Against Remembrance – Seminar & Book by David Rieff

Is the best way to overcome the legacy of conflict simply to forget about it?

Author and journalist David Rieff spoke on this subject last week in a seminar at the Institute for International Integration Studies (IIIS) at Trinity College Dublin. Rieff has recently written a book titled, Against Remembrance (published in Ireland by Liffey Press), which draws on his wide experience observing and reporting on conflict zones.

The seminar was hosted by IIIS and the Irish School of Ecumenics and featured responses from Prof Geraldine Smyth, head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, and Prof Ronit Lentin, head of the Sociology department.

The book is hot off the press so I haven’t yet had a chance to dig into it, but the excerpts from it reproduced on the Liffey Press website are certainly passionate:

‘Forgiveness is not enough. … Without forgetting, we would be wounded monsters, unforgiving and unforgiven . . . and, assuming we have been paying attention, inconsolable.’

At the seminar, Rieff said that he knows that he is challenging the ‘accepted orthodoxies’ of most peace and conflict resolution academics and practitioners, who see ‘dealing with the past’ as an essential component of ‘successful’ post-violence transitions.

Rieff questioned the morality and the effectiveness of slogans such as ‘Never Again’ – popularised in relation to the Holocaust – by pointing out that sloganeering about ‘remembering’ has done little to prevent more recent atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda, the Sudan, etc.

Therefore he urged listeners to shed the ‘pieties’ that surround discourses about the duty to remember, as if memory could serve as an ‘inoculation against horror.’ Rieff admitted that much of his thinking is shaped by his experiences in the Balkans, of which he said:

‘In the Balkans nothing has changed. No one will win that war. Each place has different textbooks with incompatible narratives. The best thing they could do is forget about all of it.’

Rieff said that he was reluctant to speak about the violence on this island, given he was speaking to an ‘Irish’ audience in TCD. Indeed he was disappointingly reticent on this island’s conflict, although the book’s publicity does seem to promise some commentary on Ireland.

Rieff also said that memory is ‘useless’ or ‘counter-productive’ when memories are not reconcilable – when opposing groups will never be able to agree on what really happened or on who was in the right or who was in the wrong.

He thinks it’s dangerous when isolated communities reproduce their mutually exclusive memories of atrocities suffered, through commemorations of events long past.

On this island, I don’t think we have to look too far to see examples of the production of ‘counterproductive’ memories, memories that keep division and sectarianism alive. In fact, the upcoming decade of centenaries may (or, more hopefully, may not) provide us with plenty of opportunities to observe the production of one-sided, semi-mythical ‘memories’ by various groups.

Rieff may think this type of memorialisation should not happen, but his remarks left unanswered the question of who he thinks could or should step in to stop it.

I don’t think that attempts to stop or sanitise these types of commemorations are especially productive. Tom Dunne articulated a similar view in his book on the 1998 commemorations of 1798. Dunne’s wider point is that people are capable of engaging and should be encouraged to engage with the complexities of history.

At its most basic this means simply recognising that there are competing interpretations of events. This also includes cultivating a willingness to understand others’ interpretations of the same events and to critique one’s own group.

In addition, Rieff’s remarks included enough qualifications and distinctions that I think that he would not be ‘against’ many of the processes currently underway to ‘deal with’ Northern Ireland’s past.

For example, Rieff said that as long as direct victims and survivors of conflict are still alive, they should not be told to simply forget about it. Here, Prof Smyth’s comments on the work done in Northern Ireland by Healing Through Remembering provided examples of how constructive such processes can be at the grassroots.

One of the more impressive aspects of Healing Through Remembering’s work is that it involves extensive consultations with local communities. Its research reports and recommendations are not simply ideas pulled from nowhere, but formulated in consultation with a range of stakeholders.

Rieff did not say much that spoke to the current debate in Northern Ireland about whether Government should establish some sort of overarching framework for ‘dealing with the past.’

But it was my sense that the remembrance Rieff is so ‘against’ is the mythologised reworkings of ancient history, not attempts in the here and now to find out more about what happened in the recent past and to provide living victims and survivors with a public platform for their stories to be acknowledged.

