Memory and the Invention of Traditions

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Tamara L. Hunt and Scott Hughes Myerly

The study of memory can take several forms. This essay begins with the impressive intellectual history of ideas about memory. The social history of memory focuses more on ways that memory has been used to bolster loyalties, to the state and to a religion, and to identify outsiders. In the late twentieth century social and cultural historians devoted a great deal of attention to the uses of memory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly around conservative and nationalist causes amid rapid change and new forms of protest. Memory in these uses might be selective but also might be invented outright, surrounded with the trappings of age and ceremony while in fact quite new. Invented traditions included governments and political units as well as ideas about the family, which often mixed desires for family stability with myths about family cohesion and ritual in the past. Finally, historical memory and invention were further tested with reactions to the great wars of twentieth-century Europe that called forth a variety of ceremonies of commemoration but also some efforts at deliberate forgetting.


For the ancient Greeks memory was the precondition of human thought. Mnemosyne, the goddess of both wisdom and memory, was mother to the Muses, among them Clio, the muse of history. Despite mythological explanations, the Greeks disagreed about what memory actually was, how it functioned, and its role in understanding human history, a debate that has continued ever since. Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 b.c.) argued that memory reveals eternal truth, while Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) thought that it is the way humans understand reality through consciously arranging sensory impressions into a coherent order. Nevertheless, both agreed it is a vital component of human understanding, as did the Roman writers Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.) and St. Augustine (a.d. 354–430), who believed that memory underlies all thought and education.

In the early modern period (c. 1500–1750) the memory debate focused on questioning human understanding but continued along the division between Plato and Aristotle. René Descartes (1596–1650) asserted that knowledge is independent of sensory information and comes from immortal, pure truths, innate to human reason. Memory, the recollection of past sensory events, could never bring true knowledge. Similarly Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) argued that memories do not actually reflect events, which come to the mind through the senses and can be confused, but rather are innate, inborn ideas. Conversely, John Locke (1632–1704) argued that the human mind at birth is a tabula rasa, a "blank slate," that receives sense impressions. These sensations not only allow people to understand their present reality but form the basis for both memory and personal identity, which he defined as a present consciousness of thought and experience that extend back in time.

By the eighteenth century the debate broadened to include the relationship between memory, history, and tradition. David Hume (1711–1776) argued that the human mind creates causality. When certain events are seen to go together frequently or uniformly, the mind forges links not extant in reality that connect thoughts. This suggests that memory and tradition, as based almost entirely on recollections of past events, are not necessarily rooted in what actually happened but in what people perceived to have happened.

This emphasis on human memory's unreliability brought both memory and tradition into disrepute among some of the philosophes, who believed that the medieval world was guided by superstition rather than reason. They concluded that, as "tradition," its culture, events, and ideas were backward, negative, and inhibited "progress," which they considered positive, innovative, and superior. This bias influenced concepts of memory and history, as many scholars argued in favor of a more rational historical approach purged of superstition and myth. One exception was the great Neopolitan historian Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), who suggested that historical analysis should be based on "the history of human ideas" or a society's commonly held assumptions, whether factual or not, that were vital to understanding its history.

The reaction of the romantic era (c. 1760–1840) against the rational historical approach generated modern concepts of memory, particularly through works that attempted to incorporate folk speech and folkways into historical works, for example, those of the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and the French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874). Many scholars and folklorists celebrated the concept of "nation" as expressed in popular culture and vernacular speech, and they also thought national memories and traditions improved understandings of nineteenth-century problems, including urbanization, industrialization, population migration and displacement, and intensifying political centralization. While many such scholars focused on the creation and use of history, their work also theoretically addressed memory and the invention of tradition.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) distrusted "official" histories and most traditions, customs, and institutions, viewing them as legitimizing a social "superstructure" of mentalities that serve elites by justifying and legitimizing their domination over the masses and promoting the latter's compliance with elite rule, the fundamental aim of which is to maximize elite wealth and power. Any society's beliefs, customs, and traditions are thus actually founded on the particular economic relations that exist in any time or place and are essentially determined by how work is organized and how property is distributed or owned.

Marx took only limited interest in individuals' memories, but scholarship informed by nationalism took a different view. The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897) believed that individual human choice, not impersonal economic or political forces, causes historical change. He viewed tradition as cultural history's central focus and felt that peoples' views of the world are shaped by meaningful historical "fictions" that help them cope with the chaos of modern life. This spiritual cultural history, Bildung (civilization or culture), differs substantially from more static political history, Wissenschaft, which is based strictly on factual evidence.

The French philosopher Ernest Renan (1823–1892) went further and declared that memory and tradition are the basis for the nation that society attempts to pass on unchanged to future generations. Renan believed that the idea of the nation could transcend divisions based on race, religion, or language by forcing people to abdicate their individual goals and adopt a collective moral conscience. Although Renan suggested that national unification through memory and tradition is deliberate, his idea resembles the "collective memory" concept introduced by the art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929). Warburg's concept involves a process far more subtle than the one outlined by Renan. Collective memory is transmitted through cultural artifacts bearing symbols that can be traced back through time, and Warburg proposed that scholars not only study these memory symbols but also the larger mentalité (mentality) of the culture that produces them.

