Pierre Nora, National Memory, and Democracy: A Review

The study of national memory emerged at a time when the coherence of what was generally known as national history was severely contested and disturbed. The opportunity to review an English-language edition of Pierre Nora’s massive study of French national memory for an American history journal is a reminder not only that this disruption marked the histories of many nations but also that the fracturing of national histories involved a beginning—a political transformation—that has yet to be fully examined or conceptualized. Scholars such as Michael Kammen in the United States and Raphael Samuel in Britain have brilliantly established the outlines of this alteration in nations other than France. It is less certain, however, when and how this change began and what the political consequences were for the nations involved.

The rise of modern nations was rooted in a crisis of authority. In the late eighteenth century democratic revolutionaries with visions of popular participation in government and greater personal freedom came forward to overturn autocratic regimes. Imbued with the faith of the Enlightenment in human reason and potential, these new states in places such as France and America took up the highly romantic project to make the future better than the past. This democratic upheaval did not eradicate conservative ideals less trusting of popular rule and personal independence. Indeed, a struggle between democratic and conservative dreams marked the political history of most nations touched by the democratic upheaval long after the founding of democratic regimes. There is little need to recount the familiar points of this political history. But there is a need to explore the connections linking the vast projects to promote democracy, those designed to construct representations of national pasts, and the controversies they initiated.

Although it exaggerates the coherence of former times, Nora’s multivolume history of French national memory sharply raises the connection between the rise of democracy and the problem of making a national past. It centers its attention on three distinct topics: the key ideological streams that needed to be merged in French national memory after the Revolution of 1789; important sites such as medieval cathedrals or battlefields that were inscribed with the ideas and sentiments of French nationalism; and powerful symbols such as Joan of Arc that mediated diverse political interests and sustained a sense of a national past over a long period. Collectively, the volumes by Nora and his collaborators chronicle how ideas, places, images, stories, and rituals were fused together into a cultural edifice that was widely assumed by most citizens to be part of the natural order of things.

As he conceived of his project during the last two decades of the twentieth century, Nora perceived an overall decline in the importance of the French nation and in the capacity of its national culture to sustain what he called “realms of memory,” the array of rituals, sites, ideas, and traditions that had long been part of the nation’s collective past. “A nation that was long agriculturalist, universalist, imperialist, and state-centered has passed away,” he wrote, “and in its place has emerged a nation conscious of its diminished power.” He deplored controversies that surrounded recent commemorative events in France as a “politicization of commemoration” and the end of “order and hierarchy” in the representation of national heritage. “Gone is the time when major events were celebrated simultaneously throughout the country at identical sites with identical rituals and processions,” he lamented, “without regard to specific individual and group identities.”[1]

Indeed, a close reading of Nora’s work leaves a strong impression that his goals went beyond describing the rise and fall of a cultural superstructure that served the interests of a strong nation. He gives evidence of regret over what has been lost and a hint that his task is in part one of recovery. In his opinion, the very idea of the nation and the realms of memory that served it have been turned “upside down” by broad forces of change such as globalization, democratization, mass culture, and the proliferation of private interests. What is missing in the present that, in his view, was abundant in the realms of memory of the past is a sense of mediation between the central ideological formulations that resided at the heart of national culture. That is why he referred to the realms or sites he studied as “hybrid places,” locations where contrasting interests and ideas found some common ground. Because they privileged the power of culture and because they could link private and collective, democratic and conservative conceptions of the past and present, his realms of memory represent the possibility of significant cohesion and order in the national project. Nora criticizes history as it has come to be practiced and written in our times as overly concerned with the analysis of social structures and, therefore, insufficiently sympathetic to the countless subjective and local views that existed in French society. Nora’s realms of memory thrived in the past partly because they were able to connect individuals to the nation. In a sense his entire project attempts to reverse the direction of history—whose “true mission,” he believes, is to “demolish” memory—by reminding his readers that there were once realms of memory that combined a sense of solidarity and organization with a toleration for “multiple voices.”[2]

