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Subtle Shifts In Memorializing the Past

Sabyasachi Dasgupta

By Dietmar Rothermund
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 217, $99.99


'How does a former colonial power deal with its colonial past, generations after the loss of empire?’ The opening line of Gert Oostindie’s piece in this book sums up the underlying theme of this work which is essentially a comparative study on the aftermath of Decolonization in the West, the way decolonization was memorialized and the subtle shifts in memorializing. Dietmar Rothermund in his editorial piece argues that the presence of empire had been central to the national identity and culture of these countries; and that the centrality of empire in the collective memory of these nations probably explains the desperate attempt by France and Netherlands to recover their colonies, countries already traumatized by defeat and occupation in World War II, a point missed by the contributors on Netherlands and France, namely Gert Oostindie and Eric Savarese respectively. With empire gone, the question of coping with this loss cropped up in all these countries, namely Great Britain, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and the odd man out Japan, the seven test cases in this collection of articles. Decolonization brought in its wake new problems. The colonial past continued in multiple ways to haunt these countries and to remind them often in painful ways of their colonial past. How were the former imperial countries to remember their colonial past and the odium surrounding it? Were the mother countries to apologize for the various wrongs colonialism had perpetrated on the subject populations? Or was the empire to be remembered as a period of greatness, something that had inextricably defined and shaped national identity and culture? Or was there to be silence on the colonial past? Many of the articles in this connection argue that silence was a strategy initially employed by many postcolonial countries to cope with their colonial past. This silence would be broken due to pressure from postcolonial migrant groups in the case of Italy, Belgium or neo-nationalist pressure in the case of Japan. In the case of Italy and Belgium this silence has been broken only recently due to migration from former colonies whereas in France it was the white settlers facing a traumatic withdrawal from Algeria who played their part in breaking the French Amnesia on Algeria and reviving the memory of empire. In the case of Netherlands the silence on empire stemming largely from the traumatic experience in Indonesia and an unwillingness to accept reality was ...

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