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Peace, War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders, 1st Edition

This book examines the phenomenon of modern memory as a reaction to total war, an aspiration to truth-seeking provoked by the independent forces of modern war and collective violence which is transnational, or postnational, in character. Using examples from prose and poetry, film and theatre, painting and photography, and music and the popular arts, the author traces a narrative path through the events of the 20th century, defining the tradition of modern memory in terms of its essentially anti-militaristic, anti-war character, as expressed in the manner in which it represents recalled violence and atrocity. Through a series of thematic discussions of two world wars, the Shoah, urbicide and nuclear weapons, Postnational Memory explores the formation of transnational memory, drawing on examples from industrialised societies, with a focus on memory of real events and their reproduction in literature and the arts, often including personal recollections that link the self to the represented past. As such, by asking how the concept of modern memory is constructed through the victims of war and genocide, the book constitutes an alternative to national memories and hegemonic, militarist or ethnocentric histories. Surveying the emergence of new, transnational forms of remembering the past, it will appeal to students and scholars of sociology, memory studies and peace studies, as well as those working in disciplines such as modern and international history, cultural studies and military studies.

 Nigel Young’s rich tapestry of words, images and reflections leads us to understand how the total wars of the 20th century have shaped and changed our  modern sense of memory.  He shows how the shattering experiences of two world wars — and of the genocides, annihilations, crimes against humanity and the first use of nuclear weapons which accompanied them —  have been dealt with in different ways.  Some memories have been suppressed, some have emerged from long silence, and many have been variously interpreted and re-interpreted over the decades. They have also generated powerful art (vividly illustrated here), journalism and literature. Memory has moved from the private to the public sphere,  developing new transnational  forms to challenge the orthodoxies of nationalism and hegemonism.  This is a book which invites us to revisit both the past and the present with searching questions about the impact of war on modern human consciousness.





John Gittings, author of  The Glorious Art of Peace: Paths to peace in a new age of war.    @TheCaseforPeace 

Nigel Young’s challenging and interesting book draws on his wisdom and deep experience. It’s very much a work of personal witness, most notably in the book’s numerous vignettes and examples. These explore not only war poetry, literature, museums, memorials, paintings, musical requiems and so forth; but also more popular arts, like wall murals, songs, journalism and popular theatre, novels and films. 


The book tells us not only to persist in telling the truth about war and militarism, but also to engage with diverse forms of ‘counter-memorialisation’: that is, new ways of tapping historical memory; new ways of identifying how war has been resisted and spaces for peace have been opened; and new ways of imagining alternative more peaceful futures.  


The memorialisation of war and critique of its horrors. Young deals with universal themes, but approaches them via the memorialisation of war in the past century since World War I. In particular he focuses on how critiques of war have sharpened and gathered momentum during the modern era of industrialised warfare, mass destruction and global military intervention.       


At the same time “postnational memory” is a prolonged reflection upon our troubled relationship with history. It builds a sustained critique of the nexus between militaristic and nationalistic versions of historical memory. And it navigates skilfully through deep contradictions that beset historical memory.

Reflections on Nigel Young: Post-national Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders  

Dr. Robin Luckham, Institute of Development Studies, University Sussex 

It can be genuinely difficult to escape national confines when thinking about peace and war. Currently, for example a specifically British narrative of World War II is resurfacing in the apparently unrelated context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet even for the peace movement it can be hard to transcend national preoccupations when key reference points often relate to specific conflicts. Conscientious objection, Quaker service, CND, white poppies, peace demonstrations, and much else, take off from specific contestations in British history. 

It is in this light that Nigel Young’s Postnational Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders has a relevance beyond its range and cogency as an academic study.  The book works its way towards an energizing message for the future – that we can create narratives of both mourning and hope beyond national borders and ancient enmities.  But to accept Thomas Hardy’s adage ‘If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’ is to grasp why Young feels the need to revisit, in a focused,  unsensational way the main horrors of twentieth century’s wars.

