Obliviate! Damnatio memoriae in history

The Czech author Milan Kundera touchingly describes in one of his books a photograph of Joseph Stalin on a balcony waving to a crowd while all around him stand his most trusted deputies. The photo, used heavily by those responsible for disseminating propaganda, was taken during the early days of the Soviet Union when I imagine the people around Stalin were still flush with optimism and the afterglow of their improbable revolutionary success.

The day was apparently a cold one and one of the men standing next to Stalin loaned the Soviet leader his hat. Some short time later began the grim, gray years of Stalin’s paranoia and deadly purges. The man beside Stalin was whisked away in the night and executed in the shabby brick courtyard of some state security agency. The photo of Stalin on the balcony was doctored to remove the deputy, so that all that remained of him was his hat on Stalin’s head.

This was not uncommon under Stalin’s rule. The photos below show the before and after pictures of Stalin with just such a deputy, Soviet Commissar, Nikolai Yezhov, who was executed in 1940.

Damnatio 1

Damnatio memoriae in actionThe drive to remove people not just from power, but also from human memory, is not a recent invention. The Romans called it Damnatio memoriae, “Damnation of memory” and it was considered to be the proverbial fate worse than death. The person’s name would be stricken from records, their statues literally defaced, the frescos in which they were depicted painted over.

For obvious reasons, it is unknown if any formerly famous individuals were successfully stricken from history, but even before the age of the internet it was a hard thing to do. Witness the fact that attempts were made to expunge the record of as many as 36 Roman emperors and 40 antipopes, yet it seems we know them all.

Damnatio 3

Queen Hatshepsut

Damnatio memoriae at times could clearly be effective, however. The life and rule of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, was erased by her own son in approximately 1500 BCE. Her existence remained unknown and unremembered until the 19th Century—more than three millennia later—when transliterations of Egyptian hieroglyphics (made possible by the Rosetta Stone) provided a key missing link.

To be the target of such seething hatred and concerted efforts at obliteration requires that the individual in question be interesting, at the very least. In the end, there is no telling how many strange, passion-convulsed histories have been lost to the damnation of memory.

  • And now Hatshepsut has more than one skilled novelist telling her tale, so she beat back her son’s maliciousness, although it took a very long time. Historical fiction has retrieved a number of lesser remembered people from oblivion. These people have so many gaps in their historical record that the academic historian can’t do much with them, but if you are immersed enough in their world and can use historically imbued imagination, the gaps can be “filled” in an engaging way. I recommend Stephanie Thornton’s Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt about Hatshepsut. Now Stalin’s murdered assistants? I’ll leave them to someone else to pull from oblivion! That sounds like a grim subject for a novel.

    • I love the novel suggestion. Thanks for that. And I believe you are correct that writing a novel about Stalin’s purged assistants would be unrelentingly grim. People have certainly written novels about it, but boy are they dark.

  • Yowzer! Some of my favorites!!!

  • And now we have a subtler form of doctoring photos, but not quite removal on this scale. Looking forward to Hatshepsut the investigator, Judith.

  • I’m surprised at how good the doctored photo looks. Given our current technology, who knows what’s real and what isn’t.

  • I have fun with, result in I found exactly whjat I was ooking for.
    You havve ended my four day long hunt! God
    Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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