memory. culture. art.
Opening Words: On our project

When we started working on this project, more than a year ago, we had developed a slightly different concept. What we had thought of was more like an international training seminar on the different perspectives of memory culture, of individual and collective memory and on different ways of dealing with the past. On a visit to Belgrade last summer we basically learned that young people in the former Yugoslavia were not only not exactly waiting for this kind of seminar, but also were sick and tired of Western Europeans wanting to teach them how to deal with their past. Not that we had that in mind – but still, it gave us a good hint that we had to find a different approach. Art, we were told, might be a means to open up.

It became clear the project should not only be transnational, not only interdisciplinary, but in a way transdisciplinary: the idea of tandem work arose – a co-operation between academics and artists reflecting and working on individual and collective memory on war, flight and forced displacement. All nations have experienced war and violence. The way societies deal with these experiences, their politics of the past, differ not least depending on the time passed by. Often memories of war and violence are connected with guilt and shame and therefore tabooed. Still the past is always present.
Memory is the foundation of self and society. Without memory, the world would cease to exist in any meaningful way – without memory social groups, whether families, institutions or nations, could not distinguish from each others. We rely on memories to give meanings to our lives, to tell us who we are as much as how to communicate and to live with other people. They define our being and our humanity as individuals and in collectivities.
Individual memory is constructed and reconstructed by the dialectics of remembering and forgetting and as we know from cognitive psychology, it is not reliable; as Daniel Schacter puts it: The output of human memory often differssometimes substantially – from the input. (1) In his novel “Rituals” Cees Notebloom speaks of memory as a dog, that lays down wherever it wants to. (2)

Memory is tightly connected with emotions, which results in imaginations by leading us to create memories of things not actually experienced or in amnesia blocking traumatic or shameful experiences.
Individual and collective memories are intertwined, both are subjective, and both are based on a selection. But there are also differences.
The term collective memory serves as umbrella term for different formats of memory, like social memory, political and cultural memory. James E. Young even talks about collected memory, referring to the fragmented, collected and individual character of memory. Collective memory as Aleida Assmann defines it, is focused on institutions and corporate bodies such as nations, states or the church. (3) Naturally they don’t have a memory, but they define themselves by creating a memory using memorial signs like symbols, texts, images or rites. Unlike individual memory, collective memory is formed intentionally through (historical) narrations with a clear meaning and purpose. It is based on symbols which fixate memories and which are meant to be passed on.
Collective memories are shaped by social, economic, and political circumstances as much as by beliefs and values. They can be discussed and negotiated, accepted and rejected.

In each society exist different images of the past; different interpretations and evaluations compete with each other. History can be a strong means when it comes to influence and power, therefore the interpretation of the past is necessarily conflictive.
Éva Kovács characterizes the politics of history as first of all a source of political legitimacy: it justifies, with moral arguments, political goals by means of historical narratives. These narratives identify the roles and tasks of those persons and social groups that take part in politics. (4) References to an imagined or real past have far reaching consequences when it comes to cultural and social belongings and they also have an impact on the negotiations of political positions and options. In the words of Social Historian Peter Burke: It is important to ask the question, who wants whom to remember what, and why? Whose version of the past is recorded and preserved…? (5) In the case of Germany it seems obvious that it came to terms with its national socialist past - the responsibility for World War II and for the Murder of the European Jewry is widely accepted. The collective memories of National Socialism have become an integral part of the German self-conception; this seems to be proven not only through the open discussions on the politics of remembrance, but also through its reification in form of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Indeed, a study by Harald Welzer and others showed that at least in the third generation there is a broad awareness of the German responsibilities– but, the study also showed when it comes to the acts of one’s own family, to one’s own grandparents, the picture is different. The very same people with all their historical knowledge, see their relatives not only as innocent, but often even imagine them as connected to resistance. (6)
For Welzer this phenomena is the paradox of a successful historical education: the better the knowledge about the national socialist crimes is, the more the duty of loyalty towards the family calls for stories which allow the co-existence of the national socialist crimes and the integrity of the (grand-)parents. Over the evolution of this project, through the many discussions we had, among ourselves as well as with others, a lot of questions crossed our mind. The relationship between individual and collective memories was only one out of many others. We decided to collect some of those questions for the conference, to take them as kind of key questions for the conference and also to discuss them more intensely during the workshop on Friday when artists and academics will go into an open dialogue. Those question are not really the type you would simply answer with yes or no, they serve more as an input, a base for a hopefully fruitful discussion on different perspectives.

I would like to end my introduction by passing on some of these key questions to you:

And last but not least:
Thank you.



1 Daniel Schacter: Memory Distortion: History and Current Status. In: Schacter, D.; Coyle, Joseph T.: Memory Distortion. How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past. Harvard University Press, 1997, S.1.
2 Cees Nooteboom: Rituale. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/M. 1996, S.9.
3 Aleida Assmann: Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik. Beck: München 2006.
4 Éva Kovács: The mémoire croisée of the Shoah. Eurozine.com, 18.04.2007.
5 Peter Burke: History as a Social Memory. In: Butler, Thomas: History, Culture and the Mind. Basil Blackwell: Oxford 1989, S. 107.
6 Harald Welzer, Karoline Tschugall, Sabine Moller: Opa war kein Nazi. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust. Fischer. Frankfurt/M. 2002.



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