Remembering, Duty of

By Alfred Grosser 

Despite its increased usage, the concept of a duty of remembering has not yet been clearly defined. Whose remembrance are we referring to? Duty to whom or to what? And which memories are we speaking of? The response to these questions remains vague and unclear.

The first confusion comes from the belief in collective memory; there does not exist a single collective memory. Each person remembers his or her own personal experience and what he or she has lived. Several prisoners from the same camp, for example, several detainees from Verdun, have a collective memory. But there is no Frenchman today who can remember the Revolution of 1789, there is no Serb who remembers the battle of 1389 which is said to justify Serbian occupation of Kosovo, and there is no Israeli who remembers the destruction of the Temple. “Collective memory” is transmitted and ultimately becomes a given. Collective memory has been transmitted through family, through schools, through certain ethnic groups, or through the media. Oftentimes, in the process of being transmitted, additional information is inserted into the accounts of the past. For example, the International Institute of Textbooks in Brunswick, Germany, has permitted French, German, Polish, Israeli professors to elaborate on the lessons of the past in order to provide a more balanced account of international relations.

In the Political Dictionary, on the topic of identity, Voltaire writes that: “It is only memory that establishes one’s identity.” It is also “collective memory” that establishes and maintains a group’s identity, be it social, religious, or national. The memory of workers has served as the foundation for international movements; and the memory of discrimination against women has been used by feminist movements. Each person can have multiple identities and each group to which he/she belongs, wants him/her to privilege one memory rather than another. Conflicts of identity are by and large conflicts of memory.

It is possible that the goal of passing along a collective memory is to homogenize a group. In France, for example, in primary schools, French history lessons imbued with memories of Jeanne D’Arc, Napoleon, and Clemenceau, have made good little Frenchmen of numerous little Italians, Poles, and Germans. The goal of passing along a collective memory is often also to glorify the past. One is encouraged only to “remember” a nation’s victories and moments of glory. In France, the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs publishes the monthly newsletter, “The Paths of Memory”, in which you would seek in vain to find any mention of the country’s moral failings. In this publication it was thought acceptable to mark, in December 1996, the 50th anniversary of the attack of the Viet Minh against Hanoi, but only after having omitted in November, the anniversary of the French bombing of Haiphong.

The transmission of memory often serves to preserve knowledge of past sufferings. On November 11, 1968, it was felt necessary to tell the “old combatants” of May 1968 about life in the trenches during World War I, under the rain of grenades that contained more than tear gas. Should transmitted and acquired memory serve as the base of a collective identity? Theo Klein writes, “Young people justify their identity, their Judaism, through the exclusive memory of the Shoah. They therefore develop what I would call a fatalistic identity.”

The duty of remembering is also invoked in the face of those who committed crimes and inflicted suffering on others. “Remember what you have done!” This exclamation is legitimate only on two conditions: that it does not involve collective guilt, especially hereditary, and that it is not said without acknowledgement of crimes committed by the accusers. On the first point, the French language lacks the appropriate equivalent for the word “liability” in English, or “Haftung” in German. In kneeling in front of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, Chancellor Brandt, who had left Germany as a young man in 1933, did not feel any personal guilt. But he assumed the burden of Germany’s past horrors. In the same way, all members of the French resistance should assume the burden of what Vichy France inflicted on foreign Jews. And also for the suffering that was inflicted, in the name of France, on several colonial populations.

The duty of remembering applies also to the actions committed by specific groups. In Germany, this seems fairly obvious to the majority of Germans. Little by little, the Catholic Church has committed to its memory the crimes committed in its name, as well as its crimes of omission. On the other hand, the Austrian church refuses to remember that its cardinal and its bishops called on their parish to vote for Hitler in March 1938, for his “economic and ethnic” accomplishments. Turkey still refuses to remember the horrific massacre of Armenians committed in 1915. France too, struggles to remember parts of its past, in part because of an absurd notion continually asserted by Jews, that their past is “incomparable”. In saying that something is “incomparable”, one has just compared it to affirm its singularity, in excellence or in horror. To those who have been victims of another crimes, one must then explain the reason for its unique nature.

“One has to have seen those worn out workers, skeletal, and covered in wounds…One has to have seen those men, women, girls walking in single file along the paths that led to the work site” said Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the speech that led to the vote to instill the law bearing his name that on 11 April 1946 finally abolished slave labor in French West-Africa. Is anyone demanding reparations in the same way we have requested them from Germany? It is true that less emphasis is placed on remembering black suffering as compared to remembering white suffering.

The memory and acknowledgment of others’ suffering also constitutes an element of peace. The matching up of Coventry, the first British city bombed by the Luftwaffe, with Dresden, a city which was almost completely destroyed in February 1945, as sister cities was a significant step in the process of peace building. The first encounters between the French and Germans in 1947-1948 were motivated by the same consideration for the suffering of others. Unfortunately, Serbian Orthodox priests and Croatian Catholic priests have not yet spoken to their respective ethnic groups, despite their shared Christianity, about atrocities committed in their name before or after 1945.

The main goal or task of remembering is perhaps also the obligation to transform past suffering into creative action. In the name of their painful memories, members of the resistance, the deported, and the surviving Jews who sought to influence post-war Germany, felt some responsibility for the country’s future direction. In any case, remembering should lead to coherent judgement regarding moral decisions…The memory of humiliation inflicted upon Jews even before the Holocaust should prevent any Jews from humiliating other groups. As a result of his internment in Buchenwald, David Rousset made it his task to denounce Soviet camps. Similarly, in her moving book, The Secret of Hope, Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz tells how the memory of her misery at a camp in Ravensbruck led her to devote herself to the presidency of ATD-Quart Monde (Aid to All Distress), in the fight against the existence of slums in which the residents and their children are subjected to comparable misery.

The duty of remembering does not always have to refer to tragedies. Feelings of hate and aversion are more frequently and more easily transmitted than positive feelings of appreciation. In France, we like “the Americans” because of La Fayette, not in evoking 1918, 1944 or even the Marshall plan! Let us dedicate ourselves to the duty of remembering, but of a remembrance that is fully and loyally transmitted, and with the goal of acting in the name of universal respect for all human beings: a goal supposedly at the heart of European culture.

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