Critical Memory Studies and the Politics of Victimhood: Reassessing the Role of Victimhood Nationalism in Northern Ireland and South Africa

  • Marcel M. Baumann


This chapter examines the role of victimhood nationalism in post-conflict societies. It elaborates on the advancing discipline of “memory studies” by reassessing the roles of memories in societies like Northern Ireland and South Africa. Based on extensive field research in both case studies, this chapter makes the case for the establishment of so-called “critical memory studies”. Such an approach would take into account the contentious and conflict-ridden nature of “victim” and “victimhood”: The definition of a “victim” is bound to be dominated by victimhood nationalism in post-conflict societies, while victimhood nationalism is interrelated with the demand for dealing with the past. Critical memory studies may, thus, add a new perspective to the conventional wisdoms of transitional justice because they challenge the very concept of “victimhood” and its applicability. As a key analytical consequence, this chapter wants to draw awareness of the inherent dialectic of memory: On the one hand, there is the possibility of exploitation of memory through acts of memoralisation; while on the other hand, memory practices can acquire transformative quality in themselves. In order to analyse this dialectical nature of memory, critical memory studies will have to interpret violence as embedded within a collective memoralisation by the referent communities.


Memory Victims Victimhood nationalism Transitional justice Post-conflict transition Northern Ireland South Africa 


