Yesterday and today I attended a conference Memory with(out) Borders organized among others by Ann Rigney (Utrecht University) in the context of the new international initiative NITMES (Network in Transnational Memory Studies). The point of the network, if I understand it correctly, is to move beyond the idea of the nation state as the central perspective of memory studies. Basically, one central idea underlying memory studies is that a nation is defined in part by shared memories (in the same way as, for instance, language is crucial to the definition of nations). NITMES aims to study memory beyond the notion of the nation state, in a transnational context.
Another key trigger for the evolution of memory studies as a field is the Holocaust. Very bluntly put, when Holocaust survivors returned from the camps, their memories were practically the only sources of information available about what happened there. These stories functioned as testimony, narratives that have determined how “we” (especially in Europe) “remember” the Holocaust (even if we weren’t there). At the same time, this process raised questions about the role and meaning of oral history and lived memory in creating collective (mediated, communicative, cultural) memory. As such the Holocaust and its reception and appropriation in post-war culture has triggered enormous and very important discussions of how cultural memory works and how it is related to individual memories. One thing that becomes clear at a glance is how central the Holocaust remains as a key topic within memory studies.
One might think that the Holocaust as a remembered and narrated (or forgotten/remembered-but-unspeakable) event might have become less of an issue, but that is not the case. Holocaust metaphors in contexts elsewhere (e.g. in Argentine), the influence of international Holocaust memory on local Polish communities that were former shtetls at the heart of where the Holocaust actually happened etc. remain highly present and current.
I find it hard to decide what that means. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps to move away from thinking about cultural memory vis-à-vis nations indirectly invites a step towards the Holocaust as transnationally shared memory? My own sense is that the Holocaust is less of an issue in American cultural memory than in Europe. This is perhaps in itself rather obvious, but then it seems surprising that the Holocaust remains so central to American memory studies as well.
In my research about FDR as Dr. Win-the-War I don’t really find many references to the Holocaust, despite the fact that it is still regarded in the US as the (morally) “Good War”, presumably at least in part because the enemy was so obviously bad. Indeed, to my intense surprise and satisfaction Ross Patterson (producer and star in FDR American Badass) responded to my tweet:
#FDRAmericanBadass too crude for a Dutch audience and alright for an American one? (or is it?) Views welcome!” (which was a very brief summary of this blogpost, which argues that because of the persistent sensitivity to Holocaust memories Europeans cannot make jokes about Hitler):
“Maybe because we were all too drunk to remember! ~Sincerely, Cleavon Baybridge Buford Repube”