Collective Memory of Political Events: Social Psychological Perspectives

By James W. Pennebaker; Dario Paez et al. | Go to book overview

Another way of creating a positive meaning for traumatic events is to generate attributions blaming the victims. Although this phenomenon does not seem to have emerged in Portugal, this seems to be a psychologically useful process in maintaining a belief in a just and meaningful world. As a case in point, one third of the Germans, and the most of those are over 40 years old, are in total or partial agreement with the idea that "it is the Jews' own fault if they have been persecuted for centuries" ( Martí-Font, 1992). The wife of a Russian civil servant who worked in concentration camps stated (even in 1989) this belief in a just world in relation to the gulag: "There were innocents who were unjustly jailed, that is true, but the rest, the majority, those were bandits" ( Potel, 1992, p. 402).

The effort to provide a traumatic event with meaning is a normal feature, although it is not always possible to do so ( Janoff-Bulman, 1992). But, in more appropriate social-political circumstances, the strife against forgetting and the existence of testimonial commemorations are mechanisms that allow people to give individual intrusive memories of collective traumatic events a social meaning ( Jodelet, 1993), while also decreasing symptomatology ( Becker & Lira, 1989). As stated by one key informant of the Portuguese disabled veterans' association, attempts to discuss the African war were poorly received by society. Even members of this association decreased in their efforts toward fostering this debate.

Faced with traumatic events that divide a society, those rituals aimed at remembering do not have a unifying normative nature as Halbwachs thought. For the victims and those who are close to them, commemorating a collective catastrophe may give it a positive meaning: Remember as a way of recognizing that it happened, that it was unjust and it should not happen again ( Jodelet, 1993). For those responsible for the catastrophe, avoiding that memory or conventionalizing it has the same function although its contents may be different. In the Portuguese case, the recent construction of a monument to the African war veterans in Lisbon provoked public debates. Some sectors of the Portuguese society thought this monument was a recognition of the Portuguese soldiers' heroism. But, for others, it was no more than the mystification of the real status of war veterans: that of normal people having been victims of an illegitimate war.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This chapter is part of a research project on "social memory and collective traumas" conducted by the Center of Psychology of the University of Porto, Portugal (JNICT Unit no. 50/94), in which the first author is a researcher and the second author is a consultant. The writing of this chapter and some of the research reported herein was partially supported by grant PB

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