O dialogu w kontekście konfliktów pamięci

Conflicts of Memory

On Dialogue in the Context of Conflicts of Memory

Publication: 26 October 2021

NO. 13 2013



The best way to cure ill memory would be to give up the myths and carry out honest historical works without closing one’s eyes to the dark pages of common history. In my opinion this is not only a just postulate, but also a necessary one, once we want the dialogue in the context of conflicting visions of the past to make sense.

The essence of dialogue and memory

The connection of terms such as dialogue and memory seem to be risky. It seems to point to unobviousness, and thus, in some sense, to the possibility of negotiating memory. In other words, such a connection expresses the belief that memory may be changed and – under the influence of some facts or arguments unknown earlier – may be modified. For that specific reason, it must be clearly specified how I understand dialogue (there are many ways of defining this term) and what memory is for me (its understanding is also by all means problematic). And from the start I would like to mention that the proposed ways of understanding of both memory and dialogue are one of many possibilities, and I am ready to change them when sufficiently persuaded by convincing arguments.

Out of many possible conceptualisations, I would like to follow Walter Ong in adopting the following definition of dialogue: “The dialogue approach means that you do not know where it will lead you. You may be altered by another man, and he or she may be altered by you.” The consequences of entering into a dialogue may thus be surprising for those who decide to undertake it. This risk, however, is much less dangerous than the one that people who are averse to dialogue are endangered to. Entrenched in their own vision of the past, they are usually hesitant and suspicious about those who do not share this vision or question it. Therefore, I do not choose confrontation that aims at the defence of one’s own vision of the past, but I would rather opt for the approach of curiosity. And this is not only curiosity about the vision of the past held by others, but also about my own. The model that I follow is the approach of Paul Ricoeur, who, in his book being the crowning touch of the work of his entire life: Memory, History, Forgetting stated: “The phenomenology of memory, epistemology of history, the hermeneutics of historicity have in fact a common part, which is made up by the problem area related to the representation of the past. The basic question of these ponderings, formulated in the perspective of the object of memory is the following: what is the essence of the image, ikon, to use the Greek expression, following Plato and Aristotle, the image which manifests itself as the presence of an absent thing, stamped with a seal of antecedence?”. Thus, exactly, how does it happen that a given image of the past, and not any other was shaped in one’s mind? What made the same history shape different images in the minds of particular people, who relate to the same facts? Luckily we are not the first ones to ask these questions. Indeed, there is an immense bibliography on the subject, which has been growing rapidly in recent years, allowing one to find at least a partial answer to this question and to some others. I believe that this is a very good starting point for reflections about the difficulties in agreeing on various versions of the past. And this is just the phenomenon that one deals with in the case of memory; in particular of memory that becomes a source of the conflict. First of all, however, the very essence of memory must be thought about, which is neither simple nor evident. This is true, in particular, in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, which is of special interest here.

Ricoeur noted that it was thanks to Maurice Halbwachs’s intuition that we have understood that memory is a something more that merely a sum of the facts remembered by an individual or their memories. He taught us to notice the difference in the images of the past shaped by a community: “It is to Maurice Halbwachs that we owe the brave intellectual decision consisting of the direct attribution of memory to a collective being which he called a group or a society.” The consequences of this new research perspective are seminal for our understanding of the past seen through the prism of historiography worked out by specific ethnic groups or religious communities. Thanks to Halbwachs’s findings we have learned that these differences are the result of the process of socialisation of the members of particular communities and of specific strategies of keeping the memory of the past.