Some scholars, however, wondered whether it is possible to recapture fully the mentalité of past cultures. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) proposed that, since elements of memories appear in dreams, memories are actually fragmented and recollection and perception are given structure only by the emotions. This suggests an enormous difference between individual memories and academic history, a view explored by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) and the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945). Bergson believed that "duration," or lifespan, is the essence of the human condition and that memory allows a true understanding of reality through subjective, intuitive understanding of the past. He differentiated duration based on intuitive memory from spatialized and institutionalized concepts of time (as in academic history) that is created for specific public or scholarly purposes. Similarly Halbwachs argued that individual and collective memory is subjective and multilayered because it was formed through membership in a variety of groups (family, profession, community, church, nation) that remember from different perspectives and whose views of the past are transformed as the groups change. These "social frames" (cadres sociaux) use memory to reconfigure the present, not to reclaim or reconstruct the past. By contrast, Halbwachs argued that academic history presents a more standardized periodization, focusing on subjects not directly experienced by people of an era, and is often linear and teleological (having a distinct purpose).

Thus by the early twentieth century scholars recognized that memory and tradition could play significant roles in how humans understand history, but scepticism about memory's ability to provide an accurate understanding of the past was increasing. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer (b. 1900), who transformed hermeneutics from a study of biblical texts into a philosophical approach to human understanding and knowledge, argued that individuals attempt to understand the unfamiliar by placing it within their own "horizon" of reality. Thus all new phenomena and ideas—including traditions and historical data that differ from present experience—are constantly subject to reinterpretation, a process that keeps tradition alive. According to Gadamer, "The historical life of a tradition depends on constantly new assimilation and interpretation" (Gadamer, 1989, p. 358).

The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner argued that in modern mass society, collective amnesia is as important as collective memory and that "both memory and forgetfulness have deep social roots; neither springs from historical accident." He believed that industrial societies create a "shared, homogeneous, literacy-carried, and school-inculcated culture" (Gellner, 1987, p. 68), meaning that people have to possess knowledge of the dominant culture to succeed, for instance in knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner or understanding the allusions made by co-workers. But in addition to such formal learning, people also have to forget their origins in the "other"—those suspect or unacceptable traditions that deviate from the dominant culture.

To some degree the historian Benedict Anderson's work on "imagined communities" is related to Gellner's thesis. Even though it does not address collective memory or amnesia, Anderson's concept of the nation as an imagined community reflects on both. According to Anderson, although a nation's citizens will never meet or know the vast majority of their fellow citizens, they nonetheless feel bonded with them. This makes community possible, by encouraging people to overlook such inequalities, divisions, and oppressions as actually beset a nation in their desire to embrace the ideal of a "deep, horizontal comradeship" (Anderson, 1991, p. 7).

The influential Pierre Nora argued that history and memory are "in fundamental opposition" and introduced the concept of lieux de mémoires or "sites of memory." He claimed these sites are "resting places" of memory that can be geographical locations, events, or ideas and that such memories are necessarily selective, rather than complete records of what occurred (Nora, 1989, p. 8). Modern society's relationship with the past is inherently different from that of earlier societies. While past societies lived in memory and saw no significant difference between the present and past, modern societies are self-consciously separated from that past, which is perceived to no longer exist. Nora also differentiated between official memory promoted by the state or establishment historians and popular memory, which is virtually an organic part of the present that is constantly changing through the process of remembering and forgetting.

Other scholars, such as Natalie Zemon Davis, Randoph Starn, and Raphael Samuel, agreed that history and memory differ but suggested that they exist in a beneficial relationship to each other, not in opposition. Davis and Starn concluded that history and memory are actually interdependent and that tensions and conflicts between them constitute a productive force for generating useful knowledge as scholars attempt to "adjust the fit" between them. Similarly Samuel argued that social memories reflected in contemporary media show that collective memory is dynamic, specifically remembering and forgetting elements of the past, and is also historically conditioned, changing with immediate needs. Therefore those collective memories that claim to hand down "traditions" from past generations have been shaped by the crises and evolving perspectives of intervening generations. Nevertheless, Samuel viewed memory and history in a dialectical (interactive) relationship—both are eternally revisionist, each borrowing from the other to fill in gaps or to forge new meanings.


These twentieth-century theories on the relationship between history and memory are somewhat abstract, but the concepts of tradition and the invention of tradition are rooted in historical analysis. Eric Hobsbawm defined the invention of tradition as "a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past" (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983, p. 1). Certainly not all forms of memory are purposely and consciously invented to influence the present, but the invention of tradition cannot exist without a real or implied link with past memories.

Implied in the concept is that the purpose, conscious or not, of invented traditions is to reinforce a desirable sense of continuity with a real or mythical past whenever a real cohesion does not exist in the present or appears to be threatened or faltering. Thus tradition is most likely to be invented in periods of upheaval or uncertainty, when individuals and groups are searching for stability or legitimacy amid troubling religious, ideological, economic, political, or social changes. The Renaissance in Europe was such a period, as new ideas about art, literature, religion, and science challenged established traditions and concepts.

