Jay Winter “Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War”

Essay from “Cultural Memory Studies”

Informative passages:

Sites of memory are places where groups of people engage in public activity through which they express “a collective shared knowledge […] of the past, on which a group’s sense of unity and individuality is based” (Assman 15). The group that goes to such sites inherits earlier meanings attached to the event, as well as adding new meanings.Their activity is crucial to the presentation and preservation of commemorative sites. When such groups disperse or disappear, sites of memory lose their initial force, and may fade away entirely. (61)

Moments of national humiliation are rarely commemorated or marked in material form, though here too there are exceptions of a hortatory kind. “Never again” is the hallmark of public commemoration on the Israeli Day of Remembrance for victims of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The shell of public buildings in Hiroshima remind everyone of the moment the city was incinerated in the first atomic attack. Where moral doubts persist about a war or public policy, commemorative sites are either hard to fix or places of contestation. That is why there is no date or place for those who want to commemorate the end of the Algerian War in France, or the end of the Vietnam War in the United States. There was no moral consensus about what was being remembered in public, and when and where were the appropriate time and place to remember it (Prost).
When the Japanese Prime Minister visits a shrine to war dead, he is honoring war criminals as well as ordinary soldiers. The same was true when President Ronald Reagan visited the German cemetery at Bitburg, where lie the remains of SS men alongside the graves of those not implicated in war crimes. And yet both places were sites of memory; contested memory; embittered memory, but memory nonetheless.
The critical point about sites of memory is that they are there as points of reference not only for those who survived traumatic events, but also for those born long after them. The word “memory” becomes a metaphor for the fashioning of narratives about the past when those with direct experience of events die off. Sites of memory inevitably become sites of second-order memory, that is, they are places where people remember the memories of others, those who survived the events marked there. (62)

1. Commemoration and Political Power

[T]he usefulness to political elites of public events…establishing the legitimacy of their rule…Bastille Day in Paris or Independence Day in Philadelphia or elsewhere in the United States. But other events are closely tied to the establishment of a new regime and the overthrow of an older one.
This top-down approach proclaims the significance of sites of memory as a materialization of national, imperial, or political identity.
[T]here is always a chorus of voices in commemorations; some are louder than others, but they never sound alone…Very occasionally, these dissonant voices come together, and a national moment of remembrance emerges…One example…the two-minute silence observed in Britain between 1919 and 1938 at 11:00 am on November 11. Telephonists pulled the plugs on all conversations. traffic stopped. The normal flow of life was arrested…in the two decades between the wars, it was a moment of national reflection, located everywhere. Mass Observation, a pioneering social survey organization, asked hundreds of ordinary people in Britain what they thought about during the silence. The answer was that they thought not of the nation or of victory or of armies, but of the men who weren’t there. This silence was a meditation about absence. As such it moved away from political orchestration into the realm of family history.
In addition, some buildings can be converted into sites of memory unofficially. A cinema where workers organized a strike, a home where women created a midwifery or child care center, a school where people made homeless by a natural disaster found shelter can all be turned into sites of memory by those who lived important moments there (Hayden). (62-65)