So, yes, the book does chronicle what lies behind those tragically iconic words: Somme, Guernica, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Bosnia and, above all, Holocaust or Shoah. Yet this tour of man’s inhumanity to man does not simply depress, for two reasons. First, there is a very strong emphasis on the witnesses – combatants, civilians, writers, artists – who have not only borne witness to atrocity but also shown how the human spirit can affirm shared values beyond violence and destruction. From the First World War poets to the relative unsung creators of the Hiroshima panels to the epic films of Claude Lanzmann on the Shoah and Peter Watkins on nuclear destruction, there have been affirmations of a transnational mourning and hope.

A second reason that the book threads securely between apocalyptic gloom and voyeuristic tourism, is that it is studded with vignettes of personal experience, as the author revisits sites of memory and mourning. These stories often touch on the very specific and local (the influence of W G Sebald is acknowledged). One heartening anecdote retails the author’s boyhood encounter with railway-labouring Italian POWs. Their warm welcome and sharing of a novel wartime treat — espresso coffee — touchingly exemplifies the author’s theme of crossing borders.

Yet his personal odyssey necessarily involves far darker encounters as he visits Thiepval, Verdun, Birkenau and Hiroshima. Intent on avoiding ‘atrocity tourism’ or ‘museumization’ of these sites, he works his way beyond the official narratives that may present us with what he terms prosthetic memories — which, like the screen memories of Freud’s patients, serve to obscure rather than illuminate the past.  Always, he seeks out counter-narratives. Some are the testimonies of citizen witnesses, like local Buddhist responses to the Vietnam war, while others are the ‘memory-work’ of individual artists like Paul Nash or Otto Dix, determined to memorialize the stark reality of conflict.

From such witnessing Nigel Young finds a foundation for transnational remembering and for consequent shared action in the future.  He faces up to contemporary problems in achieving this: on the one hand, a rise in nationalism and fundamentalism, on the other hand a social-media absorption in an eternal present. But again, he finds numerous heartening examples of those creating ‘a global archive of the past in the present’, reaching out beyond national, ethnic or religious barriers to create  a  ‘Transnational Memory’ through which both past suffering and future hopes can be shared.

K E Smith, The Friend, 

Given its historical range and geographical scope, Nigel Young’s project – which is to trace what he interprets as a modern, postnational “collective memory” since around World War I - is a considerable achievement.
At one point, he refers to the notion of an “invention of tradition” – such as that of creating national commemorative rituals and narratives. This idea, a concept first developed by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger is an apt one for describing Young’s own approach.
“Postnational Memory” draws from multiple sources, genres and exemplars from the arts, to depict, and then track a nascent tradition, evolving  through more than a century. This cultural narrative reminded me of events and aspects of which I had been long aware, but mostly were at least half forgotten and were now re-united around this thesis.
I felt frustrated at times, while reading the book, that there is no single authoritative voice or conceptual scheme to organise everything neatly or tell the reader what s/he should think.  However, I gradually started to feel the value and the benefits of the idea of being invited to join the creative process; to “invent”, detect or construct   my own version,  of these paths, or voices, of alternative experiencing and 'tradition-making'. The process of modern remembering thus represents a polyphony, a multiplicity of different voices, that prevents any imperialist or imperious domination by any single voice. Bakhtin would have been very happy with it!
Throughout the book, Young’s own voice, and experiences – largely expressed in intermittent personal vignettes - covering decades of reflection and experience - contribute to making this an amazing and exhilarating read.

Tom Wengraf, formerly lecturer at Middlesex University and Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, currently fostering the practice of biographic narrative interviewing and  case-interpretation in psychosocietal research

Memory is now a specialised field of its own and the author has spent much of his career deeply engaged in it, especially as it relates to modern war, genocide and mass violence - including nuclear weapons. Drawing on a huge range of examples from prose, poetry, film and theatre, painting, photography, music and the popular arts, he traces a narrative path through the tragic events of the 20th century. In this way, Young sketches out a history of modern remembering and explores the formation of a ‘transnational’ (or ‘postnational’) historical awareness, as an alternative to purely national narratives and imperial, militarist or ethnocentric histories. He takes us to ‘sacred’ sites (Auschwitz, Hiroshima and many more) and intersperses the more theoretical passages with telling personal ‘vignettes’. This remarkable work is intense and deeply felt; not always an easy read, but one that repays the effort.

