Memory of History

“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”(Martin Niemoller)

Throughout the world, there has become a constant theme to “forgive and forget.”  To forgive is something that is not only humanly but can also be the hardest part to accomplish when accepting the trauma that had occurred.  Forgiveness is arguably not about accepting the horror that has happened but instead, to become cleansed of the grief and anger.  But, forgetting is something much different.  Forgetting is choosing to expel the thoughts, memories and emotions from one’s mind and body, accepting that the terror is of the past, somewhere dark never to be seen again.  Unfortunately though, as time has shown, this is not always the correct path. Within the blog, a demand to the public will occur, not to stand up and fight for human rights with pickets and fists, but instead, to never forget the tragic events that have occurred in man’s lifetime.  Only when the public remembers such horrors can future violations be stopped before spiraling out of control.  In Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel’s, famous poem, he states that he did not speak out when the others were taken by the Nazi’s.  But when they finally came for him, there was no one to speak up.  By choosing to block out the pain of watching others be taken to their death, he eliminated the hope that someone might try and stop the Nazi’s from taking him to his own death.  People who choose to violate human rights can only do so, if no one chooses to stand up and say ‘no, I remember what happened last time, and it will never, never happen again’.

Predicated in the early twentieth-century writing of Maurice Halbwachs and later relooked at by Michel Foucault, “contemporary scholarship has posed memory as an activity of collectivity rather than (or in addition to) individuated, cognitive work.  The assumption of a shared understanding of the past is captured in the multiple modifiers attached to ‘memory’ in recent years” (Dickinson, p. 3).  Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott summarized in the introduction of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials that contemporary memory scholars have taken a number of positions on remembering being taken place in groups.  They include:

“(1) memory is activated by present concerns, issues, or anxieties;

(2) memory narrates shared identities, constructing sense of communal belonging;

(3) memory is animated by affect;

(4) memory is partial, partisan, and thus often contested;

(5) memory relies on material and/or symbolic supports;

(6) memory has a history” (Dickinson, p. 5)

Memory is not about the concerns and issues of the present but instead, a way of understanding, justifying, excusing or even subverting conditions of the present based off of the past.  Some groups may even start to popularize some events or individuals over others due to their ability of choice.  Public memory embraces that which the group thinks is important and worthy of preservation.  David Lowenthal suggests that “the prime function of memory…is not to preserve the past but to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the past… Memories are not readymade reflections of the past, but eclectic, selective reconstructions based on subsequent actions and perceptions and on ever-changing codes by which we delineate, symbolize, and classify the world around us” (Dickinson, p. 6).

Looking back at the sixth position of group memory, it is important to be able to recognize the differences between memory and history as two separate entities in addition to their connection to one another.  The differences and relationships between history and memory in Pierre Nora’s account has surely been the most cited by other scholars:

“Memory and history, far from being synonymous, are thus in many respects opposed.  Memory is life, always embodied in living societies and as such in permanent evolution, subject to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of the distortions to which it is subject, vulnerable in various ways to appropriation and manipulation, capable of lying dormant for long periods only to be suddenly reawakened.  History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.  Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.  Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details… History, being an intellectual, non-religious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse.  Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context.  History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose… At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory.” (Dickinson, p. 25)

While the distinction Nora draws on is not universally accepted, it does serve to mark out different tendencies that are frequently attributed to memory and history.  While some public memory scholars continue to look at the sharp distinction of representing the past like Nora, most public memory scholars are more likely to “embrace Marita Sturken’s far less stark delineation; she suggests that history and memory are ‘entangled,’ rather than comprising completely distinct activities”, memory has history (Dickinson, p. 26).

In the end, rather one believes that memory and history are joined at the hip or separated as individual entities, the result is still remains.  When looking at the violent past to help ensure a more peaceful future, both the memory of those who survived and the history written in books, serve as vital stories to help create the intelligence needed to forgive those who didn’t know, but never forget the pain of what happened.


Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L Ott.  Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. University of Alabama Press. 2010.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

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