Coping with Collective Trauma:
Remembrance or Oblivion?
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JUDITH POLLMANN
STUDIUM GENERALE WAGENINGEN, 25
MARCH 2014
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzfng
EzmiSs
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September 1946.
Winston Churchill addresses students in Zurich:
The guilty must be punished. Germany
must be deprived of the power to rearm
and make another aggressive war.
But when all this has been done, as it will
be done, as it is being done, there must be
an end to retribution. There must be what
Mr Gladstone many years ago called 'a
blessed act of oblivion'.
We must all turn our backs upon the
horrors of the past. We must look to the
future. We cannot afford to drag forward
across the years that are to come the
hatreds and revenges which have sprung
from the injuries of the past.
If Europe is to be saved from infinite
misery, and indeed from final doom, there
must be an act of faith in the European
family and an act of oblivion against all
the crimes and follies of the past
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What needs to be done after a war?
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Churchill wanted:
Instead:
 To turn our backs on
 Forgetting is
horrors of the past
 Act of faith
impossible
 And is therefore
harmful.
 Act of oblivion
 We must remember
Oblivion
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As an act of vengeance
As a peacekeeping
measure
 Popular policy instrument
in Europe 1400-1850
 Amnesty
 Settlement of property
relations
 Agreement to forget events
‘as if they had not occurred’
Is this possible?
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 We are wired to forget most of what we do
 What we do remember changes over time
 Under the influence of those around us.
 And remembering is often also done collectively
But real meaning is another one:
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 Ross Poole, ‘Enacting oblivion’, International
Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 22 (2009)
pp. 149-157
‘They do not mean that no one knows about the acts; it
is rather that this knowledge is now, not merely of but
also in the past; it does not bear on the present. It is
history, we might say, not memory’
 I.e. we do not act upon our memories.
Remembrance
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Holocaust memorial
Berlin
Anne Frank (1929-1945)
Collective commemoration
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 By storytelling
 By creating monuments
 Through ceremonies and rituals
 Through teaching and schoolbooks
 Through songs, films, novels, plays etc
Development in the 20th century
From victors to victims
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Kiev, Museum of the Great
Patriotic War, 1981
Prague, Monument for the
victims of communism, 2002
From victors:
To victims:
And acknowledging guilt:
Memorial for victims of transatlantic slave trade(2012) Nantes, France
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Interest in trauma
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 Long term impact of Holocaust experiences
 Willingness to engage with this pain among new
generations
 Explanation for certain types of (collective)
behaviour
Remembering pain: trauma
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 Sigmund Freud (1836 A form of physical injury
 Since Sigmund Freud also:
‘long- term feeling caused
by intense events, to which
one feels incapable of
responding’.
 Caused by experiences of
personal loss, violence,
pain – either man-made or
natural
1959)
Was there trauma before Freud?
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Early modern evidence:
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Reasons for silence
Reasons to speak
 No one to talk to
 New meanings to
 Shame
 Sense of responsibility
and guilt
 Too painful
experiences
 Some form of gain,
spiritual or material
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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 Term invented about 1980
 Used to describe stress caused by traumatic
experiences
 Loss of sense of identity and control
 Experienced by about 9% of victims
Coping with trauma
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 Sharing your stories with others
 Drawing a line between past and present.
 Alone or collectively
Resilience
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 Giving it some sort of meaning
 E.g. seeing it as an occasion for spiritual growth
 Or turn it into an agenda for action
An altar stone deployed to commemorate hunger
during the siege of Leiden
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People in the West today
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 Focus identity on the self more than on their group
 Do not expect trauma
 Are less religious
From individual to collective remembrance
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 Individual memories
 Restoration of ‘normality’ forces oblivion
 Rediscovery and thematization of the past
 From memory to history
Can trauma be collective?
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 Events are not ‘inherently’ traumatic for a group
 But they can be remembered as such
 Be perceived as an important part of their identity
 And transmitted to subsequent generations.
 Very much open to manipulation
Anti-Spanish propaganda in the Netherlands
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What Churchill feared
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 A repeat of what happened after WWI
 Humilitation and reparation demanded from the
German losers
 Who came to believe they had been ‘stabbed in the
back’ by their generals in 1918
 And were so willing to follow Hitler in 1933
Examples of national traumas (according to Wikipedia)
Argentina:
Cambodia:
France:
Germany:
Iraq: 2003
Ireland:
Israel:
Japan:
Netherlands:
Norway :
Russia
Spain:
Sweden:
Dirty War
Cambodian Genocide
Loss of Alsace-Lorraine
Treaty of Versailles, defeat in World War II, Berlin Wall
Invasion of Iraq
Great Famine
Holocaust, Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
Black Ships, Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The loss of the 1974 FIFA World Cup final against Germany,
2011 Norway attacks
Russo-Japanese War, World War I, Russian Civil War.
Spanish-American War
Treaty of Fredrikshamn, Assassination of Olof Palme, M/S
Estonia shipwreck, Gothenburg riots, Gothenburg
discothèque fire, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami
United Kingdom: Battle of the Somme, Death of Diana, Princess of Wales
United States:
American Civil War, Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,
Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War, September
11, 2001 attacks
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Negotiating collective trauma:
Advertising Truth and Reconciliation in Liberia, 2009
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Examples of national traumas