Realms of Memory begins with the French Revolution and the end of the ancien régime. He argues that unlike the United States, the modern French nation could not begin as an entirely new experiment. Rather, the task of creating a nation of citizens with equal rights replaced an older national structure that had rested on the twin pillars of the Catholic Church and the monarchy or, we might say, on the rule of faith and devotion rather than the rule of reason. Consequently, an endless battle ensued in French national culture between highly conservative and democratic visions of what the French nation should be. Thus, one could celebrate Bastille Day at Versailles and imagine either regal splendor or democratic futures. “The French of the nineteenth century were a people who could not cherish as one what 1789 had put asunder,” one contributor concluded, “those who loved the Revolution detested the Ancien Regime and those who loved the Ancien Regime detested the Revolution.”[3] Importantly, however, a national memory was constructed in nineteenth-century France as it was in the United States, and it was broad enough to incorporate such democratic ideas as the “rights of man” and antidemocratic visions emanating from the church and the monarchy.

This process of mediation is clarified nicely by an extended discussion of Catholic cathedrals as realms of memory. In the two centuries before 1789 these massive structures represented the union of “throne and altar.” After the Revolution they tended to fall into disrepair as the flag replaced the cross as a national symbol. Between 1870 and 1918, however, these buildings acquired new importance as national treasures or “expressions of the cultural and artistic genius of the French people.” In the twentieth century national and local governments mounted efforts to restore and recognize them as crucial parts of France’s “national patrimony.” In a similar fashion, the symbol of Joan of Arc, after being ignored for centuries, appeared everywhere in France in the late nineteenth century because it could coerce diverse interests such as the church and the peasantry into a united front on behalf of the nation.[4]

The essays in Nora’s collection do detect some difficulties facing the project to create and sustain a national memory early in the twentieth century, even before globalization and mass culture. The problems had less to do with the democratization of remembrance or longings for the old regime and more to do with war and trauma. The experience of war disrupted the entire undertaking of the nation and its implicit aim of managing the public expression of private and personal desire. At issue was what the nation was about, its ideological core. Nora reminds readers that at its inception the nation—both the French and the American—had nourished the idea that it would bring material and political progress to all citizens. Although Nora does not problematize the impact of war on national memory as fully as he might, he suggests that a “disintegration” of the national myth took place at the end of both World War I and World War II, and it is easy to conclude that part of the problem was the irrationality of war itself.[5]

One way war upset the balance between the pivotal forces of democracy, monarchy, and church in France is suggested in the essay “Monuments to the Dead,” by Antoine Prost. Whether citizens espoused the conservative or the democratic ideal of the nation, they had remained optimistic about the future. The connection between the nation and mass death disturbed such optimism. Nations were about citizenship and order, but not about human devastation, no matter how justified a conflict was. Prost shows that in France, after the Franco-Prussian War, thousands of monuments were built by numerous national committees that raised their own funds. Most of the monuments that were erected conveyed, not democratic or conservative national visions, but meanspirited desires for revenge against the Germans. Following World War I local citizens took an even more pronounced role in building monuments to ordinary infantrymen and their deeds of service and sacrifice. Armistice Day, according to Prost, became more important than Bastille Day. And that was the point. Democratic dimensions of French civic life began to give way to a “cult of the war dead” and to expressions of nationalistic aggression. Patriotic sacrifice may have been noble, but it tended to direct cultural attention toward the state and away from the rights of citizens or, for that matter, the interests of the church and the old idea of a monarchy. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Verdun, the site of a horrific battle between the French and Germans in 1916, became the “central element” in national commemoration in the interwar period as veterans worked assiduously to make their fellow citizens realize the extent of their pain and suffering. But to recognize the plight of the veterans was not the same as acknowledging the rights of all men or women or even the power of a monarch. And to gaze upon the rows of graves at Verdun did little to raise optimism that a nation devoted to reason could survive. As Prost writes, the ultimate intent of the commemoration at Verdun was “funerary.” It moved away from associating the nation with progress and came to symbolize, I suspect, a rupture in the reconciling of faith and reason that had been vital to the construction of national culture in the first place.[6]

Memorials to dead soldiers, such as the one at Verdun pictured here, undermined the cultural memory of the nation as a project that would create a better future for all. Photograph by Michael Green.

