How people remember historical events helps to shape the future of the world. Some facts may be conveniently dropped, or information may be framed in a way that creates a different mythological memory of the past. In this way memory is itself a battlefield where competing narratives seek to become the official ones, and then they affect the politics and policies of the future. Several scholars have begun to study what they call memory entrepreneurs and how those entrepreneurs use historical memory to forward their political agendas. Maria Armoudian speaks to Doug Becker, Alex Hinton, Dovile Budryte, and Brent Sasley about memory entrepreneurs.

Doug Becker is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in historical memory and peace-building.

Alex Hinton is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University. He is an expert in genocide studies and is the author of Hidden Genocides: Power, Knowledge, Memory.

Dovile Budryte is a Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College. She is an expert in memory politics and is the co-author of Memory and Trauma in International Relations: Theories, Cases and Debates.

Brent Sasley is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Arlington. He is an expert in group identity in foreign policy and is the co-author of Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Doug Becker… you have said that history does not exist so much in the past as in the present, what do you mean by that?

Doug Becker: The study of history, and specifically historical memory, is as much a study of the present as it is the past. History has profound implications for the present and as well as future social, political, [and] cultural implications. In many ways the way that history gets filtered through contemporary political issues by contemporary political actors has these profound implications. It can be wielded as a weapon by different political activists, it [can] be used to create certain stories that justify policies, and it can be used as a wonderful tool to define communities, to define nations, as ways to justify decisions that were made.

MA: So how does historical memory get distinguished from history and revisionist history itself or any other kind of narrative building?

DB: Revisionist history has a connotation about it, that individuals are coming along and seeking to change history in some way, shape, or form. But even more importantly, revisionist history seems to address whether or not there is an official story or a conventional wisdom. Historical memory recognises that history changes all the time and individuals’ understandings of history will change all the time and [has] linkages to individual memory. Frequently, when we speak of historical memory we speak of it in the context of trauma and collective or national coming to grips with trauma, which certainly has a relationship with history but it’s not the same endeavour.

Alex Hinton: I have thought a lot about these questions within the context of Cambodia, where I have done a lot of research. The Cambodian case illustrates this clearly. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 after a civil war they immediately came in and tried to rewrite the history of the country in terms of their revolutionary struggle. As they did this they attempted to erase all vestiges of what they called privatism, capitalism, imperialism, they got rid of Buddhism, they got rid of classes, and, of course, education itself was a key focus. The Khmer Rouge was deposed in 1979, another group that had effectively been purged came back to power with the support of the Vietnamese. They then rewrote the state level history to say that they were the true heirs of the revolutionary mantle, and they legitimated themselves by saying that they had overcome the Khmer Rouge who had perpetrated genocide. In 1993 there was an election in Cambodia, at that point the international community came back in and again focused on education in the schools, whereas from 1979 to 1992 the government was intensively focused upon the genocide in their educational materials, including having kids learn to read and write by reading about mass murder, suddenly it was erased in the name of reconciliation. This phase went on for another six or seven years, and then in 1997 you began to get people from the Khmer Rouge beginning to defect. And we’re now in a new moment of a tribunal which is again rewriting history, rethinking about it, of which one of the mechanisms is through a hybrid international tribunal. But I would just add one other point in terms of history. Many nations were also writing history on the international level: there is diaspora memory, memory that is created and generated by things like international tribunals, and these may diverge both from different groups and sectors of society and from particular individuals, and there may be multiple narratives that are competing.

MA: Alex Hinton, there was something in your book that I’d like for you to just quickly address. It relates to this, but it had to do with the indigenous Maya. And there was a commission hearing for historical clarification, then you noted with your co-author that people began there to view it as a genocide.

AH: Absolutely. This is something the politics of the use of the word genocide is fought over since it’s widely recognised as the crime of crimes. In many respects the number of cases that have been included under this rubric has been restricted because people often invoke what I call the dilution metaphor, saying, “Well, if we apply it to too many cases it dilutes the meaning”. But effectively that is a gatekeeper notion. So as we’re moving through time it seems to me we are at a moment where a number of genocides that were not recognised are starting to be recognised and talked about. There is work that has been done on, for example, settler societies, the case in Guatemala certainly speaks to this. This also talks about academic discourses and ways of thinking about the past, but certainly, in writing history if you suffer from the crime of crimes that is an important thing, it’s something that should be recognised, yet there are certainly, through the use of the pollution metaphor, ways in which this isn’t recognised. And I would just add that the definition of genocide that was passed by the [United Nations] in 1948 in the Genocide Convention has a very overly restrictive definition of genocide restricting it to [five criteria]. And this emphasis on these groups was based on political bargaining at the UN. Again, this is another way in terms of memory labelling the past, thinking about the past that things are written in certain ways, certain groups are included, and certain groups are excluded.

