Remembrance of things forgotten

Image result for d-day pictures

Remembering D-Day

The sixth of June 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy and what is often regarded as the beginning of the end of the liberation of Europe on the Western Front. To mark the occasion several hundred D-Day veterans, mainly in their nineties, and a few in their hundreds, gathered with a range of dignitaries and politicians, including the Queen, Prime Minister Theresa May, President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump, firstly in Portsmouth on the previous day, and then in Normandy on the sixth itself.

The main aim was to remember the events of seventy-five years ago, including an inauguration ceremony at Ver-sur-Mer in Normandy for a memorial to commemorate more than 20,000 members of the British armed forces who died there in the summer of 1944. It was also an opportunity for the British in particular to remind themselves of their ‘island story’, and how from the jaws of defeat they, along with their American allies, managed to snatch victory.

What is perhaps much less remembered is that June 2019 also marks the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially brought the Great War to an end. The irony here, of course, is that if the Versailles Treaty had been effectively implemented and carried through none of those veterans and dignitaries would have been gathered together overlooking the Normandy beaches in the first place.

So perhaps it could be argued that not only did the commemorations on 6 June 2019 mark the remembrance of events in 1944, which led to Allied victory, but were also a (repressed) memory of another scene, one hundred years ago, which was to lead to a catastrophic failure of diplomacy and policy. Furthermore, 6 June 1944 also represented the beginning of a reparation, for both the British and the French, of the military, political and cultural damage inflicted by the humiliating defeat in the Battle of France only four years earlier.

1919 is important for other reasons too, including the unveiling of the original, temporary Cenotaph in London in July (to be replaced by a permanent structure the following year). It also marked the beginning of the countrywide process of remembrance, which continues to this day in most English towns and villages.

Remembrance, history and memory

In the environment of international conflict in which we live today, historians still write about war and all kinds of people still speak of their personal memories of war. Increasingly, though, the space between history and memory has been reconfigured. In between is a varied set of cultural practices that may be described as forms of historical remembrance.[1]

In his book Remembering War, from which I have just quoted, Jay Winter explores in some detail what he describes as the ‘memory boom’ of the twentieth century (and which has since continued into the twenty-first). He argues that this is actually the second ‘memory boom’, the first appearing in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. In fact, it seems reasonable to argue that it was this first ‘generation of memory’, who were born in the late nineteenth century, and included all the major cultural and political figures of the time, were the chief architects of the ‘Myth of the War’, as Samuel Hynes described it.[2] The second ‘generation of memory’ appeared in the 1970s, and was led by the growing number of Holocaust survivors who were finally prepared to come forward and tell their stories. At the same time, it is this second (and perhaps now third) ‘generation of memory’ that is sustaining the original Myth of the War, which is being continually reconstituted in the light of later events, and especially that of the Second World War.

However, as suggested by the earlier quote, Winter is not prepared to simply ‘reduce’ history to personal testimony. At the same time, though, he fully acknowledges the importance of such testimonies and other memories that may not be accessible, or even of interest, to the professional historian. In fact, he argues that with regards to the ‘memory boom’, the professional historian is by no means the only important actor. Having said that, he argues that historians still have an important role to play because they can establish ‘the boundary conditions of possibility’:

Those who try to reconstruct their ‘‘memory’’ of past events need historians to establish the boundary conditions of possibility. We can establish with much greater firmness what did not take place than what did, and historians have access to records which—at times—prevent people from either misconstruing or lying about the past. [3]

The crucial thing about historical remembrance, according to Winter, is that it makes remembering a collective and cultural activity, rather than something that is confined to individuals or families. Such a process includes professional historians, witnesses, their families, and others who are touched in some way by the events they are trying to remember. Essentially, historical remembrance is a way to ‘bridge’ (professional) history with (personal) memory.

As Winter argues, ‘commemorative moments, alongside acts of witnessing and healing, are the most public features of the memory boom.’[4] And the commemoration of the D-Day landings is, of course, a good example of such a public display of historical remembrance. But there are numerous other forms of historical remembrance, including works of art, film, literature, war memorials, poetry, and even, I would argue, books such as Winter’s, that is, studies of remembrance themselves.

