Memorialization, Historiography & History Education: Memory & History Work & Peacebuilding Processes

Memorialization and history work may have a variety of purposes. History can be used or mobilized to promote either conflict or peacebuilding. Most post-conflict societies have experienced how, in the hands of capable ethnic entrepreneurs, past events (factual or fictional) could be used to illustrate historical wrongs, humiliation and exploitation and to mobilize people for political purposes.1 Peacebuilding is a highly politicized process in which conflicting visions of the past (including the recent history of war) and future shape discourses and practices in multiple ways. Working on these dimensions is crucial as they refer to key intangible aspects of peacebuilding related to issues of culture, dignity, human relationships and collective identities.2 Yet, little attention has been paid so far to the integration of these programs in the overall peacebuilding process; they are very low priorities. The question of schooling itself is generally approached by donors in relation to employment and economic development, not in relation to intangible dimensions on conflict transformation. As a consequence, teaching of history, social studies and the humanities in post-conflict societies has been considered a low priority; instead, more emphasis is placed on subjects seen to have practical value for competition in the global marketplace, such as foreign languages, math, science, technology, and vocational training.3 Go to Economic Recovery: Employment

In peacebuilding processes, memory and history work contribute more specifically:
  • To account for a variety of narratives and complex truths (memory politics in the aftermath of violence);
  • To assist survivors and support transitional justice efforts;
  • To support reconciliation processes and the construction of a re-imagined political community;
  • To pave the way for future generations and prevent future violence.

To account for a variety of narratives and complex truths (memory politics in the aftermath of violence)

In the aftermath of a conflict, a society attempts to re-write the narratives of its past, including the most recent one. History and collective memory, as perpetuated through processes such as memorialization, can assist divided societies in that difficult task. These are complex and often contradictory processes as multiple narratives and several registers of truth exist but do not necessarily coincide. The process of constructing a narrative must be examined using the following dualities: collective history and psychic history; individual histories and group relations; and group linkages and the workings of culture.

Some scholars have suggested distinguishing three notions of truth, which together comprise what others have called 'complex truths.'4 First, there is the establishment of facts that could serve as a basis for a public recognition of the gravity of what has happened, what some have called 'forensic truth.'5 All societies show this need to publicly document who died, by what means, by whom and why. "The second system is the subjective, and theological or philosophical elaboration at both the individual and collective levels of a method for organizing memories and lending sense to them. The final system is composed in the realm of fantasy and art, which prevent what has occurred from passing into oblivion, and, to an even greater extent address the key question: 'How and why could such a thing have happened? What does it mean?'"6 These two last systems contribute to the construction of a 'narrative truth.' Some have suggested that "the truth that matters to people" is not even factual or narrative but "moral or interpretive truth."7 The important element on which all analysts coincide is that different systems of 'truth' (or viewpoints) co-exist, intermingle, and sometimes enrich each other, without necessarily coinciding. They can also generate multiple contradictions. These challenges must be fully taken into account by any actor wanting to participate in a peacebuilding effort. Go to Challenges: Controversial vs. consensual memories

This is complicated by the fact that different social actors don't have the same connection to past experience. Some lived through specific periods or events, some inherited them, some studied them, etc. Yet, everyone strives to affirm the legitimacy of his or her truth.  This may create "a struggle among 'memory entrepreneurs,' who seek social recognition and political legitimacy of one (their own) interpretation or narrative of the past."8 In such circumstances, the "construction of joint narratives requires patience and readiness to examine and engage the other sides perspective, especially in cases when such positions seem initially offensive. It means engaging the best possible research with the recognition of a political end."9 "This does not mean banally insisting that both have a point, or 'splitting the difference' (which is a political strategy). It means listening to, testing, and ultimately making public their respective sub-narratives or partial stories. To resort to a musical analogy: written history must be contrapuntal, not harmonic. That is, it must allow the particular histories of national groups to be woven together linearly alongside each other so that the careful listener can follow them distinctly but simultaneously, hearing the whole together with the parts."10 This cannot be done overnight. In most cases, "once sufficient time has elapsed to make possible the establishment of a minimum degree of distance between the past and present, alternative (even rival) interpretations of that recent past and its memory occupy a central place in cultural and political debates."11

