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Outils et enjeux du discours politique

The Discursive Construction of History. Brief Considerations

Ruth Wodak
p. 57-65

Texte intégral

Discourse studies and the re/writing of History

1In recent years, much research in Discourse Studies and Critical Discourse Studies has started to analyse the many dimensions of national and transnational “identity politics” and to investigate how the discursive construction of such identities draws on collective and individual memories, on hegemonic and common sense narratives, and on myths which are proposed as constitutive for national identification (see below:“Discourses of/about the past(s). Overview of research”). Indeed, one might claim that the entire field of “language and politics” in post-war Europe (particularly since the 1960’s and 1980’s) was triggered by the desire to understand the influence of persuasive rhetoric in and on totalitarian regimes and related major catastrophes in the 20th century, thus trying to come to terms with the traumatic pasts in Europe and beyond (Wodak, De Cillia, 2006, 2007). In this way, it is very timely to consider the range of research, theories, and methodologies employed to investigate this domain in a special issue dedicated to “thirty years of Mots. Les langages du politique”.

2It is obvious however, that many answers to overarching questions are still missing, such as how should one deal with “traumatic” pasts that are prevalent in every society ? How should one deal with perpetrators and victims ? Should one focus on a common future and “forget the past” ? Can a “clean break” be achieved ? What are the functions and risks of such a “clean break” ? And if silence occurs, what are the consequences, for perpetrators, victims, and society as a whole ? In particular, one question remains are there any global traits with respect to dealing with individual and collective memories ? In the following, I summarise some of the most important research related to these questions from the perspective of (Critical) Discourse Studies.

Discourses of/about the past(s). Overview of research

  • 1  De Cillia, Wodak, 2009a ; Forchtner, 2010 ; Stockholm-Banke, 2009 ; Ensink, 2009 ; Reisigl, 2008 ; (...)
  • 2  Achugar, 2008 ; Anthonissen, Blommaert, 2006 ; Verdoolaege, 2008.
  • 3  Blommaert, 2005 ; Carrard, 2010 ; Ensink, Sauer, 2003 ; Heer et al., 2008 ; Wodak, 2006a, 2006b.
  • 4  Blommaert, 2003 ; Czyżewski, 2009 ; Kovàcs, Wodak, 2003 ; Pollak, Wodak, 2008.
  • 5  Wodak et al., 2009 ; Suleiman, 2010 ; Blackledge, 2004.
  • 6  Pollak, 2002 ; Ribeiro, 2010 ; Zimmerman, 2009.

3Recent research focuses on a range of salient oral, written, and visual genres, such as commemorative speeches at various salient national or transnational days in the Netherlands, Denmark, the US and the UK, Austria and Germany1, the discourses of truth and reconciliation tribunals in South Africa, Chile, and Argentina2, accounts and experiences of victims (and perpetrators) in the Congo, Austria, France, Poland, and Germany3, the argumentation inherent in election posters insinuating and functionalising past events as well as related xenophobic and anti-Semitic stereotypes (in Austria and the UK) (Distelberger, 2009; Richardson, Wodak, 2009a, 2009b), television debates and documentaries discussing competing narratives of national pasts, in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Austria, the Soviet Union, the UK, and France4, the effect of commemorative exhibitions (Uhl, 2008), the discursive construction of national identities in Austria, Palestine or the UK5, debates in the (Austrian, Israeli or Portuguese) press about the juxtaposition of victims and perpetrators6 or about issues of restitution (De Cillia, Wodak, 2009b), and representations of victims and perpetrators in school books in Austria and Japan (Barnard, 2003; Loitfellner, 2008).

  • 7  Benke, Wodak, 2003 ; Wodak et al., 1990 ; Engel, Wodak, 2009.

4Of course, some studies also investigate counter-discourses by politicians and political parties who continuously endorse revisionist views of the past and attempt to justify or indeed deny past war crimes7. Specific linguistic-rhetorical patterns are also under investigation in this context, such as conceptual metaphors and their blending or the implicatures and presuppositions as employed, for example, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Chilton, 2007; Musolff, 2009), and the coded languages of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism as well as the related indirect pragmatic devices used to discriminate against certain marginalised social groups or to promote a “politics of denial” (Van Dijk, 1993; Wodak, 2007).

An integrative interdisciplinary framework

Comparing and/or equating ?

5This brief overview is, of course, not a finite list; however, the range of countries and investigated topics becomes apparent, linked to the emergence of historical and political science literature best summarised in Judt (2007). Judt’s seminal book Post-War presents a comprehensive and detailed account of different aspects of the world’s responses to (the aftermath of) World War II. He succeeds, in illustrating how specific and indeed diverse the responses in various parts of the world and countries were and are to salient traumatic experiences of the past.

