History And Memory Research Paper

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1. The Alliance Between History And Memory

1.1 Remembered History

Before history is registered, chronicled, and interpreted by professional historians, it is witnessed and remembered by those that are contemporary to it. Such a memory of experienced history is necessarily partial, biased, subjective, and, therefore, also highly variegated. While the present of experience is witnessed as a rather formless, dissonant, and even chaotic mass of perceptions, actions, and events, it assumes a much more unified shape and meaning when it is transformed into what is called the ‘past.’ To some extent, the multifarious, disrupted, and inchoate experiences of the former present are preserved in personal memories, if they manage to resist the tendency to adapt to the retrospective interpretation and normalization of the past. For many historians, there is very little overlapping between the present as experienced and witnessed and the past as reconstructed by historians (Koselleck 1997). While individual experience is particular, partial, and extremely limited in perspective, the reconstructed past provides a coherent and inclusive view of what was never in this way to be witnessed. In contrast to the past, the present does not produce a common reality that can be experienced by the witnesses in a similar way.

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The plurality of lived experience and the unified reconstruction of history, however, are not fixed in a radical polarity. These poles are mediated in many ways, bringing the realms of present experience and retrospective history closer together. The personal experience of history is not only radically subjective, it is also shaped by the generalizing and collectivizing factors of social norms and cultural knowledge. Individual behavior and memory is not wholly erratic because it is stamped by generational patterns of experience, which means that it is already to some extent embedded in and framed by collective and cultural constructions of history.

It is true that personal memories of history differ as one individual life differs from another life. This, however, does not exclude certain similarities arising from biographical patterns. These life patterns with their respective perspectives, challenges, and responsibilities have their impact on the constitution of memories. The second world war, for instance, is remembered differently by the different nations as it is obviously remembered differently by the victims, the perpetrators, and the bystanders. But even among the Germans, it was remembered differently by different generations, by men and women, by those who remained in place and those who were forced to migrate from east to west. It is the task of the oral historian to acknowledge these individual and collectively typical memories as historical sources and to investigate history from below, collecting the various points of view of those who did not plan and control history but who were affected and afflicted by it.

There are other reasons why the singularity and interiority of memories should not be overestimated. Memories are generated in the individual very much like the linguistic capacity and in accord with it. They are elaborated and stabilized to the extent that they are transformed into narratives and exchanged in social interaction. The memories of an individual are always supported and warranted by the memories of other individuals. Subjective memories are embedded in familial interaction and social communication. As individuals share the memories of their parents and grandparents, the range of remembered history is extended over three generations. Thus, an embodied and participatory historical memory of approximately a 100 years, is built up by oral transmission.

The three-generational oral memory is transient and perishes continually with every new cycle of oral memory that is built up. This continuous fading out of remembered history is a normal, natural, and necessary process of social forgetting which wipes the slate clean for following generations and their experiences. An exception to this rule occurs when the remembered history has an heroic or traumatic character. In cases of historical triumph or trauma, arts of memory are devized to stabilize the otherwise transient memory and anchor it in the consciousness of following generations (Giesen 2000). The survivors of the holocaust are bearers of such a memory which by a general cultural consensus is to be made permanent. The transformation of personal memories into cultural memory is achieved by media of memory such as writings, films, museums, monuments, and video testimonies.

In societies without writing, historical consciousness is divided into a recent and a distant past. The recent past is the three-generational oral memory which is transformed continually over time while the distant mythical past is a heroic memory which is preserved by epic poetry and other ritual and ceremonial arts of memory. This cultural heritage is re-enacted periodically and celebrated in public festivals by the community and carefully preserved and transmitted by bards and other memory specialists.

