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Mending the Past: History & the Politics of Guilt & Reparation - HIS00081M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Geoff Cubitt
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2020-21

Module summary

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?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • A familiarity with the conceptual, ethical, legal, political and historical issues raised by demands for apology, reparation, punishment, acknowledgement or reconciliation in connection with past violences and injustices, and with literatures in different disciplines exploring these issues;
  • Knowledge of a range of historical examples of debates and conflicts over these issues, drawn from different national and international contexts, and an ability to compare different cases;
  • An ability to reflect on the roles and responsibilities of historians in relation to these debates and controversies.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Collective responsibility and acknowledgement in history, ethics and politics
  2. Apologies
  3. The politics of memory and reparation
  4. History, memory and justice: the politics of war crimes
  5. Truth and reconciliation commissions
  6. Transnational politics of apology and reparation: the case of slavery
  7. Cultural property and restitution
  8. History, historians and the politics of guilt and reparation


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the autumn term. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 2 of the spring term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment, students will receive oral feedback at a one-to-one meeting with their tutor and written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. Tutors are also available in their student hours to discuss formative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of 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.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.