Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the 'fallen', but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians. Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.
Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.
In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial, and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish Troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin's Russia, and the Balkans' internecine battles, Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out 'that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history'. Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.
In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance, including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czesław Miłosz, Theodor Adorno's classic Minima Moralia: Reflections from damaged life (1951), and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory, 2002) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory: Lessons from the twentieth century, 2003, and Memory as a Remedy for Evil, 2010). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgment and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially, Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but, if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.
Individual memory degrades very quickly, while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley's pithy 'Ozymandias', as well as David Cannadine's short memoir 'Where Statues Go to Die' about the 'inglorious fate' of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten-foot-high red-brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany's colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was rededicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.
Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightly critical of a number of these, including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising, see Marita Sturken's Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that, on entering the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone's guess.
Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists; rather, they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, it was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents' very productive forgetting interfered with the children's demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author's father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.
David Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than I do. I am of the belief that some acts, and the policies that allow them to occur, are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being committed by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).
In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often led to a life of victimhood; for the latter, entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.
*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled 'Against Forgiveness'.