1.2 Commemorated History

Experiential subjective memory is embedded in collective memories of a widening scope: that of social interaction and that of cultural identity. The boundary lines between individual, collective, and cultural memory are not water-tight, but, as Ricoeur has put it: ‘memoire privee et publique se constituent simultanement selon le schema d’une constitution mutuelle et croisee’ (Ricoeur 1998, p. 32). While private memory is informal and erratic, public memory shows a much higher degree of organization. It is mediated, ritualized, and based on social institutions. Other than remembering, the term ‘commemorating’ refers to an intentional, formalized, and collective action. Public memory is built on a collective will and communal actions. In the transition from private to public and cultural memory, the media play an important role. It is particularly writing that has revolutionized cultural memory. Following the anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Jacques Le Goff has described the history of cultural memory in five stages as the history of changing media from orality and writing to ever more mechanical technologies of storing information (Le Goff 1986). Not only did it vastly extend the range of remembered history, it also liberated the poets from their traditional office of ‘remembrancers,’ setting them free for other, more individual tasks. There are two kinds of media with which the historical memory of a group is stabilized and transformed into an extended and continuous past: material media and performative media. Among the material media are books, photographs, films, monuments, relics, and other material carriers of signs that retain traces of the past and can serve as documentary sources in the reconstruction of history. The performative media are symbolic forms of action, such as rites, festivals, and ceremonies linked to symbolic dates. Traditions and celebrations periodically renew and revitalize the memory of the past through acts of repetition and commemoration. While the material media store information for later use, they tend to generate specialized knowledge and to externalize the memory of a group. It is, therefore, the function of institutions of education and the performative media to check this tendency and to restore the mnemonic quality of historical knowledge, to bring it back to popular consciousness, and to reconnect it with the realm of lived experience. Usually, material as well as performative media are involved in acts of commemoration. Halfway in between material and performative media are the modern mass media such as newspapers, cinema, radio, and television, not to forget the large historical expositions that are becoming more and more important in shaping an image of the past and providing occasions that trigger collective memory through public debates.

In addition to their personal, local, and familial recollections, individuals also hold a share in that ‘corporate memory’ (Lewis 1975) which is constituted by public symbols and rites of commemoration. ‘Commemorative ceremonies are distinguishable from all other rituals by the fact that they explicitly refer to prototypical persons and events, whether these are understood to have a historical or a mythological existence’ (Connerton 1989, p. 61). The creation of a corporate memory was the aim of ancient societies and was revived by the modern nation–state and other politicized groups. A corporate memory is extremely limited in scope. Unlike books and libraries, it cannot contain many and diverse historical events, nor does it do justice to finer distinctions. It selects only very few items and reshapes these historical events for its purposes. The long chronicle of history has to be condensed into a few poignant moments that acquire a high symbolic value for the identity of a nation and state. Examples for history telescoped in national memory are the 4 July in the US or the 14 July in France. Such regularly recurring dates provide occasions for speeches and celebrations which re-invigorate both the corporate memory and the collective identity. In Israel, the historical event of the fall of Massada became a national cult in the new state. For many centuries, Massada had been forgotten in the Jewish tradition and was restored by historical and archaeological scholarship only in the 1960s. For an historical event to become an item of public memory, the event has to be taken out of its context and to be transformed into a symbol. Among the first to emphasize this was the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who wrote in his book on the social frames of remembering: ‘In order for a person or historical event to enter social memory, it has to be transformed into an instruction, a concept, a symbol. It is invested with meaning, it becomes an element in the system of ideas of a society’ (Halbwachs 1985a, pp. 389–390). In the case of Massada, the political message of the historical event was coined in a poem by a Palestinian Jew who in the 1920s had written the line: ‘Massada shall not fall again.’ The memory of Massada was restored from Hellenic sources that had not been part of the heritage of remembered Jewish tradition (Vidal-Naquet 1981). This memory was 40 years later corroborated by archaeological findings which in themselves, however, were rather scarce. Before these long forgotten external sources could become a cornerstone in the construction of a national myth, they had to be reanimated and kindled by the spark of historical imagination. The story of Massada became a central point of reference in Israeli corporate memory, because in the new state, a new future required a different past (Lewis 1975).

