Following a century characterized by two world wars, a protracted Cold War, and decolonization, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is perhaps appropriate that historians and other scholars should now be turning their attention to the question of memory. The legacy of the destructive twentieth century looms large in the minds of many people as they search for ways to confront a past dominated by oppression and colonization in a manner that recognizes the reality of these experiences, but also allows them to move forward. How much of that past should be forgotten? How much of it should be remembered in the search for justice and reconciliation? How do populations that have suffered at the hands of oppressive regimes re-establish trust in their former tormentors? These are just some of the questions at the heart of this new collection of essays brought together by Michèle Baussant. The result is a particularly rich global overview of the various ways in which people are coming to terms with the legacy of the last century.
It is useful to remember that, for many people, especially those who cannot point to a single moment or event, symbolic or otherwise, when the injustices associated with the past can be said to have made way for a more just present, the past remains firmly embedded in their everyday lives. For some, like the indigenous people in the Mexican state of Chiapas who continue to suffer from discrimination and poverty, the present appears little removed from the oppressive past. Frustration in Chiapas reached a boiling point at the beginning of 1994 when many indigenes rebelled against the Mexican government. Interpreting this rebellion as an act of public disorder, Mexican officials responded with force. This confrontation, Martin Hébert demonstrates, pitted Mexican officials who sought to dissociate the present, and themselves, from the past against a segment of the population that continued to live with the problems, such as discrimination and poverty, which were the legacies of that past. The Mexican government sought to diffuse the situation by offering to pardon the rebels if they abandoned their revolt. But the rebels responded angrily, suggesting that they were not the ones who should be pardoned for standing up for their rights within a system that they claimed perpetuated the discrimination and injustice [End Page 273] of the past. This was a confrontation, Hé bert shows, between a state striving to forget the past and a population not quite willing to see the state as divorced from the oppressive past.
The sense that the state remains culpable for past crimes even after oppressive regimes have been replaced very often arises because of the feeling that state officials have not adequately confronted that past or established sufficient distance from it by instituting policies that would end persistent discrimination. Resentment persists even when there is a recognizable moment that cordons off the past. If officials move forward without fully dealing with the past, they can make the victims of past regimes feel forgotten. By failing to recognize the larger society's role in past atrocities, and in seeking to establish too much distance from the past, the state risks appearing as part of a cover-up and being associated with these atrocities. This is the case in Romania, according to Cristian Preda, following the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. With the death of a dictator comes the temptation to turn a horrific past into an anomaly and to blame any atrocities on a particular individual. Isolating the past and failing to recognize the state's culpability, however, as Mexican officials attempted to do in 1994, can produce feelings among victims of being victimized all over again.
Of course, figuring out the appropriate means of dealing with past injustices requires some agreement over just who constitutes the victim. But what if the victim remains poorly defined and unacknowledged? Such was the case until the 1980s for the Gypsies who had been struggling to secure recognition as victims of the Nazi Holocaust on the grounds that they were members of a defined group, and not because they were deemed socially undesirable as individuals. In an interesting article, Véronique Klauber notes that evidence showing that some Nazis did indeed define Gypsies as a "race" has helped pave the way for such recognition. But this evidence also raises a number of questions about the desirability of relying on categories established by one's oppressors in order to secure recognition as victims.
This collection brings together very different experiences, connected by astute commentaries that draw links between different circumstances. Francine Saillant, for example, compares the experiences of Algonquians living in Quebec and Afro-Brazilians by looking at how both groups have dealt with their pasts according to the manner in which they navigate public space. While these commentaries make some valuable connections between different experiences, this collection reminds us of the risks of approaching these experiences in a homogeneous manner. The essays in this collection also emphasize that the questions of memory do not simply deal with victims of past oppressions. This point becomes abundantly clear when one considers the continued struggles by the Canadian state to deal with its legacy of colonialism, as well as the French efforts to come to terms with the bitter legacy of the Algerian War. This collection goes a long way in reminding us that the traumas of the past can be kept alive [End Page 274] through the veil of forgetfulness behind which many people hide. It is also a stark reminder that history is rarely simply about the past.