When Memory Plays Tricks

By Deyanova, Liliana | UNESCO Courier, May 1994 | Go to article overview

When Memory Plays Tricks


Deyanova, Liliana, UNESCO Courier


A Sociologist discovers how history can be retouched by those who took part in it

"OUR past is becoming more and more unpredictable." Bulgarians today are increasingly familiar with this paradox. Not for the first time, they are asking themselves such questions as these: Did the communists come to power on 9 September 1944 as the result of a "popular uprising" against a monarchist-fascist dictatorship, without direct intervention by the Red Army, or as the result of a coup d'etat by a gang of traitors and terrorists supported by Russian guns? Was Bulgaria ever fascist? Who saved the Jews from deportation to Nazi concentration camps? The communist party or King Boris III?

In one of its first directives, the new government set up in 1944 enjoined teachers "not to expound the positive actions of monarchs in history lessons, but to stress the tyrannical quality of their rule and the struggle of the oppressed people". The triumphant workers and peasants were to be glorified. Thus was history rewritten. It is no surprise to find Spartacus described as a "proletarian"; the most grotesque illustrations of communist iconography came close to depicting him brandishing a hammer and sickle.

Today's history books, on the other hand, avoid talking about "the positive aspects of the proletariat", and filter or exclude previously sacrosanct expressions such as "anti-fascist popular uprising" and "the glorious October Revolution". Perhaps this is what the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has described as "a rewriting of history that is contrary to the totalitarian version"?

A sociological enquiry

In Bulgaria a far-reaching research programme has been launched on "the rewriting of history". It is sociological rather than historical, and is less concerned with discovering the truth about past events than with understanding how they are interpreted in the various "rewritten" versions. The content of history books and history lessons, exhibits in historical museums, and biographies are all being studied as part of this programme.

By examining the ways in which individual biographies are being rewritten it is possible to see the two-way relationship between biography and history. We can discover how people see their own lives and try to "legitimize" them by making sure that they conform to newly-accepted standards, and also how new interpretations of certain historic events are being inserted in these "revised" biographies. Two different processes are involved: giving meaning to one's own life, and using one's life story to make sense of the past. It is possible to identify various strata in the collective memory by seeing how certain events are given emphasis, important facts are omitted, minute details are magnified, and what Freud called "screen-memory" comes into being.

In this context it may be hard to say exactly "what happened on 9 September 1944". Perhaps we ought instead to see what the various interpretations of 9 September are, or even find out about the different 9 September stored in the different layers of the memory. What story do those who once called themselves "active combatants in the struggle against fascism and capitalism" now tell? What story do their victims tell?

To carry out this analysis we are using a variety of sociological techniques and a number of sources. By collecting the life stories of people as they are described in the eulogies pronounced at their funerals and in later conversations with those who knew them we have tried to find out how biographies are orientated nowadays, by people on both sides of the fence.

We shall not dwell on the way in which people make crude manipulations (intentional or otherwise) of their own past. What interests us is the way in which episodes in a biography are unconsciously reorganized at the time of death. In every biography we have noted a transference of guilt, a refusal to be associated with evil. Evil is rejected: it is done by enemies, or at a pinch by black sheep on one's own side. …

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