Why I... believe in the healing power of memory

March 8, 2002

Memory is a dynamic and creative force that seeks not only past understanding but also future inspiration. We remember for ourselves - but also, and more important, we remember for the benefit of our society.

Not all that memory gives birth to is good. People live for generations, for centuries and even perhaps for millennia with hatred stirred by memories of ethnic and religious conflict. Stories of atrocity, which can mark dividing lines starkly, may become defining elements in a culture and therefore seemingly impossible to change. Yet it is also possible for cultures to create healing narratives that can recognise and then transcend the traumas of the past.

Developments in lifespan psychology and reminiscence studies have given psychologists more confidence to contribute to the healing of memories at an individual and a social level. More attention is being paid to issues such as the positive transformation of personality and society after trauma. The work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good example. The creation of narrative marks progress made since the trauma. Developmental theories of ageing have also contributed to a better understanding of the social functions of reminiscence in, for example, the importance of intergenerational transmission of memories.

A group of psychologists from different countries has come together to apply these principles to research the second world war experience across northern Europe, the narratives veterans tell about them, and the family experience of these stories. The main aim of these studies is to investigate how the stories are transmitted to the next generation. So far, we have carried out a series of pilot studies in Finland and Russia. But our collaborators also include other British and German psychologists working in the area of war trauma, and we hope to extend our network to include other countries as well.

For the Finnish and Russian war veterans, the wars they have experienced have been deeply meaningful despite their trauma. For both groups, the strong meaning has not waned with time. It is clear to them why the sacrifice was made. For the older Finns, there is a continuous line between those sacrifices and the Finland of today - after centuries of Swedish and Russian domination, it is a prosperous member of the European Union with a strong voice. For the older Russians, however, the massive societal change they have experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been disturbing, and yet they are still able to give strong witness to continuing human values.

The involvement of Germany is crucial to our enterprise of understanding the healing of second world war memories, but German war memories are difficult to record. There is resistance to speaking openly about the war. Most German researchers have felt a duty to direct their research towards those who suffered under Nazi persecution.

Few studies have been conducted on the experiences of ordinary German soldiers and civilians in the second world war. As a result, we know relatively little about how older Germans have interpreted their wartime sacrifices, given their country's eventual defeat and disgrace. It is particularly important to understand the consequences of this apparent lack of communication on younger as well as older Germans.

We consider that there is much to learn from cross-national investigations into reminiscence and intergenerational transmission of memories. Our interviews so far illustrate well Victor Frankl's saying that anything can be endured so long as it can be made meaningful. But for our ageing veterans, it is also necessary for that meaning to persist over time.

Peter Coleman
Department of psychology
University of Southampton

Peter Coleman will speak at the 'On Memory' symposium at Southampton University on March 11.

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