It was the idea of the nation, standing above the sentiments of elites, religious leaders, citizens, and even veterans, that organized the public expression of the past in France. After World War II, however, a process that had begun after earlier wars and that hindered the task of forming national memory was reinvigorated. That is to say, trust in the promises of the nation—the dreams of progress, reason, fairness, and order—was seriously undermined. The war against fascism was a disaster for the French. Paris was invaded; citizens turned against other citizens. The regime of Vichy became a dark spot in French national memory not only because calling it to mind stirred recollections of national defeat but also because it had denied basic human rights to those of the nation’s citizens who were Jewish. We could say that Vichy stood for the end of democracy. Other historians who have looked at the public representation of the past in postwar France, such as Henry Rousso, have also noted the problems caused by remembering Vichy and the strong imperative in the first years after the war to forget it by glorifying the patriotic resistance led by Charles de Gaulle. Rousso pointed out that the silence over Vichy—and by implication the heroic view of war—proved impossible to maintain once Jewish memory began to express itself in the 1960s. At that point “traditional forms of commemoration” became inappropriate for recalling the Jewish deportations.[7]

Nora’s history of French national memory invites comparison and contrast with Michael Kammen’s extensive study of the subject in the United States over much the same period. In Mystic Chords of Memory, Kammen took up many of the same issues as Nora and concluded that national memory in the United States, as in France, went through a series of stages. In both nations, moreover, political and cultural tensions had to be reconciled under the signs and symbols of the nation. In Kammen’s first stage, from the American Revolution to about 1870, attempts to remember the birth of the nation were pervasive and rested on the “firm ground of national consensus” in all regions. Kammen argued that, unlike the French Revolution, the American rebellion against monarchy was not controversial. Nevertheless, his work suggested, there was debate over commemorating the past and, consequently, over what the Revolution meant. In this early period tension erupted along a line that divided “tradition,” a sense that culture and commemoration should uphold ideals of order and hierarchy, from democracy. Thus, by the 1820s the Fourth of July was “central to civil religion in America.” Traditionalists used the day to celebrate the heroic deeds of leaders of the Revolution as a way of reminding the masses of the continuing importance of elites. Ordinary citizens responded by drinking heavily and ignoring calls for order and deference.[8]

The Civil War and the period of industrialization that followed both expanded the content of national memory and made it more controversial. In Kammen’s second stage, from 1870 to 1915, “diverse traditions” meeting various imperatives appeared. The focus of attention was not, and could not be, on the Revolution alone. New narratives of the past, dealing with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the legacy of massive numbers of war dead, began to claim more of the public space devoted to national commemoration. Thus, Memorial Day began in the South in 1866 and eventually spread throughout the nation. Near the end of this period, driven by a need to reconcile the North and the South, national memory became more heavily patriotic (and less democratic) as the deeds of soldiers and veterans from both regions were honored in ways that made one forget that some of them had mounted a rebellion against the ideals of national unity and democracy. Reunions of veterans from both the North and the South celebrated memories of male valor on battlefields and overlooked the significance of the Civil War as a struggle over equal rights for African Americans. The patriotic and nationalistic tone of the period was also manifested by an increase of instruction in national history in public schools in all regions, which promoted not only sectional reconciliation but also the assimilation of millions of immigrant arrivals to expanding industrial cities.[9]

Mystic Chords of Memory divided the twentieth century into two phases. From 1915 to 1945, traditionalists who valued political and social order tended to venerate a nostalgic past before industrialization and the Great War that was dominated by powerful men such as George Washington. Their opponents were not so much new immigrants or people in the lower social ranks as intellectuals and artists attracted to the modernist project of exploring the fate and subjective desires of individuals. Modernists were more likely to preserve or commemorate images of common people or regional culture free of the highly centralized ideals of corporatism and patriotism. Thus, Kammen noted the work of Thomas Hart Benton, who in the 1920s undertook to paint murals of ordinary folks and their life-styles as a way of democratizing the larger imaginary of the nation itself.[10]

Kammen’s final stage began in 1945. In the era since World War II, the contest between tradition and democracy dissipated, without necessarily being resolved in favor of one or the other. In its place he found a discourse over the national past whose features were so broad as to defy easy categorization. In the contemporary age, the politics of commemoration are not sharply defined. Memory has been replaced by “heritage,” a term that signifies a past that is highly abstract, malleable, and susceptible to serving all kinds of national, group, and individual interests. Putting Kammen’s account of the post-1945 period alongside Nora’s, it seems that public discussion over the past has been detached considerably from the political contest between elites and democrats that had marked the revolutions of both nations and the politics of national memory for a very long time.

