What does democracy have to do with memory? How does the way we confront and work through our pasts inform the way we live together today? Can what public historians call “memory work”—a public process of engaging and questioning historical narrative—improve democracy? Can our dealings with the past invigorate not only the present but also the future, can they help us to build a more open, just and equal society? If yes, what would we have to do to accomplish this ambitious goal?
These were the questions that popped into my mind as I prepared for my weeklong engagement as a fellow of the Transatlantic Partnership on Memory and Democracy at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville in April 2019. Working with UVA undergraduates, discussing the connections between memory and democracy, and exploring ways to trigger a public dialog about coming to terms with the past presented an exciting task and a great opportunity to learn from each other. After all, even before white supremacists invaded UVA grounds and Charlottesville in August 2017, both the university and the city had commissioned expert groups to examine the history of slavery and its aftermath. They had asked the commissions to provide recommendations for how to deal with the material memorialization of this charged history. I was eager to find out how the students thought about the statues of iconic American figures like Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark that stood on campus and around town. I was curious what ideas they would develop to participate in the city’s current memory work—or even to disrupt it.
This was my second time as a fellow of the Memory & Democracy Project, and I wanted to make the connection between the histories of racism and antisemitism, war, and genocide and the different material forms of memorialization even more tangible for the students. I hoped to show how grassroots activists in Germany challenged official narratives of German history, exposed historical crimes against humanity in their community, and organized their own forms of memorialization. I intended the examples from Germany—both historic and present-day—to serve as an inspiration for the students so that they would become aware of their own agency in the grassroots process of memory work in their community.
I could not have found a better partner or a better group of students for this endeavor: Kyrill Kunakhovich and his fifty-some students of the lecture course on “Nationalism in Europe.” Kyrill made space in his syllabus for our cooperative project, and the students, over the course of one intensive week, engaged thoughtfully with the concept of memory work and presented highly creative ideas for their intervention.
Our project began with a brief overview of history and memory in Germany. We discussed the concept of counter-monuments—memorial spaces that, in James E. Young’s words, are “conceived to challenge the very premise of the monument” (1993:96). I showed two examples from Münster, where, thanks to the public art exhibition Sculpture Projects that happens every ten years, there exist a number of counter-monuments which disrupt public memory and continue to trigger controversial debates about Germany’s colonial and national-socialist past. I also shared postcards produced in the project “Decolonize Munich!”, which identified colonial spaces in the Bavarian capital and called for more public awareness about the city’s colonial heritage. In a lively discussion, we explored how the Munich project could be applied to UVA’s own problematic past and its history-laden campus. We then asked students to conceive of their own counter-monument on campus. The students went out and photographed spaces on UVA grounds that they felt were connected to some problematic aspect of the university’s history, and then designed a visual disruption of this space, explaining their choices of motive and alteration.
The students’ designs were striking. Not only did they critically apply what they had learned about history and memory in Germany to their own context, they were also visibly moved by their university’s entanglement in slavery, Jim Crow, and eugenics—a realization that compelled them to create truly disruptive and, in some cases, radical ideas for counter-monuments on postcards . The process and its outcome were a vivid reminder of how vital it is to let people—not only historians or “experts”—take part in historical learning and memory work to generate their own understanding of a country’s history and ensuing responsibilities to the present.
We are currently selecting the postcards that will be printed, and will soon make them available to the public. Distributed on campus and in the city, at student hangouts, tourist spots, and in the vicinity of the locations pictured on the postcards, these cardboard counter-monuments will offer subtle historical interventions. I am excited to see how they will be used and circulated—will they be sent to the White House to make a statement? To any of the candidates for the 2020 election? Any other officials and politicians?
Lastly, I myself learned so much about efforts to confront history at the university and in Charlottesville. I gained so many valuable insights for my own public history work in Germany from our visits and discussions with the student-led tours on campus, the curators at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home turned museum), and the director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. I am struck by the many problematic ways in which German and American history are entangled, and reminded that we must work transnationally to forge new narratives of memory and establish more critical practices of memorialization. It is clear to me that we have a long way to go on both sides of the Atlantic, despite all the powerful activism and the real progress we have made. Most of all, my time in Charlottesville convinced me that how we engage with history and national memory will have a decisive impact on the intergenerational conflict that is currently shaping our democratic societies—perhaps even more so in the US, where such engagement is still nascent. It will be up to the younger generations to challenge the established interpretations of the nation’s past and reinvigorate our democracies by finding new ways to confront our troubled histories.