top of page

Jeffrey K. Olick "Memory is not a thing, it is not an object. Memory is an ongoing process"

Jeffrey K. Olick "Memory is not a thing, it is not an object. Memory is an ongoing process"

Jeffrey K. Olick, professor of sociology and history and chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. He is also co-president of the Memory Studies Association.

The author of the books:

States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection (ed.). (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. (New York: Routledge, 2007).

The Collective Memory Reader (ed.). (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), with Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Daniel Levy.

The Sins of the Fathers: Germany, Memory, Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Abstract: In the interview Jeffrey Olick tells about his family memory and why he is engaged in memory studies, what is the difference between the sociological and historical approaches towards memory, what is the essence of his concept 'the figuration of memory', why Germany is not a model case of 'working through the past', why the 'politics of regret' is a current growing trend, what are the obstacles for the United States to be a part of the 'politics of regret's leaders, what are the plans of Memory Studies Association, what are the publishing projects of professor Olick.

Key-words: Jeffrey K. Olick, family memory, the figuration of memory, politics of regret, German national memory, 'difficult past' of the United State, Memory Studies Association.

  1. America is a nation of immigrants. The diversity of different cultures is one of the main reasons for the successful development of your country. Can you say a few words about your family memory? Who were your ancestors? When did they come to the United States?

I actually know too little about my family history. My mother was adopted and we do not know from where. My father's father died before I was born and my grandmother on that side spoke very little. She did not tell a lot of stories. I actually have been curious about my family background. We do know that one side of our family had some members who came from Kiev and some members came from Lithuania. All of them came to the United States around nineteen hundreds, some came twenty years earlier, some twenty years later. But as I said a very few stories of my family were recounted. In many ways my family was the model of a progressive American family: looking forward and never looking back.

  1. Marianne Hirsch in the interview to our journal ( declared that her family memory and traumatic experience of the Second World War strongly influenced her involvement in memory studies and elaboration of 'postmemory' concept. What are the reasons, which motivated your decision to engage in memory studies?

I think we all are studying ourselves in one way or another. Sometimes it is very direct like Marianne Hirsch. In my case I would say it requires more psychoanalysis to figure out what are the connections. My route to memory studies was more directly engaged in scholarship. I became interested in memory because of developments of American sociology at the time when I was in graduate school. In the late 1980s, early 1990s American sociology was becoming in my view very sterile. It was strongly quantitative and interested mainly in questions of stratification and social organization. At the same time, there was evolving of sociology, which was interested in developments in philosophy and literary studies. So for instance there was the turn towards the ordinary language's philosophy, there was so called narrative turn in historiography and the development of cultural history. After history and other kinds of courses in the graduate school I became interested in narrative. Actually narrative rather than memory interested me at first. When I discussed it with one of my advisers he pointed out the book of a long forgotten French sociologist, protégé of Emile Durkheim named Maurice Halbwachs. When I red Halbwachs I had one of those great moments because for me Halbwachs provided the terms which allowed me to legitimate my studies in American Sociology, to be able to say: 'I do not want to make mathematical models, I do not want to study inequality. I do want to study narratives and storytelling in memory.' People would say: 'That is not very sociological.' And I could say to them: 'Wait a minute! There is a very important sociologist, the pupil of Durkheim himself, and he says that it is sociological.' So Halbwachs gave me the foundation and legitimacy to claim that what I am doing and is interesting for me what are genuinely sociological. On the personal level my family background is Jewish but my wife is German. Years and years ago when we were first together both in graduate school, memory was something we talked about. We discussed what our obligations are, what the young people have to do about the national past, were the grievances of my grandparents' generation, my grievances and were they the guilt and shame of her grandparents? That complexity of psychology and personal relationship explains why I am mostly interested in Germany and in German memory.

  1. The memory studies is an interdisciplinary field. You are one of leading sociologists specializing in 'collective memory' or, as you prefer to call the field, 'social memory'. There are obvious different approaches of sociologists and historians in that field. Can you point to a specific sociological prospective on memory and how it can help historians to improve the understanding of collective (social) memory's essence?

Here I have to return again to Maurice Halbwachs and I would argue with Halbwachs that memory, even if it seems to be the most private and individual thing, is in fact social. It is social all the way down. We as individuals cannot remember without social frameworks. We remember the social objects as social beings living in a social context. And so I would argue that one of the necessary steps for the foundation of memory studies as a field is to accept the social, cultural or collective prospective of memory, rather than seeing the memory as we do in ordinary language as a private and individual phenomenon that really only exists in the brains or inside people's heads. Memory exists in the world, in the social context and as a social phenomenon. Sometimes when the historians use the concept of memory they take the very ordinary layer of understanding of memory as a recollection, e.g. I can remember my phone number, or I can remember my mother's birthday, or I know that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Most of what we are doing as the 'rememberers' is a social act, and this is the most important recognition for me, the foundation of memory studies is accepting and starting from the socialness of memory. So I often have written in my works that memory studies and sociology of memory, and Halbwachs is one of the founders, works against two opponents. The first opponent is psychology, which has reductionist and individual assumptions about the memory and other phenomena. I would also argue however, that historians often take a very basic approach and treat memory simply as what individuals remember, whereas collective memory is more about heritage and patrimony and culture and a broader kind of symbols. The other problem I think for historians, rather than sociologists, it is the idea that there is a sharp epistemological break between history and memory. That history is in fact truth about the past; it is objective, whereas memory is subjective, mistaken and partial. I rather accepted the view that Patrick Hutton articulated in his important book 'History as an Art of Memory', that history is one of the ways that we have to comprehend the past and there are wide variety of the other ways including those we associate with the concept of memory. In my works I tried to argue that the concept of 'collective memory' is too general, that it covers up very important differences and we need, even if it is an awkward term, in my works I refer to the 'variety of mnemonic practices', that distinguishes what we do in regarding the past. Whether we recall the phone number or the date or something we have experienced individually or whether we are talking with friends about past experiences, or whether we are building a monument for a public ceremony, or whether we are writing the history book or we are building a museum. These are all kinds of mnemonic practices. We need to understand what separates them, what makes each of them distinct and what connects them to each other.

  1. One of your Politics of regretreviewers (Akiko Hashimoto. Social Forces, Volume 87, Issue 1, 2008, pp. 603–604) pointed out your original concept of collective memory structure, which is 'comprised of four components (field, medium, genre and profile)'. It sounds intriguing. Can you say a few words about that concept?

In 'Politics of Regret', particularly in Chapter five, I developed a model, which I called 'figurations of memory'. The term 'figurations' comes from the sociologist Norbert Elias. And what I mean by figurations of memory is that we treat memory as a thing or a place. That is I have a memory, which come in either I remember the time I sold my bicycle when I was a child, or that is the faculty of memory when I have a good memory because I can remember a lot of phone numbers. A memory is not a thing, it is not an object. Memory is an ongoing process. So in fact we should stop referring to the memory and only refer to 'rememberate' as an activity. And so this is the idea I tried to capture with Elias notion of figuration that it is an ongoing process and it is an activity. So as an activity it is a web of structures and so with the terms 'field', 'medium', 'genre' and 'profile' I meant to articulate different sides of this web, this is a structure in which these activities take place.

  1. You are one of the main experts in German national memory. There is a common opinion that Germany is the best example in re-elaboration of the traumatic memory, so called 'working through the past', but your research shows that the situation is much more complex and official German memory about Holocaust and other Nazis crimes was strongly influenced by Americans. Common people do not oppose government openly, but, as Aleida Assmann writes in one of her recent works, Germans in circles of close friends and family prefer to discuss 'carpet bombings', ally's soldiers violations, forced deportations from East Europeans countries and other sufferings of their ancestors instead of the Holocaust. How do you explain the reasons why the official German politics of memory has a limited effect in mass consciousness? Would you say that it plays an unexpected role in stimulating national resentments?

I think one of the greatest challenges for all of us as human beings is the understanding how insignificant our sufferings and pains are compared to the total suffering and pain in the World. It is a pretty natural understanding that we are experiencing ourselves as more important than distant sufferings. I can learn about other groups of people, who suffered horribly, but if I have headache today, the headache is actually more important to me. One of the greatest moral challenges of our World is the ability to place ourselves in others' shoes, but it is not surprising that we all have difficulties doing that. I think it is not surprising that ordinary German’s focus on what has happened to them. They lost their houses, they lost their family members, there were mass rapes after 1945 and there were devastations of every possible form. It is very hard to say in these conditions: 'Oh, well, my own suffering and my late husband or father does not matter compared to sufferings of other people.' We need to be careful and not to expect too much from human beings, we all look from a selfish prospective. I am grateful that you recognized that my work argues against the idea, which many people believe that Germany is the model case where everything went well and proper 'good' memory was established. The German case is more complex and there is a disjunction between official narratives and what happens in private and what people want to focus on. I think that is natural, but I think it is still good that German officials say the right things in public because it sets the tone for the identity of the country. So it is normal when there are differences between public and private attitudes. The problem emerges when people do not understand or resist the differences between their own experience and historical fate. We have that idea in sociology that the real challenge is to see what happens to me personally against the background of broader social changes. So for instance I might think: "I might not get a job because I am not smart or I will get a job because I am smart or I work hard". But the real question whether you are able to get a job is whether there is high unemployment in society, whether there is growth or whether there is a recession in the economy. So it is very hard for people to see their own situation against broader changes: "That is good for me, it must be good for everyone, if it is bad for me, that entire situation is corrupt." So I think that one of the challenges for the memory scholarship as well for the political leaders is to provide gentle incentives, gentle suggestions for people to think beyond the horizon of their own situation. And I think it is very good when political leaders are able to remind population and respond to resentments when they emerge. We should understand why those resentments emerge and those resentments are not a particular evil, as we usually fear. It is true that sometimes those resentments become larger than they should be, I mean a situation, when personal resentment burst out into the politics. That situation requires a vigorous response.

  1. Your term 'Politics of regret' successfully grasps the current situation of growing number of internal and international political apologies. There is a very interesting 'Chronological List of Political Apologies', created by Professor Graham G. Dodds ( It shows that before the beginning of the twentieth century there were only 13 apologies, from 1901 until the end of the Second World War (1945) there were 14 apologies, from 1946 until the fall of Berlin wall (1989) there were 64 apologies and from 1990 until 2016 there were 546 apologies. Professor Dodds explains that the list is not comprehensive. Despite that it reflects the trend correctly. How would you explain that trend?

There is no single explanation for the reasons of apologies because there are different kinds of apologies. Not every apology is the same. You remember when you had to fight in school and you hated the person you were fighting with but a teacher required you to say 'sorry' and shake the hands anyway. So there is a false apology, there is not a genuine contrition. There is also an interesting phenomenon, I observed that often times, when the apology comes not from the perpetrator to the victim, but from a second or a third generation. We saw that, for instance, in Germany in late1960s, when the younger generation, the students generation took on the burden of debt and guilt for the Nazis era's crimes. Of course they themselves were not responsible for that. When you are twenty years old in 1968 it is easier to apologize for what your country did in 1940s, because you were not alive then. So apology has a complicated geometry and differentiation because there are different kinds of apologies. By the same token I think it is true that a norm of apology, a norm of regret has a reason and becomes fairly widespread. Of course, it is one of the great moral questions of our time. I often contrapose two quotes: the American philosopher George Santayana says: 'Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,' which seems to call for apology, but Friedrich Nietzsche says: 'The past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present.' So the question is: 'How much memory and what we have to do about it?' Some people argue we are too apologetic, others argue we are not apologetic enough. I guess I would go to personal life and say if you genuinely apologize and you believe in your apology, than certainly the risk to apologize too much is smaller than the risk of not apologizing enough. I think about personal relationships, if you are ready to accept: 'Maybe I did something wrong, maybe I have some work to do', your partner would be happier than when you even have done something wrong and simply refuse to acknowledge that. In that case relationships are broken apart. So do not be afraid to apologize too much.

  1. The next question is a kind of 'the Russian interference' in American politics of memory. The number of political apologies are growing worldwide, but the United States, which represents itself as 'the city upon a hill', the beacon of democracy, liberty and human rights, is far from being the leader in politics of regret. It is enough to mention only some of many cases, which demand urgent apologies of American government. The number of Holocaust's museums in the US is bigger than Afro-Americans slavery and Native Americans genocide museums. Some experts explain this discrepancy by the fact the American government is not responsible for the Holocaust, unlike the Slavery and extermination of Native Americans, so it is much simpler to blame others for such atrocities. In reality the United States government is responsible for the strict limitations in acceptance of Jewish immigrants before and during the Second World War. As you know Anne Frank's family did not get permission from the State Department to enter the United States from Nazis occupied Netherlands. In the 1939 the United States, Canada and Cuba, turned away 907 German Jews seeking asylum. Many of them perished during the Holocaust. This year the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a formal apology for the fate of the Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis. ( Do you believe it would encourage American authorities to give a formal apology for the indifference towards the Jewish refugees prior and during the War? How long should we wait for American apologies in such obvious cases as nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities, which did not have significant military infrastructure?

I guess the simple answer is a long time or it is not going to happen. It is actually a big risk for me to say that, because people believe that apologies are undermining our sense of identity and power. I agree to the list of the difficult past of the United States, I believe that should be more acknowledgement of that. The one significant exception in the American apology case is the acknowledgement of the internment Japanese American during the Second World War. In that case American government acknowledged wrongdoings and has paid reparations. I had the lecture recently with the title 'Charlottesville and the End of American Exceptionalism: Memory Studies Perspectives' ( I said that when our exceptionalism has been finished, than the politics of regret will come. Now we are engaged in less apology, less regret and less critical approaches to our past. What is interesting in the United States, is that just in a few years the politics of regret have become stronger. I mean the recent debates over monuments in the South, which are the monuments to the Confederacy. In my hometown Charlottesville, where my university is, everyone in the World saw that there was a real riot last summer; when the City Council decided to move a statue of confederate General Robert Lee from the one of the main squares of the city to a different park. Protesters argued that it was the effort to destroy or hide our history. Their critics argued that Robert Lee was a symbol of unjust, illegitimate and an untimely horrible cause, which is impossible to celebrate. It is important that this statue has been around for decades and nobody paid any attention. Now a lot of attention is paid to it. We have a lot of cases. For instance, the institutions are looking at their own historical legacy. Georgetown University discovered that its financial stability was established by selling slaves that university owned. There were debates in Yale University, where one of the colleges was named after John C. Calhoun, who was the United States vice-president and made his money as a slave trader. The first reaction was: 'We cannot change the name, that is to change the history of the institution,' then decided to take the name off and rename the college. In my own university one of the building of the Medical school was named after a doctor Harvey E. Jordan, who had been a proponent of eugenics, and just last year the university finally decided to change the name of the building. So it is possible that the more recognition of responsibility for the bad past is coming to the United States and American exceptionalism is leaving the politics of memory. I at least hope so.

  1. We have published in our journal an interview with your colleague in the Memory Studies Association Aline Sierp regarding activities of that organization ( I am sure that Russian historians are interested to know your point of view from the perspective of co-presidency of MSA.

