In looking at contemporary issues, religion and history are usually seen as separate domains of enquiry, when not analyzing fundamentalism. Yet the Canadian historian Margaret McMillan has suggested that there may be an inverse relationship in that the relevance of history may seem to increase as the salience of religion fades.
As McMillan writes in her book on the Uses and Abuses of History,
“In a secular world, which is what most of us in Europe and North America live in, history takes on the role of showing us good and evil, virtues and vices. Religion no longer plays as important a part as it once did in setting moral standards and transmitting values. . . .History with a capital H is being called in to fill the void. […] It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us.”
This is, of course, a remarkable suggestion. What may be missing, however, is that history in itself does not carry a compelling framework for its own assessment. As contemporary conflicts show, history can easily be plundered for nationalist justification.
In this context, the just war tradition, emanating from Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), often seen as the greatest Scholastic philosopher, may offer a more plausible approach. The just war tradition tries to offer guidance when considering under what circumstances coercion may be merited and what restraint to employ. These are questions to ponder, too, as one uses history to “vindicate […], judge […], and damn” to use McMillan’s words. As a consequence, one can envisage an Ethics of Political Commemoration that similarly can be used to examine questions of merit and restraint when it comes to commemoration, i.e the mobilization of the past for political purposes.
Following Aquinas, this ethics would distinguish a Ius ad Memoriam (whether justification seems merited) from a Ius in Memoria (how commemoration should be undertaken to remain justifiable), with mutually reinforcing criteria that allow consideration along multiple dimensions. The advantage of this approach is that it draws on a tradition that has evolved and integrated a range of relevant considerations. While this tradition is European and originally grounded in religion, multiple scholars have highlighted parallels across different non-European contexts. Moreover, key considerations from the Just War tradition in the meantime have been codified into international humanitarian law.
One further advantage of such an approach is that it provides a larger framework for suggestions that otherwise can appear fragmented. One core consideration of Ius ad Memoriam (as derived from Ius ad Bellum) is to scrutinize intention. This is a plausible heading for a similar plea made by the literature and memory studies scholar Michael Rothberg, who sympathizes with the mobilization of historical analogy in political contexts when it promotes solidarity and differentiation, while viewing it skeptically when it tries to advance competing claims to attention, or when it tries to imply equivalence. In this context, the Ethics of Political Commemoration does not seek to displace Rothberg’s compelling “Multidirectional Memory” but rather underlines its plausibility in the context of a larger established tradition.
Legitimate authority is another core consideration for Ius ad Memoriam (again, as adapted from Ius ad Bellum). The emphasis on legitimacy aligns, to offer another example, with key recommendations for the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative by Louise Mallinder and Margaret O’Callaghan, who had stressed that “to ensure inclusiveness, representatives of key constituencies should be involved in planning and participating in commemoration efforts.”
A larger ethical framework arguably also reminds us that we should assert our moral autonomy, rather than justifying actions through the wrongs of others. This, in turn, is a point that the historian Timothy Snyder has made with reference to polarized historical debates in which “[E]ach side is so palpably wrong about so many major issues that the other cannot help but feel that it must, in turn, be right.”
These examples indicate how promising it can be to draw on a rich tradition of thinking when considering contemporary questions. The relevance could not be greater. Hubertus Jahn has recently offered an excellent summary of how “Russia’s expansionist aspirations” are underpinned by “Putin’s reinvention of historical facts”. In contexts that want to resist such a vicious assault, settling divisive stand-offs on thorny legacies, statues, and street-names may be all the more pressing. Here, a larger guiding framework such as the Ethics of Political Commemoration could be of assistance.
Together with several colleagues, Dr. Gutbrod explores the possibilities of this paradigm and its application in praxis in more detail.