Comparing Family Memories in France and Germany: The Production of History(ies) within and through Kin Relations

Article excerpt


This article proposes a methodological and theoretical interrogation on how to analyze family memories. It is the product of a Franco-German collective research project on family memories that has been conducted at the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) of Paris over the past five years by a dozen of young German and French researchers and coordinated by the two authors. Our research is based on an empirical study of eight family monographs, method inspired by the ethnographical approach of anthropologists studying kinship relations. (1) Our comparative perspective produces theoretical and methodological reflexivity beyond the accumulation of results and literature. The confrontation of different research traditions reveals new problems but also unattended solutions, which constitute one of the originalities of this article.

This article will propose an innovative sociological approach of family memories, insisting on the interaction between ways of telling family stories and other social stakes within the family, but also within other social institutions. We will also insist upon the links between the construction of family "histories" and the elaboration of what has been called "grand narratives" or "great narrative history" in the political, media and scientific fields. In this perspective, history is not "always already there" but constructed by multiple actors and institutions on different levels: national and international, but also local. (2) It is this very production and the role of the family within it which interests us here. Reintroducing social variables into the analysis of family memories, and analysing their interaction with other forms of transmission of the past enables us to show ways in which the counting of family pasts is linked to and embedded into larger social spaces (geographic, professional, political, scholarly, cultural). Our perspective thus goes beyond a vision of family memory as a process of transmission of a coherent single (hi)story, just as it analyses its social construction and implications beyond the "private sphere" only.

We will start by analysing problems of existing Franco-German literature on sociology of memory and the family. We will show how these problems have led us to put into question the links between family pasts and "great narratives of history" as well as to invent new ways to apprehend the family configurations which articulate family memories. In a second part we explain how we analyse family souvenirs as a process which is embedded into social power relations beyond the intimate and private sphere by putting into question the notions of "family" and "history."


Family memory has been analysed in Germany and the United States from a historical perspective. It is thus strongly influenced by research on politics of memory after the Second World War, which has cut the second half of the 20th century into national, but also trans-national "memory-episodes." (3) Historiography on memories of the second world war in the GFR can serve as an example: a period of relative silence, a denial of responsibility for the conflict or the development of heroic memories existed in Germany in the late 1940's and 1950's--accompanying on a political and juridical level the amnesty of war criminals and actors of the genocide (Frei, 1999). Then a period of debate opens - in the GFR from the late 1960's, about twenty years after the conflicts - yielding numerous journalistic, documentary, and artistic treatments of the war-past, followed by multiple scientific analyses of these memorial productions. Finally a period of political unity opens with a discourse of "assumed culpability." At first contested in the GFR, these "politics of forgiving" (incarnated by Willy Brand kneeling in front of the memorial for the Ghetto of Warsaw) has been widely accepted from the 1980's and 1990's in reunited Germany. …


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