History & Memory 16.1 (2004) 5-36
There seems to be general agreement among scholars that in Eastern Europe, after the fall of communism, there is a crisis of collective memory. At the same time, there is also disagreement about the causes and nature of this crisis: some attribute it to postcommunist amnesia, a tendency to forget the crimes and compromises of communism, which is responsible for many of the ills of postcommunist society. They usually repeat Santayana's famous dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Other scholars, however, entertain the opposite view and argue that the problem is not forgetting, not that there is too little memory, but rather too much of it: an excessive preoccupation with historical wrongs and injuries, and too many competing versions of history. Claus Offe, therefore, formulated a counter-dictum: "those who remember history are condemned to repeat it." The implication being that strategic forgetting might be preferable.
It turns out, however, that this sense of crisis is not unique to Eastern Europe. It pervades also the scholarship on collective memory in the "Western" world. Pierre Nora's monumental work on the "sites of memory," after all, is introduced with the resignation: "we speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left," while Tony Judt's complaint about too much memory in Eastern Europe was coupled with the opposite diagnosis about Western Europe—too little memory and remembering. Nor is there shortage of the counter-assertion about too much memory in West European and North American societies. Observers of the German and American cultural scenes, for example, have discerned a "fascination, even obsession, with historical memory ... [a] surging commitment to remembering," and have speculated about its causes and consequences.
With so many complaints one starts to suspect that the problem may not lie with the societies in question, and their purported preferences to forget or to remember, but with the concept of "collective memory" itself, and those who formulate it. It seems that whenever "collective memory" is discussed, it immediately elicits doubts, which, to be precise, touch not only on its quantity, but also more generally on its authenticity, validity and significance. This suspicion is reinforced by another observation, namely that the same complaints and doubts have attached themselves with tenacity, over the past century, not only or primarily to the concept of "collective memory" but even more so to the concept of individual "memory," which ever since Thèodule Ribot's identification of "diseases of memory" has been at the center of scientific scrutiny and cultural conflict.
Why are there so many doubts and complaints about memory, collectiveor individual? Is it because it is in the nature of memory to be imprecise, indeterminate and indeed many times reconstructed or invented? I do not think so. First, one cannot use a universal human constant to explain a historical event—the rise of contemporary complaints and doubts about memory. Second, and related, any judgment on the imprecision or indeterminacy of memory, about whether there is too much or too little of it, is impossible to render unless against the background of a certain understanding of what memory is good for, how it should be used, what it should do for the collective or individual subject. Memory might well be somewhat imprecise and indeterminate, but it is only when we expect it to answer some pressing need that we begin to problematize it as such, or to become concerned with its quality and quantity. And it is not enough to say that memory is expected to reflect accurately the collective or individual past, because this merely begs the question: why do we need an accurate representation of the past to begin with? How accurate should it be? For what purpose?
I would suggest therefore that the sense of a crisis of memory, and the diagnosis of too much or too little memory, are generated not by the universal nature of human memory but by a historically specific will to memory, a constellation of discourses and practices within which memory is entrusted with a certain goal and...