History vs. Memory

001In his book, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, published in 2002, historian Eric Foner wrote, “There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied.” Foner went on to observe however, that in the 1990s history became “a ‘wedge issue’ in the so-called culture wars. During that decade, it sometimes seemed, one could not open a newspaper without encountering bitter controversy over the teaching and presentation of the American past.” This wasn’t happening only in America, and Foner included stories of history being contested in other countries as well. Foner could have included the story of an exhibition that opened in Germany in 1995, which is the subject of a documentary I watched last night on Netflix, The Unknown Soldier.

Foner quoted James Baldwin who wrote, “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” I think this is true because history is often based more on faulty memory than fact, or on what we want to believe rather than truth, or on only the facts that support what we want to believe, or on anecdotal evidence. This is effectively shown in The Unknown Soldier. To borrow from an Amazon reviewer:

The subject of this documentary is the opening of the Wehrmachtaustellung (Wehrmacht Exhibition) in 1995, the now famous collection of photographs and documents that provided graphic evidence of German atrocities throughout the Second World War. What distinguished the exhibition from past scholarship on the 3rd Reich, was its depiction of the German Army, or Wehrmacht, as one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust – essentially no different from the SS, SD, or other Nazi organizations commonly associated with the brutality and mass murder of Hitler’s regime.

The exhibit provoked powerful reactions from the German people, many of whom refused to believe or acknowledge that their parents or grandparents could have participated in the horrors. Among others, Neo-Nazis turned out to protest the exhibit. Historians defended the exhibit. Two had this to say:

A part of this phenomenon of the Neo-Nazis is the fact that a second stream of information runs in the families, and of course the glorification of Nazi literature. Above all a transmission in families that portrays a totally different picture: our fathers, our grandfathers were not criminals.

There was a study in Hanover that shows how strong the transmission from generation to generation is. Also the transmission of lies. Grandchildren who were told a family story that clears everyone’s name of participation. Those whose grandfathers were cleared of wrongdoing in the Third Reich come across pictures that disprove this and the reaction is always the same: but my grandfather is not a Nazi. “Grandpa is Not a Nazi” is the name of the study.

An alternative historiography, the verbal one in German families presents a heroization, or an anecdotal style of storytelling, or the resistance, our father, our uncle, our grandfather were resistance members and they did this and that. And, on the other hand, the official historiography is geared toward finding the facts, guilt and responsibility. 

How easily can these German historians’ observations be applied to Americans and their history? Is this what we are seeing in the response to Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam? Is this what we are seeing here? I realize that few people want to be identified with the evils of the Nazis, and that is not the intention of this post. I’m merely interested in how memory affects our understanding of history. By the way, for what it’s worth I am a direct descendent of John and Sophie Winkler, both born in Bavaria, who migrated to the United States in the 1840s.


6 thoughts on “History vs. Memory

  1. You bring up some very fascinating points. In my opinion, memory and history are both acts of creation that are shaped by our perceptions of prior experiences. History, according to Thomas Desjardin, “is a construction borne of people’s desire to make sense of the past. The heart of the issue is that history is not necessarily a record of the facts but rather a reckoning of the stories of past events arranged so that they make sense to those who do the reckoning,” and that reckoning is often based on faulty memories. I’ve learned that historians don’t really analyze “what actually happened” as much as they analyze what people THOUGHT happened in the past.

  2. In a speech to the Massachusetts’s Historical Society historian Ray Raphael stated, “History is about the past exclusively and its modalities are inquiry and understanding.”
    He then went on to say, “Heritage is how we use the past and see it in the present. It is more about cultural identity and affirmation.”
    The past itself does not change. It is only in how we interpret it or choose to remember it that is even exists. Part of the problem with the culture wars is that it isn’t history itself that is being challenged as much as it is heritage that is being challenged. People just do not like to have their beliefs challenged. They do not care about facts that refute those beliefs either. They tend to seize upon one or two facts that support their beliefs and reject others.

    Historians cannot take one or two facts to support their conclusions. They rely on as many facts as they can gather from multiple sources and multiple types of sources at that. They then analyze the information to build an interpretation and place it within the context of the era as well. At times these interpretations can differ from others or add to the body of work.

    What happens is that historians have generally continued researching history while heritage locks itself down to a version built on popular memory that suits a large audience at some given point in time. While historians are refining and adding to the history of said event, heritage folks are enshrining their one locked in time point. Over time you will see where the actual history of something significantly differs from the heritage of said event if the heritage people do not allow the evolution of heritage. At that point the culture war on that event has begun.

  3. Since “the past” is infinite and ultimately unrecoverable, isn’t history a formalized, documented, and sometimes “authorized” form of memory? Though I believe in the practice of good, rigorous scholarship, I have a great deal of trouble with the idea of “true,” “actual” or completely “objective” history.

    • I agree with you, Joan, but might “documented” be the key word here? In the case of the exhibit which was the focus of the documentary film, some critics challenged the validity of the documentary evidence, which is certainly fair enough. Others, however, simply refused to accept the documentary evidence, because it conflicted with family stories, or the way family members “remembered” their own past, or because accepting the evidence was simply too painful or embarrassing.

      • I think your right Bob, and thank you so much for bringing this topic to people’s attention! I do see a difference between personal memory and collective memory/history. We obviously have family histories, documents and a myriad of other bits of fragmentary evidence contributing to our conceptions of “history” at any giving moment. Obviously there is a great deal of difference between an informed/scholarly interpretation of history and an intuitive one. Yet I am continually amazed by how fragile, fragmentary, and subject to interpretation the historical “record” is. Think about how little survives to document the average individual’s complex life in the 19th century.

        An interesting illustration of the ambiguity of historical evidence concerns the death of the artist George Caleb Bingham’s son Horace. At the State Historical Society of Missouri we have a written “remembered” biography of George Caleb Bingham written by his son, Rollins Bingham, ca. 1910. In it Rollins claims that Horace died in 1869. We have yet to find another record of his death.

        Just the other day, Bingham scholar, Pat Moss, sent me an e-mail informing me that Horace did not die in 1869. She included a jpeg of the census record listing him as a member of the G.C. Bingham’s household in 1870.

        I assumed this was the final word UNTIL I was copied on a message from another scholar/genealogist, Maryellen McVicker. She wrote that she had encountered incorrect records in census data before. She noted that the census lists Horace’s occupation as a “trader, ” and a letter from a Bingham family friend claimed that Horace went out “West” and never came back. She suggested that Bingham and his wife did not yet know their son was dead when census workers visited in 1870. Horace may have been away on business, and his parents they still thought (or hoped) their son was coming home. The family may have only received confirmation of his death later, and perhaps Rollin’s “remembered” biography is accurate after all!

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