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Recently, we have witnessed a rearticulation of the traditional relationship between the past, present and future, broadening historiography's range from studying past events to their later impact and meaning. The volume proposes to look at the perspectives of this approach called mnemohistory, and argues for a redefinition of the term 'event'.



Introduction: Afterlife of Events: Perspectives on Mnemohistory

Introduction: Afterlife of Events: Perspectives on Mnemohistory

In the last few decades, we have witnessed a rearticulation of the traditional relationship between the categories of past, present and future in Western societies. The English novelist J. G. Ballard anticipated and captured it well in his introduction to the French edition of his cult novel Crash: ‘Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present’ (Ballard [1974] 1985: 5). One of the most influential interpreters of this alteration, François Hartog, has called it a change of the ‘regime of historicity’ (Hartog 2003; cf. Delacroix et al. 2009; Hartog 2010). While for the past couple of centuries the dominant Western regime of historicity was future-oriented, the orientation has shifted during the last decades — the symbolic turning point selected by Hartog being the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — with the future clearly relinquishing its position as the main tool for interpreting historical experience and giving way to a present-oriented regime that he terms ‘presentism’ (Hartog 2003: 111–62; cf. Hartog 2008, 2013: 28–33, 99–107).1 A presentist regime of historicity implies a new way of understanding temporality, an abandoning of the linear, causal and homogeneous conception of time characteristic of the previous, modernist regime of historicity.
Marek Tamm

Theoretical Reflections


1. Historical Event between the Sphinx and the Phoenix

Wherever we look, we see testimony of the return of the event. The notions of structure, invariant, longue durée, immobile history have been superseded by those of organizing chaos, the fractal, disaster theory, emergence, enaction, mutation, rupture.… This shift affects not only the discipline of history. It is present in all the human sciences and testifies to a fresh focus of attention on the novel results that such renewed questioning of the event may bring forth. After a long eclipse of the event in the humanities, its spectacular ‘return’ that we are observing now has nothing much to do with the restrictive concept that was held by the nineteenth-century methodological school of history. The aim of the present chapter is to try to find a way of understanding this new era that we are passing through, an era of a new relationship with historicity marked by the evenementalization of meaning in all domains. It is not just a return that we are going through, but, rather, a renaissance or a return of difference.
François Dosse

2. Events, Proper Names and the Rise of Memory

The ‘return of the event’ and the ‘rise of memory’ are important aspects of the development of history writing during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For several decades, from about the 1920s to the 1970s, events were exorcized from front-rank historiography. François Dosse in his contribution to this volume (Chapter 1) reminds us of the struggle that the leaders of the Annales School conducted against histoire événementielle or else histoire historisante, ironic names they gave to traditional political history. The return of the event, according to Dosse, was first heralded by Pierre Nora in 1972 (see also Bensa and Fassin 2002; Dosse 2010). Nora was also one of the first scholars to initiate, a decade later, a ‘memory boom’ in historiography. His way of dealing with events foreshadowed his approach to historical memory. No doubt, by calling attention to events, he sought to challenge Fernand Braudel’s theory of the longue durée and promote contemporary history or histoire du temps présent, the name under which it has become known in France. The struggle of the contemporanéistes for academic recognition was hardly possible without a rehabilitation of politics. But there was much more than that in Nora’s interest in events.
Nikolay Koposov

3. Accelerating Change and Trigger Events

In the first few months of the Second World War, the German essayist Sebastian Haffner noted in the manuscript of his memoirs that before the fateful year 1933, when Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor, men were able to remain more or less coherent in themselves. Some events could well remain beyond them, taking on gigantic proportions but leaving private life relatively unscathed, sheltered in a way by institutionalized cheating (Haffner [2000] 2002: 6–7). But a foreboding of the totalitarian folly to come urged the man who was just beginning his career as a journalist during his exile in London to believe that, strictly speaking, an event is decisive when it affects the private sphere to the point of upsetting it entirely and creating a series of insoluble moral dilemmas. Classical historiography has long neglected the variations of individual intensity caused by this type of earthquake, which immediately makes us expect the worst. It has preferred to focus on the modifications of equal speed and regularity normally experienced by most political regimes. Undoubtedly, the initially hardly perceptible, then explosive, rise of National Socialism constitutes an extreme experience of a historic change of pace. Contrary to constantly evolving dynamics which favour a mental scenario of easy adaptation in the long term, most of history’s accelerations, when they occur, instead have the effect of electrifying a society’s nervous system to varying degrees, shaking the structure of personal identities.
Olivier Remaud

