The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good

Roundup
tags: history, memory



David Rieff is a journalist.

HNN Editor James Loewen encouraged us to excerpt this piece, but with this caveat:  "The author fails to make a distinction between true and false history. You cannot remember false history. You can only construct it. Hence when he argues for amnesia regarding the "Lost Cause" school of Southern history, he should instead argue for accurate history. True history can be a weapon for the oppressed. False history is often a weapon for the oppressor, in this case white supremacists."

As a reporter in the Bosnian war, in 1993 I went to Belgrade to visit Vuk Drašković, the Serb nationalist politician and writer who was then leading the mass opposition against the Slobodan Milošević regime. Drašković had drawn liberal as well as ultra-nationalist support in Serbia for his cause. As I was leaving his office, one of Drašković’s young aides pressed a folded bit of paper into my hand. It turned out to be blank except for a date: 1453 – the year Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans.

Friends of mine who had worked in the former Yugoslavia during the Croatian and Bosnian wars had similar experiences in Zagreb and Sarajevo, though the dates in question were different. It seemed as if the “sores of history”, as the Irish writer Hubert Butler once called them, remained unhealed more than half a millennium later – at least in the desperate, degraded atmosphere of that time and place.

And yet, while alert to the possibility that history can be abused, as it unquestionably was in the Balkans in the 1990s, most decent people still endorse George Santayana’s celebrated dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequence of this is that remembrance as a species of morality has become one of the more unassailable pieties of the age. Today, most societies all but venerate the imperative to remember. We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorialising of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations....





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