back to article list

Divided memory: European sites of memory as political and cultural phenomenon

  • Drukuj

Any human memory is the memory of some subject – individual or collective. In the latter case it is preserved in two forms: in memory of individuals charged with duty to preserve and pass it on, and in objects and space – what will be discussed later. Depositories of collective memory usually are passing it on to the other members of their community during the process of initiation and make them up-to-date again during periodically repeated rituals. In modern societies family upbringing and school education completed with other forms of preparation to independent life is a counterpart to initiation while national and church holidays and anniversary celebrations are equivalents of periodical rituals. Collective memory builds upon memories of individuals and feeds it back: it gathers them within common frames, imposes on them - although to a limited extent - common criteria, and instills some common content. The memories of individuals are condition sine qua non of mere lasting of collective memory. If these individuals were stricken with amnesia or killed with plague all that was left after this collective memory would be mute objects and empty places.

Memory and its places

Any spontaneous human memory, be it collective or individual, is event-related, qualitative, evaluating, selective and egocentric. Its content depends on subject’s mental endowment and sensitivity, attitudes, expectations and prejudices. It is particularly recording things that its subject perceives as striking, different from the background, out of routine, amazing, unexpected – simply the events. The memory selects these events and establishes their hierarchy in relation to their importance for the subject and preserves them in a form experienced by this subject together with atmosphere of sentiments felt at the time these events were perceived for the first time.

The three inseparable dimensions of memory intertwine here; in order to single them out we have to carry out an analysis. There is a cognitive dimension since it claims to reproduce faithfully past events, its participants and circumstances – to communicate truthfully about what happened long time ago. There is an emotional dimension because reproduction of the past events refreshes feelings that accompanied these events and in favorable circumstances it may even bring about the state of mind once experienced when these events occurred. And there is an existential dimension because what differs remembered events from these that are being currently perceived or experienced in other ways is the fact that they are related to the subject that remembers them in a specific way: they are perceived as belonging to the subject’s personality that was the same when these events were confronted for the first time and is the same now, when the subject is remembering them thus making the subject aware of duration and changes and continuity of his personality.

These three dimensions of memory refer to the past, the present and the future, respectively. It is the past since memory informs about something that once was perceived or experienced but now cannot take its original form. It is the present because feelings it evokes are experienced now during the process of remembering the past events. And eventually it is the future since the identity it allows us to become aware of is not only something already given but also a project, openness to still new situations and changes while not breaking continuity with the present and past ourselves. What constitutes and distinguishes memory as memory, even though it contains both experiences and anticipations, is ability to hold and preserve what happened and passed and to restore it for our awareness. Because of that the cognitive dimension of memory plays basic role both in mental life of individuals and in culture of societies.

Memory is particularly closely related to physical, social, semiotic and mental space. It applies to individual memory, localized in each individual’s brain and outside it: in records, images, signs and other mnemonic aids. It applies to even greater extent to collective memory which is preserved not only by individuals but also in objectified form by institutions that are depositories of this memory because they were established to serve this purpose - museums, libraries, archives, services for preservation of historical monuments, anniversary celebration committees or because it is a part of their proper activities. Mass media, churches, local authorities, educational and cultural institutions, army, political parties, associations, international organizations depending on their interests and competences supervise cemeteries, finance archeological excavations, restoration of art objects, historical and ethnographic research, decide about street names, names of military units, ships, schools and universities, about monuments and memorial plaques, preservation or demolishing of old buildings, about personalities and events worthy to be included in textbooks, popularized in radio programs, shows and publications, to be mentioned in calendars or be commemorated with celebrations of local, national, European or universal scale.

All these institutions are dealing with the reified or sometimes personified collective memory that is embedded into space that is at the same time physical, social and semiotic. The memory is filling this space with additional meanings and introduces references to the past, it makes the past visible, accessible for sight, allows to recall it and make it present. This space is also the space of memory and because of that, but not only, it is a field of activity of politicians who have to refer to the remembered past and an object of work of the historians, who have to look critically at layers of meanings it acquired with time if they want to know the past.

