History and memory

At a time when the trend is both to write an "official history" and to compete for memory, it is desirable to put things flat: what are the differences and convergences between History and memory, is there a duty to remember, what place can the historian have in the social debates that never cease to call him to witness? Questions that all CAPES candidates must ask themselves.

Correspondences and differences between history and memory

History and memory are first of all two different things: memory, each of us has its own, with memories (good or bad). Our memory retains traces of the past that we have internalized, and forges our identity. So there are never two identical memories at the individual level. But memory can also be collective: several individuals must then keep the collective memory, which is never the reflection of individual memories; there are thus selections by people speaking on behalf of groups, these are the “entrepreneurs of memory”. The goal is to consolidate the collective identity of a group, often against other different memory companies (eg harkis, FLN, pieds-noirs). To quote Maurice Halbwachs (a well-known author for CAPES): “collective memory is always built according to the challenges of the present. "

History, for its part, is in another process which is not a partial or fragmented approach; its ambition is a "truth procedure" (Herodotus) and a critical discourse. According to Pierre Nora, “History is a problematic and incomplete reconstruction of what is no longer; it is not the absolute truth, but a process ". Memory, on the other hand, communicates with the past as history tries to emerge from the sacred; memory sees itself as an absolute, History is in the relative; memory is multiplied and torn, History belongs to everyone.

These fundamental differences do not, however, prevent links, even if they are complex and multiple. Indeed, historians also produce collective memory by giving citizens access to their knowledge. Their critical mind then allows them to take a step back and promote tolerance. In addition, the historian also has his own individual memory, which guides his study projects and influences his vision of the world (despite his attempts at critical hindsight). Memory spurs history too: for example, for years, the history of the Holocaust has been made by small, personally involved groups (like the Klarsfelds), to give these historical facts a place in memory. Until the late 1970s, "official" historians (in the academic sense, etc.) were not interested in the subject. History is therefore also made through memory, "the finest material in history" (Le Goff), even if "there is no good witness" (Bloch). Finally, memory itself can become an object of history (see M.C. Lavabre, "Sociology of the memory of communism").

We therefore have a dialectical relationship between History and memory, which feed off each other. Note that this notion of dialectic must be perfectly understood for the CAPES obviously ...

The political and public use of history to establish a collective memory

This is the biggest problem today. This has led some historians to come together in groups, such as Pierre Nora with "Liberté pour l'Histoire" or Gérard Noiriel with the "Committee for the Vigilance of the Usages of History".

First, the question of the "national novel" arises: it is official history that requires a "calibrated" memory. From the 19th to the 20th century, History authenticates memory to legitimize this national novel; we can cite the work of Ernest Lavisse, who established a kind of "republican catechism" through history, a model then shaken by the Annales movement. He wants to take a step back from the nationalisms that instrumentalize memory to lead to war. We can also notice the use of History in totalitarian countries, or on the colonial question: often, History has been used to justify conquests and domination.

So there is sometimes a conflict between History and memory. One of the best examples is the "Vichy Syndrome", which established a "resistentialist memory" (which saw the French as mostly resistant) which "foiled and deceived History" according to Henry Rousso. This tendency was called into question in the 1970s by Robert Paxton (still seen today by certain historians, Claude Quétel for example, as “anti-French”…), who highlights a return of the repressed and a memory that would have locked History. But, at the same time, the explosion of this lock causes at the same time the emergence of the negationist and revisionist movement ... The issue of memory then takes precedence over History. The movement was accentuated at the beginning of the 80s, with the “moment of memory” (P. Nora): memory takes more and more place, linked to the challenges of the present: debates on Vichy, torture in Algeria, etc. The media and judges then pass before the historians: justice must be done to the victims, seen only as such and not also as actors.

We are thus witnessing an hypertrophy of memory and a crisis of History under the assault of memory carriers, which causes a number of problems (anachronisms, etc.). There are then three competing postures: repentance and remorse (detestable for the historian); pain and victimization (to support claims); the temptation of official history without the right to inventory and contextualize, for national unity (for example, the recovery of the figure of Guy Môquet). This leads to macabre winners and hierarchies, as well as confusion between memory, past and current social struggles (with the Indigenous people of the Republic).

The historian is uncomfortable in this context, because he always has the desire for nuance, and at the same time the injunction to speak out. Is he responsible for this situation? He has not always been able to publicize certain areas (such as the history of immigration), leaving room for memorial actors, which in addition causes collateral damage to the school ...

For a standardized relationship between history, memory and politics

The historian does not have a monopoly on writing history: the politician and the legislature can also do it, but as an argument not as an instrumentalisation.

Thus, according to François Bédarida, the historian has duties (which any teacher, and therefore a CAPES candidate must think about):

- provide all the elements and questions, nurture the critical spirit of citizens.

- make an effort of vigilance when the policy crosses the red line, encroaches on the freedom of education to impose an official history.

- assume the dialectical part of knowledge by refusing to be a supreme judge.

- show the complexity of the past, of the status of victims who are also actors (see Françoise Vergès).

There is therefore a right to remember, but not a duty to remember. On the other hand, the historian owes him a duty of History.

For further

This article is taken from a course at the Sorbonne as part of the preparation for CAPES, but it is obviously not exhaustive. Read also:

- History and memory, by Jacques Le Goff. Folio history, 1988.

- H. ROUSSO, Le syndrome de Vichy, from 1944 to the present day, Seuil, 1990.

- P. RICOEUR, Memory, history, oblivion, Seuil, 2000.

- G. LION, "History and memory: how to teach the history of the extermination of the Jews", in The test on file at the CAPES in history and geography, Sela Arslan, 2005, p 198-207.

- D. COLON, "History and memory", in Training for the history-geography CAPES dossier test, Seli Arslan, 2006, p 12-20.

Video: 22. History of Memory Models (January 2022).