History: To Remember and to Forget (Pt. 5)
We must seek not only to remember the past but to understand it.
This is the fifth and final part of my attempt to clean up an old term paper on history vs. political memory pertaining to Holocaust history and memorialization. This segment focuses on returns to Peter Novick and concludes what was picked up in the last four segments. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 4 here.
In The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick argues that, rather than — as history — focusing on events as they happened, political memory uses the perceived “continuing presence” of history’s “mythical archetypes” to help define a politically defined community’s collective identity.
But how can we grapple with the conflicts this hypothesis implies? Novick’s hypothesis seems to raise more questions than it answers. Three come immediately to my mind:
First: Is the interrogation of history advanced or hindered by flaws in the accuracy of political memory?
This is similar to a question raised by Lang, who inquired as to whether the role of refuting holocaust denial has “led to recognizable scholarly or historiographic advances or benefits.” But rather than concern for the integrity of the historical study, what I’m asking has more to do with improvements in broad public understanding through attention drawn to historical matters. That is to say, doesn’t exposure to history through politicized memorialization at least promote further conversation? Even in an inaccurate form, public exposure to historical matters carries with it the possibility of more people investigating history, thereby increasing the space in which accurate historical truth may find its expression.
Second: In what ways are present concerns dis-served by present use of historical memory?
Bartov states that, “[the holocaust] could be achieved only by a highly modern, disciplined, bureaucratic state, in which people had respect for law and order, science and technology.” Do western-style liberal democracies truly benefit from neglecting this in exchange for recognizing the historical triumph of liberal modernity over National Socialism? Do Israelis truly benefit from the neglect of structurally-perpetuated trauma inflicted upon survivors in the late pre-Israeli Yishuv? Can Europe come to terms with the broad contours of its role in the historical perpetuation of atrocity while centering its narratives on its own European and national identities?
Perhaps, as present concerns advance apace with our societies, historical memory creates new problems for us to struggle with as we come to terms — presently — with our collective pasts.
Third: If the advancement of historical truth may occur despite the obscuring effect of political memory, what problems might historical accuracy in memory bring in the future?
Are we, as Charles Maier suggests, “suffering from too much memory”? As Maier would have it: “I would rather that our society had enough confidence in its future orientation, in its political projects, its capacities to use civic action to meet urgent public needs and diminish the gross inequalities that characterize our life, so that we are all less preoccupied with our memory.” Looking at it in this frame, are the lessons to be taken from history as it happened as centrally important as orienting toward humanity’s future? Would the advancement of collective social good not be better served by the human tendency to forget?
This possibility is precisely what Novick’s hypothesis seems to neglect. Collective forgetfulness may be much more common to humanity than the occurrence of memory or expressions of historical truth. At the extreme end, regarding the Holocaust specifically, are those for whom its history is functionally irrelevant.
In outlining a spectrum of Holocaust awareness from denial to recognition, Lang points out two segments of the world population that probably outnumber those who recognize or deny the Holocaust. These are:
- Those who are entirely unfamiliar with the Holocaust as they are completely unaware of the experience of mid-20th century Europe. As Lang describes them, “Members of this group have not known the evidence and turned their backs: they simply have not been aware of it.”
- Those for whom the events of the Holocaust are made utterly irrelevant by present concerns. “People to some extent cognizant of the Holocaust but for whom its occurrence does not matter… because of personal or group hardship that has left no room for empathy with others’ suffering; or because the present distance from the Holocaust of almost seventy years blends into a view of the historical past so filled with war and atrocity that even another large instance adds nothing to their understanding or reaction.”
For these groups, the history of the Holocaust and its memorialization is beyond a reasonable grasp. While certainly not free from other social problems, questions of historical truth, disservice to present concerns, and the conflict between the past and how it is used to improve the future simply do not include the Holocaust.
Does this, however, inform those of us who are neither ignorant nor inured to holocaust history?
The problems presented by the gap between what Hegel describes as “ res gestae (the things that happened)” and “ historia rerum gestarum (the narration of things that happened)” can’t be simply shrugged away as silly abstractions. The conflict is a much more dynamic one. It is a conflict between past and present concerns, past and future concerns, and present and future concerns.
The fight between the present and the future conditions our perceptions of history’s political usefulness. Any concerns we may one day have in the future demand that we grapple with inconsistencies between our knowledge of the past and our present ideas about it now.
Whether or not this task will ever be entirely achievable through some function of future-perfectability in human historical consciousness is irrelevant to the ethical demands of historical matters, which beg us to never forget. Because of these demands, we must seek not only to remember the past but to understand it.
Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), 3–4.
Berel Lang, “Six Questions On (Or About) Holocaust Denial” History And Theory, 49 (2010), 159, 160
Omer Bartov, “Chambers of Horror: Holocaust Museums in Israel and the United States,” Israel Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, 74
Charles Maier, “A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on History, Melancholy, and Denial,” History & Memory 5.2 (fall/winter 1993), 150
Kerwin Lee Klein, “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse,” Representations, №69, Special Issue: Grounds for Remembering (Winter, 2000), 133
Originally published at https://davidnwaeze.substack.com on July 21, 2022.