Bad memories

From Germany after Nazism to South Africa now, countries and individuals have had to cope with difficult pasts. Timothy Garton Ash considers the labyrinth of public and private memory and the tricks that it plays. He argues that the opening of old wounds can help to close them
August 19, 1997

The sentence "we all have bad memories" can be interpreted in two ways: "we all have memories of things that we found horrible or embarrassing" or "our memory is intrinsically weak, leading us to forget or misremember." The two may be connected. We have a bad memory for bad memories.

Evoking German attitudes to war and the Nazi period, James Fenton wrote:

How comforting it is, once or twice a year,

to get together and forget the old times.

In our post-Freudian English, this is called "repression," thus encouraging further word play: "after suffering under a repressive dictatorship, people repress the memory of repression." A bad memory is the mind's way of handling the bad memories. But that is just a theory. Before Freud, there was Nietzsche: "'I did that,' says my memory. 'I can't have done that,' says my pride, and remains adamant. In the end-memory gives way." And before Nietzsche, there was Schopenhauer. "We do not like ruminating on what is unpleasant, at least when it wounds our vanity as indeed is often the case... therefore much that is unpleasant is also forgotten."

Comfort? Repression? Pride? Vanity? The explanations differ, but on the existence of this phenomenon, at least, the sages all agree. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, we have a grand memory for forgetting. But is "forgetting" an adequate word? In everyday life, we tend to operate with the binary distinction: remember/forget. There is an awful lot that we do quite simply forget. Yet there are also many variations in between. There is, for example, the jumbling of memory or the involuntary embroidering of memory, as in the proverbial "fisherman's tales." (When you recount an argument you had with somebody, it always sounds as if you won the argument.) Thomas Hobbes drew the most radical conclusion in Leviathan. Discussing memory in a chapter entitled "Of Imagination," he concluded that "imagination and memory are but one thing."

clearly this is a rich field-one can almost sense another academic specialisation in the making. There she goes, the bright young doctoral student heading straight for the Jonathan Aitken chair of Memory Studies at the University of Westminster, after writing a thesis under the fearsome founder of the discipline, Professor Erich Teufelsdonck, the Kurt Waldheim Distinguished Professor of Ged??chtnisforschung at the University of Braunau.

Let the joke die on your lips: the discipline is already here. French historians have been dwelling on this subject for more than a decade. The multi-volume, Les lieux de m?moire, edited by Pierre Nora, is a centrepiece of recent French intellectual life. There is even -sure sign of the arrival of another academic sub-sub-discipline-a learned journal entitled History and Memory. Not accidentally, it is based at Tel Aviv University, and concerned with some very bad memories indeed: those of war, occupation and the Holocaust.

By and large, the studies of the French school have been concerned with the history of collective memories. Often this involves a leap from a body of evidence about attitudes to the past-politicians' speeches, films, opinion polls-to a generalisation about national memory. Thus, in his book The Vichy Syndrome, Henry Rousso uses the psychological notion of "repression" to describe the French collective memory of collaboration in Vichy. He even has a "temperature curve" charting the ups and downs of the syndrome, as if it were a fever. Stimulating though the argument is, these generalisations about some sort of national psyche are as hard to test as generalisations about "national character."

As a plodding Anglo-Saxon empiricist, I find it better to start with individual memory. My interest in this subject began-if I remember rightly-with the German memory (or forgetting) of Nazism, as I found it while living in Berlin at the end of the 1970s. The great change of 1989 was another stimulus. Trying to write a history of divided Europe in the cold war, I found that the end of communism had a remarkable transformative effect on individual memories, exactly as after 1945, everyone suddenly discovered that they had been opposed to the fallen dictatorship. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt notes that Dr Otto Bradfisch, head of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe which shot some 15,000 people, told a German court he was always "inwardly opposed" to what he was doing.) Meanwhile, politicians in the west suddenly remembered how they had "always" supported the dissidents and "said all along" that the division of Europe could not last. Egon Bahr, the architect of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, now explained that he had always intended this policy to be subversive of communist regimes. Why was he never once recorded as saying this over the previous quarter century? Ah, because he could never say this in public, for fear that the communists would wake up to what was going on. Not for nothing was he called "tricky Egon." Politicians' memories are, of course, made of especially flexible material. But we all do it.

