Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | December 16, 2011

Genealogies of Memory: Reflections on the conference held in Warsaw on 22-25 November 2011

Dr Anton Popov, University of Warwick MYPLACE team member and Work Package co-leader, and Warwick PhD student Daniel Hanu on the recent international conference ‘Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods’, organized by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity,  held in Warsaw , and it’s relevance to MYPLACE.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE

The international conference ‘Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods’, organized by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity was held in Warsaw, Poland, between 22nd and 25th November 2011 ( It brought together scholars from diverse backgrounds studying memory across and within the former Communist bloc in an attempt to create a fruitful environment that would map the state of the art in memory studies in the region and pinpoint areas for further development. The papers that were presented during the three full days of the conference ranged from addressing theoretical issues – focusing on the question ‘why is Eastern Europe special?’ – to outlining the timeline of national sociological traditions in memory studies, from questioning the relevance of the ‘political generation’ concept to addressing second-hand memories, as they appear in Polish post-socialist fiction, and from focusing on emplacement to discussing the roles of films and museums in processes of memorialisation, from the role of historians to the uses of private and public discourses. However, topics such as nostalgia or the memories of the former nomenklatura did not find a place in this vast array of panels.


In fact, in his reflections on the papers presented at the conference, Jeffrey Olick, one of the leading scholars working in memory studies, pointed out that although the interest in the regionally particular approaches in researching memory is important and justifiable, it is important to keep in mind that the field of memory studies is much boarder than just politics of memory in the context of particular regional history or in connection to national identity. Thus among areas which were somehow neglected at the conference Olick noted health and memory, gerontological approaches to remembering, individual memories, and religion as a way of transmitting memories and, more generally, as a factor determining what and how we remember. The fact that very few papers were presented on the latter topic might itself reflect the particular conditions in the post-socialist Central and East European societies which are characterized by, on the one hand marginality of religion in the predominantly atheist secular societies, but on the other hand, this lack of attention to religion on the part of local researchers might be a lasting legacy of the Marxist-secularist tradition in social research in this region. Therefore, in the search for their unique approach in memory studies, researchers from Central and Eastern Europe have to be reflexive in terms of their social positioning towards the subject matter of their studies which is conditioned also by the past and present politics of knowledge. 


The growing interest in collective memory as a subject area for social studies and humanities was noticed by several presenters at the conference. In her keynote speech, Aleida Assmann offered one possible interpretation of recent interest in collective memory. In the paper she argued about the ‘transformative power of memory’ in terms of both an ability of memory to transform the societies and transformations of the memory. From her point of view the development of approaches to society and history in the twentieth century can be presented as a transition from the ‘modernist frame’ (the 1940s-60s, forgetting as a way to resolve the negative past) to ‘memory frame’ (the last 30 years, remembering helps to overcome traumatic legacy of the past, e.g. ‘memory culture’ in Germany). The former is a ‘moralist perspective’, whereas the latter is the ‘ethical approach’. This transition implies the transformation of history into ‘national memory’ which has been understood in two ways: as ‘political myths’ and what Pierre Nora calls ‘lieux de memoire’ (in symbolic time and space). In terms of the impact this development has on policies, Assmann distinguishes ‘the old memory policy’ that has been built on pride and the ‘new’ one which emphasizes responsibility. This ethical approach to memory accounts for the EU as a result of the traumatic history. Thus ‘shareable memory’ (not shared memory) is the way to overcoming this trauma; by developing empathy with the experiences of others. This suggests an understanding of memory as a ‘dialogic’ process which brings together bilateral, entangled histories, thus accommodating several perspectives, including the one of victims who now ‘speak for themselves’. This dialogic understanding of memory underpins the human rights agenda. Assmann’s interpretation of the ‘memory turn’ strives to provide a universalistic explanation for the rejection of the ‘modernist frame’. However, in a way this approach remains within the same modernist (and to some extend Eurocentric) paradigm which prioritise the political function of memory.

In her presentation Aleida Assmann discussed memory within the same ‘national’ framework and at the ‘country level’. In a similar way, the majority of papers presented at the conference had their focus on ‘national memories’. To add to Olick’s list of themes that were absent from the conference, one might point out the memories of movement and mobility which would transcend the ‘national frame’ by connecting places and cultures bringing in memory narratives which are not embedded in national territory and history.


Even within the ‘national’ framework, the conference addressed issues related to memorialisation in just a few Central and Eastern Europe societies. Poland, Germany, Russia, Hungary and, possibly, Ukraine, could be considered the privileged case-studies. At the same time, however, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Moldova etc were virtually absent. More generally, if the selection of papers presented at the conference is taken to be representative for the research undertaken in Central and Eastern Europe, then one would have the powerful feeling that the Holocaust is remembered to a greater extent, and in more various ways, than the Gulag, or, more generally, the Communist era. Undoubtedly, the preponderance of Holocaust studies could be justified by the fact that the conference was organised in Poland, which could be considered the centre of the Holocaust ‘narrative’, and that the majority of speakers did indeed come from Poland; including papers focusing on the societies which barely appeared in the research presented at the conference would have probably tipped the balance in favour of remembering Socialism, since the Communism/Socialism narrative is much more visible at public level in particular contexts, as one could argue.


