Commemoration and Types or Patterns of Historical Meaning-Making (Narrating)

(This is a text from last year’s dis­cus­sion with Stéphane Lévesque and Gabriel Reich on nar­ra­tive pat­terns’ role in reflect­ing on mon­u­ment and memo­r­i­al pol­i­cy. I nev­er got round to fin­ish­ing ist. Sor­ry for the delay.)

In their texts and in the ear­li­er dis­cus­sion (first on Pub­lic His­to­ry Week­ly: Lévesque, Stéphane (2018): Remov­ing the Past?, then on Active His­to­ry CA: A new approach to debates over Mac­don­ald and oth­er mon­u­ments in Cana­da, Part 1 and Part 2), Lévesque sug­gest­ed a mod­el of dif­fer­ent lev­els of his­tor­i­cal com­pe­ten­cies fol­low­ing Jörn Rüsen’s typol­o­gy of nar­ra­tive pat­terns.

While I agree that there is a lot of plau­si­bil­i­ty in a sequen­tial devel­op­ment of these types of nar­rat­ing through­out (West­ern) his­to­ry, and that the genet­ic type is the most com­plex and advanced one, I don’t find much plau­si­bil­i­ty in the idea that in the devel­op­ment of stu­dent’ think­ing with­in their life­time, the tra­di­tion­al type should have any pri­or­i­ty to the oth­er ones. Instead, I think that stu­dents encounter full-fledged nar­ra­tives as well as sim­ple state­ments of all types simul­ta­ne­ous­ly from the begin­ning, and will acquire them along­side each oth­er — but only grad­u­al­ly learn to rec­og­nize them for what they are, grasp­ing their log­ic.

Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing graph:

© Andreas Kör­ber 2018

It is to visu­al­ize the idea that increas­ing recog­ni­tion of change in his­toric time (the x‑axis) first leads to the devel­op­ment of the tra­di­tion­al type (ask­ing for the ori­gin of the cur­rent­ly valid, in cloud 1), then the expe­ri­ence that what has orig­i­nat­ed can also per­ish again and there­fore ask­ing for ori­gins is not enough, lead to the devel­op­ment of the exem­plar­ic type, ask­ing for pat­terns and rules behind the change on the sur­face (cloud 2), and only mod­ern expe­ri­ence of increased/accelerated change then led to the devel­op­ment of the genet­ic type, ask­ing for the direc­tion.

Each of these pat­terns leads to dif­fer­ent expec­ta­tions for the future. Ini­tial­ly (green per­spec­tive), the future may seem quite sim­i­lar from the present. What is per­ceived as hav­ing begun, stays valid. Only from the (lat­er) blue per­spec­tive, a pat­tern seems dis­cernible, lead­ing to the expec­ta­tions that the future will also yield sim­i­lar pat­terns of events as are detect­ed in the past. From the (still lat­er) orange per­spec­tive, an (addi­tion­al?) increase in their “mag­ni­ture” can be per­ceived and its con­tin­u­a­tion be expect­ed.
The graph also is to show that the rules and pat­terns as well as ideas of ori­gins have not been ren­dered obso­lete by each new type, but are super­im­posed or inte­grat­ed into it.

I use this graph in my lec­ture. I now have added the small arrows. They are to indi­cate the learn­ing-neces­si­ties of a per­son with­in a rel­a­tive­ly short time-span of life or even youth. While in pre-mod­ern times, they only encoun­tered the then-devel­oped pat­terns (if the mod­el is valid), in moder­ni­ty, they will have to use all pat­terns simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, in order not make sense dif­fer­en­tial­ly.

The idea of a homol­o­gy is prob­lem­at­ic in anoth­er way, also. It might sug­gest that peo­ple in antiq­ui­ty (or pre-mod­ern-times) were devel­oped rather like chil­dren or youths, not real­ly grown-ups. This idea is not new, but is very prob­lem­at­ic. As you might be aware of, Rudolf Stein­er, founder of anthro­pos­o­phy, sug­gest­ed that the “ancient” Greek had a men­tal age of about 7‑years-olds. And there was a very influ­en­tial Ger­man “didact” of his­to­ry in the 19th cen­tu­ry (Friedrich Kohlrausch), who com­bined a sim­i­lar idea of the homo­log­i­cal devel­op­ment in the way peo­ple con­ceived “god” with that of becom­ing of age. So only the mod­ern man was real­ly “grown up” (and is was the Ger­mans who did so — very nation­al­ist).

