Putting the Past Behind Us

What role does forgetting play in the process of coming to terms with the past?

The tension between, as Harvard Law School professor Martha Minow puts it, "too much memory and too much forgetting,"1 is one that every society must confront in the aftermath of a period of mass violence and oppression. Both ends of the spectrum Minow presents have the capacity to derail the process of healing and reconciliation. Finding the balance between acknowledgement, acceptance and responsibility for past injustices, while turning towards the future with open minds and hopeful expectations, is an essential task in the hard work of transitional justice.

At the end of the war, according to some critics, a "collective amnesia" of the Nazi past and the Holocaust began to form in Europe. Historian Tony Judt argues that this process may have provided a necessary foundation for rebuilding. In his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, he writes:

In his first official address to the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany, on September 20th 1949, Konrad Adenauer had this to say about denazification and the Nazi legacy: ‘The government of the Federal Republic, in the belief that many have subjectively atoned for a guilt that was not heavy, is determined where it appears acceptable to do so to put the past behind us.' There is no doubt that many Germans heartily endorsed this assertion. If denazification aborted, it was because for political purposes Germans had spontaneously ‘denazified' themselves on May 8th 1945.

And the German people were not alone. In Italy the daily newspaper of the new Christian Democratic Party put out a similar call to oblivion on the day of Hitler's death: ‘We have the strength to forget!,' it proclaimed. ‘Forget as soon as possible!' In the East the Communists's strongest suit was their promise to make a revolutionary new beginning in countries where everyone had something to forget—things done to them or things they had done themselves. All over Europe there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates's recommendations to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.' 

This distrust of short-term memory, the search for serviceable myths of anti-fascism—for a Germany of anti-Nazis, a France of resisters or a Poland of victims—was the most important invisible legacy of World War Two in Europe. In its positive form it facilitated national recovery by allowing men like Marshal Tito, Charles de Gaulle or Konrad Adenauer to offer their fellow countrymen a plausible and even prideful account of themselves.2

Judt goes on to say:

Without such collective amnesia, Europe's astonishing post-war recovery would not have been possible. To be sure, much was put out of mind that would subsequently return in discomforting ways. But only much later would it become clear just how much post-war Europe rested on foundation myths that would fracture and shift with the passage of years. In the circumstances of 1945, in a continent covered with rubble, there was much to be gained by behaving as though the past was indeed dead and buried and a new age about to begin. The price paid was a certain amount of selective, collective forgetting, notably in Germany. But then, in Germany above all, there was much to forget.3


  • 1 : Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence by Martha Minow (Beacon Press), 1999, p. 118.
  • 2 : "The Rehabilitation of Europe," from Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt (The Penguin Press), 2005, p. 61. Used by permission of The Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
  • 3 : Ibid, pp. 61-62.

Connection Questions

  1. Harvard Law professor and author Martha Minow identifies paths between "too much memory and too much forgetting" in her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence. She writes, "dwelling in the frozen space of inability and incapacity is unacceptable, unresponsive to victims, unavailing to the waiting future."1 Is forgetting doing something? Is it ever possible to truly "forget" a painful history? What role does forgetting play in the process of coming to terms with the past?
  2. Tony Judt writes: "Without such collective amnesia, Europe's astonishing post-war recovery would not have been possible."2 Judt is saying that, given the time, place, and circumstances of Europe after World War II, there were, in fact, some benefits to the idea of Germans collectively "forgetting" their recent history. What are some of these short term and long term benefits? What do you think are some of the consequences to such an approach?
  3. From the United States to all countries, reconstruction is necessary in the aftermath of past instances of injustice, oppression and violence. One aspect of reconstruction is how the historical narrative of a nation will be created, interpreted and taught to future generations. The use and abuse of historical narratives is a story told over and over again. What are some ways to try to ensure that historical narratives become tools of reconstruction, rather than becoming tools to perpetuate inequalities or misinformation? 
  4. In Lois Lowry's book, The Giver, the author creates a society where one person alone is given the responsibility of knowing history, while all other citizens feel no pain, seemingly unburdened by choice or by challenging memories. Read Lowry's book in light of the issues in this module. What would a society look like if it took The Giver as a road map for post-conflict reconstruction? What do we learn about transitional justice from Lowry's story?

Classroom sets of The Giver are available to teachers in our network through Facing History lending library. We have also created a free study guide for The Giver, which is available as a PDF download.


  • 1 : Minow, p. 4.
  • 2 : Judt, p. 61.

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