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European Remembrance Policies

Picture: Plenary hall of European parliament in Strasbourg, April 16, 2013 | Ikars, Shutterstock.com


By Markus J. Prutsch, Fellow of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the University of Heidelberg, leader of the international research project Science, Numbers and Politics



One of the most powerful tools in welding political identity is to create a collective historical memory, whereby we generally understand this to mean a form of collectively remembering or commemorating the past, whatever concrete form that might have.

Revisiting history and taking up memory in political debate is not only recently gaining ground, but has to a certain extent been indispensable for any political system throughout history, since the present is contextualised – and indeed made sense of – with regard to the past. However, there is an immanent danger of misinterpreting or misrepresenting history in the framework of collective historical memory, and of its becoming a pawn on the chess board of politics. In this context, history may even be deliberately misconstrued to achieve a desired political effect. This is not particularly surprising given that “politics of memory” is always more or less explicitly intended to legitimise – or, alternatively, to challenge – a status quo. This in turn underlines the huge responsibility resting on policy makers with regard to not only the way in which they shape the present and the future, but also deal with the past.

The European political sphere is no exception, with collective historical memory being confronted with a singular framework posing particular challenges.

The challenges posed by a “European historical memory”

There are basically three alternative ways of approaching a collective “European memory”:

  1. Acknowledging both the diversity and similarities in national memory cultures, in line with the European Union’s motto: United in diversity, with no further aspirations to create one single European remembrance culture.
  2. Encouraging a common European historical memory based on general topoi such as “democracy” or “freedom”, yet with an overall non-committal nature.
  3. Endorsing a collective European memory based on clearly defined historical landmarks, with a commensurate commitment involved.

It is on this last alternative that recent political initiatives in Europe have mainly focused. Ever since the beginning of post-Second-World-War European integration, attempts have been made and are indeed ongoing to supplement existing national collective identities and memories trans-nationally in order to lend additional legitimacy to the “European project”. However, while European “cultural heritage” in its widest sense, the Second World War as the zero hour and trigger of European integration, and the achievements of the integration process themselves were traditional reference points, over the last twenty years the Holocaust on the one hand, twentieth-century totalitarianism (especially National Socialism and Stalinism) on the other have moved centre stage in political attempts to foster a European collective memory.

Given the fact that there seems to be a wide degree of common consensus between the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council regarding the actual reference points of European historical memory, it seems legitimate to talk of an at least rudimentary “remembrance policy of the European Union”.

An expression of this basic inter-institutional convergence on European historical memory is, among others, the Europe for Citizens programme. Originally launched in December 2006 (see Decision No 1904/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council) for the period from 2007 to 2013, this programme established the legal framework to support a wide range of activities and events promoting active citizenship in Europe. Among the key objectives of the programme was to “develop a sense of European identity, based on common values, history and culture” (Article 1 para. 2 letter b). Due to the programme’s success, a new edition of Europe for Citizens was agreed upon in April 2014for the timeframe 2014-2020 and with an overall budget of 185.5 million EUR (Council Regulation (EU) No 390/2014). Among other things, this new edition aims to strengthen – also financially – those elements of the programme aimed at the formation of a pan-European historical consciousness. The core objective is to finance projects that “raise awareness of remembrance, the common history and values of the Union and the Union’s aim, namely to promote peace, the values of the Union and the well-being of its peoples” (Article 2 letter a).

Damaged statue of Stalin in the Fallen Monument Park, Moscow | Catenca, Shutterstock.com


German Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944. The image is part of the Auschwitz Album (see here and here, Yad Vashem.) | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Despite the political will to foster a collective historical memory at European level not just by words and declarations of intent, but also concrete initiatives, the remembrance policy of the European Union is not lacking in tensions and conflicts, and is faced with a series of immanent dilemmas. These are essentially threefold:

  1. Parallelism of partly competing memory frames, namely that of the “uniqueness of the Holocaust”, which has shaped Western European Post-War culture, and that of “National Socialism and Stalinism as equally evil”, mainly reflecting Eastern European nations’ dominant historical experience in the twentieth century and their need to come to terms with their respective communist pasts;
  2. Promotion of a teleological-reductionist understanding of history, in that the focus on twentieth-century totalitarianisms is expediting a “negative foundation myth” of the EU that makes European history appear to be essentially a post-1918 phenomenon, hereby neglecting other epochs and experiences such as colonialism and imperialism.
  3. Absence of incentives to critically come to terms with the past at the national level, particularly in view of the fact that European political initiatives so far have not necessarily fostered critical debates on commonly held stereotypes and “sacred cows” of national history, and that reconciliation work t at the European level is all too often seen as the task of the “other” rather than a shared collective responsibility .

