History And Memory

History and Memory #

The writing of History is an attempt to record, document and preserve the collective memories of our past. In an attempt for continuity, most societies transmit the accumulated experience, traditions, wisdom and values of their ancestors to younger generations. In oral cultures this was done through myths, dance, legends and songs. In literate cultures recordings are more indelible or permanent. These can be raw data such as church records, documents, paintings, archaeological artefacts, eye witness accounts, letters, narratives; The world’s oldest extant piece of Literature is putatively, The Epic of Gilgamesh.¹

“Historians may toil in the archives seeking something like truth,” writes Susan Neiman, in the October 19 issue, of the NYRB:

“but public memory is a political project whose relationship to fact is more precarious.”

In a far-ranging interrogation of how collective identity has been constructed in Germany since World War II, Neiman examines how Germans’ relatively recent,

“historically unique” understanding of themselves and their ancestors as perpetrators of terrible crimes—and the consequent determination to root out contemporary antisemitism—has led to a “formulaic approach to historical reckoning.”

Alongside Neiman’s article, The NYRB presents a selection from the archives of essays about what gets remembered and forgotten in history.

Narrative is a term that can be mobilised in the service of national, political and corporate agendas. At times, it is dressed as something apolitical, something solely to entertain, something distinct from social and cultural relations.

We are bombarded with narratives that propose to make sense of the world for us. They are used to package and sell everything from venture capital and beauty brands to literary festivals, washing machines and socks. At the same time, the word narrative applies to our richest creative endeavours. It extends to ancient oral storytelling traditions sustained across time and space.

They who control the narrative, contol the present and the future.

Mark Baker is an historian who has studied the Holocaust, conscious that his parents were survivors. When he begins to question them about their experiences he discovers discrepancies in the accounts. Yosel Bekiermazyn (Joe Baker), his father dismisses his research as mere “fecks” (facts) devoid of emotion.

“You read, you read. Books, books, everywhere. But do you know how it feels?

His Father’s memories are fading and Mark is worried that they may become lost. His Father doesn’t want to remember as he is too traumatised. His Father often talks about past as if it is the present. After visiting the toilet at Auschwitz, his father realises that things have changed and he is now free. His visit to Buchenwald revives his memories of his father’s death there, but also his connection to the Buchenwald Boys who help him establish a new life.

His Mother, – Genia (nee Krochmal) Baker, is the sole survivor of her village, Bolszowce, hiding out in the Ukraine by a Christian family. Since she was never in a death camp there is no documented evidence of her suffering and we are limited to her memory.

Genia’s memories are subject to misconceptions and lapses. As all people she requires triggers to stimulate memories of specific events. Yet we are confident that the gist of what she conveys is reliable and genuine due to the testimony of Russian apparatchik investigating the atrocities of the German Fascists in the Bolszowce district: dated 9 March 1945.

“Among 1380 people, one family survived by chance. They were Leo Krochmal and his wife Rosa who witnessed the shootings.

George Orwell famously wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

We create monuments, statues and artistic memorials to commemorate the past. The problem is many become sites of unquestioning glorification rather than of profound reflection? Sadly governments spend more money honouring the dead than supporting the living veterans. Close to 500 Australian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan committed suicide after returning home.

German Philosopher, Jorn Rusen describes “historical consciousness as an attempt to make sense of the past for the sake of understanding the present and anticipating the future”.

Tacitus insisted:

“Standards of historical research and scholarship should be more than just glorified gossip – we have higher expectations - to commemorate great deeds and to bring to the attention of posterity the damage that evil deeds do and to denounce them.

Each new generation seems to have to learn for themselves the limitations and ephemeral nature of their power. Most feel that somehow they are immune or resistant to the lessons of the past. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes:

The rupture between contemporary experience and the labours of earlier generations was one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the latter part of the 20^(th) century. Most young people grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relationship to the public past of the times they live in.

Karl Marx made this observation:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

Hilary Mantel:

“This is something much stronger than repression. It is the deliberate construction of one reality out of the denial of another. “History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you,” she writes in her memoir. “You search for it in the same way you sift through a landfill: for evidence of what people want to bury.”

Some of the very best historians are creating books that are a far cry from that now outdated style where famous names and significant dates march across the pages like soldiers on a parade ground.

We expect, now, to get the relevant facts embedded in a narrative that dances rather than marches, sings rather than shouts. Rosemary Sorensen

Mark Dapin distinguishes Academic history, which tends to be sedulously forensic, meticulous in the discovery of documentation, records, minutes, tele-communications – taking pains to gain an Olympian perspective, and explaining command decisions and public policy. However, these official narratives can lack emotions and be unconsciously biased in favour of justifying national interests by covering up atrocities.

Popular strands of history include, folkloric life stories, anecdotes, oral histories and journalistic accounts. They describe events experienced on the ground, from a more limited, unmediated, personal perspective, often based on hearsay. When we have a variety of these accounts, we can cross reference and get a more accurate picture of reality.

