Individual and collective memories of historic events are unreliable. Because memories are influenced by internal and external forces, the recollection of events can be rendered incomplete or incorrect by factors such as time, sentiment, circumstance, and even basic human ego.
Consider, for instance, the 1945 bombing of Dresden. The majority of the deaths in that attack were civilian. German men, women, and children, as well as American prisoners of war, were among those immolated. America and Britain remember Dresden as a strategic air attack that dealt a crippling blow to the Nazi war machine (the targets were munitions factories), but the people on the ground shared a much different experience, an experience which contributed to individual and collective memories of the event.
American memories of the event are confused by patriotism, national sentiment, and even intentional obfuscation of the facts, while German memories of the event are confused by outrage and sorrow, but the Germans, because of their undeniable connection to the events, would probably be able to provide a more raw description of the bombing, intimate in detail, while a combat report may be able to provide a broader picture of events. Both are important contributions to history, but, in the case of the German eyewitness, the recollection might be clouded and confused because of his/her proximity to the horrifying events, and, in the case of the combat report, details might be omitted or redacted for political reasons.
But make no mistake; memory can be an important tool in reconstructing history. Some memories of historical events may indeed be completely accurate, and even if their accuracy is in doubt, they likely contain small elements of truth. Through the corroboration of these elements, a clearer picture of past events emerges. Without memory, history would not be complete or
accurate (as complete and accurate as history can get, that is). But if history is based solely on individual memories or the collective memories of certain groups, then the missing pieces become so numerous that the picture becomes more and more uncertain.
The issues and complications that arise when the line between memory and history becomes blurred or skewed are numerous. For instance, memories of World War II led Americans to believe that in every dark corner lurked a tyrant ready to seize control. Because of the nature of these altered memories, Utopian philosophies began to fade and give way to harsh pragmatism. Another side effect of this shift was the belief that the only way to enforce and maintain order was through strength.
Despite evidence to support such claims, Americans also began to downplay the war-time contributions of their allies, instead placing themselves in the pivotal role, the knighted savior of the free world. In reality, America was among the last to enter the war. Popular portrayals of the war often reflect the American belief that the United States had entered the war on a white horse named Victory. John Wayne made a career out of portraying the tough and noble American G.I., an everyman of single-minded clarity who reflected the singular contribution of his nation. Joseph Stalin, the autocratic premier of the USSR, was portrayed in a similar fashion, the singular superman atop the hill, the honorable patriarch of modern Russia. Such portrayals had the effect of furthering the misconception that the outcome of World War II was owed to the contributions of singular nations, and not those of the Allied collective.
Memory is indicative of the individual experience, whereas history is a combined experience. We form our own memories of events, sometimes they are amazingly accurate and sometimes they are woefully inaccurate. Our memories are also influenced by a multitude of outside forces. What we remember, or what we think we remember, becomes distorted by what we see, what we hear, until our recollection of events synchronizes with other people’s recollection of events, thus distorting the collective memory.
The job of the true historian is to analyze events, corroborate stories, and, in time, discover the truth. It is from this truth that history is derived. The problem, of course, is that even the historian with all the facts in front of him/her can help create a false understanding of past events, but the biased historian is more reliable than even the most unbiased memory because the memory filters and reprocesses information immediately to create a recollection of events that may not be entirely accurate, regardless of personal belief.
History and memory do indeed influence one another, but their structures are quite different. Memory is unreliable, susceptible to a number of influences, both internal and external, but history, even when biased, will, at the very least, contain information that can be corroborated, and through corroboration, more sources will be revealed. The more sources you can locate, the clearer the picture of historical events becomes.