Remembrances of Empires Past

Robert Aldrich


This paper argues that the colonial legacy is ever present in contemporary Europe. For a generation, most Europeans largely tried, publicly, to forget the colonial past, or remembered it only through the rose-coloured lenses of nostalgia; now the pendulum has swung to memory of that past – even perhaps, in the views of some, to a surfeit of memory, where each group agitates for its own version of history, its own recognition in laws and ceremonies, its own commemoration in museums and monuments, the valorization or repatriation of its own art and artefacts. Word such as ‘invasion,’ ‘racism’ and ‘genocide’ are emotional terms that provoke emotional reactions. Whether leaders should apologize for wrongs of the past – and which wrongs – remains a highly sensitive issue. The ‘return of the colonial’ thus has to do with ethics and politics as well as with history, and can link to statements of apology or recognition, legislation about certain views of history, monetary compensation, repatriation of objects, and—perhaps most importantly—redefinition of national identity and policy. The colonial flags may have been lowered, but many barricades seem to have been raised. Private memories—of loss of land, of unacknowledged service, of political, economic, social and cultural disenfranchisement, but also on the other side of defeat, national castigation and self-flagellation—have been increasingly public. Monuments and museums act not only as sites of history but as venues for political agitation and forums for academic debate – differences of opinion that have spread to the streets. Empire has a long after-life.

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