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Absent Memories: Social and Political Forgetting


Prof. dr. F.P.I.M. van Vree

Members of the research group

dr. H.J.M. van Baar
dr. C.J. Birdsall
dr. A.R.M. Jourdan
dr. S.F. Kruizinga
dr. M.M. Lok
prof.dr. N.C.F. van Sas
dr. N. Scholz
K. Thijs
prof.dr. M.J. Wintle

External Members:

Prof. Ido de Haan (UU)
Prof. Svenja Goltermann (Freiburg University)
Prof. Judith Pollmann (Leiden University)
Dr. Eelco Runia (University of Groningen)
Dr. Karine Varley (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)

Description of the research programme of the research group

We have to forget to be able to remember. Forgetting in this general sense is such a basic mental process that it normally must remain unnoticed. It becomes very visible though, at least in retrospect, when the society as a whole had forgotten something specific that we now believe to be of crucial importance. Consequentially, the academic debates about the phenomenon of forgetting a problematic past have until now by and large focused on the concepts of ‘trauma’ and ‘repression’. The study of forgetting was therefore generally approached from a morally informed perspective: forgetting had to be overcome, and thus the scholarly interest concentrated rather on the difficult attempts to overcome it.
While acknowledging the value of this approach, we propose to shift the perspective in order to put the social and cultural processes of forgetting a specifically problematic past at the centre. While Ernest Renan already observed that forgetting is an essential element in nation building this is especially true of periods during or after political transitions when the past is a dangerous source of frictions and thus a problem for the stability of society. The research group addresses the following research questions:

  • What types of social forgetting can be discerned in European and global (Early-) modern history? In how far does their appearance change over time?
  • How important was the role of the state and the government in the proces of forgetting? What were the other key actors?
  • In how far was the forgetting implicit or explicit (for instance written in law)?
  • What effect did the implicit or explicit character of forgetting have on the success of forgetting? How can we study implicit forgetting?
  • Which relationship existed between forgetting and memory as well as silence and memory? What patterns of selective forgetting and remembering can be detected?
  • To what extent was the social forgetting contested? Were there competing practices of forgetting?

Envisaged results

Vidi grant proposal, 2 PhD dissertations, 1-2 Post-docs, peer reviewed articles and book chapters, 1-2 edited volumes, seminars and public lectures, workshops (n 2011 the workshop “Coping with a Problematic Past in Modern European History (1789-1989)” took place at the UvA)
6. Work plan and time schedule
2013 -2018, with possible extension.

Societal relevance

In recent years a growing number of scholars have started to pay more attention to the ways in which these societies avoided dealing with the most controversial aspects of the past. If social forgetting can indeed be regarded as a defining characteristic of the modern period it becomes all the more important to better understand its social mechanisms, its ways of “commingling silence and forgetting” as well as its historical evolution.