Introduction: contested pasts

The question of what it means to contest the past is one that has become increasingly charged in the last few decades. It reveals certain presuppositions about the relationship between the present and the past, which have both historical and political purchase; and the discourse of memory has come to have a central part in thinking about that relationship. The idea of contest in the literal sense is apparendy a straightforward one: it evokes a struggle in the terrain of truth. If what is disputed is the course of events - what really happened - new answers, particularly by groups whose knowledge has previously been discounted, may challenge dominant or privileged narratives. But to contest the past is also, of course, to pose questions about the present, and what the past means in the present. Our understanding of the past has strategic, political, and ethical consequences. Contests over the meaning of the past are also contests over the meaning of the present and over ways of taking the past forward. Ideas of restitution and reparation, evoking both financial or political justice and more abstruse compensations such as recognition of wrongs done, or readiness to hear and acknowledge hidden stories, all draw on a sense that the present is obliged to accommodate the past in order to move on from it (itself, of course, a historically specific way of thinking about history). 1