The story goes that in the 1980s and 1990s no publisher in Paris was prepared
to issue a historical study that did not have the word ‘memory’ in the title.
Identity, a congener of memory, was equally popular in the same period. One of the experts
in the field, John Gillis, claimed that identity has become no more than a cliché and
that memory has lost a lot of its precision, but both terms have remained key concepts. ‘The
core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely, a sense of sameness over time and
space, is sustained by remembering; and what is remembered is defined by the assumed
identity’. Memories and identities are anything but certain facts; they are
`representations or constructions of reality, subjective rather than objective
phenomena. […] “Memory work” is, like any kind of physical or mental labor,
embedded in complex class, gender and power relations that determine what is remembered
(or forgotten), by whom, and for what end”.
It has been suggested that the demise of the vainglorious future-orientated ideologies in
the late 1980s brought about a shift in focus towards the past. However that may be, the wave of
interest in memory did receive an enormous impulse from one of the most controversial studies in
this field, the seven-volume series Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984–1992), published
under the direction of the French historian Pierre Nora. In the last volume he argued that France
had gradually disappeared as a ‘memory nation’; the national memory had been
supplanted by a series of lieux de mémoire and the conflicting social identities
that this entailed. La France, according to Nora, had entered the ‘era of
commemoration’ as Les Frances as a result of what he called a
‘democratization of the commemorative spirit’.
The relation between national identity and collective memory is highlighted by the many commemorative events organised in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1980, the French, British and Brazilian governments had a Year of National Heritage, while in Israel a ‘memory industry’ specially devoted to the Holocaust got under way.