In antiquity, the commemoration of historical events took the form of religious feasts which were celebrated annually like the feast of Passover in which the Jews commemorated their liberation and exodus from Egypt. Such events were integrated into the religious calendar with the effect of turning history into myth. The English still celebrate annually the memory of the attempted catholic assault on their parliament of 1605, with the folkloristic rites of the Guy Fawkes-day starting as early as in 1606. Another way to commemorate historical events is to celebrate them according to the ‘round’ decimal dates of chronology. In contrast to annual feasts, these cyclical patterns seldom recur in a life-time and, therefore, lack the repetitive structure which is necessary for a continuous memory. This form of long term commemoration already goes back to antiquity. There is a stela of Ramses II commemorating the establishment of the cult of Seth in Avaris after 400 years. As a practice of communal commemoration, however, the decimal pattern was introduced only in the early modern era. One of the earliest examples is the commemoration of Luther’s reformation in 1615, 100 years after Luther’s actions of protest at the Augsburg Reichstag. This mode of recalling past events via anniversaries in the decimal system has become the dominant mode of remembering history in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Examples are the 500th anniversary of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople which was celebrated in Turkey in 1953 or the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world celebrated in 1992. Such events do not recur within the lifetime of individuals. Therefore, it is rather a mode of spotlighting historical dates than a form of creating a continuous, communal memory.

1.3 Myth And History

Myth has been established by theoreticians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the inveterate antagonist of history. Myth and history were considered as two incompatible modes of presenting the past, the one in a cyclical, the other in a linear time frame. In this polemical constellation, the term myth was also associated with fabrication and lie, while truth and objectivity were reserved for history as presented by critical historians. Beyond these wellknown connotations of the cyclical and the untrustworthy, the term myth has in the meantime also acquired the connotation of ‘meaningful history.’ ‘Myths create meaning through which the past is linked to the present in such a way that it can orient the future’ (Munkler 1994, p. 21). This description is not far from Assmann’s definition of myth as ‘imagined and remembered history’ (Assmann 1992, see also Kirsch 1998). Myths are conceived by him as a complex of icons, symbols, and narratives about the past that define the cultural identity of a community. Such a communally imagined and transmitted past provides for the group the basic values that it needs for an explanation of the present and an orientation for the future. It is exactly this symbolic use of the past for the construction of an identity that was suspended in the process of professional historical scholarship as developed in academic institutions in the nineteenth century. In this specific sense, the term ‘myth’ is used as an antonym to (modern) histor(iograph)y; while the former refers to the presence of the past, the latter insists on the pastness of the past, enforcing ‘a liberation of the present from the past’ (Arnaldi 1974). In the era of historiographic scholarship, however, remembered history is not the opposite of factual history, on which it has to rely as its basis and source of correction. If myth is defined as remembered history, it is severed from other connotations such as ‘lie,’ ‘imposture,’ or ‘sacred history.’ It refers to ‘a foundational narrative with the aim to illuminate the present by an account of origins. It is through remembering that history turns into myth. This does not mean that it becomes unreal. On the contrary, it is by turning history into myth that history becomes reality and assumes the quality of a normative and formative power’ (Assmann 1992, p. 52).

Myth in this new sense of remembered history stresses mnemonic qualities such as symbolic power, narrative form, iconic impact, and a highly focussed and sensual form of relevance. Invested with a memorable shape, symbolic meaning, and pragmatic relevance, myth provides qualities that professional history had explicitly discarded. With a developed sense of the shortcomings of both myth and history, they are no longer confronted as antagonistic and mutually exclusive but rather seen as complementary modes of referring to the past. The mnemonic and symbolic use of the past is no longer perceived as an abuse but as an important social function which cannot be provided by scholarly historiography.

2. Memory And Historiography

2.1 The Identity Of Memory And History

The relation between historiography and memory has itself a history which has evolved over various stages. Before the foundations of critical historical scholarship were laid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, history, memory, and myth were not yet clearly distinguished. On the contrary, it was considered the central function of the writing of history to preserve the memory of a dynasty, the church, or a state in order to legitimize such institutions and to ensure their continuity by providing for them an honorable past. In this first stage, historiography was the foundation of the community and the ‘handmaid of authority’ (Plumb 1969). The res gestae of heroes and kings were sung by bards and written down by chroniclers in order to rescue them from oblivion and to establish an honorable memory for the noble dead.

