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More history, less memory? Reflections on European Union remembrance policy in the past, present and future
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A few years ago, British historian Tony Judt identified two main phases in the evolution of European memory after the Second World War: the first took shape in 1945, the second after 1989.


Immediately after the collapse of the Third Reich, Judt maintains, Europe – both in the West and in the East – was rebuilt on the basis of a strongly selective memory hinged upon two shared myths: the ‘resistance’ myth of the epic and choral domestic struggle against the Nazis, and the exclusive attribution to Germany and the Germans of all the blame for the suffering and crimes of the war.



  • In Western Europe, starting in the 1990s, the memory of the Holocaust gained such autonomy that it became the negative foundation myth of European memory

  • In its efforts to combine the memory of the Holocaust and the anti-totalitarian paradigm, the EU has taken as its model the German Vergangenheitsbewältigun

  • An excess of memory can cause problems no less serious than those induced by an excess of amnesia


Naturally, behind this picture lay a consistent core of truth: more or less widespread resistance movements emerged in all of the countries subject to Nazi occupation, and there is no doubt that the overwhelming responsibility for triggering the war and for some of its worst crimes fell on the shoulders of Germany.


But this picture entirely eclipses another aspect of this reality which is also of great historical significance: the presence everywhere in Europe of collaborationist forces that actively supported Nazism, and the fact that serious war crimes were committed by all parties involved in the conflict, including the winners.


The repression of these aspects, Judt believes, left the Old Continent with what he defines as a "vicious legacy" in the form of a "deliberate mis-memory"— forgetting as a way of life.


Since 1989, with the end of the Cold War and the reunification of the two sides (East and West), Europe was rebuilt instead upon a "compensatory surplus of memory" that public institutions promoted everywhere in an effort to found – or re-found – new collective identities in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This process unfolded along two new memory lines.


In the West, starting in the 1990s, the memory of the Holocaust gained such autonomy and propulsion that it became the ‘negative foundation myth’ of European memory.


In a Europe shaken by the repeated occurrence – after the implosion of Yugoslavia – of atrocious crimes against civilians and by the resurfacing of anti-Semitic sentiments and racial hatred within its borders, the memory of the Holocaust is thus elevated to the status of a ‘unifying narrative’, with the value of admonishing against the risk of a repeat of Evil.


In the East, on the other hand, countries emerging from over forty years of Communist regime under the control of the Soviet Union, proceeded to re-construct the national memories that had long remained frozen, and cultivated the – still fresh – memory of Communism, showing some differences between one another but also certain important common traits.


Amongst these: the tendency to externalise Communism as the mere product of the Red Army’s imposition; the subsequent representation of domestic societies in the role of innocent victims and the exaltation of the obstinate – active and passive – civil resistance to Communist regimes; and finally, the demand for the assimilation of the crimes of Communism to the crimes of Nazism.


Starting in particular in the second half of the 1990s, in the midst of the acceleration of the process of European unification after the Maastricht Treaty, European Union institutions also intervened in the field of remembrance with increasingly incisive memory policies.


The traditional European narrative of reconciliation and peace between countries that had been at each other’s throats in the First and Second World Wars, was soon supplemented by institutional efforts – promoted mainly by the EU Parliament – for the construction of a shared European memory founded upon two cornerstones: the memory of the Holocaust and the anti-totalitarian paradigm.


Following the declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, the European Union gradually transformed the Holocaust into a sort of civil religion, as the foundation of its primary values of democracy, peace and the defence of human rights.


As already done by many Member States, 27 January was chosen as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day also by the European Union. 


In November 2008, the Council of the European Union approved the Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia, intended to harmonise Member States’ legislation through the adoption of anti-denial regulations.


The eastward enlargement of the Union in both 2004 and 2007 were followed by increasing pressure from the new Eastern and Central European members for the adoption at EU level of remembrance policies centred on anti-totalitarianism and the equalisation of Nazism and Communism.


This was the objective of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism of June 2008, that called for the recognition of Communism and Nazism as part of ‘Europe’s common history’, the acknowledgement of Communist crimes as crimes against humanity, the establishment of a specific day of remembrance for the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, revision of European history textbooks and the emergence at EU level of a specific institution and museum dedicated to totalitarian regimes.


European institutions readily accepted many of these proposals. Already in September 2008, the European Parliament established the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism on 23 August, the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939, an agreement on the division of Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.


The following year, in April 2009, the European Parliament voted on the resolution on European Conscience and Totalitarianism, putting the memory of the two totalitarian experiences at the centre of European remembrance.


2011 saw the creation of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, and educational EU project with its head offices in the building of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. And already as of 2007, Action 4 of the ‘Europe for Citizens’ project set up by the EU Parliament and Council to promote ‘active European citizenship’, provides conspicuous funding destined to the memory of the victims of Nazism and Stalinism.


From the perspective of European institutions, this intense financial and cultural investment in the creation of a shared memory should certainly serve to strengthen if not create ties of belonging and identity in Member countries weakened by the failure of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 and, we might add, even more threatened by the effects of the post-2008 financial crisis, which was accompanied by a tension – within Europe – along the North-South axis, the spread of anti-Europe populist movements, and the revival of anti-German stereotypes.


