Bad Memories Timothy Garton Ash

The sentence “We all have bad memories” can be read in two ways: “We all have memories of things that we found horrible, embarrassing, regrettable” or “Our faculty of memory is intrinsically weak, leading us to forget or misremember.” The two may be connected, of course. We have a bad memory for bad memories.

In our post-Freudian English, this is usually called “repression,” thus encouraging further wordplay: “After suffering under a repressive dictatorship, people repress the memory of repression.” To say “repression,” in the psychological sense, implies that the bad memory is the mind’s way of handling bad memories. But that is just a theory. Before Freud, there was Nietzsche: “‘I did that,’ says my memory. ‘I can’t have done that,’ says my pride and remains adamant. In the end—memory gives way.” And, before Nietzsche, there was Schopenhauer: “We do not like ruminating on what is unpleasant, at least when it wounds our vanity as indeed is often the case … therefore much that is unpleasant is also forgotten.”

Comfort? Repression? Pride? Vanity? The explanations differ, but on the existence of this phenomenon, at least, the sages all agree. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, we have “a grand memory for forgetting.” But is “forgetting” an adequate word? In everyday life, we tend to operate with the binary distinction: remember/forget. And there is an awful lot that we do quite simply forget. Yet there are also many variations in-between. There is, for example, the jumbling of memory. And there is the involuntary embroidering of memory. (When you recount an argument you had with somebody, it always sounds as if you won the argument.) Thomas Hobbes drew the most radical conclusion in his Leviathan. Discussing memory in a chapter entitled “Of Imagination,” he concluded that “imagination and Memory are but one thing.”

Clearly, this is a rich field. You may almost feel another little academic specialization coming on. There she goes, the bright young doctoral student heading straight for the Jonathan Aitken Chair of Memory Studies at the University of Westminster, after studying with the fearsome founder of the discipline, Professor Erich Teufelsdonck, Distinguished Professor of Gedächtnisforschung at the University of Braunau.

Let the joke die on your lips: The discipline is already here. French historians have been dwelling on this subject for more than a decade. The multivolume Les Lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nora, is a centerpiece of recent French intellectual life. There is even—sure sign of the arrival of another academic subsubdiscipline—a learned journal, entitled History and Memory. Not accidentally, this is based at Tel Aviv University and centrally concerned with some very bad memories indeed: those of war, occupation, and the Holocaust.

By and large, the studies of the French school have been concerned with the history of collective memories. Often this involves a leap from a body of evidence about attitudes to the past—politicians’ speeches, films, opinion polls—to a generalization about national memory. Thus, in his very interesting book The Vichy Syndrome, Henry Rousso uses the psychological notion of “repression” to de­scribe the French collective memory of collaboration in Vichy. He even has a “temperature curve” charting the ups and downs of the syndrome, as if it were a fever. Stimulating though the argument is, these generalizations about some sort of national psyche are as hard to test as old-fashioned generalizations about “national character.”

As a plodding Anglo-Saxon empiricist, I find it better to start with individual memory. My interest in this subject began—if I remember rightly—with the German memory (or forgetting) of Nazism, as I found it while living in Berlin at the end of the 1970s. The great change of 1989 was another stimulus. Trying to write the history of divided Europe in the Cold War, I found that the end of communism had a remarkable transformative effect on individual memories. As after 1945, everyone suddenly discovered that they had been opposed to the fallen dictatorship. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt notes that Dr Otto Bradfisch, head of a Nazi Einsatzkommando that shot some 15,000 people, told a German court he was always “inwardly opposed” to what he was doing.) Meanwhile, politicians in the West suddenly remembered how they had “always” supported the dissidents and “said all along” that the division of Europe could not last.

Egon Bahr, the intellectual architect of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, now explained that he had always intended this policy to be subversive of communist regimes. Why was there no single record of his ever saying this over the previous quarter century? Ah, because he could never say this in public, for fear that the communists would wake up to what was going on. Not for nothing was he called “tricky Egon.” Politicians’ memories are, of course, made of especially flexible material. But we all do it.

The retrospective rationalization may be half conscious or even fully unconscious. A fine example is contained in the conversations between members of the German team who had been working on an atom bomb for Hitler, secretly recorded at Farm Hall, the British country house where they were being held. After they heard the news of Hiroshima, the German scientists were trying to work out why the Americans had succeeded where they had failed. “I believe the reason we didn’t do it,” ventured Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, “was because the [German] physicists didn’t want to do it on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded.”

More recently, I have been plunged still deeper into the labyrinth of memory by working on a book about the strange experience of reading my own Stasi file. To read a secret police file on yourself is a Proustian experience. It brings back to you with incredible vividness many things that you had quite forgotten or remembered in a different way. There is a day in your life 20 years ago, described minute by minute with the cold, clinical eye of the secret policeman. There are conversations, recorded word for word. There are photographs taken with a concealed camera.