With these dilemmas in mind, what are the prospects for constructing future European remembrance policies?

Prospects of European remembrance policies: from “remembrance culture” to a “culture of remembering”

There are clearly limits to how much can be achieved in any efforts taken to collectivise historical memory, particularly in the European context. There are difficulties inherent in trying to reduce the plurality of existing remembrance cultures – be they national or regional – to a common denominator. Additionally, there is a divergence between reference points in history such as the Holocaust being declared fixed and quasi universal on the one hand, the shift in dynamics and priorities of remembrance resulting from the alternation of generations on the other. What can be said with certainty is that a remembrance culture that is unable to maintain a link between the experiences of individual citizens and the official interpretation of political institutions is not sustainable long term. This is what future political activities at European level cannot avoid taking into account.

Assuming that ultimately the objective of European remembrance policies is to create an informed and resilient historical memory which is also self-critical, turning away from a rigidly defined “remembrance culture” towards a common “culture of remembering” seems a promising approach. This would basically involve encouraging European states to become actively committed in “coming to terms with” or rather “reworking” their own past: a term better suited to describe an open process of societal and political work on and with rather a final interpretation of the past. While acknowledging the diversity of individual national histories, the cornerstone for such an endeavour could be commonly shared European principles and universalised practices. In other words, it would be less about trying to homogenise different collective memories than to Europeanise attitudes and practices in dealing with most diverse pasts. Or to put it in a nutshell: from content to process.

The common European values such a process could be built upon would be human dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, solidarity and democracy, that is the existing repertoire of core values that has emerged as the heart of European integration and has also found expression in the treaties. In keeping with such values, setting up open discussion forums and developing a cross-over understanding would be at the centre of moving towards a “culture of remembering”, thus preparing the ground for successful bi- and multi-lateral reconciliation efforts. Such an approach implies rejecting any temptation to name, blame and shame the “other”, and instead trying to address unpleasant segments of one’s own national histories head on and without reservation. In this regard, promising steps have already been taken, such as the rise of “politics of regret” within Europe and beyond, with national political leaders shouldering historical accountability for the past actions of their own particular country and publicly bearing testimony to this fact. In addition, tackling history in an unbiased way demands the idea of “historical truth” being renounced as an absolute category. Any one single authoritative definition of “the” historical truth is both futile and dangerous, since any such attempt will invariably polarise and create more problems than it could possibly solve.

At the same time, it is worth acknowledging the potential dangers of any attempt to legislate on the past and its remembrance: even if formalised memory law regimes might be driven by the noblest of motives, potential risks and benefits need to be carefully considered. This should by no means be taken as a plea for “whateverism” in dealing with history. However, there appears to be a more encouraging alternative to legally enforcing a certain view of the past or individual historical events, and sanctioning non-compliance: providing a firm auxiliary framework in order to cultivate a critical public. Education policies corresponding to the “culture of remembrance” outlined above are of particular importance in this regard; a culture which cannot be forced on European citizens, but needs to grow organically from personal insight and understanding. Central tasks of such education policies would be:

  • Sensitising the awareness of pupils and students to European diversity both in the past and in the present;
  • Setting up the framework conditions for the history of a particular country to be viewed and assessed as objectively as possible and in a wider European and global contexts;
  • Encouraging young European citizens to actively participate in debate and discussion on history, thereby heightening their historical awareness.

Due to the lack of corresponding competences and for sheer practical considerations it is impossible for the European Union to take on the task of “reworking” the past of its member states. However, the Union is undoubtedly in a position to actively support national efforts in this regard and in doing so help create a culture of remembering. This would seem to do justice to the manifold historical memories in Europe while providing incentives to re-assess and perhaps challenge them within a trans-national framework.

Here, the European Union is not only able to actively encourage member states to become active, but can also resort to existing funding programmes to this end. Among them is the Europe for Citizens programme, providing financial support for multi-national projects focusing on historical and collective memory, and the Erasmus+ programme, supporting international exchange and study visits, to name just two.

Critical self-reflection about history and historical responsibility at national level could give rise to a truly European reflexive discourse on the history of this continent, with national collective memories eventually contributing to and merging into a European public sphere.

To date, Europe has been primarily concerned with narrating its past ex negativo. While such a negative foundation might provide a strong sense of purpose and help to legitimise the “European project”, it is also an unwritten invitation to be politically passive in the present. Only by tackling the past in a self-assured manner, equally able to acknowledge historical accomplishments and admit mistakes of the past without bias and by accepting accountability, will European societies be able to move into the future more confidently.

The arguments expressed here can be found in detail in Prutsch, Markus J. European Historical Memory: Politics, Challenges und Perspectives. Brussels: European Parliament, 2015 (2nd edition).

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