Conclusion: Collective memory and the logic of appropriate behavior

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Several common themes and conclusions have emerged from the contributions assembled in this volume. First, and perhaps not surprisingly, collective memories emerge in a variety of cultural and national contexts to greatly influence various foreign policies, bilateral relationships, and international affairs. Nevertheless, the ways in which collective memories become influential factors in decision making are not always as expected. The ways that memories are used as rhetorical weapons are often surprising. Although the emotions that are embedded in these memories-as-weapons are visceral and, as with other more conventional weapons, can be highly divisive and even dangerous. Second, complex interactions between elites and mass publics are visible in virtually every case examined. Overall, the primacy of elites is amply supported- that, as most studies of political culture and public opinion have concluded, the direction of causal influence is primarily top-down. Yet many of the case studies show that mass publics are not merely passive vessels or mechanical ciphers of such preferred perspectives. For example, Polish public opinion has resisted the negativity toward the memory of German suffering so characteristic of elite discourses. Alternately, despite decades of univocal German elite representation of Holocaust memory, the German public was very quick to follow the renewed discussions about their own suffering after 2002. Third, unintended consequences are visible everywhere. The George W. Bush administration did not intend that its attempt to monopolize the construction and valuation of memory of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and its channeling of this memory, as a justification for the global war on terror and for the invasion of Iraq, would generate a substantial counterreaction-which made the candidacy of Barack Obama so powerful in the first place, and which was a major (certainly not the only one) factor in his eventual victory. Likewise, the Chinese authorities did not foresee that unleashing a wave of memory-induced anti-Japanese sentiment would backfire by encouraging and empowering citizens to ask questions about the Communist Party's historical actions. Fourth, the contributors to this volume show us how differently we should think about international affairs by taking the concerns of memory seriously. Omer Bartov argues convincingly in chapter 6 that perceiving the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks through the filter of collective memory should lead us to see the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first to be situated in 2001, and not 1989. Michael Kazin demonstrates in chapter 7 that 9/11 cannot be understood without looking at what happened nine months previously on December 12, 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the presidential election in favor of George W. Bush. Eric Langenbacher and Bettina Warburg argue in chapters 1 and 2, respectively, that contemporary German policies cannot be comprehended without a thorough grasp of collective memories. Thomas Berger and Gerrit Gong reveal in chapters 9 and 10, respectively, that international disputes in East Asia have been exacerbated by the lack of resolution of historical issues and the conscious foregrounding of these memories by various elite actors in several countries. Finally, this volume yet again demonstrates how important sustained academic attention and reflection remains. Such conceptually driven analysis reveals important underlying dynamics and motives that would otherwise remain concealed. Acrimony between Germany and Poland or between China and Japan does not (merely) have a "realist" geopolitical cause, but it is constructed by certain cultural and memory sensibilities. Such deeper comprehension might lead to better analysis and better policy. And just as important, academic experts remain a check and balance on policymakers and other elites. Jeffrey Herf's passionate argument in chapter 8 is not only a critique of policymaking in the George W. Bush and Gerhard Schröder administrations but also a corrective to the simplistic and tendentious use of memories and historical analogies in policymaking.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPower and the Past
Subtitle of host publicationCollective Memory and International Relations
PublisherGeorgetown University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9781589016408
StatePublished - 2010


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