The retrospective rationalisation may be half-conscious or even fully unconscious. A fine example is contained in the conversations between members of the German team which had been working on an atom bomb for Hitler, secretly recorded at Farm Hall, the British country house where they were being held. After they heard the news of Hiroshima, the German scientists were trying to work out why the Americans had succeeded where they had failed. "I believe the reason we didn't do it," ventured Carl Friedrich von Weizs??cker, "was because the [German] physicists didn't want to do it on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded."

more recently, i have been plunged still deeper into the labyrinth of memory by working on a book about the strange experience of reading my own Stasi file. To read a secret police file on yourself is a Proustian experience. It brings back to you with vividness many things that you had forgotten, or remembered in a different way. There, described minute by minute with the cold clinical eye of the secret policeman, is a day in your life 20 years ago. There are conversations recorded word for word. There are photographs taken with a concealed camera.

When I went on to talk to the friends, informers and officers who figured in my file, I discovered further veils, wrinkles and tricks of memory. One informer, to whom the Stasi gave the code name Michaela, firmly denied ever having been an "IM," the Stasi abbreviation for "unofficial collaborator." But her informer's file contained hand-written reports signed with the code name. She asked me, with a remnant of Marxist vocabulary, to "try to explain the subjective as well as objective conditions" when I wrote about her. "But," she added, "that's probably impossible. Even I can't really remember now." Another informer, an Englishman code-named Smith, told me that he had tried to talk to the Stasi only about general social and political conditions. But his informer's file is full of detailed information on individual people. In a tragi-comic piece of retrospective rationalisation, he "recalled" that by talking to the secret police-and, he fondly hoped, through them to the party leaders-he was trying to substitute for the absence of "civil society."

As I travelled around with my bag of poisoned madeleines, I saw how people's memories-of events, of each other, of themselves-changed instantly, and then changed and changed again as the revelations sank in. There was no way back, now, to their previous memory of that person or that event. We say "X or Y jogged my memory" and usually mean "X or Y reminded me." But these "jogs" change the memory itself, like a digital picture transformed in a computer. Except that here the process is involuntary. We are not the operators at the keyboard of memory.

So what we are dealing with, when we try to write history, is nothing less than an infinity of individual memories of any person or event. For these memories are changing all the time. There is, in all normal times, the slow fading we call forgetting. But there are also the sudden changes that come with a dramatic change of external circumstances, such as 1989, or with some new discovery, such as a file. LP Hartley famously wrote that "the past is a foreign country." But the past is much more than that. It is another universe. The historian is a traveller through endless worlds of individual memory.

As a result, I have become even more sceptical than I was before about the value of any retrospective evidence. Yet that is what most historical evidence is. Most recorded history is the history of memories. What are described as contemporary, primary sources were usually recorded by an individual some time after the event, even if the interval between action and record was only a few hours, minutes, or even seconds. We know from our own lives that people can have different recollections of a conversation or meeting the morning after. (Earlier this year, the leaders of the EU could not agree what they had agreed in the last hours of the Amsterdam summit.) For a sobering experience, try comparing ten different newspaper reports of the same event.

The great exceptions to this rule are the tape recorder (overt or covert) and the camera. To be sure, these can lie too. Anyone who has watched a radio editor cutting and splicing a tape will not necessarily believe what they hear. The new digital technology seems to give almost limitless possibilities of photographic manipulation. Still, properly used, they bring us an important step closer to Ranke's "how it really was." The television camera can lie, but at least it does not do what all human recorders do: both forget and involuntarily re-remember. That is one reason why the best television documentaries are outstanding works of contemporary history. The television footage gives you not just the words, but the body language which often belies the words, the facial expressions, the atmosphere and telling detail that you can otherwise only experience as an eyewitness.

For the historian, the lesson is not just about the weakness of human memory but about its fecundity, its infinite creativeness, its endless ability to rearrange the past in constantly shifting patterns. Usually the resulting patterns are more comforting to our self-esteem, pride or vanity, as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer observed. But not always. Sometimes memory tortures people with remorse more than the circumstances really justify. The awful irony, explored by Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, his film about the Holocaust, is that often it is the victims who are cursed by memory, while the perpetrators are blessed by forgetting. Especially if the perpetrators were what the Germans call Schreibtischt??ter, "desk murderers," bureaucratic co-ordinators of evil, like some of the figures in Lanzmann's film. "That camp," said one, "what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district... I've got it: Auschwitz!"

