The Search for a Usable Past

Oct 10, 2001

At the October 25-26 Carnegie Council conference "The Search for a Usable Past," a group of scholars discussed the question "What ought we elect to remember?"

The modern idea of a usable past reflects a desire to make sense of national experiences in ways that unify rather than separate us. The search for a usable past aims at creating a better world by incorporating achievements as well as regrets, pride as well as disappointment, into our historical accounts. In the right hands the usable past can be an expression of communal aspiration.

Organized by the Council's program on History and the Politics of Reconciliation with funding from Japan's Uehiro Foundation, the conference provided a forum for leading experts to present their ideas on the quest for a usable past in various regions and ethnic groups: the United States, Japan, Germany, Russia, the Philippines, and the Jewish people. Excerpts from several of their papers are presented below.

AKIRA IRIYE, Harvard University
On the difficulty of distinguishing between fact and fiction . . .
History, writes Malcolm Bradbury, the British novelist and critic, "is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past." The statement is not as preposterous as it sounds. The distinction between history and fiction is not very clear-cut. Quite often we learn history from fiction. Who has not come to understand the Napoleonic wars from Tolstoy's War and Peace? Or the First World War from Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front or, more recently Faulks's Birdsong? It is extremely difficult to separate "lies" from facts. . . . [S]o long as history is compartmentalized into national histories, it will be difficult to avoid the temptation of presenting the past only in terms of some "lies" that may make sense to a particular country but to no others.

On history as shared enterprise . . .
National pasts should be shared if they are to be understood. The refusal of Japanese publishing houses to issue a Japanese edition of Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking because it was extremely critical of Japanese behavior during the Chinese-Japanese war was unfortunate because it deprived Japanese, Chinese, and others of an opportunity to share the past. Likewise, the decision made by the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 to mount an exhibit of the Enola Gay without consulting a wide range of American, not to mention Japanese, historians made it a national—not an international—event, not conducive to shared historical understanding.

ROBERT MOELLER, University of California, Irvine
On the reinterpretation of German identity . . .
In the search to determine what it means to be a "normal" nation, Germans would do well to locate their history in a broad comparative framework. . . . how Germans remember the past is not something Germans alone will determine.

On the importance of scrutinizing public memory...
The study of the history of memory can illuminate how easily memory can block historical understanding and impede an open discussion of the past, making it difficult to answer some questions and predetermining the answers to others.

EAMONN CALLAN, Stanford University
On the challenge of achieving racial reconciliation in the face of historical truth . . .
Academic American history has in recent decades developed in ways that discredit much within the traditional patriotic narrative. Slavery was not the benign, paternalistic institution it had been represented as for much of the twentieth century; it was oppression at its most terrible. And Emancipation did not signal the end of whatever wrong slavery had done; it was only one episode in a fitful and still incomplete struggle against American racism. . . . The question then is how might the new multicultural history nourish the public memory needed for racial reconciliation in the United States.

THOMAS SHERLOCK, U.S. Military Academy
On the problem of reemerging Russian nationalist sentiment under Vladimir Putin . . .
Putin's treatment of the Russian past has been unsettling. As part of a broader agenda of strengthening the Russian state, the government has sought to remove the negative valuation of the communist period. The purpose is to create an organic connection between the tsarist, communist, and post-communist periods through the unifying principle of the Russian state and its great power status. Thus, the old Soviet anthem is now played in halls emblazoned with the imperial double-headed eagle. . . . This initiative may overturn, or at least halt, the very real progress of Russian historians and teachers in advancing truth about the Russian past through careful inquiry and pluralist debate. The emerging narrative of Russian identity will offer at least a semblance of historical continuity and meaning to a demoralized Russia, but at the cost of diminished progress toward an acceptance by Russian society of pluralist, inclusionary values.

DAVID ROSKIES, Jewish Theological Seminary
On the power of Jewish covenantal memory . . .
When all else has changed, when the geographic, linguistic, genetic, and ideological foundations of Jewish life have been utterly shaken—reduced, in places, to ground zero—the system of covenantal memory has remained remarkably constant.

On the impact of American popular culture on shared Jewish memory . . .
Steven Spielberg correctly read the American popular imagination when he recast the story of Schindler's List into a Christian parable of sin-death-and-resurrection, ending . . . in Jerusalem! To complete the transformation of the Holocaust into a second Sinai, there is the U.S. Memorial and Holocaust Museum in Washington and the institution of a Holocaust Remembrance Week. . . . What does the Americanization—and soon, globalization—of covenantal memory portend for the future? . . . Will memory remain an aggressive act?

JONATHAN HANSEN, Harvard University
On the attempt to legitimize U.S. expansionism in the Philippines . . .
By assuming that savages had no civilization of their own, and thus nothing that distinguished one savage group from another, [Theodore] Roosevelt and [Woodrow] Wilson deprived [the Filipinos] of memory. This engendered a simplistic account of the problems that might beset colonial rule. Once the Philippines insurrection was crushed, they supposed, Filipinos would accept the rule of masters. Having no memory, Filipinos could harbor no bitterness. Violence had no legacy. Brutality could serve the ends of peace.

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