Université de Strasbourg

Public lecture: Memory laws - Using the past to serve the present

March 22, 2024
From 15:00 until 16:30
Salle de conférence, ISIS, Strasbourg (FR)

Nikolay Koposov

The speaker, Nikolay Koposov, is a Distinguished Professor of the Practice in the School of History and Sociology and the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology (US).

The lecture, based on his book Memory Laws, Memory Wars (Cambridge University Press, 2018), will present new insights into the recent proliferation of memory laws, aimed at regulating what can be said about the past, and about their effects on democracy.

The lecture is open to the public and will be given in English.


15:00 Opening words - Jean-Louis Mandel, USIAS Chair of Human Genetics
15:05 Introductory remarks - Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
15:15 Lecture Nikolay Koposov, Georgia Institute of Technology
16:10  Discussion

Using the past to serve the present

Is legislation of memory good for democracy?

Nikolay KoposovA memory law is a legal provision governing the interpretation of historical events, in order to consolidate and protect a certain narrative about the past. This legislation and, more generally, history politics – the use of the past as a political tool for the present – have proliferated in recent decades and have become important instruments of political mobilization and “memory wars” within and between many countries, from China and Russia to Europe and the US. The Russian aggression against Ukraine, justified by false historical claims, is an extreme example, although by no means the only recent case of a memory war leading to a shooting war. In many instances, the dynamics of violence seem to follow a vicious circle: violence – memory wars – new violence.

The rise of memory legislation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the prohibition and criminalization of holocaust denial as the most notable example, was part of the effort to consolidate democracy and celebrate its triumph over totalitarian regimes. However, according to many observers, the humanistic cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust is in decline now. With the rise of populism and neo-authoritarianism, history politics and legislation about the past have been largely intercepted by anti-democratic forces.

Should we think that those laws and politics are just neutral instruments that can be used to legitimize any social and political agendas? In this case, the fact that populists and authoritarianists increasingly use them does not need any other explanation than that both populism and authoritarianism are on the rise. Alternatively, one can suppose the existence of internal, logical interconnections between history politics and memory laws on the one hand and certain types of ideologies, regimes, and movements on the other.

I will argue that, beyond a certain point, using the past for political legitimation favors anti-democratic political projects and undermines the precarious balance between universalism and particularism on which liberal democracy is founded. Pursuing large-scale history politics and legislating about the past liberal democracy has contributed to creating a cultural atmosphere in which it is likely to lose to its challengers.

France 2030