The Politics of Collective Memory | Teen Ink

The Politics of Collective Memory

July 14, 2019
By Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
11 articles 0 photos 45 comments

Favorite Quote:
Make the best of what is within our power, and take the rest as it occurs. -Epictetus

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” says George Santayana. It is not difficult to see the logic here. Remembering ones’ past is important to ensure they don’t make the same mistake in the future. However, what if two groups that experience the same event choose to remember it differently? This happens around the globe today.

Following the tragic wars in the 20th century and the rapid technology developments, politicians realize the huge costs of military conflicts and shift to focus on soft power competition. Clearly, how the state presents its past to the world and its citizens is a crucial element in using its soft power. To establish a positive image, states regularly revising their history, either by “forgetting” unfavorable parts or emphasizing favorable parts. However, this can lead to a crisis of collective memory—two states present the same event in contrary ways.

In Japan, people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in WWII, because their history textbook talk about WWII history in a heavily abridged fashion. Many Japanese history textbooks leave out the Rape of Nanjing and the use of comfort women, two of the most inhumane actions that Japanese Empire ever committed, and also there are justifications for the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor—which lead to the US entering the war—by referring to the US embargo on Japan as a declaration of war. By “forgetting” these important portions of history, the Japanese government aims to downplay Japan's responsibilities for its wartime atrocities, so teenagers would not feel guilty of the past and tend more to support the nationalist government.

Not knowing the historical truths, many Japanese people do not understand the political tension between Japan and its neighboring countries today, which in part stems from Japan’s distortion of history. Its neighbors, especially South Korea and China, “remember” the real version of history and thus have condemned Japan for, in a sense, denying its past vile acts. In this case, although the government may have succeed to brainwash some teenagers and cultivate their nationalist spirit, the distortion of history has led to a decline Japan’s international reputation.

Thankfully, many teachers in Japan today teach students more genuine versions of WWII history, despite current textbooks. These teachers remind students the importance of remembering the Japanese crimes in WWII and guide students to understand the relationship between Japan and neighboring countries objectively. Hopefully, their efforts can change Japanese official conception of WWII in the future.

Contrary to how Japan deals with its WWII crimes is Germany’s approach to “remember” the Holocaust. In German schools, history teachers teach Hitler’s evil acts to students, and the Holocaust serves as a lesson that is repeatedly taught throughout the curriculum from primary school to university. The education on the Holocaust shapes German people’s correct view of history—my German friends tell me that they feel guilty of the Holocaust and determine not to repeat the mistake of their forefathers.

In addition, Holocaust denial is a crime in present day Germany. The first law against Holocaust denial was passed as a reaction to re-emerging anti-Semitism which began happening in the 1960’s. In 1985, the Bundestag (the German Parliament) passed a law to make it easier to prosecute deniers via libel law, and the law officially made denying the Holocaust a crime. Because of these laws and the education system mentioned above, few Germans openly and publicly deny the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Germany’s bravery to face its history has earned the country good reputation in international society. Its neighboring countries regard it as a trust-worthy partner, which enables Germany to become the leader of the EU.

Aside from Germany, a number of European countries—such as France—have enacted laws criminalizing both the denial of the Holocaust and the promotion of Nazi ideology. The aim of these laws is to stifle the potential growth of neo-Nazi spirits in Europe, often characterized by anti-minority (not limited to Anti-Semitic) beliefs.

Indeed, in terms of international atrocities, more countries have established the correct view of history and cooperated to resolve the collective memory crisis. However, many states, especially authoritarian ones, still hide the history of domestic governmental crimes from citizens for political interests.

In China, the government constantly denied the 1989 Tiananmen Protest—in which the Chinese army brutally suppressed the protests—and deleted the related contents from history textbooks. Even worse, the topic has been banned from public discussion, and people cannot find any reference to it on domestic websites. For many Chinese teenagers, many of them have not heard this event, and for those who know about this event, they only have vague understanding of it because the government still will not tell the truth even thirty years later. Keeping this portion of history from teenagers, the government tries to prevent young people from rioting against the undemocratic rule again.

China is definitely skillful in playing with collective memory. The government also emphasizes on the humiliation history in the 19th century, when the country was dominated by Japan and western powers like Britain, for propaganda purposes. This period of history is taught repeatedly in the national school curriculum. Every time teachers remind students to cherish the peace and stability brought by CCP. In this way, the Party can consolidate its power and influence. Also, every time when China gets into crisis (e.g. trade war), the state-controlled media uses the humiliation history story to unite people against what is portrayed as the foreign oppressors. This is an important reason why Chinese society keeps stable despite the diversity of races.

Moving towards a cooperative world, states should first develop a global consensus on history. Only when states agree with each other’s view of history can they resolve many important international conflicts today (especially with territorial conflicts).

Meanwhile, the collective memory is important within countries themselves. While countries work towards a consensus with regards to international history in recent years, more countries manipulate their domestic history for propaganda. This may be the next global problem we should deal with.

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