What is particularly significant about the analyses done by the French sociologist is the specifics of religious memory, which is important because it allows the understanding of the tensions between particular religious communities, which frequently define their own identity by means of understanding the past. Hence, in the opinion of Halbwachs, the essence of the memory of a given religious group, as opposed to other types of memory, consists of its specific exclusivity, and thus the exclusion of different, alternative and competitive methods of consolidating and remembering the past and the conviction of one’s own permanence and unchangeability. Halbwachs claims: “What is peculiar to the memory of religious groups is that, while the memories of other groups permeate each other mutually and tend to correspond, the memory of religious groups claims to be fixed once and for all. It either obliges others to adapt themselves to its dominant representations, or it systematically ignores them; contrasting its own permanence with the instability of others, it relegates them to an inferior rank.” The guardians of memory understood in such a way are, first of all, members of the clergy and, in particular, theological theory, worked out by them and disseminated by the special education system controlled by the Church, which gained respect and enjoys its power. The author says: “The authority of theological tradition comes to it because it is like the memory of a clerical group, which – with the help of a concatenation of notions solidly established and conveniently systematized – manages to reconstruct those aspects of the life and early teaching of the Christian Church, that it finds important to retain.” For as long as Christianity was the dominating religion and had a monopoly over theology, and other Churches (this does not concern only Catholicism, but all dominating denominations, as a similar mechanism can be observed in other dominating religions, such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism) controlled social life, the Church was able to present the past in such a way that it confirmed the rightfulness of its teaching: “As long as the Church was able to impose its tradition onto the world, the world’s entire life and history were supposed to be subjected to the tradition of the Church, all memories referring to this life and history should be a confirmation of the teaching of the Church, which without being taken off the track of the past, could enrich its memory with these new testimonies.” Similarly, the practices of appropriating memory concern not only religious institutions, in which this appropriation is additionally sanctioned gaining specific sacralisation. In fact, every community works out some specific methods of remembering and also forgetting uncomfortable facts, and religion is just one way of influencing what we actually remember. This is discussed by Danièle Hervieu-Léger in her book analysing the interrelationships between religion and memory: “The normative dimension of memory is not specific for religious memory. It characterises collective memory that is created out of and kept in a selective process of forgetting, making choices or even retrospective creating of what happened. Collective memory, movable and evolving in its essence, regulated the memories of an individual, depending on particular conditions.” Thus, specific and changing conditions influence and modify memory.

What do we remember and how do we do it?

This was the problem that Paul Connerton made a central point of in his studies. Referring to Halbwachs’s findings, he pointed at the same time to the limitations of his theory. This was the anchorage of collective memory in the practices and rituals that solidify this memory and, to a large degree, explain, its power. By referring to the numerous examples, Connerton, in a convincing and precise way, points to the mechanisms of perpetuating thinking habits, desired from the point of view of the interests of a particular group. An especially bright example of this is the case of Nazi Germany, which used known Christian rituals and holidays for their ideological purposes. Even though this is an extreme example, it is worth having a closer look into, on account of its expressiveness: “Between the seizure of power in January 1933 and the outbreak of war in September 1939, the subjects of the Third Reich were constantly reminded of the National Socialist Party and its ideology by a series of commemorative ceremonies. The number, the sequence and the performative structure of these festivals rapidly assumed a canonical form and they retained that form until the demise of the Third Reich. The impact of this newly-invented canonical sequence pervaded all spheres of life; the festivals of the Reich being related to the feasts of the Christian calendar in much the same way as the latter had been related to the seasonal celebrations of the pagan era. The calendrical liturgy of National Socialist Party was regulated and total.” Referring to the ritualised Nazi ideology is significant for realising “how it is possible” that a given group accepts the most unrealistic ideas of the leaders as its own. Simply, the ritualised forms of organising memory somehow “release from the obligation to think” and its members “situate what they recollect within the frame of the mental space provided by the group”. In other words, memory is constructed and created to serve ideology.

It is known that ideological justifications of all state structures operate in the same way, especially if they are strengthened by a national ideology or, in extreme cases, a nationalist one. What deserves special attention here are the remarks of Benedict Anderson, who wrote of states as “imagined communities”. A similar tone in the discussion of the origin of states-nations is displayed by Bogumił Koss-Jewsiewicki: “The affirmation of the nation-state – as the only collective subject which may rightly become a political being – was based on the fabrication on the an enduring collective subject – people – whom the state gave the mandate to construct nationality.” Their Slavic exemplifications were discussed in numerous publications by Maria Bobrownicka. These are generally known issues, so I am not going to discuss them in a greater detail. It is worthwhile pointing to some specifics of the Slavic myth which did not only falsified the past, but also cut itself off from all the messages different than propagated by itself: “The negative influence of the Slavic myth on a group of notions of the national culture consisted of falsifying the sources and character of the familial tradition of some specific Slavic nations and the pauperisation of this culture as a result of the separation from some of its layers.” It is easy to realise that this remark concerns the critical potential of the heritage of the Enlightenment and the dialogue value that was brought in by the Renaissance. In the case of the Polish Romantic myth, it was also accompanied by the conviction of the exceptional role of the Poles in bringing civilisation to the East and by a martyrology vision of own past. I do not have to add that at this point, the notion of a Pole-Catholic was coined, which effectively erased all other ethnic and religious traditions from the general memory. By all means, it was to the great detriment of the historic truth and led to a limitation of the views of Poland’s own past. To put it directly – it falsified the memory of the Poles.

