FOCUS: Questioning memory nationalism

FOCUS: Questioning memory nationalism

Christian Karner (University of Nottingham)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on 26 June 2014, two days before a series of events commemorating Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Serb revolutionary Gavrilo Princip a century earlier, Naftali Bendavid reflected on the ‘lingering scars’ of World War I. One hundred years after the fateful day in Sarajevo that became the catalyst for a sequence of catastrophic events taking Europe, and the world, into the abyss, there was still plenty of scope for inter-national (the hyphen is very deliberate here) tensions over how to interpret and remember the triggers to the first cataclysm of the 20th century: was Princip a terrorist, or an idealist seeking to end Austro-Hungarian rule? What are the most appropriate registers for commemorating June 1914? Are questions of culpability and responsibility quite as straightforwardly answered in the context of World War I as they are for World War II? One hundred years on, against the background of the resurgent nationalisms threatening European integration today, Bendavid reported national reactions and initiatives worth taking very seriously: those included Austrian and German protests against a banner juxtaposing images of the Archduke and Princip at the site of the assassination; Serbian politicians boycotting the commemoration they interpreted as putting blame squarely on Serbs; and the British decision to place ‘888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, one for each fatality from the British Commonwealth.’

A possibly controversial (at least at first sight) question arises: was this really the best we could do to start four years of centennials? The operative word in the previous sentence is the personal pronoun ‘we’. Who exactly are ‘we’? In the examples Bendavid reports, there were several ‘we-s’ involved, each nationally defined, each remembering in national terms, and thus – perhaps hardly surprisingly – each helping to reproduce long-established boundaries and antagonisms.

I start with these examples and questions to set the stage for a conceptual discussion of memory and nationalism, or nationalist memory politics, or as I propose to call it here, memory nationalism. The premise underlying this discussion is that such memory nationalism, obvious and banal (in Michael Billig’s seminal terminology) though it may appear, is neither inevitable nor trivial. On the contrary, it is politically motivated and requires continual ideological reproduction. And it powerfully impacts on how ‘we’ (which ‘we’, attentive readers will already query at this stage…) conceive of the past, the present, the future, and ‘ourselves’. And there are always alternatives. Here is one: why were there not some 15 million ceramic poppies placed somewhere, one for each life lost in World War I, regardless of nationality?

Relevant and contested pasts
The following argument pulls together conceptual strands, with which my work has engaged over recent years. After a decade of conducting research on the negotiations of national identities in contemporary Austria, my recent work has seen a historical deepening and geographical broadening, initially through an interdisciplinary conference on the use and abuse of World War II memories and, subsequently, through the publication of an edited collection of contributions by memory scholars from across Europe. Our collective intention was to illuminate the range of contemporary realms – from political debates, diverse media outlets, civil society initiatives, artistic/ cultural representations, and everyday discourse – in which memories and analogies of World War II have been encountered and drawn over recent years. What is more, this phenomenon can be observed across (and indeed beyond) Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, in Western, Central and Eastern Europe alike. Finally, at times deeply problematic comparisons with and allusions to World War II, seemingly driven by social actors attempting to make sense of troubling present circumstances and to formulate a political response to them, emanate from diverse, often mutually antagonistic points on the political spectrum. Very different though such ideological uses of the past and their motivations are, there seems to be some consensus among otherwise highly heterogeneous parties and actors that World War II, in particular, constitutes not only a cornerstone of cultural memory, but one that continues to be relevant to the present.

Building on this previous work, I here intend to sketch in a succession of steps how memory nationalism may be questioned, particularly in European settings. A summary of some of memory nationalism’s most prominent points of historical reference is followed by, first, a discussion of the internal struggles and disagreements that define all politics of memory; and, second, by a brief detour into existing scholarship – both empirical and conceptual – that already challenges the widely assumed inevitability of national frames of memory. Jointly, these steps then raise further important questions: about the historicity of the recent ‘memory boom’ (i.e. how might the timing of the widespread invocation, use and occasional misuse of various pasts observed over the last two decades be explained); and how recent sociological theorizing of memory might influence an emerging critique of memory nationalism.

