Skip to main content Accessibility help

…And if there was also a duty to forget, how would we think about history then?

  • David Rieff


Is remembrance an absolute moral duty or is it better thought of in more ethically constricted pragmatic and empirical terms? This essay argues that both individuals and societies should strive for remembrance where possible, but accept that there are times and places where more forgetting is the only safe choice to make. One may hope that at some point in the future the need to remember will sweep away a prudential decision to forget, but while we are within our moral rights to hope that, in a given case, forgetting itself will outlive its usefulness, conflating our wishes with teleological certainties is an exercise in hubris, not morality. But on no account should memory be thought of as a categorical imperative.



Hide All

1 Much as we might wish it otherwise, assuming human civilization survives for many millennia to come, there is simply no rational basis for believing that eventually even the greatest crimes and world historical tragedies that are of cardinal importance to us will never be forgotten as we ourselves will be forgotten.

2 My own view is that there is no such thing as collective memory in the strictly neurological sense as it is normally understood when speaking of individual memory, and that instead, collective memory is a metaphor for what past events the present finds relevant and how it interprets those events. But for the purposes of this discussion, the question of what we mean when we use the term “collective memory” is not as relevant as it is in other contexts.

3 Todorov, Tzvetan, Les abus de la mémoire, Arléa, Paris, 2004, p. 27 (author's translation).

4 Private email communication from Tzvetan Todorov, 17 January 2016. On file with author.

5 T. Todorov, above note 3, p. 26 (author's translation).

6 Ibid., pp. 26–27.

7 The Gayssot Law was passed on 13 July 1990.

8 This is obviously a gross oversimplification in the sense that the work of de-Nazification, begun by the occupying powers, was completed by Germans themselves; indeed, one can make a pervasive claim that the so-called successor trials of Auschwitz concentration camp guards did more to alter German public opinion away from any lingering Nazi sympathies far more effectively than the Nuremberg Trials did.

9 Todorov is more cautious. In a public conversation he had shortly before his death with the psychiatrist and writer Boris Cyrulnik, Todorov not only warned against “the Manichaeism of judging” but went on to insist that “the temptation of the good is much more dangerous than the temptation of evil”, presumably Todorov's own gloss on Pascal's aphorism “Whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast.” See Cyrulnik, Boris and Todorov, Tzvetan, Le tentation du bien est beaucoup plus dangereuse que celle du mal, Nouvelles Editions de l'Aube, La Tour d'Aigues, 2017; Margalit, Avishai, The Ethics of Memory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000; Ricoeur, Paul, Memory, History, Forgetting, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2006.

10 See Santayana, George, The Life of Reason: Introduction and Reason in Common Sense, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1905.

11 If forgetting is, as I believe it to be, still judged by the great majority of people of conscience to be, well, unconscionable, this is at least partly because the imperative to forget in the name of a particular society “moving on” has been the last moral refuge of some of the vilest people on Earth, from South Africa to Chile. It is not only invariably in the service of the goal of securing legal impunity but is often (as in the case of South Africa) also an effort to protect from legal and political challenge the economic benefits those who served the dictatorship accrued from that service, and more generally “muzzling black pain and easing white guilt”, as the South African writer Pearl Boshomane has described it. See Pearl Boshomane, “20 Years after the TRC Hearings South Africa's Pain Persists”, Sunday Times, 10 April 2016, available at: (all internet references were accessed in December 2018).

12 This was done more successfully in Chile and Uruguay than in Argentina, where even today, though the governments of Nestor Kirchner (2003–07) and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (2007–15) overturned amnesty laws instituted by their predecessors and restarted the trials of those who had committed crimes during the dictatorship, many of the relatives and friends of the victims are no wiser about how their loved ones died or what was the fate of many of the children they bore in captivity than they were in the immediate aftermath of the restoration of democracy in Argentina.

13 White South Africans were the sole exception, for obvious reasons, though at least a substantial minority of whites accepted that the end of Apartheid was inevitable, and a small but not insignificant minority believed it to be desirable.

14 Many of those who were granted amnesty were wholly unrepentant, as in the case of Jacques Hechter, formerly a captain in the Northern Transvaal police, who admitted to the TRC that he had murdered twenty-six people but also said, “I did a good job, and I'd do it again.” See Susie Linfield, “Trading Truth for Justice? South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, Boston Review, 1 June 2000, available at:

15 See P. Ricoeur, above note 9, p. 456.

16 The formulation, slightly paraphrased, is Jacques Le Goff's in his Histoire et mémoire, Gallimard, Paris, 1988.

17 Speculating on what may happen in any given society in the very long run is best left to soothsayers.

18 The concept of civil society is too often misrepresented as describing those non-governmental groups that bien-pensant people think well of – an Amnesty International, say, or the food rights group Via Campesina. But as a descriptive term rather than a prescriptive one it surely applies just as much to Protestant lodges in Ulster that supported the Loyalist paramilitaries or to the civic groups in Serb areas of Bosnia that supported the Siege of Sarajevo.

19 For a brilliant discussion of Meier's position and the arguments against it, see Assmann, Aleida, “To Remember or to Forget: Which Way Out of a Shared History of Violence?”, in Assmann, Aleida and Shortt, Linda (eds), Memory and Political Change, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmills, 2012. See also Meier, Christian, From Athens to Auschwitz: The Uses of History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.

20 Martin Luther King, “I'm Sorry Sir You Don't Know Me”, speech recorded at Santa Rita, California, on 14 January 1968, produced by Colin Edwards, KPFA, BB1460 Pacifica Radio Archives, 15 January 1968, available at:

21 The most compelling and detailed iteration of Human Rights Watch's position on this matter can be found in Human Rights Watch, Selling Justice Short: Why Accountability Matters for Peace, 7 July 2009, available at:

22 See C. Meier, above note 19.

23 See Arendt, Hannah, “Organized Guilt and Political Responsibility”, in Kohn, Jerome (ed.), Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust, New York, 1994.

24 Annette Becker's work is a fine articulation of this view.

25 Despite being the intellectual rock upon which the human rights movement has founded its church, the claim that memory is a moral requirement for all societies at all times because a swelling canon of international law mandates justice for perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of international humanitarian law is actually an extremely weak justification for the duty to remember. The most obvious (of several) problems with this position is that it attempts to present the law as being above or beyond politics and ideology, thus conflating law and morality to a degree that even Carl Schmitt would have found caricatural. This reliance on the law as morally unchallengeable is also what has led to the current crisis of international humanitarian law, which seems quite incapable of adjusting to the fundamental changes in the nature of warfare that we are witnessing today.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

…And if there was also a duty to forget, how would we think about history then?

  • David Rieff


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.