The Invasion of Forgetting

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Invasion of Forgetting

‘Every ten years a great man, Who paid the bill?’1
Bertolt Brecht, Questions from a Worker who Reads

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raidHamburg, date unknown

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raid
Hamburg, date unknown

Knowledge of the past is like a great continent. As time passes, people die and direct contact with its events are lost, erosion takes place leaving increasingly isolated promontories of knowledge, bearing little relation to the original geography in which they sat. The channels and seas separating them are the unknowable past, apparently lost forever. The historian, professional or otherwise, attempts to bridge these isles with supposition. Besides death, the causes of the erosion vary, but neglect and catastrophe leading to the destruction of material evidence are the most usual.

Clearly it would be impossible to preserve all that constitutes the past, as much as it would be impossible to conserve total knowledge of even a single second of the present. How much and precisely what gets preserved has a profound effect on our later understanding. Indifference to the present because of the apparent lack of need to protect or conserve it means the task is often left until after it is too late. Few people for example made efforts to record the customs and culture of Native Americans until their obliteration was almost total, the painter George Catlin and photographer Edward Curtis are notable exceptions, early examples of the ‘salvage ethnographer’.

Forgetting the past can also be a defensive measure. W.G. Sebald mused that the devastation wrought on German cities in the closing years of the Second World War produced such a sense of trauma that the ability of Germans ‘to remember was partly suspended’.2  Consequently the event was scarcely dealt with for decades afterwards because in the face of such a trauma ‘the need to know was at odds with a desire to close down the senses’.3  As a result he felt that Germans still had not truly come to terms with the bombenkrieg.

The past can also be willfully forgotten, through intentional neglect, and more actively through the destruction of things that bear witness to it. Burning books or photographs for example, demolishing statues and buildings leave gaping holes in the fabric of history that are sometimes more conspicuous than the thing removed. In Berlin the destruction of the socialist era parliament was advertised as an important stage in German reunification. Prominent East Germans however criticised it as part of a process of concealing positive aspects of East Germany and recasting it entirely as the defeated evil in counterpoint to the positive depiction of the ‘victor’ west.4

1 Bertolt Brecht, Question from a Worker Who Reads (1935)  available at
2 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 24
3 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 23
4 Staff writer, Berlin’s Palace of the Republic Faces Wrecking Ball, published 20th January 2006, accessed 16th October 2012, available at

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