6In this vein, Pelinka (2009, p. 49) argues that

[I]n dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity, three different, sometimes conflicting patterns have been developed since 1945. The three patterns can be distinguished according to their different guarding principles Justice Perpetrators must be brought to court and convicted. Truth All major aspects of the crimes must become known to the public. Peace At the end of any process, social reconciliation must become possible.

7He continues that “in the short run, neglecting justice and truth in favour of peace and reconciliation may have a positive impact on stabilizing democracy in a peaceful way; but in the long run, such a neglect has its price especially regarding social peace” (ibid.).

8More specifically, Pelinka claims that, on the one hand, “without comparing the quality and the quantity of evidence, any debate about conflicting narratives loses any kind of academic liability and responsibility” (p. 50), thus comparison should take place, always in a context-dependent way. On the other hand, however, comparisons should not lead to any equation of traumatic events. Thus, Pelinka emphasises that

Fascism is not fascism is not fascism. Too easily the term fascism is used to blur significant differences between different regimes. Spain under Franco is not Italy under Mussolini is not Austria under Dollfuß is not Portugal under Salazar is not Hungary under Horthy – and they all are not Germany under Hitler. All these different types of fascism or semi-fascism have a lot in common – non-democratic rule, oppression of political opponents, ending the rule of law. But the intensity of suppression as well as the existence of a monopolistic mass party make a lot of difference – not to speak of the Holocaust which is the decisive quality of nazism and not of fascism in general. (Ibid., p. 53)

9Careful deconstruction of many current debates about the past in different parts of the world illustrates indeed that certain terms become ubiquitous – such as “Holocaust” or “fascism”. Following Pelinka’s argument (which I endorse), it is obvious that terms lose their distinctiveness when used to label similar but very different events and experiences in different national contexts. Such terms then tend to be employed like “empty signifiers” and their context-dependent meanings become blurred. Hence, research about past events necessarily has to consider the socio-political and historical contexts of each experience and avoid undifferentiated generalisations.

Four models of coping with traumatic pasts

10Assmann (2009, p. 31 ff.) distinguishes between four ways in which societies deal with traumatic pasts. She refers to them as dialogic forgetting; remembering in order to prevent forgetting; remembering in order to forget; and dialogic remembering. The first – dialogic forgetting – is defined as a model for peace agreed upon by two parties that had engaged in violence in order to keep an explosive past at bay. This kind of forgetting is not to be set equal with the suppression of memories by one side of the conflict; rather, this serves, as Assmann argues, to achieve closure and allow societies to “move on”. One of the examples mentioned in this thought-provoking essay are the many traumatic incidents in Spain under Franco until Spanish Prime-minister Zapatero’s “memory law” 2007, which for the first time encouraged Spanish people to remember.

11“Remembering in order to prevent forgetting” is typical for asymmetric instances of violence. The paradigmatic case in hand is the genocide against Jews and Roma during the Nazi regime (the “Holocaust”). As Assmann claims

[R]emembering was the only adequate response to such collectively destructive and devastating experiences. It was rediscovered not only as a therapeutic remedy for the survivors but also as a spiritual and ethical obligation for the millions of dead victims. Thus slowly but inevitably, the pact of forgetting was transformed into a “pact of remembering”. The aim of such a pact is to transform the asymmetric experience of violence into symmetric forms of remembering. ( Ibid., p. 35)

12The aim of the third model is also forgetting, but the way to achieve this aim leads through remembering. Remembering in this case (for example, in South Africa or in Chile) is introduced as a therapeutic tool to cleanse and to reconcile. Many linguistic studies have investigated the effect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (Anthonissen, Blommaert, 2006; Verdoolaege, 2008). Although, of course, only some perpetrators were brought to justice and not all voices of victims were heard, this procedure enabled South African society to avoid a civil war. Finally, Assmann mentions a utopian model, the model of “dialogic remembering” “Two countries engage in a dialogic memory if they face a shared history of mutual violence by mutually acknowledging their own guilt and empathy with the suffering they have inflicted on others” (ibid., 40). Assmann mentions some first attempts at dialogic remembering. For example, she lists the Warsaw uprising, a seminal event commemorated in Poland, which was unknown to Germans because it is fully eclipsed – for the German public – by the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Simultaneously, Germans have reclaimed the firebombing of Dresden for their national memory, but they have neglected the Leningrade Blockade (1941-1944) by the German Wehrmacht, through which 700 000 Russians were starved to death; and so forth. Recently, such neglected events are increasingly finding their way into history school books and public debates.

Discourse and social change

13In accordance with the two above mentioned theoretical frameworks by Pelinka and Assmann, it is necessary, I believe, to integrate these with concepts from discourse analysis. In this context, the notions of intertextuality, recontextualisation and entextualisation present themselves for further theorizing (Wodak, Fairclough, 2010; Blommaert, 2003).

