31 January 2012

Memory Work and Civil Society

Memory Work and Civil Society, CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 5 December 2011.

In a paper given at Memory at War’s ‘Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe’ conference in July 2011, Jay Winter outlined the important role of memory in bolstering the growing discourse of human rights in post-war Europe. Undoubtedly, in both Western and Eastern Europe, the attention to memory, versus traditionally authority-centred History, was of huge importance in re-evaluating a continent left in ruins by World War II. The cultivation of memory-based human rights discourse has, as Winter pointed out, been carried out to a large degree by activists operating in the sphere of civil society. Such individuals and groups existed in both Western and Eastern Europe, but the challenges they faced were quite different. In the West, the processes of uncovering and preserving the memories of the atrocities of the war, particularly the Holocaust, were central to official discourse and the basis of the creation of unity in Europe. In the Soviet Union and its satellite states, such groups were decidedly anti-official: memory, whether of those repressed by the state, or of alternative versions of the war, was a key element of resistance against communist ideology. With the fall of communism, such groups did not disappear, but came into the open, grew and developed. Today these movements function as influential non-governmental organisations, continuing to preserve memory and, in many cases, cultivate civil society. A number of these groups gathered in Cambridge in December 2011 to exchange experience with one another, with analogous groups from Western Europe, and with academics at the at the workshop ‘Memory Work and Civil Society’, organised by the East European Memory Studies research group, based at Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).