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History and Memory

The writing of History is an attempt to record, document and preserve the collective memories of our past. In an attempt for continuity, most societies transmit the accumulated experience, traditions, wisdom and values of their ancestors to younger generations. In oral cultures this was done through myths, dance, legends and songs.  In literate cultures recordings are more indelible or permanent.  These can be raw data such as church records, documents, paintings, archaeological artefacts, eye witness accounts, letters, narratives; The world’s oldest extant piece of Literature is putatively, The Epic of Gilgamesh.1

German Philosopher, Jorn Rusen describes "historical consciousness as an attempt to make sense of the past for the sake of understanding the present and anticipating the future".

Each new generation seems to have to learn for themselves the limitations and ephemeral nature of their power.  Most feel that somehow they are immune or resistant to the lessons of the past.  As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes:

The rupture between contemporary experience and the labours of earlier generations was one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the latter part of the 20th century.  Most young people grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relationship to the public past of the times they live in.

Karl Marx made this observation:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

How do we learn?  From raw data we hope to glean information, transform it into knowledge, gain understanding and ultimately attain wisdom.  Unfortunately this does not always eventuate due to glitches in the processes.   

History is an interpretation of the past that is often revised or reinterpreted.  A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated that it was possible to reach diametrically opposite conclusions from the same primary source of evidence.

There are dialectical views on the significance of history; those who dispute its value, like Henry Ford’s: “History is more or less bunk,2   to the – philosopher George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the Past are condemned to repeat it to which others have responded: -  History does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce” ( Marx) and “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up”  to  Mark Twain’s sardonic, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot”.    Then there is this Joycean version, which is that "history is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken."

Mistakes should be our Mentors

There is no such thing as failure; only a chance to learn from our mistakes so that they we can avoid making them again.  Instead many people simply double their effort rather than admit defeat – we flog dead horses in a vain hope that they will spring to life again. 

Conceding a mistake causes anxiety, thus we tend not to tell the truth when something goes wrong, rather resort to rationalisations or justifications with “praise sandwiches” – at the beginning and end with little criticism in the middle.” 

Steve Dow, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure 

A seductive argument is to deal with issues and move on emotionally – don’t dwell on the past. This is a favourite politician’s ploy when faced with a scandal or embarrassing event. Its adverse effect is to make us like Phil, a weatherman from Groundhog Day – condemned to repeat each day by “moving on” –everyday is a brand new day, no one ever remembers what happened the day before or the day before that; knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate, and we repeat our mistakes without learning anything.

Einstein said; “Even more corrosive is the desire to forget. History needs memories to avoid the risk of forgetting crimes that must not be forgotten, victims whose suffering cries less for vengeance than for narration”.

In 1995 Jacques Chirac became the first French leader willing to admit that the French State had played an active role in the Holocaust. His powerful words resonate still:

‘There can be no great nation, no national unity … without a willingness to remember’.

In Australia, those who attempted to raise public awareness of past injustices towards the displaced indigenous people were derisively referred to as “black arm band historians”.  They soon countered with: “better a black arm band than a white blindfold”.

Hegel cynically comments,

"What experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."   

Napoleon commented “History is a set of lies agreed upon”

What we can conclude is that not all people share views on the significance of History.

Perhaps our lack of confidence is due to the lack of certainty and balance in many historical accounts. As an historian he will know the old saying that it is the victors who write the history books History in the past has been written by the articulate - the elite, and therefore presents a selective point of view.  

Churchill reputedly commented that “history will be kind to me; because I intend to write it”   

Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a lion, claims “He who controls the narrative controls history”  but asserts “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”.   

Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey expresses her disconnection as:

 “History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in.... I read it a little as a duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me; the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”

Recent trends have moved towards more inclusive, universal and social history by researching primary sources, as we attempt to find out how common people may have lived life during the epochs of the past. 

Besides perspective, the other problem with history is the question of bias or partisanship.  Historians may be motivated by nationalism or patriotism where they feel the need to glorify, glamorise or sanitise the narratives they tell.  Selectivity of facts or details to disclose can distort actual reality. Many historical events become commemorated and mythologised for ulterior reasons. Whenever political leaders use war to posture and strut the world stage, they militarise a nation by resorting to glorifying and mythologising the celebration of past military adventures.  The Palace of Versailles is a good examples as the walls are festooned with painting of French battlefields – notably none after Napoleon.