Central to the Renaissance was an awareness of links with the past, as artists, authors, and architects attempted to emulate the classical world. The beginning of modern European historical thought was also affected by the classics. Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) modeled his history of Florence on that of Titus Livy (59 b.c.–a.d. 17) and other Roman historians. He criticized earlier scholars for failing to write adequate histories of their times, a failure which he believed had contributed to the ignorance he saw in his own era. Bruni's criticism reflects Renaissance historians' utilitarian goal of drawing practical lessons from the past about politics, ethics, and law. History likewise became important for the resolution of religious controversies; the establishment of the first history university professorships was spurred by the need to investigate troubling, fundamental questions about the Catholic church's origins. In 1440 Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457) used textual analysis to prove that the Donation of Constantine, a document reputedly written by the fourth-century emperor Constantine (d. a.d. 337) that gave the bishops of Rome temporal and spiritual control over western Europe and was used to legitimize papal authority, was a forgery. Such investigations continued and spread dramatically after Martin Luther's 1517 challenge to the church, as Catholic and Protestant scholars searched for documentation that legitimized their claims.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), in their thirteen-volume study Magdeburg Centuries, used historical analysis to argue that the Catholic church had perverted Christianity. The church responded with Cesare Baronio's Ecclesiastical Annals, which argued that the seeming innovations introduced by the postapostolic church were not changes but simply interpretations and clarifications inspired by the Holy Spirit to "purify" it, an approach often used to strengthen tradition and the establishment. Protestants likewise used research to charge that many saints' days, rituals, and festivals were actually adopted Roman pagan cults. Protestants also made substitutions, however, inventing new rituals to replace those they had denounced as heretical innovations. After 1560 the Kirk leadership in Calvinist Scotland tried to repress all public festivals and displays as popish and undesirable, but the rituals they introduced were suspiciously close to earlier Catholic ones in timing if not in format. While the days of fasting and humiliation regularly called during the Catholic season of Lent did not include the same rituals, they nevertheless continued the tradition of providing a holy day of relaxation that broke up the cycle of agricultural labor. The Catholic Counter-Reformation also modified some rituals and introduced new ones in an effort to keep followers loyal and to reform the church. New seventeenth-century saints' cults, including those of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) and St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), emphasized personal devotion while retaining secular features, including processions, bonfires, and playacting. Both sides attempted to reform popular culture and produced ideological pamphlets, rewrote or adapted popular ballads into hymns, censored popular works by removing suspect references, and attacked all plays, bonfires, and festivals that were not sanctioned by church authorities.

But even the threat of force could not eradicate or change such observances overnight, and many prohibited festivals and rites continued beyond the seventeenth century. In eighteenth-century Languedoc clergy still complained about boisterous local festivals, plays, and other events formally condemned more than a century earlier by the Catholic Church. In Wales, despite Anglican prohibitions, villagers continued to celebrate saints' days by carrying relics in processions and held fairs with sporting contests, folk healers, plays, and other officially proscribed acts and events. In some cases repressed or supplanted traditions helped generate challenges to local or national authority. In 1744 Romanian peasants in Transylvania rebelled when Orthodox customs were replaced by Catholic ones in local parishes. This was not a rejection of the new doctrines but rather a defense of traditions and cultural heritage, which the peasants saw as under attack by ecclesiastical innovations. Thus peasant societies in early modern Europe guarded


Henry VIII (1491–1547) was central to the establishment of the Church of England. Initiating the break from Rome, he then named himself supreme head of the church, dissolved religious foundations, authorized the printing of an English Bible, and turned his church into a hybrid of Catholicism and Protestant doctrine. His role in changing popular religious tradition has not been acknowledged often, but it was part of his larger policy to secure the throne by emphasizing the Crown's commanding political power.

Inventing religious tradition was one way that Henry VIII and other secular leaders secured their sovereignty during the Reformation. When the king became supreme head of the newly created Church of England in the 1530s, his advisers used new biblical interpretations to justify his political position. They claimed that since he was both prince and father to his people, the commandment that ordered Christians to obey and honor their parents included the monarch as well. This implied that Henry's claim to be the head of the English church was based on the holy word of God through the Ten Commandments, which was a return to the original meaning, through a wondrous rediscovery of a text "lost for centuries," and therefore not some arrogant, greedy pretension to despotism.

In addition to learned argument, some suggested that the monarchy also emphasize its position through more popular means. One adviser suggested that Henry create a new annual holiday, complete with bonfires and processions, that would commemorate his break with Rome, while another proposed replacing traditional Robin Hood plays with new ones that condemned the pope rather than celebrated an outlaw. While neither of these proposals was adopted, the king did make changes that emphasized the national character of the church and his own authority over it, such as combining all festivals celebrating the founding of local churches into a national holiday to be celebrated on the first Sunday in October. Such changes that distorted local festivals aroused resentment that increased when the king declared that saints were only to be respected, not venerated, and ordered the destruction of all images and relics of saints, especially those of Thomas à Becket (1118–1170), who was martyred for opposing his king. Local officials in Canterbury had to quickly find a substitute figure as the centerpiece for their local celebration, since even their statue of St. George, patron saint of England, was destroyed.

Henry VIII was not opposed to Catholic traditions if he could interpret them in a useful way. Thus in 1539, against the advice of some counselors, he declared his support for a variety of Catholic traditions, including Ash Wednesday ashes, Palm Sunday palms, and festivals that included "creeping to the cross" on Good Friday, not because they were sacred but because they either honored Christ directly or were educational for illustrating the scriptures. He later specifically ordered that Rogation ceremonies (the blessing of the fields) be held with special care that year because of ongoing drought and disease. Near the end of Henry's reign Archbishop Thomas Cranmer attempted to convince the king to ban several of the more important church rituals, including creeping to the cross, but the king refused. His grounds were apparently political rather than religious, as that action would have undermined his efforts to reach political agreements with the Catholic states of France and the Holy Roman Empire.

