Book Review: Remembering Independence

By Katrin Bromber, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient

Lentz, Carola; Lowe, David: Remembering Independence (Remembering the Modern World, vol. 6), London, New York: Routledge 2018, ISBN 978-1-138-90573-3, pp. 244.

Remembering independence is a contested field. It influences current debates about the past, present and future in Africa and Asia. Thus, the theme is an excellent lens to study larger questions about social dynamics in the use of history. Furthermore, the topic provides ample scope for a fruitful conversation between historians and cultural anthropologists. The social anthropologist Carola Lentz and the historian David Lowe used the historical moment of independence jubilees in Africa and Asia to discuss various changes in discourse, practice and symbolic materiality surrounding these events. Consequently, their co-authored book aims at investigating independence in terms of its “broad range of meanings” by thoroughly analyzing the contexts, practices and media that constitute its remembering. (p. 5). The introduction contains a clear acknowledgement of work done by other researchers, shown through some of the case studies used in the comparative chapters.

The book consists of six chapters, an introduction and final reflections. The theoretical framing in chapter 1 is inspired especially by Jan and Aleida Assmann’s work on communicative and cultural memory. Since the book explicitly focuses on the agency of diverse “mnemonic entrepreneurs and communities” (p. 16), the choice of ‘remembering’ and ‘commemoration’ over the more static term ‘memory’ is absolutely convincing. The conceptual outline explains the ‘multi-scalarity’ of analysis (local, national, international), emphasizing the dialectics between transnational commemorative formats and the creation of local and national forms of remembering (p. 19). It further draws attention to the involvement of the media in ‘remembering’ as a mediated practice, to the importance of space and time, and to practices of hero-making.

The five comparative chapters start by introducing the specific conceptual focus and explaining how three case studies can reveal the complexity of the research questions involved. Through this, the chapters do not aim at rigid comparison but, instead, offer gateways to present the reader with more nuanced answers. In chapter 2, Independence Days are analyzed as a means to foster national unity, whereby celebrations in Ghana, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) show that “similar colonial trajectories and the exposure to the same metropolitan political tradition can result in different ‘national imaginaries’ and celebratory styles.” (p. 42) The authors analyze the dynamics of national commemorative practices by looking at historical circumstances that include or exclude certain people, and by asking why and how mechanisms such as selective amnesia, expulsion and the reintegration of political figures are utilized in the ceremonial celebration of the nation.  In the case of Ghanaian nation-building, the analysis reveals the discursive and spatial practices involved in decentralizing national celebrations to make “the nation ‘visible’ and national belonging a palpable experience” (p.53).

The case of Malaysia shifts the focus to the question of what happens to an independence celebration in times of severe crisis. Analyzing the year 2014, when Malaysia was devastated by two airplane disasters, this section shows how state officials explicitly used the tragic incidents in calls for unity through solidarity, while presenting themselves as being in full command of the situation. Where in the Ghanaian case, ethnic nationalism was not an option, the Malaysian example shows  how the promotion of a Malay identity state was central to forging the nation (p. 63). In the case of Papua New Guinea, the slogan “Unity in Diversity” entailed quite unexpected results. In 2015, during the 40th anniversary of its independence from Australia, the country saw the proliferation of provincial flags and an exceptional number of events, such as the celebration of provincial days in the capital. However, the sheer number of symbols produced confusion “over what was being celebrated” (p. 67). This example is an excellent case that sheds light on the centrality of the national flag and attempts to undermine its symbolic value.

Chapter 3 focusses on the “making and unmaking” of national heroes as an inherent part of remembering practices. As the authors argue, hero-worshipping serves to personalize independence narratives. Beyond setting moral examples, hero-worshipping practices also serve to maintain nationalism. Discussing the construction, destruction and transformation of hero narratives from Ghana, Namibia and India, the chapter deals with questions about the social values these heroic figures typify for audiences at particular times. The section about Namibia’s first President Sam Shaffishuna Nujoma, highlights the importance of monuments and clothing in perpetuating national heroes. Memorials offer an excellent gateway to discuss the historicity of Nujoma’s presentation as a political leader and founding father of the nation. The application of globally-accepted aesthetic models, partly implemented by foreign artists (e.g. from North Korea), as well as the proliferation of Sam Nujoma streets in different parts of Africa and the socialist world, became forceful semiotic mechanisms to include him in the “pan-African and global gallery of freedom fighters and heroes of independence” (p. 87). Remembering independence heroes in India, especially under the current Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, provides to be an avenue to discuss the recent acceleration of Hindu-nationalist populism. The section argues that his rise to power resulted in the fundamental transformation of remembering the independence movement and its principal actors, by shifting the focus from non-violence (epitomized by Gandhi) to violent resistance. This policy not only brings forward heroes who represent “more martial and masculine forms of Indian nationalism” (p. 92), but directly supports the “renewal of older Hindustan values that transcend remembering Nehru and Gandhi.” (p. 97). Such transcendental processes also seem to be at work in the case of Kwame Nkrumah. The detailed reflection on the symbolic materiality of his rise and fall as the most renowned Ghanaian and a pan-African statesman invites the reader to think about an iconographic history of independence.