The focus on the memories of Holocaust would partly explain the centrality of the concept of ‘trauma’ for many papers presented at the conference. At the same time several presenters, as well as commentators, raised the interesting and important point that the current Holocaust studies are dominated by the discourse which has been developed in the West and by the voices of the survivors who moved to the West (including Israel) after WWII. This discourse emphasizes the collective suffering and redefines the traumatic experience of individuals as part of the ‘collective trauma’. Whereas in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, due to initial stigma attached by the Stalinist regime to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps and later because of internationalist ideology which stresses the common suffering rather than a genocide of Jews and Roma, the memories of Holocaust survivors were constructed as more individual recollections which did not suppose any collective narrative of suffering or trauma. Perhaps, due to this difference the memories of Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp survivals are sometimes structured by narrators, as it was shown by Martina Staats in her paper ‘Memories of Bergen-Belsen’, as stories of survival and the triumph of life over death, exemplified by the individual life trajectory rather than the part of the collective experience of trauma and victimhood. This is a very useful reminder that memory is part of the broader cultural and political processes which shaped the discourses within which individual recollections are produced, sometimes acting as ‘rules of the genre’ for such narratives.


Quite a few papers presented at the conference were on the topics and/or raised issues directly relevant to the MYPLACE research focus on memory, its intergenerational transmission, political activism and museums as ‘sites’ and ‘media’ of memory. For example the paper ‘Regimes of Memory in Communist and Post-Communist Romanian Museums’ by Simina Bădică presented an interesting observation about continuities and changes in the representation of socialism: pre-1989 representation of Communism has been rather mechanically amended after the change of the regime simply by changing the labels under the same objects, photographs and artefacts – that is, in temporary exhibitions, since there is still no large-scale exhibition dealing with the Communist era. At the same time the museums from two periods are organically linked demonstrating continuities in curatorial practices, staffing, and premises they have been occupying. Several presenters and commentators pointed out the deductive/educational style of labels in the Communist museums as if the correct understanding of the past by visitors was their main preoccupation. In the post-socialist media (e.g. museums and films) memories of Communism often presented in a politically loaded way by highlighting its ‘negative’/‘darker’ sides thought discourses of ‘collective trauma’, ‘occupation’, ‘prosecutions’,  ‘crimes of totalitarianism’, etc. without leaving space for other interpretations and ways of remembering this period. As Nicoletta Diasio commentated, these discursively constructed ‘anti-Soviet’ politics of remembering situated in a striking contrast with the nostalgic memories of socialism which museum visitors experience in a more sensorial and embodied way in Soviet/Communist theme cafés that are often present on the premises of such museums. Remembrance as embodiment, including a sensorial ordering of reminiscences constituted a topic of Diasio’s paper. She approached the intergenerational and family transmissions of memories from the anthropological perspective as bodily practices. Body here is understood as a medium of a subject’s experience which has corporal, emotional and sensorial aspects. Thus family resemblance, skills and body techniques are examples of such embodied memories which are passed within the family and sometimes form the core of family narratives. At the same time, the articulations – these seemingly physiological or biologically determined aspects are culturally and historically conditioned.  


However, on a slightly more critical note, notwithstanding a few excellent contributions, some of which were mentioned earlier, memories and processes of remembrance were dealt with on an abstract, textual level. Most of the papers focused on the production and regulation of memories and their impact on, or reflection of, social/cultural identities, and very few speakers tried to address the way in which these representations of the past, mediated by, and transmitted through, museums, films, literature, and historical narratives were received and consumed by their audiences. Also apart from photographs included in some presentations, there was no use of sound, moving images or objects. And certainly, remembrance can be attained through sensorial and material means as well, as Nicoletta Diasio argued.


‘Genealogies of Memory’ certainly achieved at least one important goal: it made participants – whether presenters or simply people interested in the ongoing debates – aware that memory studies are still very actual, and, in fact, there is more to be remembered than it appears at a first glance, when surveying the scholarly literature published in widely spoken languages, such as English. All in all, without attempting to include a comprehensive presentation of the state of memory studies in all Eastern and Central Europe, ‘Genealogies of Memory’ did offer thought-provoking analyses of memorialisation processes in Europe, thus demonstrating that people who study memory in specific, geographically limited contexts are not alone and that the issues they encounter are not necessarily geographically and culturally specific. What is to be done next?  We strongly believe that debates around processes of remembrance should not be confined to ‘national’ frameworks, dealing with memories only – or mainly – at textual level. On the contrary, collective projects such as MYPLACE forward the idea that in an era of globalisation, processes of memorialisation go beyond boundaries, of whichever type.

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