But what were the effects of the ‘Made in Brussels’ memory policies? Broadly, we can say that these policies picked up and strengthened some of the fundamental directions that were already emerging in post-1989 Europe: the overly simplified representation of the twentieth century as the century of violence, crimes and genocides triggered by two opposed totalitarian ideologies, Nazism and Communism, each with their respective apparatus of terror; the quick erosion (particularly radical in former Communist countries) of the antifascist paradigm, replaced with the paradigm founded on antitotalitarianism; the substitution of the partisan hero with the victim – the innocent victim of the Nazi carnage – as the central figure; and the appearance on the memory scene of the so-called ‘righteous’: ordinary men and women who distinguished themselves for their acts of solidarity and protection of the victims of totalitarian persecution. On this latter point, see the establishment of the European Day of Remembrance for the Righteous, upon European Parliamentary vote in 2012.


In its efforts to combine the memory of the Holocaust and the anti-totalitarian paradigm, the EU has certainly taken as its model the German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, first implemented in Bonn and then, after reunification, in Berlin.


In the German case we can see a virtuous path which maintained the coming to terms with the crimes of Nazism that culminated in the extermination of the Jews of Europe at the centre of national memory, and then integrated this memory with that of the Communist regime in the DDR.


But can the German model – tied as it is to the historical experiences of the country – be Europeanised? This is what is being attempted, thanks to an entente on European memory policies bringing Germany together with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. What are the consequences?


One thing we must say straight away is that what works well in the thriving German democracy does not appear to work quite so well at the European level, where various grey areas have emerged.


First of all, there remains an active friction between the memories of the East and the West, with persistent competition between the ‘victims of the Gulags’ and the ‘victims of the Lagers’.


Further, in many cases, behind the East’s strong insistence on the anti-totalitarian paradigm, a somewhat asymmetrical attitude has appeared, entirely unbalanced in its condemnation of Communism, and which has ended up rehabilitating as national heroes some of the highest exponents of philo-Nazi collaborationism of the years of the Second World War, such as for example Ante Pavelic in Croatia, Marshal Antonescu in Romania, Josef Tiso in Slovakia, not to mention the young Latvian volunteers of the Waffen-SS to whom former comrades-in-arms dedicated a commemorative monument to ‘freedom fighters’ only a few years ago in Tallinn.


Of course, it is right that the countries of Western Europe gain awareness of what decades of Communist regimes represented for the other half of Europe, but not at the price of rehabilitating collaborationism.

This would only exacerbate the "vicious heritage" of the Second World War that Judt described. An excess of memory can cause problems no less serious than those induced by an excess of amnesia.


Thus it is necessary to ask if there are not perhaps other roads to be taken. It is the European institutions themselves who have begun a reflection in this sense. In September 2013, a young functionary of the European Parliament, Markus Prutsch, published an extremely relevant study with the title: European Historical Memory: Policies, Challenges and Perspectives


The study is an unflinching attack on the memory policies hitherto adopted by the EU. In Prutsch’s eyes, "concentrating European efforts for transnational historical remembrance of the Holocaust and National Socialism as well as Stalinism" proves to be "problematic" in a number of ways: because a "palpable competition" remains between the acknowledgement of the "uniqueness of the Holocaust" and the recognition of "National Socialism and Stalinism as equally evil"; because focusing excessively on totalitarianisms leaves out other fundamental aspects of the European historical experience such as for example Colonialism; and because "narrowing historical memory to National Socialism and Stalinism, which are elevated to a negative foundation myth, reduces incentives to critically examine stereotypes and sacred cows of one’s own national history".


As an alternative, Prutsch envisages the birth of a "critical European culture of remembering" that the EU might achieve by investing not only in memory but in history, through the promotion in each individual Member State of a re-elaboration of the past that is capable of addressing even the most ‘uncomfortable segments’ of national histories, always with an eye on the bigger picture of European history.  


To achieve this, Prutsch identifies education as the privileged field of intervention, starting with the training of teachers.


The idea is thus not that of a unique memory bestowed from above, but of an effort to promote adequate historical knowledge in all European Union countries as the premise of a plurality of European memories founded not on the self-victimisation of individual countries but on the shared recognition of the traumatic and painful historical trajectory that led to today’s Europe.


We can only hope that the young functionary’s exhortations will soon find institutional consensus in Brussels.



Translated by Teresa O'Connell


© Eutopia Magazine – creative commons


Further readings:

Filippo Focardi and Bruno Groppo (eds.), L’Europa e le sue memorie. Politiche e culture del ricordo dopo il 1989 [Europe and its memories. Policies and cultures of memory after 1989], Roma, Viella 2013.


Tony Judt, The Past is another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe, in The Politics of Retribution in Europe. World War II and its Aftermath, edited by I. Deàk, J.T. Gross, T. Judt, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2000.


Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London, Penguin 2005.


Małgorzata Pakier and Bo Stråth (eds.), A European Memory? Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance, New York/Oxford, Berghahn Books 2010.


Markus Prutsch, European Historical Memory: Policies, Challenges and Perspectives, Brussels, European Parliament 2013.


Aline Sierp, History, Memory, and Trans-European identity. Unifying Divisions, New York/London, Routledge 2014.