Memory, this champion trickster, is thus the great adversary of anyone who tries to establish what really happened. (Martha Gellhorn has written very movingly about this, in relation to her own memories of war, concluding: "What is the use in having lived so long, travelled so widely, listened and looked so hard, if at the end you don't know what you know?") But there is another set of questions about bad memories faced by all people and countries who have been through terrible experiences: hijacking, imprisonment, torture or-for the collective-occupation, war, dictatorship, genocide. These questions are not about how to reconstruct the past but about what is best for the individual, society, nation or state now and in the future. To remember or to forget?

Countries all over the world have faced this problem, from Germany after Nazism to Latin America after its military dictatorships, from central and eastern Europe after communism to South Africa and Rwanda now. These days, there are even travelling experts on "comparative past-beating," as on much else. You want to build a market economy? Call Jeff Sachs. You want a peaceful transition to democracy? Call Juan Linz, the political scientist. You want to deal with a difficult past? Call Jos? Zalaquett, the moving spirit of Chile's truth commission.

Almost every variant has been tried. Some countries have had amnesty and amnesia. It did not work very well when the Germans and the French tried it in the 1950s. The past came back to haunt them a few years later, and has been doing so intermittently ever since-witness the "Vichy syndrome." On the other hand, it does seem to have worked fairly well for Spain after Franco. Other countries have gone for no amnesty and no amnesia. Germany after communism is the salient example, partly in reaction to the earlier experience, after Nazism. Hence the unprecedented opening of the secret police files to anyone who had one and still wants to know. Others, again, have aimed for amnesty without amnesia. South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, with its provision that killers only receive amnesty after making full disclosures of their misdeeds-"truth for amnesty"-is the most remarkable attempt thus far.

Weighty authorities can be cited on all sides. Those who urge remembering call into the witness box the venerable Rabbi Baal Shem Tov: to remember is the secret of redemption. And the philosopher George Santayana: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who urge forgetting may summon Winston Churchill who, in his Zurich speech of 1946, repeated William Gladstone's appeal for "a blessed act of oblivion" between the enemies of yesterday. Or the great historian Ernest Renan, who memorably wrote that "forgetting, and I would say even historical error, is an essential factor in the history of a nation." Or just the everyday wisdom that says "forgive and forget." To which, however, Nelson Mandela responds by saying that if you are to forgive, you must first know what you are forgiving.

Every country's situation is different and there are no easy rules. These processes of national past-beating are often heavily accompanied by psychological theory: talk of "coping with trauma" and so on. But what helps one victim may hurt another, and the leap from the individual to the national psyche is as large, and as untestable, for political therapists as it is for historians. My own tentative conclusion is this: it is important and useful for nations, as for individuals, to find out, as far as possible, what really happened, and to record this scrupulously. People will still deny it and distort it, but this acknowledgement will be a barrier against the grosser kinds of political denial, such as Holocaust denial, and the national or party political myths that are built on bad memories. However, this process of public truth-seeking and truth-telling, this national self-examination, should itself be limited in time. One of its main purposes is to enable people to move on, to go forward without being haunted by nasty surprises from a concealed past-such as the revelations about old Nazis in West Germany, or those about Fran?ois Mitterrand's Vichy past, nearly 50 years later. While writing this article I find Chris Patten saying, in his farewell to Hong Kong: "We should remember the past better to forget it." That is, perhaps, a dialectical overstatement. To forget the past defeats the object of the exercise. But if by "forget" he means "not be plagued by it," then it seems to me about right.

Whether this is also true for individuals depends on the individual. Some South Africans would rather not have "re-lived" their experiences in front of the truth commission. Some Germans are still haunted by what they found in the Stasi files. But many say they found it helpful. In the case of South Africa, the victims are able to put their story into the public record and see their suffering in a larger context. The German file-readers find out who informed on them and who did not, but also what they themselves said or did. "At least now I know," they say.

Opening the files, even opening old wounds, can help in the long run to close them. But not for everyone. So it is important that this should be voluntary, as it is in Germany. You can choose to know, or not to know. Many former dissidents in central and eastern Europe have chosen not to learn who informed on them. I understand and respect this. But for anyone interested in writing history, the files provide an extraordinary opportunity to try wrestling at close quarters with that champion trickster, memory.