Latest Articles

Miloš Vec

I wanna hold your hand

Controversies over Muslims refusing to shake hands with non-Muslims are typical of the conflicts affecting today's multi-religious societies. Appeals to the law are not the answer: processes of social self-regulation need to take their course beyond formal authority, argues Miloš Vec. [ more ]

Adam Zagajewski

A defence of ardour

Shalini Randeria, Anna Wójcik

Mobilizing law for solidarity

Ira Katznelson, Agnieszka Rosner

Solidarity after Machiavelli

Camille Leprince, Lynn SK

Portraits of three women...

Eurozine Review

Eurozine Review

The destruction of society

'Osteuropa' rages at the destruction of Russian society; 'Merkur' delves into the history of Eurasianism; 'Vikerkaar' is sanguine about the decline of universalism; 'New Eastern Europe' has divided opinions about borders; 'Ord&Bild' finds humanism at sea; 'Il Mulino' debates the difficulties of democracy in Italy and the West; 'Blätter' seeks responses to the whitelash; 'Mittelweg 36' historicizes pop and protest; 'Critique & Humanism' looks at Bulgarian youth cultures; 'Res Publica Nowa' considers labour; and 'Varlik' examines the origins of literary modernism in Turkey.

Eurozine Review

The ordinary state of emergency

Eurozine Review

The Lilliput syndrome

Eurozine Review

The violent closet?

Eurozine Review

Peak democracy?

My Eurozine

If you want to be kept up to date, you can subscribe to Eurozine's rss-newsfeed or our Newsletter.

Share |

Equally criminal?

Totalitarian experience and European memory

Instead of dwelling upon the catastrophes of the twentieth century, many Europeans ask if we should not thoughtfully "forget" them. However, the endurance of historical memory in the united Europe is demonstrated by contemporary political differences between European member states, which can be dealt with only if a European memory is developed. The difficulty here lies in paying due respect to the memory of the crimes both of National Socialism and of Soviet totalitarianism while avoiding a hierarchy of competing victim groups.

European histories

The comfortable historical consensus long obtained within and among western European countries has been undermined by the eastern enlargement of the EU. Europeans are still far from an all-embracing "grand narrative", assuming this is worth striving for at all. [more]
Remembrance days and commemorative years can bring to light how different, and often how contradictory, memories in Europe are. The common construal of 8 May 1945 as "liberation day" cannot be endorsed above all by representatives of those countries where there was a seamless transition from German occupation to decades of Soviet occupation. A symbol of this were the nine "special camps" maintained by the Soviet military administration (SMAD) in eastern Germany from 1945 to 1950 at locations that previously had served the SS as concentration camps; it is stunning how two dictatorships meshed, with their defining feature, the camp system. Individual prisoners found themselves in the same camp twice, first as the opponents of National Socialism, then as "counter-revolutionary" agents or social democrats.

In such places, it is not easy to stage a commemoration that conveys the tragic double experience with the required respect without equating the two totalitarian phenomena. Therefore, the chronology of the two experiences of dictatorship must be taken into consideration as much as the fatal unity of the place. For the individual, it was a matter of indifference which system he or she fell victim to; analytically, however, the distinction remains important and must resonate in the rituals of memory. The House of Terror in Budapest, site of the torture chambers of the national socialist Arrow Cross Party occupied by the Communists after 1945, counts as a failed example of the processing of the history of the "age of extremes" (Hobsbawm). Rarely is a successful balance achieved impromptu; on the whole, a disastrous hierarchy of competing victim groups appears that does not equate "brown" and "red" dictatorships so much as set off one collective experience against another. A sinister body count is supposed to reduce the "other side" to silence.

Foregrounding the "commemoration of the Holocaust" often means, consciously or unconsciously, demoting Stalinist terror or excusing it by claiming that Communism, unlike National Socialism, pursued humane intentions and had progressive justifications. Those who mobilize the "GULag memory" often overlook, again consciously or unconsciously, that victims of Stalinism were often former collaborators with National Socialism. On the other hand, emphasizing this is likely to extenuate the post-Stalinist dictatorship up to 1990 and ignore the fact that subsequent to the Soviet Union's pact with the German Reich parts of eastern Europe had already been occupied and "cleansed" by Russian troops before the Nazi occupation.