Although a consciousness of a specific function of historiography was established in the writings of Herodotus, he emphasized in the proemium to his work the traditional link between history and memory. While giving up a strictly ethnocentric stance, history, for him, is still ‘an art of memory’ where ‘memory’ is closely related to ‘fame.’ His project claims to ensure ‘that the actions of people shall not fade with time’ and that ‘great and admirable monuments produced by both Greeks and barbarians shall not go unrenowned’ (Herodotus 1992, pp. 3–4, see also Hutton 1993). His historiographical project is aimed at fixing the events of the past in the memory of those to come. For Herodotus, the function of historiography was already twofold: it was divided into a memorial function and a cognitive function (‘to set forth the reasons why they, i.e., the Greeks and the barbarians, waged war on each other’). The memorial function of historiography was never given up throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. Cicero still defined historiography as a weapon against oblivion, a formula that became a topos and was elaborated in the Renaissance. Official historiography of the Tudor dynasty in sixteenth century England still counters oblivion which is personified as ‘the ancard enemie,’ ‘the suckyng serpent,’ ‘the deadly darte,’ and ‘the defacer’ (Campbell 1964).

The intimate link between memory and history shaped the historiographic genres in a specific way. It narrowed the criteria for the selection of persons and events to be memorized; only those of highest rank were singled out for a continuation in memory and only those feats and achievements were selected that contributed to the honor and fame of those that were remembered. In addition to this, only such events were selected that supported the opinions and interests of the ruling class.

The non distinction between memory and history is not only a feature of early stages of civilization but also a characteristic of authoritarian and totalitarian rule. But, whereas in the early stages neither media nor institutions had been established to back up an authority-independent account of the past, in later stages censorship had the function to destroy the rivaling media and carriers of counter histories threatening the security of the uniform view and authoritarian voice of history.

2.2 The Polarization Of Memory And History

2.2.1 The Discrediting Of Memory By Historians. The second stage is marked by a separation between memory and histor(iograph)y. This distinction was established when professional historiography arose as an independent and specialized institution. It was not before the nineteenth century that historiography turned into an autonomous discursive discipline which set up its own standards of truth and authority, developing specific rules of verification and intersubjective argument. The development of modern historiography as a cognitive enterprise has its roots in classical antiquity and was revived in early modernity. Histor(iograph)y started from memory and it reached its new status in emancipation from memory. Before the rise of critical historiography, history had been adapted to the demands of the present; it served specific functions for the state or community such as justifying the present, controlling the future and legitimizing authority. A critique of memory, therefore, was also a critique of power and authority. Critical historians insist on their distance to the institutions of corporate memory. Lukian called them ‘apolis,’ thereby indicating that they are not committed to the norms and ideals of a particular community. In spite of their ideal of objectivity, of course, even professional historians are not completely free from loyalties and prejudices. But the professional historian differs from others in that ‘he is aware of this fact, and instead of indulging his prejudices seeks to identify and correct them’ (Lewis 1975, p. 52). The criticism of historical memory not only aims at filling its gaps and correcting its errors but also to expose the intentional fallacies and forgeries of memory, the constructions that secure the establishment and maintenance of power. Critical historiography sharpened its tools in the period of Renaissance humanism in the struggles for power and truth, but it developed its ideal in disinterested objectivity only in the nineteenth century. It was in this period that the links between history and identity were severed and historical knowledge turned into a rapidly growing mass of abstract, disconnected, and disembodied information.

