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History, conflict, constructive amnesia and the absence of collective memory: personal narrative as a restorer of lost histories and cultural heritage

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Abstract

Mass media welcomes conflict: violence sells - and brings profit. Stories fade as the media circus moves to the next event. History is often a selective history of conflict. Governments and institutions choose their preferred histories to shape curricula, bend thoughts and prejudices, at times even consciously ensuring a culture of forgetting, thereby establishing a constructive amnesia in the population. Regional conflicts and local disasters fill the news for short periods but memories fade quickly: Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Nicaragua, El Salvador. Dubrovnik becomes a holiday resort once again, as do Phuket after the Tsunami and Bali after the bombing. Tourism, and mass tourism in particular, is the antidote to history, to memory: tourism is about forgetting. In contrast, the subset heritage tourism specifically aims to kindle discovery of the past, while it is also criticized for its tendency to commodify the past, trivializing it and for attempting to construct an authorized, official discourse (Lowenthal, 1998). Even epoch shaping histories lose salience. Twentieth century history is dominated, unsurprisingly, by two world wars and the Holocaust, and for the US by Vietnam. But even here, memories will fade. Auschwitz will become a tourist resort despite the homilies that we should never forget. Academic histories are probably not the best agents in not forgetting. Personal narratives may be: Erich Remarque, Anne Frank, Traudl Junge. While the Second World War and the Holocaust endure in the curriculum, the imperfect peace of the Cold War is already forgotten. The term Cold War is almost unknown, still less understood, by the current generation. It has no salience. Personal narrative can have a key role in creating and preserving significant histories. As such it can be an essential component of heritage studies. The importance of individual narrative is vital to ensuring that certain histories are known, discussed and better understood. This paper argues that where heritage tourism is suited to revealing the past it is through the use of personal narrative, exploiting examples of witness to explain both events and context to those who were not there. The paper includes two narratives – stories of personal observation, one set during the Cold War, the other in the context of the Basque conflict in/with Spain. These are personal narratives, histories, memories.