Should We Remember the Past at All?

Statues at a memorial to the victims of Communism in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Ccat82/Dreamstime)
David Rieff’s contentious 2016 polemic says no.

Like many of the Corner’s faithful readers, I had the pleasure Tuesday morning of following Michael Brendan Dougherty’s link to the new Douglas Murray audio documentary, which examines the West’s failure to remember Communism’s crimes as clearly as Fascism’s. Murray’s work on the project is as brilliant as it is necessary, and the resulting podcast ought to be required listening for conservatives who wonder why Communism and its apologists have never quite been held to historical account.

With utter simplicity and conviction, Murray and his collaborators (among them Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag Voices and Red Famine) explain why, “outside of the countries which Communism ravaged,” the memory of it is “slipping where it isn’t absent.” The answer, Murray proposes, has to do with the West’s collective will: We have intentionally allowed the story of Communism’s horrors to go untold, either because we feel guilty (many Westerners cheered Communism from afar, long after it was reasonable to do so) or because, as Applebaum suggests, the Cold War and Eastern European history “just don’t rank anymore” in our academic curricula.

Startlingly, a 2016 polemic by journalist and cultural critic David Rieff argues that such a lapse might actually be a good thing.

The thesis of Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies rests on an assumption that is at once disquieting and eerily persuasive: A given society’s shared cultural memories — of triumphs as well as defeats, oppressions both meted out and endured — inevitably fade into caricature or cliché as time passes. Contemporary writers have explored this idea for years, perhaps most notably W. G. Sebald, in his magisterial Austerlitz. In this tale — part fiction, part memoir, part travelogue — one character laments that what we think we know about the past is really a series of “preformed images . . . imprinted on our brains” by bad teaching and a lazy culture. David Rieff’s contribution to this dialogue is to turn Sebald’s (and others’) grief into gratitude. When we lose our grip on the past, Rieff insists, we should rejoice rather than mourn. Our failure to remember what really happened is not only inevitable but desirable.

Rieff introduces this argument by producing an axiomatic (though infrequently voiced) assertion: However carefully we memorialize, in monument and song, today’s victories and sorrows, future generations will eventually cease to think of them at all. In service of this point, Rieff alludes to such long-ago cataclysms as King Philip’s War, the 1675–76 struggle between colonial settlers and the Wampanoag that, in the author’s telling, “almost succeeded in destroying the Plymouth Colony, and at least for a time put an end to the European conquest of the northeastern part of what would become the United States.” Despite the fact that, “on a per capita basis, King Philip’s War was the bloodiest in American history,” the conflict is neither celebrated nor reviled in the average American household today. That we’ve heard of it at all is due largely to the decisions — one might say the inertia — of high-school textbook editors.

If today we have forgotten Metacom, tomorrow we will forget the Shoah, Rieff daringly suggests, and indeed the Holocaust receives a great deal of attention in Rieff’s pages, as do the Balkan wars, Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” and 9/11. What links such affairs — here the author moves into far more contentious territory — is the ease with which they have been propagandized, as, “at numerous times and in numerous places, remembrance has provided the toxic adhesive that was needed to cement old grudges and conflicting martyrologies.” Searching for examples of this phenomenon, Rieff grasps first for the low-hanging fruit of Confederate statuary, about which, he says, there is “nothing innocent.” More provocatively, he also cites the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: He dismisses that institution’s nod to the U.S. Army as “an ostentatious display of American nationalism,” and he labels its tribute to the founding of the state of Israel as “kitsch Zionist theodicy.”

To remember past injustices in any public way, Rieff insists, is to risk propagandizing national or ethnic suffering in the service of distasteful political goals.

In short, Rieff insists, to remember past injustices in any public way is to risk propagandizing national or ethnic suffering in the service of distasteful political goals. Stalin may have mobilized the Russian people to resist the Germans by appealing to their memory of medieval invasions — surely a noble deployment of history — but he also used the perceived historical subversiveness of Kulaks to justify their extermination. Similarly, while the 9/11 memorial does well to honor “the heroism of the first responders,” its mission statement’s call to “strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom” is “anything but an innocent piety.” Indeed, Rieff argues, politics is always “the ghost at the banquet of . . . public commemorations.” As a consequence, even our sincerest attempts to honor or learn from the past risk being corrupted.

So stark a conclusion, Rieff allows, is unlikely to find popularity. This is the case, he concedes, because “the conviction that memory is a species of morality” now stands as one of the “more unassailable pieties of our age.” Moreover, historical memory, whatever its inadequacies, is obviously one of the last things holding Western democracies together. In what is perhaps the book’s most striking passage — commanding in part because it plainly undermines Rieff’s thesis — he acknowledges that if a nation’s past is abandoned, “many will be tempted to repudiate its present as well.”

Reading those words, I couldn’t help thinking of Adam Gopnik’s proposal in The New Yorker, earlier this year, that the American Revolution perhaps ought to be remembered as “a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle.” The late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new and thoroughly revisionist Six Encounters with Lincoln also came to mind. (The Lincoln that emerges from it is a flip-flopper of the highest order, as well as the scourge of Native Americans, and a sexist to boot.) When a society’s myths go — when no shared ethnicity, religion, or politics can be called upon to replace them — how much longer can its people remain a people?

And what, anyway, does Rieff suggest that we do, or stop doing? Like many a contrarian project before it, In Praise of Forgetting is short on specifics. Furthermore, the prescription that Rieff finally does make — a contemporary forgetting-by-decree in the style of the Edict of Nantes, in which Henri IV commanded Catholics and Protestants alike to “extinguish” the memory of their wars of religion — is not just patently but aggressively ridiculous. It’s one thing to tell a Europeanized Irishman to let go of 1916’s Easter Rising. It’s quite another to ask the descendants of American slaves (about whom, strangely, Rieff says almost nothing) to forget their ancestors’ suffering. In the case of the latter — for better or worse — too mighty a political apparatus exists to preserve the memory.

Which brings us back to Douglas Murray, whose argument, reduced to its essence, could fairly be described as a call for the construction of a new apparatus, directed this time to the memorializing — in both public spaces and the public consciousness — of Communism’s victims. “We might all know what the number ‘6 million’ signifies,” Murray astutely points out, “but the Communist death toll seems somehow to have become specialists’ knowledge.” To remedy this gap in our societal understanding — by doing so, to “inoculate future generations” against Communism’s allure — will require an affirmative act of cultural memory. Whatever David Rieff says, such a task is well worth taking on.


The Latest