2.2.2 The Rehabilitation Of Memory By Philosophers And Historians. It was Nietzsche who saw a connection between the massive production of abstract historical knowledge and a growing apathy of cultural memory, which led him to express an urging demand for new and invigorated identities (Nietzsche 1988). According to Nietzsche, the historical disciplines had become a dangerous burden for the wellbeing of society. Scholarship produced a pathological form of memory without the possibility of forgetting, an ever growing archive of irrelevant data. Every group and collective unit, however, was in need of a clear cut and limited knowledge of the past, i.e., of a usable past. Nietzsche diagnosed for his age a severe crisis and pathology of cultural memory which had lost its capacity of limitation. For him, the important function of memory was not the storing of knowledge but the limitation of knowledge, the creation of profile and relevance in an indifferent mass of information. Historical knowledge was no longer a tool for the creation of a meaningful life but an oppressive burden that crushed identity and extinguished the sparks of creative energy.

Nietzsche’s polarization of history and memory became a topos among historians of the twentieth century. The specificity of histor(iograph)y was defined in contrast to the demands and mechanisms of memory. When Maurice Halbwachs defined the mechanisms of social memory in the 1920s, he introduced history as a negative foil for the process. Halbwachs investigated the function of shared memories for the cohesion of groups. He spoke of a collective memory and showed that the group was sustained and nurtured by common memories as these memories were in turn sustained by the group. This means that the stability of memories is linked to the stability of groups; when its members are disseminated, the memories are also dissolved. Erratic and dissonant memories had no place in Halbwachs’s functionalist and constructivist theory of memory. Halbwachs compared historical discourse to an ocean which swallowed up all the partial narratives and memories (Halbwachs 1985b, pp. 72–3). For him, histor(iograph)y is the universal memory of humanity, while collective memories are embodied by specific groups and therefore always partial and biased. In order to integrate these memories into the total view of history, they have to be severed from their carriers and their social milieus. With this transformation of memory into the abstract scheme of history goes the evaporation of live experience and meaning.

Sixty years after Halbwachs, the French historian Nora has revived the concept of collective memory and dispelled lingering critical doubts about its theoretical status. He has extended Halbwachs’ notion of an oral memory shared by a social group to a cultural memory of symbols, values, rites, and local traditions that provide the cohesive cement of a society. These shared elements Nora called ‘lieux de memoire,’ reinterpreting a term from the tradition of Roman mnemotechnics, the ‘imagines’ and ‘loci’ of the ‘ars memorati a.’ Like Halbwachs, Nora stresses the nexus between memory and group identity, and like Halbwachs, he distinguished the symbols of collective memory from the scholarly discourse of historiography. For Nora as for Nietzsche, embodied collective memory is threatened to disappear under the burden of academic historiography. Nora defines memory and history as polar opposites. For him, the decisive distinction is that between a lived past which he calls memory and an abstract past which he calls history. Memory links the past to a group, it creates an emotional and symbolically charged bond between the past and a collective identity in the present, while history severs this bond; it is universal in character, therefore it belongs to everybody and nobody (Nora 1984/1992, pp. 23–43).

Whereas the pioneers of critical historiography discredited memory as a rival of history, theorists such as Nietzsche, Halbwachs, and Nora rehabilitated memory over against the ideal of objective and abstract histor(iograph)y. They rediscovered the social functions of memory as an important and indispensable mode of assessing the past. In spite of their evaluations of memory and history, however, they share with the representatives of critical historiography the attitude of polarizing memory and history. In their different writings, this polarization takes the following form:


–is an embodied form of memory

–stresses differences and exists in the plural

–is linked to a carrier which may be an individual, a group or an institution

–bridges the past, present and future

–is highly selective, includes forgetting

–creates a profile of values supporting an identity

and providing orientation for action.


–is a disembodied form of memory

–provides a universal frame and exists in the singular

–is disengaged from specific carriers

–separates the past from present and future

–develops an even and impartial attention

–is in search for truth, therefore values are suspended.