And so the old cui bono of the Cold War threatens to win out over truth and the political division of the continent is eternalized. For fifteen years, the post-Communist Left and the pre-Communist Right have invoked historical grievances to win elections and conduct day-to-day politics; post-Communists are found to have an incorrigible red-hot core and in return the liberal-conservative side is painted brown. Both operations serve to delegitimize respective governing elites. Alternatively, the rapid passage through two dictatorships is used to launder clean entire nations, whereby any wrongdoing is declared to be merely a side effect of uninterrupted occupation.

Speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the National Socialist concentration camps, the author Jorge Semprun, former member of the Communist Party of Spain and from 1943 to 1945 prisoner at Buchenwald, claimed that European enlargement could only succeed culturally and existentially "when our memories have been shared and brought together as one". The assertion that the future of Europe depends on common memory and that the processing of a totalitarian past is indispensable for democratization is by no means a commonplace. Most plea for a swift and thorough forgetting (as far as is possible) of the history of pain and horror – in other words, for collective amnesty and amnesia. However, Semprun is right: enforced forgetting effectively means that perpetrators ignore the suffering of victims, possibly their own. Objectifying national confidence via third-party standpoints is difficult, for sure, because while national history points to one's own triumphs, supranational memory is founded upon the recognition of foreign victims and one's own wrongdoing. German sociologist Bernhard Giesen termed this the paradigm shift "from triumph to trauma".

Further factors allegedly condition the disunity and asymmetry of European memory. Thus, it is claimed that WWII (which has included the murder of the European Jews only for the last twenty or thirty years) was something the whole of Europe experienced, whilst the Stalinist dictatorship and real-existing Socialism remained reserved for eastern Europeans. Against this speaks the fact that neither in the UK nor in Portugal does the Holocaust receive the attention that it has received – after years of political efforts – not only in Germany, but also in France or Poland. The reason is that the exceptional status of Jews in the "Third Reich" continued to have an effect in the narratives after 1945, while the Stalinist terror was "stochastic", in other words, it could literally affect anyone at any time and did not produce "advocacy" in this sense, unless – as in the Baltic region – it styled whole peoples as victims.

That the Communist dictatorship plays a lesser role in Western memory ought not to obscure the fact that powerful Communist parties were active on the other side of the Iron Curtain too, who were not immune to Stalinist practices; even the anti-authoritarian protest movement was affected, especially with its admiration for China and its casual adaptation of Maoism during the "cultural revolution". Even more meaningful for western Europe's shared responsibility for Communism is how western Europe saw fit to come to an arrangement with Communism; in order to secure peaceful co-existence and avoid nuclear confrontation, the other half of Europe was abandoned to its fate.

The auto-suggestion that the West was not affected by Communism collapses once and for all, however, when what is meant is not a historical community of experience and suffering but today's community of shared problems. That this exists is demonstrated by reflexes conditioned by the experience of Soviet totalitarianism, for example when Poland, Bulgaria, and Latvia let themselves be aligned with the US during the Iraq war as if to do so were to go without saying.

Does Europe need a common memory at all? Is it not rather values or interests or external dangers that hold the unified Europe together? Conversely: can groups and communities in a modern society function without a common memory? The classical European nations have refuted that and found that in order to be able to act in solidarity within set boundaries, one needs a supply of shared memories. What about the united Europe, then?

The negative founding myth of the Holocaust offered to the Europeans appears plausible at first sight, in so far as anti-Semitism and Fascism were phenomena that appeared across Europe and the murder of the European Jews would have been impossible were it not for the broad collaboration of European people and governments. In this sense, the job of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust is to bear overall responsibility for contemporary management and prevention. "Never again Auschwitz, never again war!" became the European motive for action when the Yugoslavian war compelled western Europe to make decisions, leading to the reversal of the old slogan: Never again Auschwitz, therefore humanitarian military intervention! Not to mention the fact that in both domestic and foreign policy, the memory of the Holocaust has become a "soft" EU-membership criterion now that the processing of the past according to European standards is being urged upon Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, and especially Turkey with regard to the Armenian genocide during WWI.

However, the hope that Europe could be united in a common memory of the Holocaust becomes questionable if it is prescribed as the matrix for the processing of Communist crimes against humanity in eastern Europe. Already talk of a "Red Holocaust" arouses the impression that evidence of Communist crimes in itself would not have sufficient power of proof. The "hot memory" of eastern central European history is not the persecution of the Jews, it is primarily the consequences of the Soviet occupation, followed by the contribution to the Communist regime made by those states themselves. Thus little is achieved towards genuine European memory anyway. The Hungarian sociologist Éva Kovács has demonstrated how a Holocaust memory imported from the US could become a universal container for remembrance of a range of different victim groups, especially since the war in Yugoslavia under the generic term "ethnic cleansing". In this way, the universal condemnation of racially or religiously motivated expulsions regardless of events can be morally founded; but in doing so, the concrete memory of the almost complete annihilation of the European Jews becomes devoid of place and the historical relation to the perpetrators and victims gets lost. It would be a paradox if ultimately the victims of National Socialism and Communism were remembered less than the expellees who also fell victim to a loosely defined "ethnic cleansing" and who are therefore included within the twentieth century's purported signature.

