Those of us who are in the habit of railing at the historical illiteracy of these great times of ours (it borders on amnesia) should be careful what we wish for. For despite what Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it, historical memory is anything but an incontestable public good. Those who doubt this need only look at the Balkans in the 1990s. Despite the propaganda of the Serbs and their allies in Russia and in the West, the conflict was not principally about “ancient ethnic hatreds.” The fetishization of the historical grievances of the Croats and the Serbs unquestionably played a key role in providing the conflict with an ideological and propagandistic flag of convenience. And, in due course, the Bosnian side—which, despite the Muslim nationalist past of some of its leaders, was overwhelmingly Titoist at the beginning of the war—followed suit as well (those who still deny this cannot possibly have been in Sarajevo in the early months of the siege, but that is a debate for another day).
I remember going to Belgrade in 1993 to visit Vuk Draskovic, the nationalist politician and writer who was then leading the mass opposition against the Milosevic regime and in doing so had drawn liberal, as well as ultra-nationalist, support in Serbia. As I was leaving, my head still ringing with Draskovic’s romantic paeans of praise for the Chetnik leader, Draza Mihajlovic, one of his young aides pressed a folded bit of paper into my hand. It was blank except for a date: “1453”—that is, the year Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans. Friends of mine who worked in the former Yugoslavia during the Croatian and Bosnian wars had similar experiences in Zagreb and in Sarajevo. It seemed that the “sores of history,” as the great Irish writer Hubert Butler once called them, remained unhealed more than half a millennium later—at least in the desperate, degraded atmosphere of that time and place.
Butler himself suffered greatly from the anger of the official Catholic Ireland of the day (that he was a member of the Republic’s Protestant minority only aggravated the affront in the minds of his detractors). It began fairly innocently. Butler had traveled extensively in Egypt, the USSR, the Balkans, and Central Europe in the 1930s; and for a time in 1938-39, he worked with a Quaker group in Vienna helping Jews escape Nazi Austria. In 1952, he gave a public talk in Dublin about the Balkans, which was criticized in Ireland for not emphasizing the persecution of Catholics by the victorious Tito dictatorship. Butler had insisted—unfortunately for him, the Papal Nuncio was in attendance—that a far greater crime had been the campaign of the Nazi-installed Croatian regime of Ante Pavelic to convert the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia to Catholicism and to murder those who refused to renounce their faith, and the complicity of Msgr Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb, in this genocidal war against the Serbs. Butler writes about this in an essay he titled (the reference was to earlier memoirs of his public school) “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue.”
In the debate that ensued, Butler—who, as a writer was very much a localist and, apart from his time in Russia, the Balkans, and Austria, otherwise spent most of his very long life in the country fastness of his native County Kilkenny—was excoriated by the Irish clerical and political establishment. A book defending Stepinac was published with a preface by the Archbishop of Dublin. Father R.S. Devane, a well-known Irish Jesuit of the day of whom, early in his career, it was said that he “had been known to confiscate British publications from unwilling newsagents in his native Limerick,” insisted that there had been no forcible conversions, while the Irish Minister of Agriculture in the De Valera government advised a group of Irish law students to model themselves on figures like Stepinac, Pavelic, and Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary—figures, he said, who had “so gallantly defended freedom of thought and conscience.” As Butler observed, “Those who knew Yugoslavia were aghast, for Pavelic…was the Yugoslav counterpart of Himmler.”
From the onset of the controversy, Butler seems to have understood very well the risks he was running. But he felt he had no choice, above all precisely because he was an Irish Protestant. Convinced that for all their mistakes and derelictions, the demonization of the Irish Protestant community in De Valera’s Ireland was a gross falsification of history, Butler was adamant. “If we agree,” he wrote, “that history should be falsified in Croatia in the interests of Catholic piety, how could we protest when our own history was similarly distorted?”
In the early 1950s, unlike our own time, there still was a difference between celebrity and notoriety, and Butler paid dearly for his effort to set the historical record straight. Though, as an Irishman, he understood better than most what the cost could be of tearing the scabs off historical wounds. He was the subtlest of writers, and never confronted the question head on. But from what he did write, it seems evident that for Butler any decent politics had to be a politics of truth in which even inconvenient, unwelcome, or, to use a term much favored by generations of engineers of the human soul whether religious or secular, “unhelpful” facts needed to be aired. As he put it, “If you suppress a fact because it is awkward, you will next be asked to contradict it.”
This is that most old-fashioned of things: a noble sentiment. But as Butler himself would certainly have understood, the question of historical memory is more vexing, and the binary conceptions of truth vs. lie and the concealed vs. the revealed only get us so far. What do we actually mean when we speak of historical memory? It cannot be what individuals remember. As any police investigator will tell you, the longer the period that elapses between a person being in an accident or being the victim or witness to a crime, the less accurate his or her testimony is likely to be. And the historical memory of an event, by which we usually mean the collective memory of people who did not themselves live through it but have had it passed down to them, whether through family stories or public education and ceremonial commemorations, is not just flawed but impossible, for we remember as individuals not as collectivities, and collective memory is as absurd a category as collective guilt.
And yet, whether we are speaking of the Irish memory of the Great Famine of 1847—by which we do indeed mean collective memory, since, self-evidently no Irish person has any actual recollection of the catastrophe—or of the Armenian Genocide, or the Rape of Nanjing, or the Shoah, we are not talking about memory in any proper sense, but morality, ideology, and, more often than not, cultural and political organizing principles; and, as such, they are not—or should never be—beyond challenge or revision, no matter how (justifiably) sacrosanct they may appear at a given time.
For if ever Nietzsche’s terrifying insight that “there are no facts, only interpretations” seemed undeniable, it is where historical memory is concerned.
None of this would matter so much were historical memory as hospitable to peace and reconciliation as it is to war and enmity. I once heard the Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien observe during a particularly dark period of the conflict in Northern Ireland that, at times, it seemed as if Republicans and Unionists might be close to coming to terms; but then, he said, one side or the other would remember one of the great militant songs of martyrdom—“The Rising of the Moon” or “The Sash My Father Wore”—and any such hope would quickly evaporate. And the pathology is in no way unique to Ireland.
But we would live in a better world if we could, no, if we would forget.