2.3 Mnemohistory—New Affinities Between Memory And History

The third stage in the relationship between memory and historiography is marked by a blurring of the distinction between history and memory. This, however, does not imply a simple return to the first stage. Despite postmodern qualms and revaluations, the selfimposed disciplinary regulations that were installed with the modern institutionalisation of critical historiography as a scholarly and intersubjective project may well be considered an irreversible evolutionary achievement. Historiography, writes Le Goff, ‘must aim at objectivity and must be built on a belief in historical truth’ (Le Goff 1986, foreword). If the third stage is not to be described in terms of a regression, it is perhaps more adequately described as a response to certain tendencies towards an extreme historical positivism inherent in the second stage. The professional historians as exclusive guardians of the past are challenged by those who invoke memory as alternative modes claiming an access to the past. The term ‘history’ is a collective singular; to this concept corresponded the idea of history as a universal memory of mankind. To say that history is universal memory may be another way of saying that it is indifferent to memory. The price that had to be paid for this generalized memory was a disregard of living and preserved memories.

The object of modern historiography was a past that was neatly separated from the present and the future. The historian Koselleck (1997) has coined the terms ‘space of experience’ (Erfahrungsraum) and ‘horizon of expectation’ (Erwartungshorizont ) and stressed the point that in modernity, both dimensions have become radically separated. Along the same lines, history was defined by the philosopher Blumenberg as ‘the separation of the space of experience from the horizon of expectation,’ i.e., as a fundamental rupture between past and future (Blumenberg 1986, p. 61). From this point of view, memory was the other of history because collective memory tends to bridge past and future, creating a usable past for a changing present.

After the long period of polarizing history and memory, new affinities were discovered between both modes of rendering the past. They were due to a number of reasons: the discontents with positivist historiography and transcendental historiosophy, a reorientation in methodology, and the establishing of new themes for historical investigation. To begin with the discontents. In the 1980s and 1990s the universalist frame of academic historiography was severely shaken when repressive and homogenizing ideologies such as communism and colonialism lost their power. Since then, many divers memories of political groups have asserted their right. Historians were baffled by the enormous impact of these living memories that they had considered to be a negligible entity and which had reappeared with great aplomb at historical turning points. At such moments of sociopolitical reversal, social institutions as well as the cultural frame of perception and values changed. In the course of such changes, new memories emerged and old memories were seen in a different light. It is at such historical moments that the conflict between history and memory rises to consciousness and becomes a political issue. With the reconstruction of the political framework of society, there is a chance to narrate the past in a different way. Such a moment of retrospection is often a moment of revelation; then it suddenly becomes obvious that what had been presented and taken as objective history had only been a particular and biased form of memory. The experience of a fundamental change of values exposes the contingence of earlier accounts of the past. In such situations memory becomes self reflexive, developing a sense of its own constructedness.

Another way of approximating history and memory was to be observed in changes in the methodology of the discipline. The journal History and Memory which was founded in 1989 signals a shift in historical interest. Two years before that date, an important debate had taken place between the nestor of German Zeitgeschichte, Martin Broszat, and the Jewish Holocaust survivor and Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander. The controversy which they discussed in their exchange of letters revolved around the key concepts of memory and history (Broszat and Friedlander 1988). Broszat argued for a form of presenting history that moves from the past into the present, thus adopting the perspective of the contemporary observers who experience it as an open process. Friedlander, on the other hand, argued for a presentation of history starting from its manifest results and moving backwards to the beginnings, thus adopting the perspective of the memory of the victims. For Dan Diner, Friedlander’s co-editor in History and Memory, historiography is no longer an objective universalist discourse but one that is ethically committed to the participatory perspective of the victims. Thus, the two terms converge, history becoming a form of memory and vice versa. In his latest book on the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany, Friedlander develops a form of historiography that is not confined to the description of structures and processes but also seeks to give a voice to individual victims and agents thus translating the anonymous statistics of the holocaust back into the memories of those who participated in and suffered from history (Friedlander 1998). In books such as this one a new methodology of history is being developed that seeks to enlarge the scope of historiography by integrating personal memories into historiography. Instead of being unified by the authorial voice of the interpreting historian, historiography thus becomes multivocal, mixing history with memories. In blending what is known with what is remembered, historical discourse is opened up to include contingencies ad dissonances, forgoing coherence and closure in favor of marking what otherwise remains unrepresented and unrepresentable.

