Harri Tiido: On the utility of forgetfulness in history

Harri Tiido.
Harri Tiido. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Vikerraadio series "Harri Tiido taustajutud" this time looks at history and memory. Collectivization of guilt seems to be the latest craze – placing it on those who based on different markers might be seen as the successors or accessories of the guilty, Tiido says.

History has shown that just like people, countries are born, change and disappear. Predicting the future is difficult, while predicting the past could be even more so.

Buddhism, whether we refer to it as a religion or not, is the only philosophical system that teaches us that clinging to the past is an illusion doomed to fail.

Wars that end in one side securing victory give the latter the right to shape collective memory.

Historical memory in the service of society

Time works to diminish the urgency of events. The Battle of Salamis between the Athenians and Persians was of critical significance in its time, while hardly anyone celebrates the date today and it has rather become the domain of historians.

However, history can also return to our lives. The Black Lives Matter movement, the American Civil War and its monuments tell us that history's teeth might be longer than we imagine. And every now and again, a society develops the need or simply the urge to reevaluate the past. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave a lot of nations the chance to get back their real history, while the process often comes with the risk of tipping the scales out of balance in the opposite direction.

French historian Jacques Le Gof has said that "memory tries to save the past only so it can have it serve the present and the future." In other words, historical memory is valued only so far as it serves society's interests.

That is why memory has also been harnessed in the service of propaganda both positively and negatively. Being too critical of history could clash with the social consensus of what to remember and what to forget. And the wrong kind of remembering and forgetting can be interpreted as subversive.

The authority of collective memory is based on our ability not to delve too deep in facts or worry about the detailed accuracy of the memory, as well as our preparedness to be swept away by a wave of emotionality dressed up in a suit of historical facts. Or as put by Friedrich Nietzsche: "There are no facts, only interpretations."

This is also the basis of interpretations according to which a lot of people with a different memory arriving in Europe might force us to revise the role of memory in what it means to be European in 21st century Europe.

History might also return as kitsch – for example, souvenirs with pictures of Lenin and Stalin or their busts that can be bought in Russian souvenir shops and sporadically also surface in Estonia. However, in Russia's case, they express at the very least continued nostalgia for these characters and the era they created – a paradox and difficult to understand from the outside but reality, nonetheless.

The Russian authorities have for a long time been engaged in shaping memory as opposed to preserving it because it is difficult to offer the people any other kind of positive image of life in the country, while the right memory also works to legitimize the powers that be.

The Kremlin deems it necessary to highlight the Russian people's heroic role in the War, while completely ruling out the negative phenomena of Stalinism and the Soviet regime, like mass deportations, killings, wider repressions and occupation of neighboring states. In other words, some images are deleted from memory, while others are made to look glorious.

It is as if there are two different memories – the memory of defeat and that of victory – and the former is recalled more seldom, especially by politicians. History is fed to the people as collective memory edited. And because eyewitnesses to historical memory are becoming fewer with each passing year, the relative importance of the memory model played on mass media is growing in people's minds.

The state leaves nothing to chance in Russia – a decision was made on the legislative level to create a separate department of the prosecution to investigate crimes tied to "falsification of the history of the homeland and rehabilitation of Nazism." The department's investigations sport an international scope to subject citizens of other countries to Russian law.

Konstantin Eggert, who we might remember from the interview [Estonian Minister of the Interior] Mart Helme gave to Deutsche Welle, believes it is an attempt by Vladimir Putin to shape a new Russian identity based on the foundations of national greatness and inviolability of authority.

Different peoples, especially those living next to each other, often have diametrically different treatments of history. For example, ask Azerbaijanis and Armenians how they perceive the past and you will get two entirely different pictures. Or what about the view of history and themselves of Kyrgyzstan's 40 tribes. A different idea of the past can also serve as a catalyst for conflict today.

The following joke used to go around in Poland. The question: "Who would you kill first, a German or a Russian?" And the Pole's answer: "The German – duty comes first and pleasure second after all." So it goes…

History and memory like alcohol

Political theorist Karl Deutsch allegedly once said that "a nation is a group of people united by a misguided view of the past and hatred for neighbors." While we can characterize it as an exaggeration, there is something to it. Collective memory is a good wagon for transporting such visions.

The danger is in history being replaced by the term "memory" that moves the focus from the objective to the subjective and is a ready recipe for historical conflicts so as not to say wars. David Rieff writes in his book "In Praise of Forgetting" that history being conquered by memory equals history being overtaken by politics.

Philosopher Karl Jaspers has suggested in his book on German guilt making the distinction between two things – moral and legal guilt for personal acts and the moral guilt for who you are.

Collectivization of guilt seems to be the latest craze – placing it on those who based on different markers might be seen as the successors or accessories of the guilty. The most striking example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement and racism that is attributed to all people born white, even though neither them nor their ancestors might have had nothing to do with it.

However, as pointed out by someone wiser than yours truly, the selective method in history operates differently for remembering and forgiveness. There is also the concept of the "dictatorship of nostalgia," looking if only at our own history and the Soviet Union.

Recent experience suggests that the need to remember is emphasized more often than the need to forget. However, the phenomenon of forgetfulness is quite interesting as it makes it possible to reduce conflicts and alleviate unnecessary tension in society. What happened, happened and while we should remember it, we should not stoke those flames time and again. Even the ancient Romans said, "tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis" or the times change and we change with them.

Observations suggest that people's attention span and focus have become shorter, while it has done nothing to shorten the reach of their memory. We are also dealing with overestimation of collective memory and underestimation of objective history, while it has now become a part of politics.

Both collective memory and objective history are political tools. The question is where on that scale does one focus. Pointing to collective memory as history might yield votes at elections because the average information consumer is not versed well enough in the discipline to tell the difference. And that is how things get mixed up.

Collective historical memory is selective and handpicks either insults and defeats or victories from historical material. The question remains whether there will be enough room for forgetfulness next to historical myths or reality, which might not equal forgiveness but would still help consolidate society and alleviate more than a few tensions.

This should not be construed as a suggestion people get Alzheimer's but highlighting the past has at times become a fetish, as put by Paul Ricoeur in his book "Memory, History, Forgetting." According to him, the question is one of forgiveness, not of memory.

History and memory are like alcohol as both need to be consumed in moderation. A few glasses go down easy. But as soon as you indulge, things go downhill – you start spouting nonsense and will feel wretched later on. It is also best to consume history and memory while sober.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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