When I went on to talk to the friends, informers, and officers who figured in my life, I discovered further veils, wrinkles, and tricks of memory. One informer, whom the Stasi gave the code name “Michaela,” firmly denied ever having been an “IM,” the Stasi abbreviation for “unofficial collaborator.” But her informer’s file, which I subsequently saw, contained handwritten reports signed with the codename. She asked me, with a remnant of Marxist vocabulary, to “try to explain the subjective as well as objective conditions” when I wrote about her. “But,” she added despairingly, “probably that’s impossible. Even I can’t really remember now.” Another in­former, an Englishman code-named “Smith,” told me he had tried to talk to the Stasi only about general social and political conditions. In a tragicomic piece of retrospective rationalization, he “recalled” that by talking to the secret police—and, he fondly hoped, through them to the party leaders—he was trying to substitute for the missing “civil society.” But his informer’s file is full of detailed information on individual people.

As I traveled around with my bag of poisoned madeleines, I saw how people’s memories—of events, of each other, of themselves—changed instantly, and then changed and changed again as the revelations sank in. There was no way back, now, to their previous memory of that person or that event. We say, “X or Y jogged my mem­ory” and usually mean simply “X or Y reminded me.” But these “jogs” actually change the memory itself, like a digitized picture trans­formed in a computer: darkening that shadow, lightening this face. Except that, here, the process is involuntary. We are not the opera­tors at the keyboard of memory.

So what we are dealing with, when we try to write history, is noth­ing less than an infinity of individual memories of any person or event. For these memories are changing all the time. There is, in all normal times, the slow fading that we call forgetting. But there are also the sudden changes that come with a dramatic change of external circumstances, like 1989, or with some new discovery, such as a file. L.P. Hartley famously wrote that “the past is a foreign country.” But the past is much more than another country. It is another universe. The historian is a traveler through endless worlds of individual memory.

As a result, I have become even more skeptical than I was before about the value of any retrospective evidence. Yet that is what most historical evidence is. Most recorded history is the history of memories. What are described as contemporary, primary sources were usually recorded by an individual some time after the event, even if the interval between action and recording was only a few hours, minutes, or even seconds. We know from our own lives that people can have quite different recollections of a conversation or meeting the morning after. (Earlier this year, the leaders of the EU couldn’t agree what they had agreed on in the last hours of the Amsterdam summit.) For a sobering experience, try comparing ten different newspaper reports of the same event.

The great exceptions to this rule are the tape recorder (overt or covert) and the camera. To be sure, these can lie too. Anyone who has watched a radio editor cutting and splicing a tape will never again believe what they hear. The new digital technology seems to create almost limitless possibilities of photographic manipulation. Still, properly used, they bring us an important step closer to Ranke’s “how it really was.” The television camera can lie, but at least it does not do what all human recorders do: both forget and involuntarily reremember. That is one reason why the best television documen­taries are outstanding works of contemporary history. The television footage gives you not just the words but the body language that often belies the words, the facial expressions, the atmosphere, and telling detail that you can otherwise experience only as a participant or an eyewitness.

For the historian, the lesson is not just about the weakness of human memory but about its fecundity, its infinite creativeness, its ability—no, its elemental compulsion—endlessly to rearrange the past in constantly shifting patterns. Usually, the resulting patterns are more comforting to our self-esteem, pride, or vanity, as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer observed. But not always. Sometimes memory tortures people with remorse or guilt more than the circumstances really justify. The awful irony, explored harrowingly by Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, his film about the Holocaust, is that most often it is the victims who are cursed by memory, while the per­petrators are blessed by forgetting. Especially if the perpetrators were what the Germans call Schreibtischtäter, “desk murderers,” bu­reaucratic coordinators of evil, like some of the chilling figures in Lanzmann’s film. “That camp,” said one—“what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district … I’ve got it: Auschwitz!” Memory, this champion trickster, is thus the great adversary for anyone who tries to establish what really happened, whether as historian, journalist, or writer. Martha Gellhorn has written very movingly about this, in relation to her own memories of war, concluding, “What is the use in having lived so long, traveled so widely, listened and looked so hard, if at the end you don’t know what you know?” But there is an­other set of questions about bad memories faced by all people and countries who have been through terrible experiences: hijacking, imprisonment, torture or—for the collective—occupation, war, dic­tatorship, genocide. These questions are not about how to recon­struct the past but about what is best for the individual, society, nation, or state now and in the future.


Timothy Garton Ash, “Bad Memories,” History of The Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, Random House, New York 1999, p. 248–253.