History is always selective, particularly when it is tied up with national identity. Certain stories are recovered, while others remain silent.

When it comes to history there isn’t one singular truth — we can’t know, there’s a lot of speculation.

Intimate encounters are often muted, even though we know they played a central part in first encounters during the colonial era.

Katie Pickles: History can have the quality of one of those inkblot tests in which everyone sees what they want to see. Events act as a Rorschach test, assuming the shape of whatever the viewer imposes.

Rebecca West: “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

How do we learn? From raw data we hope to glean information, transform it into knowledge, gain understanding and ultimately attain wisdom. Unfortunately this does not always eventuate due to glitches in the processes.

History is an interpretation of the past that is often revised or reinterpreted. A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated that it was possible to reach diametrically opposite conclusions from the same primary source of evidence.

Napoleon is reputed with: “History is a set of lies people have agreed upon”. Official histories can have ulterior agendas so we should always be wary of any narratives not based on neutral evidence. There are many people who engage in revisionist approaches to assessing our past.

Not all historians agree with each other. Cicero called Herodotus “the father of History”, while Plutarch called him “ the father of lies”.

Manning Clark is considered by many to be the pre-eminent historian of Australia by giving it a heart and soul; other consider him a fraud, a bit loose wth the facts.

There are dialectical views on the significance of history; those who dispute its value, like Henry Ford’s: “History is more or less bunk,² to the – philosopher George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the Past are condemned to repeat it to which others have responded: - History does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce” ( Marx) and “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” to Mark Twain’s sardonic, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot”.

Then there is this Joycean version, which is that “history is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken.”

Mistakes should be our Mentors #

There is no such thing as failure; only a chance to learn from our mistakes so that they we can avoid making them again. Instead many people simply double their effort rather than admit defeat – we flog dead horses in a vain hope that they will spring to life again.

Conceding a mistake causes anxiety, thus we tend not to tell the truth when something goes wrong, rather resort to rationalisations or justifications with “praise sandwiches” – at the beginning and end with little criticism in the middle.” Steve Dow,: Adapt, Why Success Always Starts With Failure.

A seductive argument is to deal with issues and move on emotionally – don’t dwell on the past. This is a favourite politician’s ploy when faced with a scandal or embarrassing event. Its adverse effect is to make us like Phil, a weatherman from Groundhog Day – condemned to repeat each day by “moving on” –everyday is a brand new day, no one ever remembers what happened the day before or the day before that; knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate, and we repeat our mistakes without learning anything.

Einstein said;

Even more corrosive is the desire to forget. History needs memories to avoid the risk of forgetting crimes that must not be forgotten, victims whose suffering cries less for vengeance than for narration”.

In 1995 Jacques Chirac became the first French leader willing to admit that the French State had played an active role in the Holocaust. His powerful words resonate still:

‘There can be no great nation, no national unity … without a willingness to remember’.

In Australia, those who attempted to raise public awareness of past injustices towards the displaced indigenous people were derisively referred to as “black arm band historians”. They soon countered with: “better a black arm band than a white blindfold”. What concerns me is the extent governments interfere with the concoction of our past. In 1996, 3 million dollars was allocated to raise public awareness of the Galipolli debacle. By 2018, this had mushroomed to 600 million for an ill-advised, inept and failed campaign to give Russia access to an ice free port through the Dardanelles. The irony - that a mere sixty years earlier, England, France and Turkey lost thousands of soldiers in a blundering attempt to prevent this access - is lost on most political leaders.

Today, the Australian Government has cut 48 million dollars from the ABC budget for scrutinizing politicians too closely and set up a fund to commemorate the landing of Captain James Cook, seen by many as not only an invader, but also totally uninterested in the settlement of Australia. It was Joseph Banks who actively promoted its possibility of colonialization.

Hegel cynically comments,

“What experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

What we can conclude is that not all people share views on the significance of History.

Perhaps our lack of confidence is due to the lack of certainty and balance in many historical accounts. As an historian we know the old saying that it is the victors who write the history books. History in the past has been written by the articulate - the elite, and therefore presents a selective point of view.

Churchill reputedly commented that “history will be kind to me; because I intend to write it”

Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a lion, claims:

He who controls the narrative controls history” but asserts “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”.

Thomas Carlyle declared that “the History of the world is but the Biography of great men.”

Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey expresses her disconnection as:

History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…. I read it a little as a duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me; the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”

Recent trends have moved towards more inclusive, universal and social history by researching primary sources, as we attempt to find out how common people may have lived life during the epochs of the past.

Besides perspective, the other problem with history is the question of bias or partisanship. Historians may be motivated by nationalism or patriotism where they feel the need to glorify, glamorise or sanitise the narratives they tell. Selectivity of facts or details to disclose can distort actual reality. Many historical events become commemorated and mythologised for ulterior reasons. Whenever political leaders use war to posture and strut the world stage, they militarise a nation by resorting to glorifying and mythologising the celebration of past military adventures. The Palace of Versailles is a good examples as the walls are festooned with painting of French battlefields – notably none after Napoleon.