Other scholars have discovered this newfound “cult of heritage” and detected the expanding range of commemoration in our time. David Lowenthal argued that heritage is much less about “grand monuments, unique treasures, and great heroes” and now “touts the typical and the vernacular.” Raphael Samuel, who looked at this issue in England, concluded that heritage has become a “nomadic” concept that is attached to almost anything including landscapes, country houses, family albums, and the museums of local football clubs. Citizens are less likely to get representations of the past that evoke the need for a democratic society tempered by traditions and are more likely to encounter either nostalgic renderings of the past, such as Main Street at Disneyland, that delete knowledge of social turmoil and personal anguish or urban restorations that bring pleasure to the upper middle class and developers. Tourism as well contributed to this watered-down version of national politics by inventing historic sites that appealed to all kinds of people and classes. The objective, I suspect, was not to reaffirm either tradition or democracy but to imagine a mythical nation drained of politics and inequality where people were free to pursue a myriad of personal pleasures and leisure-time fantasies. Heritage did not exclude democratic or traditional aspirations, but it muted the attention they had once received. Consequently, the past became, in Samuel’s word, “dissevered” from the idea of national or collective destiny. I would argue that it is now scattered into a thousand preservation projects and commemorative sites that are frequently seen as part of a world that has disappeared never to return, rather than as part of a long-term quest for reason and justice.[11]

These overviews of the history of national memory are important not simply because they offer insights, but because they raise questions of staggering importance that need careful analysis. Taken together they mute inclinations to overstate the exceptionalism of any democratic nation and insinuate that for nearly two centuries after their founding revolutions, the politics of national memory in such nations revolved around a fundamental issue: Democracy. How much was there to be and to what extent was it to be venerated? Forces of tradition, as described by Nora and Kammen, tended to celebrate a past without much popular politics; those more accepting of popular politics looked toward a future with less tradition. Overall, the discourse over national memory fixed on this issue. To suggest that in public discourse concerning the past, the tension between democracy and tradition may have dissolved is to raise the possibility that debate over how much democracy there should be is no longer central to national politics as well. This point is surely suggested by Anthony Giddens. In his study of contemporary politics, Beyond Left and Right, Giddens takes up the question of the “altered context of political life” in our times. For him (and for me) older forms of liberal democracy, socialism, and conservatism have “disintegrated” in the face of a tidal wave of globalization and the increased speed of transportation and, especially, communication. The consequence of this process, according to Giddens, has been a profound decline in the ability of powerful organizations to establish a dominant political viewpoint. The implications for the nation-state as well as for the individual have been monumental. “Totalizing” political ideologies such as nationalism, conservatism, and socialism have floundered as people have demanded “more autonomy in their lives than ever before.”[12]

Although Giddens does not explore the particular problems of national culture or a national past, he understands that both democracy and conservatism remained strong long after the Enlightenment. Thus, he argues that even after the democratic revolutions, “grand traditions” such as nationalism, patriotism, and patriarchy were invented as well as new forms of representative government. Even as democracy spread, what Giddens called the “Old Conservatism” stood strong with its affirmation of hierarchy and the “primacy of the collectivity, or state, over the individual, and the overreaching importance of the sacred.” To extrapolate from the work of Nora, Kammen, and Giddens, we can say that under the nation-state there was a sense of the transcendent in cultural politics that helped conservatism and democracy get along and that fostered a belief system that seemed both eternal and loftier than either conservative visions of authority or leftist dreams of mass democracy. In a sense the impulses to democratize and to reassert tradition needed each other. Democracy pushed outward for greater personal freedom; tradition worked to constrain the individual and to maintain the collective. More important, this system had specific implications for the formation of national memory. The American and French revolutions were both about “breaking away from the hold of the past.” For Giddens this process was never defined primarily by the Right or the Left but by what he calls “progressivism”: The past was to be mobilized and molded for the future benefit of all—not simply for elites or workers or Aryans or veterans or urban preservationists. Under a progressive culture of mediation, in Giddens’s words, “History was there to be seized hold of, to be moulded to human purposes, such that the advantages which in previous eras seemed given by God, and the prerogative of the few, could be developed and organized for the benefit of all.”[13]