When Henry VIII died in 1547 his church remained a hybrid, somewhere between Catholic and Protestant. The reform of tradition that had taken place under its first supreme head had not defined it as either one, and both traditions continued into the twenty-first century.

their traditions jealously, not out of attachment to abstract, remote ideologies that supposedly structured their beliefs but because change was itself viewed as dangerous from their rigidly conservative mentality. Hence, "tradition" as a principle of opposition to change was regarded by the majority of Europeans as a fundamental ethical principle.

Monarchs might also face substantial opposition when attempting to alter long-held customs or beliefs. Some Protestant princes turned to reinterpreting old traditions to strengthen their interests but with additional elements that seemed, like invented church traditions, to reaffirm a venerable past and to revitalize it in new, appealing ways. Swedes asserted a glorious past by claiming that their Gothic ancestors were heroes who respected knowledge, challenging antiquity's view that they were merely destructive barbarians. When Karl IX (r. 1604–1611) toured the country, he constantly told subjects that their Gothic forebears had conquered Rome. His successor Gustav II Adolph (r. 1611–1632) appeared at a jousting tournament dressed as Berik, the legendary conqueror of southern Europe, and later reminded members of the Swedish estates that their forefathers had once ruled the world.

Other monarchs also used tradition to enhance royal glory and claim more political power. The ceremony of touching for the "king's evil" (that is, scrofula)—an old rite whereby sufferers were believed cured when touched by the monarch—emphasized the status of the king as regal and as a magical, semi-divinity as well. This medieval custom was renewed in seventeenth-century England and France. Whereas Louis XII (1462–1515) touched about five hundred people per year in the early sixteenth century, Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) touched almost six times that number following his coronation. The Sun King also invented a number of royal traditions by which virtually every aspect of his daily life was rigidly structured and solemnized into weighty ritual. The daily repetition of ceremonies, such as the lever (rising in each morning) and coucher (retiring at night), made the smallest details of Louis's life the court's focus, suggesting that ancient, time-honored rites were being faithfully maintained. The venerability of such rituals enhanced the monarchy's status at a time when its increased political power was still challenged by the nobility.

But some rulers discovered that traditions connected with a previous monarch could be used against them. Throughout the early modern period Norwegian peasants opposed unwelcome innovations and ordinances from their overlord Danish kings by declaring that the laws of the celebrated eleventh-century Norwegian martyr-king St. Olaf (r. 1016–1028) were being violated. In England, although James I (1566–1625) and Charles I (1600–1649) introduced their own holidays celebrating everything from royal birthdays and christenings to the government's escape from Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the king and Parliament, some churches revived the anniversary of Elizabeth I's accession day. Through this unauthorized holiday for the Protestant queen who saved the nation from Catholicism, participants thus implicitly criticized the court's flirtation with Catholicism.

But monarchs and churches were not alone in using history to invent traditions to attain their goals. The nobility, lesser gentry, and rich commoners likewise sought to glorify their lineages to enhance family status. In early modern England the College of Heralds began registering pedigrees, but the length and luster of the family tree usually depended on the fee paid. Wealthy commoners who wanted to establish a stake in the rapidly changing aristocracy of Tudor and Stuart England could pay for "research" by the heralds, who to collect the fee had to "find" eminent ancestors, which in many cases included lineages stretching back to he Norman conquerors of 1066. Such "discoveries" entitled the holder to a coat of arms or, for nobles, a better one. Sometimes people fabricated their own evidence to support such claims. The eighteenth-century Italian scholar Carlo Garibaldi forged inscriptions on stone tablets to prove that his ancestor was a seventh-century Lombard king.

In late-eighteenth-century France aristocrats also claimed long traditions, but one instance emphasized innocence and pastoral simplicity rather than nobility and elite culture. Nobles were charmed by the discovery of a local peasant festival, the fête de la rose (festival of the rose) in Salency, whose rural simplicity and virtue contrasted greatly with the jaded, artificial world of the court and salon. Allegedly begun by a sixth-century local bishop who was later canonized, the festival centered on a village maiden as the rosière, or queen of virtue, with a procession, mass, and banquet. After the festival was publicized by the countess of Genlis, nobles who liked its virtuous associations established imitations throughout France. New elements allowed nobles direct participation, For example, the local lord presented the rosière with a small dowry and gave the banquet, or aristocratic children wore peasant dress and marched in the procession.

On a much larger scale, minorities that were long subject to discrimination were also dignified with invented histories of phony "rediscovered" works of literature. In the late eighteenth century James Macpherson (1736–1796) and the Reverend John Macpherson (1710–1765) fabricated ancient Highland Scottish history. The former wrote an epic history of Celtic Scotland, based mostly from Irish history, and attributed it to "Ossian," a "Celtic Homer." John Macpherson then wrote a spurious Highland history that validated this text and explained away its discrepancies. So convincing was their work that it was accepted by such eminent authors as Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Sir Walter Scott, and it was over a century before new scholarship discredited these fabrications. Likewise, Scottish noblemen forged a more famous "ancient tradition" for Scottish history by claiming that natives wore a forerunner of the modern tartan kilt in the third century a.d. But this costume seems to have been invented in 1770 by an English iron founder who needed a less-dangerous dress for his Highland workers while tending sawmills in the Western Highlands. In other instances long-ignored but genuine works fostered new identities for minorities. In late-eighteenth-century Bohemia, Czech national identity was supported by new histories based on documents linked to the medieval religious reformer Jan Hus (1372 or 1373–1415) that showed the Czech people were historically anti-German, anti-Catholic, and anti-absolutist. This Czech identity challenged official interpretations based on Catholic Counter-Reformation portrayals of the rebel Hussites as an evil memory.