This means that all segments of a society need to be able to acknowledge the dynamic nature of these elements and share a desire to move on. "The past is gone, it is already de-termin(at)ed; it cannot be changed. The future, by contrast, is open, uncertain, indeterminate.  What can change about the past is its meaning, which is subject to reinterpretations anchored in intentions and expectations toward the future. That meaning of the past is dynamic and is conveyed by social agents engaged in confrontations with opposite interpretations, other meanings, or against oblivion and silence. Actors and activities 'use' the past, bringing their understandings and interpretations about it into the public sphere of debate. Their intention is to establish/convince/transmit their narrative, so that others will accept it."12

Both history and memorial work can contribute to such a transformation. History education, in particular, needs to be taught differently. "Too often, history is presented as a rigid concept and children are led to believe that their place in history and their associated roles cannot be challenged, let alone changed."13 To give children a sense that this can be different is to invite them into a transformative process. Memorialization activities also allow for such a dynamic because they fundamentally rely on symbolization. "Symbolization must allow for the opening and forging of a pathway between the different systems of truth so that they may share in mutual recognition, move closer together, even if this process is difficult and even painful."14

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To assist survivors and support transitional justice efforts

"Memory, as perpetuated through processes such as memorialisation seen in national monuments and commemorative celebrations can assist [...] survivors of human rights violations through symbolic reparations to begin the process of healing."15 Public acknowledgement and remembrance of atrocity is an act of collective recognition. 16 It tells victims and survivors that the community/society values their humanity and recognizes the tragedy of what has occurred; it even honors them.17 In some circumstances, history and memorial work may also participate in a rehabilitation process for both survivors and victims. In countries like in Guatemala, the perpetrators long argued that those killed were combatants or had massacred each other. "Learning the facts (which involves, in the Guatemala case, the long and painful work of exhuming mass graves) and acknowledging them publicly contribute to restore the dignity of the deceased, and allow survivors and families to commence the mourning process.  If such a process, which official discourse tends to suppress, does not occur the story fails to find a permanent space in society, thus remaining absent from the individual stories as well as from the collective history."18

In such a perspective, memorialization processes can have a healing and restorative function.19 Memorialization comes into play both with respect to reparations and reparation. "Acts or objects of reparations generally symbolise something to individuals, i.e. in form, quality, shape or image they represent or indirectly express something abstract or invisible such as the memory of a loved one, and all objects and acts of reparations exist within the social and political realm. They have a wider meaning and generally come to take on a social and individual significance, and communicate something socially, i.e. they represent or indirectly express something abstract or invisible about those giving or granting the reparations, for example an admission of guilt, benevolence, care for citizens by society, and/or a willingness to pay back what has been lost and/or a willingness to remember and honour those who were killed... A process of reparation aims (often as a package of several acts of reparations of which memorialization can be one) to symbolise or abstractly represent something much more expansive than objects or acts of reparations can communicate in and of themselves. Reparation symbolises or abstractly represents, for example, doing justice, showing contrition, historically moving forward as a society, or recognising and restoring human and civil dignity..."20 How a memorial is conceived and developed will psychologically communicate to a victim/survivor population how their plight is understood in the wider social context. "Put another way, adequate reparation takes place when reparations are seen by the victim or survivor as being 'good enough.'"21 In that sense, symbolic reparations should in now way detract from the state providing other forms of reparations. Symbolic reparations must be part of a holistic reparation strategy and should complement other forms of reparation.

The increased recognition of memorialization within the transitional justice field is exemplified by recommendations of various truth commission reports, endorsing the idea of symbolic reparations in the form of memorials, sites of memory, commemorative days, the renaming of public facilities in the names of victims, and other artistic/cultural endeavors.22

Another clear connection between memorial and history work on one hand, and transitional justice on the other, is "the role played by reconstructed narratives in a national or international legal framework, as in the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and, to an even greater extent, in the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and now the International Criminal Court, insofar as they attempt to offer a certain representation of what has occurred. The work of Mark Osiel shows how judicial mechanisms shape collective memory; it also reveals the many contradictions in that process."23 More efforts will be certainly needed to ensure that "truth commissions make better use of their proceedings and final reports to prepare countries for tasks that logically follow--incorporating the truth commissions' findings into educational programs and memorial projects designed to prevent future generations from forgetting the past and repeating its mistakes."24   Go to Trauma, mental health and psycho-social well-being, Reconciliation and challenges: A better connection with transitional justice processes

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To support reconciliation processes and the construction of a re-imagined political community

