The Proliferation of Memory Laws and the Return of the Nation

Project coordination: Dr. Félix Krawatzek

in cooperation with Dr. George Soroka (Harvard University)

The legal dimension of how one can publicly speak about historical events has only recently started to be addressed in a concerted fashion by historians and legal experts. Social scientists have by-and-large shunned this topic which is surprising given the undeniable political and social relevance of legislating how the past can be recalled. Many Central and East European countries have adopted legislation in recent years that seeks to regulate the work of historians and the public discourse about history. World War II plays a critical role in these attempts to legislate memory. Such legislation is indicative of a nation-building through the means of state-crafted historical narratives which shape a new norm about how to view the past. They also illustrate the difficult nation-building projects that have characterised many East European countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary Russia, for example, uses memory and the law for nation-building purposes. A 2014 law is frequently used to punish deviant statements about the country’s history. But such laws exist not only in Russia, nor are they an exclusive feature of authoritarian regimes. Instead, countries as varied as Poland, Ukraine, France, Spain, Germany, Chile or a number of states in the US have legal provisions which determine what can be said in public about different parts of a country’s historical past.

This project seeks to understand the political dynamics behind this forceful presence of history and the wider societal implications of it. As part of this project, a database is being compiled on memory laws covering Europe and North and South America including the important political dynamics revolving around such laws. The research also makes use of original survey data related to the societal recall of the past in Russia and France.