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Public Uses of History: Collective Memory and Politics of Remembrance

The reverberations of the political changes of decolonization and of the theoretical concepts of postcolonial studies have shaped not only scholarly historiography but also the public uses of history. Remembering and forgetting or the uses a society makes of its history in order to construct a collective identity, to forge a tradition, to legitimize its sociopolitical institutions and to render its past tangible and visible with the help of memorials, buildings or symbols (Jordanova, 2012, 2013) can be termed as politics of remembrance. Memory studies have generated a broad range of—even conflicting—definitions of politics of remembrance and they acknowledge the significance of the past as potentially disruptive or homogenizing for contemporary societies. Where this interest in history has been taken too far it has been criticized as presentism, that is, as being solely targeted at present needs of reaffirming national identities and social cohesion (Hartog, 2015; Hartog & Revel, 2001; Wils & Verschaffel, 2012).

The memory of colonial empires in national histories tends to be particularly hotly disputed, calling into question as it does not only imperial master narratives but also the very notion of modernity. We might express somewhat greater surprise at the fact that colonial heritages are debated as passionately in some European nation states, as in the case of France, as they are reluctantly in others, as in Belgium. In the Netherlands, the Dutch involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is hesitantly acknowledged (Savenije, Van Boxtel, & Grever, 2014; Van Stipriaan, Heilbron, Bijnaar, & Smeulders, 2007). Very recently, a study on war crimes by the Dutch army after 1945 in Indonesia has evoked a fierce debate about making excuses by the Dutch government. (Limpach, 2014; Oostindie, 2011). The recurring instruments of politics of remembrance such as memory laws, museums, curricula, days of commemoration or memorials illustrate the breadth of the debate which is no longer confined to former colonial states but which involves all European states since they all gained from imperial expansion.

This investigation into the public uses of colonial history will be tested against the hypothesis that the experience of colonialism, although it is still framed in national contexts, could eventually give rise to a European community of remembrance (Grindel, 2008; Leggewie, 2009; Sznaider, 2008).

It builds on the notion that dealing with difficult pasts has attained more importance with the multiplication of perspectives on shared memories after the collapse of the iron curtain and with the need to take a stance on Europe’s heritage. It is in that sense that being European entails facing Europe’s past not only as a national but as a common heritage.

More than 50 years after the Evian Accords were signed on 18 March 1962, putting an end to France’s war of decolonization in Algeria, the colonial past remains a matter of fierce dispute among those who study it academically as historians, those who were involved—as servants of the colonizing state, settlers or colonial subjects—and those who translate it into public memory as politicians, teachers or curators (Coquio, 2008; Huser, 2010). The memory law of 20052 brought this dispute to another climax in a chain of intense engagement in France with the country’s colonial history. It commenced in the 1980s, when school curricula stopped treating the Algerian war as le probleme algerien, continued to 1999, when parliament resolved to abandon previously used euphemisms for what happened in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 in favor of the term “war”,3 and to the trials which examined the role of former police prefect Maurice Papon in Algeria and Paris and the use of torture by the French military, and extended to the 2012 decision to observe March 19 as an annual shared day of commemoration for the victims of the Algerian war.

Originally, the 2005 law was aimed at French rapatries, according public and financial recognition to veterans of the Algerian war. The law, which was essentially revolving around pensions, was being turned into a memory law by its article number four, which stipulated that schools “propagate the positive role of France in its overseas colonies”.4 The ensuing debate on France’s colonial past and on memory laws in general led to the abrogation of the disputed article. The 2005 law is in more than one way characteristic of the public uses of history in France. First, it reveals the importance of history as a denominator of national identity. It further highlights the influential role of republican institutions in the process of national integration and in politics of memory, with both schools and parliament actively involved; however, the quest it represents for a homogenous national narrative and the attempts it makes to enshrine collective memory in law disregard the freedom of academic study and public debate. Finally, it illustrates the fact that colonial history, and especially the colonial experience in Algeria, still has an enormous impact on contemporary society (Aldrich, 2011; Bancel, 2009).

The situation in Belgium is different—not in the sense that colonialism no longer mattered after decolonization, but in the sense that it entered public debate much later than in France and that its impact is felt less acutely. This might be in part due to Belgium’s constitutional history and its federal elements, which exert considerable disintegrative influence in line with linguistic and economic boundaries. Preoccupation in Belgium with matters of the distribution of political power between the capital and the country’s regions may overshadow questions of how national history can be conceived of beyond a heroic master narrative and consequently of how difficult chapters of it are to be remembered.

The Royal Africa Museum in Tervuren near Brussels has been a focal point of colonial memory since its opening in 1910 (Gewald, 2006; Vellut, 2005). Leopold II commissioned the lavish neoclassical building, set within an extensive park, to exhibit objects and specimens from the Congo on the occasion of the world exhibition of 1897. The museum was founded on the riches of the Congo and on the exploitation of human labor and the natural resources of rubber and ivory. It was built to display these riches in order to present Leopold as a benevolent monarch and to stage Belgium as a civilizing power. After 1960 with Congolese independence, the scene it thus set appeared inappropriate; yet it was not until the museum’s centennial in 2010 that part of the exhibition was tentatively revised. By that time, the work of Adam Hochschild on forced labor in the Congo Free State, Ludo de Witte’s book on the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first president after decolonization, and documentaries such as White King, Red Rubber, Black Death had sparked a debate on Belgium’s colonial heritage (Bate, 2004; Hochschild, 2006; de Witte, 2001).

These debates have now reached history textbooks, and in so doing they have gradually changed the way colonial history is presented in schools. Some textbooks take a critical stance on Belgian colonial rule (Adams, Martens, & Vangansbeke, 2002; Bortolin & Georges, 2007; Deygere & van de Voorde, 2008; Van de Voorde, Hulstaert, Willems, & de Herman, 1985), concentrating particularly on its traumatic beginnings with the king’s regime in his private colony (1885-1908) and its no less traumatic ending with the precipitated abandonment of the colonial power in 1960 and the chaos that ensued. Current historiography is aware of this split attention and is trying to take into account the continuum of 75 years of Belgian rule in the Congo (Van Reybrouk, 2012; Vanthemsche, 2012). However, public memory is still very much redolent with perceptions and monuments that foster a heroic national narrative, and the debate on postcolonial Belgium has only just begun.

The majority of those studies of memory which concern themselves with Europe focus on experiences of totalitarian dictatorship during the twentieth century. They observe that the culture of memory surrounding the Holocaust is still the predominant one in Western European countries. In Eastern Europe, the memory of National Socialist crimes has given way to the more vital or socially virulent memory of the Gulag and Holodmor, while in the countries of the post-Soviet Russian Federation the Great Patriotic War continues to dominate public memory. If by making these observations we have diagnosed an effectively tripartite landscape of European memory (Engel, Middell, & Troebst, 2012; Troebst, 2009), this is in part the outcome of a broadened view on Europe obtained since 1989 and in part that of a transnational approach to the study of collective memory. However, investigation into European memory and European cultures of memory has often been equated with “1945”, while other difficult pasts have only slowly come into focus. Among these, Europe’s colonial past has attracted the attention of scholars both of memory and of imperial studies. They have opened a new field of research in going beyond the events around World War II, asking what other events have determined cultures of memory in Europe and whether there are genuinely “European”, as opposed to essentially purely national, sites of memory.

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