Religious traditions in rapidly industrializing, commercial Britain took a different form. Puritans emphasized order and rational behavior, which influenced the outlook of the commercial and trading classes. Ministers used phrases such as "casting up accounts" to God or asking whether an action was "profitable to the soul," and the "middling ranks" saw no contradiction between faith and commerce. By the late eighteenth century the middle classes asserted that the virtues common to both were actually the essence of the English character, which included sobriety, thrift, duty, hard work, self-denial, and Christian belief. Thus they distrusted aristocrats' luxurious, licentious ways, and scorned the boisterous festivals, games, and pastimes of "inferiors" as irrational and self-indulgent. Instead, the middle classes developed new traditions about home, family, and work. They concluded that women's supposed greater sexuality meant that they were irrational and unsuited to work outside the home or to make important decisions on their own. This strengthened patriarchy in the family and society, which was justified with biblical and historical examples, and created stereotypes about home life, gender, status, and work that became firmly embedded in Western society.

These traditions were further encouraged by British fears about the spread of the French Revolution after 1789, which seemed to challenge established traditions, beliefs, and order. The revolutionary regime swept away ceremonies, such as royal birthdays and formal entrances into Paris, as well as the customary, local saints' days, Corpus Christi festivals, and May Day celebrations, replacing them with a host of new festivals to commemorate important days in the revolution and to remind people of their progress against an oppressive monarchy. The fall of the Bastille, the establishment of the National Assembly, and revolutionary military victories were commemorated along with new festivals celebrating such revolutionary ideals as "the Supreme Being," Youth, Old Age, Spouses, Agriculture, the Law, Liberty, Virtue, and Reason.

European conservatives and moderates in turn appealed to an idealized past to counter French egalitarian ideology. In Russia, Catherine the Great (1729–1796) increased her support for authors who praised rural village life as the historical basis of the Russian character and condemned towns as the breeding ground for unstable thinking that created unrest. In Britain the monarchy was the focus of public celebrations that emphasized its connections to a glorious past. Newspapers stressed that George III's fiftieth jubilee in 1809 fell on the anniversary of Agincourt, and in 1814 London's chief peace celebration following Napoleon's defeat was specifically planned for 1 August, the centenary of the Hanoverian dynasty's succession.

Appealing to an idealized past was also a means of building morale in the face of losses. After their crushing defeat by Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, Danes rediscovered the ancient Icelandic sagas, Beowulf, and other works that they saw as the true basis for the Danish character. In the German states romantic authors built on distrust of French influence expressed in the earlier Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s, when authors such as Johann von Goethe (1749–1832) and Johann Herder (1744–1803) contemptuously rejected the elites who had been strongly influenced by French literature. Herder encouraged the development of a specifically German literature based on folktales, ballads, and other traditional lore. Later romantics built on this idea, publishing collections of folksongs, chapbooks, ballads, folktales, and fairy stories. The most famous, Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1812–1815) by Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, emphasizes the timeless nature of the nation's spirit. All of this morale building occurred in the context of Napoleon's stunning conquest of Germany and the later Wars of Liberation that pushed the French out by 1814.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic memories and symbols were also later shaped to support many political perspectives and ideologies. This provides a striking example of Halbwachs' theory that "history begins where memory ends," for while many in 1830 and 1848 personally remembered the 1789 revolution, the historians created memories and countermemories about revolutionary traditions and their meanings that served various agendas. While the restored monarchy sought legitimacy by building an antirepublican collective memory through histories emphasizing the bloodshed and destruction of the 1790s, a small group of historians defied this approach with an alternative interpretation or countermemory of republicanism as the embodiment of political liberty. The historians Jules Michelet and Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869) attempted to infuse the zeal of 1789 into the new generation of republicans in 1830 and 1848. Many symbols of 1789 were revived. In addition to the widespread appeal of the Liberty Tree, old songs, slogans, and names reappeared. In 1848 radicals in Nîmes held celebrations that invoked Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the sansculottes. In 1871 these traditions were still empowering. Because both the collective memory and the countermemories of 1789 lauded male contributions almost exclusively, Parisian women's groups legitimized their political participation by invoking the 1789 women's March to Versailles.

Yet despite such historical and popular references to the past, some contemporaries charged that they undermined any real understanding of the revolution and simply continued empty traditions that had no real meaning. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), who wrote a history of the 1848 revolution that stressed continuities with the past, noted in dismay that republicans "were engaged in acting the French Revolution rather than in continuing it" (Tocqueville, 1949, p. 54). In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Karl Marx (1818–1883) pointedly condemned the revolutionaries, declaring, "Precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language" (Marx, 1977, p. 300).