3. Aesthetic Redemption

The life history of sites of memory is described by more than political gestures and material tasks. Frequently a site is also an art form, the art of creating, arranging, and interpreting signifying practices.
By the latter decades of the twentieth century, artistic opinion and aesthetic tastes had changed sufficiently to make abstraction the key language of commemorative expression. Statues and installations thereby escaped from specific national notation and moved away from the earlier emphasis upon the human figure…In many instances in Western Europe, but by no means all, forms which suggested absence or nothingness replaced classical, religious, or romantic notions in commemorative art.
This shift was noticeable in Holocaust remembrance. Holocaust sites of memory–concentration and extermination camps, in particular, but also places where Jews had lived before the Shoah–could not be treated in the same way as sites commemorating the dead of the two world wars. The first difficulty was the need to avoid Christian notation to represent a Jewish catastrophe. The second was the allergy of observant Jews to representational art, either forbidden or resisted within Orthodox Jewish tradition. The third was the absence of any sense of uplift, of meaning, of purpose in the deaths of the victims. Those who died in the Holocaust may have affirmed their faith thereby, but what is the meaning in the murder of one million children? To a degree, their deaths meant nothing, and therefore the Holocaust meant nothing.
Representing nothing became a challenge met in particular ways. Some artists provided installation art which literally vanished through the presence of visitors. Others projected photographs of the vanished world onto the facades of still erect buildings, occupied by non-Jews. Others adopted post-modern forms to suggest disorientation, void, emptiness. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish annex to the Berlin Historical Museum is one such site. It has been likened to a Jewish star taken apart, or a lightning bolt in stone and glass. Whatever metaphor one chooses, it is a disturbing, tilted, non-linear representation of the unrepresentable.
Since the 1970s, commemoration of the Second World War has become braided together with commemoration of the Holocaust…Great War commemorative forms had sought out some meaning, some significance in the enormous loss of life attending that conflict. There was an implicit warning in many of these monuments. “Never again” was their ultimate meaning. But “never” had lasted a bare twenty years.Thus after the Second World War, the search for meaning became infinitely more complex…
[T]he extreme character of the Second World War challenged the capacity of art–any art–to express a sense of loss when it is linked to genocidal murder or thermonuclear destruction…What kind of site is appropriate where the majority of people see no meaning at all in the events being marked in time and in space? Ignoring Auschwitz or Hiroshima is impossible, but locating them within earlier commemorative structures or gestures is either problematic or absurd or both. (67-70)

4. Ritual

There are at least three stages in the history of rituals surrounding public commemoration…[T]he construction of a commemorative form…the grounding of ritual action in the calendar, and the routinization of such activities…[and] their transformation or their disappearance as active sites of memory.
There are occasions when the household itself becomes a site of memory…This framework of family transmission of narratives about the past is an essential part of public commemoration. It also helps us understand why some commemorative forms are changed or simply fade away. When the link between family life and public commemoration is broken, a powerful prop of remembrance is removed. Then, in a short time, remembrance atrophies and fades away. Public reinforcements may help keep alive the ritual and practice of commemoration. But the event becomes hollow when removed from the myriad small-scale social units that breathed life into it in the first place.
At that moment commemorative sites and practices can be revived and re-appropriated. The same sites used for one purpose can be used for another. But most of the time, sites of memory live through their life cycle, and life the rest of us, inevitably fade away.

This natural process of dissolution closes the circle on sites of memory in the public commemoration which occurs around them and rightly so since they arise out of the needs of groups of people to link their lives with salient events in the past. When that need vanishes so does the glue that holds together the social practice of commemoration. Then collective memories fade away, and sites of memory decompose. Or, simply, fade into the landscape. Let me offer two instances of this phenomenon. For decades, the national war memorial in Dublin, designed by Sir. Edwin Lutyenes, was completely overgrown with grass. No one could tell what it was, and this was no accident. That one hundred thousand Irishmen died for Britain’s king and country was not an easy matter to interpolate in Irish history after 1918. But with the waning of sectarian violence in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the grass was cut, and the monument reappeared as if out of thin air. Sites of memory vanish, to be sure, but they can be conjured up again when people decide once again to mark the moment they commemorate. At other times, resurrection is more difficult. For years, I asked my students at Cambridge, what did they see at the first intersection into town from the railway station. Most answered, nothing at all. What they did not see was the town war memorial of victorious soldiers striding back home right at the first traffic light into town. They did not see it because it had no meaning to them. It was simply white noise in stone. For them to see it, someone had to point it out, and others had to organize acts of remembrance around it. Without such an effort, sites of memory vanish into thin air and stay there. We have reached therefore a quixotic conclusion. Public commemoration is both irresistible and unsustainable. Constructing sites of memory is a universal social act, and yet these very sites are as transitory as the groups of people who create and sustain them. Time and again, people have come together at particular places, in front of particular sites of memory, to seek meaning in vast events in the past and try to relate them to their own smaller networks of social life. These associations are bound to dissolve, to be replaced by other forms with other needs and other histories. At that point, the characteristic trajectory of sites of memory, bounded by their creation, institutionalization, and decomposition, comes to an end. (70-73)


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