roots or to the traditional virtues can prevent doom or even catastrophic breakdown. But chances for such a future recovery and revival in this world are mostly seen as small. Faced with apocalyptic horizons, the community of the elect has to abstain from indulging in the temptations of mundane life and lead an ascetic life in order to prepare for salvation. This model of ascetic abstention can be found in Western as well as in Eastern civilizations, namely in Buddhism and Hinduism. A variant of this model of decadence led to the romantic nostalgia for a mysterious past that is hidden behind a banal present, represented only by ruins and fragments, hinted at by patina, that is, by the natural traces of time on the surface of objects.

The fourth model of relating past and present conceives of the present as a moment of crisis, ambivalence and decision. Traditional institutions and belief systems have lost their credibility, but future relief and new certainties are out of sight. In contrast to the models of decadence and progress, however, the future is here considered as open and undecided—several outcomes are possible. There is a heightened awareness of the moment as critical and requiring decisive action, but the outcome of these actions are uncertain—little steps can generate far-reaching changes and powerful decisions can be deadlocked in complex webs of interacting forces. The response to the situation of crisis is ambivalent. It can consist of fatalistic apathy as well as of a heightened sense of individual responsibility beyond the edge of certainty.

These ideal-types of relating past to present in historical memory are rarely realized in a pure and undiluted form; they alternate, change and blend with each other according to the situation of a social community, to its recent experiences and relations to the outside. But they are also not intentionally chosen or accepted for strategic reasons. Instead, they provide the basic cultural presuppositions of historical memory.

Trauma and Historical Memory

Monuments and memorial days as well as historical records and archives are intentional references to an imagined past. However, while there are non-intentional memories that recur to the individual mind, there are also non-intentional recurrent collective memories that are ruminated in the conscience collective of a community, in the public sphere and in scholarly discourse. These memories hardly result from regular everyday experiences. Instead, they refer to extraordinary occurrences of the past that mark the violent mythical beginning of the community or that have profoundly disrupted the self-image and collective identity of a community. These ruptures in the cultural web of meaning of a community can be considered to be a collective trauma that, on the one hand, cannot be integrated into a meaningful narration of a history and that, on the other hand, also resists all attempts to let it pass into oblivion. The trauma of victims who survived torture, mass killing, deportation or enslavement will for obvious reasons—not easily pass away. While regular memories usually lose their emotional significance with the passage of time, traumatic events are rendered publicly visible only with the passage of time—if at all. In most cases traumatic memories result in a delayed response—it takes a certain distance to express it out in public.

Collective traumatic memories are not limited to the group of victims. They can also be found in the collectivity of perpetrators. Indeed, it was this type of trauma that was central to classical Freudian analysis of group constitution (Freud, 1967, 2000). However, the perpetrators’ memories take a traumatic turn only when, after their defeat, they are forced to face and to acknowledge that they have treated other subjects as objects. The collective trauma of perpetrators, too, is expressed in public discourse only from a distance resulting from the passing of time or from the social distance of those who were not personally involved in the crimes. Only from a distance can the shaming personal memories that were likely to be evaded in public turned into collective national guilt and public repentance. Thus the trauma of victims as well as the trauma of perpetrators are not only ruminating in the memory of individuals but also mark the collective identity of the respective social communities.

This temporal and social distance from the traumatizing event is in accordance with the psychoanalytic model: only after a time of latency can the originally unspeakable reference of memory be expressed in public communication (Caruth, 1996). The transition from the phase of latency to the phase of working through can be found in the trauma of victims and in the trauma of perpetrators and is mostly related to new groups entering the public sphere. These groups have to be personally uninvolved in the traumatizing event but they have to be unquestionably members of the traumatized community. They can address the trauma and make it publicly visible for the first time because as heirs of the victims they no longer have haunting personal memories and as heirs of the collectivity of perpetrators they are beyond suspicion of masking personal guilt. Decoupled from its former psychological foundations, the trauma becomes an issue of the public agenda. This holds not only for the victims’ collectivity, but also for its complement, the collectivity of former-generation perpetrators. They enact their collective identity by ceremonies of confessing collective guilt and culpability. Though using a language belonging to the Abrahamitic religious heritage (Derrida, 2001), these confessions of national guilt today are gradually turned into a new master narrative of historical memory in the West (Giesen, 2002). They are externalized in monuments and memorials, the absurd and violent events they refer to are explained by historians and renarrated by novelists, dealt with by movies and TV series, and treated as a mandatory issue at school. Even when memories of these events have entered the public discourse of a nation or a community, when their representations are debated, challenged and contested, the trauma remains the unconditional frame of reference to which all particular historical narratives have to be related. The paradigm case here is the Holocaust of the European Jews (Giesen, 2002).

In the nineteenth century, historical memory was generally elaborated not least in order to support nationalist claims. While this still holds true in many cases, and while similar endeavours are pursued today on behalf of other social groups, which often had no voice before, the thematization of collective trauma has given a new twist to the discourse on historical memory. Fostering reconciliation and mutual respect (Derrida, 2001; Margalit, 2000; Ricoeur, 1998), the public debate about collective trauma extends beyond the confines of national communities and accounts for the increasingly global range of today’s historical memories.