Please be aware that the City of Westminster will be working on a road resurfacing project that will impact campus during the month of October. More information »

Notes from the UK: History professor’s podcast on memory

Paul Miller
May 06, 2014

When Paul Miller returns to the Hill this fall, the History professor will share, with colleagues and students alike, new ways of presenting scholarly work and new ideas on historical memory.

However, don’t expect everything to be new. The enthusiasm and scholarship Miller brings to the classroom have only intensified in his past years as a Marie Curie Fellow (European Union) at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Miller has been researching and writing on the memory of the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to what Miller describes as the “largely forgotten (today in the U.S. especially) Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Ferdinand and his wife were killed while processing through Sarajevo at the end of a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina to observe military maneuvers in the Empire’s newly annexed provinces.

Miller does not refer to “memory” in the traditional sense when talking about an assassination and war that happened a century ago.

“Memory in this academic sense is not necessarily or exclusively about testimony, though that may well be a part of it with increasing interest in recording the testimonies of people who experienced war, genocide, etc.,” Miller says. “But above all, memory is how we attempt to make sense of past events as part of some collectivity – be it family, ethnic/religious group, nation or profession.”

Miller first thought about memory while teaching a course on the Holocaust at McDaniel.

“I became increasingly interested in the work that was being done on Holocaust remembrance, particularly in terms of how monuments, memorials and museums were constructed in different countries – Poland, Germany, Israel and the United States – as a reflection of how these countries experienced the Holocaust, whether directly or indirectly,” he says.  

One result of Miller’s work at Birmingham is his 25-minute podcast, “The Sandwich That Sabotaged Civilisation,” part of the University of Oxford series, “New Perspectives on the First World War.” In it, he explores the tension between history and memory, and how what people think they see in photographs/video, for example, influences their understanding of the past. He launches his podcast discussion with a famous photograph of the “arrest” of Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, the Bosnian Gavrilo Princip.   

“The podcast has become my calling card whenever anyone asks me what I’ve been working on the past few years in the UK,” Miller writes in an email. “It’s shown me how effective this format of presenting academic scholarship can be in reaching a wide audience.”

Miller uses the assassination as what he refers to as a “site of memory,” on which to reflect upon the entire 20th century in terms of how people from different states, societies and cultures have attempted to come to terms with World War I and its consequences. Much of his work engages with non-traditional historical sources, such as literature, film, monuments/memorials, folklore and art.

The podcast was first a conference paper Miller delivered at the University of Westminster in London and will be a chapter in a book titled “Unreliable Memories: Interdisciplinary Essays on Falsifying, Performing and Analysing Memory.”

In fact, “The Sandwich that Sabotaged Civilisation" emerged in part from common memory that is false, Miller says. It is not true, he points out, that the assassin was eating a sandwich when the Archduke’s car ‘just happened’ to turn the corner and stop right in front of him. Still, memory such as this reflects historical understanding of the random elements that did exist in the Sarajevo assassination. And, in a broader and more ambitious sense, it indicates the ways in which we often process and portray the past, and in particular a difficult past.  

“In this case, it is the utter disproportionality between the Sarajevo assassination and the outbreak of world war a month later, that lends itself to so much false memory, and other efforts (be they fiction, art, film, memorialization, etc.) to make sense of the assassination,” he says.