HNN Poll: Are Cultures Sometimes Better Off If They Forget the Past?
The current issue of the Historical Society's Historically Speaking features an interview with Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, and the author, most recently, of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005). In the interview, excerpted below, Judt argues that Europeans were able to put their societies back together again after World War II by creating acceptable myths and forgetting much of their history. This struck the editors of HNN as a remarkable statement for a historian to make considering how hard historians work at uncovering the truth. Are there times when the truth, like dynamite, has to be handled with care? Feel free to comment below.
Donald A. Yerxa: How did Europeans handle the burden of the war’s shadow?
Tony Judt: If you want a general answer, I would say that they handled the burden by a form of selective forgetting. Although it varied in subject matter from country to country, it had in common the notion that the only way to put back countries which had experienced what amounted to five or six years of civil war as well as the complete destruction of civic, political, and legal institutions was to create agreeable myths about what had happened and forget the rest.
Yerxa: Why did the shadows last so long?
Judt: There are two answers. In the case of Western Europe, ironically the shadows lasted precisely because they were not actually addressed. Issues of memory of collaboration, of the whole question of what was done to the Jews and who was responsible, and of remembering the extent to which many people were quite happy with fascism or affiliated with the local forms of it—all of these couldn’t be comfortably integrated into post-World War II memory. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s—mainly because of a new generation as much as anything else—that it became possible to look back and ask different questions.
In Eastern Europe it was much more simply a consequence of the imposition of a new regime under the communists which not only made it impossible to look straight at what had happened before the communists, but imposed a whole new level of things for people to remember and feel bad about afterward. The war got conflated with the suffering of the postwar decades.
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andy mahan - 9/18/2006
Forgeting the past is not only preferred, it is necessary. One term I have always thought kinda dopey is, "Those that don't know history are doomed to repeat it" or something like that. Talk about yer linear thinking, yer over-simplification. That one tops it. You can be a scholar or ignorant of history and be continuously entwined or never entwined in the same circumstances. It makes little difference because you don't control all the actors.
J. Feuerbach - 4/3/2006
"You can try to forget that you've been an alcoholic your entire life but your body, your brain and your family will always remember." -J. Feuerbach
W.L.Nelson - 4/2/2006
It is human nature to forget the past when it is unpleasent or inconvenient. Just look at what has been written out of American history books in the last century. Every one shades their version of history to put themselves or their political-religous beliefs in the best light possible.
The hard part of historical research is to filter out the spin and avoid fitting the facts to what you want to see. I think it is the job of historians to keep what is taught as history as accurate as possible even with the massive establishment pressure to shade things.
If it were not for mass amnesia and selective memory, trusting any form of government would be a sure sign of insanity.
J. Feuerbach - 4/1/2006
Pick your favorite quote about history.
I love Karl Popper's: "There is no history, only histories."
cheisler - 4/1/2006
"Some individuals and countries don't want to come to terms with their past, especially if they have done naughty things. But it's human nature, we all do it, I do it, you do it, and countries apparently do it."
And I will add to the above appropriate comment that "historians do it." I often bring up the fact that the Left, I supposed to continue the myth that the Left is a "caring" bunch, have routinely failed to acknowledge the most extensive modern genocide, Cambodia in the mid 70's, and to accept their role in making the "Killing Fields" possible. Had the Left not pushed their anti-war agenda in the 60's and 70's and allowed the United States to prevail in Southeast Asia, the people of Cambodia as well as Vietnam would have suffered far less. Yet, the myth is perpetuated, primarily by the Left, that the Vietnam War was a "bad" thing for America while shunning the harsh reality of how much of a "bad" thing our withdrawal was for the region.
This "myth" is now ingrained in our history and it is a shame for it could have deadly implications for idigenous peoples in the Middle East should the "myth" take hold in the near future and we withdraw from the war on terror.
DeeK - 3/30/2006
The past reverberates in many ways. While one group can forget its past and reinvent the past, no one is isolated enough that others who deal with the past in their own mannner wil forget their experiences. The Israeli question, and to some degree the problem with European Muslims illustrate this point. Israel was invented to deal with waht Europe could not. It also now deals with Muslims in their midst because of past efforts to take advantage of these cultures. If seen ins this way, the past is deferred, but not forgotten.
