With the “Genealogies of Memory” project we facilitate academic exchange between Central and East European scholars of individual and collective memory, and intend to promote this region’s study of memory among the broader international academic community.
What is specific to the conferences and seminars held so far is, on the one hand, an attempt to define the specificity of Central and Eastern Europe as regards history and memory by looking at the changing practices of remembrance in the region during the twentieth and the twenty first centuries; and on the other hand, a proposal to see history and memory in a broader European and global context, and to search for possible application of memory research from this region within the broader international study of social and cultural memory. We are particularly interested in theoretical and methodological questions as viewed against specific historical and geographical contexts.
Theories and methods of memory research were the focus of the conference in 2011, on Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods. That event considered the relation between the canonic theoretical concepts of memory, and the specific mnemo-historic experience of Central and East European societies. We asked whether the existing matrix of theories that we commonly use, and which in large measure were designed to interpret the memory processes in the Western societies, could adequately describe memories and public uses of the past in our region. And conversely, by presenting the original ideas of scholars from this region in the broader European context, we wondered what relevance those ideas might have for broader memory studies.
The issues of how adequate and how limited particular memory concepts may be when applied to other regional contexts were also relevant for the conference in 2012, on Regions of Memory. A Comparative Perspective on Eastern Europe. This time the global framework took us farther afield, beyond Europe. Central and East European memories related to the experience of mass violence were discussed in the context of comparable phenomena in other parts of the world, including Southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By proposing the perspective of a region in analysing memory processes, we aimed to broaden the perspective beyond the nation, which is often seen as initiating and closing the dynamics of memories in Central and Eastern Europe. Broader references allowed us to observe memory phenomena that are not graspable by the national memory net, and they further helped to describe phenomena characteristic of a region: for example, migrant memories, borderland memories, ethnic minority memories, and trans-national ethnic memories.
After the two conferences viewing Central and East European memories and memory studies in a global light, we have moved to discuss the particular problems of theory of memory as referred to a particular historical context. The subject of the conference in 2013 was Legal Frames of Memory: Transitional Justice in Central and Eastern Europe. We were comparing the various countries’ experiences with post-communist transitional justice and considering the role of law in the processes of social remembrance in the particular historical contexts. While the post-communist processes of coming to terms with the past were in the focus, comparative references to postwar transitional justice or similar processes in other regions of the world were also discussed.
The next conference in November 2014 was devoted to oral history and biographical research of the 1989 – 1991 breakthrough in Central and Eastern Europe in the context of theories of collected and collective memories. Seeing the post-communist transformation both in regional and global perspectives, we asked what different horizons of expectation and realms of experience pertained in 1989–1991, and how had these expectations and experiences been articulated, transmitted, forgotten or reconstructed by various memory agents in the following decades.
In parallel to the conferences, we also initiated a seminar series, to which we invite representatives of major regional or local memory schools and projects to present their unique perspectives. So far we have hosted scholars from the Nordic Memory Studies project, scholars representing French Memory Studies, memory studies in Ukraine and in Russia, and the researchers from the Cambridge based project “Memory at War”.
Our proposal is to approach memory with historical sensitivity. We want to emphasize the seemingly obvious, that historical experiences shape particular ensuing memory processes. Also, that research on memory should bear in mind the tight relation between history and memory, focusing on how historical processes shape memory processes. Maurice Halbwachs discovered that the present determines the past. But the process is dialectic – and today, paradoxically, it seems worthwhile to remind ourselves that memories respond to historical processes, and that what happened in the past does matter for how it is remembered in the present. Moreover, memory processes also are dependent in path and shape with reference to their earlier forms. Jeffrey Olick and Joyce Robbins (1998) once called this perspective a “historical sociology of mnemonic practices”. We believe in a creative consensus that comes from combining the two perspectives, historical research with memory research. For the last several years, there has been a tremendous expansion of memory studies, also in Central and Eastern Europe. The very word “memory” has come to be used alternatively to “culture” – yet rarely bringing new insights. We thus promote historical research as the hope for memory studies to regain their identity. Studies of memory cannot ignore the content of memory, that is, the past, and should not neglect history as the frame for mnemonic processes.
Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak
Guidelines for international discourse on history and memory: