Conflicts of memory

Europe as a Memoryland

It is important to critically unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions about what the past means and its significance in Europe today, and to be able to perceive alternatives to this.

In calling my recent book Memorylands*, my aim was to draw attention to the ways in which questions of memory have so frequently been raised in relation to Europe. In particular, I wanted to take an anthropological perspective on the question of what has variously been called Europe’s “obsession” with memory and the past – something that I call “the memory phenomenon”. This memory phenomenon is evidenced in numerous cultural forms across the continent – especially, museums, monuments and various revived and more-or-less self-conscious rituals and traditions (including “heritage” foods, retro-rebranding and re-enactment societies). As an anthropologist, my argument is not that these don’t happen elsewhere – they clearly do. But it is that these are a key part of understanding contemporary Europe – as much as practices such as the potlatch were once argued to be for Native Americans or the Kula (a system of exchange) was for Malinowski’s Trobriand islanders.

Europe’s heritage-identity complex and cultural variation
My argument is not just that there are lots of memory practices going on. This is obvious enough! What I try to suggest is that these are part of a particular configuration of notions about what “identity” – personal and collective – means and how it should be manifest or performed. I write here about what I call the heritage-identity complex, a set of ideas and practices that have become more or less taken for granted. These include conceptualising people into collectives modelled on, and co-supportive of, ideas about persons as individuals, with discrete bodies, boundaries, memories and interiors, and, as Charles Taylor1 has argued, with a kind of moral imperative to express that individuality. He calls this expressive individuation. Part of my argument is that these kinds of ideas play out at a collective level, with heritage becoming increasingly central as different groups form via these models of identity and seek to perform themselves as rooted within the social landscape. Just as in C. B. Macpherson’s famous ideas about possessive individualism,2 on which Taylor draws, material possessions become important exteriorisations of identities and of their durability over time. Yet material possessions are also part of other debates about value in Europe too, especially financial value, and, in particular, deep-rooted concerns over “materialism” in the sense of a potentially over-riding emphasis on use- and finance-value. Does valuing things make us “materialistic”? In relation to heritage, then, we can begin to see why it is such a powerful concept, being related to such deep matters of identity and its durability; also why debates about commercialisation and authenticity often loom so large; and more widely, why it has become a major focus of moral and political contemplation, and for visiting, today.
In Memorylands, I argue, then, that, on the one hand, there are certain configurations or patterns that are – increasingly – widespread – across Europe. On the other, I also maintain, however, that these are not as ubiquitous or monolithic within Europe as might often be assumed, especially as is easily assumed by dominant and transnational heritage organisations and practices. There are variations at local and regional levels, often rooted in particular historical experiences. These include patterns that we find in many countries that were previously socialist and in which ideas about collectives, individualism, time and money may have different inflections to some extent at least.
In making these arguments, I draw especially upon research carried out by anthropologists or ethnologists or ethnographers as they may be variously called in Europe. That is, those working in ways which seek to listen carefully to local conversations and debates and to directly observe local practice. Such work can highlight alternatives to the more common patterns, thus unsettling any presumed universality of the latter and also enabling us to see them at all. This is a classical anthropological strategy: making us aware of what we take for granted by showing us alternatives to it. It is, however, more rarely used within European research than it might be. At the same time, careful “on the ground” ethnographic research can show how common notions and practices find their way into local lives and how they are experienced and perhaps reconfigured or contested. It may show the local, too, as a non-homogeneous space, with competing notions and practices, and with particular players and conditions of play. In drawing on such work, I was keen to put some of these insights and examples into the wider heritage and memory debate, partly because it seemed to me that such work was underrepresented. More importantly, however, I do so because I think it is important to critically unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions about what the past means and its significance in Europe today, and to be able to perceive alternatives to this. Doing so matters partly as part of a general humanist expansion of horizons, and also because without an ability to perceive alternatives, heritage practice and also heritage theorising risk running roughshod over some of the people and lives that they touch or seek to characterise.

Past presencing and nostalgia
Because I wanted to put heritage under the lens of investigation, to look at its life in practice, I didn’t want to employ it as an analytical concept. It is a subject of study rather than a mode of framing my study. Despite the title of my book, I am also wary of “memory” for analytical purposes. It is already too modelled on individual memory and so already frames things in these terms rather than opening them up for question. So while recognising that there are lots of great debates and insights that go on under these labels, and that sometimes do reconfigure them in analytically useful ways, I devised a term that I call past presencing as a more neutral means of putting together various concepts and practices, which might not usually be brought together.
There are numerous ways in which people bring the past into the present – that is, there are numerous forms of “past presencing”. These range from state-organised monumentalism to everyday collective rituals; from struggles over reclaiming the ownership of houses after war or transition to ideas about ghosts. While employing this broad umbrella term in order to cast my net wide at the outset – and to avoid overly constraining my field to officially demarcated heritage – my aim was not, however, to say that all of the various forms operate in the same ways and to the same ends. On the contrary, it was to then explore what kinds of patterns might be found in practice and also what kinds of classifications are themselves used “on the ground” in various parts of Europe.
One term that has come to have widespread use within Europe is “nostalgia”, a term that is usually said to have been invented from the Greek by a Swiss doctor in the 17th century, originally to describe a sickness among soldiers which he attributed to longing for their homeland. Variations of the Greek term, as well as various other supposed synonyms, now exist in probably all European languages. It has also spawned more specific variants, such as Ostalgia – nostalgia for the East that had its original form as Ostalgie in German; or Yugonostalgia to describe nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia among contemporary populations of the countries that used to be part of it. But although the idea of a longing to return is bound up with the meaning made popular by the Swiss doctor, it is evident from careful attention to the uses of the term – and to phenomena that it is used to describe – that there are differences of sense in different languages and uses. Indeed, even in Greece, Nadia Seremetakis tells us that nostalghía has none of the “trivialising romantic sentimentality”3 of the English word “nostalgia” but refers to a more emotional and painful sense of exile and longing for home.
When we look at other practices to which the term – or variants of it – has been applied it also becomes clear that the idea of “longing to return” is by no means always the correct way to characterise these phenomena. In what follows, I look briefly at this in relation to so-called “post-socialist nostalgia” – a phenomenon widely reported for the countries of the former Eastern Bloc.

