The Proliferation of Memory Laws and the Return of the Nation

The Proliferation of Memory Laws and the Return of the Nation

IMAGO / Ukrinform

in cooperation with Dr. George Soroka (Harvard University)

Project description

The legal dimension of how one can publicly speak about historical events has tended to be the preserve of historians and legal experts, with social scientists generally steering clear of this topic. This is surprising given the undeniable political and social relevance of legislating how the past can be recalled. In recent years, many Central and East European countries have adopted legislation that seeks to regulate the work of historians and public discourse about history. World War II plays a critical role in these attempts to legislate memory. Such legislation is indicative of attempts at nation-building by means of state-crafted historical narratives that try to establish norms about how to view the past. They also illustrate the difficult nation-building projects that have characterised many East European countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary Russia, for example, uses memory laws for nation-building purposes. A 2014 law is frequently used to punish statements about the country’s history that deviate from the official position. But such laws are not unique to Russia, nor are they an exclusive feature of authoritarian regimes. Instead, countries as varied as Poland, Ukraine, France, Spain, Germany, Chile and a number of states in the US have legal provisions that determine what can be said in public about a country’s past.

This project explores the political dynamics behind this presence of history and its wider societal implications. With research funding from the Daimler and Benz Foundation, a database has been compiled on memory legislation in Europe and North and South America, which considers the important political dynamics of such laws. This research has also generated new survey data in Russia, Ukraine and Germany. New approaches to survey research were used to evaluate the societal effects of the memory initiatives of political elites. The project employs both qualitative and quantitative methods. While the analysis of the political dynamics of memory laws is mainly qualitative, the surveys are assessed using statistical techniques. Together, these methods make it possible to understand the production and reception of memory in different political contexts.

Key questions

  • What kinds of memory laws exist and what are their domestic and foreign policy implications?
  • What is the societal relevance of the memory narratives of political and cultural elites?
  • How do political views correlate with historical perceptions?