Keepers of the Past

“What’s war like?” I asked my grandfather once, when I was in middle school.

A long time ago, my grandfather, Dumitru Morgovan

A long time ago, my grandfather, Dumitru Morgovan…

He was sitting on the sofa in his living room, rich Persian rug on the floor, dark wood furniture about him—a safe storytelling setting. He had a mellow Transylvanian accent and not a tooth left in his mouth. I don’t remember how he started to tell me about his four years on the battlefields of World War II, but I remember how animated he became when he described how his friend’s head was cut off by shrapnel and how it rolled on the ground with its tongue flicking in an out, collecting dirt. My grandfather mimicked the scene, his tongue flicking in and out of his toothless mouth, and then he stopped and didn’t speak for a long time. He just stared at the red-hued Persian rug at his feet.

For some reason, I never asked him again about that war of his. Faded memories of those long years in the trenches, from USSR to Czechoslovakia and back to Romania, came to me later in life through my parents, after my grandfather died. But his firsthand experience of war is lost… and maybe that’s a good thing. Or is it?

In Praise of Forgetting

In his book, In Praise of Forgetting (Yale University Press, 2016), journalist David Rieff seizes onto one of our most cherished beliefs about historical memory.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”

wrote philosopher George Santayana in 1905 in Reason in Common Sense. And common sense says he’s right—that is, until David Rieff asks us to give it some thought.

“These matters are delicate, as they should be, and if we take such questions on we have a moral obligation to proceed with great caution.” (p. 83)

What David Rieff argues for is letting history be forgotten with each subsequent generation, in a natural progression that prioritizes peace over justice. Right away, I thought of the Holocaust, and of course Rieff dedicates a few chapters to the subject.

“we never repeat the past, at least not in the way [Santayana] was suggesting we did. To imagine otherwise is to leach both the past and the present of their specific gravity. Auschwitz did not inoculate us against East Pakistan in 1971, or East Pakistan against Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge against Hutu Power in Rwanda in 1994.” (pp. 83-84)

The Fallacy of Collective Memory

RieffRieff defines collective memory as a society’s “common delusion about its ancestry” (p. 57), a living image of the past, fraught with distortions as firsthand memories fade away, witnesses die, and rumors and anecdotes become historical record.

A journalist who spent fifteen years writing about humanitarian emergencies, Rieff combs through recent history for examples of politicians using their nation’s collective memory to spark violence, maintain instability, pose as saviors, climb and cling to power in the name of a holy past that only they can truly represent. He remembers an encounter with a Serb nationalist during the war in Yugoslavia, a man who justified the killing of Bosnians by… the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Those Muslims had to pay—500 years later—for taking over Christian Orthodox Constantinople. The rancor between Sunnis and Shias goes back to the seventh century CE. The bad blood between the Israelis and the Palestinians goes back even more. And now we have in the United States of America a presidential candidate promising to make our country great again, as in a gilded past that never was.

“Whatever its purposes, the authority of collective memory depends (…) on our not inquiring too insistently about its factuality and not worrying overmuch about its contingency, but instead allowing ourselves to be swept away by a strong emotion dressed up in the motley historical fact.” (p. 35).

His argument here reminded me of Catherine the Great of Russia. Most people have heard about the “naked queen crushed under the stallion” episode that never happened, but know little else about an enlightened woman who was the first monarch in eighteenth century’s Europe to declare that people should not be tortured while under investigation and that girls should get the same education as boys did.

So, if collective memory is inexact, biased, politicized, mythicized; if history is written by victors and embraced by their natural descendants, who are also guided by their cognitive biases, what’s there to be done?

“But for many of us, who, whether as aid workers or journalists, had seen the horror of the Balkan wars at firsthand, almost any peace, no matter how unfair, was infinitely preferable to the seemingly endless infliction of death, suffering, and humiliation.” (pp. 89-90)

David Rieff makes a powerful argument for prioritizing peace over justice. He’s in favor of negotiating with the bad guys if that could bring about a peace treaty, or the release of prisoners, or a planet-wide initiative that benefit all nations. So it is better to forget the crimes of the past and move forward, yes?

“if a practical possibility exists not only of establishing an honest record of what was done but also of bringing the perpetrators to justice, in principle it should be done.” (p. 65).

“There are certainly also times when relations between states can be improved and much bitterness removed when a state that has committed a crime against another state acknowledges its culpability.” (p. 88).

To forget or not to forget? It depends if not forgetting can lead to healing and if forgetting can put an end to hurting.

“Eventually, there comes a time when the need to get to the truth should no longer be assumed to trump all other considerations.” (p. 89).

David Rieff’s book is unsettling in more than one way. Not only does it destroy one of the quotes that pops up everywhere on political blogs these days, it even questions history itself. What’s history after all? Things that don’t exist anymore and are impossible to reconstruct? What’s memory? Something that changes with each mind it inhabits? What does justice mean? Reparation for victims or preventing the crime? What does peace? Whose peace? Whose truth?

An Outsider to History

In Praise of Forgetting made me feel again like an outsider to history. As much as I study history, I have no direct path to the primary source of historical events. Everything comes to me filtered through time, scribes and agendas. The only history I can access is my own.

I wish I had asked my grandfather more about his time in the war, but as a middle-school kid back then, I couldn’t comprehend the trauma those veterans had to carry with them for the rest of their lives. I had to let time pass. I had to become an adult in order to understand how much I had missed by not having my grandfather tell me his story. I’ve missed my own history.

Oh, but there was this one time when my grandmother (a talented chef for most of her life) told me that she had fond memories of the Nazis rolling on motorcycles and tanks through her Dobrujan village sometime in the early 1940s.

“They used to give me chocolate wrapped in silver foil,” she said. “I was but six-seven years old and I loved chocolate.”

A long time ago, my grandmother, Elena Morgovan

A long time ago, my grandmother, Elena Morgovan…

I remember her unabashed giggles at her distant memory and I remember the sweet smell of pastry baking in the oven in my grandparents’ small kitchen.

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And now, as I post this here, I see how I’m plucking my grandparents’ names and pictures from the forgettable past and pinning them and those tiny bits of their lives to our digital everlasting present.

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