The next chapter on “martyrs, victims and anti-heroes” directly builds from the previous one by discussing concrete modes of inclusion and exclusion from the ‘national gallery’ by linking them to questions about generation and geopolitical necessities. In the case of Madagascar, the narrative of a peaceful transition to independence was challenged by generational memories. These memories either included or excluded the violence during the 1947 uprising against the French colonizers according to the respective political regime (i.e. socialist and anti-French or post-socialist), seeking to establish friendly relations with France. By shifting the focus from the official, national level to the local one, and from looking at remembrance as an official act for education in museums and exhibitions, this case also raises questions about how independence (struggle) is remembered when there is a shrinking number of Zeitzeugen (witnesses). The next section on Indonesia discusses the importance of films in educating about independence and national heroes. In order to demonize Indonesian communists, a four-hour-plus film was produced on “charting the communist ‘killings’” (p. 137) of the seven leading anti-communist generals in October 1965 and the ‘heroic acts’ of the counter-coup lead by the later President Suharto. Being part of the public school curricula, the film had a strong impact on memories of Indonesian independence.  Gradually, narratives about the 1.5 million (suspected) communists killed by Suharto’s death squads also became available, most notably through two recent documentaries, but these have been banned from public screenings in Indonesia. The chapter argues that the way Indonesia will come to terms with its violent history will be decided upon whether Suharto will still be remembered as a national hero. The Namibian case study offers an alternative example of coming to terms with a violent past. The question about who counts as a national hero and, thus, has the right to be incorporated into the “official map of heritage sites” (p. 144) or to get material benefits has been widely contested. The section shows the limits of reconciliation after 1989 through material compensation or inclusion into the national history, which also becomes manifest in recently-built monumental structures and the symbolic acts performed according to the national calendar.

Drawing on case studies from Côte d’Ivoire, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), chapter 5 investigates the spatial logic of creating and sustaining nation states through acts of remembering independence. As territorial outlines were influenced by former colonial powers and Cold-War strategy, the “creation of mnemonic communit[ies] […] united by an imaginary of national territory permeated by a shared history” (p. 158) became a necessity, especially in  regional contestations of remembering independence. Thus, the chapter investigates techniques of “synchronizing citizens’ memories” (p. 157) in line with national territory through celebrating National Days. The ‘fêtes tournantes’, the rotary celebration of independence in different Ivorian cities that was introduced by the government of Côte d’Ivoire in 1964, had more than symbolic functions. It resulted in concrete material effects such as infrastructural developments. In order to reunite after the decade of civil war following the military coup in 1999, all administrative units started to celebrate the National Day. Identical rituals performed at identical times on identical stages attempt to synchronize experiences of remembering and celebrating for all Ivorians and thus create a single entity through a web of (nearly) identical commemorative practices. In the case of Malaysia, the imagination of a ‘Malay World’ served as a template for suggesting a larger territorial entity – ‘The Greater Malay Nation’ or the Federation of Malaysia. Although these dreams never came true, the section shows how, over decades, Malay ethnic superiority, as well as the religious dominance of Islam, informed national politics on all levels. The celebration of fifty years of Independence, however, opened space for critique, especially from communities in the two states of Borneo – Sawarak and Sabah –, who voiced economic demands as well as their political and religious concerns. In this case, remembering independence as the birth of a Malay nation backfired on its government.

The last chapter discusses the temporal flexibility in remembering independence. Contested memories, as well as official statements on what counts in national history, leave room for building on independence and nation-building narratives thorough the past or the future. The new, resulting periodizations, thus, shift the centrality of events by foregrounding other historical or future achievements. The case study on Madagascar, analyses the appropriation of the pre-colonial Merina Kingdom. By “bracketing” the colonial phase as “unimportant”, this narrative presents Madagascar’s “long-standing history as an independent nation-state” (p. 190), emphasizing the Merina Kingdom as the foundational reference point of national memory instead of the declaration of independence in 1960. While remembering independence often includes forgetting and silencing, as the chapter points out in the case of India, the Independence Jubilee celebrations in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 provide a contrasting example. Official statements, especially by President Laurent Gbagbo, that emphasize independence is a process that is still ‘incomplete’, have projected the re-construction of the nation-state into the future. This leads to a more general question: to what extent do independence celebrations play into the decline of a global Afro-pessimistic discourse and the re-surfacing of the Africa-rising type? The section argues that spreading optimism by promising a ‘total’ re-construction of the Ivorian state as a means to achieve ‘true’ or ‘second’ independence, did not only move independence as such into the future, but also questions the legitimacy of Côte d’Ivoire’s first President Félix Houphouët-Boigny as the founding father of the nation.

In their final reflections, Carola Lentz and David Lowe invite the reader to think in more general terms. They argue that ‘independence’ is more than a powerful reference point in the national calendar by emphasizing its flexibility in allowing a permanent re-working of history. According to the needs of the present, it becomes “a carrier of hopes, ideals, and also disappointments” (p. 217). It is shaped by diverse and often contradicting ‘memory makers’ who use media to inscribe their interpretations into the memory landscape. This excellent study on the complexities of remembering independence contributes to larger questions about populism and nationalism, which is currently rising globally to an alarming extent. On the aesthetic level, the book invites the reader to think about globally-operating companies, who not only sell their service in creating monuments or museums, but also sell a kind of normative symbolism. We might ask ourselves how far remembering independence in ‘times of optimism’ generates the comeback of a ‘gigantomania’ that results in the proliferation of ‘maxiatures’ in urban and rural landscapes. This leads us to reflect more on the ‘consumption of independence’ within the framework of a global capitalism that turns everything into a commodity. Finally, the book is a highly recommended reading to all those interested in methodological questions of how to do a meaningful comparison.

Citation: Katrin Bromber, Book Review: Carola Lentz and David Lowe: Remembering Independence , in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.10.2018,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2018, 18. Oktober). Book Review: Remembering Independence. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

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