Colin Archer, MAW (The Movement for the Abolition of War) newsletter

Nigel Young’s Post-national Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders is a magnificent labyrinth of a book that takes its reader in numerous interesting directions.  It is not always easy to read. However, it is packed with fruitful ideas, images and insights. It draws on the author’s life’s work as a peace activist; as an academic and researcher in peace studies; as a public intellectual; and as editor of the Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace. It successfully combines deep analysis with personal witness, notably in the numerous vignettes and images, which are scattered though the book. Whilst drawing upon the insights of psychology, the book is truly multidisciplinary. It explores how war and peace are represented in poetry, war memorials, paintings, plays and requiems; as well as in popular arts, like murals, songs, cartoons, journalism, novels and films.


The book deals with universal themes, which go all the way back to Homer’s Iliad and further. It concentrates in particular on how war and peace have been memorialised during the century since World War One. It develops two central arguments. First, it contends that modern industrialised wars of mass destruction and of global military intervention have not just transformed warfare itself, but also how we think about it and represent it in cultural production. Much of this argument is developed around the representation of the foundational tragedies of our time - mass slaughter in the trenches; genocide during the Shoah; Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the shadow of nuclear holocaust - although it is by no means confined to these events.


Second, and even more interestingly, the author argues that out of this violent and troubled context have arisen new post-national forms of “counter-memorialisation,” drawing upon our shared sense of common humanity, which offer “constructed civilian alternatives to military and violent nationalist narratives.” The chosen interlocutors of these counter-narratives are not the official custodians of national memory, but the victims, witnesses and survivors.  If this seems idealistic, it is because it is idealistic, and necessarily so. 


The final chapter starts with an insightful discussion of Walter Benjamin’s powerful image of the angel of history being swept towards the hazards of the future, trapped in an ever-moving present, back turned to face the debris of history piling up behind. The danger is that Benjamin’s “icy blast of pessimism”, though highly necessary, might blind us to the transformative potential of historical memory, required to tackle the legacies of our violent and exploitative past, and to imagine more peaceful ways of leading our lives. The book navigates skilfully around this danger by analysing and confronting the contradictions arising:

  • between chauvinistic national histories, amnesiac forgetting and bold truth-telling

  • between grand historical narratives and everyday experiences of war and peace 

  • between militarized and more peaceful ways of imagining national histories and identities

  • between manipulated, commoditised images of war and violence and more critical and creative cultural figurations

  • between closed national imaginaries and cosmopolitan perspectives, able (in the words of the book’s title) to imagine “pasts beyond borders.”


The conversations initiated in the book resonate also with struggles over historical memory now being waged by younger generations, through the new media as well as in older forms of cultural production. These have turned an increasingly critical eye upon the deep legacies of colonial conquest and slavery, which were intimately linked not only to the rise of modern capitalism and militarism, but also to the flowering of Western democracy. A cogent example is Kara Walker’s statue and fountain Fons Americanus, exhibited in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (gallery in London) until early 2020. This cleverly subverted the imperial iconography of statues like the Victoria Memorial, so as to highlight the brute realities of enslavement and violence, which interconnect the histories of Africa, America and Europe.


In sum, the book tells us not only to continue telling the truth about war, militarism and empire, but also to engage with diverse forms of counter-memorialisation: new ways of tapping historical memory; new ways of identifying how war is resisted and spaces for peace are opened; and new ways of imagining alternative more peaceful futures.

War, Peace and Empire in Modern Memory.

A review of Post-national Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders.  

Dr. Robin Luckham, Emeritus Fellow Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Robin Luckham has taught in Universities in Africa, the USA and the UK, and has published widely on peacebuilding and disarmament; on militarismand conflict in the developing South, including Sub-Saharan Africa: and on armament culture.

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