The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Book Reviews

History and Memory

A review of Jay Winter’s Remembering War

Monica Black

Marine with head in hands. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Jay Winter observes—and is likely to find broad agreement among scholars— that we are in the midst of a “memory boom,” whose reverberations are felt well beyond the academy, in an ever-multiplying number of museums and exhibits, as well as in the arts. Certainly, in history, a significant and growing body of work continues to emerge, which seeks to trace memories of particular events or phenomena, including Winter’s own crucial work on the First World War. Yet despite the attention given to memory by historians, they have often left unaddressed a question of vital, historical interest: what prompted the twentieth century’s preoccupation with memory in the first place? In Remembering War, Winter presents a compelling argument for locating the origins of the memory boom—at least in part—in the experience of World War I.

Winter begins by outlining the trajectory of the memory boom over the last century and points to the factors that have influenced it. He then turns his attention to the cultural impact, in Europe and beyond, of shell shock. In what is perhaps the book’s most evocative chapter, “Shell Shock, Memory, and Identity,” he examines attempts during World War I to represent the disorder—medically, psychologically, and as literature—which, he argues, fundamentally reconfigured contemporaries’ ideas about the relationship between memory and identity. As a result, shell shock quickly became (and has remained, in its more recent iteration, post-traumatic stress disorder) paradigmatic for how we understand the effects of violence on the human personality. In the wake of the war and mass death, individuals and groups sought to commemorate those experiences of violence and their consequences through a variety of means, from photography to the construction of war memorials to the writing and anthologizing of war letters.

It was only many years later, in the 1970s and 1980s, however, that what Winter calls the twentieth century’s “second generation” of memory emerged, this time in response to the Second World War. Directly after 1945, memories of resistance, not of trauma, were central to rebuilding the European community. Then, in the 60s, the children of the war generation began to insist that their parents be held to account for complicity in the crimes of Nazism. In this moment, the “second generation”—our generation, today—was born. Winter names a score of developments he sees as having fostered the present memory boom since that time, including the emergence of the politics of identity; increased affluence, which has made “identity into a commodity” (39); the scientific legitimation of trauma; and, in the historical profession, the attention paid over the last twenty years or so to the signifying practices through which people construct meaning in their world.

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