MA: Dovile Budryte… you look at this in Eastern Europe and the occurrences there, give us what your findings are.

Dovile Budryte: I think in the post-Communist context the concept of genocide very much relates to historical memory and the creation of historical memory. Looking into primarily the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the politics of memory in those three states, and especially in the case of Lithuania, I traced the use of the term genocide to describe the deportations that were carried out during the Stalinist regime. That was from nineteen-forty to forty-one and nineteen forty-four to nineteen fifty-three. And although this particular phrase “genocide” is not used largely in Estonia, the Lithuanians had been very adamant, not just at the national level but also internationally, demanding the recognition of suffering during this particular time and saying that what was experienced should be treated as genocide. My findings regarding the use of the term genocide have been that when it comes to the creation of pluralistic memories in society it has not been a very positive development. That what we see in the case of Lithuania. Starting in the mid-90s we see these competing victimhoods that on the one hand, you see Lithuanians who are saying, “Well World War II has a very special meaning for us, post-World War II era also has a very special meaning for us, we were the real victims and our genocide was as bad as the Holocaust”. And on the other hand, you have the international community and also members of the Lithuanian Jewish community who are saying, “Well, you are engaging in the Holocaust obfuscation, you are actually misusing the term genocide”. So this is a very intense debate, it’s not over yet but it has also been a very polarising debate as well.

MA: I think we see this a little bit in the Balkan Wars as well where the idea of what happened in World War II with the victimisation of the Serbs then became a historical memory that sort of obfuscated should we say the war on the Bosnians, for example. Did you see that as well?

DBU: I think that is a very astute observation, and I have always wanted to do a comparative study of the Baltics and the Balkans. But absolutely, World War II, especially in the cases of Latvia and Estonia, have a very different meaning to ethnic Russians then ethnic Latvians and ethnic Estonians. We [saw] these memory wars recently when the Estonian government decided to move one of the artefacts associated with World War II, [which] led to almost an international conflict, if you will. So yes, absolutely, we see similar developments.

MA: Brent Sasley, I know that one of the areas that you look at are emotions and how these historical memories then evoke these intergroup emotions. Can you explain intergroup emotions and how these are related?

Brent Sasley: The first thing that I would say is that the thing about collective memories is that they don’t just exist but they get interpreted and reinterpreted by either the same group or different groups of people over time. And so you have this sort of amorphous thing out there that is this memory, but it gets used for specific purposes, and I don’t mean necessarily in sinister ways. Collective memory serves the needs of different groups of people. We talk a lot about trauma, and trauma is a very powerful and very negative emotion, a very negative event that happens, but it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to very negative collective memories. In other words, groups often can use it or can interpret past dramatic events in slightly more positive ways. So one of the things that I study is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the [former] Israeli Prime Minister. This was just the murder of a single individual, it wasn’t a grand traumatic event like a genocide or extended conflict, yet it was a very traumatic experience for a large segment of the Israeli population. What they then did was use what they called the legacy of Rabin for political purposes to promote their ideas of the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process. And so Rabin had this emotional connection to the peace process, and once he was killed the trauma of his death and his loss was then utilised in a more positive way to bring up these positive emotions which could then be used for certain policies.

MA: That is interesting, I know that Doug Becker, you have been looking at the use of leaders to then change public policy. This isn’t in the same realm as grief of course, but one of your areas is looking at this memory creation and almost myth creation, shall we say, of Ronald Reagan. Talk about how that applies here?

DB: Brent just said how they will create a collective memory to serve some sort of contemporary political purpose, I’d like to put a name on the “they”. I use Elizabeth Jelin’s very powerful notion of a memory entrepreneur: individuals who are responsible for creation of memory, for reinterpretation of memory, and specifically what those purposes are. You see that in traumatic cases, you see that in cases of grief, but you also see it in the kind of triumphal cases like in the Reagan legacy project. I’ve been particularly interested in the number of things that have been named after Ronald Reagan over the course of the last ten to fifteen years, and my interest in memory entrepreneurship, it’s rare that you can identify a single individual who is serving as the role of memory entrepreneur, but that single individual is Grover Norquist and his desire is to name at least one thing after Ronald Reagan in every county in America. That is over 3100 counties by the way. But it’s the sort of soundbite memory without a great deal of context. You name enough things after the President and people will presume his greatness, which then opens the door for any individual to strategically use that memory for their own purposes, whether it be Ronald Reagan would have invaded Iraq, therefore a neo-Reaganite foreign policy would follow this great president and must support a war in Iraq. I’ve heard Reagan certainly invoked in the air war in Libya because of the air strikes over Libya [in 2011]. Whether or not Reagan would have chosen that policy is actually unimportant at this point. That Reagan is considered great because so many things are named after him allows individuals to strategically use his name for whatever policy they choose. And I would like to point out [that] Reagan is not the only president where this is used, it’s frequently used in connection with John Kennedy as well. Kennedy would have chosen this policy; therefore, we must choose it as well, or at least it’s justified.