A third possibility of crossing memory and history lies in the discovery of new themes for historiography. Since the 1980s, historians have become more and more interested in modes of remembering as a form of social practice. What was known of the past in the past, which images of the past were constructed, which acts of commemoration were devised? In asking such questions, memory became itself the object of historiography. This form of historiography was favored by medievalists, who had already been used to investigating social forms of religious and secular memorializiation (Oexle 1995). Such interests brought about a form of historical investigation which can be termed mnemohistory. Mnemohistory is what could also be called ‘the reception history of history.’ ‘It concentrates exclusively on those aspects of significance and relevance which are the product of memory’ (Assmann 1997, p. 9). To speak in this context of memory rather than of tradition is to acknowledge the constructive as well as the distorting power of memory. It takes into account the ambivalence of the past both as a conscious choice and as an unconscious burden, tracking the voluntary and involuntary paths of memory. ‘The task of historical positivism consists in separating the historical from the mythical elements in memory and distinguishing the elements which retain the past from those which shape the present. In contrast, the task of mnemohistory consists in analyzing the mythical elements in tradition and discovering their hidden agenda’ (Assmann 1997, p. 10).

An early and impressive project in mnemohistory was organized by the French historian Nora who published seven volumes on what he called the French ‘lieux de memoire’ (Nora 1984 1992). Nora designed this historical enterprise which he carried out as team work with eminent historians in reaction to the publications of the Annales school of French historiography. In the scholarly works of this school, which had concentrated on structures, figures and processes in a longue duree perspective, history had more and more lost its meaning and memorability. The palpable dimension of history was restored by Nora who created an inventory of mnemo-historical items which included historical sites such as Vezelay, rites and songs of folklore, national symbols, commemoration dates and festivals, and more than 300 types of cheese. They are the ‘lieux de memoire’ that, according to Nora, have constituted the French cultural memory and identity since 1789.

2.4 Memory As An Empirical Basis For Historiography

It is not easy to predict the next phase in the relationship between memory and history. It is possible that after their convergence, new efforts will be directed at their separation. There is also a new interest in memory from the point of view of a new kind of empiricism that is probing the criteria for historical truth. While one variation of mnemohistory tried to integrate personal memories into history and another sidelined factual history in order to focus on a remembered, reconstructed, or even repressed and forgotten past, there are some signs now of a new anthropological empiricism which turns away from memory as a social and cultural construct and concentrates on the neurological operations of remembering and forgetting. In an article with the title The Veil of Memory, the historian Johannes Fried noted ‘a frightening backwardness among historians as far as questions of memory are concerned’ (Fried 1997, p. 8). After the growing fascination and even obsession of historians with questions of memory since the 1980s, this statement can only make sense when it is applied to questions of memory from the point of view of the human brain and the neurosciences. He is interested not in cultural memory but ‘the factuality of memory, its conditions and its effects on the historian’s sources’ because ‘the neural connections or the mental processes determine what is preserved and remembered, and thus all knowledge and all history. The same applies to forgetting. The veil of memory, the river of oblivion is constantly in flow between the historian and its object’ (Fried 1997, pp. 14, 16–17). This knowledge of the operations of memory also includes the mechanisms of distortion as explored in cultural studies and the neurosciences in the last ten years (Schacter 1999, Schudson 1992). For Fried, however, the crucial question for the historian to ask is no longer: how are texts connected? but: how does memory work? At this point, we return to the lived experience of individuals witnessing history as the starting point for historiography which was treated in the first paragraph of this research paper. Fried, however, no longer discusses memory in an existential or in a social but in a biological and anthropological perspective. He argues that everything that the historian deals with is primarily mediated by the human memory. Therefore, the historian must have recourse to anthropological empiricism in order to ‘see through all this memory-activity’ and probe the truthfulness of his one and only reliable source which is, after all, human experience.


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