A first analytical question to be put to any invocation of any past is what exactly is being remembered. The examples already mentioned alert us to two central points of historical reference for most European politics of memory, World War I and World War II respectively.

Many of the most important contributions to the academic ‘memory boom’ of the last three decades have indeed focused on national frames of remembering the Second World War in particular. Crucially such scholarship has done much to illuminate how post-1945 politics provided the inescapable lens, though which national publics remembered or, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, often ‘forgot’. Cold War concerns and experiences decisively shaped national narratives of World War II. This was before, in the post-1989 era, Cold War divisions and communism themselves became the object of another, now concurrent memory wave, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, as I write these lines, the perceived political relevance of the most painful parts of recent European history to current antagonisms is thrown into sharp relief by, for example, re-escalating tensions within the Eurozone as to how to handle Greece’s financial crisis. As Alison Smale and Jim Yardley observed in a recent New York Times article, current nationalist antagonisms between EU member states seem to have ‘dredged up ghosts’ long believed dead and buried, as ‘the hardships inflicted by German-led demands for austerity’ have strengthened populist and extremist responses and ‘widened a chasm of historical interpretations’.

While national memories of the 20th century’s most violent and de-humanizing ‘chapters’ are thoroughly covered by the literature, there are other significant, though less explicitly acknowledged points of historical reference that also underpin contemporary political positions. A perhaps unlikely source of insight into one such other point of reference is Thomas Piketty’s widely celebrated Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In an intriguing and highly plausible account of continental European disillusionment with mainstream politics and the widening inequalities of the last three decades, Piketty (2014: 96) detects a widespread ‘nostalgia’ for the Trente Glorieuses, the three post-war decades when Western European countries experienced historically unusually high (and in the long-term unsustainable) levels of economic growth. Thus we here encounter memories that work their way into perceptions of the present in more subtle ways, nostalgically contrasting a purported ‘golden age’ of not very long ago to the dislocations of contemporary globalization and neoliberal inequalities.

Other less immediately obvious manifestations of largely unacknowledged memories are captured by Paul Gilroy’s (2004) highly suggestive concepts of ‘ethnic absolutism’ and ‘post-colonial melancholia’. While the former refers to the rigid, racializing categories structuring much political discourse and remembering (see below), ‘post-colonial melancholia’ arguably illuminates a contemporary ‘return of the repressed’ afflicting former colonial powers that have yet to come to terms with their loss of global standing. At the very least, this raises most intriguing questions about the status quo: might UKIP’s staunch anti-Europeanism or the anti-immigration politics of the Front National be read as symptoms of precisely such ‘post-colonial melancholia’? With cultural memories of British and French colonialism still intact and meaningful for many, is UKIP not essentially objecting to the horizontal, transnational sharing of power in Brussels, so different from London’s former standing at the apex of the Commonwealth? And is the FN’s discourse – as that of other European populists – not in many ways about protecting white interests in the face of the formerly colonized (or otherwise dominated) ‘other’, now present ‘locally’ in significant numbers, and both politically and culturally more prominent and vocal than in previous eras?

Analysing cultural memories clearly requires more than asking what is being remembered. At least as significant are question of who and how, or, more accurately, the question as to which categories which groups and individuals think, argue and remember in. Thus ‘we’ return to the aforementioned and crucial role played by personal pronouns in political, particularly in nationalist discourse. Michael Billig’s discussion of Banal Nationalism – the countless daily, symbolic and discursive, largely taken-for-granted ways of performing and thereby reproducing national identities – also covers what is known as ‘national deixis’: these are the uses of linguistics markers, such as personal pronouns but also topographical references to ‘here’ or ‘there’, through which the boundaries of national inclusion and exclusion are continually reproduced. At the same time, we also know that the past, present and future are among the key ‘thematic areas’, around and through which national identities are discursively produced and maintained (Wodak et al. 1999: 30-31). These theoretical threads may be interwoven in the service of the following conceptualization of memory nationalism: the latter is the temporal extension of national deixis, with the discursively constructed ‘we’ being both mapped back onto the past and projected forward into the future. National ‘we-s’ think and talk in national terms, remember in national categories, and imagine national futures.