The Liberty Tree is an enduring symbol of the French Revolution, a tradition that developed as the amalgamation of this revolutionary symbol with the much older tradition of the maypole and with an ancient celebration of the birth of spring. Ceremonial Liberty Tree plantings often incorporated familiar folk elements drawn from May Day, which helped make the notion of revolution more appealing to conservative peasants. Both rites emphasized village solidarity and corporate action, as young men selected and planted the tree and young women decorated it with ribbons and other emblems.

The Liberty Tree's popularity continued in post-1815 France but with new twists. Immediately after the 1830 revolution Liberty Trees were planted by a number of newly elected, hard-line revolutionary officials specifically to replace crosses erected by priests who were thought to support the monarchy. Anticlericalism was so strongly associated with Liberty Trees that they were an embarrassment for the moderate constitutional monarchy of the 1830s. But by 1848 the tradition had further evolved with the changing times, and many Liberty Trees planted throughout France were openly associated with reconciling the church and the republican state. Clergymen were honored guests at many planting ceremonies, and in one instance, after the local priest referred to parishioners as "citizens and brothers," he told them that the Liberty Tree symbolized the cross with Christ's hands outstretched seeking liberty, a compromise that illustrates how much traditions can change in just sixty years.

The spread of literacy and the development of a mass reading public made it easier for political groups and governments to create and foster traditions for the collective memory. In Britain the increasingly anachronistic London government successfully fought off challenges by democratic reformers through the promotion of ceremonies and rituals—some traditional, some invented—that linked it with an idealized past, and while Oxford University defended its classical education against charges of anachronism by reemphasizing its colleges' long hallowed traditions. After German unification in 1871, the state likewise encouraged the concept of Heimat (homeland) that stressed the supposedly unified history of all Germans in a distant, rural past through nationalist literature, plays, and histories. In Austria-Hungary, as internal strife proliferated between subject nationalities, the fiftieth jubilee anniversary of the Habsburg emperor Francis Joseph (r. 1848–1916) in 1898 emphasized traditions that portrayed the Habsburg dynasty as divinely ordained and more specifically showed Francis Joseph as a redeemerlike figure who overcame ethnic and national divisions.

Although increasing literacy, national educational systems, and mass media facilitated efforts to promote the status quo by creating channels for the dissemination of official ideologies and traditions, by the same token these developments also served the new ideologies of socialism, nationalism, feminism, and ethnic identity. With improved access to an increasingly literate and uniformly educated public, proponents of opposing views were able to mount a stiff challenge to the existing order. By 1875 British and French socialists and trade unionists used the media to reject many aspects of middle-class culture. The French socialist Paul Lafargue (1842–1911) argued that bourgeois education and literature should be replaced by an alternative workers' culture that would be inculcated through pamphlets, articles, and lectures. Socialist organizations and trade unions created alternative traditions of worker solidarity by organizing dances, benefits, and other social events in union halls decorated with symbolic banners and regalia and ultimately by organizing political parties.

Yet one aspect of bourgeois culture many workers approved was the idea that women should stay in the home. Workingmen plainly saw workingwomen as a threat to their jobs, a situation that became more acute during a deep recession in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Since women legally could be paid less than men, industries used them to cut costs. For many feminists this situation simply reflected their inequality. Using rhetoric and traditions drawn from women's earlier participation in antislavery movements, socialist organizing, and social reform campaigns, women's movements emerged, most notably in Britain. Just like the trade unions, women organized petition drives, fund-raising campaigns, and educational programs. They founded newspapers, women's schools and colleges, and developed their own rituals, banners, and insignias to promote solidarity within their cause.

Oppressed ethnic minorities also used media and education to campaign against imperialism. In late-nineteenth-century Ireland nationalist leaders pushed for Home Rule and to restore Ireland's own Parliament. Yet in addition to political organizing, the newly founded Gaelic League encouraged the recovery of Irish culture by promoting Gaelic language instruction, literature, and drama. Ethnic minorities elsewhere also sought to revive their cultures through language and folklore. This was particularly a problem in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Emperor Francis Joseph agreed to allow the use of Czech as well as German in the imperial bureaucracy of Bohemia as a measure of appeasement to Czech nationalism, but Bohemian Germans were outraged at what they viewed as an attack on their national identity. By 1898 this conflict paralyzed Parliament and fueled pan-German attacks on the Habsburg state and the Catholic Church, further destabilizing the empire.


Although conflicts between states, aggravated by nationalism, helped fuel the outbreak of World War I, the war created divisions within countries that by 1918 were still unresolved. Consequently many governments encouraged collective memories that served to heal this division and support their regimes, but they often were challenged by alternative interpretations. When France's Tomb of the Unknown soldier was dedicated in 1920, the official memorial committee used religious symbolism to imply that France had redeemed its honor by taking back Alsace-Lorraine, which had been lost to Germany in 1871. French Socialists, however, argued that this was not the monument of a hero but the grave of an unfortunate soldier who died in a conflict fought to benefit industrialists and government officials.


In the sixteenth century the Ottoman Turkish state was at the pinnacle of its prestige, as the greatest, most illustrious power in both Europe and the Middle East. But by the mid- to late nineteenth century its luster had faded, and a series of humiliating military defeats by Austria-Hungary and imperial Russia raised the threat of conquest and overthrow. The need for the Ottoman state to prop up its prestige at home and abroad resulted in the creation of "neotraditions" with a number of significant innovations.

