Posts Tagged With: memory politics

Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.cbsnews.com

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. & Suzanna M. Crage.  “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Oct., 2006):  724-751

Subject:  The authors seek to explain why the Stonewall riots secured such a dominant place in the collective memory of gay rights activism while other similar events prior to Stonewall did not.

Main Points:  The authors lay out a sociological approach to the study of creating and maintaining collective memories through public commemoration.  Because the authors are sociologists, this article reads more like a lab report than it does the typical narrative of historical articles.  But they do provide some helpful ways of thinking about how collective memory works.  The main point of this article is to help explain why the 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn acquired such significance while previous similar events did not.

Even though their argument is more nuanced, it can be summed up as follows:  Stonewall is remembered because it is marked by an international commemorative ritual: an annual gay pride parade.  Moreover, the commemoration of Stonewall riots was able to be successful because of a confluence of historically specific conditions:  It was the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place in which homosexuals had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle like an annual parade event.  While other events may have been seen as worthy of being commemorated, activists did not have the exposure or capability to produce a lasting commemorative event (or “vehicle” as the authors call it).  In this sense, context (time and place) was the decisive factor.

In an introductory section, the authors explain the concepts they feel are necessary for successful collective memory formation:  1) Commemorabilty (something worth being commemorated); 2) Mnemonic capacity (skills, network, and resources needed to create commemorative vehicles such as annual parades); 3) Resonance (this includes a receptive audience as well as the institutionalization of the commemoration event so that it has duration over space and time).

The authors study five different events that had the potential to be the spark that ignited a national movement, but because they lacked some of the necessary factors listed above, were not commemorated, and as such, were eclipsed by the myth of the Stonewall Riots.  The first was the police raid on a gay New Year’s party in San Francisco, January 1965 (commemorable, but lacking mnemonic capacity).  Second was the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance of August 1966 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability). Third:  Black Cat bar raid, LA in January 1967 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability).  Fourth was the Stonewall Riots in NYC, June 1969 (commemorable and activists had mnemonic capacity, able to create resonance).  Lastly, the Snake Pit bar raid in NYC in March 1970 (not commemorable because it was not “the first” – even though there was mnemonic capacity).

Why was Stonewall so commemorable?  Because those at the Stonewall Inn broke the “script” of normal police/homosexual interaction.  This time, Stonewall patrons fought back, spilling the incident onto the street where it gathered momentum and lasted for days.  A gay liberation mindset led activists to see the political possibilities of the developing situation (737).  The riots happened late in the 1960s, after homophile movements and, later, radical activists had pushed for the rights and visibility of homosexuals for years.  So, by 1969, radical gay liberation activists (especially in New York) had the necessary “capital” (exposure and connections) to turn this riot into a symbol for their cause.  “Without a radical political approach, activists would not have responded by escalating the conflict.  They would not have created or circulated grand narratives of its importance, nor would they have planned commemorative rituals” (744).  The authors show that while there were riots in other cities, many of the liberal (or, according to gay liberationists, ‘conservative’) activists who sought to fight for rights within the socio-political system did not see a violent riot as something worth commemorating, and did not want to be tied to the radicals of the New Left (733).  The authors argue that this also helps explain why San Francisco (a ‘headquarters’ for homophile movements) did not participate in gay pride/Stonewall commemoration for two years.

The authors contribute the success of the “Stonewall Myth” in LGBT history’s collective memory to the fact that, while Stonewall was not the first riot, Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be first (725).  Prior riots were intentionally glossed over while later riots weren’t as important because they weren’t first.  Already in July 1970 pamphlets passed out as a summary of the first commemoration of Stonewall, stated that the 1969 Stonewall Riots “marked the first time that large numbers of gay people stood up against repression” (743).  This ‘unique’ place in history granted the Stonewall riots with the most commemorability, and has thus built the “wildfire narrative” in which Stonewall/NYC was the “spark” that “ignited” the gay rights movement all across the nation.

Despite scholarship demonstrating that Stonewall was not the first instance of gay resistance, the myth has continued to hold its ground because simpler narratives (collective memories) are more useful and easier to transfer than messier, more complicated ones.

Armstrong & Crage’s article also demonstrates the complexity of myths – their formation and longevity.  It clearly shows us that myths are more than fairy-tales, and that they shouldn’t be simply dismissed for containing factual inaccuracies.  Myths, anecdotes, and histories combine to inform our collective memories of the past, and thus, myths are as important to understanding our views of the past as scholarship is.

 

For more books on LGBT history and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Divided Memory

Herf

Herf, Jeffrey.  Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanys.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Herf has written an in interesting and important study of the formation of official memories of the National Socialist regime in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Because it is a study of ‘official’ memory, Herf looks at letters, memos, and other documents written by political leaders in both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR).  In the fifteen years since this book’s publication, the two official memories adopted by the two nations have become well known to scholars: the East downplayed or completely ignored any non-Communist suffering, while politicians in the West debated the place for differing memories of Nazism in the new democracy.  I think that Herf’s greatest contribution is in showing why these “divided memories” emerged.

In order to demonstrate “the significance of political memories for the construction of democracy and dictatorship in post-1945 German history,” Herf brings politics back into the discussion of memory, a topic that is often studied at the individual or “grass roots” level (2).  That is why he seeks to “illustrate the importance of politics for shaping the way a society thinks about its past while at the same timed drawing attention to the autonomous weight that traditions and interpretive frameworks exert on political life” (9).

Herf demonstrates that in East Germany, the main interpretive framework that the reigning Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) offered to its citizens regarding its Nazi past was one in which communists and socialists had fought against the fascist dictatorship.  Communists were at the center of this narrative in every way: as the leaders of the resistance, as the main victims, and eventually as the liberators (via the Soviet Union).  That is why when Communist Party leader Paul Merker returned from exile in Mexico after the war and began speaking about the persecution of Europe’s Jews, it didn’t sit well with the SED leadership.  Merker’s alternative memory, as well as his assertions that the DDR should make restitution payments to victims of Nazi crimes, directly challenged the official memories that the SED offered to the East Germans.  To acknowledge Jews as the prime target of Hitler’s Holocaust would undermine the SED’s official memory, which was the basis for legitimating the SED’s authority.    By 1950, Merker was pushed out of the Party and later convicted and imprisoned, and this symbolizes the “ascendancy of the universalizing and monopolistic rationality over the particularism, in this instance, of stubborn Jewish otherness” (95).

In West Germany, on the other hand, “multiple restorations” of older German traditions of opposition to Nazism arose after 1945.  Allied pressure (via the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification processes) allowed for the emergence of different ways of establishing memories of the Nazi past.  Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, though he established the Restitution Treaty with Israel, saw the establishment of a stabile democracy as more important than hunting out every single ex-Nazi and establishing an official memory of the “Final Solution.”  Others, like the first President Theodor Heuss and SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, wanted to more directly confront the Holocaust and the “frightful tragedy of the Jews” (273).

Ultimately, Herf shows that while the German populace (at least in the West) didn’t begin a larger public discussion of their Nazi past until the 1960s and 1970s, German officials on both sides of the divide established official memories early on.  In fact, East and West German officials saw the establishment of an official memory of the Nazi era as vital to the foundation of their respective states.  Moreover, they didn’t start from scratch; they pulled from their older traditions to help establish these new memories.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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