"Various studies have shown that memory is intrinsically linked to identity and the transmission of memory and history in a post-conflict period can play a significant role in evolving new identities of citizenship. [...] While national narratives often portray a selective version of the past in an attempt to build a national identity and consolidate new political identities, narratives within the home and school have the potential to provide alternative versions of the past to provide a more holistic picture of events of the past as well as promote a critical citizenship."25 Actors engaged in peacebuilding and democratization processes "link their projects and their orientations toward the future with the memories of their violent and conflictive past."26 This is even more important in societies involved in nation building processes after widespread violence. Especially in such cases, "the need for a usable past, which implies some kind of master narrative that is both officially sanctioned and not exclusively negative, is genuine and cannot be ignored."27 The notion of a master narrative refers to "more or less conscious efforts to define and reinforce feelings of belonging that aim to maintain social cohesion and defend symbolic borders. At the same time, [master narratives] provide the reference points for framing memories of groups and sections within each national context."28 Together with patriotic symbols, monuments, and pantheons to national heroes, they can serve as a central node for identification and for anchoring national identity. Of course, there will always be others "who--whether in the form of private oral stories or as practices of resistance to power-- will offer alternative narratives and meanings of the past."29

Here, we are referring to the process of (re)constructing what Benedict Anderson called an 'imagined community.' "It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."30 Having a sense of a shared history is a central component in that formation of new collective identities and political communities.

Memorialization presents a powerful arena for such processes, in particular as it works with contested memory.31 "When memory projects go beyond the role of museums to become centers of discourse on the past, they become living examples of the reconciliation process, signifying the population's recognition of the past and its affirmation of a different future.[...] They are critical to the process of deepening a country's democracy by creating avenues for building trust and mutual understanding. Identity is forged and renewed, networks of communication are developed, and society is reconfigured, all of which can contribute significantly to a successful transition to democracy, the creation of functional democratic institutions, and a more unified society."32

National and international researchers generally agree that a fundamental goal of history education is to "transmit ideas of citizenship and both the idealized past and the promised future of the community."33 It is not surprising, then, that reforms to history education are nearly always specifically about changing the representations of the political community's past and changing methodology "to promote tolerance, inclusiveness, an ability to deal with conflict nonviolently, and the capacity to think critically and question assumptions that could again be manipulated to instigate conflict."34 It is often complemented by the concept of "peace [or peacebuilding] education" which seeks to support "an educational process that allows students to articulate, accommodate and accept differences between and within groups [...].  This entails a distinct two-fold process that nurtures and constructs positive inter-group relations while marginalizing and deconstructing negative inter-group relations."35 Go to Reconciliation and Democracy and Governance

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To pave the way for future generations and prevent future violence

If used constructively, memorialization processes and history work can allow different generations to understand the conflict and mediate between the past and the present. Societies pass on memories of previous atrocities through intergenerational dialogue, education, and memorials. Intergenerational dialogue cannot be supported only by what is taught and discussed at school. A crucial arena for transmitting historical memories from one generation to another is the family;36 yet, in many post-conflict settings, silence about the past is often pervasive in the familial circles. "It is quite common that members of the generation immediately succeeding the one that endured periods of extreme violence have trouble making sense of entire segments of their lives,  not to mention their identity, as a result of the silence maintained by their parents, and, more generally, by the adults of the community."37

In the immediate aftermath of violence, the young generation needs to receive specific attention as "it is the generation that inherits the experience of violence as still living memory; and which moulds and converts this remembrance into some form of collective memory or historical knowledge.  It is in this crucial interval that the past can be frozen into fixed mythology, or comprehended in its historical complexity; and in which the cycles of revenge can be perpetuated or interrupted. The moment of transmission is important to dwell on, because it is a moment of real danger; but also of genuine hope and possibility."38 Here again, there is a lot of discussion about what the main goal of this process should be. Psychiatrists, historians, educators, human rights activists seem to agree that separating the past from the present--understanding the past as the past-- is a key achievement for any society. "The ultimate objective of history is to give meaning to past events and to inscribe them in the passage of time, doing so with the hope of preventing or limiting the chances that tragedies will recur, or at least raising the populations awareness of the risks.  This is a constitutional element of history in the scientific sense: It aims to transform that narrative into a moment of comprehension and social intervention, so that it becomes the occasion to participate in that development essential to all societies, that of putting the past behind us."39  Indeed, many societies emerging from periods of political violence actively utilize the phrase 'never again' (nunca más in various post-dictatorship or post-authoritarian Latin American societies in the 1990s and post-war Guatemala and El Salvador).