Both the social space and the space of memory are not homogenous. They contain places evoking associations with the past only in local families or communities. And there are also associations which due to long-term and effective efforts of competent institutions are strongly imbued with memories that are common for large professional or territorial groups, social classes, whole nations, followers of some religions or ideologies what does not mean that they are known to every member of such a group but it means that they are shared by majority of the members of a group, in particular by those who - according to its members - are representing such a community.

These memories are cultivated and instilled into individuals in many different ways; they are preserved in objects and updated through rituals. The places of their concentrations are principally environs where supposedly something happened some time ago or dates, when something important for the community – in its opinion – took place or sites where are manmade or natural objects that were and are arising collective emotions or are considered to be symbols of bond with former generations or relics of personalities or remnants of events preserved in oral tradition, in images, writings, attitudes and considered to be constitutive for identity of a group, class, nation or supranational religious or ideological congregations. Here belong also carriers of meanings, which were for a long time and still are subject of fierce devotion or disputes and because of that they became a part of popular awareness. Exactly such material and imagined places with special concentration of collective memories are called the sites of memory.

Each place of remembrance has its own history. Each is characterized by the fact that through decades or centuries it was grown over with beliefs and customs, that it was talked and written about, that its image was copied, that visual contacts with it were established in various ways depending on its form, that its fate was a matter of public concern and exchange of opinion, that some were protecting it while the others wanted to destroy it. Procedures that endowed a given place with meanings and gave it after some time the reputation of place a of remembrance were sometimes undertaken deliberately in order to reach precisely such effect, like when authorities resorted to such steps as a part of policy aimed at their legitimization: inclusion into series of personalities and institutions since long ago regarded by competent opinion as worthy to reproduce or follow. Nevertheless such steps were mostly taken spontaneously; it happened so just because in these and not in the other places were concentrated emotions and memories originally cultivated by individuals, families and small groups and later gradually adopted by wider circles in order to become public property and even sometimes to obtain official consecration. Principally these unofficial steps proved to be more effective then deliberate actions of the authorities. It seems like the place of remembrance established by order of superior authorities never remained live much longer after those who ordered it lost their power. On the other hand there are numerous sites of memory that were established and maintained without support of the authorities or even against their will. Memory can be more resistant to external influences than one may expect. So ”historical policies” trying to impose an image of the past that is contrary to the one preserved in collective memory eventually end as complete failure.

Just because the sites of memory are in most cases emanation of the community, they are, to a different degree, this community’s symbolic property, a common heritage. It is reflected by protection of these sites by competent institutions and, more importantly, by faith instilled in individuals, sometimes only by family upbringing but also by system of education, media, churches, associations and institutions according to which the sites of memory establish continuation of society as a collective subject because by the fact of recalling its past they oblige the society to transfer them into the future. This faith causes that sites of memory became carriers of collective identity, not the only ones, but especially important for the society for which they are identity marks. Hence the exceptional sensitivity attributed to these places of memory which, as a result of wars, transfer of people or changes of borders, fell under authority of another state. We’ll discuss it later.

Conflicts of memories

In a particular time interval the topography of collective memory is a resultant of many factors: what happened in the past, range of influence and duration of effects of such processes like wars, revolutions, rebellions, epidemics, famines, exterminations, mass deportations and other catastrophes; the reception of these events and processes by the contemporaries that in turn depends on the ground they fell upon: on institutions, social atmosphere, collective beliefs; meanings that consecutive generations attributed to past events: importance ascribed to them, causative connections into which they were included, regarding them as closed for good in the past or on the contrary, to see them as still active; the present condition proper for a given community: whether it is stage of growth or decline, expansion or regress – what influences collective expectations that are shaping images of the past: distribution of accents, coloring, selection of personalities and presentation of some as heroes and the others as malefactors. It certainly is not an exhaustive list but it gives some idea about complexity of the discussed here phenomena and leads to conclusion that the topography of collective memory changes in time as result of change of factors that are shaping it. Accordingly the present sites of memory may lose their importance while the significance of the others will grow.

