How We Remember . . .

How do we remember the past? Not the technical means, such as baked clay tablets, knotted strings, repeating the accounts our grandmothers told, or with black ink on acid-free archival paper. I mean the flavors which we give the stories we recall, how we view the events that happened long ago and on occasion far away. Universities now offer courses in “history and memory” that focus on just that. Because shaded stories, and shading the stories we historians tell, can be very seductive.

I’d never really thought about it until I was in college. Now, this was the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia was just starting to come unglued. I read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon about Yugoslavia between the Wars. In her account, Serbia is a martyr and has been going back to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Tsar Stephen Dushan had a vision offering him an earthly kingdom or a heavenly kingdom. He chose the heavenly kingdom, lost the battle to the Turks, and that was the end of the Serbian Empire for 600 years or so. Serbia was the black lamb, the sacrifice that saved the rest of Europe from the Turks. She’s a very good writer, and the imagery impressed me, and I swallowed her argument without question. And then I started reading for my 20th Century Europe class the next semester. Oh boy, the mental whiplash was impressive. And the war broke out, and well, there were very few good guys in that conflagration.

Then, in grad school, I read The Vanished Kingdom for fun. It is a history of Prussia – that area around Königsberg/Kaliningrad that formed the original heart of what became Brandenburg-Prussia. The author alternates the history of the place with how current and former residents remember the land. It’s an excellent study in both history and history lost. Prussia no longer exists. It is Poland and a small enclave of Russia. Gunter Grass and a few other German writers have spent the past 70 years writing about and considering Lost Prussia, the land that Germans had settled in the 800s and had developed, then fled in 1945 never to return. There have been a few attempts by descendants of property owners to go back, and they have been (as last I heard) rebuffed by the Polish government and the Poles who were resettled into the area after WWII.

The 1945-47 population shifts in Central Europe don’t get mentioned much in US textbooks or histories of the war. We read about the Germans who fled west to get away from the Soviets, but that’s pretty much it, and you get the sense that the process ended by November-December ’45. As it turns out, the process went on for several more years, and it was the greatest population shift since the Middle Ages or the 30 Years War. “Germans” who had lived in towns in Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Poland for hundreds of years were driven west, to a country their ancestors had left in the 1200s-1400s. Czechoslovakia expelled Germans and Hungarians (but not Slovaks, who had been led by a Fascist sympathizer during the war). Slovaks voluntarily moved north, into the newly redrawn border of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the Soviets were busily redrawing the population map of Eastern Europe and Russia just as they had been doing before and during the war.

But trying to find histories about that population migration can be very tricky. There are a few memoirs, and some general histories, but until recently, it has been almost a taboo subject. After all, “the Germans deserved it.” In fact, there are a few books on Amazon where reviewers argued that the subject of Germans from outside of German should not be discussed and the book should not have been published and made available for sale. The Saxons of the Drava River should be erased from history.

We’re seeing an interesting twist on remembering history in the US this year. It is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War/War Between the States/ The Late Unpleasantness. And a push, at least among certain activist groups and the media, is underway to eliminate public acknowledgement of the Civil War and of the bravery of the men who fought on the losing side. I’m not going to get into the rightness or wrongness of the war. The men who died on Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, the Bloody Lane, the Battle of the Crater, or the Wilderness deserve to be remembered, both Union and Confederate. But some people now disagree. Digging up the bones of Nathan Bedford Forrest, even if you think he was the devil incarnate for his later association with the various anti-Reconstruction movements, won’t change the past. Or will it? If the monuments to a region’s history disappear, how much harder will it be to remove the rest of the past?

Right now, the administrators in one of Russia’s Ural mountain provinces have banned books by Anthony Beevor and John Keegan because the historians’ work is flawed, inaccurate, and disrespectful of Russian history. You see, some Russian schools now teach that the USSR alone fought the Great patriotic War, and the west did nothing, or next to nothing, to stop the Nazis, instead leaving the Soviets to take the burnt of the war, then taking advantage of the USSR’s exhaustion later. I suspect the little matter of the Soviet troops’ raping their way across Poland, Austria, and Germany is also taboo. And Stalin had a few problems, but he wasn’t all that bad, and the West pushed him into taking dramatic steps to protect Russia.

How do we remember the Anglo and Hispano settlement of the American West? Very differently now compared to when I was in grade school. And I got to listen to the then state historian of New Mexico talking about how his people (recent immigrants from Mexico) would correct the history of the region. I suspect the folks in the room who traced their history in the state back to 1690, or to the relocation of the ancestral Puebloans from the San Juan Plateau to the Rio Grande Valley, didn’t feel as much need to “correct” the history that they write and teach.

When I started studying history, I never thought it might be as fraught as it turned out to be. There’s a reason I steer well clear of certain fields, at least right now. And it all turns on how we remember, or want to remember, or are allowed to remember, the past.

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3 thoughts on “How We Remember . . .

  1. This sort of thing is why I always respond to ‘Free Palestine!’ protesters with a hearty “Free Prussia!” or “Free Koenigsberg!”

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