No. 16




History as cultural memory: continuity and repetition in the Estonian historical memory

19 December 2007


RiTo No. 16, 2007

  • Marek Tamm

    Lecturer of Cultural Theory, the Estonian Institute of Humanities at Tallinn University

As is well known, the concept of memory entered into contemporary discussions by way of its opposition to history.

However, following Peter Burke, and relying on concepts introduced by Jan Assmann, the article argues that the traditional understanding of the relation between memory and written history, in which memory reflects what actually happened and history reflects memory, is far too simple. Therefore, it is more fruitful to consider history as a form of cultural memory. Cultural memory, as defined by Jan Assmann, consists of ´objectified culture´, that is, of the texts, rites, images, buildings, and monuments that are designed to recall decisive events in the history of the given collective. Cultural memory-studies focus on the multiple ways in which images of the past are communicated to and shared among the members of a community, highlighting the importance of remembering certain parts of the past and forgetting, or ignoring others.

In the article a few features that characterize the cultural memory in Estonia are discussed in more detail. The author´s intention is to analyze `what Estonians remember of their past`. For this purpose, he uses the concept of ´mnemohistory´, introduced by Jan Assmann. Differently from history proper (but not opposed to it), mnemohistory relinquishes a positivistic investigation of the past in favour of an analysis of how the past is remembered.

The article´s main argument is that narrative plays a crucial role in the construction of a consistent national past. As stated by James Wertsch (2002), narrative form is an important cultural tool for grouping together a set of events into a coherent whole. Thus, a nation can be viewed not just as a “commemorative community”, but also as a “narrative community”. The narrative defines a boundary between members who share the common past and those who do not. National identity is, to a large extent, based on “stories we live by”. More precisely, they are based on schematic narrative templates which give coherence to nation´s past. These narrative templates are not universal archetypes, but belong instead to particular narrative traditions and are to be found only in the cultural memory.

In the Estonian case, there is a clear tendency to reduce all the major political events to a narrative template – what could be called ´the great struggle for freedom´. This narrative template combines all prominent conflicts with Germans that we have in our cultural memory into one coherent plot, starting with the Christianization of the thirteenth century (which in national historical writing is called the Ancient Struggle for Freedom) until the so-called War of Independence of 1918-1920, which was fought against the Bolshevik Red Army, but out of which the cultural memory has given prominence to a battle against Baltic German forces (Landeswehr), near Võnnu (Latvian name Csis) in the summer of 1919. In this narrative template, all previous uprisings against the Germans had ended in defeat, but were only temporary in nature, while Võnnu became the final victory of the Great Struggle for Freedom. As the national master narrative is conveyed and sustained by ritual performances, also some major commemorative rituals, first of all the national Victory Day, established in 1934, connected to ‘the great struggle for freedom´ narrative are discussed.

Full article in Estonian