Another good example is Australia’s Gallipoli memorial – Anzac Day as Niall Clugson (Crikey.com) comments:

 Anzac Day commemorates a failed stab at the Ottoman Empire, which is not significant even as a failure -- as the second stab, through Arabia, was successful. The Western Front was a far greater catastrophe in human life. Contrary to mythology promulgated here, Gallipoli was not a predominantly Australian battlefield, nor was it even the first battlefield of Australian troops, as New Guinea preceded it. To describe this as a "real event of real importance" is hard to understand.

The impact of Gallipoli on national consciousness was due to the shock of the death toll and to misleading reporting by Keith Murdoch. Subsequently, Anzac Day became a fixture on the national calendar, fiercely guarded by the stalwarts of the RSL. But whatever the emotional freight of the different holidays, to suggest that the Gallipoli landing is more historically significant than the First Fleet landing is monumentally ludicrous. 

Official commemorations are often a case of false memory syndrome.    Niall Clugston

Marilyn Lake, a professor of history at La Trobe University, has written extensively on the militarisation of Australian History. She asserts that a business of memory-making was established from 1996 to foster an already fiercely determined enterprise to commemorate and memorialise all aspects of Australia’s involvement in overseas war escapades. 

Since 1996, the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent millions on inculcating history lessons to "ensure that Australia's wartime heritage is preserved and the community better appreciates the significance of wartime experiences to our development as a nation".

Already since the 1920’s the RSL had also spend millions keeping the memory of Gallipoli alive:

Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.

The adverse effects of this militarisation, besides the glorification and sanctification of war, is that it transplants other contributions to nation building.

When participation in foreign wars becomes the basis of national identity, it requires the forgetting or marginalising of other narratives, experiences and values. The Anzac myth requires us to forget gender and racial exclusions, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia; to forget that at Gallipoli we fought for "empire" not the nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.

Many of the same developments occurred in America during this time, but the cruel irony of this militarisation is that the leaders who claim to fight wars for peace and freedom shamelessly enacted legislation that severely limits our freedoms, all in the name of the “war on terror”.

When propaganda becomes brain-washing it is time to expose it by proclaiming it from the house-tops.

Other Quotes on History

E.H.Carr was a celebrated relativist historiographer, who wrote in his circuit-breaking “What is History”,

“(Historical facts) are like fish swimming in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean they choose to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts they want. History means interpretation.”

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“Hardly a pure science, history is closer to animal husbandry than it is to mathematics, in that it involves selective breeding. The principal difference between the husbandryman and the historian is that the former breeds sheep or cows or such, and the latter breeds (assumed) facts. The husbandryman uses his skills to enrich the future; the historian uses his to enrich the past. Both are usually up to their ankles in bullshit”. Tom Robbins

        “We are not makers of history. We are made by history”.   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 Every nation tells reassuring lies about itself. Ours are fundamental to the national character.   David Marr

 QUOTE OF ANY ERA!

"The Budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled,  public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work  instead of living on public assistance." - Cicero, 55 BC

        So, evidently we've learnt bugger all over the past 2,068 years.

Counter narratives

Kevin Rudd got a group of historians together in a Sydney hotel to try to thrash out an alternative narrative to John Howard’s Bradman/Anzac foundation myths. The PM should do it again and focus on some of the real reasons we Australians are distinctive: early votes for women, free education, trade unionism, social welfare initiatives, moderately successful cosmopolitanism (marred of course by our track record on indigenous matters). If the military narrative is too important to leave out then just talk about courage in the face of danger and talk about how Australians need to be courageous in different ways in a dangerous world. It would also be easy to find lots of non-military anniversaries that provide great PR opportunities.  Noel Turnbull  Crikey, 17/05/12

1 Discovered in the late 19th C., The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets some of which still survive.  Gilgamesh was the historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a narrative epic tale about the friendship between the King of Ur and Enkidu, a feral human.  The two strong men who fight over the right of the King to sleep with Enkid’s bride on her first night.  When the fight ends in a draw, the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become great friends and travel the world together.

2 “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today”.   Interview in Chicago Tribune (May 25, 1916).  Henry Ford

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