A Political and Cultural History of the Minute’s Silence

Karsten Lichau

Established as a commemoration practice in remembrance of the soldiers killed in the First World War, the minute’s silence is a political ceremony that became an important part of national remembrance culture in many western European countries and beyond. Though it represented one of the most innovative and important elements in interwar memory politics, it is largely absent from research in this field—not least due to the ephemeral character of the acoustic and emotional practices at its core. Centering the history of sound and emotions, this research project therefore challenges the claim that cultural forms of commemoration developed after 1918 essentially followed historical traditions established during the 19th century—a claim that is still widely accepted.

Following the historical dynamics of introducing the minute’s silence into the highly diverse political memory cultures of Great Britain, France, and the German Reich between 1919 and 1935, the project examines the importance of ephemeral and often fragile acoustic and emotional practices for constructing, challenging, or changing the memory of history.

Bringing together macro- and microhistorical dimensions that play out in different performances of the minute’s silence, the research embeds the different sounds composing the acoustic framework of the ceremony (music, bells, cannons, guns, and flares), as well as the practices of keeping silent, into their complex social, political, and cultural contexts.

With regard to the diverse emotional practices embraced by the participants in different countries, research on the minute’s silence allows a questioning of theoretical and methodological discussions in the history of emotions: Thus, recent findings have shown the importance of adequately accounting for the “transversal dimension” in emotions, for the rather vague and diverse feelings or “second-order-emotions” like uneasiness, hilarity, hypocrisy, and indifference that act upon the experience and expression of more conventional emotions like grief, reverence, pride, and gratitude.

Key References

Lichau, K. (2022). Feeling political on Armistice Day: Institutional struggles in interwar France. In U. Frevert, K. M. Pahl, F. Buscemi, P. Nielsen, A. Arndt, M. Amico, K. Lichau, H. Malone, J. Wambach, J. Brauer, & C. Moine, Feeling political: Emotions and institutions since 1789 (pp. 189–217). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-89858-8_7
Lichau, K. (in press). 'In perfect stillness?' Die Schweigeminute als akustisch-emotionale Artikulation. In B. Brockmeyer, R. Hölzl, P. Müller, & K. Wetjen (Eds.), Praktiken des Schweigens. Campus Verlag.
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