Rieff may be ‘against remembrance,’ but it’s a very specific type of ‘remembrance’ that he is ‘against.’

On this note, however, something that Rieff said could serve as a word of caution for Northern Ireland. He said that in some cases, there may be a choice between truth and justice. In order to find out the truth (or, to put it less contentiously, to discover empirical facts about events), justice may need to be sacrificed. Trading truth for amnesty, as in the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, could be considered an example of choosing truth over justice.

Should truth trump justice when it comes to dealing with the past? Can people face the truth and resist vengeance, in the absence of justice?

These are certainly legitimate questions to ask.




  • ForkHandles

    Is the best way to overcome the legacy of conflict simply to forget about it?

    YES ! FFS YES !

    Constantly wallowing in the past is harmful to peoples mental wellbeing. Keeping the mind in a state of hurt/hate going over and over a bad period of history is obviously going to have a negative effect. Without being heartless to those that may have lost loved ones to terrorist atrocities, people in NI need to just get on with their lives. People are wasting their own time by all this ‘past’ nonsense. Its the 21st Century, try and live in the now and enjoy it !

  • The Institute for International Integrational Studies (IIIS) …..thats a new one on me.
    I really need some kind of glossary.

  • Switched off once I saw the word “Ecumenics” because I just presumed this would be another example of a fluffy jumper type telling me what I need to do.

  • At its most basic this means simply recognising that there are competing interpretations of events. This also includes cultivating a willingness to understand others’ interpretations of the same events and to critique one’s own group.

    Such an attitude could go a long way towards reconciliation. But does it happen here where we still celebrate events of over 300 years ago (as one example). How can such an attitude be cultivated?

  • Turgon

    Are the same or very similar people who told us we need to “heal through remembering” now telling us we need to “heal through forgetting”?

    I suspect they hope no one will notice that the tune has been changed. I also suspect that some may hope to be employed to help us all “forget” (if that is found to be more popular than the peace processors version of remembering) just as they were employed to help us “remember” and and lots of other fluffy ideas. The amounts of money they recieve and the shrillness of their demands for money and attention are of course far from fluffy.

  • Turgon

    Actually this Rieff bloke might be on to something:

    He appears to suggest that the sorts of remembering promoted by the Liberal Dissidents is counter productive and useless.

    I was particularly impressed by this about Rieff: “Indeed he was disappointingly reticent on this island’s conflict”

    Very unusual in a peace processor type not to pontificate on the conflict here from a position of little knowledge.

    Little wonder that some Liberal Dissidents seem to have provided “responses” by which one might mean disagreed with Mr. Rieff. After all the whole justification for all the peace processors remembering etc. could be challenged if someone pointed out that since the past was and is extremely contorversial any attempt to find an agreed narrative is doomed and as such should not be attempted. This would be dreadful as some peace processor academics might then have to find real employement and that would never do.

  • Obviously I agree with Turgon.
    We now seem to have Official Conflict Resolutionists and Provisional Conflict Resolutionists.

  • Publican

    If we can judge by some of the awkward questions President-in-Waiting McGuinness had to endure from the son of Pvt. Kelly and others this month, its won’t fly.

    Hard for people to forget about events even 300 years ago when it informs so much of their present.

  • mandrake

    nice article….

  • aquifer

    Remembering two different versions of history is not really advisable in avoiding future conflict.

    Especially when states are downsized and cannot easily develop shared facilities and values.

    When history is a nightmare it is best to wake up.

  • oaksandcakes

    Actually, idea is old as hills, it’s quite a formidable technique that could be loosely termed “sanctioned oblivion”, it was used more than once throughout history of european countries. It’s quite a common place that the nations are defined by what they remember and what they forget or choose to forget willingly, for the sake of internal peace & concord. It worked in different periods of history and worked well. Yet, normally the “sanctioned oblivion” was used when one faction (section of society) gained the upper hand and secured its hold on power and there was some pre-conflict common ground or tradition that both factions could claim to be theirs as one community.
    As for NI, methinks that it’s slightly more complicated, once NI is not a sovereign state and basically, the tradition is to have two traditions. I guess once the society forges some new “common” tradition voluntary accepted by all members of community, the two competing versions of the past will loosen the grip.