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Mourning by History – Ideas of a New Element in Historical Thinking

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Mourning as a mental procedure has not yet been applied to the cultural processes of making sense of the past, i.e. to historical thinking. Jörn Rüsen's essay argues on a theoretical level that mourning and historical thinking have astonishing similarities. He urges that for historical thinking to cope with the traumatic character of experiences in the recent past it should make use of these similarities and become a procedure of mourning. He develops his argument by treating three examples of mourning loss in three different contexts of an intergenerational relationship, of national identity and of mankind as a subject matter of historical thinking. Mourning is the most basic procedure of relating individuals to the past. Every individual needs to relate to the past, but the past is absent in its everyday life and has therefore to be made present for the individuals to be able to define its identity. This is where mourning as a mode of historical thinking is rooted. Taking the holocaust as an example, Rüsen argues that victims as well as culprits suffer from not being able to define their historical identity in an intergenerational context. That is why they need mourning as a means to regain their historical identity rather than trying to forget the past.

History as a basis of nation building is at risk as soon as historical experiences of traumatic character jeopardize the positive self-esteem generated by the collective memory of events legitimizing the system of norms for a given topical culture. Mourning in this context is a cultural practice helping the nation to realize the loss of self-esteem that has been brought about by negative historical experiences. By reclaiming the loss, the nation can be re-established.

But the self is not only part of a nation. It also defines its fundamental political convictions based on the notion of belonging to mankind. Historical experiences that negate the universal validity of the category of mankind by depriving others of their status as human beings destroy the historical foundations of modern society and the continuity of history. The 20th century is loaded with an abundance of this kind of experiences. Mourning these experiences of drastic inhumanity means acknowledging the loss of the "we-ideal" of modern subjectivity and recovering humanity by moving beyond the experience of a break of civilization. Mankind is being re-appropriated in the form of a standard pointing in the direction of an improving civilization.


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