May 4, 1998
Volume 50, No. 31
Vagaries of memory mean
'facing up to the past'
William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Historian Kathryn Amdur likes to quote this line to introduce her undergraduate seminar, "History and Memory: Facing Up to the Past," which examines how a country's formative experiences are remembered in politics and culture.
"Events from the past are still very present in many people's minds," Amdur said. An event such as a war or revolution is "not simply something that occurred 50 or 100 or 200 years ago but continues to influence us all the time-to haunt us sometimes-and to shape the way we look at present and future events," she explained.
Amdur's seminar looks at the various ways that societies create historical memories or "myths" and the lingering effects of these memories on subsequent history. While intended primarily for juniors and seniors, the course is not restricted to history majors. Students meet once a week to discuss reading assignments focused on a particular theme. Most topics are selected from events in 19th and 20th century European history.
These include both World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of communism and fascism, the Holocaust and the former Soviet Union's current investigation of its past. The course also looks at the bombing of Japan by the United States near the end of World War II and how both countries have looked at that issue.
In addition to reading various primary and secondary source materials, students view two films-"Hope and Glory," a satire about Britain's experience in World War II, and "The Nasty Girl," a German film based on a true story of a student who enters an essay contest in a small German town. "Films not only tell a story of the past but try to shape the audience's perspective on that story," Amdur said. "They're interesting because of the story they tell but also because of the way that historians or students of film can use film as a document."
How individual and collective memory shapes the way people look back on their national or cultural past is being widely discussed by historians, Amdur said. "I claim no particular originality with this," she said of her course topic, noting there are at least 400 books currently in print that incorporate the words "history" and "memory" in the title.
She attributes this interest to important events now being remembered, such as the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, that have stimulated discussion of how social groups remember political events. "But I think it's also related to a development in the history profession itself that has to do with how history is interpreted," she said. "It's not just the record of the past, as documents might show, but how people remember and sometimes even disremember."
Historians are looking at how memories of an event may differ according to gender, generation and ethnic group because of the different ways the event was most likely experienced. They're also examining how those memories might be distorted or manipulated by time, propaganda, the media and the educational system.
"I think historians are increasingly sophisticated in recognizing that there may be no such thing as a true record of the past," she said. "But I think it's this divergence between what one might have thought was the true record of the past, and the way in which individuals or groups actually do remember or disremember the past, that is a main reason why this topic of history and memory has become increasingly interesting."
Amdur's own research focuses on French history. She's particularly interested in labor and social history relating to the general time periods of the World Wars, "not so much as military events but as events in society and culture," she explained.