History: To Remember and to Forget (Pt. 1)
A rewrite of an old college term paper for a class on the Holocaust and political memory
Something I saw on Twitter today made me want to revisit some of my old college writing on history vs. political memory as it pertains to the Holocaust. What follows below is a rewrite of a term paper for a seminar I took on the Holocaust and the politics of memory, put together by then Ph.D. candidateTiphaine Dickson at Portland State University. It was a good class. The section of my paper below was initially one paragraph and a lot denser. I’ve done what I could to clean it up and make it readable. More will follow soon.
In The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick argues that memory is “ahistorical, even antihistorical.” It tends to create “mythical archetypes” that decenter the analytical focus on the content of what happened to refocus it upon the “continuing presence” of past events. For Novick, “significant collective memory” frequently expresses collective tragedy. This primarily serves to help define collective identities. Novick cites the Serbian memorialization of the Battle of Kosovo, the 19th-century partition in the national consciousness of Poland, and the remembrance of the Paris Commune by French Labor as examples of this phenomenon. I don’t doubt that this tends to be the case. However, I doubt that this is fundamentally inherent to memory’s character.
On the one hand, as Novick maintains, the “antihistorical” model of collective memory is helpful to our observations of shifts and changes in present-day interpretations of history. But, on the other hand, it may be that the degree to which collective memory situates itself in historical fact is proportional to the level of politicization of the present concerns which give rise to historical reference. That is to say that, when memory is called upon to serve political mobilization, its use hinders our capacity to investigate the past honestly. Moreover, in his “ahistorical” model of collective memory, Novick seems to ignore the complementary importance of collective forgetfulness of ahistorical matters. That is to say that what he refers to as “memory spasms” occur much less frequently than the occurrence of full absence in collective awareness.
Further, in their absence, historicity is given its purest platform for expression. In order, however, to elaborate on this, we must first turn to an elaboration of the social expression of Novick’s hypothesis. For this, let’s turn to three cases: holocaust memory in the United States, Israel, and Europe.
Reference: Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), 3–4.
Originally published at https://davidnwaeze.substack.com on July 17, 2022.