Yet, some scholars have noted that "interpretations and explanations of the past cannot be automatically transmitted from one generation to the next, but rather require a fostering of a process of identification that can produce a broadening of the we, yet leave the door open for reinterpretation on the part of the young and those who were there, but did not know what was happening."40 As such, history education may be conceived of within a context of civic or peace education. Similarly, historiographic skills enable young people to realize "the intersection between their personal stories and larger collective histories. Only when young people realize that histories are constructed rather than given, can they even begin to contemplate challenging and changing the behaviour that poisons inter-group relations."41

1. Kenneth D. Bush and Diane Saltarelli, The Two Faces of Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children (Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, 2000), 13.
2. Ereshnee NaiduThe Ties that Bind: Strengthening the Links between Memorialisation and Transitional Justice (South Africa: The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2006), 2.
3. Elizabeth A. Cole and Judy Barsalou, "Unite or Divide? The Challenges of Teaching History in Societies Emerging from Violent Conflict" (Washington, DC: USIP, June 2006), 7.
4. Judy Barsalou, "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies" (Washington, DC: USIP, April 2005), 7.
5. Beatrice Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts," 4 and Elizabeth Oglesby, "Historical Memory and the Limits of Peace Education: Examining Gautemalas Memory of Silence and the Politics of Curriculum Design" (Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, June 2004), 10.
6. Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts," 4.
7. Michael Ignatieff, "Articles of Faith," Index on Censorship 5, 96 (September 1996).
8. Elizabeth Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 33.
9. Elazar Barkan, "Engaging History: Managing Conflict and Reconciliation," History Workshop Journal 59 (Spring 2005), 233.
10. Charles S. Maier, "Doing History, Doing Justice: The Narrative of the Historian and of the Truth Commission," in Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, ed. Robert I. Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), 275.
11. Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, xvii.
12. Ibid, 27.
13. Bush and Saltarelli, The Two Faces of Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children, 20.
14. Beatrice Pouligny, Bernard Doray and Jean-Clement Martin. "Methodological and Ethical Problems: A Trans-Disciplinary Approach," in After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2007), 31.
15. Naidu, The Ties that Bind: Strengthening the Links between Memorialisation and Transitional Justice, 1.  
16. Brandon Hamber, "Public Memorials and Reconciliation Process in Northern Ireland," Paper presented at the "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies Conference" Airlie House, Warrington, Virginia, USA, March 27-29, 2004, citing Sanford Levinson, Written in Stone: Public monuments in changing societies (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1998), 63.
17. Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice" (Washington, DC: USIP, January 2007), 4.
18. Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of 'Transitional Justice' Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts," 9-10 and R. René Kaës, Violence dEtat et psychanalyse (Paris: Dunod, 1989).
19. Hamber, "Public Memorials and Reconciliation Process in Northern Ireland," 63.
20. Ibid, 6.
21. Ibid, 7.
22. Naidu, The Ties that Bind: Strengthening the Links between Memorialisation and Transitional Justice, 1.
23. Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts," 13 and Marc Osiel, Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory and the Law (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).
24. Barsalou and Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice."
25. Ereshnee Naidu and Cyril Adonis, History on their own Terms: The Relevance of the Past for a New Generation (South Africa: Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2007), 29.
26. Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, 3.
27. Elizabeth A. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," in Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation, ed. Elizabeth A. Cole (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 19.
28. Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, 27.
29. Ibid.
30. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1983), 5.
31. Barsalou and Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice", 4.
32. Sarah Topol, "What's being Done on Memory Projects?" (Washington, DC: World Movement for Democracy).
33. Hein and Selden, Censoring History, 3 and Naidu and Adonis, History on their own Terms: The Relevance of the Past for a New Generation, 23.
34. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 1-2.
35. Bush and Saltarelli, The Two Faces of Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children, 22.
36. Naidu and Adonis, The Relevance of the Past for a New Generation, 6-7.
37. Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts," 10.
38. Eva Hoffman, "The Balm of Recognition: Rectifying Wrong through the Generations," in Human Rights, Human Wrongs, ed. Nicholas Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 291.
39. Pouligny, Doray and Martin, "Methodological and Ethical Problems: A Trans-disciplinary Approach," 36.
40. Naidu and Adonis, The Relevance of the Past for a New Generation, 6-7.
41. Bush and Saltarelli, The Two Faces of Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children, 20.

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