Historical Memory and Our Common Future

, by Beninio McDonough-Tranza

Historical Memory and Our Common Future
Source: Global News

The great Spanish writer Valle Inclan once observed that “things are not as we see them but as we remember them”. History is not merely a thing of the past- an antiquarian concern for specialists- but a living breathing aspect of our present. Our collective memory of the past impacts our identity, frames our understanding of the present and conditions the future we may dream of.

History forges who we are and guides who we may become. It is a deeply political subject, a field of intellectual struggle in which competing visions of society are framed. For this reason, new political forces will always seek to re-envision the past in order to restructure the present.

In modern Europe, the political nature of historical memory is most clearly illustrated by the increasingly vociferous attacks that forces on the political right have made against the accepted institutions of remembrance. In their seemingly unstoppable long march through the institutions of power, the populist right in Eastern Europe has made substantial attacks against liberal internationalist cultures of remembrance. Earlier this month the government of Poland, no stranger to controversy, passed a law which caused international outrage by criminalising any suggestion of Polish collaboration in the holocaust. The new remembrance law declares that any individual who “publicly and against the facts” suggests that the Polish nation or people were “responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich” is liable to prosecution and may face a prison sentence of up to 3 years.

Although historians are exempt from prosecution, the government, by declaring itself the gatekeeper of “the facts” implicitly challenges the historical profession and seeks to directly control the historical narrative. This law is only the most recent example of a concerted campaign by the Law and Justice party to challenge what it sees as treacherous historical narratives and enshrine a simplified nationalist vision of Polish history.

Similar moves have been made in other Eastern European countries. In Hungary, for example, the government of Victor Orban unveiled a major monument in 2014 to commemorate 70 years since the German invasion of Hungary which was heavily criticised for obscuring Hungarian complicity in Nazi atrocities. Unlike Poland, which endured a brutal German occupation throughout the war, Hungary was a German ally from 1940 until the 1944 and, after a German invasion, a Hungarian fascist government eagerly collaborated with the occupier from 1944 to 1945. These unpalatable facts, which undermine triumphalist narratives of national unity and strength, are deliberately obscured by the Orban government. The expansionist dream a “greater Hungary” which led the interwar Hungarian government to ally with Nazi Germany is even being rehabilitated. When Orban secured the EU presidency in 2011 the Hungarian government installed a large commemorative map of 1848 Hungary- which encompassed huge swathes of neighbouring countries- in Brussels.

A common theme in this new politics is the exclusive emphasis on national suffering at the expense of narratives which recognize the particular suffering of exploited minorities. The populist right dreams of a remembrance culture which encourages popular identification with the nation. Consequently, the governments of Poland and Hungary are very happy to remember suffering as long as it is the suffering of our people. One Polish government minister has even called for the creation of a “Polocaust” museum which would replace the current focus on the holocaust with an emphasis on Polish national suffering. Yet, this populist vision of national victimisation and unity is based on the mythologised image of the nation as a unitary whole- free from particular minority interests. Consequently, it is not just about remembering but also about forgetting.

Forgetting the suffering of the most vulnerable because they threaten the comfortable image of nation unity. It is a vision of remembrance which builds national unity by stigmatising outsiders. It is unsurprising that this historical revisionism has contributed to racist attacks, to the stigmatisation of Jews, Roma and Sinti for, by consciously forgetting the particular suffering of minorities in history we contribute to their present exclusion.

This populist historical revisionism of Eastern Europe is not unique. It is merely the clearest current example of a general problem- the connection of history to national narratives. History has always been intimately connected to nationalism and has, in all countries, frequently promoted a mythologised triumphalist narrative of national progress and unity. There is nothing new about this it is as old as history itself. In France major museums promote a mythologised narrative of the French resistance but there is very little discussion of Vichy collaboration. In the UK, where I went to school, children learn about the brave British struggle against Germany but they are not prominently taught about the crimes of the British empire. The event known in India as “the Great Rebellion” is still taught as “the Indian Mutiny” in British schools and statues to prominent imperialists- like Cecil Rhodes- are still proudly standing in English towns.

In Spain. a national holiday celebrates the discovery of America as the “day of the nation” and Christopher Columbus, who is recognised in many Latin American countries as a genocidal conqueror, is still revered as a national hero. Many commentators have been tempted, in this of fake news, to idealise western European culture as a haven of free thought and established evidence-based debate. The reality is that the historical narratives promoted in our schools, museums and in public debate have always been deeply biased and heavily implicated in imperialism and nationalism in the west as well as the east of Europe.

Yet, while historical narratives have, all too often, been used to construct a spurious national unity, history has also been a tool to fight against oppression and exclusion. I firmly believe that a truly transnational history can help encourage empathy, break down boundaries between national groups and encourage a vision for a better future for all. The World War Two museum in Gdansk stands as a wonderful example to this truly global history. Rather than focusing on a national narrative this museum emphasized the entire war emphasizing human stories at the expense of heroic national narratives. Major aspects of the war were consistently placed in an international context. For example, the bombing of Warsaw, Dresden, London and Helsinki were represented in the same hall while the occupation of Poland was compared, in another exhibit, to other theatres of German occupation. This transnational narrative remains far closer to historical truth than most museums of the war for, by abandoning simple tales of national heroism, it is able to present human beings in all their real-life complexity. Yet, it also has a profoundly ethical dimension.

By contextualizing the experience of each nation together with all peoples, the museum encourages transnational identification. The visitor is made to feel part of humanity not of any one nation, to open her eyes to the suffering of all. This act is fundamental to building empathy and understanding for, to paraphrase Proust, to look upon the world with new eyes is the beginning of the true voyage of discovery. The Gdansk museum predictably met resistance from the Polish government and was closed late in 2017.

A struggle is currently taking place over whether it will be able to retain its transnational focus when it reopens. I firmly believe that progressive Europeans must be on the frontline of this struggle, and others like it all across the continent. We will find allies among all those oppressed groups who have been excluded from national narratives across Europe for, as the great historian Marc Ferro once said, “revolt always comes from those to whom history is forbidden”. By struggling together against national narratives of the past, by developing cultures of remembrance which recognize minorities and retain a prominent place for outsiders we may begin to build the foundations of a truly cosmopolitan and progressive future. For the struggle for a better future begins in the past.

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