14An important assumption common to various approaches to CDS is that processes of social change are in part processes of change in discourse, and that change in discourse may, subject to certain conditions, have constructive effects on processes of social change more generally. The challenge is to develop theories of social change which coherently integrate discourse and relations between discourses and other elements or moments of the social process, and methodologies for focusing specifically on these relations, and the particular place and impact of discourse, in inter-disciplinary research on social change (Fairclough, 1992; Krzyżanowski, Wodak, 2009). Since events and texts are linked to, affected by and have effects on other events and texts in different places and at different times, the major challenge implies developing ways to address broadly spatial and temporal relationships between events and texts (i.e. intertextuality; Kristeva, 1986).

15Struggles for hegemony of various competing narratives of the past which can be reconstructed in a longitudinal way require very subtle context-dependent analyses. In this way, the theorization of contexts becomes crucial to any dialectic analysis (see below “Levels of context”). Thus, we assume that social and historical change occurs on several levels at different times and with different speed (or sometimes not at all); thus non-simultaneity needs, to be accounted for in differentiated, context-dependent ways. These intricate and complex processes also suggest the necessity of the concept of glocalization of understanding how more global processes are being implemented, recontextualized and thus changed on local/regional/national levels (Krzyżanowski, Wodak, 2009; “model of circular non-simultaneous transformation”).

  • 8  In a similar vein, Blommaert (2003, p. 177) employs the term entextualisation which guides the “pr (...)

16Recontextualization as one of the salient linguistic processes governing historical change is concretely manifested in the intertextuality and interdiscursivity of texts (Wodak, Fairclough, 2010). The intertextuality of a text is a matter of how elements of other texts (words, phrases, arguments, topics, or larger elements) are incorporated within it; the interdiscursivity of a text is the particular combination of different discourses and different genres that characterizes the text, and how the deployment of particular discourses and genres links the text to other intertextually related texts. Recontextualization is often textually realized in the mixing of “new” recontextualized elements and “old” elements, such as particular words, expressions, arguments, topoi, rhetorical devices and so forth, and discourses and genres. The tensions, contradictions and antinomies which recontextualization gives rise to can be textually identified and analysed by focusing upon such textual mixing or hybridity8.

Levels of context

17The concept of context is an inherent part of discourse analysis. In the course of investigating complex social problems, it is necessary to draw on multiple theoretical approaches to analyse given contexts and relate these to texts. To make this possible in a meaningful way, decisions must be made about the theoretical foundations and interdisciplinarity of discourse analysis. This is why I have proposed the Four-Level Model of context elsewhere which I summarise briefly below.

18This triangulatory approach is based on a concept of context which takes into account four levels

19– the co-text of each utterance or clause;

20– the con-text in the macro-text; the genre analysis;

21– the socio-political context of the speech event.

22The intertextual and interdiscursive relationships of the respective speech event to other relevant events.

23When analysing narratives about past events, a systematic investigation of context-dependent layers of debate proves valuable as illustrated, for example, in deconstructing instances of the politics of denial (Heer et al., 2008).


24Although this paper – due to restrictions on space – can only cover part of the most important research on “coping with traumatic pasts” from a discourse-analytic perspective, it is obvious that all dimensions and levels of language and communication can be functionalized to achieve “re/writing of history”. This paper aims primarily at raising awareness of the “power of the written and spoken word”, in all public and private contexts in our lives. Careful and critical reading/listening and viewing is required in order to understand the implied meanings, which are frequently controversial and conflicting.

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1  De Cillia, Wodak, 2009a ; Forchtner, 2010 ; Stockholm-Banke, 2009 ; Ensink, 2009 ; Reisigl, 2008 ; Charteris-Black, 2007 ; Slavickova, 2010 ; Wodak et al., 1994.

2  Achugar, 2008 ; Anthonissen, Blommaert, 2006 ; Verdoolaege, 2008.

3  Blommaert, 2005 ; Carrard, 2010 ; Ensink, Sauer, 2003 ; Heer et al., 2008 ; Wodak, 2006a, 2006b.

4  Blommaert, 2003 ; Czyżewski, 2009 ; Kovàcs, Wodak, 2003 ; Pollak, Wodak, 2008.

5  Wodak et al., 2009 ; Suleiman, 2010 ; Blackledge, 2004.

6  Pollak, 2002 ; Ribeiro, 2010 ; Zimmerman, 2009.

7  Benke, Wodak, 2003 ; Wodak et al., 1990 ; Engel, Wodak, 2009.

8  In a similar vein, Blommaert (2003, p. 177) employs the term entextualisation which guides the “production of historical text”. Thus Blommaert argues, entextualisation means “setting / desetting / resetting events in particular (morally and politically loaded) time frames, and this in turn involves the usual power differences of entextualisation: access to contextual spaces, the importance of ‘the record’, orientation towards authoritative voices, shifts in referential and indexical frames and so on”.

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Ruth Wodak, « The Discursive Construction of History. Brief Considerations », Mots. Les langages du politique [En ligne], 94 | 2010, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2012, consulté le 24 janvier 2017. URL :

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Ruth Wodak

Lancaster University

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