BS: If I could just add something to that. People have certain visualisations of these events and they visualise the memory in specific ways. And so the idea that Reagan was a great president, they visualised what he did and how he did it until naming certain things after him is a way of emphasising or stressing his legacy. The counterpart to that would be Rabin. I mean Rabin was a very violent man. He was a leader in the Israeli pre-state military for a long time, he was a major figure in many of Israel’s early wars, but his legacy is that of a peacemaker. He was visualised not as this violent man, but he was visualised as this person who sacrificed everything just to make peace, a very positive kind of thing. And so how groups will visualise individuals or events matters very much for how they interpret and promote those kinds of things.

MA: Alex Hinton, let’s talk about how these collective memories and historical memory are used to propel these particular things for particular policies, how have you seen that?

I guess I have a slightly different approach as an anthropologist, in terms of memory and also psychological anthropology, but I’m always wary of speaking about collective memory as a monolithic thing that somehow is linked to something like emotion or some type of ritualisation. It’s a dynamic process, there is a huge amount of individual variation. And what I would argue is that in fact it’s very difficult to use collective memory to achieve a certain end, in fact it takes a great amount of work. People are not simpletons, they think about issues. And on someone like Reagan I think you always have to link it correctly to existing institutional structures and existing social practices, so these things are not static – they’re dynamic through time. I think it’s always important to keep in mind that for every collective memory that somehow is meaningful to people, there are a lot of dead memories that are out there: attempts to forge effective memories that haven’t worked. But there are also attempts to forge memories that haven’t worked at a certain time that later in time can come and have resonance with people depending on the context. Thinking about memory, I think it’s always important to keep in mind the social context, the individuals, and groups within those contexts that are dynamic and active and creative thinkers.

Dovile Budryte?

DBU: My approach has primarily been looking at memory entrepreneurs and how memories are used, not just at the national level but also at the international level. And in the case of the Baltic states, but also other East-European countries, recently we saw an attempt to try to criminalise the denial of crimes perpetrated by communist regimes at the European level. It is a very interesting endeavour in that particular sense, that you actually have many of the former victims who are using their traumatic experiences as political points to say that this actually should affect the foreign policy of their countries. In this case my approach would be different from the anthropological approach. I definitely would agree that social context matters greatly. However, I think that it’s worthwhile to focus on individuals who very often are the members of the elite and who are able to instrumentalise the experiences and often awaken even those dead memories.

MA: Doug Becker, let’s bring you back in, because in terms of this whole process, you and I have spoken a bit about what has happened in Rwanda and specifically about Paul Kagame. Tell us about what your observations are there?

DB: When thinking about memory entrepreneurship, Rwanda is a fascinating case because in 1994 a genocide was perpetrated against the Tutsi by the majority Hutu, and that genocide only ended with Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front seizing power… They attacked Rwanda and had been in a war with the Rwandan government prior to that. But his successful capturing of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, in essence, has been interpreted as it ends the genocide. In reality the genocide continues, but it continues in Zaire –  what is now the Democrat Republic of Congo. But Kagame understood the power of the narrative that he ended the genocide, first of all with a rush to memorialisation, an issue that is getting a great deal of resonance in Rwanda in this desire to freeze the memory with these memorials that it was an asymmetry of violence. To be Tutsi meant to be the victim of a genocide, to be Hutu means to be a perpetrator of the genocide. Now that part of the story is correct, but there continues to be violence in Eastern Congo where, because of reprisal killings as well as some local conditions, lead to what we believe to be around two hundred thousand Hutu being killed in the Congolese Civil War. Kagame has wielded his saviour status to blunt any UN attempt to meaningfully investigate in Eastern Congo, in part because the UN didn’t intervene to help the Tutsi in 1994, so therefore de-legitimising the UN in investigating what could be some level of complicity on his part in the violence against the Hutu. So in that case it becomes an example of what I would call more of an ontological definition of policy where once an actor, a state, a society, a civilisation, a nation becomes defined, then the actions they take underneath it also takes a certain definition. If you are a victim of a genocide you cannot commit a genocide, you cannot commit atrocities, and so that is why these meanings have such powerful potency both at the national and the international level.

MA: Like victims can do no harm? Like we are the role of the victim, therefore, we could not have possibly done something bad?

DB: Absolutely, and international criticism of such a policy evokes a kind of memory that, “Oh, you must have supported the Hutu during the genocide, or at least did nothing about the genocide. You have no moral authority by which to criticise me, I’m the one that saved the country from a genocide”. And I’d be very curious, Alex, with your work in Cambodia if Hun Sen’s been doing some similar types of policies.

