Interview #49 — Dealing with the past and the politics of memory

In this interview, Geneviève Zubrzycki explains how invented traditions constitute a pillar of modern nations and therefore how collective memories can help us understand modern nationalism. Memory is utterly political, she told POP, since it gives an explanation to collective questions about identity, who we are are where do we go.

From there, we discuss the universalization of the Holocaust and the German process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the Polish case and the efforts of Law and Justice to remythologize collective memories through a paradigm of victimhood. We then analyze the concept of “Christian heritage” and its implications, and discuss how the election of Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement reopened in the US a discussion about the legacy of slavery and reparations, the meaning of the Confederacy and its symbols in the South.

Enjoy the read.

POP) Your work titled “The Comparative Politics of Collective Memory” argues that research on collective memory has moved – in the last decades – to the center of the humanities and social sciences. How can we better understand nationalism, for example, if we observe it through the lenses of collective memories? In what sense invented traditions, lieux de mémoire, and commemorations are central aspects of the creation and maintenance of national identities?

invention tradition

The Invention of Tradition

GZ) The constructions of nations in the 19th century took different forms, but everywhere it implied the creation of origin stories, the development of mythologies, and deployment of symbols and rituals. Invented traditions (emphasizing either a break or a direct link with the past), commemorations and other rituals created a sense of commonality, solidarity, shared purpose and destiny in highly stratified societies. They fostered new allegiances by providing experiences generating that collective effervescence that Emile Durkheim has shown to be crucial for the identity of the group and its consolidation.  Memory (and memories, as in those created via the participation in national rituals and commemorations) act as a cultural cement, as an explanation for “who we are” and justification for “where we’re going.” In that sense, memory is utterly political.

POP) You write that “coming to terms with the past is a complex process whose outcome is not predetermined.” Analyzing five paradigmatic cases, indeed, it emerges how collective traumas and violent pasts can be re-elaborated in very different ways. Let’s start from Germany, the exemplary model for accepting historical responsibility. The process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or working through the past, was it really straightforward? In what sense it also served the purpose of denying collective guilt?

GZ) It certainly wasn’t straightforward…but of the five paradigmatic cases we discuss in the article, it is certainly the one that has dealt with its violent past the most decisively. With time, the universalization of the lessons of World War II and of the Holocaust more specifically created a certain distance between Germans and their historical guilt. That process of universalization of the Holocaust also runs the risk of turning the Jewish tragedy into an abstract concept. The Holocaust qua universal Evil can diffuse guilt and dilute victimhood. And with the passing of the last survivors, live memory is being effaced; hence efforts to preserve and disseminate it though oral and visual archives.

POP) Another very interesting case is Poland, which during communist times was stuck between the official heroization of the Red Army and deeply ingrained scripts of Polish Martyrdom. As a result, the Holocaust received very little attention until after 1989. Poland illustrates perfectly that reckoning with the past can bring polarization rather than consensus. As you write, in the battle over Polish collective memory, the far right party Law and Justice is trying to remythologize collective memories, and the Polish parliament approved the Institute of National Memory Law. What drives this process, and what does this imply for Polish collective identity?


Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

GZ) The Holocaust speech law was but one episode in Law and Justice’s application of its “historical policy,” which aims at shaping collective memory by either repressing or promoting specific interpretations of the past. Specific targets of the policy include assessments of World War II, the communist period, and the post-communist transition, as well as of more recent events, such the 2010 plane crash that killed the Polish president Lech Kaczyński, his wife, 94 other dignitaries and crew—a tragedy presented and commemorated as an attack on the Polish state by Russia, with the aid of Polish traitors. What these events share in common is a specific representation of Poland and Poles as victims, in line with long-standing tropes of Polish national mythology.

Among groups on the Right, any attempt at discussing Poles’ role in the Holocaust is perceived as defamation of the Polish nation. Law and Justice’s Holocaust speech law was therefore part of a broader process of reckoning (or not) with the past: it was deployed to stall what the party calls the “politics of shame” in the service of refurbishing national mythology. This process of remythologization includes not only denial, but the redirecting of memory away from the violence committed against Jews by gentile Poles, toward the commemoration of Poles who rescued Jews and who are honored by Israel as the “Righteous among Nations.”

