Sociology and remembrance
Remembering is also always forgetting

“Stumbling stones” are small memorial plaques that are set in the pavement and commemorate those who were killed during the Nazi period
“Stumbling stones” are small memorial plaques that are set in the pavement and commemorate those who were killed during the Nazi period | Photo: © dpa/Hendrik Schmidt

On “memory studies” and the limits of memory – new approaches to the social scientific study of remembrance.

How do we remember? How does a collective memory arise? What is the role of forgetting? For a long time sociology gave the study of memory only a few lasting impetuses – although in the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who lived and worked in Berlin, it could count one of the classical figures of social and cultural-scientific research among its ranks. With Halbwachs’s death in the concentration camp Buchenwald in 1945, sociology’s reflection on the relation to the past came for a time to an end.
Perhaps this is because of a basic principle of sociology at the end of the nineteenth century: the modernity of sociological theories, such as those of by Max Weber or Karl Marx, is marked by precisely the focus on the present and possible futures. Remembrance and memory make their appearance here as the handed-down past and tradition. This is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that modern nation-states engage in an intense cultivation of commemoration. The reflection on collective or political remembrance, however, was left primarily to historical science. That was to change.

The moment of silence as a place of remembrance

The phase of social and cultural-scientific abstinence in this area ended with the twentieth century. Under the impression of a dying generation of contemporary witnesses of the Second World War, the ever-increasing penetration of the media into private as well as public memory, and new possibilities of digital storage of information, there developed the research field of “memory studies”. This interdisciplinary research approach is specifically designed to describe, investigate and categorize phenomena of remembrance. For example, the concept of the “site of memory” introduced by the French historian and social scientist Pierre Nora, which comprises everything that modern societies fix as common anchors of commemoration: not only sites in the narrower sense of, for instance, memorial or historical sites, but also moments of silence, anthems and past-related celebrations and rituals.
As a result, sociological memory research has now also addressed subjects that throw light on, in addition to the public remembrance of the Nazi period, the social memory of the family, of science, of the body, of organization and of the internet. All these approaches are united by the conviction that there can be no understanding of the present and no action directed to the future without meaningful connections to the past.

From a certain angle

The way in which schoolchildren form a picture of the Nazi past can serve here as an example: the “dry” reports in history books are supplemented by remembrance mediated by media in series or films, stories handed down in families, and information gathered at visits to museums and memorial sites. From various sources and fragments, which taken by themselves already assume a certain perspective on the past and are the result of processes of social construction, the children acquire a comprehensible picture of the past. This picture and its emergence are not restricted to history lessons at school; they are embedded in the children’s future perceptions and identity, as members of a family in which grandpa was or was not a Nazi, as the adherents of a political party, and as citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany.
It thus becomes clear that what is remembered is always subject to a selection. This selection consists in the remembrance of certain things rather than others from the point of view of the individual, from a certain angle and within a certain social framework.
This also makes visible the putative reverse side of remembrance, forgetting. Memories are always surrounded by forgetting and inconceivable without it. This is obvious in the case of commemoration, whose purpose is to prevent the remembered events from slipping into oblivion. The desire to remember here is fed by the knowledge that something could be irretrievably lost. At the same time, we cannot remember everything. This means more than that not all events are equally important; it further means that remembrance as such simply cannot take into account all the details of an event, but also must always be capable of forgetting. Were we to remember everything as equally relevant and in every nuance, we would, like the inexorable memory described by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, no longer be able to act.