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Commemoration: Shaping Collective Memory

The second workshop of the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series 2017-2018, ‘Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation’ took place at a time of special significance, Remembrance Day (November 11th) which marks the end of one of the biggest tragedies in History. On this date the panel led by Professor Helen Small explored the concept of textual commemoration and addressed the commemorative needs that arise after conflicts and catastrophes.

Award-winning novelist Rachel Seiffert delivered a moving speech on dealing with the past from what she called ‘the wrong side of history’, that of the perpetrators. She explored the complexity of reconciling complicity and guilt with the suffering experienced and the desire to move on. Her take helped us understand the weight of legacies of culpability in the family and how they can coexist with love.

Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge also gave an inspiring discourse that introduced the reflections of Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil. She brought up the idea of fiction as a means of accessing reality, giving the example of Heinrich Böll whose novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s dealt with the actualities of Nazism long before German historians came to terms with the subject.

A different take was given by Professor Harvey Whitehouse, a renowned anthropologist who shared his experience in Tripoli in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, he explained the role of experiences of collective suffering in building social cohesion and how commemoration can consolidate those links.

Professor Elleke Boehmer looked further into the concept of commemoration from a critical and thought-provoking perspective that pointed out the tension between justice and reconciliation drawing on events from her native South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The subsequent discussion brought up attendees’ views on the nature of textual commemoration and explored the ramifications of issue in current events. Again, the questions that surround the idea of commemoration resonated in the discussion between the panelists and the audience. To what extent is commemoration based in fiction? What role does it play in collective memory? Does commemoration perpetuate narratives of conflict or can it be an instrument of reconciliation and healing?  

You can watch the panellists’ presentations from the workshop here.


Fernando Álvarez

MA student in Intelligence and International Security, King’s College London