Who “Owns” Historical Memory?

I recently wrote about W.F. Marshall, who was angered enough by Irish Republican use of history that he wrote Ulster Sails West in 1943, asserting what he saw as rightful ownership of Scotch-Irish accomplishments in American history.  Marshall, an Ulster unionist and Presbyterian minister, accused Irish Republicans of stealing Scotch-Irish historical achievements to appeal to Americans for aid in the fight against the partition of Ireland.

It was commonplace from the late 19th century onward for Ulster unionists to use the history of the Scotch-Irish in America to support the movement against Irish Home Rule.  They claimed ownership over the achievements of those whom they considered their ethnic brethren in the United States.

Going even further, though, they also used historical events that their ethnic group was not explicitly connected with – namely the events of the American Civil War – to support their political movement, and discredit the policies of the British government and Irish nationalists.

As I researched this further, I wondered if there were other examples of countries or groups using historical events that were not directly related to them as part of their own historical memory.  As with much of the field of memory studies, the answer to this question begins with the study of the Holocaust.

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider have put forward the concept of “cosmopolitan memory” to describe collective memories that transcend national boundaries.  They assert that cosmopolitan memory is part of the process of globalization and changes in communications technology, making global issues part of everyday life experiences for the average person.  In the Ulster unionist case, global narratives have been utilized for the purposes of gaining political legitimacy and identity construction (and delegitimizing the positions of the Irish nationalists and the Gladstone government).  This proactive use of history in creating collective identity is part of what transforms it into historical memory.

In Levy and Sznaider’s article, they discuss the Holocaust as a global event that both symbolizes universal values and resonates on local levels.  They argue that the Holocaust became a moral touchstone in a globalized community, particularly after the 1960s.  This can be seen in the ways that the United States approaches the historical memory of the Holocaust.

Was the American Civil War similarly a moral touchstone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

And in the bigger picture, who is entitled to use this history for the purposes of political legitimacy, and cultural and social unity?  Is it possible to “steal” history and what are the implications of doing so?

Suggested Reading:

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, “Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 87 (2002).

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