  1. Assmann A (1996) Erinnerungsorte und Gedächtnislandschaften. In: Loewy H, Moltmann B (eds) Erlebnis—Gedächtnis—Sinn. Authentische und konstruierte Erinnerung. Campus, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 13–29Google Scholar
  2. Assmann A (1999a) Erinnerungsräume Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses. C.H Beck, MunichGoogle Scholar
  3. Assmann J (1999b) Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in den frühen Hochkulturen. Wilhelm Fink, MunichGoogle Scholar
  4. Assmann J (2000) Religion und das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Zehn Studien. Wilhelm Fink, MunichGoogle Scholar
  5. Assmann J (2005) Das kollektive Gedächtnis zwischen Körper und Schrift. Zur Gedächtnistheorie von Maurice Halbwachs. In: Krapoth H, Laborde D (eds) Erinnerung und Gesellschaft. Mémoire et Société. Hommage à Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945). Leske + Budrich, Opladen, pp. 65–81Google Scholar
  6. Assmann A (2006) Trauma und Tabu. Schattierungen zwischen Täter- und Opfergedächtnis. In: Landkamer J, Noetzel T, Zimmerli WC (eds) Erinnerungsmanagement. Systemtransformation und Vergangenheitspolitik im internationalen Vergleich. Wilhelm Fink, Munich, pp. 235–255Google Scholar
  7. Assmann A (2011a) Vergessen oder Erinnern? Wege aus einer gewaltsamen Gewaltgeschichte. In: Ferhadbegovic S, Weiffen B (eds) Bürgerkriege erzählen: Zum Verlauf unziviler Konflikte. Konstanz University Press, Constance, pp. 303–319Google Scholar
  8. Assmann A (2011b) To remember or to forget: Which way out of a shared history of violence? In: Assmann A, Shortt L (eds) Memory and political change. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 53–71Google Scholar
  9. Assmann A, Shortt L (2011) Memory and political change: introduction. In: Assmann A, Shortt L (eds) Memory and political change. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 1–14Google Scholar
  10. Baumann M (2008) Zwischenwelten: Weder Krieg Noch Frieden. Über den konstruktiven Umgang mit Gewaltphänomenen im Prozess der Konflikttransformation. VS, WiesbadenGoogle Scholar
  11. Baumann M (2009) Understanding the other’s “understanding” of violence: legitimacy, recognition, and the challenge of dealing with the past in divided societies. Int J Confl Violence 3:107–123Google Scholar
  12. Baumann M (2010) Contested victimhood in the Northern Irish peace process. Peace Rev 22:171–177Google Scholar
  13. Baumann M (2011) Verabschiedung von den Opfern? Die namenlose Tragik des Friedens in Nordirland. In: Buckley-Zistel S, Kater T (eds) Nach Krieg, Gewalt und Repression: Der schwierige Umgang mit der Vergangenheit, AFK-Friedensschriften, vol 35. Nomos, Baden–Baden, pp. 39–57Google Scholar
  14. Baumann M, Kößler R (2011) Contested “Amnesias”: Remembering, Forgetting or “Non-Addressing”? The “Victim-Perpetrator-Formula” and the Normative Dimension of Dealing with the Past, Presentation at the 6th ECPR General Conference, University of Iceland, 25–27 Aug 2011. Accessed 5 August 2012
  15. BBC (1999) Changing voices: Billy Giles. Accessed 7 Aug 2012
  16. Boraine A (2003) South Africa’s amnesty revisited. In: Villa-Vicencio C, Doxtader E (eds) The provocations of amnesty: memory, justice and impunity. New Africa Books, Cape Town, pp. 165–180Google Scholar
  17. Brown S D (2008) The quotation marks have a certain importance: prospects for a ‘memory studies’. Mem Stud 1:261–271Google Scholar
  18. Buckley-Zistel S (2006) Remembering to forget: chosen amnesia as a strategy for local coexistence in post-genocide Rwanda. Africa: J Int Afr Inst 76:131–150Google Scholar
  19. Buckley-Zistel S (2011) Between pragmatism, coercion and fear: chosen amnesia after the Rwandan genocide. In: Assmann A, Shortt L (eds) Memory and political change. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 72–88Google Scholar
  20. Burton M (1999) The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: looking back, moving forward. In: Hamber B (ed) Past imperfect: dealing with the past in Northern Ireland and countries in transition. INCORE, Londonderry, pp. 13–24Google Scholar
  21. Cairns E, Roe MD (2003) Why memories in conflict? In: Cairns E, Roe MD (eds) The role of memory in ethnic conflict. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 3–8Google Scholar
  22. Consultative Group on the Past (2009) Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, 23 January 2009. Accessed 4 August 2012
  23. Coombes AE (2003) History after apartheid visual culture and public memory in a democratic South Africa. Duke University Press, DurhamGoogle Scholar
  24. Die Wochenzeitung () Operation Schweiz, 16 Aug . Accessed 7 Aug 2012
  25. Diner D (1996) Massenvernichtung und Gedächtnis. Zur kulturellen Strukturierung historischer Ereignisse. In: Loewy H, Moltmann B (eds) Erlebnis – Gedächtnis – Sinn. Authentische und konstruierte Erinnerung. Campus, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 47–55Google Scholar
  26. Flickr (2012) Jan 10—”No military targets! No economic targets! No legitimate targets!”, mural off the Shankill road, Belfast. Accessed 7 August 2012
  27. Freedom Park Trust () Press Release, 11 January . Accessed 4 August 2012
  28. Guelke A (2000) Interpretations of political violence during South Africa’s transition. Politikon 27:239–254Google Scholar