Crucially, memory studies have drawn attention to the contestability of memories, including those dominant among national majorities. Duncan Bell (2003) describes this as the ‘national mythscape’ or ‘discursive realm’, within which memories are formulated and debated, seeing a constant ideological struggle between dominant and ‘subaltern’ versions of the (national) past. This has far-reaching implications for all cultural memories. Mythscapes alert us to the fact that memories are political, requiring discursive work, interpreting the past, but also doing things in the present; and they are subject to disagreement and subversion. Each of the empirical examples alluded to thus far – whether memories of World War I, references to World War II, or the often less explicitly examined relationships to colonial pasts or the post-war context – thus calls for more careful contextualization and closer attention to the political struggles that surround all such cultural memories.

From the ‘long’ 19th century to post-modernity
With my conceptual apparatus now in place, I turn to questions concerning memory nationalism’s own historicity. Two issues stand out here: first, the historical question as to when and how national frames of remembering were established; second, the question as to how memory nationalism’s continuing, contemporary prominence and widespread appeal may be accounted for.

The historical scholarship examining the construction and establishment of national identities across Europe during the ‘long’ 19th century, and with particular force between 1840 and World War I, is now vast. Constraints of space only permit a summary of two recurring key-findings in this large body of work. The first can be summarized under the heading of the 19th century’s gradual ‘nationalization of society’ (e.g. Judson and Rozenblit 2005), which involved particularly the activist work performed by a variety of nationalist associations throughout the 19th century and across large parts of Europe. Rather than being the inevitable, primordial points of reference they are widely assumed to be, national self-understandings had to be established and propagated, often in competition with long-established local, regional, or religious life-worlds and in opposition to more complex, multiple, culturally hybrid identities. The relevance of the past being framed, frequently for the first time, in national categories to such political processes of ‘ethnicization’ is obvious.

A second key-finding in this large body of historical scholarship concerns the more than occasional mismatch between, on one hand, the rigid mapping of a language onto a singular identity and clearly demarcated territory that nationalist associations strove for, and the cultural complexities and ambivalences of lived experience, on the other. This manifested in the frustrations reported by many a nationalist at local populations’ reluctance to embrace, or fit, the ethnic ‘orderliness’ being advocated (e.g. see Wingfield 2003). Similarly, across some of the subsequently most hotly contested territories of Central Europe, in particular, there is also striking evidence of ‘forms’ and ‘sites’ of popular resistance or ‘indifference’ (Judson and Zahra 2012) to nationalist identity and memory politics. Political nationalism, its eventual dominance notwithstanding, thus often had to contend with lived ‘pluriculturality’ (Feichtinger and Cohen 2014).

Astrid Erll (2011: 8) argues that the theoretical tools of ‘methodological nationalism’ (i.e. a reified, ‘container-theory’ of culture) are ‘ideologically suspect’ and ‘epistemologically flawed’, unable to do justice to the ‘transnational memories’ of people, in any historical era, with ‘multiple mnemonic memberships’. Yet, to state the historically obvious, the history, atrocities and crimes of the 20th century all testify to nationalism’s eventual dominance and political ‘victories’.

Fast-forwarding to the final decades of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries, some reflections on memory nationalism’s continuing resonance are needed. Given our collective pre-occupation with the global interconnections of our era, surely the question arises as to why many memories continue to be framed nationally. The examples of this cited above could be multiplied at will.

This may seem especially counter-intuitive when we remember Fredric Jameson’s (1991) seminal discussion of postmodernism, or the ‘cultural logic’ of consumer capitalism, which he saw as entailing a ‘new depthlessness’, a ‘weakening’ or ‘crisis’ of historicity, even a ‘breakdown of temporality’; in such a view of the present, cultural memories assume, at most, ‘pastiche’-form. However, the continuing presence of World War I, World War II and the Holocaust in national and transnational public debates suggests that this interpretation fails to capture the political significance and affective strength of particular cultural memories in the current era. More plausibly, Andreas Huyssen (2003: 25-27) argues that the faster we are ‘pushed into a global future that does not inspire confidence, the stronger we feel the desire to slow down, the more we turn to memory for comfort’, thereby revealing a ‘growing need for spatial and temporal anchoring in a world of increasing flux.’

