Can Historical Memory Escape Ideology?

By Ali Yasin

Collective memory and the culture surrounding it have become contentious and emotionally charged issues across the Global North. As many developed countries struggle to come to terms with their colonial legacies, traditional frameworks of historical memory have been challenged by an increasingly diverse array of perspectives. This inclusion of marginalized and subaltern voices (including post-colonial, feminists, and queer experiences) in the debates regarding memory culture, has been met by a growing reaction both institutionally and publicly. Its opponents argue that this postmodernist trend has undermined both the collective memory of western society and the liberal/enlightenment values it facilitates.

Although this debate is often framed simplistically in most national contexts, with both sides claiming to defended an empirical telling of history from the attempt to supplant with an ideological narrative, the reality is far more nuanced. We explored this theme by examining the “Catechism Debate”, an online public discourse between numerous scholars on Germany’s modern memory culture of the Holocaust. The debate was instigated by a Dirk Moses’ piece The German Catechism, in which he argues that the rigid commitment to Germany’s post ‘68 view of the Holocaust as a singular and uniquely German “rupture from the moral foundation of the nation”, has limited German perspective on genocide and systematic violence, particularly in regards to its own colonial legacy.

As the debate quickly progressed with many scholars reflecting on Moses’ argument, it became apparent that the construction of collective memory culture is an inherently ideological process. Even when historians agree entirely on the empirical information surrounding a period of history, the way that period or event is situated within a wider historical context inevitably carries ideological connotations. Both contextualizing the Holocaust as another example of systematic colonial genocide and maintaining its status as a singular historical event with no direct comparison, create societal narratives that have a formative effect on the character of a political community.

If the ideological implications of collective memory construction and culture cannot be escaped, this tendency can at least be balanced by taking a pluralistic approach to both institutional and public discourses on historical memory. As the Catechism Debate demonstrated, the ideological dimensions of collective memory can only be deconstructed and effectively understood when they are examined from multiple opposing perspectives.   

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