Post-socialist nostalgia
Forms of looking back with longing to socialist times seem to have first been reported in the former East Germany in the early 1990s, where they were named Ostalgie. Since then, there have been reports for all of Europe’s formerly socialist countries, although beginning at different times and occurring to differing extents. It has been the subject of widespread national and international commentary, often condemning it as evidence of a disturbing failure by people to realise how lucky they were to be released from socialist regimes. As more in-depth anthropological, ethnographic research has shown, however, people’s reasons for articulating positive views on aspects of the socialist past are both various and more complex than the dismissals imply. In particular, they rarely involve a straightforward desire to fully “return” to that past.
In the case of the former East Germany, for example, anthropologist Daphne Berdahl4 has argued that a key feature of Ostalgie is the way in which it allowed people to identify themselves as East German and gain some sense of collective solidarity and self-respect in the face of their pasts being so harshly criticised by West Germans – Wessis. One common form of this nostalgia was the production of former socialist brands of consumer goods. This was criticised by elites and West Germans as, on the one hand, opportunistic marketing of kitsch, and, on the other, people failing to have a full understanding of the problems of socialist society and of the inferiority of the products themselves. But as the work of Berdahl and of other anthropologists, both in Germany and in various other countries shows, people could be very aware of these but at the same time they wanted to give recognition both to the positive aspects of some products (not all were bad!) as well as to share stories about the past as a form of continuing collective identity in the face of themselves being made to feel inferior. Moreover, the emphasis on consumer products could be, suggests Berdahl, a form of “mourning for production” in a context of high unemployment. In addition, I suggest, by showing that consumption is not necessarily part of the new capitalist world, it also provided a means of allowing enjoyment of products as part of what were imagined as more convivial and equitable forms of sociality.
A recent article on forms of nostalgia in rural Poland also shows well how this nostalgia is not for a full-scale return to the socialist past but for some specific aspects of it – especially a greater imagined community spirit amongst people.5 Locals tell stories about how they would work together to trick officials. While some idealise the socialist past as a time when people all worked hard, others idealise it as one in which they did not. They do so partly because of their own varied experiences but also because of the contrasts with the present that they are engaged in making. For the key point is that this past is a resource for reflecting on the current situation. In doing so, local people pick out specific concrete examples to make their point. This does not mean that they entirely forget other dimensions – indeed, they themselves are often keen to point out that the situation of socialist times was more complex than it is often represented as being.
In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Yugonostalgia has emerged in various forms, including a cult of former President Josip Bros Tito.6 Motives for this vary, with some Muslims, for example, regarding Tito as having helped Muslims “get their nation”, to others seeing him as a more general “father figure” helping to hold different groups together.7 A view of Yugoslavia as a country in which all ethnic groups could exist peaceably side-by-side seems to be a central aspect of Yugonostalgia for many in the aftermath of the conflicts.8 As in Yugoslavia, socialism in Hungary was probably regarded less negatively than in some of Europe’s other socialist countries. What emerged in Hungary, however, was not so much a general nostalgia for socialism as an ironic play with Soviet memorabilia and forms (e.g. Soviet themed restaurants). Although this looked like post-socialist nostalgia, argues Maya Nadkarni, it was more a teasing parody of this and separation of contemporary Hungary – and contemporary Hungarian socialism – from this.
It is clear from ethnographic research, then, that while there are often similarities in both forms of and motives for “post-socialist nostalgia”, these can also vary. It is also clear that it is too simplistic to reduce all to a longing to return to all aspects of that past. On the contrary, post-socialist nostalgia, like other forms of past presencing, is highly selective and oriented to the present as much as to the past.

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If Europe is a memoryland, then, it is not so just because it has a long history. Increasingly, indeed, memories that are mobilised are of the recent as well as the more distant past. When the past is brought into the present, it is mostly for particular contemporary ends. Sometimes these are instrumental and sometimes they serve clearly political purposes. But they are not reducible to this. More than anything, the past has become a mode of reflection in – and on – Europe today. It is a way in which people can think and talk about the nature of change, of sociability and individualism, the significance or otherwise of material goods, and of much else.

* Sharon Macdonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today, London 2013