  29. Halbwachs M (1966) Das Gedächtnis und seine sozialen Bedingungen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am MainGoogle Scholar
  30. Halbwachs M (1967) Das Kollektive Gedächtnis. Enke, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  31. Hamber B, Wilson R (2003) Symbolic closure through memory, reparation and revenge in post-conflict societies. In: Cairns E, Roe MD (eds) The role of memory in ethnic conflict. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 144–168Google Scholar
  32. Hayner PB (2000) Same species, different animal. How South Africa compares to truth commissions worldwide. In: Villa-Vicencio C, Verwoerd W (eds) Looking back reaching forward. Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. UCT Press, Cape Town, pp. 32–41Google Scholar
  33. IRA (2002) Irish Republican Army (IRA) Statement of Apology, 16 July 2002. Accessed 7 August 2012
  34. IRA (2005) Irish Republican Army (IRA) Statement on the Ending of the Armed Campaign, 28 July 2005. Accessed 29 July 2005
  35. Lim J-H (2010) Victimhood nationalism in contested memories: national mourning and global accountability. In: Assmann A, Conrad S (eds) Memory in a global age. Discourses Practices and Trajectories. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 138–162Google Scholar
  36. Mail & Guardian (2009) FF Plus calls for Freedom Park boycott, 20 March 2009. Accessed 11 November 2011
  37. Maré G (1992) Brothers born in warrior blood. Politics and Ethnicity in South Africa. Zed Books, Atlantic HighlandsGoogle Scholar
  38. Margalit A (1997) Gedenken, Vergessen, Vergeben. In: Margalit A, Smith D (eds) Amnestie oder Die Politik der Erinnerung in der Demokratie. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 192–205Google Scholar
  39. Margalit A (2002) The ethics of memory. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  40. Meier C (1996) Erinnern—Verdrängen—Vergessen. Merkur 50:937–52Google Scholar
  41. Meier C (2010) Das Gebot zu vergessen und die Unabweisbarkeit des Erinnerns. Vom öffentlichen Umgang mit schlimmer Vergangenheit. Siedler, MünichGoogle Scholar
  42. Moltmann B (2002) ‘Es kann der Frömmste nicht im Frieden bleiben:’ Nordirland und sein kalter Frieden. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Frankfurt am MainGoogle Scholar
  43. News Letter (2009) All mother’s tears are not the same, 2 Feb 2009. Accessed 7 August 2012
  44. Noble JA (2011) African identity in post-apartheid public architecture. White skin, black masks. Ashgate, FarnhamGoogle Scholar
  45. Pauw J (1997) Into the heart of darkness confessions of apartheid’s assassins. Jonathan Ball Publishers, JohannesburgGoogle Scholar
  46. Porter N (2003) The elusive quest: reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Blackstaff Press, BelfastGoogle Scholar
  47. Portfolio Collection Travel Blog (2011) Monument Monday—Freedom Park, 14 Nov 2011.—Freedom-Park. Accessed 1 December 2011
  48. Simpson G (2002) ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories:’ a brief evaluation of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In: Posel D, Simpson G (eds) Commissioning the past: understanding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, pp. 220–251Google Scholar
  49. Simpson G (2004) A snake gives birth to a snake: politics and crime in the transition to democracy in South Africa. Accessed 1 October 2011
  50. Smyth M (1999) Remembering in Northern Ireland: victims, perpetrators and hierarchies of pain and responsibility. In: Hamber B (ed) Past imperfect: dealing with the past in Northern Ireland and countries in transition. INCORE, Londonderry, pp. 31–49Google Scholar
  51. Smyth M, Fay M-T (eds) (2000) Personal accounts from Northern Ireland’s troubles: public conflict, private loss. Pluto Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  52. Sutton J (2009) Looking beyond memory studies: comparisons and integrations. Mem Stud 2:299–302Google Scholar
  53. Taylor P (2000) Loyalists. Bloomsbury, LondonGoogle Scholar
  54. Taylor R (2002) Justice denied: political violence in KwaZulu-Natal after 1994. Accessed 1 December 2011
  55. Tia Mysoa (2009) SA Defence Force Wall of Remembrance, 26 Oct 2009. http;// Accessed 1 December 2011
  56. Times Live (2010) ANC wants Freedom Park, Voortrekker Monument linked, 30 March 2010. Accessed 1 December 2011
  57. TRC (2003) Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, vol 6 (Final Report). http;// Accessed 5 August 2012
  58. Wildschut G (2000) Statement of Glenda Wildschut in the Documentary “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” (2000). Accessed 13 May 2004
  59. Winter J (2011) Foreword: remembrance as a human right. In: Assmann A, Shortt L (eds) Memory and political change. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. vii–xiGoogle Scholar
  60. Wright P, Davies J (2010) Just start digging: memory and the framing of heritage. Mem Stud 3:196–220Google Scholar
  61. Wuhrer P (2007) Operation Schweiz. Woz 3312007, 16 August 2007. Accessed 7 August 2012

Copyright information

© T.M.C. ASSER PRESS, The Hague, The Netherlands, and the authors 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Albert-Ludwigs-University of FreiburgFreiburgGermany

Personalised recommendations