Brian Brownson - 3/29/2006
I don't see the study of history as a search for the truth. I teach that history is interpretation based on the evidence as we can best discover it.
Being the mortal creatures we are, humans use history as we use religion, science, careers, etc. We use them all to come to terms with our mortality--to justify our actions and to give meaning to our lives (and deaths).
I think we need to draw a distinction between forgetting and denial.
Forgetting is a conscious decision and it implies that you've dealt with something in your past (e.g you acknowledged that it happened, that you caused it, etc.), you did something about it (e.g. you ask for forgiveness, you made amends to all people you hurt, etc.) and then you moved on.
Denial is a complete different cognitive-emotional phenomenon. Denial is simply refusing to acknowledge that an event has occurred. The person or country (sorry Anna Freud for the extrapolation) simply acts as if nothing has happened. Denial is primarily an unconscious defense mechanism that we all use.
I think Mr. Judt, in the first paragraph that you quote, is saying that denial, not forgetting, can sometimes be useful but it also has its dangers. He says, "I see that forgetting, for example, worked wonders in stabilizing postwar Europe." I feel obligated to replace "forgetting" with "denial." Again, he's confusing the terms. Someone once said that denial is Mother Nature's anesthesia that allows us to continue living our lives following a catastrophic or stressful event in our lives. Some individuals and countries can live in denial forever! Some individuals and countries don't want to come to terms with their past, especially if they have done naughty things. But it's human nature, we all do it, I do it, you do it, and countries apparently do it.
cath k - 3/28/2006
I urge you to read the complete interview before posting. The section below gave me a better idea of Judt's argument, which is more nuanced than it appears to be in the excerpt.
"Memory, forgetting, and history are all important. When I write as a historian, I see that forgetting, for example, worked wonders in stabilizing postwar Europe. If people had been forced to remember in the years from 1945 to 1960 everything that had gone on between 1939 and 1945, many countries would have had trouble functioning as united polities: France, Italy, the Netherlands, not to mention points further east. But at the same time, you have to be careful because you might as well say one of the reasons postwar Europe was so stable was that Hitler and Stalin between them solved the problem of minorities by killing everyone. Obviously, you cannot go around recommending that as a solution for problems. So I have to jump back and forth: as a historian, I say this is why forgetting worked, but as an engaged citizen I must say this is also unacceptable.
No society, however, can live indefinitely with the weight of impossibly painful memories constantly being dragged into the public sphere. No society can move past those memories until it has addressed them. It is quite striking that from the late 1960s until the mid-1990s France was obsessed with the problem of Vichy: apologetics of Vichy, attacks on it, how to make sense of it, etc. And then in 1995 Jacques Chirac, in the one unambiguously heroic act of his presidency, went to the memorial for the dead Parisian Jews and acknowledged for the first time France’s role in the extermination of European Jews. That sort of ended it. There was no longer the sense on the part of the Jews that this had not been acknowledged, on the part of the French that this was a painful thing that you didn’t want to talk about, and on the part of the political class that maybe you should talk about it a bit, but not be too honest because it would be disruptive. All this ended and is no longer a painful issue. It is an issue for historians. So I do recommend this combination of remembering and then setting aside. The publication of Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001) had the effect of detonating a small nuclear weapon in the heart of Polish public debate. But it brought out, and to some extent resolved, Poland’s inability to see what Poles did to Jews during the war and that this recognition did not mean that the Poles didn’t suffer terribly during the war as well. It just meant you had to tell all the truth."
Jason KEuter - 3/28/2006
An interesting and difficult question. I think it naive to assume that even a correct rendering of the past will necessarily yield desirable results. It has been said that telling the truth and lying serve the same purpose, and that, if truth will serve that purpose, then turth will be told.
I thought most of us had long ago abandonded the enlightenment assumption that truth will set us free. Of course, few of us can accept that its absence is any more desirable.
A major problem.
J. Feuerbach - 3/27/2006
I like "story" better than "myth." Even the word "story" is hidden in "history." (I just hope Ms. Chew doesn’t suggest we rename this discipline to “herstory.” Sorry Lorraine I couldn’t resist it.) From now on this site should be called SNN (Stories News Network). Again, access to the ultimate, multifaceted, multidimensional truth is prerogative of the gods. Whoever claims such knowledge is god or is crazy.
