ABSTRACT

Everyone who now studies the relationship between history and memory in a serious, critical way does so, I suspect, because of the politics of memory. Social history, it might also be said, has led us to social memory. But we are also drawn because the study of memory allows us a new kind of access to that old problem of 'presentism' (to revive one of David Hackett Fischer's 'fallacies'). Suppress it as we will, somebody's 'present' hovers over every problem in the study of memory. How cultures and groups use, construct or try to own the past in order to win power or place in the present is why memory studies matter. The process by which societies decide how and when to remember and forget is 'always dangerous', as Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us in 'The Use and Abuse of History'. 'The same life that needs forgetfulness', wrote Nietzsche, 'needs sometimes its destruction; for should the injustice of something ever become obvious . . . the thing deserves to fall. Its past is critically examined, the knife put to its roots, and all the "pieties" are grimly trodden under foot'.' What Nietzsche describes is the inherently political character of conflicts over the uses of the past, whether they result from the critical, interpretive work of historians or the public controversies we have been experiencing in museums. Serious confrontations with the past - facing down the pieties - is 'always dangerous'. Precisely because of this political danger we need studies of memory that are rooted in good research, sensitive to deep contexts and to the varieties of memory at play in any given situation. We need studies that search for the ways collective memories have evolved into the forms they take in any context. Certainly, fiftieth anniversaries of major events, as we have recently learned in our own time (with all the commemorations related to World War II and the Holocaust), provide good laboratories for investigation.