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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

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…

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