It was a theologian who hit it on the nail. Paul stated in I Corinthians 13:
"Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
I think historians (story tellers) and readers of history (stories) should learn from the greatest Christian theologian of all times when he says, "Now I know in part." But this passage has an even more important teaching: acknowledging that ours is just one out of many stories that can be told should allow us to be more tolerant toward others who have chosen other points of vantage to tell their story about the same "facts." (I don’t use the word love because it would be unmanly according to certain professor at Harvard.) Presenting our story line at the expense or with total disregard to other stories is what starts wars and creates barriers among individuals, countries and civilization.
The sermon is over and now I'll proceed to circulate the offering bag (please don't be stingy).
Lorraine Paul - 3/27/2006
Mr Blanton, Europe is not the entire world but it would be naive of us not to recognise its importance in world affairs, for good or bad.
Also, I think you are expecting too much of Judt. As one who lives outside of Europe and the United States, that is, Australia, I see the world as incredibly complex and complicated. Totally beyond one individual's interpretation.
Lorraine Paul - 3/27/2006
Dear Julian, I couldn't agree more, except that you have left out the story and/or myth, whichever suits you, which is constructed by our 'vested interests' who also have control of the mass media, and what information to make available for general distribution.
Unfortunately, I have to state that quite often historians are not so much concerned about the "uncovering of the truth" as they are of affirming their own subjective opinions within the context of known 'facts'. For example, the Cold War! The interpretation of which is subjective to the point of ludicrousness! Would you agree?
Pull me up if I have been indiscreet!
Mackie J.V. Blanton - 3/27/2006
"In the case of Western Europe, [i]t was only in the 1970s and 1980s—mainly because of a new generation as much as anything else—that it became possible to look back and ask different questions."
"In Eastern Europe it was much more simply a consequence of the imposition of a new regime under the communists which...made it impossible to look straight at what had happened...[and which] imposed a whole new level of things for people to remember."
--Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, and the author, most recently, of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005).
The key problem for me in Judt's explantion of how post-WWII Europe was able to put their societies back in order "by creating acceptable myths and forgetting much of their history" [HNN's wording] lies mainly in these two phrases found in his interview: "a new gneration" and "the imposition of a new regime". Actually, the problem for me, and the solution for Judt, is in the term "new". His explanation values denial. It was in the 70s that a new generation of American youngsters redefined the wrod "racist," insisting that Blacks and Jews were racists just because "all they ever do is talk about slavery or the holocaust! I didn't cause any of these things," they argued individually and in chorus, "so let's move on. Just get over it!"
This is an argument in favor of the new -- new myths, of course. At the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, the wealth of world thought preceding that moment was considered to have happened during the "Age of Ignorance" and was put aside, and mostly still is ignored in the Islamic world, giiving rise to cadres of religious teachers who have little to no understanding of good in the sheer presence on earth of other nations. Worlwide Christian fundamentalism today is deliberately ahistorical, preferring to favor evangelistically fascistic piety over origin and tradition, the consequences of which we now get to see everyday in world news reports.
Judt needs to rethink this notion of "the new" -- new myths -- in order for it to have comprehensively principled depth. So far, it's just an excuse for self-imposed ignorance, denial, and an unwillingness to come to a moral understanding of the suffering we cause one another in the world.
Yes, he is explaining only Europe, but isn't that a problem? Is Europe the whole world? Is its way the only way? Is it once again "discovering" for the rest of us? Is judt incapable of being an explainer of the entire world for the world?
J. Feuerbach - 3/27/2006
HNN's editors state,
"In the interview, excerpted below, Judt argues that Europeans were able to put their societies back together again after World War II by creating acceptable myths and forgetting much of their history. This struck the editors of HNN as a remarkable statement for a historian to make considering how hard historians work at uncovering the truth."
Even though I approach social constructivism with a critical mind, I'm must acknowledge that they are right on the money when they say that reality isn't discovered but created. It's not a matter of forgetting or not forgetting good or bad events in our personal or collective lives but of creating a story. We pick certain events at the expense of others. We do it consciously or unconsciously as individuals or countries. Only the gods can read history in a comprehensive way incorporating all events and all perpectives at any given time in a perfectly balanced way. We can't. Our presumptions of objectivity based on the most stringent research methodologies are always illusionary. The gods don't need myths but we do. And myths cover the gap between our faulty knowledge and the perfect knowledge of the gods.
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