That historical policy is meeting substantial resistance, however. Numerous organizations and public figures forcefully denounced the amended Institute of National Memory Law in official statements, public letters, and petitions. Scholars continue to research and publish on the participation of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust and refuse to allow the recognition of Polish Righteous deflect from a significant process of national soul-searching initiated some twenty years ago with the publication of Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors. What is at stake is the very meaning of Poland and, increasingly, the future of its democracy.

POP) Nationalism is widespread in Europe, from West to East, and it is often combined with a populist rhetoric. In particular, this allows dividing a society between the local population and the threat posed by the others, the aliens, the migrants. The European Union decided to build its identity upon the memory of two World Wars and the Holocaust, equally condemning fascism and communism. What kind of collective memories can keep the European identity unified and coherent with national identities?

GZ) A key common memory that conservatives and right-wing politicians often build on, is that of Europe’s “Christian heritage”.  Both terms are key: “Christian” is used as the umbrella term for a large family of various denominations; “forgotten” are the old feuds and bloody religious wars that have pitted Europeans against Europeans and have torn Europe for centuries. The adjective “Christian” is also—and most importantly—used as a key feature of Europe and European identity to distinguish and defend it from Islam and Muslim immigrants. It reaffirms the prerogative of the “host” society to define the rules of the game to its “guests.”  But the noun “heritage” is as important and should not be overlooked: By juxtaposing “heritage” to “Christian,” it is a history, a memory, an identity that is defended, not a family of religions per se. For Europe primarily imagines itself as secular, where religion belongs to the private sphere and the public (from education to politics to law) is religiously-neutral.

An important question for us to ponder, however, may not be what kind of collective memories can keep European identity unified and coherent with national identities, but whether collective memories and a European identity are necessary for the European Union to work?

POP) The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement started in the US, reactivating the debate on several crucial aspects of the country’s identity: Civil War, slavery, and racism, which so far have been only partially acknowledged despite the previous debates in the 1960s. Why these discussions resurfaced now, and why do you think they spread also in Europe?


GZ) The debates over the legacy of slavery and reparations; the Civil War and the meaning of the Confederacy and its symbols in the South; and enduring racism and violence against African Americans aren’t new, as you rightly point out.  These issues have however gained greater urgency with the rise of populism in the US and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Trump provided a platform to various far right groups to voice their racism and legitimated their views through his silence and sometimes his tacit approval, as when he declared that there were “fine people” of both sides of the conflict in Charlottesville (2017), where neo-Nazis marched to defend a Confederate statue, and a woman was killed.

Events like that of Charlottesville and the murders of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd raised white Americans’ awareness to issues of police brutality and systemic racism. Remember how controversial Kaepernick’s kneeling was in 2016? By 2020, the gesture had been adopted by all supporting the Black Lives Matter protests. Powerful images of white police officers taking the knee surrounded by protesters became viral.  

Europe too has a racism problem and a problematic rapport to its colonial past. The US Black Lives Matter movement provided a language, a repertoire of actions to galvanize similar movements in European countries.  Throughout Europe, statues of colonial figures have been defaced or taken down during the spring and summer. White police officers took the knee in London, and in France, the murder of George Floyd has brought back to the front pages the similar fate of Adama Traoré, killed in July 2016, and generated a new wave of protests through the Fall.


Geneviève Zubrzycki is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia at the University of Michigan. Her work examines politics and religion, nationalism, as well as national mythology and the politics of commemorations. She is the award-winning author of The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (Chicago 2006), Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion and Secularism in Quebec (Chicago 2016) and the editor of National Matters: Materiality, Culture, and Nationalism (Stanford 2017). She is currently completing a third monograph on the on-going revival of Jewish communities in Poland and non-Jewish Poles’ interest in all things Jewish, tentatively entitled Memory, Philosemitism and Nationalism in Contemporary Poland.

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