Another good example is Australia’s Gallipoli memorial – Anzac Day as Niall Clugson (Crikey.com) comments:

Anzac Day commemorates a failed stab at the Ottoman Empire, which is not significant even as a failure – as the second stab, through Arabia, was successful. The Western Front was a far greater catastrophe in human life. Contrary to mythology promulgated here, Gallipoli was not a predominantly Australian battlefield, nor was it even the first battlefield of Australian troops, as New Guinea preceded it. To describe this as a “real event of real importance” is hard to understand.

The impact of Gallipoli on national consciousness was due to the shock of the death toll and to misleading reporting by Keith Murdoch. Subsequently, Anzac Day became a fixture on the national calendar, fiercely guarded by the stalwarts of the RSL. But whatever the emotional freight of the different holidays, to suggest that the Gallipoli landing is more historically significant than the First Fleet landing is monumentally ludicrous.

Official commemorations are often a case of false memory syndrome. Niall Clugston

Alan Tudge, Minister of Education, asserts Anzac Day has a sacred status that puts it beyond the realm of critical discussion.

It appears Aeschylus who first wrote that “the first casualty of any conflict is truth”.

Marilyn Lake, a professor of history at La Trobe University, has written extensively on the militarisation of Australian History. She asserts that a business of memory-making was established from 1996 to foster an already fiercely determined enterprise to commemorate and memorialise all aspects of Australia’s involvement in overseas war escapades.

Since 1996, the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent millions on inculcating history lessons to “ensure that Australia’s wartime heritage is preserved and the community better appreciates the significance of wartime experiences to our development as a nation”.

The none-too-subtle hawkishness of pollical rhetoric evoke the memory of war dead with allusions to the beating drums of another supposedly imminent conflict

Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum est, obviously hasn’t perculated up.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Sweet and becoming/decorous it is to die for one’s country Horace)

An American writer, William March, “In Company K, attacked one of the standard texts of the old value system in his grotesque burlesque of an official letter of condolence:

“Your son Francis, died needlessly at Belleau Wood. You will be interested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin and weak from diarrhea. … A piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly. … He lived three full hours screaming and cursing. … He had nothing to hold onto, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage, patriotism, were all lies.”

Already since the 1920’s Australia’s RSL had spent millions keeping the memory of Gallipoli alive:

Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.

The adverse effects of this militarisation, besides the glorification and sanctification of war, is that it transplants other contributions to nation building.

When participation in foreign wars becomes the basis of national identity, it requires the forgetting or marginalising of other narratives, experiences and values. The Anzac myth requires us to forget gender and racial exclusions, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia; to forget that at Gallipoli we fought for “empire” not the nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.

Many of the same developments occurred in America during this time, but the cruel irony of this militarisation is that the leaders who claim to fight wars for peace and freedom shamelessly enacted legislation that severely limits our freedoms, all in the name of the “war on terror.

When propaganda becomes brain-washing it is time to expose it by proclaiming it from the house-tops.

Other Quotes on History #

E.H.Carr was a celebrated relativist historiographer, who wrote in his circuit-breaking “What is History”,

“(Historical facts) are like fish swimming in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean they choose to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts they want. History means interpretation.”

“Hardly a pure science, history is closer to animal husbandry than it is to mathematics, in that it involves selective breeding. The principal difference between the husbandryman and the historian is that the former breeds sheep or cows or such, and the latter breeds (assumed) facts. The husbandryman uses his skills to enrich the future; the historian uses his to enrich the past. Both are usually up to their ankles in bullshit”. Tom Robbins

We are not makers of history. We are made by history”. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Every nation tells reassuring lies about itself. Ours are > fundamental to the national character. David Marr


“The Budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance.” -Cicero, 55 BC

So, evidently we’ve learnt bugger all over the past 2,068 years.

Counter narratives #

Kevin Rudd got a group of historians together in a Sydney hotel to try to thrash out an alternative narrative to John Howard’s Bradman/Anzac foundation myths. The PM should do it again and focus on some of the real reasons we Australians are distinctive: early votes for women, free education, trade unionism, social welfare initiatives, moderately successful cosmopolitanism (marred of course by our track record on indigenous matters). If the military narrative is too important to leave out then just talk about courage in the face of danger and talk about how Australians need to be courageous in different ways in a dangerous world. It would also be easy to find lots of non-military anniversaries that provide great PR opportunities. Noel Turnbull Crikey, 17/05/12

¹ Discovered in the late 19th C., The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets some of which still survive. Gilgamesh was the historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a narrative epic tale about the friendship between the King of Ur and Enkidu, a feral human. The two strong men who fight over the right of the King to sleep with Enkid’s bride on her first night. When the fight ends in a draw, the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become great friends and travel the world together.

  1. “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today”. Interview in Chicago Tribune (May 25, 1916). Henry Ford