Although globalization disrupted this effort at mediating tradition and democracy, as Giddens, Nora, and Kammen have all suggested, national commemorations gave evidence of breaking away from Giddens’s idealistic goal of using the past for the “benefit of all” long before our contemporary age. Recent scholarship has benefited immensely from the insights of Nora and Kammen. It has, however, also moved further in explaining the repercussions of warfare on the project of national memory. It suggests that the effort to join the traditional with the modern, the collective with the individual, under the sign of reason and progress was badly shaken. I think that this happened in at least two fundamental ways. First, large-scale warfare generated a new social group—veterans—that made claims on the state, not in the language of equality or democratic rights, but in what I would call a language of compensation. Veterans and their supporters were more likely to call for recognition of their special anguish than to endorse a universal politics. Patrick Joyce has argued that for a democracy to be imagined it was necessary for individuals to think of themselves as “subjects” of the democratic polity and the nation.[14] Veterans, in their quest for benefits and special monuments, thought of themselves as part of a nation but as somewhat apart from the rest of the body politic. Thus, they demanded redress rather than equal rights. Second, and this follows from the previous point, warfare tended to transform the conception of the state from an entity that protected the rights of all citizens to one that had distinctive obligations to some citizens whom it had hurt or punished. As the case of Germany after World War II demonstrated, there can be valid reasons for a state to come to terms with its wrongdoing and to offer atonement, but this activity represented a departure from the nineteenth-century ideal of a state that would work for the benefit of a democratic polity. The nation became associated with production of victims, rather than the making of citizens. The cultural deployment of group and personal identities therefore made more political sense in the twentieth century than it had in the nineteenth.

The findings of Jay Winter and Daniel Sherman on war and remembrance after World War I support the notion that war shrank the place of democracy in visions of the nation and its future. After studying postwar commemorations in several countries, Winter suggested that the commemoration of the war dead, especially in monuments, tended to assert the healing language of tradition, the sentimentality of honor, duty, and patriotism, more than the language of modernism because it offered better explanations of why people had to suffer and die. And such language helped heal ruptures caused by war itself. If veterans said they had faced death for the democratic polity or “the people,” they might have blunted their distinctive claim. It may have been better to invoke their service to the entity that would reward and honor them—the nation-state itself. Impressed with what he saw as a proliferation of monuments, Winter discovered that the collective remembrance of war led to an increase of groups—”second- or third-order elites within civil society”—who took up commemorative work formerly orchestrated by powerful people, organizations, or the state itself. After 1918 such groups, operating at a level between the interests of the nation and those of the private individual, sought to organize private, family, and collective memories rather than leave the task to people they did not know. In effect, Winter found more participants in the commemorative process. Ironically, the images they venerated were not so much about democratic futures for all as about what families and victims had lost. Sherman’s work on France after 1918 also noted a paradox in the commemorative process: Popular participation in public memory activity increased, but not the expression of democratic ideals. He saw a growing interest in recognizing individual suffering and listing the names of the dead. But this impulse, often most powerful at the local level, was usually incorporated into projects that placed the remains and memory of fallen soldiers into larger cultural and physical sites that honored the nation and its traditions. Thus, in the great national cemeteries that were built in the 1920s, bodies were mobilized at sites that evoked a sense of national unity and that were inscribed with traditional Christian symbols such as crosses. Patriotism and Christianity stood above ideals of reason and freedom.[15]

