Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014
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In the Panthéon

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What makes memory so highly contested and the craft of the historian so fraught is often not a disagreement about facts. It is easy (at least in principle) to point out that something thought to be true is actually a construct—that, for example, we know William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words, “War is hell,” or that Patrick Henry never shouted, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” The most intractable memory wars take place over the purpose of the narrative constructed out of agreed-upon facts and about the values underlying those choices.

It is still common in Russia to describe Josef Stalin as a great statesman and to view the millions he had arrested, tortured, shot at dawn, starved to death, and sent to die in the Gulag as regrettable but acceptable collateral damage in the march toward a brighter future. Historians who hold this view do not dispute that he killed untold numbers of victims; they just believe that the mass killing of civilians can be good or at least necessary under certain circumstances. Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, and the Nazis thought the same, as did Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar.

Conflicting accounts of the past are shaped around cultural values and then congeal in communal memory. We know who we are because we know where we come from—or at least we think we do. Memory binds together families and communities and forms the soil in which the understanding of the present grows. It is essentially poetic, focusing its gaze on emblematic moments of the past, iconic images of identity and culture frozen in time, and cleansed of contradiction, of complexity and context.

The best history, I believe, attempts to counter this tendency by reconstructing the past before it was cast in amber, revealing its life cycles and contingency. Like the guerilla restoration practiced by Untergunther, it is a concerted effort to restore what has long been broken and has not received attention from the authorities—or has received the wrong kind of attention and has been amended so that the original is unrecognizable.

The task is crucial in a democratic society, because unchallenged myths end up informing not only personal perceptions but also political and collective decisions. They may have their origin in a fiction of sorts, but they pickle memory and shape reality. Around the turn of the eighteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—bolstered by the earlier efforts of classical enthusiasts like Johann Winckelmann—created and popularized visions of nobility, guiltless sensuality, and bravery symbolized by ancient Greece. The poets’ resplendently pure version of antiquity became the inspiration for works of historicist architecture and art (the U.S. Capitol, Monticello); the study of Greek language and civilization from idealizing textbooks informed the sensibilities of writers and politicians; Byron even traveled to Greece to fight for Greek independence and recalled the past, “I dream’d that Greece might still be free;/For standing on the Persians’ grave,/I could not deem myself a slave.” The speeches by Pericles and Homer’s heroes still rang in the ears of French, German, and British officers called up in World War I. Restorers even “cleaned” vividly polychromic paint from statues and buildings, thus reinforcing this created idea of classical purity. How different ancient Greece may have been is still being discovered, and will be rediscovered in the light of every generation’s preoccupations and fears.

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About the Author

Philipp Blom is a historian and novelist living in Vienna. His books include Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History, The Vertigo Years, and Luxor. His most recent work, A Wicked Company, was published in 2010.

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