Agonistic memory and transitional justice


Stefan Berger

Memory cultures that are directed at achieving a social consensus by placing the emphasis on the victims’ perspective depoliticise remembering and are a blunt instrument in countering populist or neo-nationalist approaches. The concept of ‘agonistic memory’ is a response to this and an attempt to make political differences visible and negotiable once more.

Many actors who have engaged with forms of Transitional Justice in the context of memory politics in recent years have focused on victims’ memories and placed these at the heart of their strategies for dealing with the past. In so doing, they have reacted to the protracted dominance of antagonistic memory cultures that were present, mainly in nationalist modes of remembering, from the 19th century onwards. These antagonistic memory cultures make a moral distinction between the good nation (their own) and the evil ‘other’ that was as a rule to be vanquished, if necessary through warfare. Remembering war, in turn, contributed substantially to the formation of antagonist memory cultures in Europe and the wider world.  

Antagonistic modes of remembering use ‘us versus them’ constructions, distinguishingbetween ‘heroes’ who belong to one’s own nation and ‘anti-heroes’ who belong to the ‘other’. Antagonistic memories are inwardly directed and monologic and eschew dialogue – particularly with representatives of other, i.e. ‘enemy’ nations. Antagonistic memory cultures are emotive; they awaken strong passions and are expressed in terms of belonging to a particular group. But it is not only nationalist memories that fit the antagonistic pattern; the communist class discourse that predominated in the Soviet Union after 1917 is another example.

In response to these antagonistic memory cultures, cosmopolitan modes of remembering became established and gained in popularity after the hypernationalism of the first half of the 20th century that led to the two world wars, the Holocaust and other genocides, becoming particularly prevalent during the second half of the 20th century. The United Nations and the European Union were and are still important advocates for these cosmopolitan modes of remembering. They continue to be characterised by an ethical distinction between values that are perceived as ‘good’, such as democracy, human rights, freedom, social security, and those that are regarded as ‘bad’, such as authoritarianism, violence, restrictions on freedom of expression, and social inequality.

The cosmopolitan approach to remembering is limited in its multiperspectivity, for it mainly focuses on the victims of violence and dictatorship. In its efforts to promote dialogue, it searches for intersubjective consensus in the Habermasian sense, which, once achieved, then excludes other perspectives. In an emotional sense, the cosmopolitan mode of remembering operates through compassion and empathy for human suffering. Adopted as the core tenet of various transitional justice movements in recent decades, it has established itself as the dominant memory paradigm.

Nevertheless, there is considerable controversy at present concerning the extent to which modes of cosmopolitan remembering can make a successful contribution to dealing with the past and building a fairer future. The recent and very successful mobilisation of antagonistic memory cultures by far-right populists from the US to India and from France to Hungary indicates that cosmopolitan modes of remembering, insofar as they eschew a discourse with antagonistic memory cultures – which stand outside the intersubjective consensus – are incapable of an effective response.  

Building on Chantal Mouffe’s political theory, memory researchers have therefore developed the concept of ‘agonistic’ memory, which is better able than cosmopolitanism to prevent the emergence of antagonistic forms of remembering.

So what is agonistic memory about? First of all, it does not rely on moral categories – good vs. evil – as the yardstick for remembering. Instead, it emphasises the importance of radical historicisation of remembering, such that both victims and perpetrators, but also the important category of ‘bystanders’, take centre stage. Social and historical contextualisation of conflict and violence, however, can only be achieved through radical multiperspectivity, which does not attempt to negate dialogue through intersubjective consensus but openly shapes this dialogue from the start.

Intersubjective consensus depoliticises memory, because once it is achieved, it makes political dissent impossible. Agonistic memory politicises remembering, as it points out that different remembrance regimes emanate from different political ideas about coexistence within society. The ongoing democratic debate about remembrance is thus a political conflict and should be treated as such – and conducted in accordance with democratic rules that must be accepted by all memory actors.  

The major challenge facing agonistic memory is to make diverse positions visible and politically negotiable without falling into the trap of legitimising mass human rights violations and atrocities. An agonistic memory discourse opens up a democratic space for political debate – but also for the mobilisation of emotions, predicated on a solidarity-based society. It is thus positioned on the left of the political spectrum.

Dealing with the past and memory work have for too long been part of a cosmopolitan array of remembrance tools that are unable to strengthen left-wing political positions or address far-right positions effectively. This has led to calls for the development of an agonistic memory culture that is capable of promoting more democracy, participation, autonomy, self-determination and social justice within our communities.



Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, ‘On Agonistic Memory’, in: Memory Studies 9:4 (2016), 390 – 404.

The EU-funded Horizon 2020 project ‘Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Contemporary Europe’ (UNREST, 2016 – 2019) has studied memories of war in Europe, commissioned a play and devised an exhibition in order to promote agonistic memory in Europe:

Where the Forest Thickens:

Agonistic memory in a catalogue about an exhibition on war in the 20th century:   Krieg. Macht. Sinn. Krieg und Gewalt in der europäischen Erinnerung, hrsg. von Stefan Berger, Heinrich Theodor Grütter und Wulf Kansteiner, Essen: Klartext, 2019.

On the question whether agonist memory can contribute to transitional justice debates, see: Stefan Berger, Is the Memory of War in Contemporary Europe Enhancing Historical Dialogue?‘, in: Elazar Barkan, Constantin Goschler and James Waller (eds), Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities, London: Routledge, 2020 (manuscript available from author).

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Issue: Digital/Public History

a. Which opportunities are opened up by the digitalisation of memory? What can be done to minimise risks and avert hazards?
b. How can knowledge and narratives about the past reach the general public?


Stefan Berger is a historian and the director of the Institute for Social Movements at the Ruhr University Bochum.