Reparations For African Canadians / Sorry Day poster produced by Batchelor Press/Batchelor Institute to commemorate the day Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generation (13th February 2008) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Mending the Past: History and the Politics of Guilt and Reparation

Tutor: Geoff Cubitt

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00081M

Credits: 20

The past has passed, but leaving it behind is another matter. Violences and injustices perpetrated at specific moments in history linger or resurface, generating politically contentious demands for justice, reparation, apology, acknowledgement, atonement or reconciliation, amnesty or forgetting. Over the period since the Second World War especially, demands of this kind – rooted in experiences of war, imperialism, state terror, genocide, displacement and dispossession – have been an increasingly salient feature of the political landscape, nationally and internationally. Drawing on a range of specific examples (involving cases from e.g. Australia, South Africa, Japan, France and international cases like that of Transatlantic Slavery), this module will explore the issues raised by such demands and by the resistances they encounter, and will use these as a prism through which to investigate cultural assumptions about collective guilt and responsibility, social trauma, witnessing and remembrance, identity politics, symbolic action and other themes.

The module draws on approaches in politics, sociology, law, philosophy and cultural studies as well as history, but it also seeks specifically to explore the ways in which history as a discipline, and historians aspractitioners, are implicated in these debates, whether through the role of historians as advisers, commentators or witnesses in particular cases, or through the more general notion that historical writing and research themselves may serve as vehicles of justice or reparation or a means of sustaining recognition of past atrocities. How do the claims of historical truth or understanding intersect with – or conflict with – those of justice or of social reconciliation?

Though the detail of the programme may vary, key themes and issues likely to be covered in the module are as follows:

    • Collective responsibility and acknowledgement in history, ethics and politics
    • Apologies
    • The politics of memory and reparation
    • History, memory and justice: the politics of war crimes
    • Truth and reconciliation commissions
    • Transnational politics of apology and reparation: the case of slavery
    • Cultural property and restitution
    • History, historians and the politics of guilt and reparation


Preliminary reading

    • Olick, Jeffrey K. The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. New York: Routledge, 2007
    • Barkun, Elazar. The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. New York & London: Norton, 2000
    • Lowenthal, D. ‘On arraigning ancestors; a critique of historical contrition’, North Carolina Law Review 87 (2008-9), 901-966
    • Merryman, John Henry. Imperialism, Art and Restitution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.