Put differently, we may need to read memory nationalism today as appealing not in spite but because of much of what we have come to associate with globalization. In an era of global risks and uncertainties, the past may not offer solace, but it is frequently presented in categories and frames that appear familiar and, one speculates, therefore comforting.

I return to my earlier question (i.e. is this the best we can do?) to now elaborate: are there alternatives? Aleida Assmann (2014: 552) has recently written of a possible ‘de-nationalisation’ and ‘re-Europeanisation’ of memory. These processes, I would like to propose, should be welcomed, harnessed and strengthened, provided they foster dialogue and critical historical consciousness. That this is eminently possible is powerfully illustrated by Berlin’s memorial for Europe’s murdered Jews (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) pictured below.



Located in one of the former centres of Nazism’s genocidal machinery, very near the heart of the old and new capital of (re-unified) Germany, the memorial acts as a critical reminder of the extent of the depravity and inhumanity nationalism has proved capable of generating. The site is obviously an attempt to commemorate and mourn the victims of the Holocaust. What is more, the memorial’s frames and categories of reference are most noteworthy. Given geographical and historical context, the German frame is of course inescapable. Yet, it is a memorial of ‘Europe’s murdered Jews’: as such, it reminds us of the European-wide scale and perpetration of the Holocaust. Finally, and this is clearer in the memorial’s German name, it emphasises that the people murdered were all part of the European societies, in which they were first ‘othered’ and later murdered. Europe’s ‘pluriculturality’ and its ‘entangled history of unprecedented violence’ (Assmann 2014: 553) are thereby acknowledged, and the traps and dangers of (memory) nationalism are avoided.

The concept employed here, memory nationalism, is a hardly subtle cross-reference to Wimmer and Glick Schiller’s seminal notion of ‘methodological nationalism’, the circular assumption that social life occurs in ‘national containers’ only. Memory nationalism works – or rather remembers – with similar assumptions. In a recent essay, Moritz Czáky (2014: 193-194) argues that – instead of ‘perpetuat[ing] the national narrative’ – memory studies need to deconstruct ‘nationalist, straightjacketing categories’ and their self-legitimizing myths about purportedly ‘essentialist, holistic … (national) culture[s]’. The argument sketched here pushes in a very similar direction.

Research on the sociology of memory (indirectly) confirms that there is nothing inevitable about national categories structuring acts of remembering. These are political choices. Drawing on Alfred Schütz, Schnettler and Baer (2014: 239) have recently offered a conceptualization of memory as acts, whereby individuals – caught in the ‘here and now’ of their everyday lives (Erleben) – reflexively ‘turn to’ indirect, past experiences (Erfahrung) that are deemed meaningful and relevant to, though separate from, the present. This is, Schnettler and Baer propose, how memory implicates both the subjective and the social. It is in respect of the latter, the indirect experiences individuals activate in these backward looking glances and acts, that the question arises as to which categories and interpretative frameworks are socially available and hence at the individual’s disposal.

National(ist) narratives and frames tend to lay claim to people’s collective, past experiences in their entirety. But this is an ideological fiction, given how ‘entangled’, complex and ‘pluricultural’ most localities, many biographies and practically all collective histories are. Historical simplification and distortion are of course only part of the problem with memory nationalism. Surely it is not only legitimate but necessary to ask what impact memory nationalism may have on presents as precarious and futures as uncertain as ‘ours’ (i.e. this last pronoun is to be read universally, not nationally). Nationalism is certainly not the only political force capable of generating hatred, violence and dehumanization. But its historical ‘record’ in this respect should speak for itself. A critical engagement with the way nationalism frames the past is indeed urgently needed. This will require more memorials of the kind encountered in central Berlin, fewer antagonisms of the type reported in Sarajevo last summer, and, quite possibly, some 15 million ceramic poppies.


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Christian Karner is Associate Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He has published widely on ethnicity, nationalism, religion, memory studies and urban sociology. His books include Ethnicity and Everyday Life (2007), Negotiating National Identities (2011), and The Use and Abuse of Memory (co-edited with Bram Mertens, 2013). Parts of the argument developed here are informed by archival research he recently conducted as a visiting research associate in the Center for Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota.