History and Popular Memory: The Power of Story in Moments of Crisis

Hardcover | April 29, 2014

byPaul A Cohen

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When people experience a traumatic event, such as war or the threat of annihilation, they often turn to history for stories that promise a positive outcome to their suffering. During World War II, the French took comfort in the story of Joan of Arc and her heroic efforts to rid France of foreign occupation. To bring the Joan narrative more into line with current circumstances, however, popular retellings modified the original story so that what people believed took place in the past was often quite different from what actually occurred.

Paul A. Cohen identifies this interplay between story and history as a worldwide phenomenon, found in countries of radically different cultural, religious, and social character. He focuses here on Serbia, Israel, China, France, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, all of which experienced severe crises in the twentieth century and, in response, appropriated age-old historical narratives that resonated with what was happening in the present to serve a unifying, restorative purpose.

A central theme in the book is the distinction between popular memory and history. Although vitally important to historians, this distinction is routinely blurred in people's minds, and the historian's truth often cannot compete with the power of a compelling story from the past, even when it has been seriously distorted by myth or political manipulation. Cohen concludes by suggesting that the patterns of interaction he probes, given their near universality, may well be rooted in certain human propensities that transcend cultural difference.

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When people experience a traumatic event, such as war or the threat of annihilation, they often turn to history for stories that promise a positive outcome to their suffering. During World War II, the French took comfort in the story of Joan of Arc and her heroic efforts to rid France of foreign occupation. To bring the Joan narrative...

Paul A. Cohen is Edith Stix Wasserman Professor of Asian Studies and History Emeritus at Wellesley College and a long-time associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. His books include Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past and the award-winning History in T...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:304 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.98 inPublished:April 29, 2014Publisher:Columbia University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0231166362

ISBN - 13:9780231166362

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Table of Contents

List of IllustrationsPrefaceAcknowledgments1. The Battle of Kosovo of 1389 and Serbian Nationalism2. The Fall of Masada and Modern Jewish Memory3. Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese Nationalist Policy, and the Story of King Goujian4. The Enigma of the Appeal of Joan of Arc in Wartime France5. Artful Propaganda in World War II: Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky and Olivier's Henry VConclusionNotesIndex

Editorial Reviews

We can understand [history and memory] better thanks to Cohen's erudite insistence on the importance of storytelling in the way historians and laypersons understand the past.