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History & Memory


The historian, Tony Judt, who died in 2010, had many interesting insights on the importance of history in understanding the present.  Here are some:

“I don’t think neglecting the past is our greatest risk; the characteristic mistake of the present is to cite it in ignorance”.

“Given that we are bound to exploit the past in order to justify present public behaviour, the case for actually knowing history is unanswerable.  A better-informed citizenry is less likely to be bamboozled into abusive exploitations of the past for present errors.

“It’s terribly important for an open society to be familiar with its past.  It was a common feature of the closed societies of the twentieth century, whether of Left or Right, that they manipulated history.  Rigging the past is the oldest form of knowledge control: if you have power over the interpretation of what went before (or can simply lie about it), the present and the future are at your disposal.  So it is simply democratic prudence to ensure that the citizenry are historically informed”.

Timothy Snyder: Are history and memory kindred?  Are they allies?  Are they enemies?

“They are step-siblings – and thus they hate one another while sharing just enough to be inseparable.  Moreover, they are constrained to squabble over a heritage they can neither abandon nor divide.

“Memory is younger and more attractive, much more disposed to seduce and be seduced – and therefore she makes many more friends.  History is the older sibling: somewhat gaunt, plan and serious, disposed to retreat rather than engage in idle chit-chat.  And therefore she is a political wallflower – book left on the shelf”.

“I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous.  Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag”.

“In order to teach history in a conventional way, you need a reasonably agreed set of references as to what conventional history you’re going to teach actually is.  Many societies, and not just our own, have become far less confident in the last thirty years about interpreting their past. 

“Pretty much every European country today is in turmoil over how to teach its past and what use to make of it.  In the worst cases conventional national accounts have been abandoned altogether, and children are taught a confusing series of competing partial narratives, each one attached to a moral or ethnic perspective”.

 Quotations from

Tony Judt       Thinking the twentieth century with Timothy Snyder

London: Vintage Books, 2013.