Briercrest Blog

Memory and the ethics of studying history

Joy Demoskoff
Assistant Professor of History
    Posted: Apr 25, 2017
German soldiers in a railroad car on the way to the front in WW1 German soldiers in a railroad car on the way to the front in WW1German soldiers in a railroad car on the way to the front in WW1

This year I taught two new courses that challenged my thinking and reminded me why I love studying history. At the end of the fall semester, students in my gender course discussed their learning experiences by sharing passages from the commonplace books they had written over the course of the term. One student told us about a work of performance art titled Rhythm 0. In 1974, Marina Abramovich, a Yugoslav-born performance artist, placed seventy-two objects on a table with a note of instruction to the audience indicating that she would remain passive for six hours. The members of the audience were invited to use the objects on her in whatever way they saw fit. She claimed full responsibility for the results. The audience responded hesitantly at first, but gradually grew bolder. By the end of the six hours, Abramovich had experienced a range of human behaviour. Audience members moved her limbs to see if she would remain passive. She was committed to her art, but that was just the beginning. A long-stemmed rose was placed under her nose so she could smell it. Later, the thorn from the stem of that same rose was used to puncture her skin. Eventually someone held a gun (yet another object from the table) up to her head, evoking a response from other people in the audience as well as from the security guard on duty.

The student who shared this story was moved by the gendered nature of this performance and he discussed it in a way that meaningfully engaged with our course content. But this story led me down a different rabbit trail. As I was listening to his description of how people responded to this artist by poking and prodding her and generally feeling at liberty to invade her personal space and privacy, not to mention to act violently against her, I couldn’t help but think about how we as historians engage with people from the past, perhaps often poking and prodding in invasive ways. My own research has taken me into the lives of inmates in monastery prisons in nineteenth-century Russia. I confess it has been the juicy stories that have most grabbed my attention. I’m convinced that most historians have a weakness for gossip, even if it only gets acted on with regard to people long gone. Historians tell stories. And the startling tidbit, the unanticipated turn of events, even outrage and scandal are the lifeblood of memorable stories.

Rhythm 0 made me wonder about the ethics of my work. It made me think about the people I study as living (at least at one time) human beings. Social scientists have to get the approval of a research ethics board in order to pursue projects that involve people, but there is no such requirement for historians working with people from the past. Of course, I’m not complaining about how this simplifies my research process. But, I do recognize the personal responsibility that historians must take to respect the subjects they study.

In the winter semester I taught Society and Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe. In this class I was frequently struck by the ways that the telling of history in the twentieth century shaped the course of events. In the lead up to World War I, historians wrote national histories that emphasized the historical destiny of one’s own nation at the expense of others. When war broke out, a wave of patriotic enthusiasm swept through the participating nations as young men went off to war, stoked by heroic national myths and stories about the glories of war. The results were devastating.

In Nazi Germany historians bought into a narrative of the past that tied Germany’s special path or historical destiny to a racialized understanding of blood. The purity of the Aryan race was used to promote a particular view of the future. The results decimated the European Jewish population and devastated yet another generation of young people.

Again in the 1990s, the states that together made up Yugoslavia told their histories in a way that privileged the interests of one group over another. Looking back on their respective experiences in World War II, the tendency was to emphasize the atrocities committed by others while ignoring the sins of one’s own nation. Further brutalities were somehow justified by these incomplete historical narratives.

In Society and Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe we talked a lot about the relationship between common cultural memory and the study of history. We often conflate the two. We assume a certain trust in our own memories and in the historical assumptions of our broader culture. We mistake (literally miss take) these assumptions for conclusions drawn from careful study and analysis of the evidence that comes down to us from the past. The results leave us with a very incomplete understanding in which our biases are fore-fronted and taken for fact.

As I reflect on the world we live in today, I can’t help but notice this ongoing tendency we have to tell partial stories for political purposes. And whether we’re talking about the work of reconciliation in Canada, economic disparities at home and around the globe, or the impact of environmental factors on civil unrest and war, I am convinced that we have an ethical responsibility to think about these difficult questions with our eyes open to a larger timeframe and with respect for perspectives that differ from our own. I am grateful to the students who shared these journeys with me this year. They challenged my thinking and reminded me of the privilege it is to study the past together.