To give the state a more modern and Western image, an Italian artist was hired to devise a coat of arms, previously unknown in the empire, for Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839). It included both old and new symbols balancing each other. An arrow and quiver set off a modern rifle and bayonet, and a scimitar appeared opposite a modern cavalry saber, arranged to emphasize the continuity of the old and the new. Likewise the apparently Moroccan-derived fes (fez), which was subsequently understood as a distinctly Turkish symbol by Westerners, was adopted as the official headgear for male subjects because it looked more European than the old turban, being similar to the top hat and military shako, minus the brim or bill. The state also commissioned an official national anthem (a Western creation) from the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), as well as military marches from famous European composers such as Franz Liszt (1811–1886) and Johann Strauss (1804–1849). This is an even greater irony, since the military marching band had originally been borrowed by Europeans from the Ottoman Janissary army in the early eighteenth century.

These changes were accompanied by an increased emphasis on martial spectacle, which was further enhanced by the sultan's personal appearance before the people (another innovation). Military elements also became a part of new ceremonies, sometimes forced upon minorities, of "conversion" to Islam. These ceremonies were staged to compete with the activities of aggressive European missionaries, who occasionally paid money to converts' families. Also to counter the missionaries, a new Islamic religious office, the misyoner, was created in another neotradition.

Some of these actions reflected the monarchs' desires for their subjects to acquire more discipline and to compete better with the West. In addition neotraditions attracted the political loyalty of the empire's numerous minorities. The historian Selim Deringil noted, "What the Ottoman elite . . . were trying to foster from the mid–nineteenth century onwards was . . . [a] transition from passive obedience [by subjects] to active and conscious subscription to the new normative order" (Deringil, 1993, p. 29). The Ottomans even tried to enhance the sanctity of their six-century tradition by officially claiming in 1885 that experts had discovered that they actually originated from Adam and Eve and that the dynasty was "one of the oldest in the world, and will live forever." The fact that it lasted only thirty-four years more underscores the importance the Ottoman state placed on the invention of tradition as a political tactic.

Circumstances were far more difficult in postwar Germany. The Weimar government and some of its nationalist rivals attempted to forge a heroic picture of the struggle. Stressing the soldiers' faithfulness to Germany and willingness to sacrifice themselves, they emphasized the positive aspects of the wartime experience, such as camaraderie in the trenches, adherence to military virtues, and in particular dutiful loyalty. This official attempt to deal with the defeat and humiliating peace did not accurately reflect the memories of most soldiers and ignored the desertions, absenteeism, and voluntary surrenders that brought the army to the verge of collapse. Most published personal accounts, including those of private soldiers, omitted such details to avoid harming their comrades' memories.

Growing fascist organizations also played on memories of the "good" things about the war, such as camaraderie and unity, a sense of purpose and power, and the freedom from responsibility for decision making inherent in armies, in their creation of political paramilitary organizations. After attaining power fascist leaders forged new traditions that allegedly came from a glorious national past. Benito Mussolini's government drew on imperial Rome as an inspiration for Italian glory. For example, he proclaimed 21 April a national holiday in honor of the birth of ancient Rome as part of the new regime's ideology.


The military invention of tradition is essentially about managing armies. It is important for the state to keep this instrument of violence under firm control, lest it be used to overthrow the state, as has often happened in history. Much of martial tradition concerns the regiment, and this form of tradition is most developed in the British army, which benefits from the state having avoided political rupture with the past since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In the military subculture memorable incidents often generate appealing customs that frequently develop over time into a venerable encrustation of tradition. These customs are often based on fact, but sometimes are invented, as is the case with the traditions associated with Royal Horse Artillery full-dress uniform, a Hungarian-derived, light cavalry hussar uniform with lavish amounts of yellow braid (gold bullion for officers), worn on special occasions. Recruits are taught that the reason for this gaudy dress was that, if the artillery caisson reins break, the braid can be used as a makeshift substitute. This suggests that the dress was deliberately designed for a practical reason in a modern sense of combat utility rather than as gaudy decoration, which has long been banished from the battlefield. The history and evolution of this dress, however, has nothing to do with harnesses. It was adopted in the late eighteenth century, when this "flying" artillery was developed, to link the image of the gunner with the speed of light cavalry, swiftness being its primary tactical advantage. That the braid was ever used as substitute reins is possible, but the notion that this was the reason for the design is nonsense, since the overwhelming priority in late-eighteenth-century British military design was how the uniform looked, not modern practicality. But the story is useful to discourage soldiers from thinking that the fancy outfit is absurd, which would diminish the glorious and venerable associations the uniform must embody.

Other purely decorative uniform elements have also been embellished with meanings invented later. The tradition of a black stripe running through the lace of officers' uniforms in some regiments is asserted to be a mark of mourning for a general killed in battle, most often one who had commanded the unit. This custom is especially associated with General James Wolfe's death at Quebec in 1759. Yet the old Forty-first Regiment wore such lace without such an association, as did other late-eighteenth-century units.

Rich traditions mystify regimental memories, which are most useful for recruiting, morale, and discipline. The idea of mutiny is also rendered to some degree more unthinkable, because it runs counter to the service's sublime traditions. Regimental tradition, like the duty, is not voluntary but enforced, and it permeates every aspect of army life. The psychological effect of such richness is thus a means of mind control that is both obvious and subtle. Even a soldier who hated the army could not help but feel the deep, emotional glow of pride and belonging when the band played stirring martial music as he and his comrades marched through cheering crowds on some venerable anniversary of victory. Any allusions to cowardice, officer incompetence, or the army's inadequate provisions of weapons, food, or shelter (as sometimes happened) seem most inappropriate and in bad taste. Tradition as a martial management principle thus maximizes an army's utility for the state.