Above all the topography of collective memory changes with the subject of memory. It is different for each group and association and in particular for each European nation and within individual nations - for each social category of which these nations consist. While the memory of small groups is usually homogenous since they exert on their members pressure so strong that it makes their memories alike and of similar tenor, the memory of large communities is always torn apart, often so strongly that one may and has to ask whether it is still one divided memory or it is only an illusion hiding multitude of discordant memories. Against all appearances it is not a purely theoretical question since the answer means definition of oneself in relation to common memory, its rejection or acceptance and ipso facto establishment of one’s relation to the other memories that are supposed to connect this common memory with this memory which we recognize as our own, recognition of differences as acceptable peculiarity or as contradiction so striking that it has to lead to confrontation that will end with the victory of one of the sides. So it is a political answer just like the question about divided common memory of an individual nation or Europe is both political and theoretical.

Memory of each European nation - and probably also of the other nations - contains differing or even conflicting memories since each nation experienced serious, often bloody internal conflicts: religious wars, peasants’ rebellions, workers’ unrests, changes of political system, political clashes. Sometimes such conflicts end with compromise but usually there are winners and defeated left who remember different things and even the same events are remembered and evaluated by both parties in different ways and such different memories are then passed to the next generations. A violent conflict never disappears with its protagonists but stays present in conflict of memories since as much as descendants feel obliged to maintain bonds with their forefathers they are taking over inherited memories convinced that they are truthful and include them in their own identity and they cultivate inherited sites of memory starting with family tombs. Every conflict of memories dies out over time but usually it takes decades and favorable conditions, especially avoiding everything that can inflame it again. The memory of Polish Jews would not be so strongly conflicted with memory of some fragments of Polish opinion if not for events of March 1968 and tolerance towards anti-Semitism in the Third Republic. We’ll discuss later on whether it is possible to find a solution for an inflamed conflict. Now it suffices to notice that attempts to impose - by all means that are at disposal of the state - the memory of one party of the conflict as national memory usually gives effects opposite to these intended, since it is only fuelling the conflict that it was supposed to put out.

These observations can be also applied, with appropriate changes, to the European memory. After all it is questioned by all for whom the nation is the highest form of human society at least in temporal order if not in general. But even the European memory and Europe is recognized as real, the question about its relation to national memories remains open. Is it only derivative of these memories or perhaps it is also a formation sui generis? It is not a proper place to reason the answer. It suffices to notice that this is both a historical and a political question and to state without demonstration that the common European memory cannot be reduced to multiplicity of national memories in spite it is influenced by their conflicts.

And there is no shortage of conflicts since national memories often collide one with another; it refers especially to these countries that were or are neighbors. Each national memory though internally torn apart presents itself as oneness when confronted with the other national memory. The fact that every nation has its own specific sites of memory does not have to be the source of conflicts. Nevertheless the wars of the past left behind winners and defeated, caused great misery for many people, caused ruins and looting of art objects, material loses, shifted borders, deported people. Because of that the same objects, territories, urban agglomerations are sometimes appropriated by different nations as their sites of memory; the conflict of memories is inevitable if each nation claims exclusive rights to such places, the memory cultivated in such case refers mainly to harms done by nation’s neighbor and rival. Sometimes this conflict takes an acute form, especially when on both sides of the border memory becomes a subject of political manipulations, which can change conflict of memories into real conflict, refreshing in both parties apparently already calmed down feeling of danger and mutual hostility and reproducing the old war in a new form, equally cruel as original. It suffices to remind the break-up of Yugoslavia where carefully cultivated and adequately inflamed conflict resulted in crimes against humanity.

There are also other reasons for conflict of memories. Histories of individual European countries are so intertwined that the history of each country is only a part of a larger whole. Many personalities, events and processes are common for many nations and some of them are common for all. However, these common components of memory sometimes are attributed with opposite values. Heroes of one nation are damned by the other nation. Celebrated victory of one country is a lamented defeat of the other. People who see themselves as victims may be perceived by the others as oppressors if not executioners. What on the one side of the border is defined as lawless deportation becomes the realization of international resolutions on the other. What is remembered by one country as national calamity is an act of liberation from foreign oppression for the others. Such a list can be easily extended. Also such conflicts can be and are used as political instruments by forces trying to use them as justification of material or symbolic claims or – what is more dangerous – to unify their own national memory and to impose it in such form on all citizens. External conflict concerning memory is being used then to suppress such internal conflict by creating an enemy who has to be opposed with force, unity and readiness to fight. All authoritarian and totalitarian regimes used such socio-technical measures to win support.

