Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life

Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life

Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life

Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life


More than sixty million people have been victims of genocide in the twentieth century alone, including recent casualties in Bosnia and Rwanda. Herbert Hirsch studies repetitions of large-scale human violence in order to ascertain why people in every historical epoch seem so willing to kill each other. He argues that the primal passions unleashed in the cause of genocide are tied to the manipulation of memory for political purposes.

According to Hirsch, leaders often invoke or create memories of real or fictitious past injustices to motivate their followers to kill for political gain or other reasons. Generations pass on their particular versions of events, which then become history. If we understand how cultural memory is created, Hirsch says, we may then begin to understand how and why episodes of mass murder occur and will be able to act to prevent them. In order to revise the politics of memory, Hirsch proposes essential reforms in both the modern political state and in systems of education.


Memory is inescapable. It is, in fact, the capacity to remember, the ability to use our brains to create or re-create our past, that is said to separate human beings from their fellow inhabitants on the planet. This ability to remember, however, does not necessarily mean that all of us are aware of our past or even of events swirling around us.

When I was growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, I knew very little about events going on around me -- significant events that were to shape the world we live in today. What I did know was largely a series of indistinct impressions with little or no substance. Personally, I had experienced some vague and nonlethal manifestations of anti-Semitism, but of cruelty, repression, and mass extermination I knew little. As I began to become more aware of my surroundings and as I started to study history and politics, it dawned on me that a great deal of human energy was devoted to attempts to destroy other humans. Why, I asked myself, are humans so willing, now and in the past, to kill each other in large numbers?

My interest in this question was crystallized by the events that occurred in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, where 950 followers of the "Reverend" Jim Jones were persuaded to commit suicide-murder. If so many people, I thought, would follow orders to commit mass suicide, to take their own lives and those of family members and friends, how difficult could it be to motivate people to kill others more distant from them whose racial, religious, sexual, or other characteristics had already been denigrated?

To try to answer these difficult questions for myself, my students, and my children, I began to do research on repression, on injustice, and finally on mass extermination. The subject is not pleasant, and confronting it inevitably effects the manner in which one views oneself and the world. Yet it seemed far more important to me than many of the other subjects to which scholars in the social science disciplines devote their attention.

After a number of years of study, I began to teach classes and to address audiences about genocide. At first, I used to begin my lectures by apologizing for the depressing nature of the material. Eventually I began to wonder: "Why am I apologizing? Did I make up the events? Isn't it important for people to learn and, most important, to remember?" I no longer apologize. Now I explain that we study death to learn about life -- about how to live in such a manner as to not cause, and hopefully to learn how to prevent, repetitions of the horrible genocides that have plagued human history in general and our trou-

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