Mnemonic democracy: the role of memory in politics

Memory is crucial for democracy, but not only because it can teach citizens important norms like tolerance and inclusion. Mnemonic democracy would also imply taking into account whether the views of the majority are represented and public memory is underpinned by legitimate state power, Jenny W羹stenberg writes

Memory and politics

Neither citizens nor theorists of democracy use 'mnemonic' as a qualifier for 'democracy'. It has not made it into Jean-Paul Gagnons impressive Signs of Democracy database, which has 3,539 entries (to date). Not even ChatGPT knows what it means, apologising that:

'mnemonic democracy' is not a recognised or commonly used term in political science or democratic theory

'Mnemonic,' here, refers to processes of collective or cultural remembrance. Scholars hold that 'facing up to the past' is essential to preventing future dictatorships and atrocities.

Many institutional mechanisms are premised on the notion that publicly commemorating historical injustice crucially underpins democratisation and democratic consolidation. Governments, international organisations and NGOs routinely invest in such mechanisms.

The field of transitional justice has developed a whole set of instruments designed to mitigate and harness the power of legacies of the past when designing and implementing democratic norms and institutions in the aftermath of conflict and authoritarian rule.

Similarly, the willingness to 'work through' painful episodes in history has become an accession criterion of sorts for the European Union (and maybe even NATO). However, this is certainly not universally applied.

Success stories of democratisation have been linked causally to a certain model of reckoning with historical culpability. The most notable such case is (West) Germany. Conversely, too, authoritarian actors seem cognisant that particular kinds of mnemonic narratives can serve their objectives. Different actors harness the past for different purposes, and it becomes intensely contentious in times of political or normative upheaval.

The meaning of mnemonic democracy

What would it mean to conceive of a mnemonic democracy? There are many other adjectives liberal, constitutional, or social, for example that we more commonly attach to democracy. However, just like these, mnemonic here has an analytical, as well as a strongly normative or aspirational function.

As analysts of democracy, we may ask how remembering the past shapes the resilience and quality of democratic institutions and norms. Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc, Lea David and others have recently argued there is widespread assumption that the past 'can save us'; that it guards against the rise of racism, democratic backsliding or recurrence of violence.

There is widespread assumption that the past 'can save us'; that remembering guards against the rise of racism, democratic backsliding, or violence

These critics point out, however, that policy is formulated on such ideas without much empirical backing. Thus, it is important to separate our analysis of the memory-democracy nexus from its normative power.

Can we define a political system as 'mnemonically democratic'? If so, how might this factor into our overall assessment of that system? To find out, I propose to relate public memory to different elements of democracy.

Linking memory to elements of democracy

First, and most conventionally, there is the assumption that different ways of representing a groups or societys past strongly influences the development of norms crucial to the democratic constitution of a polity. Thus, on the one hand, admitting to past wrongs, taking responsibility for the victimisation of particular groups of people, and addressing the underlying reasons (racism, antisemitism, homophobia, etc.) for discrimination or atrocities, is seen as critical to the development of democratic norms, including tolerance, inclusion, and equality.

On the other hand, the public celebration of nationalism, masculine heroism, or lack of transparency about historical agency and differential experience are thought to foster norms detrimental to a deeply felt democratic political culture. It is this focus on normative mnemonic democracy that underpins the sense that remembering the Holocaust is essential to democratic norm-formation. Conversely, it would hold that commemorating national sacrifice is largely counterproductive.

Representativeness and democratic legitimacy

This first criterion is certainly significant, but it is incomplete without an understanding of other crucial elements of democracy. The second is representativeness. We can define this as the extent to which a majority of citizens supports a particular publicly manifested interpretation of the past whether a monument, a public holiday or an educational curriculum. Thus, we could define public memory as democratic in a minimalist/procedural sense if the majority of a constituency feels it is a fair or appropriate representation of the past which may or may not be 'historically truthful.'

The third element of mnemonic democracy is the extent to which democratic institutions of the state those upheld and reproduced through democratic processes recognise, support and fund the public manifestation of memory and thereby grant that depiction of history democratic legitimacy. Here, the principle of strong institutions that can uphold the letter and spirit of democratic norms is important. It means that the resources of the state keep citizens on board (and in line) with memorial and educational policy, as well as symbolic statements of officials.

The power of mnemonic democracy

Normative, representative and legitimate democracy are indispensable elements of full-blown mnemonic democracy. Interaction between state, civil society, and other actors mediates and shapes all three.

Yifat Gutman and I argue that memory activists are key in the struggle to define the past in public space. This struggle can have both a positive and negative impact on democracy.

Interaction between state, civil society, and other actors mediates and shapes normative, representative and legitimate democracy all of which are indispensable elements of mnemonic democracy

Many actors engage in negotiations over public memory. For all of them, the power to define what a democratic approach to the past means is highly valuable. Some grassroots actors may not (yet) have majority or official backing. For them, the aspiration to build a mnemonic democracy generates the motivation to overcome barriers to collective action. These barriers include widespread indifference or threats against life and liberty in authoritarian settings.

I believe the concept of 'mnemonic democracy' has significant potential as a category of analysis. Yet neither should we forget its power as a 'category of practice' for actors on the ground.

No.104 in a Loop thread on the Science of Democracy. Look out for theto read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Jenny W羹stenberg
Jenny W羹stenberg
Professor of History and Memory Studies, School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University

Jenny is a project leader in NTUs Global Heritage Theme, and co-lead, with Chris Reynolds, of Memory Studies@NTU.

Her research interests include comparative politics and history; memory politics in Europe, in settler colonial societies, and transnationally; civic activism, social movements, and democratisation; the memory of slow-moving and large-scale change; children and families in history and memory; and qualitative and network methodology.

She has held various leadership positions, particularly as one of the founding Co-Presidents of theMemory Studies Association (together with Aline Sierp and Jeffrey Olick).

Jenny is Chair of the COST Action CA20105 on Slow Memory, which will run from 20212025.

She was also the founding Co-Chair of the Research Network on Transnational Memory and Identity in Europein theCouncil for European Studiesand the Co-Chair of theGerman Studies Associations Interdisciplinary Memory Studies Network.

Jenny is currently a Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Post-Socialist Britain?

She tweets @JennyWustenberg

Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany

Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany
Cambridge University Press, 2017
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