Powerful expressions of patriotism were not found in Germany after 1945. In the nineteenth century, German national memory, like that of other nations, had blended democratic and traditional impulses, often incorporating local symbols into the national imagination. At least two problems affected the survival of that national memory after 1945. German responsibility for mass destruction and mass murder presented an obvious obstacle to idealizations of national unity and progress. Furthermore, the assumption that the past (in either traditional or democratic form) could easily be retrieved for useful purposes in the present was undermined by a tremendous desire to forget. This desire was sometimes manifested in a growing nostalgia for the period prior to the twentieth century or in what Nancy Wood has called “displacement activities,” such as the fostering of postwar economic reconstruction to the exclusion of political discussions. By the 1980s, however, it became increasingly difficult to discount the Nazi past or its implications for national culture. In 1985 Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery at Bitburg that contained graves of the Waffen SS caused widespread controversy. Critics of German cultural amnesia, such as Jürgen Habermas, attacked government officials for manipulating patriotic images of fallen soldiers to seek international respect for the German nation during Reagan’s visit and for allowing the event to suggest that Germans were allies with Americans in the fight against Communism without recalling sufficiently the misdeeds of the Holocaust. Habermas insisted that it was time for Germans to reflect in a meaningful way on the war period and to resist the temptation to turn the German dead into heroes. By remembering the violence and the victims, Habermas hoped to force Germans to take collective responsibility for what they did and to acknowledge the need for a larger discussion on what citizens in a nation owed other citizens.[16]

On the surface it might seem that the United States could have avoided the disruption in national memory that other nations encountered after World War II. Certainly the desire to forget the war and, therefore, to avoid discussion of the need to retain hope in both tradition and democracy was not as strong as in Germany, France, or Japan. The Americans had won, and good reasons existed to celebrate “the people” who had made so many sacrifices and the power of democratic institutions and traditional American values. And this was done. Yet, even a quick review of American cultural representations of the war in its immediate aftermath—long before the Vietnam War disputed optimistic and heroic visions of the United States—suggests that the encounter with trauma and death had disturbed the type of national memory that Nora, Kammen, and others had found in many Western nations before the 1940s. That is to say, the blending of traditional and democratic sentiments appeared more difficult to achieve. Monuments such as the Iwo Jima memorial, dedicated in 1954, gravitated toward the heroic but forgot the suffering of the dead or, for that matter, the rights and contributions of those who worked on the home front. By the time the USS Arizona memorial was dedicated at Pearl Harbor in 1962, a countermemory of the war embracing at least the dead sailors was claiming memorial space, in part because their remains rested below the memorial itself. It is no wonder their names were inscribed inside the shrine above. In both of these prominent memorials, however, reaffirmations of democracy were hard to locate amid images of traditional masculine power and patriotic sacrifice.

The Iwo Jima memorial to the American victory in World War II tended to reinforce the connection between the nation and such traditional ideas as patriotism and patriarchy more than to evoke associations between the nation and democracy. Photograph by Mary Bender.

In mass culture the ideals of reason and fair treatment for all appeared to be in open conflict with traditional images such as patriotism and national unity. Omer Bartov has argued that the encounter with trauma in modern warfare has invariably led societies to ask why so many had to suffer and die. Such searches were evident in postwar American culture, and they undermined any hope that American national memory could continue to coerce both traditional and democratic images into a seamless story. Briefly, think of Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead (1948). In this remembrance of the war and quest for explanations for the explosion of brutality, American men are inherently violent because they have grown up in a competitive society that nurtured dangerous emotions. This was a direct attack on the wartime ideology that idealized the ordinary men who fought the nation’s enemies. Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954) castigated the war experience for destroying the independence and life of a proud woman; this narrative—and Mailer’s—raised the possibility that the war undermined progress toward democracy and that it served the needs of some men more than the just expectations of women. Customary gender roles, powerful men, and veterans received unflattering portrayals in Grace Metalious’s novel Peyton Place (1954). The film All My Sons (1948) depicted American citizens as greedy in their efforts to profit from war production. The film Home of the Brave (1949) represented the violence of war as a force that could destroy the emotional stability of soldiers, linked to similar destructive (read racial) forces in American society itself. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which is frequently referred to as a patriotic film, was filled with criticism of patriotic heroes. These cultural stories and many others prompted by the experience of war raised doubts about the future of democracy as long as traditional forms ofpower were maintained.[17]