Adolf Hitler's German fascists also used history to promote their concept of an organic German people, or Volk. This concept transcended nationalism by embodying a mystical historical racism intended to bind people together, and Nazi political and social inventions affected everything from family life to public service. To increase the birthrate the Nazis emphasized the "traditional" domestic role of wife and mother, publicly discouraging women from working outside the home. The Nazis encouraged rural festivals and folk costumes to emphasize links with the mystical past. But primary emphasis went to traditions that legitimized Nazi power and the central role of Hitler as leader. Nowhere was this more clearly reflected than in the massive party rallies at Nürnberg. Begun in the 1920s, these party days were annual events from 1933 to 1938 with speeches, torchlight parades, fireworks, martial songs, flags, and a host of ceremonies.

The National Socialists also defined the concept of Germanic-Aryan Volk by contrasting it with "degenerate" Jewish culture. Posters, news accounts, literature, films, and radio programs proclaimed that Jews were responsible for a variety of ills, including the humiliating Versailles peace treaty, the Bolshevik revolution, oppression of German factory workers, and the 1929 economic collapse. By the mid-1930s the regime had already stripped German Jews of most rights, including citizenship. This was followed by the industrialized mass extermination of Jews and other "undesirables," such as Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and political enemies.

The Nazis enforced these racist and genocidal policies in conquered territories and encouraged their allies to adopt them. Later media reports on Nazi genocide were reinforced at the Nürnberg trials, where German leaders were tried for "crimes against humanity." Yet after the war ended many attempted to obliterate its memory. To distance themselves from the Holocaust and to justify their wartime actions, collaborators across Europe cultivated "collective amnesia," claiming either to have been in the resistance or avoiding the subject altogether. Austrians quickly embraced the myth that their nation was Hitler's earliest victim, a distortion that even allowed the country to build memorials to Austrian soldiers who had fought in the Wehrmacht, claiming they had defended the homeland from further oppression. Liberated countries adopted a similar national amnesia. In Norway memories of World War II formed an important source of national identity for decades to come. Some Norwegian Nazis later claimed they were not really collaborators but had offered subtle resistance. Only one Norwegian out of thousands of traitors, Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), was executed for high treason, while the many light sentences for collaboration were later reduced or commuted. In France after 1945 the government tried to obliterate the collaboration of Vichy government officials by literally banning these memories, passing legislation making it illegal to mention that anyone collaborated. In Italy the Christian Democrats attempted to reforge a Catholic democratic state linking the church to the resistance. This position ignored the Vatican's complicity with the fascists and its refusal to criticize the Nazi regime as Jews were rounded up on its very doorstep.

Jewish Holocaust survivors made perhaps the greatest effort to build a collective memory with the publication of numerous memorial books and autobiographies. David Patterson argued that the recovery of memory played an important role in their lives, allowing them to rediscover traditions nearly obliterated by Hitler's "Final Solution" and providing a means of coming to terms with the world's seeming indifference to their fate. Finally, reliving the memories through memorials, ceremonies, and other rituals contributed to the ongoing process of recovery from the horrors they suffered. Ironically, Hitler's victimization of Europe's Jews forged stronger feelings of Jewish unity, as even non-European Jews personally untouched by the Holocaust incorporated it as a part of their cultural heritage.

Inside Germany the problem was not one of remembering but rather of forgetting. Suffering another devastating defeat that left the country in ruins, Germans came face-to-face with the crimes committed by their state. Allied troops forced civilians and officials to witness the death camp horrors by making them walk past the piles of corpses and bury the bodies. In the face of overwhelming condemnation, many Germans intentionally "forgot." East Germans denied all responsibility and blamed West Germans. West Germans adopted the concept of Stunde Null, or zero hour, in which their remembered history began only with the end of the war, and tried to break completely with the past. Such obliterations let West Germany as well as the United States, France, and Britain employ former Nazi officials in high positions in the new regimes. As militant anticommunists, they were considered politically safe. For more than twenty years this collective amnesia predominated. Even by the 1980s, when publications and films began to discuss modern German history more, schools, museums, and events celebrating the reunion of West Germany and East Germany in 1989 avoided reminders of this past, focusing almost solely on the cold war.

In the twenty-first century political and social traditions appear easier to invent than at any time in the past. Modern currency and coinage regularly depict political and cultural heroes, sporting events glorify nationalism, and advertising regularly draws on real or mythic memories to sell products. Even more pervasive are those media that purport to tell the "truth," such as television documentaries, newscasts, radio commentaries, newspaper and magazine articles. Yet they are all products that must suit the audience as well as the owners of these business operations. While historical films have potentially an even greater appeal, they do not re-create the past but do forge a new version of it. They must necessarily include invented dialogue and situations within story-line structures that omit much in order to work. In a different way Internet sites artificially display an equality among images of the past. Anyone with access to the Internet can create a web page that may appear to have as much validity as any other. This aspect of Internet technology plays a particularly important role in conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, where sites that seek to promote republican or loyalist traditions based on differing interpretations have multiplied. Amid so many electronic options, the use and manipulation of memory and the invention of tradition are thus even more prevalent than ever.

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