What to do with conflicts that are still lively? Is it possible to find for them solutions that will not be reproducing the source conflict even in much mitigated form and at the same time to avoid oblivion of the conflict and projecting fictional accord onto the past? Such solution should allow all protagonists to remain themselves i.e. to preserve their own memory and to arrange relationship with opposite party in the way enabling mutual recognition of conflicting memories in order to render impossible or at least to hinder transformation of differences into violent conflict. Before answering this question it should be noticed that asking this question alone is derivative of the political decision to calm down the conflict of memories or at least to abandon activities fuelling this conflict and aggravating already poor relations between the parties. Such a political decision is not obvious at all. Just before mentioned were forces that are not interested in resolution of the conflict in a way acceptable for all protagonists or are interested in it in a sense that they think it is necessary to work against it because they radically confront us with them, friends with enemies, and understand their relations with carriers of other memories in categories of confrontation and try to impose their own stance with force. Only after the political decision is made to treat the other party not like an enemy but a partner in efforts to find an accord and ipso facto assuming that such accord is possible, thinking about the best ways of realization of this possibility makes sense.

Three dimensions of conflicts of memories

Conflicts of memories are so difficult to solve because every memory gives itself credit of having exclusive knowledge about what really happened. The situation seems hopeless when two memories have different and incompatible opinions concerning some issue. Nevertheless it is not so since both parties can turn to some authority which is recognized by both of them and agree to arbitration. It is centuries long practice. In modern times it was found that disputes about the past concerning its cognitive dimension may be solved quite differently: by leaving area of memory and using services of history, for history in its modern understanding is not a recording of memory as it was most of the time. And it does not have to be since it may go beyond actualization of the past by recalling memories, to know the past in a way completely independent from memory: through sources or remnants of any kind that endured to our times and that can be examined in a way allowing to conclude from their attributes when and by whom and in what circumstances they were created in their original form and what changes they underwent later.

I will not discuss details here; they were already presented many times anyway. It is enough to state that historical knowledge concerning the past brings information that are beyond the reach of memory, what is the best proof that history is independent from memory. But this is not all what concerns mutual relations between history and memory. Equally important for history is presentation of the past in perspective that is not a perspective of memory and is essentially different from it because it excludes identification of a historian with figures from the past, especially with one or another protagonist of the past conflicts. A historian cannot take sides. He should stand at the side of history as a branch of knowledge and discipline of research. In other words, his duty is to identify completely and wholly with ideal subject of inseparably ethical and epistemological norms which regulate his relations with his professional milieu and wider environment and at the same time give his research orientation that enables him to cope with critique of other historians so the results of his research were acceptable for these historians and after them – for larger audience; another words, they should gain universal importance. It assumes full compatibility of opinions of historical community concerning principles of operation and criteria of evaluation of undertaken steps and ipso facto the importance of knowledge gained this way.

In real life such full compatibility never happens and deviations from ideal standard are numerous and easy to find. Let us leave aside lack of professionalism, conceptual and literary deficiencies. More dangerous is the fact that some historians deceive the public by presenting history as something that really is only recording of memory, thus betraying their professional duties. It does not mean that historians aren’t allowed to register memory. On the contrary. It is one of their roles to create sources by recording the memories of people who, because of psychological or social reasons, are not able to do it by themselves. However there is a difference between preservation of memory and presenting it as history and attributing thus universal importance to the inevitable partial and biased image of the past. It is often the a this party’s perspective. This does not justify the fact of yielding to these pressures since there are some who know how to resist but it illustrates general rule that the more history is vivid and the more painful are, because of their character and effects, the events the history is recalling the harder it is for history to be freed from memory. And it happens especially in case of conflicts concerning sites of memory.

All what was said above does not undo the fact that conflicts of memories can be solved in their cognitive dimension only after placing them in the area of history. It requires from both parties to make a political decision: to refrain from any actions that may inflame the conflict and to give historians absolute freedom in finding the answer what really happened and to express readiness to accept this answer when it will be found. For the historians this is not an easy task at all at least because on the both sides they are encumbered with memory. Even in a case when the historians reached an agreement and politicians are prone to accept this agreement, it would apply only to the matters that can be established through sources or – to put it differently – may be a subject of cognition. And yet there are also two other dimensions of memory: emotional and existential which are beyond the competence of historians. The question is how to co-ordinate not only opinions about something that happened long time ago but also feelings and identities of the parties involved?

