Brexit and the Question of Selective Memory

There are times to remember and to forget. The great skill is in knowing which road to travel, as the ghosts of the past threaten to invade the present in a way that works against the most important project of all: avoiding catastrophe…

Elders of the tribe remember summer warmth and sun and days that seemed longer and happier than these benighted times. Our unreliable Atlantic climate may enhance the effect, but there are universal aspects to how memory works too. We select and store. We colour and wash. Recall isn’t total and nor is it always reliable.

The Irish, famously, have long memories and we use them too, most recently in our commemoration of the Easter Rising. Now, we are weeks off the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a wretched endeavour that moved the frontline only 11km at a cost of over a million casualties. July 1, 1916 was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.

Many thousands of Irish were killed and wounded. In the early 1920s, their sacrifice was officially remembered. Then, after Republicans attacked the ceremonies in 1925, both the remembrance commemoration and those it honoured were side-lined. Not forgotten but not remembered either.

In his book In Praise of Forgetting, historian and journalist David Rieff argues that “remembrance as a species of morality has become one of the more unassailable pieties of the age” – adding that “We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorialising of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations.”

But sometimes, he says, it’s better to forget. There are cases where “forgetting does an injustice to the past” but “remembering does an injustice to the present.” Then, he says, “it is not the duty to remember but a duty to forget that should be honoured.” As an example, he cites the so-called pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting) between right and left in Spain, during the transition to democracy in the 1970s after Franco’s death.

His views are contestable.

And yet, he has a point. Things happen in wars. Sometimes, in the interests of peace, they must be placed behind a screen. Take the Kingsmill massacre, 40 years ago last January, a sectarian atrocity committed by Armagh republicans. Ten Protestant workers were taken from their minibus and machine-gunned. It was unspeakable.

Or take the bombs planted by the IRA in Birmingham that killed 21 and injured 222. The inquest into their deaths is to be reopened. Or the Loughinisland massacre. Or the activities of Stakeknife.

It is natural that the bereaved and aggrieved want justice, in some cases even vengeance. The thing is, it applies to all equally and the people of Birmingham and the families of the Kingsmill and Loughinisland dead are as entitled to the truth as those bereaved by the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

So, do the interests of peace mean that we shouldn’t try to confront the past?

Not according to Neil McGregor, former head of the British Museum and author of, among many, A History of the World in 100 Objects and Germany, Memories of a Nation. He was interviewed by Tim Adams in April for the Guardian as he took up the chairmanship of the new Humboldt Forum, Berlin’s equivalent to the British Museum. McGregor regards the Germans as exemplary in how they confront their past – unlike Austria, Japan, post-Soviet Russia or even France and Britain (he instanced British behaviour in Ireland in 1916).

French historical amnesia is tackled in Jérôme Ferrari’s novel Where I Left My Soul, which tells the story of two French officers, Captain André Degorce and Lieutenant Horace Andreani. Degorce was a former member of the French Resistance and had been tortured by the Nazis. He and Andreani soldiered together in Vietnam where they were defeated and captured at Dien Bien Phu. Now they are in Algeria, fighting the independence movement. And they have become torturers themselves.

It is a brilliant and brutal work, a story of the two men, an exploration of torture, of how violence begets violence. But it also reminds us of the savagery of the Algerian war of independence and the fissures it opened in France. There was a failed coup d’etat in 1961, one that had a real chance of success until finally faced down by General de Gaulle.

It is still relentlessly relevant. Almost a million European Algerians (known as pieds-noirs) fled to France after independence, a vast and unexpected influx. They met with little enthusiasm and many wound up as second class citizens living in the bans lieues around Paris. Some of their grandchildren have been radicalised by Islamic extremists.

Likewise, the literal and ideological descendants of the rebellious soldiers are to be found in the Front National, the far right organisation led by Marie le Pen which crusades against immigration and Islam and for a ‘traditional’ France.

Ferrari’s novel demands that we remember so that we don’t repeat. French amnesia about Algeria fed the monster of radicalisation. But the country had to keep functioning, as did the US, Ireland and Spain after their civil wars. As do others today.

The past is ever present. Understanding it helps explain why things are as they are. But we live in the here and now and sometimes peace demands ambiguity and amnesia. The EU has proven to be a way for those who inflicted colossal slaughter and dislocation across Europe to find common cause, notwithstanding lingering grievances. Perhaps, as Neil McGregor says, the Brexit Brits are indeed forgetting to remember …

Better at this stage to leave the battling to the football field. And by that I don't mean the cities where football hooligans of various shades and stripes have gathered and wreaked havoc over the past week and more. With that drift towards noxiousness, stupidity and brute violence in the air, the potential drift of the UK towards the fringes of Europe looks even more disastrously wrong-headed and unnecessary. All you can say is that it is a measure of the intellectual credentials of those supporting Brexit that their most virulent supporters are probably at the frontline of the fighting, looking for 'foreign' heads to crack open. What a mess...

For our part, here in Ireland, we have to ask: when in turn they get old, will today’s children remember all summers as this one has been (so far): mostly sunny and fun, a time of ice creams and playgrounds and football?

Brexit be damned. In Ireland, we can still afford to dig out the photos and washed-out green shirts. Let’s make our memories of these!

 

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