Sites of memory

The idea of remembrance is also closely linked to Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire (sites of memory):

Lieux de memoire originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally. The defense, by certain minorities, of a privileged memory that has retreated to jealously protected enclaves in this sense intensely illuminates the truth of lieux de memoire – that without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away. [5]

Nora refers to memory being ‘seized by History’, in the sense that history essentially eradicates true, collective memory; a memory that is ‘life, borne by living societies founded in its name.’[6] Yes, there is memory – and plenty of it, but in the modern world it takes on a particular form:

Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. What began as writing ends as high fidelity and tape recording. The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs – hence the obsession with the archive that marks our age, attempting at once the complete conservation of the present as well as the total preservation of the past.[7]

As well as its materiality, modern memory, in the form of lieux de mémoire, places a requirement, a duty even, on ‘every social group to define its identity through the revitalization of its own history.’[8] In other words, every social group, and this applies equally to individuals, has to construct its own history, hence the every growing number of genealogy websites, and the search for one’s origins. There is a paradox here, because the more true, collective memory becomes eradicated by history, by archival memory, the more important ‘memory’ becomes for individuals and for particular social groups.

In the process memory become psychologised and ‘entails a completely new economy of the identity of the self, the mechanics of memory, and the relevance of the past.’[9] So even what appear to be the most intimate and ‘personal’ sites of memory are lieux de mémoire in Nora’s sense. Thus the psychoanalytic clinic (and Nora makes specific reference to Freud) constitutes a lieux de mémoire in itself.

Nora also highlights a third dimension of modern memory, which he refers to as distance-memory. By this he is referring to the fact that the modern experience of the past is ‘no longer a retrospective continuity but the illumination of discontinuity.’[10] In other words, the past truly is another country where people do things differently. It was not always like this, according to Nora:

In the history-memory of old, accurate perceptions of the past were characterized by the assumption that the past could be retrieved. The past could always be resuscitated by an effort of rememoration; indeed, the present itself became a sort of recycled, up-dated past, realized as the present through such welding and anchoring.[11]

But now:

…we (have) gone from the idea of a visible past to an invisible one; from a solid and steady past to our fractured past; from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history. We speak no longer of “origins” but of “births.” Given to us as radically other, the past has become a world apart. Ironically, modern memory reveals itself most genuinely when it shows how far we have come away from it.[12]

And historical remembrance is essentially the process of constructing and sustaining such lieux de mémoire, such sites of memory. Furthermore, these lieux de mémoire are not only the obvious and the visible; for example, war memorials, commemorations such as the D-Day one referred to earlier or the two-minute silence which is still observed in many English towns and villages one hundred years after the Armistice of 1918. In the case of the two world wars, they also include the whole corpus of written, oral and visual material; in other words, all the books, poems, films, personal testimonies, art works, TV programmes, online material, and so on. In fact, writers such as Leonard Smith have argued that even the commentaries on this corpus of material, such as Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, should themselves to be considered as lieux de mémoire in their own right.[13]

Remembrance of things forgotten

But what ultimate purpose do these different forms of remembrance serve? Winter is very clear about this: they are essentially a struggle against forgetting. And it would appear that at the moment at least, this struggle is being won because, as Simon Jenkins points out in his Guardian article on the D-Day commemorations, [14] there is not the slightest possibility of the British forgetting either the First or the Second World War. This is because Winter’s ‘memory-boom’ is still in full swing and shows no sign of abating.

However, if we take Nora’s argument seriously then in another sense the battle is already lost, and we have already forgotten. And this is not, referring back to the D-Day commemorations, because of the ever-dwindling number of veterans, that is, those who can actually bear witness. The point here is that their testimonies, once they are in the public, cultural domain, have become lieux de mémoire themselves. In other words, these survivors, these veterans, by being interviewed, paraded on the world stage, having their testimonies recorded for posterity and so on, have already been ‘seized by History’, to use Nora’s term. This means that their lived experiences have become historicised, and, ultimately, mythologised. And in turn, this process of historicisation and mythologisation continues to ‘feed’ the Myth of the War, which drags ever on…

References

  1. Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 8-9.
  2. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990).
  3. Winter, Remembering War, p.10.
  4. Winter, Remembering War, p.12. 
  5. Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26, 1989, 7–24, p.12.
  6. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.8.
  7. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.13.
  8. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.15.  
  9. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.15.
  10. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.15.
  11. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.16.
  12. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, p.17.
  13. Leonard V. Smith, ‘Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: Twenty-Five Years Later’, History and Theory, 40.2 (2001), 241–60.
  14. Simon Jenkins, ‘It’s Time to Move on from These Overblown Commemorations of War’, The Guardian, 6 June 2019, section Opinion <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/06/commemorations-war-d-day-europe> [accessed 7 June 2019].