Because of Rüsen’s idea of a “homol­o­gy” in the sequence of devel­op­ment of nar­rat­ing types between mankind (phy­lo­ge­n­e­sis) and indi­vid­u­als (onto­ge­n­e­sis), Bodo von Bor­ries (and I as assis­tant to him) did a large-scale research in the ear­ly 1990s, were we pre­sent­ed stu­dents with items of dif­fer­ent typo­log­i­cal log­ic to dilem­ma-sit­u­a­tions, like Rüsen him­self has used for qual­i­ta­tive research and for explain­ing the nar­ra­tive types. We did find a pre­dom­i­nance of agree­ment to “tra­di­tion­al” items with 6th-graders (abt. 11 yrs), but found no lin­ear devel­op­ment. In fact, 9th-graders seemed even to regress. All this is pub­lished in Ger­man only, I fear.

I would strong­ly sug­gest to dis­tin­guish between the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment and hier­ar­chy of these pat­terns on the one hand and pro­gres­sion in learn­ing on the oth­er hand, for which I sug­gest the third dimen­sion.

As for Lévesque’s revised table of com­pe­ten­cies in a fur­ther com­ment in PHW and his eval­u­a­tion that Gabriel Reich is cor­rect in that the genet­ic type pro­vides no solu­tion to the ques­tion of whether to keep or get rid of mon­u­ments: Do these types real­ly lead to spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal posi­tions — espe­cial­ly if they are always com­bined? Or do they rather char­ac­ter­ize part of their under­ly­ing under­stand­ing? I think there are dif­fer­ent posi­tions and solu­tions pos­si­ble by each nar­ra­tive. The val­ue of the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of types of mean­ing mak­ing and nar­ra­tion is rather ana­lyt­i­cal than pre­scrip­tive.

And that is also the ped­a­gog­i­cal val­ue: I think these typolo­gies (your table and mine) can be used for clas­si­fy­ing and dis­cussing state­ments of peo­ple in the polit­i­cal debate. It will enhance stu­dents abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize the log­ics behind spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal stances. And it may well show that both sug­ges­tions of keep­ing and of get­ting rid of can be under­pinned by dif­fer­ent types of nar­ra­tive, but that would gen­er­ate maybe dif­fer­ent poli­cies:

Take an exam­ple from Gabriel Reich’s patch, again: civ­il war mon­u­ments in Rich­mond.

One could argue for keep­ing the statutes on Mon­u­ment Avenue on grounds of pure­ly tra­di­tion­al think­ing: to mark the ori­gins of the spe­cif­ic state of things. This is both pos­si­ble in par­ti­san ways (only “our” heroes), but also in a more “inclu­sive” form, ask­ing for such mon­u­ment of both sides to be pre­sent­ed, to mark the ori­gin of the coun­tries “divi­sion”. Equal­ly in tra­di­tion­al mode (but with dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal back­ground), one might call for their removal. If you hold that the divi­sion they mark is no longer giv­en, they might be removed.

In exem­plar­ic mode (as I opined ear­li­er), one could speak out for the preser­va­tion of the mon­u­ments on the grounds that they exem­pli­fy a cer­tain time and cul­ture which we can still con­sid­er as “over­come”, but one can also argue for their removal because they rep­re­sent­ed out­dat­ed or polit­i­cal­ly non-sup­port­able rela­tions to the past, and that our time needs to find new ones, not “pro­gressed” ones, but such which reflect the “char­ac­ter­is­tics of our time”.

I do agree that to hold a specif­i­cal­ly genet­ic view makes it hard to envi­sion the whole ques­tion as one of keep­ing vs. remov­ing, — but it does­n’t exclude it to the full extent.

