Cities as custodians for reparative memory work


This project urgently addresses the need to enhance society’s response capacity following right-wing extremist acts of terrorism. Victims and survivors, particularly in Germany, are actively engaging in initiatives resembling a national movement of memory activists. This movement connects local efforts, advocating for recognition, investigation, and remembrance, especially in response to the aftermath of the NSU terrorist group’s bomb attack in Cologne.

The reception of reparative memory work initiatives by victims and survivors has often been relegated to cities. This aligns with the observed tendency of racism shifting away from national historical narratives (references). Another explanation is related to the forms and goals of right-wing extremist terrorism. These attacks can be seen as a form of ”urbicide” (Coward 2009), meaning a deliberate destruction of cities and urban life to eliminate certain forms of coexistence or ethnic groups. Right-wing extremist terrorism achieves its effect by attacking and destroying the lived, transformative multiculturalism that characterizes super-diverse, post-migratory cities. Often, the targets of right-wing extremist terror have been urban environments and populations already stigmatized and associated with crime in political, media, and popular discourses – examples include the bombing of Keupstraße in Cologne in 2004 (Schoop 2022) and the racist serial killer active in Malmö from 2003 to 2010 (Gardell 2015; 2018; Nilsson Mohammadi 2022). Even though memory activists based in marginalized groups strive for national impact, initiatives from victims and survivors often take shape based on the locations where attacks have occurred. Their counterparts in local memory work then become city authorities and urban administrations.

There are indications that the interaction between victim and survivor initiatives and the political-administrative governance of cities is not always smooth (Rudolph et al. 2019; Nilsson Mohammadi 2023). Memory activism accentuates contemporary contradictions, where local governance, on the one hand, acts as agents of a neoliberal political economy and culture, but on the other hand, manifests local community (Franzén et al. 2016). The exchange is also hindered by a lack of understanding of how reparative memory processes can take place at the local level – what we might call the urban mode of memory. Specifically, there is a lack of knowledge about how local governance and administrations can act as custodians of reparative memory processes and best support the memory work of marginalized groups.

Based on a dynamic and relational understanding of memory, this project aims to study reparative memory made in cities following far-right terrorism. The dynamic and relational concept of memory can be used to articulate what is fascinating about the memory activism of victims and survivors, namely their way of performing ”reparative memory.” Young (2023) defines ”reparative memory” as a memory practice that strives for and succeeds in articulating personal and societal meanings of loss. Quickly attributing political significance to the loss of victims of right-wing extremist violence involves a repetition of the loss of each unique life by appropriating it for a political agenda. Abstaining from political criticism means that the conditions that caused the loss (both the attack and the discrediting of the memory of it) persist. Reparative memory requires practices of the kind that Wüstenberg (2023) calls ”slow memory,” involving collaborative and mutual approaches to develop activities and representations that allow people to express what they have been subjected to in their own ways, thereby experiencing internal coherence and social solidarity. The memories that emerge can, in turn, challenge socially established discourses that ignore racism and right-wing extremist threats and trigger activism for change.

The multidirectional dynamics explored in this project are linked to exchanges between actors in administration and civil society locally in a city. McQuaid and Gensburger (2019; 2023) suggest using the concepts of ”governance,” ”policyscape,” ”memoryscape,” and ”memory regime” to make visible the entanglements between political-administrative governance and public memory. The concept of ”governance” draws attention to coordination of actors and resources that is more or less mandated. ”Policyscape” conceptualizes an abstract space where behaviors are characterized by institutionalized strategies of governance. The similar concept ”memoryscape” designates the field of active negotiations of a certain memory. A ”memory regime” is a temporarily dominant form of memory that arises in the overlap between ”policy-” and ”memoryscape.”

Together, this set of concepts focuses on how public forms of memory are conditioned by local political-administrative governance processes, which involve exchanges with civil society actors, where memory practices can serve various, and sometimes multiple, functions. Since cities usually do not have a faculty for reparative memory, that function must be encapsulated within existing operations and organizational goals, introducing a specific form of multidirectional dynamics. It also highlights that memory can become a site for governance in itself.