In a sense the rupture between efforts to accord customary veneration to patriotic devotion and efforts to sustain hope in reason and democracy was at the heart of the 1995 controversy over the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. In that episode museum curators argued with veterans’ organizations over how much to represent the trauma of war and how much to ignore an American penchant for violence, a penchant that stands as an obstacle to imagining a future of reason and fairness in our times. Recent commemorative activity at the dedication of the U.S. National D-Day Museum in New Orleans and in plans for a World War II memorial on the National Mall give further evidence that impulses to celebrate heroism and sacrifice at the expense of reasoned discussion are gaining the upper hand. Many scholars have emphasized that the Vietnam War raised awareness of the innate ability of American men to be violent (rather than democratic) and of the contested nature of American cultural memory. But too many times Vietnam has served as the catalyst that disrupted the American master narrative that blended conservative, democratic, masculine, and racial ideals. In reality, the decomposition of American national memory was well under way in the decade after 1945, the process begun by the generation that had witnessed the “good war” and its challenges to the optimism and the faith sustaining the compromise between the forces of tradition and those of democracy.[18]


John Bodnar is Chancellors’ Professor and chair of the history department at Indiana University.

Readers may contact Bodnar at [email protected].

1 Pierre Nora, dir., Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. I: Conflicts and Divisions, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York, 1996), xxiii; Pierre Nora, dir., Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, vol. III: Symbols, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York, 1998), 614–15.

2 Ibid., I, xviii, 1–11. See also the incisive analysis of Nora’s work in Nancy Wood, Vectors of Memory: Legacies of Trauma in Postwar Europe (Oxford, Eng., 1999), 4.

3 François Furet, “The Ancien Regime and the Revolution,” in Realms of Memory, dir. Nora, trans. Goldhammer, ed. Kritzman, I, 91.

4 Ibid., I, 83; Pierre Nora, dir., Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, vol. II: Traditions, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York, 1997), 49–67, esp. 64–67; ibid., III, 433–73.

5 Ibid., III, 633.

6 See Antoine Prost, “Monuments to the Dead,” ibid., III, 379–89.

7 Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 1–22.

8 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991), 66.

9 Ibid., 102–31. See also Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton, 1999), 129–38.

10 Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, 299–341.

11 Ibid., 434, 548–49; David Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (New York, 1996), 6–16, 63. In the cult of heritage, the consciousness of being a subject-in-history has given way to an “appetite” to possess a past that serves ends that are narrower and more personal than those earlier served by collective national myths; see Wood, Vectors of Memory, 31–32. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (2 vols., London, 1994–1998), I, 205–21. On the definition of mythical, see Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York, 1972), 143.

12 Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (Stanford, 1994), 4–7, esp. 7.

13 Ibid., 1–5, 25, esp. 1; Samuel, Theatres of Memory, I, 235–46.

14 Patrick Joyce, Democratic Subjects: The Self and the Sacred in Nineteenth Century England (New York, 1994), 5.

15 Jay Winter, “Forms of Kinship and Remembrance in the Aftermath of the Great War,” in War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century, ed. Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan (Cambridge, Eng., 1999), 40–60. On the difficulties of convincing citizens that they should serve the liberal state rather than the state serving them, see Robert B. Westbrook, “Fighting for the American Family: Private Interests and Political Obligations in World War II,” in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (Chicago, 1993), 196–221. Daniel Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (Chicago, 1999), 66–93.

16 See Jürgen Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 229–48. Wood, Vectors of Memory, 44–63. On the history of German national memory, see Alon Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Wurttemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871–1918 (Chapel Hill, 1997).

17 See Omer Bartov, “Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews, and the Holocaust,” American Historical Review, 103 (June 1998), 771–809. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (New York, 1948); Harriet Arnow, The Dollmaker (New York, 1954); Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (New York, 1956); All My Sons, dir. Irving Reis (1948; MCA Home Video, 1987); Home of the Brave, dir. Mark Robson (1949; Warner Reprise Video, 1986); Sands of Iwo Jima, dir. Allan Dwan (1949; Republic Pictures Home Video, 1988).

18 Edward Tabor Linenthal, Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana, 1991), 181–97; Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley, 1997), 16.