If peo­ple are think­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly in genet­ic mode, expe­ri­enc­ing the coun­try to hav­ing over­come that divi­sion, they object to a tra­di­tion­al log­ic they per­ceived the mon­u­ments to have. In this case, it would be the ten­sion between one’s own genet­ic mode of think­ing and that per­ceived in the mon­u­ments, which would gen­er­ate a polit­i­cal posi­tion.

If the genet­ic per­spec­tive was upon how to improve com­mem­o­ra­tion, one might ask for mak­ing such com­mem­o­ra­tions “more inclu­sive”. This may have been behind erect­ing a mon­u­ment for Arthur Ashe among the con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als — not a very con­sis­tent move, though, giv­en that is mere­ly addi­tive­ly com­bines mon­u­ments. In fact, it cre­ates a “memo­r­i­al land­scape” of a rather com­plex nar­ra­tive struc­ture, part of which is tra­di­tion­al (“heroes”) and exem­plary (“each group”), but by doing so enforces a new kind of tra­di­tion­al­i­ty (keep­ing the racial groups apart, assign­ing each “their own” tra­di­tion to hold up). So the intend­ed “progress” by inclu­siv­i­ty (“An avenue for all peo­ple”) may in fact have cre­at­ed a mul­ti-tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive.1

But there are oth­er pos­si­ble solu­tions sug­gest­ed by genet­ic think­ing.  The con­cept of past peo­ple being “chil­dren of their own time” is as genet­ic as it can get, refer­ring to a fun­da­men­tal change in time, so that morals and actions might be con­sid­ered incom­men­su­rable across times. This con­cept has been used for exon­er­at­ing past peo­ples views and actions. On this ground, one might call it “use­less”. But it isn’t. Genet­ic his­tor­i­cal think­ing entails both — to rec­og­nize the tem­po­ral change and moral and polit­i­cal con­texts for past actions dif­fer­ent from ours, AND to rec­og­nize that our own con­text is valid, too.

From this point of view, it may under­pin a present posi­tion trans­gress­ing the “keep/remove”-divide, name­ly to find ways of memo­ri­al­iz­ing civ­il war “heroes” (and/or “vil­lains” that is) that do NOT inad­ver­tent­ly invite for tra­di­tion­al or exem­plar­ic hero­ic read­ing, but specif­i­cal­ly marks the dis­tance of time.

It is imper­a­tive, this think­ing goes, to keep these memo­ri­als, but not as hero­ic marks to the past or as ambiva­lent mark­ers. One should not just remove them, for that would put into obliv­ion not only the past, but also the whole dis­cus­sion and reflec­tions, the uneasi­ness about its rep­re­sen­ta­tion which sparked the dis­cus­sion in the first place. Genet­ic think­ing would not be con­tent to just remove the hero­ism (espe­cial­ly that of the wrong, side) with the effect to have no mem­o­ry at all, but would call for a memo­ri­al­iza­tion which specif­i­cal­ly marks the change between that time and ours today.

Again, take a Ham­burg exam­ple. In an ear­li­er con­tri­bu­tion to this dis­cus­sion I already hint­ed to counter-memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion. One of the best exam­ples is here in Ham­burg-Altona:

Mon­u­ment and Counter-Mon­u­ment next to at St. Johan­nis-Church in Ham­burg-Altona2

Next to Altona’s St. Johan­nis Church, a mon­u­ment had been erect­ed in 1925 for the mem­bers of the 31st Infantry Reg­i­ment in WW1, com­mis­sioned by sur­vivors of that reg­i­ment. Each of the three sides of the col­umn-like mon­u­ment made of clink­er fea­tures an over­sized, half-naked fig­ure, rep­re­sent­ing a war­rior with some antique weapon.

