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Visions of the Postwar The Politics ofMemory and Expectation in 1940s France Jon Cowans As historians have shifted their attention in recent decades from economic and social structures toward consciousness and representations, few topics have elicited more interest than the concept of memory. By exploring people's images ofthe past, historians have helped cast light on a range of topics from the foundations of individual, ethnic or national identity to the curious persistence ofold political and cultural controversies . Yet as important as memories may be, people's beliefs about their future also shape their words, actions and identities—a point that historians have only rarely pursued. There are of course many histories of postwar reconstruction, economic planning and other attempts to realize some imagined future order, but those works have usually focused on the work of policymakers rather than on the visions of the future underlying that work. There have also been various histories of beliefs about the future, from ancient eschatologies to modern ideas ofprogress, but those works have mainly described the ideas ofscholars, saying little about how perceptions of the future figured in political and social struggles of the time.1 In short, historians have thought less—and less critically—about the history ofexpectations for the future than about the history of memory. One important work that has examined the theory and history of expectations is Reinhart Koselleck's Futures Past. Noting that concepts of historical time are themselves situated historically, Koselleck portrays 68 Visions of the Postwar a fundamental shift in those concepts in modern Europe. In the Middle Ages, he argues, "the Christian doctrine of the Final Days" structured Europeans' overall outlook on the future, while in their daily lives, peasants "lived within the cycle of nature," and artisans lived by guild regulations that "made sure that everything would remain the way it was." Given these conditions and beliefs, "the future remained bound to the past," producing "an almost seamless transference of earlier experiences into coming expectations."2 Although these living conditions and expectations remained unchanged among peasants and artisans well into the modern era, contends Koselleck, educated Europeans began to alter their outlook between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, subjecting Christian prophecy and the idea ofprovidence to rational criticism and coming to believe that history "was ultimately planned and carried out by men themselves." Thus, whereas it had long been "an almost universally accepted doctrine that one could, from the history of the past, learn lessons for the future," with the new outlook on history, expectations "became detached from all that previous experience had to offer."3 In the Enlightenment, this new sense of an open future produced widespread optimism and belief in the idea of progress, eventually helping launch the era of revolutions that began in 1789. Those revolutions helped spread new ways ofthinking about the future to the lower classes, but they also began to undermine the beliefin progress and to make the future seem opaque, even menacing. Europe thus passed from a long era of confidence in images of the future resting on stable world views and living conditions, through a briefperiod ofrevolutionary optimism about an open future, into a modern era of increasing uncertainty about the future rooted in relentless disruptions in the patterns of existence. To Koselleck, deep apprehension about an unknowable future has remained a consistent, defining feature oflife in the modern era. In this era, "technical-industrial modification ... forces upon its inhabitants ever briefer intervals oftime in which to gather new experiences and adapt to changes induced at an accelerating pace." The increasing obscurity ofthe future in such a world deepens the urgency ofits contemplation, opening new realms for political action. "The nature ofthis future," he writes, "is so obscure that its recognition and mastery have become the constant task of politics," and he observes that virtually all modern political 69 Jon Cowans systems, including liberalism, communism and fascism, have offered confident predictions ofa better future. An ability to speak convincingly about the future and to supply credible forecasts and plans, argues Koselleck, has become one of the requisites of legitimate authority in modern politics.4 Many ofKoselleck's concepts recur in Pierre Nora's introduction to Les...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 68-101
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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