Saturday, April 19, 2008

An Ill-Remembered Twentieth Century

Tony Judt at the NY Review of Books:
Today,... we wear the last century rather lightly. To be sure, we have memorialized it everywhere: shrines, inscriptions, "heritage sites," even historical theme parks are all public reminders of "the Past." But the twentieth century that we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nostalgo-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, they are opportunities for the recollection of selective suffering.

The twentieth century is thus on the path to becoming a moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors whose way stations are labeled "Munich" or "Pearl Harbor," "Auschwitz" or "Gulag," "Armenia" or "Bosnia" or "Rwanda"; with "9/11" as a sort of supererogatory coda, a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century or who failed to learn them. The problem with this lapidary representation of the last century as a uniquely horrible time from which we have now, thankfully, emerged is not the description—it was in many ways a truly awful era, an age of brutality and mass suffering perhaps unequaled in the historical record. The problem is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance—unencumbered by past errors—into a different and better era.

But such official commemoration does not enhance our appreciation and awareness of the past. It serves as a substitute, a surrogate. Instead of teaching history we walk children through museums and memorials. Worse still, we encourage them to see the past— and its lessons—through the vector of their ancestors' suffering. Today, the "common" interpretation of the recent past is thus composed of the manifold fragments of separate pasts, each of them (Jewish, Polish, Serb, Armenian, German, Asian-American, Palestinian, Irish, homosexual...) marked by its own distinctive and assertive victimhood.

The resulting mosaic does not bind us to a shared past, it separates us from it. Whatever the shortcomings of the national narratives once taught in school, however selective their focus and instrumental their message, they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past: today's names, places, inscriptions, ideas, and allusions could be slotted into a memorized narrative of yesterday. In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns...

...the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies —seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

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