• December 1, 2016
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Defective codes of memory or how we distort history

“Polish concentration camps”, “comrades were shooting each other”, “polonized Lithuanians live in the Vilnius region” – these are only a few examples of so called defective codes of memory – a narrative which aims at perpetuation of erroneous view on history. Where this phenomenon arises from, what are its political, historical, social, legal aspects and if it is possible to successfully fight such misstatements – these issues were discussed at a meeting organized on the initiative of the Polish Institute in Vilnius with the support of the Polish Embassy in Vilnius in the Open Lithuania Foundation. A pretext for this conversation was a book “Defective codes of memory”; the scientific editor of the book Artur Nowak-Far was a special guest of the meeting.

„With fellow lawyers we have noticed that in the world, especially in media, there are lots of such terms which mistakenly summarize historical events essential for humanity. These are short, catchy expressions that are easy to remember, for example “Polish concentration camps” or “Armenian genocide”. It could seem that no one would really believe that the Armenians were responsible for genocide, because everyone knows that’s not true. But we should not assume that others know what we know. For young people, who haven’t finished their education yet, such misinformation may be very harmful”, said the scientific editor of the book, prof. Artur Nowak-Far, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Poland.

“With regard to such issues that relate to the international dialogue, every nation has the right to tell their own story. Then, the narrative is concentrated on them and it shows the world as they see it. We assume, however, that history is supposed to teach us something. We have the duty to provide the narrative morally. These are two indicators of the fair narrative. We – Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, Czechs – can tell each other about our history, but if we forget about these two aspects, the narration will become unfair”, said prof. Nowak-Far.

As he said, the book focuses on medial manifestations, legal and linguistic aspects of defective codes of memory – where such terms come from and what they mean.

“Fighting with defective codes of memory, we defend moral order of some kind, we are against making victims out of executioners and vice versa. If we do not oppose these defective codes, we will one day wake up in the world where they are a common narrative”, noticed the editor of the book.

He added that one of the most surprising things during working on the book turned out to be the discovery that Internet users, initially perceived as chaotic, even nihilistic, are very responsible, they correct each other and it is important for them to correct deceitful remarks. Meanwhile politicians and the mainstream media are definitely less responsible.

According to prof. Šarūnas Liekis, the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy at the Vytautas the Great University, the issue of defective codes of memory is complicated in every country.

“In international narratives function some dogmas and their change is a complicated and painful process. For example in Lithuania for a long time a historical narrative referring to the period between the wars was in force. This story had lots of its internal codes, which start to differ, when we talk about the relation between minority and majority, Polish-language and Lithuanian-language culture. Many disputes are caused by issues of Lithuanian Jews, Lithuanian Poles, the place of the Home Army In Lithuanian history”, said Liekis.

“History is not a subject to political constraints. I understand the element of control, in Lithuania connected for example with using of Soviet symbols in public space, however, when academic interpretations are constrained by politics, it creates a number of problems – legal regulations, freedom of speech, an issue of how we are able to tolerate an opinion different than ours”, listed the scientist.

As noted by Aurimas Švedas, a historian at the University of Vilnius, origins of defective codes in Lithuania come from different eras – from tsarist Russia to the Soviet Union.

“A few examples of such faulty narration the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is a historical misunderstanding, Christianity destroyed Lithuanian identity and pagan civilization, the GDL is a Belarusian creation, the tsarist empire saved Lithuanians from becoming Poles. There was no Soviet occupation, on January 13th comrades were shooting each other and in context of belonging to Soviet party structures: this is when we worked for the good of Lithuania. Finally, the newest – in the European Union Lithuania is going to lose its national identity. Each of these statements has political context. These beliefs, which operate in consciousness, cannot be eliminated by political means. When we identify the problem, we will be able to match specific solutions. Above all, however, it is very important to raise the general level of education of the society”, says Švedas.

The historical narrative influences education policy and specified actions in the field of education – claims a history teacher from St. Christopher’s Junior High School, Vytautas Tolekis.

“For example, a part of Lithuanians is convinced that in Vilnius live polonized Lithuanians. If we believe in this, we have concluded that they going to convert, after 10-20 years of our active participation, explaining and convincing they will become Lithuanians. On the other hand, an idea of elective courses of the Polish language in Lithuanian schools faced hysterical reactions, as well as an idea of starting a Polish junior high school in Panevezys, letting people learning Polish language, culture. It was impossible to talk about it”, said Toleikis.

“Lithuanians judge things extremely. They cannot realize that there are plenty of people who fell both Polish and Lithuanian. Media do not talk about the fact that in Lithuanian Millenium Junior High School children talk to each other in Russian, because they are bilingual, trilingual even. Our historical blindness does not let us admit it”, said the teacher.

According to Ronaldas Račinskas, an executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, the characters who shape public discourse, speak in the most radical way.

One flank sees only one side, the other one, on the same principles, perceives things differently – both sides are convinced that they are right. Where it comes from? Shaping their views, people base them on their own and their loved ones’ experience. These are the most important factors”, said Račinskas.

Although top-down forming of narratives is rather typical for authoritarian countries, according to the speaker it is impossible to carry out any educational activity without designating some reference points.

A country should have its narrative and, at least, not make mistakes in its shaping. For example, January 13th is celebrated in Lithuania in a sad way, with candles in windows and until recently with black ribbons. It is one of our greatest victories, the Battle of Grunwald of the twentieth century, a breakthrough on the European scale. Yes, people died and there are victims, we remember and honor them. But a certain period has passed, now we can look at these events from a bigger perspective and assess their importance. We do not say that in the Battle of Grunwald or the Battle of Szawle people were killed, after all”, contemplated Ronaldas Račinskas.

A less mature country bases its historical memory on narrow personal narratives. A mature society an look from a distance, through the prism of human values and in a more objective way”, summed up Račinskas.

Translated by Agnieszka Drabik within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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