Remembering the Past

In the construction of history, it is often individual and collective memory which conjures an understanding of the historical figure or event, yet it is historically accurate details that authenticate such representations. Tension exists between academic history and memory as historians have traditionally handled oral testimony and other less traditional sources with scepticism. Some of the common arguments against using sources like oral testimony and memoirs is that they are not composed at the time of the event in question, they are subject to exaggeration, recounting events is not always accurate, people may forget details, etc. etc. For example, some might suggest that the testimony of Holocaust survivors is less historically accurate than a letter, as a person’s memory of the event could have changed… This is not to say that Holocaust survivor testimonies are all inaccurate, in fact this blog will be suggesting the opposite. Any source used in the writing of history should be considered carefully and with an understanding of its strengths and limitations, however, all sources are useful and can help to provide insight and understanding of the past.

Before studying history at university, I had never really thought about the importance of memories of past events or the role they play in writing our history. Fortunately, I’ve taken several units throughout my degree that have asked me to consider the role of memory, the power of memory, and the types of memory associated with history.

In a unit dedicated to exploring genocides of the 20th century I wrote a paper on how traditional historical sources (such as letters, correspondence, and memorandum) can be used with less traditional historical sources (such as testimonies and memoirs) in a way that addresses both the history and memory of events. I chose to use the Armenian genocide as a case study and found that by carefully balancing the more traditional and ‘reliable’* sources with more personal, detailed and lived experiences, the legitimacy of the historical narrative – and perhaps the accuracy – can be strengthened. The Armenian genocide is a useful example of the importance and interconnectedness of history and memory, as the two lie in in contrast in this context.

Traditional historical sources (letters, propaganda, journals, etc.) are great – they reveal so much about sequences of events, personalities of individuals, trends and demographics, and the thinking and perspectives of people living in an era. Although these sources can provide significant insight, they can be limited. A letter written by a soldier on the frontline of a battlefield to his wife and mother back home will provide vastly different information when compared to a telegram sent in an official capacity. Understanding what the source is and what it can reveal is essential in the study of history, and is important when thinking about the connectedness of history and memory. For most traditional historical sources there is no memory component, and therefore historians must make their own assumptions about a source based on its medium and context.

The Armenian genocide began in 1915 at the hands of the Turkish government and saw a population of approximately two million Armenians reduced by more than 1.5 million by the time killings and deportations ceased in the early 1920s. More than one million of these victims were deported from Turkey in 1915, many of whom died walking through the Mesopotamian Desert with no food or water. Oftentimes, traditional sources cannot adequately capture the emotions and repercussions of events on the people involved, potentially minimising the scope and trauma of the past.

A telegram from the American Ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, to the American Secretary of State in July 1915 highlights concern for the Armenian people and suggests the necessity of international intervention. The telegram warns of increasing deportation of “peaceful Armenians” and shows that American representatives recognise that the extermination of the Armenian race is underway. This document is really important because it is essentially an acknowledgment by Morgenthau that Armenian people are experiencing genocide. It also suggests that the international community recognised the need for intervention to end the crimes of the Turkish government, though ultimately aid was not provided in time.

While this document is useful, it is somewhat limited in terms of what it can reveal about the wider implications of deportation and genocide on Armenian people.

To enhance our understanding of the past, it is helpful to understand the implications of the past, as well as the feelings and experiences that traditional sources simply cannot capture. Paula Fass describes memoirs as not just an engagement with history, but a source for history writing. The memoir, ‘Goodbye, Antoura’ by Karnig Panian – a survivor of the Armenian genocide – describes his experiences as a child. Panian’s memoir tells a more personal account of what happened in Turkey in the early 20th Century and while it may not reflect the experiences of all people, it provides an otherwise untold element of the Armenian genocide.

Oftentimes, traditional sources reveal little about the memory of the event and as such, less traditional sources provide the necessary depth for a didactic and valuable historical account.

As a final point, I think that memory artefacts have seen quite undeserved criticism as historical sources in the past and it’s important to understand that they have a role to play. ALL sources should be used within their scope to provide a holistic record of the past, and to capture as much as possible. Oftentimes, it is the voices and perspectives of the less powerful that are written out of history – women, the poor, minority populations. Their experiences are often not captured and if memory sources can rectify this then it’s probably time we consider them with the same level of appreciation as more traditional sources.

“As citizens, we are under a moral imperative to remember events which should not be forgotten” – Peter Gray.

*I’ve written reliable in inverted commas as there is a presumption that more traditional historical sources are more reliable, however, this is not always the case.


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