On commemoration

The twentieth century is hardly behind us, but already its quarrels and its dogmas, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. Incessantly invoked as 'lessons', they are in reality ignored and untaught. This is not altogether surprising. The recent pas is the hardest to know and understand. [...] Today... we wear the last century rather lightly. To be sure, we have memorialized it everywhere: museums, shrines, inscriptions, 'heritage rites', even historical theme parts are all public reminders of 'the Past'. But there is a strikingly selective quality to the twentieth century that we have chosen to commemorate. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth century memory are either avowedly nostalgic – triumphalist – praising famous men and celebrating famous victories – or else, and increasingly, opportunities for the acknowledgment and recollection of selective suffering. In the latter case they are typically the occasion for the teaching of a certain sort of political lesson: about things that were done and should never be forgotten, about mistakes that were made and should not be made again.

The twentieth century is thus on the path to becoming a moral memory place: a pedagogically serviceable Church of Historical Horrors whose way stations are labeled 'Munich' or 'Pearl Harbour', 'Auschwitz' or 'Gulag', 'Armenia' or 'Bosnia' or 'Rwanda', with '9-11' as a sort of supererogatory coda, a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century or who never properly learned them. [...]

But such official commemoration, however benign its motives, does not enhance our appreciation and awareness of the past. It serves as a substitute, a surrogate. Instead of teaching children recent history, we walk them through museums and memorials. [...] The past has now no agreed narrative shape of its own. it acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting concerns.

– Tony Judt, The World We Have Lost