L. David: The Past Can't Heal Us

The Past Can't Heal Us. The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights

David, Lea
244 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Katarina Ristic, Leipzig University

This book starts with a provocation. It contrasts Willy Brandt’s falling to his knees at the Warsaw ghetto in December 1970 with the attempt by Aleksandar Vučić, then prime minister of Serbia, to pay a visit to the Srebrenica-Potočari memorial for the twentieth commemoration in 2015 of the Srebrenica genocide. The former example, elaborates Lea David, represents a “changing moment in the world history”, paving the way for future reconciliation (p. 1). The latter example, imposed by the international community rather than due to genuine remorse, ended with a mob attack on Vučić and his escape, after a rock broke his glasses.

David interprets this second incident as an exemplary case of the resulting consequences when pursuing what she calls “moral remembrance” – a set of prescribed standards for proper memory. This memory “with which states are expected to comply when dealing with legacies of mass human rights abuses” (p. 1) is conceived of as a path towards democracy and reconciliation. As the book title indicates, the author is challenging the assumption that proper memory can lead to dealing with the past and acknowledging moral responsibility and reconciliation. The fact that memory, in practice, usually does not deliver on this promise is not new – substantive literature supports this claim. But while other scholars focus on different attempts to block, undermine, or sabotage the practices of moral remembrance, David points in another direction: the very form of memorialization – standardized, decontextualized, and dismissive of local histories – is oppressive or even counter-productive on the ground.

This conclusion follows from the analysis in three empirical chapters: the first two address institutionalization and practices of moral remembrance in Palestine and Israel (chapter 4) and Western Balkans (chapter 5), while the third explores the development of micro-solidarity with the example of institutionalized dialogue groups (chapter 6). A substantial advantage of the book is that it brings together two case studies as it puts in dialogue two threads of scholarly literature – one focusing on memory and peace studies and the other working on the conjunction of transitional justice and memory. In this attempt to go beyond one region and confines of national memory projects, David’s book is part of a larger trend, including Jelena Subotić’s book Yellow Star, Red Star, exploring memory of Holocaust and communism in Croatia, Serbia, and Lithuania,1 and Ljiljana Radonić’s work on globalization of Holocaust museums as a model of remembrance,2 to name a few prominent examples. However, while Subotić and Radonić engage with Holocaust memory by asking about local appropriations and adaptations, David introduces the concept of “moral remembrance” as a model for memory remembrance based on the ideology of human rights, which is based on three main pillars: “facing the past”, “duty to remember”, and “justice for victims”.

David’s conceptualization of moral remembrance builds on the understanding of human rights as an ideology. Drawing on Siniša Malešević’s theory of nationalism as an ideology and its operationalization,3 David looks at human rights differentiating between three levels of ideology dispersion: institutions that promote ideology, the content of the ideology, and individuals who are internalizing ideological values and norms. She focuses on the process of dissemination of human rights memory norms from the macro-level of world polity, via nation-states, to small group solidarities. In both case studies, she provides a detail record of post-war political agreements – for example, the Oslo Accords and the Dayton Accords – tracing the memorialization agenda to the intersection between the agreements’ constitutional provisions and wider political and social structures.

In the case of the Western Balkans, the book follows European conditional policy and the donor’s agenda, engaging with their impact on governments and the role of civil society. Despite the official promotion of politics of peace-building and reconciliation, moral remembrance was “heavily filtered through the state apparatus”. At the same time, human rights could not compete with the existing nationalism of state institutions. In the case of Palestine and Israel, she follows genealogies of the Nakba and the Holocaust, tracing different effects of the institutional memory and their global resonance. In each of the two cases, “moral remembrance became potent with ideological might to enforce a global human rights – sponsored memory regime” (p. 124). Its ultimate failure, established by the reified ethnic identities among participants in the dialogue groups, is seen as an outcome of the institutional setting and top-down approach, rather than normative lack of the human rights ideology.

Universalization of Holocaust memory and moral imperative of acknowledging one’s own responsibility for past injustices, as Wulf Kansteiner notes, seems “the perfect moral conduit for advancing a human rights agenda in the age of globalization”.4 One way to think about this global trend of universalization was captured by Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider’s concept of “cosmopolitan memory”.5 David’s detailed analysis of institutions, ideologies, and their dissemination on different scales challenges fundamental assumptions about the healing power of memory. Her innovative approach and original argument mark an important scholarly contribution, inviting further research on globalization and memory.

1 Jelena Subotic, Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism, Ithaka 2019.
2 Ljljana Radonić (ed.), The Holocaust/Genocide Template in Eastern Europe, London/New York 2020.
3 Siniša Malešević, Nation-States and Nationalisms: Organization, Ideology and Solidarity, Polity Press, 2013
4 Wulf Kansteiner, Transnational Holocaust Memory, Digital Culture and the End of Reception Studies, in: Tea Sindbæk Andersen / Barbara Törnquist-Plewa (eds.), The Twentieth Century in European Memory. Transcultural Mediation and Reception, 2017.
5 Daniel Levy / Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory, in: European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2002), pp. 87-106.

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