The Memory Studies Association is a very exciting development. It seems to us that there are many scholars working around the World and often each of them is reinventing the wheel, and so the idea to bring together all these different scholars of the different disciplines, from different regions of the World to talking to each other. It is not an effort to impose any one particular model of memory studies, it is not an effort to control the discourse, it is an effort to start conversations, to make new friends, to see new ideas and to learn about each other. I know one thing, if I would travel to small conferences where everybody says: 'Yes, yes, I know what is the memory studies, but memory is different here'. MSA is an opportunity for us to understand what is unique about the situation in memory in different places, but also what is common. MSA I think is remarkably successful, very much in stages of planning is the third conference which will take place in Madrid in June 2019, we are expecting a lot of people, we will have exciting panels and a plenary session and we hope that development of MSA will be a going concern for many years.

  1. On the website of your Institute there is information that you are working on a six-volume 'Cultural History of Memory'. Can you say a few words about that project? What other plans do you have?

The 'Cultural History of Memory' project was started by initiative of publisher Bloomsbury (London). The author of the original approach is my colleague Stefan Berger (Bochum University, Germany) and we both developed that approach together. One of the limitations of a project is that the structure is dictated by the publisher. There are six volumes, each dedicated to a different period:

Volume 1: A Cultural History of Memory in Antiquity (800BCE-500CE)

Edited by Susan E. Alcock (Brown University, USA);

Volume 2: A Cultural History of Memory in the Middle Ages (500-1450)

Edited by Gerald Schwedler (University of Zurich, Switzerland);

Volume 3: A Cultural History of Memory in the Early Modern Age (1450-1700)

Edited by Marek Tamm (Tallinn University, Estonia) and Alessandro Arcangeli (University of Verona, Italy);

Volume 4: A Cultural History of Memory in the Eighteenth Century (1700-1800)

Edited by John Sutton (Macquarie University, Australia);

Volume 5: A Cultural History of Memory in the Nineteenth Century (1800-1900)

Edited by Susan Crane (University of Arizona, USA);

Volume 6: A Cultural History of Memory in the Long Twentieth Century (1900-2000+) Edited by Stefan Berger (Ruhr University Bochum, Germany) and Bill Niven (Nottingham Trent University, UK).

Each volume adopts the same thematic structure, covering eight chapters: 1. Politics; 2. Time and Space; 3. Media and Technology; 4. Science and Education; 5. Philosophy, Religion and History; 6. High Culture and Popular Culture; 7. Society; and 8. Remembering and Forgetting. Thus enabling readers to trace one theme throughout history, as well as gaining a thorough overview of each individual period. There is an electronic mechanism assembling 48 substantive chapters in your reader according to your purposes, whether horizontally or vertically. It is a very complex project, so it creates a lot of organizational problems. It has been a challenge, the last chapters are coming now, and we expect they will be available in a year from now.

My other big project right now is the editing of a new English translation of Maurice Halbwachs works on memory. We have only a partial collection of Halbwachs' works in English. So 'The Social Frameworks of Memory' his important book of 1925 of which only about 40 percent are available in English in Lewis Coser translation of 1992. 'The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land' (1941) of which we only have the Conclusion, also published in Coser's volume. Halbwachs' collection of essays 'The collective memory', originally published in 1950, has been revised in French by Gérard Namer and we do not have the English version of the Namer's edition, which importantly differs from the edition of 1950. So Oxford University Press is going to bring out a new complete translation of these three works on memory. My colleague John Sutton (Australia) is charged for 'The Social Frameworks' and my colleague Sara Danes and I are doing 'The Legendary Topography' and 'The Collective Memory'. I think it is going to change the understanding of Halbwachs and the origins of memory studies. But that is a very long and complicated process. It is not easy to translate the texts and also prepare a critical Introduction, placing Halbwachs' contribution in memory studies in a broader context of French sociology of the 1920s and the 1930s. It is not a simple task. Nevertheless I hope we will finish that work in the coming six months and that it will be available probably in a year from now. I am very optimistic.

Thank you very much for your interview


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page