How to change Polish memory?

As late as in recent years this Polonocentric narration has been greatly modified, among others thanks to the works of the French historian Daniel Beauvois. It must be observed that we do not deal here with some type of historic or cultural revisionism, but only with pointing to the facts that used to be omitted earlier. Thanks to these works we gain a more complete image of the multicultural and multinational tensions in these areas and, what is perhaps the most important, of the infamous role played by the Polish gentry and the intelligentsia originating from this group. The French historian pointed to the process of polonisation of the eastern areas of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations[1], which was quite an uncomfortable dimension for Polish historiography. Yet, if the debate over memory is to lead to some agreement over the differences concerning the images of the past, the dialogue in the context of this debate means the necessity to change one’s own concepts of oneself, thus to a better understanding of other notions of the past, complementary to one’s own vision of the very same past. This concerns the relationships between the Polish gentry and Ukrainian peasants and the Jews. The fact that the tsar’s officials behaved in a similar way during the partition of Poland neither diminishes the guilt of the Poles nor excuses them.

In the opinion of Beauvois: “The relationships between a Pole and a Ukrainian most often resembled the relationships between a master and a slave. During the period in question, J. I. Kraszewski, the writer, was one of the few – if not the only one – to be able to condemn the way in which his compatriots treated the peasants and to show that the abuses which led to the outbreak of the Cossack wars in the 17th century and the slaughters in the mid-18th century, deepened even more in the 19th century.” Therefore, the correct understanding of the contemporary tensions between Poland and its Eastern neighbours might require application of the categories used in the context of analyses of the colonial and post-colonial heritage. The delay in civilisation observed on the Eastern edges of Europe had its sources in the behaviour of the representatives of the dominating culture, which was particularly true in relation to the Jews: “Deep despise for the Jews held by Polish or Russian landowners and the tsar’s administration officials resulted in the fact that larger and smaller towns were allowed to die away.” To put it briefly, the best way to cure ill memory would be to give up the myths and carry out honest historical works without closing one’s eyes to the dark pages of common history. In my opinion this is not only a just postulate, but also a necessary one, once we want the dialogue in the context of conflicting visions of the past to make sense. Let me once again quote the words of the French historian: “I regard disenchanting of some pseudo-history as the most urgent need of the historians of Central and Eastern Europe. Why should we disguise a defective memory as metaphysics? The struggle against nationalistic megalomanias require strict level-headedness and modest reason. No elations.” Beauvois’s findings were confirmed and solidified by the studies of Chris Hann, who devoted a lot of attention to the ethnic cleansings in 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe (including Poland). In his opinion, “Splitting the population in order to create homogenous nation states lead to traumas, transmitted from one generation to another.” Perhaps only the 21st century and a united Europe will make it possible to “return to more pluralist concepts of identity and citizenships”.

