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Possessing History, Possessive Histories

Monday, Oct 4, 2021, 6:15 PM

Benjamin Zachariah


Possessing History, Possessive Histories

At the heart of many of the disputes around remembering moments of collective violence is the idea that there are identifiable historical inheritors of the perpetrators, and that there are inheritors of the victims. The inheritors, therefore, either of victimhood or perpetratorship, are seen to possess ‘their’ history (unto how many generations?) in a way that is almost Biblical in visiting the sins of the (great-grand-)fathers upon the (great-grand-)children, and in a way that absolves the inheritors of historical wrong unto the nth generation. This is premised on a prior assumption: the possession of a particular history becomes that of a particular group of people, and not of human beings at large; and consequently, histories make possessive claims upon ‘their people’ —in a self-perpetuating and circular logic. That this has been intensified by what we might call an identitarian view of history and politics is often asserted. Yet this is also a matter of some dispute, because there are clearly, and in a direct sense, inheritors—uprooted people, occupiers of stolen property, or residual racisms are some of the historical debris of these moments. With states, and legal entities, standing forth as inheritors, and the need to adjudicate between victimhood or perpetrator claims in individual cases, the problem intensifies in that these no longer deal with mental or emotional conditions, or general questions of historical interpretation, but must be placed in a context that adjudicates at a material level. Whether this is a desirable or undesirable outcome is often decided on pragmatic grounds and on the basis of particular (legal) cases, even as the larger moral overtones that inform discussions tend to be foregrounded. Now, as particular groups within existing political entities are said to be addressed differently by these historical questions (persons who have possessive claims to different histories, and to different perpetrator and victim narratives), there can be parallel narratives which make no attempt to speak to one another, or attempts to create compromises or hierarchies among the different narratives. None of these manoeuvres help us to break out of the question of possession: is there a(n inheritor) group to whom particular histories belong as of right? And do those histories then exercise a possessive claim upon those to whom they allegedly belong, and to what extent can these possessive histories bind their subjects’ alleged inheritors?

Benjamin Zachariah read history at Presidency College, Calcutta, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed a PhD in history in the last year of the 20th century. He taught for several years at Sheffield University in the UK, before moving to Germany, where among other things he was Senior Research Fellow at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University, and thereafter at the DFG Leibniz Research Group “The Contemporary History of Historiography” at Trier University. He joined the Georg Eckert Institut für internationale Schulbuchforschung in Braunschweig in September 2021. His current research interests include historical thinking in public arguments, historiography and historical theory, the movements of ideas in the twentieth century, international revolutionary networks, and global fascism. He is the author of Nehru (2004), Developing India: an Intellectual and Social History, c. 1930–1950 (2005; 2nd ed. 2012), Playing the Nation Game: the Ambiguities of Nationalism in India (2011; 2nd ed. 2016; revised edition Nation Games 2020), and After the Last Post: the Lives of Indian Historiography in India (2019). He is co-editor of The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds and World Views 1917–1939 (2015), and of What’s Left of Marxism: Historiography and the Possibility of Thinking with Marxian Themes and Concepts (2020).