4. Theories of Cultural Memory and the Concept of ‘Afterlife’

Over the last decades we have witnessed a ‘continental shift’ in the structure of Western temporality. Experience teaches not only that specific visions of the future have crumbled but that even the concept of the future as such has changed beyond recognition. In many areas, such as politics, society and environment, the future has lost its lure. It can no longer be used indiscriminately as the vanishing point of wishes, goals and projections. Why did this happen? Why have the shares of the future fallen in the stock market of our value system? There are obvious answers that immediately come to mind: the resources of the future have been eroded through a number of new dramatic challenges, such as the ongoing ecological pollution that accompanies the development of our technical civilization, the demographic problems such as overpopulation and ageing societies, the scarcity of natural resources such as fuel and drinking water, and climate change. Under these premises, the future can no longer serve as the Eldorado of our hopes and wishes, rendering also the promise of irreversible progress more and more obsolete. Change is no longer automatically assumed to be a change for the better. The future, in short, has become an object of concern, prompting ever new measures of precaution.1
Aleida Assmann

5. Literature and the Afterlife of Events: The Lost and Haunted World of Austerlitz

Like many writers, W. G. Sebald was fascinated with the ways in which the past shapes the present. What distinguishes him is the sense that the past continues to radiate and seep into the present. The travels of his characters are often mediated via historical fragments from bygone times. Photographs, documents, passports, landscapes, streets and architectural monoliths all exude an aura from a previous life. Each object’s existence has an afterlife to be deciphered. More often than not, their talismanic afterlife is part of the larger aftermath of twentieth-century European history. Life, afterlife and aftermath are themes that permeate Sebald’s work. While many of his stories illuminate the porous layers of recent history, Austerlitz is also an example of the relationship between writing and remembering, traumatic event and its unpredictable after-life. There is a paradoxical relationship that unfolds between memory and storytelling, in which we, the readers, are carried along in Jacques Austerlitz’s struggle with writing, talking and remembering. If academic scholarship can outline the epistemological problem of memory and writing, it is literature that represents the moral contours of this complex relationship. As Sebald remarked in one of his last interviews,
The moral backbone of literature is about the whole question of memory. … Memory, if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life.
Siobhan Kattago

Empirical Analyses


6. Exodus and Memory

The biblical story of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt is the narrative account of an ‘event’ in whose ‘aftermath’ we are still living, because it refers to an act of revelation on which the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are founded. It has always provoked questions about what really happened. The ancient Egyptian evidence was searched again and again for any traces that could confirm the biblical record; any new excavation, especially that of the tomb of Tutankhamen, was hailed with great expectations of a final proof; theories have been formed about the causes of the ten plagues: collision with a meteorite? Climate catastrophe as a consequence of the eruption of the volcano Thera? What could have caused the parting of the sea? A storm? The archaeology of Palestine has focused on the discovery of traces of the conquest that followed the emigration, levels of destruction and a dramatic change of material culture. Jericho in particular has been investigated, but only to reveal that the site was deserted in biblical times and the destruction by far antedates the events told in the Book of Joshua.
Jan Assmann

7. Convulsion Recalled: Aftermath and Cultural Memory (Post-1798 Ireland)

It is no coincidence that the field of memory studies or ‘mnemohistory’ has been deeply influenced by scholars with a background in literary rather than social-political history — from Aleida and Jan Assmann, by way of Ansgar Nünning and Astrid Erll, to Ann Rigney and Michael Rothberg. Of all the historical sciences, literary history is perhaps the specialism that is most consciously aware of the duality of history, its oscillation between event and experience, between occurrence and recall. As the great Prague structuralist Felix Vodičká ([1943] 1976) argued, the historicity of a text works along multiple chronologies. It depends, not only on the dynamics of cultural production — placing Laurence Sterne into the pre-Romantic run-up to Hölderlin and Keats — but also in the ongoing accretion of successive readings and interpre-tations. Each of these readings and interpretations harks back to the original text, but each also falls under the shadow of all previous readings and interpretations, overlays covering the original text. This double historicity — the succession of texts along the time-axis of their authors’ productivity, and the accumulation of meanings along the time-axis of their readers’ reception — complicates the chronology. Keats, long after his death, became one of the great poets of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and of the fin de siècle, following which he was succeeded by Hölderlin (the mystic-existentialist inspiration of the George Circle and of Martin Heidegger), both finally overtaken by Tristram Shandy (that foundational text for late twentieth-century postmodernism).
Joep Leerssen

8. Celebrating Final Victory in Estonia’s ‘Great Battle for Freedom’: The Short Afterlife of 23 June 1919 as National Holiday, 1934–1939

