Autobiographical memory and analysing narratives
We never really stop to think about how much we use our memory every day. Most of us have no difficulties remembering who we are, where we live, or what job we do – let alone how to get to work or what we did yesterday. But in the modern world, ‘memory’ has come to mean much more. You only need to think of the expression “collective memory” to get the point. What is memory? How can we define memory? These are questions which historians – but also academics from a variety of other disciplines – have to ask themselves, when trying to write about memory.
In my own research, which focuses on a general level on writing down memories of the Nazi past, the connection between what’s on the page and what’s in the writer’s mind, or what happened in the past and how it is remembered, is an important one. Memory in my thesis is therefore defined as an individual’s recollection of the historical past. The next question this brings up is how a narrator or memoirist decides what makes them…them. One way to answer this question is to turn towards psychological studies of memory.
An important tenet of memory is autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory goes ‘beyond the individual to include how an individual life is understood, modulated, and transformed through socially and culturally constructed narratives.’ In short, it is memory which your brain uses to define who you are. Autobiographical memory is strengthened over time, and changes as your identity as a person develops. Imagine yourself having to write, right now, a short story about yourself and your life up until this point. What would it be about? What stands out?
Let’s take a look at one of my case studies, as an example:
I don’t remember indoctrination sessions about race superiority or anything like that. We lived in small cities and that probably saved us from being brainwashed by all of Hitler’s ideas. In school we were told about German national history, how good and special we had always been, the victories we had achieved, how unjust the dictates of the Treaty of Versailles were, and how Hitler and the Nazi party gave Germany the right kind of leadership. Degrading remarks about God and the Jews had also become part of the system, but I didn’t really think very much about it. As most youngsters, I was not very interested in Nazi affairs, but rather, I did what I wanted. Generally speaking, we were like other youth enjoying sports, competitions, singing, marching excursions, field exercises, etc. I don’t have any real memories about outstanding Nazi characteristics, but again, like many of my contemporaries, I took great pride in Germany, not the Nazis. (33, von Campe)
In this example, we see the relationship between autobiographical memory and the effort to write about a wider past. This creates a kind of tension. The narrator talks about “not remembering” or not having “real memories” about negative aspects of Nazism. We could interpret the autobiographical memory represented here as being influenced by the present and the audience the memoirist pictures himself writing for. Memory, narrative, and remembering can often be in conflict. Autobiographical memory further allows for individuals to selectively create self-identity and self-worth, which illustrates how complex and nuanced human memory is.
Another aspect of memory is family narratives and remembering collectively. Family is at the centre of of autobiographical memory. As the saying goes: ‘family is everything’. We might deny the impact of our parents on who we are, but recent research by Robyn Fivush shows just how much our memory of our childhoods and how we narrate the past is heavily influenced by our families.
This is just a short look into the larger themes I am presenting in my thesis, and these discussions may be linked further to silence and memory on second and third generation Germans. Roger Frie’s new book (2017), Not in My Family, brings together some of these ideas, which is a great place for further discussion.