Paul Ricoeur uses the terms taken from the language of theology, and thus speaks of forgiveness and guilt. Their acceptance and full approval is, in his opinion, the condition of “fortunate forgetting”. I do not believe that this is a good way out of the traps made by the manipulated memory and does not make a common reflection of memory easier. The French philosopher writes in the previously-mentioned book, Memory, History, Forgetting: “Forgiveness in some sense makes a pair with forgetting: isn’t it a kind of fortunate forgetting? Deeper even, isn’t it a figure of a reconciled memory. […] The problem of memory basically is related to the faithfulness to the past; yet guilt manifests itself as an additional component to the recognition of the image of the past.” It seems to me that the true dialogue excludes a planned forgetting; it rather suggests the change of one’s own attitude under the influence of the facts that one learned of, which was discussed by Walter Ong. Paweł Śpiewak also points to this, saying that the most recent memory of the Poles is shaped by two issues: the attitude to the annihilation of the Jews and to Communism. This is about the Poles’ complicity in the extermination of the Polish Jews and their co-responsibility for the introduction and sustaining of the totalitarian system. All attempts at avoiding responsibility both falsify the image of the past and create an idealised, and thus unsusceptible to any change, image of the Poles.

In my opinion, the same issue concerns the concept of a homogenous character of Polish religiousness. A “Pole-Catholic” is a myth that not only does not correspond to the actual state of affairs, but also makes it impossible to completely comprehend the aspirations of Polish society to become a rightful participant of the pluralist and unified Europe. As Patrick Michel reminds, the function of religion in a pluralist society has undergone a dramatic change: “The ethical discourse, created on the basis of ethical categories, only yesterday used to be a liberating discourse with great potential or real efficiency. Today, together with the ‘pluralisation’ of society it has become a discourse of exclusion based on the distorted categories of religion and identity and so-called moral standard.” In other words, the very concept of religion also required redefinition and returning its source function. This was already observed in the 1970s by Michel de Certeau, who wrote about the decomposition of religious signs and symbols: “The Church constellation disperses, as its elements fall out of their orbit. It is no longer consistent as there is no longer a consistent connection between an act of faith and objective signs. Each sign takes its own way, discovers itself and is subject to various methods of application. This is as if all the words of a sentence were dispersed over a page and created new combinations of meaning.” The fact that this renowned cultural anthropologist and Jesuit is one of the masters of the current Pope Francis may point to the possibility of a new attitude of Catholicism to its own memory.

Paraphrasing the words of André Malreaux, we may say that without a dialogue encompassing the conflicted memory, the 21st century is at risk of falling into non-existence, whilst taking up this dialogue may help in shaping a more humane world.

Translated from the Polish by Katarzyna Spiechlanin



Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London 1991.

Jan Assmann, Cultural memory and early civilization : writing, remembrance, and political imagination, Cambridge, New York 2011.

Daniel Beauvois, Trójkąt ukraiński, Lublin 2011.

Maria Bobrownicka, Narkotyk mitu. Szkice o świadomości narodowej i kulturowej Słowian zachodnich i południowych, Krakow 1995.

Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge 1990.

Michel de Certeau, The Practise of Everyday Life, Berkeley 1984.

Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory, New York 1992.

Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, Chicago 1992.

Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory, New Brunswick, New Jersey 2000.

Chris Hann, Czy czystki etniczne są skuteczne? Przypadek XX-wiecznej Polski, in: Polska po 20 latach wolności, ed. Marta Bucholc et al, Warsaw 2011, pp. 356–377.

Bogumił Koss-Jewsiewicki, Doświadczenie, pamięć, wyobrażenia społeczne, translated by Maciej Bugajewski, in: Inscenizacje pamięci, ed. Izabela Skórzyńska, Christie Lavrence, Carl Papin, Poznań 2007, pp. 7–15.

Patrick Michel, Politics and religion in Eastern Europe, Oxford 1991.


[1] The dualistic state of Poland and Lithuania in the 16th and 17th centuries (translator’s note).

About authors

Stanisław Obirek

Cultural anthropologist, theologian, historian, journalist. He works at the Institute of the Americas and Europe of the University of Warsaw. He lectured at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, at the University of Łódź and at the Ignatianum School of Philosophy and Education. Former Jesuit - ordained in 1983, in 2005, after a series of critical assessments of Polish Catholicism and imposed orders of silence, he left the clergy. He published, inter alia, the works Wizja Kościoła i państwa w kazaniach ks. Piotra Skargi, Umysł wyzwolony. W poszukiwaniu dojrzałego katolicyzmu, Uskrzydlony umysł. Antropologia słowa Waltera Onga, Polak katolik? and a conversation with Zygmunt Bauman O Bogu i człowieku.


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