Is it moral to forget? Preventing the misuse of history and collective memory

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by Sarah Coolican, Programme Manager

Does remembering the past help us to learn from its lessons – or might it, in fact, be more moral to forget? The words of David Rieff in his book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memories and its Ironies, explores how we collectively engage with the past. The past of our nation, the past of ourselves, and the past we are taught is objective in its entirety. This idea of the ‘use and abuse’ of collective memory is not a new phenomenon to the teaching of history, and the idea of ‘memory’ and ‘remembering’ is not a social fact we must accept as universal.

The collective memories which shape history curricula and influence cultures are not factual accounts of the past, they are distorted accounts which reflect, the concerns of the present. ‘History is something which must serve the present’, states Professor Christopher Coker (LSE IDEAS), ‘it cannot serve itself; it must be either useful or harmful for the present’. This week marks a pivotal moment in Europe’s present, as Russian troops once again violate Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and throw the continent’s security into uncertainty. As the history of 2014 seems to be repeating itself, we must analyse further this notion of history serving the present, and the abuses of collective memory.

Sticking with the example of Russia, history has become one of the leading forces underpinning the perpetual authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin and his security forces. Throughout the past two-decades, the Russian State has been reaffirming the history of its people, in ways that are not positive to the development of harmonious relations with the European Union, and indeed, Europe on a wider scale.

Since 2013, the Russian State has issued a series of textbooks eliminating ‘the internal contradictions of Russian history’, anything that does not nurture a positive patriotic view of Russia and Russians themselves, has been erased from the teaching of history. The Security Council of the Russian Federation has bestowed upon itself a mandate to ‘prevent further distortions of Russian history by Russian citizens themselves’. Most recently, in August 2021, President Putin ordered the creation of a ‘Commission on Historical Education’ by decree, whose sole purpose is to ‘ensure a planned and aggressive approach to the matter of defending the national interests of the Russian Federation’. By creating these frameworks, and instilling the textbooks with these rules, the version of history we see being taught in Russian schools today underpins the legitimacy of the Kremlin’s rule.

The questions raised by Russia’s actions towards Ukraine, regarding the Slavic Peoples, the Russkii Mir, the historic nation of Kyivan Rus’, will not disappear when Putin departs office. The implications of what is taught to the younger generation in schools today, will be felt the world over for generations to come.

Day of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes in Kharkiv

Russia is not the only example of this. Milosevic’s Serbia was marked by a rememberance of ‘Serbian Victimhood’. The Irish Troubles have forged feelings between the nations within the United Kingdom for decades; the Apartheid years in South Africa, the breakup of Yugoslavia; the creation of historical memory in ways that serve a political purpose in the present is evident across the globe.

In Romania, the teaching of the Holocaust which occurred within its borders remains an emotive, contested and deeply divisive issue of modern life. As the country tries to define its national identity, both as part of the EU and as a nation in its own right, the question remains; can you discuss the holocaust, indeed all state-led atrocities, whilst remaining patriotic? Of course you can, argues Professor Coker.

We teach history in schools, like Romania, for a reason; to foster democracy. Fostering democracy by fostering critical faculties is imperative to the development of a stable and sustainable civil society. The teaching of history in a non-politicised way is vital to allowing populations to become critical of politicians, sceptical of populist of nationalist narratives, but most of all, reflective of ourselves and our heritage. We must not denigrate our history or outright denounce our wider heritage. This is not being self-critical; it is undermining our own self-belief. If there is to be a way of defeating the misuse of history and the manipulation of collective memory for populist means, then it is through the constructive reflection on past times, and the encouragement of wider conversation.

In the week that marks 50 years’ since President Richard Nixon’s gamble to meet President Mao Zedong in the capital of Red China, A trip to a communist country whose existence America did not recognise, there are lessons we must learn here from the notion of engaging with the things that seem to rail against all we have ever believed in.

In Nixon’s words; ‘we are under no illusions that 20 years of hostility will be swept away by one week of talks. But what we must do, is find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war’. If there are any lessons today that remain relevant from 1972, it would be how to approach an adversary, a topic of great polarisation, and engage with things we do not believe to be correct, moral or otherwise. The fundamental idea of discussion remains a pillar of statehood and a pillar of democracy which we must fight to retain in our civil society today.

If the teaching of history enables you to develop these skills of discussion and interrogation of facts from different viewpoints, then this is vital to the growth of a flourishing democracy. It is the present that is important, not the past. But our present must be formed by a deep understanding of our past.

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of The Teaching of History and its practical applications for the development of democracy, you can register (requirements permitting) to attend our History Workshop in Turda, Romania next month.

Sarah is the Programme Manager for the Central and South-Eastern Europe Programme at LSE IDEAS. She has a BA in Politics and Eastern European Studies from UCL, and an MSc in International Relations from LSE. Her research interests include modern Russian society and politics and the post-Soviet space. Twitter: @Sarah_Coolican