Between personal memories and grand narratives

“The aim of the conference is to show different perspectives on commemoration” – when ifa Representative Ronald Grätz took the stage for his welcoming remarks in the Europasaal last night, the agenda was set for this year’s conference ‘Erinnerungskulturen – European Commomoration’.

Diversity and a multitude of different perspectives will be paramount, not only for coming to terms with our past and the turbulent events of the 20th century, but also to set the path for a future that respects the historical particularities in finding a common way of commemoration. Grätz further anticipated some of the questions that will be the subject of discussion in the various workshops of the conference: Looking back, how did this year of commemoration change our perspectives on some of the events of the last century? Did it perhaps even change our way of commemoration overall? “Dealing with these questions and finding the adequate answers to them“, Grätz reminded the audience, “requires the effort of each and every one of us“.

Between personal memories and grand narratives

Picking up on the topic of shared and divergent ways of looking at history and commemorating historical events, Professor Alan Kramer of the Trinity College Dublin took the stage to give the first keynote of this year’s conference. “Too early to say?“ was the somewhat rethorical question and title of his lecture. Is it too early to say anything certain about the truly global dimensions of the First World War and the events that led to it? Is it perhaps too early to speak of a European, or indeed global way of commemorating such events? Yes and no, Kramer believes. On the one hand, despite the extensive efforts that have been put in understanding and reappraising the chaotic history of the 20th century, there are still vast differences in perception. On the other hand, efforts are being made to bring different perspectives together to deepen our understanding of history.

Concerning the First World War, Kramer particularly emphazised the new, all engulfing dimension of the war, that no one had been able to anticipate. The inherently new mode of warfare, mobilizing entire societies on an unprecedented scale, producing both cultures and economies of war, meant that all civilians everywhere had almost instantly become potential targets. Thus the history of the First World War, Kramer said, was most of all a history of underestimating the destructiveness of modern warfare. Accordingly, the Great War (as it is best known in France and England, already suggesting the quite diverse ways of perception of this war) not only left vast spaces of destruction on the map, but also in the minds of people. A “destruction of mental spaces“, as Kramer put it, leaving enough space to imagine the wars to come, both ideologically and on a personal level.

Again, such mental craters – destructive as they may have been – left people with very diverse conclusions for future action. Accordingly, there were vast divisions in public opinion throughout Europe in the wake of the Second World War, dividing those who opposed war by all means, recalling the atrocities of the last one and those, who saw war as a necessary means to untangle the messy geopolitical situation on the European continent once and for all. Of course, nationalist and fascist movements took advantage of this confusion, gaining strength and legitimacy by reducing the complexity of the political situation before, during and after the First World War to nationalist narratives.

Panel discussion with Gunnar Dedio and Prof Alan Kramer

Even at later stages in the 20th century, interpretations of the war were rather diverse. Consequently, the First World War is more present in the national narratives and commemoration of some countries, such as France or England, than others, such as Germany or Russia, where revolutions, the Second World War and the Cold War overshadowed the remembrance of the First World War.

However, despite national differences and the prevailance of national narratives, there has been a recent surge in international historiography, a trend towards an internationalization of research. So what does the future of commemoration hold for us? Are we heading to, as Aleida Assman calls them, “transnational cultures of remembrance“? For this, Kramer was sure, it is yet too early to say.

Taking a non-national approach

The evening was concluded by the screening of the first part of the documentary-drama “14 – Diaries of the Great War” and the following discussion between producer Gunnar Dedio and Professor Alan Kramer. The talk, moderated by Andrea Thilo, focused particularly on the importance of taking a multinational approach to commemoration, in order to come to a non-national way of looking at history and to come to a deeper, more differentiated understanding of the past. In response to a question from the audience, asking whether we are “European enough” to have a common European identy at all, Professor Kramer stated that, “The way we commemorate is always part of our identy, but identity is never this singular thing. There is no strictly German identity, nor a single European identity”. The very diverse impressions and memories expressed in “14 – Diaries of the Great War” seem to underline this estimation. Both Kramer and Dedio agreed on the importance of accentuating personal memories in opposition to the type of state-issued commemoration, that is still very prominent today, particularly in Great Britain, as Kramer noted. A possibe future way of breaking up old, encrusted interpretations of history may be the co-creation potential of the Internet. Open access scholarship may very well have a great influence on the way commemoration is organized accross boarders in the future. As Dedio put it in reference to future generations and their access to knowledge and understandings: “If we don’t put it on the Internet they will not look for it in books.”


Photos: © Wolfgang Borrs, 2014

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