Memory as ideology

In nationalism, memory is central to the transgenerational nature of the collectivity. The trend is, to extend this into a general vision of memory as a primary human activity - as a moral necessity. It is too late to argue if memory is socially constructed, if society is already a memory bank. The question is, should there be memory at all?
Written 1997, revised December 2002.


"July 2015. On my way to the Roma Holocaust Commemoration, I walked past the Museum of Atonement for the Slave Trade, and its neighbour the Museum of African Civilisations, over the Sarajevo Bridge. The Bridge is flanked by two Towers of the Victims of Ethnic Cleansing, each a copy of the huge Central Tower in Vukovar which houses the European Museum of Ethnic Cleansing. I passed a crowd, on their way to the official opening of the new Verdun exhibition at the Museum of the First World War. Some had come directly from the inauguration of the Verdun Park of Memory, which now covers most of northern France and Belgium. Apart from the new memorial buildings, most of the city has been restored to its appearance in previous centuries. In the ancient buildings are home to the growth sectors, which now employ most of the population: archives, museums, designers of historical parks, official commissions of memory, the archaeological services, memory technology companies, and the schools of memory. Everyone these days is more in touch with their own roots. Much that was lost has been recovered, but this work can never have a definitive end. There will always be more memory to recover, more suffering and triumph to commemorate. The future is an exciting future: more and more, we will be able to live in the past..."

Is that the future? It is certainly the future that some people want to impose. It is an issue which goes beyond a controversy about a Holocaust Memorial. An ideology of memory has emerged from nationalism. It is especially visible in relation to the Holocaust, but it does not end there. In its most extreme form, the ideology of memory says that human beings exist to remember. It says that each generation of humans exists in order to transmit the memories of the previous generation, to the next generation. It says that a nation exists to remember its past, and that economy, society, and the state, are no more than the means for this national memory. It welcomes long-term economic growth, because it frees people to spend their time on the recovery of memory, and it wants an economy dominated by memory-related activities.

Less comprehensive 'memorialist' beliefs are easy to find:

All this is not just ridiculous, it is morally wrong. It is wrong because it substitutes memory for morality, because it reduces a human being to a historical databank, because it limits possibility, and especially because it limits innovation. And it is wrong because it is an imposed ideology - imposed, sometimes by emotional blackmail. Who could object to a national monument for the murdered Children of Auschwitz? And who could object to a regional monument for the Children of Auschwitz? Who could object to a city monument for the Children of Auschwitz? The monuments multiply because opposition is socially taboo.

Memory does not deserve to be protected by taboo. Memory is subject to moral judgment. It is not neutral, let alone inherently good. However vague memory is, however it may be socially constructed, it is always about the past. There is no memory of the future. In this sense memory is opposite to hope and expectation. Nationalist ideology was always concerned with both the national past and national future, but primarily the past. Now a general ideology, of the relation of humans to the past, is emerging from nationalism. No comparable generalised ideology of human relations to the future has emerged.

Why is this an 'ideology'? Because there is no logical or inherent reason, why there should be war memorials or Holocaust memorials, commemorative books, memorial ceremonies or anything similar. People believe they should spend time and effort on these: they could believe otherwise. Often, they took this belief from others. Coherent transmitted beliefs, of the kind listed above - that is the sense in which I use 'ideology'.

Look at the reasons given against destruction of memory. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an opponent of Holocaust denial, sees it as an assault on transgenerationality:

Les assassins de la mémoire ont bien choisi leur objectif: ils veulent frapper une communauté sur les milles fibres encore douloureuses qui la relient à son propre passé.
Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. Les assassins de la mémoire: "Un Eichmann de papier" et autres essais sur le révisionnisme. Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1987.

In his logic, Vidal-Naquet can see no difference between a neo-Nazi who denies the Holocaust, and opponents of a 500th Holocaust memorial. The transgenerational link has become a morality in itself. Similarly, the sub-title of Deborah Lipstadt's 1993 book on Holocaust denials is: "The growing assault on truth and memory". (Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory. New York: Free Press) Are truth and memory equivalent in value? What would that imply? Most people accept, that a statement which is true, is better than a statement which is false. Must everyone now also accept, that a true statement about the past is better than a true statement about the future? Is talk about the future in some way evil?

This kind of underlying belief is at the core of the ideology of memory. The emergence of a de facto 'memory sector' in modern economies is a reflection of the new ideology, not an inevitable process, as some people think:

Besonders eindrucksvoll ist die progressive Musealisierung, der wir unsere kulturelle Lebenswelt unterworfen haben...Musealisierung, so scheint es, ist ein integraler Bestandteil der Modernisierung.
Lübbe, H. Zeit-Verhältnisse: zur Kulturphilosophie des Fortschritts. Graz: Styria, 1983.

Most of these museums are easily explained: they were the product of nationalism. But the process has apparently not stopped with the consolidation of nation states. Memory is increasingly integrated, codified and globalised. There is a UNESCO program on archives, called "Memory of the World":

Archivists and historians have a common interest to identify the various gaps in the memory of the world and to prevent them from growing. Otherwise the huge hall of memory mentioned by Saint Augustine, where heaven, earth and sea may be kept, would split up into innumerable fragmented cells without windows.
Auer, L. (1996) Archival losses and their impact on the work of archivalists and historians, in Memory of the world at risk: archives destroyed, archives reconstituted. München: Saur, 1996.

That goes well beyond the 19th-century promotion of national history. A cluster of values is now associated with memory: wholeness, unity, communication, visibility, healing, and sacrality (reinforced by quoting religious authority). In effect, a part of nationalist ideology has taken on a life of its own: it has become a quasi-religion.

Recent trends in monuments illustrate this change. Public monuments have been built for thousands of years - but not all the same kind. If a memory ideology emerges from nationalist ideology, the monuments will change. You would expect fewer monuments for specific nation states, more for smaller groups - or 'general human monuments'. You would expect fewer military battle monuments, more for other events, and a general growth of monuments. Both of these trends are visible, at least in Europe. Less visible, but also to be expected, is a general shift towards a 'memorialist' art - monumental or commemorative.

The evolution of Holocaust monuments is exemplary. At first there were camp monuments, later memorial institutes such as Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum, and local copies of these institutes and monuments: a dispersal in space and category. Amsterdam, for example, has separate camp monuments (Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Dachau) and separate victim group monuments (national, Jewish, Zigeuner and 'homo'). The Netherlands Province of Utrecht has 16 different categories of Second World War monument (one per 8500 inhabitants). And apparently, no such monuments are ever removed, at least not in western Europe. Some Holocaust memory can still be placed in a nationalist context, even as new national symbol for the USA:

In being defined as the ultimate violation of America's Bill of Rights and as the persecution of plural groups, the Holocaust encompasses all the reasons immigrants - past, present, and future - ever had for seeking refuge in America.
Young, James The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press,1993.

Nevertheless, Holocaust memorialisation, because of its intensity, also points the way to a future 'memory world' of the kind described earlier. It would be a world of attribution of sacrality, designation of sacred sites, construction of monuments and museums, historical scholarship and research, and quasi-pilgrimage tourism to sites and memorials. Jacob Neusner once complained that American Judaism was becoming a 'Holocaust memorial movement'. A new and widespread memory ideology would be equivalent to a 'human memorial movement', and it could dominate social and political life.


Why forget the Holocaust?
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