Commemorative laws and museum projects – such as that of the “House of French History” – as well as other public representations of the past have been a constant source of controversy over recent decades, both in France and elsewhere. However, these debates, which are often heated, have not yet fuelled the hope that we are collectively able to learn “lessons from the past”. On the contrary, the management sciences applied to our violent political legacies (dictatorships, civil war, genocide) have increased, and quickly shifted from universities to national and international public policies, such as those known as policies of “transitional justice”.

The past is evoked not only in teaching but also in order to appease victims, to encourage the guilty to recognise their crimes, and to bring about reconciliation in society. Furthermore, “commemoration” and “transmission” are supposed to give individuals, who have thus been made aware of the shadows in the past, the tools with which to refuse discrimination, intolerance and violence in the present. The past indeed has “lessons” to teach us. Rare are those who question the idea that evocations of the past in the present – through laws, schools, museums or specialised institutions – have an impact on the public.

This internet site aims to question this self-evidence. This belief is challenged, along with other frequently expressed banalities about the social function of references to the past in contemporary society. These commonplace ideas can be expressed in the form of now-familiar questions, which this website will subject to serious analysis in order to demonstrate that they are poorly framed.

 “Are our societies ‘obsessed’ with the past?”
“Must we remember in order to not repeat the errors of the past?”
“Can we learn any lessons from the past?”
“Can remembering the past help create informed citizens, able to refuse violent action?”
“Can we rebuild a society, re-write its ‘social contract’, after war?”

The goal of this site, understood as a space for the sharing of knowledge, is not however, either partly or principally to condemned these commonalities as such. It is much more important for us to try and understand why and how they have become so self-evident, in social sciences as well as in the media and public policy. But we also seek to propose alternative explanations.

If these ideas have become self-evident, it is because they are reassuring : for example, they enable us to avoid the ordinary nature of violence and simplify our reasoning. But it is also because they serve political positions and partly justify certain professional titles and functions – among which for instance, those of some of the authors contributing to this website.

Let us begin by saying that although the politicisation of “memory issues”, such as the development of professions in this area, is entirely legitimate, it has led to the multiplication of discourses that are hollow, unfounded, and badly constructed. These discourses proliferate in the media, in the public space, in public policy, and in the spheres of education and science. In our different areas of specialisation, we have observed that memory policies (or any other form of mobilisation relating to the past) often vehicle convictions that are for the most part disproved by the social sciences. This website seeks to draw out – in the simplest way possible – the consequences of what the social sciences know about our societies’ relationship with the violent past. It aims to provide the clear responses that have been obtained by the social sciences to these often poorly-stated questions.

This internet site is to be the link between the world of academic research on “memory” and the general public – or at least those who deal with the general public on a daily basis: journalists, community workers, cultural institutions or members of the political staff etc. This site is fully based in the social sciences, in the sense that we are convinced that “commemorative policies” cannot be analysed independently of ordinary social practices. It is therefore a website that is scientific, demanding and selective. But it also aims to be accessible to all, using language that is precise, rigorous and simple and posing key questions: it aims to analyse the who, what , when, why and how of memory policies.

Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc, CNRS – ISP / Université Paris Ouest

Contact us at : memorysowhat@hotmail.com

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