Using Contentious Tactics in Memory Politics: Insights from German Movements for Remembrance

Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Gilbert Scott Conference Room - 251 (University of Glasgow)
Jenny Wüstenberg , York University
Scholars in Germany and elsewhere are increasingly paying attention to the role played by civil society activists in the creation of public memory. However, the specific mechanisms by which memory activists seek to transform (or support) official cultures of commemoration remain understudied. Drawing on my earlier work on civil society engagement in German memory politics, I tease out how the painstaking efforts of MEMORY WORK (collecting, archiving, making exhibitions, recording testimony etc.) interact with instances of MEMORY PROTEST. I focus especially on times when the distinction between memory work and protest becomes blurred and the act of remembering itself becomes a contentious act. I argue that it is precisely at these moments of memory contention that significant transformations of the memory culture writ large take place. I analyze examples from grassroots memory initiatives both before and after 1989 to show that different kinds of memory are promoted through a repertoire of collective action that will be familiar to students of other social movements. This includes occupations, hunger strikes, rallies, and public performances. Moreover, there are contentious tactics that are explicitly memory-focused: the illegal or irregular placement of monuments, the disruption of commemorative ceremonies, the staging of controversial remembrance rituals, and the “repurposing” of existing memorials through graffiti or other adornment. Understanding this mechanism as crucial to mnemonic change holds interesting lessons for memory activism in Germany and beyond.