We all live in the past. We were born in a certain place and time, to a certain family that believed certain things and shared those things with others in the community. Even when we reject our past, we cannot reject the joys and traumas that shaped us, nor the failures, successes, embarrassments and enemies that we and our families faced. The one thing that cannot be forgotten is our memory of the past, our victories, defeats, heroism and cowardice. We can try to imagine that we were something other than what we were, and that the terrible moment when our true nature was revealed to the world didn’t happen. But it is an illusion. Our memories are always there and always delighting or haunting us.
Just as people try to shape memories of the past, so too do religions and nations. As Christianity spread through Europe, it sought not only to defeat paganism but to wipe Europe’s memory of it. Christianity was, after all, also a political movement, governed as it was by Pope Boniface’s doctrine of two swords – one religious and one political. Paganism was an alternative to religion, but it, too, was a political movement that threatened to arise. The Church sought to obliterate the memory of paganism by appropriating and Christianizing some and crushing the rest. The goals were to save the heathens from the lies they were taught and to break the source of the pagan world’s power: the memory of who its followers were. It was, as with all victories, imperfect. The memory of paganism still haunts Europe, and sometimes it bursts forth, as it did with Hitler.
All religions try to reshape memory, turning what had been noble into something blighted and imposing a new nobility on the old. When the Hebrews conquered the promised land, they obliterated those who were there before them. When Islam surged out of Arabia, it sought to impose its truth on the memories of those it encountered.
In “1984,” George Orwell wrote of the memory hole, a device through which records of things the regime did not want remembered were destroyed. But this wasn’t good enough for Big Brother. He demanded the destruction of not only the written record but also the memory of Winston Smith, an employee of the Ministry of Truth tasked with rewriting historical accounts. Big Brother tried to destroy Winston’s memory by finding the thing that frightened him the most, and using it to break his soul. The point Orwell was making was that political power rests in the ability to shape minds, and the ability to shape minds rests in owning memories.
Mao Zedong understood that the greatest danger to communism was memory. To destroy it, he had to destroy the past, and to do this, he launched the Cultural Revolution. At the heart of the revolution was the war against the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. He set loose a reign of terror that China has tried to overcome but can’t possibly forget.
There is perhaps no country that struggles with its memories more profoundly than Germany. It produced an evil so extreme that it had no precedent within which to frame it. It was not just the murder of Jews. They were a fraction of the Nazi’s victims, who also included the disabled, political opponents, and the soldiers who fought in a war that Germany started. For Germany, the memory of what it did is unbearable, and forgetting it is impossible. The country learned to live with its memories by embracing them, not in celebration but in shame. But more important, it drew a distinction between those who perpetrated the evil and those who came later. Those who came later were absolved of the guilt of those who committed the evil acts. In this way, the nation both bears the burden of the evil that was committed and also absolves itself. You cannot forget, but you can forgive, even yourself.
The battle over the past is the battle for the right to define the future. Honore de Balzac writes that all great fortunes are built on great crimes. It’s a truth that applies, to different degrees, to all of our lives. Some struggle to forget. Others struggle to remember and to forgive themselves. But as Orwell pointed out, whoever defines the past controls the present and future. And in all these examples, these monuments of civilization, the struggle to subdue the past to shape the present is central.
The great crime on which the United States was founded was the enslavement of captured Africans and their offspring. The crime was not merely the practice of slavery, which was practiced in many parts of the world. It was that the drafters of the United States’ founding documents believed deeply that all men are created equal, and yet slavery was allowed to continue and became the foundation of the South’s economy. So it was decided that Africans were not fully human – a concept that even other societies that had practiced slavery hadn’t applied. Denying them their rights, therefore, wasn’t considered a violation of the United States’ foundational beliefs.
This tore the country apart and culminated in a war that killed more than 600,000 people. Some claim that the war was not about slavery but about tariffs. They argue that the war was driven by commercial interests, not justice. I find it very hard to believe that these men died over tariffs. But the argument is important to those who reject the idea that the Civil War, in any way, absolved the United States of its crime. Others, however, believe that, though slavery can never be forgotten, it must be laid side by side with the redemption of the Civil War. For this group, the full debt may not be repaid, but a massive down payment has been made. For the others, the basic disease of the founding – the belief that Africans are not equal – has not only been left uncured, but the very memory of the American past is tarnished and must be cleansed.
Many of the founders were from Virginia, and most owned slaves. But they left in place an extraordinary regime. The question now is whether the American regime should be honored considering its past. Does slavery sully everything they accomplished and everything the U.S. represents, or does acknowledging that American slavery was wicked and recalling the dead at Antietam allow us to praise the founders despite their great crime?
For what little my opinion matters, part of the answer rests with Shelby Foote, a great Civil War historian. He once said that the Civil War ended when the North acknowledged that the Southerners fought bravely and the South acknowledged that the North’s victory was for the best. Left out of this reconciliation, of course, were the former slaves themselves. And because of that, the reconciliation was never really satisfactory until the slaves’ fate began to be taken seriously.
The reconciliation itself ultimately proved insufficient. Many in the North rejected the honor given to the South, and many in the South rejected the idea that their defeat was for the best. But as with all the battles over the past, the key is that a great crime can only be healed by a great lie. I think this is what Plato was referring to when he wrote of the “noble lie.” It is a memory that is not true but that heals. I think of the way in which the Germans have lied to themselves. They are the heirs of the culture that gave rise to horror. But the Germans and the world are safer for the falsification.
We cannot forget the past, and in the minutes before we sleep, it haunts us, reminding us of our failures. But then we wake up and tell ourselves our tale and forget the monstrous things we might have done, giving ourselves a chance, this day, to find redemption. Memories haunt and destroy some even when the sun is at its highest. The battle over monuments is the battle over memory. Whoever controls the past will also define the future.