It requires to see the source conflict in a perspective rather hermeneutical then historical and to perceive it as a tragic event. It seems like writers and artists - who are able to present the past conflicts through fates of individual people while not avoiding descriptions not allowed for historians limited by constraints of their profession - are better prepared for this task. They are able to empathize with their protagonists and to reproduce their motivations while trying to understand them without approving their deeds. They can appeal to experiences of receivers, to arouse in them a sense of union with presented characters or of absolute detachment, to release emotions making them change their opinions. In such case participants of the conflict appear as tragic figures since they are driven by gods they themselves brought into existence, the gods who against their expectations are leading them into inevitable disaster: through collective beliefs, religions or ideologies they allowed to be motivated by, without considering the effects and not quailing before the most cruel crimes to realize their slogans. However the infatuation of tragic figures cannot be seen as extenuating circumstance, since there were people who did not yield before religions or ideologies and the other people who, in spite that they adopted these ideologies, did not go as far to commit crimes in order to realize them. People who went to the extremes had some, if limited, freedom of choice and because of that the categories of responsibility, crime and punishment may be applied to them. Recognition of the source conflict as a tragic event allows to reject its Manichean interpretation as a struggle between good and evil and to resign from attitude according to which on our side there were only victims while on opposite side there were only executioners. It does not mean that on the both sides there were only victims. It means that both here and there were victims and executioners, the victims who sometimes became executioners and executioners or their accomplices who fell victims of their own crimes; a gradation has to be applied here from mixture of good and evil to almost pure evil. Such a change in understanding the source conflict carries important effects for emotions that this conflict had left behind. Hate and desire for revenge seem from the perspective of tragedy to be creations of forces that caused the conflict and to yield before them may mean going down, if only in thoughts and words, to the level of its most detestable participants. It calls for purification or education of feelings that will replace pity for our people and hate for the others with compassion for everyone except those who crossed borders of humanity. And ability to forgive. Here ends authority of writers and artists whereas secular and ecclesiastical moral authorities have a right to have their say. One of excellent examples of forgiveness was the memorable letter of Polish bishops to the bishops of Germany. It is a pity that a similar letter was never addressed, if I am not wrong, to Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox bishops.

As we already saw, the sites of memory remain closely linked with the sense of collective identity. The fact that some places belong at the same time to different communities – e.g. nations or religious denominations – does not change anything but it bestows exceptionally dangerous importance upon appropriation of common sites of memory for exclusive use of one of co-owners, what has to be perceived by the others as depriving each of them of some part of themselves. And it attributes even more dangerous meaning to destruction or misrepresentation of these sites that are inevitably perceived as an attempt to obliterate traces of dwelling on some territory or carrying activities in some field by the community different than the one to which they now belong. A symbolic extermination. Therefore the controversy concerning the sites of memory has inevitably existential dimension and its solution will never be permanent until all involved identities will be satisfied. It means practically that duty of the state within whose borders are the sites of memory of other communities is not only to care for them and protect them, that is something we, the Poles, failed to do in relation to German and Jewish memorials scattered around our country. Such a state is also obliged to enable the interested people access to these places and practicing commemorative rituals according to their beliefs and convictions. It is the condition sine qua non for replacement of the conflict around the sites of memory with bipartisan search for principles of future coexistence.

Such solutions, while calming down the conflict, cannot render impossible or seriously hinder its repeated inflammation if there will not be such a reconstruction of collective memory of the parties that will remove hostility towards the others from the complex of constitutive elements of each party. The stage should be taken by educators in a broad sense that includes not only teachers of all levels of education but also politicians, clerics, journalists and media people. They can and should draw on works of historians and literature and art even if correct establishment of facts and tragic understanding of past conflicts are for them not the goals but means allowing to complement education of feelings with such shaping of collective identity that will replace sense of one’s own innocence with awareness of merits and guilt, sense of exclusive fairness with conviction that often both sides are right and feeling of being threatened by the others with attitude of inclination towards lasting coexistence which will re-evaluate imaginations about one’s own past from this new perspective so that also in this area the rule of Manichean schemes will be over. It is not so that we were always good and bad were always and only the others – this statement, apparently trite in its generalization, was not in the least recognized by all authorities responsible for education of Poles as it is proven by the attempts to reject every fact illustrating it: is it necessary to remind the controversy about Jedwabne? In other countries the situation is similar.