MA: Alex Hinton?

AH: To speak about Rwanda briefly, that is a very clear example where someone comes to power and attempts to forge a collective memory. They have different ways institutionally of memorialisation, commemoration, to attempt to assert that memory. In Rwanda people on the ground have seen how different individuals negotiate this in very different ways. In addition, if you look at [the trials], which were a sort of state-level attempt to take a ritual that existed in Rwanda and reformulate it in some way and then put at least a hundred thousand people in jail. If you actually listen to what has been said and done, there are also some things going on that subverts the state-level narrative. People tell you things in private what they wouldn’t say in public. So all these contexts are absolutely critical. What we see from afar is the collective memory – the things the state’s doing. It’s only when you’re on the ground talking to people that you can then begin to see this variation, this sort of dynamic process that’s on the ground. In Cambodia it’s exactly the same thing, where again if you looked at the PRK [People’s Republic of Kampuchea] regime, the regime that was in power from [1979] to [1993], they said they asserted a collective memory and they tried to institutionalise it through commemoration of memories, through putting it in educational texts, but there was a lot of variation on the local level and people resisted in different sorts of ways. It’s absolutely critical to keep in mind that people aren’t passive receptors of what is done by the state. People can be creative in thinking and they can resist in different ways, and what we see from our vantage is often very different from what is going on on the ground level, and I can’t stress that point enough.

MA: There are these competing experiences that people have and one of them gets disseminated as the truth is what it sounds like. Part of the battle is so memory itself becomes a battleground?

AH: Yeah, it is, but different people have different abilities to control the memory in the sense of having control of state-level institutions that can try to ritualise an act and promote that vision, so different accounts can have different degrees of voice. And if you look through time, what is fascinating is you see certain accounts that may be the predominant one on the state level shift, go out, new ones come in at different times, and there may be a plurality of them, they may be contested, negotiated at a different moment in time. But it’s easy to see something as static and assume that is a fact of memory there and the people primarily believe that. It’s much more complicated to go on the ground level and watch how these processes proceed through time and to again pay attention to the people and the groups who may be resisting or have their own private networks that they are not in accordance with that state-level narrative.

MA: Dovile Budryte lets bring you back in, give us some specific examples about how you have seen this memory entrepreneurship actually resulting in some kind of a policy that would not have happened, or some kind of a political outcome that would not have happened potentially without it?

DBU: Yeah, sure, but if I could just add a little bit on pluralistic memory. One of the findings from the recent project that I’ve been working on is that if a state, especially a democratising state, tries to impose one particular memory on the populace what happens is that these pluralistic memories that are alternative to the state memory, they actually become stronger and they assert themselves. I actually did some on-ground work with women politicians, memory entrepreneurs, and some of the policies that they had been focusing on was history education. To give a specific example, one of the leading politicians in Lithuania, she said that probably one of the most depressing things for her is the fact that more Lithuanian children can name a Soviet partisan than actually an anti-Soviet resistance fighter. It was one of the most traumatic things for her that her version of memory is still not the most popular type of memory, so her big project would be with history education. And interesting this is also something that the Lithuanian historical commissions focuses primarily on, education and they try to do both genocide education and also education of the Soviet crimes.

MA: Brent Sasley?

BS: I think it makes sense to talk about a hegemonic interpretation of an event or a hegemonic control over a collective memory, but we also need to think about it. And this kind of answers the first question you asked me which I didn’t really answer, but when you talk about group emotions or collective emotion we have to identify first the group that we’re talking about and then how group members identify. One can speak about a nation, or a national collective memory, [but] not every single person within that national unit necessarily identifies either with the state or with that memory. People who are high identifiers or who see themselves as part of that group are more likely to remember something in a specific way. And, certainly, there are contests over that, but once you’ve defined your group and people have this shared emotional reaction to something, then they start to see events and objects and other groups. When they impact on the group that is when they get these reactions and that is where the collective memory can also be brought in. So in the case of Rabin there were a number of different ways to interpret him and his actions, and he was vilified by the right wing in Israel – he was hated by many people on the right. But once he was assassinated, and this is where the context certainly become relevant, certain segments of the Israeli population was able to interpret his memory in a very different way because there was much more freedom for them to be able to do so. Not everybody believed in Rabin that way and they didn’t perceive him in that way, people still didn’t like him or they disagreed with him, but the context didn’t allow them to really challenge what became the hegemonic interpretation, at least for that time. That is starting to change now as that legacy or that memory is starting to decline in the context of the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lack of resolution and so on. But I think defining the group that you’re talking about and speaking about how members identify with their group is also important.

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