The Revenge of History: Dealing with Historical Memory

In today’s The New York Times Roger Cohen wrote a thoughtful piece on memory and forgetting (“The Presence of the Past”). Given the role that the manipulation of historical memory has played in past and present violence this article brings up a topic that deserves more attention, especially as nationalism is on the rise. Despite the importance of this topic, it is rarely publicly discussed. Part of the problem is the complexity of the subject, not to mention that it calls into question the cherished identities of many. But if we’re going to stave off the violence that is the product of certain kinds of historical memory we must discuss it.

History is a double-edged sword, as Cohen points out: “History illuminates. It can also blind.” History is illuminating when it is confronted honestly and in all its complexity. It is blinding when it is used to serve ideological or political ends.  This is where historical memory comes in. “History” is often abused in the service of ideology or political power.

In some places history is ever-present, in others it is virtually absent either by design or ambivalence. In both cases historical memory, or lack thereof, poses risks. As Cohen notes, “Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.” As an example of suppressed memory Cohen turns to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia when “Bosnians, Serbs and Croats re-enacted, in the 1990’s, the civil-war horrors of the 1940’s whose mention had become taboo under the clamp of Tito’s postwar Communist dictatorship.” As the topic of my dissertation I know this example all too well! On the other side, too much focus on the past comes “at the expense of the present,” and in this case “memory becomes a blind alley.” This is the more typical case as can be seen in the Middle East and many other parts of the globe, including Serbia. What’s the solution?


There is no simple solution, but Cohen believes that it is “[o]nly through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.” I think that Cohen is basically right, but I don’t think “balance” is the right way to see the solution. The problem is about how history is remembered, not whether or not it is balanced. When history is used to serve political and ideological ends it is inevitably distorted. For example, nationalism is built upon an edifice of historical myth making.

Nationalism purportedly is about unifying the nation, but in practice it divides people into those who belong and those who don’t. As a result it become a tale of us vs. them, and good vs. evil. National narratives in pursuit of glorifying the nation, intentionally sweeps under the rug all the “dirt” of the past. These narratives often engender a pride that eventually devolves into arrogance.  The real danger comes when a demagogue finds in nationalism a useful tool in the pursuit of power. The skillful demagogue then spins a soothing narrative that blames all misfortunes on those who do not properly belong to the nation. If the demagogue is successful it rarely ends well.

On the other hand, history can be beneficial if it is used correctly. In fact, it is essential if we want to understand the past and thereby the present. It also serves to teach us about human nature. But if is to serve these valuable services history must be confronted honestly in all its complexities. And when confronting the past we must not be lured into temptation to engage in historical grievances if we are ever to stop the cycle of violence. We must learn to forgive. To forgive is not to forget, nor is it about the perpetrator. It is about the victim(s). Forgiveness allows victims to heal and let go of the resentments and hatred that often consumes them. Let’s remember the past and learn from it. We will all be better for it.


Serbs protesting the independence of Kosovo (2008) Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA

Serbs protesting the independence of Kosovo (2008)
Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA

One thought on “The Revenge of History: Dealing with Historical Memory

  1. History is always being rewritten to suit present purpose. Often subtly, via the prevailing intellectual frameworks of academia as they change – often generationally – but frequently less so when perceptions of history are used for overt political purposes by non-historians. I guess if these things did not happen, there would be little historiographical debate.


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