The inscrip­tion below reads “To the fall­en for a grate­ful mem­o­ry, to the liv­ing for a reminder, to the com­ing gen­er­a­tions for emu­la­tion.“3. Clear­ly a very tra­di­tion­al pro­to-nar­ra­tive, both extend­ing the own war­rior­ship of the sol­diers into antiq­ui­ty and call­ing for its emu­la­tion, lack­ing any tran­scen­dence. The for­mu­la was coined by August Böckh for Friedrich Wil­helm III of Prus­sia, and was used on mon­u­ments remem­ber­ing the “lib­er­a­tion wars” against Napoleon, but also lat­er on those for the “uni­fi­ca­tion wars” of 1870/71. After the loss­es of mil­lions in WW1, its usage — espe­cial­ly of the third ele­ment — is remark­able, albeit not all­to­geth­er uncom­mon4.


In the mid-1990s, the church’s con­gre­ga­tion com­mis­sioned a counter-memo­r­i­al, cre­at­ed by Rain­er Tied­je, con­sist­ing of three acryl-glass-plates, each direct­ly con­fronting one of the war­riors, depict­ing “dark, ema­ci­at­ed, fear­ful crea­tures”, as the expla­na­tion on the page “denkmalhamburg.de” states (thus on http://denkmalhamburg.de/kriegerdenkmal-an-der-st-johanniskirche/, my trans­la­tion). It con­cludes “In the cen­ter the hero­ism and the exal­ta­tion, in front of it it the hor­ror of war. A suc­cess­ful mix­ture.” (my trans­la­tion).


Gegen­denkmal zum 31er Kriegerdenkmal (aus: Gedenkstät­ten in Ham­burg. Weg­weis­er zu den Stät­ten der Erin­nerung an die Jahre 1933–1945. https://www.gedenkstaetten-in-hamburg.de/gedenkstaetten/gedenkort/gegendenkmal-zum-31er-kriegerdenkmal/

To me, this coun­ter­memo­r­i­al is not just a (exem­plar­ic-mode) jux­ta­po­si­tion of (trad­tion­al-mode) hero­ism and hor­ror of war, but there is fun­da­men­tal­ly genet­ic part in it: the counter-memo­r­i­al does not mere­ly point to time­less hor­rors of the con­se­quences of war­fare, but leans on a visu­al vocab­u­lary estab­lished in Holo­caust memo­ri­als: The “suf­fer­ing men” who wrig­gles with pain (and fear) on eye-lev­el with the war­riors, look like “musel­men”, the com­plete­ly debil­i­tat­ed and immis­er­at­ed inmates of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. In its iconog­ra­phy, the counter-memo­r­i­al belongs to the gen­er­a­tion of mon­u­ments which coerce the view­er, the pub­lic to find and answer, not pro­vid­ing one them­selves, either in being abstract or — as here — by visu­al­iz­ing death and dis­ap­pear­ance in any but hero­ic form5. It is this fea­ture, using a visu­al code depend­ing not only abstract­ly on hind­sight but on con­crete knowl­edge about what such hero­ism-pro­pa­gan­da did help to bring about, togeth­er with the effec­tive plac­ing which ren­ders impos­si­ble “com­mem­o­ra­tion cer­e­monies, at which the plaques are not noticed”, which indi­cate to a spe­cif­ic genet­ic think­ing below it, try­ing to trans­gress the think­ing of the time.

  1. Cf. https://onmonumentave.com/blog/2017/11/20/an-avenue-for-for-all-people-how-arthur-ashe-came-to-monument-avenue []
  2. Pho­to by 1970gemini in der Wikipedia auf Deutsch, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19523318 []
  3. See http://denkmalhamburg.de/kriegerdenkmal-an-der-st-johanniskirche/  []
  4. Cf. Kosel­leck, Rein­hart (1996): Kriegerdenkmäler als Iden­titätss­tiftun­gen der Über­leben­den. In: Odo Mar­quard und Karl­heinz Stier­le (Hg.): Iden­tität. 2., unveränd. Aufl. München: Fink (Poet­ik und Hermeneu­tik, 8), S. 255–276; p. 261f []
  5. Cf. Kosel­leck, Rein­hart (1994): Ein­leitung. In: Rein­hart Kosel­leck und Michael Jeis­mann (Hg.): Der poli­tis­che Totenkult. Kriegerdenkmäler in der Mod­erne. München: Fink (Bild und Text), S. 9–20, here p. 20 []