Failure & Beyond

Telling History – Shaping Memory

Seminar Description – Topic

 Through oral and written narratives academics contribute to the historical and commemorative culture of a society. (Historical) scientists not only try to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible, but in doing so, they also provide possible meaning and identity. Thereby, the process-inherent nature of historiography needs to be considered, because historical reconstruction is always shaped by assumed perspectives. This is the reason for the delicate situation regarding historiography: Trying to achieve a maximum of objectivity and autonomy, while constantly being subjected to accusations of subjectivity. Even after the ‘Age of Extremes’ and ideologies, historians of democratic societies are unable to fully achieve this balancing act. However, one should not assume that telling history is or has been the exclusive right of historians. At all times, other groups of players have endeavoured to create their own narratives. In the end, the ‘victors’ of these ‘wars of remembrance’ are the ones who write history. In doing so, they pursue their own objectives, such as trying to legitimate their rule, justify their deeds or preserve their legacy. Losers or groups associated with failure and collapse, on the other hand, are often erased from the generated narratives. This directed view of history is characterised by mechanisms of selective memory and active oblivion, practiced throughout human history, from antiquity to this day. In the light of current events, the battle of interpretation over the commemoration of World War I, during the Austrian inter-war period, could be seen as an example of such mechanism. In post World War I Austria, the battle of constructing memory was won by the former k. u. k. officers, whose interpretation has dominated the public opinion about the war ever since.

The autumn 2015 seminar of the International Students of History Association in Graz aims to change perspectives, lifting the ‘failures’ in history from their shadowy existence and bringing them to light. We want to rethink the past and the developments of states,
institutions, persons, ideologies and social movements by dealing with failure as a historical phenomenon. When and why is an event interpreted as a success; when dismissed as a failure? And most importantly: who decides about these categories of failure and success? These and other questions not only take into account processes of historiographical production, its interpretation and its agents, but also the ‘lost’ tales, the blanks and the gaps.

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