How should we view the staging of historical memory?

Anniversaries come and go, but now and then some are elevated to a specific interest, and play the role of a crucial date. This year, 2015, makes the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In May the Russian authorities organized a huge parade on Red Square in Moscow. Then, for the 3rd of September, the Chinese ruling party have planned something similar on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In both cases, some foreign governments faced the quandary of whether or not they should attend and participate.

The reason for this is not some small historical squabble over this or that detail, but rather the value of these commemorations within the current paradigm. In practice, history is not what has been, but rather what we need it to be today.

So what attitude should governments hold towards the staging of historical memory?

  1. Justas Paleckis 5 days ago

    The governments should interfere as little as possible in the historical memory and refrain from organizing large scale parades. But I think it will be contrariwise. Historical memory, history policy are a growing part of the modern expansion of so-called ‘hybrid war’.

    In the European Parliament, especially during the period between 2004 – 2009, after the “big enlargement”, history policy intensified. A lot of controversy was caused through the evaluation of the recent history of Eastern Europe. The European People’s Party, combined with liberals in the EP and led by the politicians from the new EU countries, tried to entrench the idea that Nazism (fascism) is equivalent to communism. The majority of socialists opposed it: there were many similarities between Nazism and Stalinism, although there were also differences. As well, the Stalinist USSR was quite different from the times of Gorbachev’s USSR, even though both were communist.

    Historical memory should be left to historians. Nonetheless, the question remains: are there a lot of honest historians searching for that elusive truth? Let us hope there are. But, on the other hand, perhaps there are more historians ready to serve those who are in power, and to execute their government’s orders.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 5 days ago

    I think that this wave of historical commemorations cannot go on forever, I believe personally that it has been exploited already a little too much. It is clear that we all have much more acute problems that need to be resolved. Anniversaries can play a crucial role in stabilizing contemporary life by anchoring it to the important past or to important past connotations. However, there is a feeling that the reconstructed and socially engineered past has started to substitute current problems.

    The past and its remembrance can heal, but can also divide. We need to remember the past in order to have lessons for today and the future, so as to make today’s life as well as the future better. If this does not happen, then the past has exhausted its role to play.

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  3. Shen Dingli 2 days ago

    It is quite normal that people or nations would commemorate their anniversaries. With respect to WWII, last year France honored the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing. In May 2015, Poland and Russia each celebrated the 70th anniversary the end of WWII, while China will launch its version on September 3rd, with a military parade.

    The purpose of such commemoration is to reflect upon history and look into the future. France commemorated the 70th anniversary of Normandy landing to both appreciate the allied forces, especially those of the US, to liberate it, and to use this opportunity to honor Russia for its role of defeating Nazi Germany during the WWII. Despite Russia’s intervention in Crimea, France still invited the country to respect the history and to hope to reconcile relations between Russia and the West.

    In a similar vein, China will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japanese imperialists as well as fascists, with 49 countries and 10 international organizations attending. China has invited Japan, among others, to join, in the hope of reconciling relations with this former aggressor. China finds greater reason to commemorate this important anniversary, given the rise of right-wing revisionists in Japan, who pay tribute visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where war criminals are commemorated, and deny the practice of enforced sex slavery during WWII by its armed forces.

    France, with multiple-party democracy, and Russia, with multiple-party quasi-democracy, as well as China, with one-party consultative politics, all mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. It is important that by reflecting on the history, they should all draw lessons from the past, and contribute more to global peace and security into the future.

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  4. Julian Junk 2 days ago

    There is no problem per se with staging historical memory nor with accepting an invitation to such an event. Neither is there a recipe for handling such invitations in general. As so often in the reality of politics or daily life, it all depends… on the given context and circumstances.
    In general, there might be three broad ways of responding to such an invitation: to accept, to accept with caveats, and to decline. All variants can either be combined with diplomatic restraint or with noise (or straight talk, whatever your perspective). But what would be the point of taking part in commemorations and then using this as a platform to voice a harsh critique of the event or the political context of the event? In almost all instances, those parades or other forms of commemoration refer to events that are deeply enshrined in the national identity of the host country. To use such a date to offend the hosts might not be right choice and might have negative political consequences. Diplomatic restraint and realizing opportunities to deliver more subtle signals or to strengthen communication channels are more promising strategies.
    Was it right that chancellor Merkel, alongside many Western heads of state and of government, did not take part in the actual parade in Moscow? I think so, because everything else would have been inconsistent with the European response to the crisis in Ukraine and because she wisely choose to arrange a visit shortly after the parade to pay tribute to the Russian tragedies of the Second World War.

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  5. Irina Busygina 2 days ago

    Indeed, history could be (and is) the subject of manipulation, though not historical facts as such but their interpretation by the ruling elites. This “play” with history could be a powerful instrument to be used by the government depending on the nature of the country’s political regime and its main actor’s priorities.
    Contemporary Russia is a perfect example of using of history for achieving the goals of state elite. This work goes in two main directions. Firstly, it is a large-scale celebration of the most important anniversaries, those significant for building and consolidation of the Russian nation and with respect to which there is a consensus in the country (there are not many of them in Russia’s history). I’m talking first of all about the anniversary of the end of the Second World War – The Great Patriotic War in the interpretation for Russian audience. Frankly speaking, I can’t remember such grandiose celebration as it was this year. It is interesting to note, that the posters, slogans and portraits that appeared on the streets with regards to this celebration are still there, they have not been removed. Yesterday I returned from Ulyanovsk – it is end of August now, four months have passed from May 9 – but all the posters were still on the streets. Permanent celebration… All this is remarkably consistent with the general militarization of Russia’s society that is developing quite rapidly.
    Second, this is the fight against the falsification of history that in the last years has infected all the country as peculiar form of madness. This fight is actively supported by political elites (financially, in particular). The general view is that this falsification leads to historical nihilism, destruction of developmental perspectives for the Russian state, and an overall decrease of patriotic feelings in the society. I have to confess that Russian academia is actively participating in the “fight”, organizing numerous conferences and publishing plenty of volumes.

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1 Comment

  1. Torge Matthiesen 2 days ago

    The problem with “stageing” a historical event is not so much the celebration or the rememberence itself. Stageing is a day to day business of officials who “sell” the political decisions of their governments or heads of state.

    What sets apart days of rememberence or victory celebrations is the level of symbolism and drama that is today often derived from the scarifies of former generations. This potential glorification can be used as an important element for the narrative of past events AND persent politics. In my view, the problems attached to this practice of public depiction are threefold:

    – the narrative of such “glourious” events is often related to past and present security challenges,
    – there is a potential that this narrative may be used to vindicate present policies of deterrence or political aggression- however, we have also seen that grief and rememberence are used to highlight the value of peace and to todays alliances with former adversaries
    – in daily life, we might lack the ability to distance ourselves from the historical event and to conceive the public narrative as a social construction.

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