How do we relate to memorial events?

01/02/2019

"The age of extremes", "A century of wars and massacres", "The most violent century in human history”: one thing is certain, armed conflicts profoundly shaped the 20th century as a period of violence and trauma. Their influences are still prevalent in present-day Europe as well as in other parts of the world, reverberating especially in newly independent countries and those experiencing dramatic political, economic, and social changes. Consequently, one of the most difficult questions to be answered by a country that has gone through a transition from authoritarianism and armed conflict to a democracy based on the rule of law, is how society shall deal with the atrocities and injustices of the past. Not surprisingly, one of the current European Commission's policy priorities regarding societal challenges towards "inclusive, innovative and reflective societies" is to address "how European societies interpret themselves, their past and their collective aspirations".

At the institutional level, legal and political developments of measures concerning human rights were mainly facilitated by mechanisms of transitional justice ranging from institutional reform to promote greater respect of human rights, to political and societal promotion of such norms. But how is process of dealing with the past performed at the individual and societal level, outside of courtrooms and political arenas? In other words, as thought by the British social anthropologist Paul Connerton, how societies remember? Moreover, how and why individuals decide to engage in mnemonic actions (actions relating to memory)? And finally, why do people visit memorial sites and participate in commemoration events?

10 000 faces covering the floor, dedicated to  innocent victims of war and violence. "Fallen leaves" by Menashe Kadishman. Jewish Museum Berlin. Crédit A.Louchart

Social anthropology has proved that memorialisation practices, and commemorations of war events in particular, are used, first of all, to legitimize the ruling ideology and building of a state/national/ethnic identity. However, active involvement and participation in what Durkheim called "rituals", and even more in mnemonic practices "from below", far away from mainstream media attention, are not necessarily connected with the official historical and political narratives and discourses. The memory studies theory underlines attempts to construct a common cultural identity, for instance "presuppose a [..] desire for cultural homogeneity, consistency, and predictability" as stated in 2006 by Wulf Kansteiner, Associate Professor of Memory Studies and Historical Theory at Aarhus University. The practice reveals though a different state of affairs: contested memories embrace different interpretations of the past that confront one another. Divergent vectors of memory are produced even within the same social group. As Argentinian sociologist Elizabeth Jelin underlines in State Repression and the Labors of Memory: "opposition of memory against memory'" takes place, "each one with its own forgetfulness".

"Fallen leaves" by Menashe Kadishman. Jewish Museum Berlin. Crédit A.Louchart My research focusses on cultural trauma claiming among people visiting war monuments and commemorative events. Moreover, through spatial mobility engagement and emotional investment, I trace various ways of memory transmission, how it travels, transforms and develops. For instance, even though collective memory of events from recent history has a strong communicative dimension, there is still a strong need/urge to have a "personal experience" of the physical space. Such conclusion is particularly relevant when taking part in marches or cycling events organised prior to the official commemorations or as a separate visit to war memorials. These activities require certain degree of physical involvement, as well as mental and emotional effort, and are also product of civil society, rarely associated with the State. 

For example, more than 5000 marchers gather in most astern parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina participate in Nezuk-Potočari Peace march to commemorate Srebrenica genocide. The 100 kilometers of walking procession represent the reverse route of the so-called Death march with has been  the local population's way of escape from the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. Funeral service held every July 11th at the Potočari memorial cemetery is the Peace March's concluding stop, which, together with the 1995 Death march, makes a full circle of exile and return. Potočari cemetery is the place where individual, collective and official memories interact, either confronting each other or merging together. Following American urban planning professor Edward Soja and sociologist Rob Schields during the 1990’s, personal involvement inscribes new signification and meanings to the physical space and creates "imaginary geographies". The Peace march as an arena of memory incorporates a strong feeling of authenticity of remembrance. This embodied experience towards symbolical quest of physical space and territory is not an reenactment of the past per se. "Touch[ing] the past [and discovering] authentic experience by re-enacting history" – as described by the Polish anthropologist Kamila Baraniecka-Olszewska - is not the aim, nor the cause of the Peace march, but rather its consequence. The bodies of the living and the dead are symbolically bounded together during the march due to the communicative dimension of the collective memory of Bosnian war, through living testimonies of the survivors and active engagement with the space and place. However, even though the Peace march retraces the same path of the Death march, it is precisely through differences with the original march that the present-day journey facilitates the flow of memories and rememberances.

Tracking travels of memory on a more general level, across borders and generations, can give us some innovative insights for similar phenomena in a globalised world experiencing migration flows. One can identify major gaps and divergences in historical discourses which make burdensome heritage or even victorious ones often difficult to overcome, but can also give insights how dealing with negative heritage acts as unifying force among (young) generations. Consequently, memory studies scholars thrive to cross boundaries of national memories and pose the basis of the transcultural sphere of memory.

References

Baraniecka-Olszewska, K. 2018. Sanctified past: the pilgrimages of Polish re-enactors to World War II battlefields, 125-147, in Eade and Katic. Military Pilgrimage and Battlefield Tourism: Commemorating the Dead, Routldge London.

Jelin, Elizabeth. 2003. State Repression and the Labors of Memory, University Of Minnesota Press.

Kansteiner,  W. 2006. In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz, Ohio University Press

Shields, R. 1992. Places on the margin: Alternative geographies of modernity.

Soja, Edward. 1990. Historia, geografía, modernidad. In: Posmodern Geographies, the ressertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso, New Left Book, tr. Vera Ribeiro

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