The Power of Social Memory: Reflections on Postnational Memory, Peace and War

Clive Barrett reflects on Nigel Young’s “Postnational Memory, Peace and War”, and discovers how memories without borders can be the basis for a transnational culture of peace.

My New Year task is to look through recent family digital pictures to put together an annual printed photograph album. What to do, this year, about my bright, lively mother-in-law, who passed away in 2020 after a short end-of-life spell in a care home? Final pictures of her were not flattering. I left them out – they weren’t how we wanted to remember her nor how she would have wanted to be remembered. Digital images survive but don’t appear in our “official” family history of the year, that we show to friends and relatives.

History, censorship, memory: we all do it, but the governments of nation states do it large scale. My New Year reading has been Nigel Young’s magnificent new book, Postnational Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders, which explores the complex relationships between history and memory. It succeeds on so many counts, not least as a textbook on memory theory. It explores the ways radical artists have presented counter-narratives to the mainstream: Otto Dix depicting the horror of the 1914-18 battlefield; Käthe Kollowitz sculpting the horror of poverty for women and children; the Maruki “Hiroshima” panels; and many more. Postnational Memory not only brings together the collected wisdom of a lifetime; occasional asides reveal why the author is a leading thinker in the history and praxis of peace, from his childhood memories of being bombed out, or wearing a Mickey Mouse gas-mask, or hearing early transnational stories when his family invited German PoWs to Christmas lunch in 1947.

History

History is what we are taught: one-dimensional, the property of the nation state, its patriotic adherents and those who govern it. Memory – fluid, multi-dimensional, boundary-crossing, democratic, of the people – is its challenge. “History tells us that … but I was there, and I saw…” Outside brave peace museums, history in Japan hardly exists pre-1945; the nation state does not want to face up to the horrors of its imperialist past any more than the UK government does. (Objections to the daubing of “Racist” on Churchill’s London statue owe more to the desire for history-control than aesthetics.)  Until recently, Spain had post-Franco-era “Complicit amnesia”, with popular collusion in silence. “Don’t mention the (civil) war!” As a visiting peace studies lecturer in Spain in the 1990s, Young was rebuked for daring to tread on unprepared ground. Unleashed, memories can be dangerous. Truth comes at a price, as the opening of Stasi files revealed: “the victim remembers, the informer forgets”. When Tito’s demise lifted the lid on repressed memories of past horrors, new Balkan wars produced horrors of their own.

History can be packaged, commodified, exploited. Sites of memorialisation, even of the grimmest horrors, become tourist destinations: Hiroshima, Auschwitz … Or not: Austria prefers its Sound of Music image to unveiling the unwanted truth of its own death camps. Don’t rely on a nation state, or its apologists, for a full picture of the life of people in that régime, at that place. How many UK national museums address the horrors of colonialism or the massacre at Amritsar? Most victims of war are civilians, at least 50 per cent female; why do war memorials only commemorate militarised males, and even then only soldiers of one side? In contrast, a colourful Thalia Campbell banner at The Peace Museum, Bradford, depicts a display not only of red poppies but also purple ones (for animal victims) and white poppies for peace. The apposite text simply states, “Remembrance is not enough”.

Memory

Truth needs actively reclaiming, and that is the role of memory, people’s shared memories, unrestrained by borders, cultures, or nation states. It is the task of creative, anti-militaristic social movements, as Young explains:

“[A]n embryonic postnational attitude is linked in its opposition, globally, not only to racism, colonialism and misogyny, but also to the indiscriminate strategies of weapons of mass destruction. An extensive picture of how this way of remembering was ‘made’ includes radical memorial architecture, new exhibitionary art, installations, ‘happenings’ and counter-monuments. It was combined with a renaissance of popular memory in music which has continued beyond the twentieth century… The women’s movement also represented in essence a non-national, often transnational response.”

— Nigel Young, Postnational Memory, p.233.

In that context of counter-monuments, Young references the sculpture Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos, the 1994 original of which commemorated the introduction of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford – another part of Young’s own story. Subsequent copies were made for Coventry Cathedral, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Belfast (Stormont), Berlin and Jerusalem. Other peace maquettes by de Vasconcellos are held at The Peace Museum, Bradford.

Relationships between people in the bombed cities of Coventry and Dresden exemplify the transnational sharing of experience, memory and reconciliation that Young advocates. But Coventry artwork includes more than the de Vasconcellos sculpture.

As Young described Ernst Barloch’s bronze Hovering Angel, in Güstrow, Germany, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast with the huge Epstein wall sculpture, St Michael’s Victory over the Devil, on Coventry’s new cathedral. Good overcomes evil; albeit holding a spear. The face of that angel is based on Epstein’s son-in-law, an economist known for predicting the failures of capitalism. The face of the angel of Güstrow, floating over the altar, is based on none other than Käthe Kollwitz. This angel, resurrected in 1945 after war damage, knows well the suffering of the people; it is rightly held in the holiest part of the church. The spear has no place here.

I confess to growing up complacent, enjoying stability, and expecting continuity. I did not realise that a society of democracy and decency was based on hard won victories by previous generations – victories that require upholding in the present, repeating in the future. The lessons of the recent past, from Brexit to the storming of the Capitol, are that the past is not to be ignored; its achievements in community and cooperation, relationships and reconciliation, need accomplishing again and again. Narrowness and nationalism never went away; in quieter times, anti-fascist groups seemed to be opposing a paper tiger, but they had a point. As with Covid, the time to keep such tigers down is when they are at their weakest. Left to flourish, they suppress generations again and again.

This is the danger for a potentially drifting, rudderless “now” generation. Lessons from spiritual and mental health agree it is right to appreciate the present moment, but that moment is not detached from other moments. For security and a healthy democracy, an understanding of the past acts as a rudder to help steer us in the future. Without the rudder we drift into whichever stream of dulled political consciousness our mendacious leaders take us. The power of social memory is counter-hegemonic. Transnational – or, in Young’s usage – postnational memories are the building blocks of those rudders for peace.


Clive Barrett is an Anglican priest, with a background of ecumenical community action, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Leeds. A peace movement historian, and author of Subversive Peacemakers: War-Resistance 1914-1918, he is Chair of Trustees at The Peace Museum in Bradford.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Reconciliation, by Josefina de Vasconcellos, Stormont, Belfast. Photo: Clive Barrett.

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