New perspectives

Research works of historians, works of writers and artists and efforts of educators alone are not sufficient to achieve conditions in which these different memories will coexist recognizing at the same time the right of the others to preserve their separateness. In order to reach such a state the politicians have to first of all give up decisions, speeches and actions hindering or clearly making impossible the pursuit of it. We expect that they, like doctors, at least will not be harmful and will not use the conflicts of memory instrumentally in their political games and struggle for power, that they will not inspire mistrust, will not trigger aggression and will not fuel frustration creating feeling of endangerment – inside by “the system” allegedly secretly ruling over everything and outside by the eternal enemies lurking like a pack of wolves. Nevertheless, it is only the minimal requirement. We should demand from the politicians positive decisions instrumental in shaping the attitudes that are taking into account perspectives other than their own and respecting the others’ memory while not abandoning their own because they are convinced that each nation is made up of categories that experienced common history in different ways and that resulted in different memories. It is also the situation of Europe where each nation remembers the common past in its own way – with differences justified to the extent that should be defined, and when needed corrected, through an international discussion with participation of historians, writers, artists, educators and politicians. Teaching programs and street naming, building of monuments and organization of annual celebrations, care for own and foreign sites of memory i.e. all these activities instilling collective memory into minds of individuals, update it or build it into the space – all this should be subordinate to shaping of such attitudes.

Every collective memory is a divided memory and - as it was demonstrated – it has to be such. It does not mean that this division has to take the form of a conflict. If it was the case in the past it was so because the public life of each state and each nation was dominated by one group imposing its own memory on others as generally valid and did not take into account existence of other memories. It took deep cultural transformations and long lasting political struggle that reconstructed social hierarchy and has shaken up the collective memory to achieve equal status for memories of different groups and classes; anyway it happened more in theory than in the practice, like in Poland, where the memory of the gentry still weighs more than the memory of peasants. But in the past the division of memories was inevitably taking a form of conflict also because the European states and nations could not see the perspective other than keeping balance of power as long as possible, drawing upon conviction based on experience that upsetting this balance will certainly provoke war still present on the horizon; hence the escalation of nationalisms.

Bilateral and changing with time, relations which we will not discuss here were occurring between the two divisions of memory, one within each nation and the other international and between the conflicts that were their result. The only important thing here is the fact that now there exist different perspectives. In domestic public life it is the perspective of democracy characterized by equality of states and nations. However, neither democracy nor Europe are given once and for ever. They are threatened by various dangers like inflammations of conflicts of domestic and more so international memories by populist and nationalist parties which in circumstances favorable for them – e.g. economical or political crisis – may take the power and implement their ideology in domestic and foreign politics of their state. So in this double perspective of democracy and Europe it is very important to defuse conflicts of memories like a time bomb.

I have stated at the beginning that every memory is the memory of some individual or collective subject. But the collective subject is not an abstraction or hypostasis, it is a complex consisting of multitude of individuals linked by bonds of different kinds, collaboration, cooperation and compassion. Therefore the attitude towards collective memory, our own or the others’, refers eventually to the living people who are bearing it and who are updating it usually by the agency of objects and places they recognize as correlates of memory and because of that are so familiar with them that they treat them as a part of themselves. Attitudes toward foreign collective memories cannot be dictated exclusively by legal regulations implemented by politicians, although their role is important. They have also, if not most of all, to be a manifestation of the moral norms adopted by individuals derived from principle of mutuality which requires that we see in the others ourselves and in another community an equivalent of community of which we are part of. And to act accordingly.

Recently in Poland there was a lot enunciations concerning “historical politics”. My suggestion is to replace it with the ethics of memory.

prof. Krzysztof Pomian (born 1934) - historian, philosopher, essayist. Professor in the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Director of nascent Museum of Europe in Brussels. 


related content

© ENRS 2011-2018 | Design: m.jurko | Code: feb