On 23 June 1934 the young republic of Estonia, founded in 1918, celebrated her Victory Day for the first time. An official brochure produced for this occasion explained what had happened during the days of the Estonian War of Independence exactly 15 years before, in June 1919, on the ‘fields of Cēsis’ (Est. Võnnu; Germ. Wenden) in Latvia: here, the text reads, where already ‘our forefathers had fought their fateful wars with the crusaders […], we finally defeated our historical enemy’ (Takelberg 1934: 3). This key sentence, in justifying the holiday, conveys multiple information about the past, in order to define the conflict of 1919 as an event, worthy of state celebration. First, a collective ‘we’, the Estonians, gained a final victory in a decisive battle. Second, the defeated was the ‘historical enemy’ of this collective, so that the conflict apparently solved in 1919 had obviously had a long prehistory. Third, the ancestors of the present collective had already fought on the same battlefield against the ‘crusaders’, presumably the ’historical enemy’ mentioned, thus embedding the battle of 1919 into a locally fixed narrative template dating back to the Middle Ages. This evidence suggests that the particular design of this state-imposed after-life of the battle of Cēsis was meant to stress a coherent story of the Estonian nation defending its independence against a ‘historical enemy’ from times immemorial.
Karsten Brüggemann

9. Novemberland: 9 November, the German Master Example of Hauntology

In his ‘Children’s Hymn’ of 1950, Bertolt Brecht, back in East Berlin after exile, revealed an unexpected patriotism: ‘So that a good Germany flowers/Like many another good country. [ … ] And because we are tending to this land,/May we love and protect it;/And may it seem to us the dearest,/Just as to others their own land seems.’ A great deal stood in the way of Germany’s recognition by other nations, however, including a day of infamy: 9 November 1938. It was because of that day that Germany was not acknowledged like any another good country. ‘So that the peoples do not turn pale/Before us as before a bird of prey/But that they reach out their hands/To us as to other peoples’ (Brecht [1950] 1997: 507–8) — that was probably only possible after 9 November 1989.
Claus Leggewie

10. German Pasts in a Russian City — Kaliningrad between 1946 and 2006

In 1992 the Kaliningrad historian Juri Kostjažev and his team, after many years of painstaking oral history research, completed a manuscript that dealt with the history of the early Russian settlers who moved to the Kaliningrad region after 1945. However, the book was censored in Russia, as there were many fears and complaints that it focused on the many problems faced by the settlers and therefore undermined the heroic Soviet narrative of the resettling of Kaliningrad that had dominated post-war discourses in the region. Kostjazev highlighted the disappointments among the 400,000 settlers who had moved to the area by 1950 — the lack of accommodation, food, medicines and heating material as well as the all-pervasive corruption, the lawlessness and the arbitrariness of the Soviet authorities. Furthermore, the book also criticized the latter for purging the region of its remaining German inhabitants, and it included references to initial cooperation between the Germans who had stayed behind and the new Russian settlers — a narrative that again ran counter to the officially prescribed narrative that was carefully nurtured under the Soviet regime. Kostjazev, who was not without supporters inside and outside the academy, battled hard for five years to get the verdict of the censor overturned, and in 1997 it looked as though the book would finally appear.
Stefan Berger

11. Can a Criminal Event in the Past Disappear in a Garbage Bin in the Present? Dutch Colonial Memory and Human Rights: The Case of Rawagede

In this chapter I will deal with a recent case of ‘memory politics’ in the Netherlands concerning a massacre on 9 December 1947. This massacre took place in a village in West Java named Rawagede — later renamed Balongsari — during the war started by the Dutch after the end of the Second World War. They started this war in an attempt to re-establish their former colony of the Dutch East Indies, which had been occupied by Japan at the beginning of 1942 and had declared its independence only two days after Japan’s unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945. Indonesians called this war between 1945 and 1950 Indonesia’s ‘National Revolution’ or ‘War of Independence’, while the Dutch preferred to refer to two ‘police actions’ (politionele acties).
Chris Lorenz

12. Do Apologies End Events? Bloody Sunday, 1972–2010

On 15 June 2010 the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, David Cameron, addressed the Lower House of the British parliament in a speech that lasted some ten minutes and included the following words:
I know that some people wonder whether, nearly 40 years on from an event, a prime minister needs to issue an apology. For someone of my generation, Bloody Sunday and the early 1970s are something we feel we have learnt about rather than lived through. But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss.
Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.
Ann Rigney

Afterthoughts on Afterlives

Afterthoughts on Afterlives

Potential readers of Afterlife of Events may hesitate, wondering whether another book about cultural memory is really necessary. They do not need to worry: this volume offers both new ideas and new examples. The authors clarify old concepts and introduce new ones, such as ‘trigger event’ (Remaud), ‘negative memory’ (Lorenz) or ‘cultural aphasia’ (Leerssen). They also offer a series of perceptive case studies. My role in these afterthoughts is to try to link the different contributions to the volume and to present them as part of a larger whole. Since the case studies are mainly concerned with Northern Europe, from Ireland to Estonia via the Netherlands and Germany, I shall be offering brief examples from Southern Europe and South America as well as from my own country, England. Although the essays in this volume are innovative in various ways, I shall try to place them in a historiographical tradition. I shall also comment on a few of the volume’s central concepts.
Peter Burke


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