Consequently, the difficulty of a European memory lies in extrapolating the singularity of the industrial-bureaucratic annihilation of the European Jews, without in the process dogmatically ruling out historical comparison and playing down the attrition of the "class enemy" and "enemies of people" in the Soviet realm.

Fundamental reservations about the Europeanization of commemorative culture come from the supporters of a "Europe of fatherlands", for whom any pathos-filled extolment of the European idea is suspect if at the same time supranational bodies impede the sovereignty of the nation-states and intrude upon constitutions. Whoever scents such dangers will consider European commemoration to be a waste of effort for what in the end is just a reheating of old conflicts. From this perspective, Europe is primarily a community of interests the nature of which is to prosper as a free-trade zone and which acts collectively only in the case of massive attacks from the outside; memorable are defensive battles against external enemies and barbarians such as the Nazis, whose defeat in May 1945 was good for all.

Instead of dwelling upon the catastrophes of the twentieth century, many Europeans ask, should we not thoughtfully "forget" them? The readily understandable impulse has found prominent advocates; however, unless accompanied by critical reflection, the democratization processes in the transitional societies – and all European nations after 1945 were transitional societies – might be destabilized by these societies' pasts. For sure, the success stories of European integration after 1945 can and should be remembered. However, anyone who wishes to give a European society a political identity will rate the discussion and recognition of disputed memories as highly as treaties, a common currency, and open borders!

The question, then, is not whether to commemorate but how. Memory cannot be regulated by state festivities and commemorative rituals such as 8 May or 27 January. Europe's collective memory after 1989 is as varied as are its nations and cultures. While the content cannot be prescribed, forms of respectful confrontation probably can be rehearsed. In other words, the European way can be to voice dissent and discuss open questions regarding history, and in doing so to carefully extract lessons about contemporary European democracy.

This article was prepared during a period as Körber Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) In Vienna in 2006.


Published 2006-06-01

Original in German
Translation by Simon Garnett
Contributed by Transit
© Claus Leggewie
© Eurozine

Focal points     click for more

Debating solidarity in Europe
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, questions of inequality and solidarity have become intertwined. Over the past year, however, questions of solidarity have also been central in connection to the treatment of refugees and migrants. [more]

Ukraine: Beyond conflict stories
Follow the critical, informed and nuanced voices that counter the dominant discourse of crisis concerning Ukraine. A media exchange project linking Ukrainian independent media with "alternative" media in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Greece. [more]

Russia in global dialogue
In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, intellectual interaction between Russia and Europe has intensified. It has not, however, prompted a common conversation. The focal point "Russia in global dialogue" seeks to fuel debate on democracy, society and the legacy of empire. [more]

Ukraine in European dialogue
Post-revolutionary Ukrainian society displays a unique mix of hope, enthusiasm, social creativity, collective trauma of war, radicalism and disillusionment. Two years after the country's uprising, the focal point "Ukraine in European dialogue" takes stock. [more]

Culture and the commons
Across Europe, citizens are engaging in new forms of cultural cooperation while developing alternative and participatory democratic practices. The commons is where cultural and social activists meet a broader public to create new ways of living together. [more]

2016 Jean Améry Prize collection
To coincide with the awarding of the 2016 Jean Améry Prize for European essay writing, Eurozine publishes essays by authors nominated for the prize, including by a representative selection of Eurozine partner journals. [more]

The politics of privacy
The Snowden leaks and the ensuing NSA scandal made the whole world debate privacy and data protection. Now the discussion has entered a new phase - and it's all about policy. A focal point on the politics of privacy: claiming a European value. [more]

Beyond Fortress Europe
The fate of migrants attempting to enter Fortress Europe has triggered a new European debate on laws, borders and human rights. A focal point featuring reportage alongside articles on policy and memory. With contributions by Fabrizio Gatti, Seyla Benhabib and Alessandro Leogrande. [more]

Vacancies at Eurozine     click for more

Eurozine is seeking an Online Editor and Social Media Manager for its office in Vienna.

Preferred starting date: February 2017.
Applications deadline: 31 January 2017.

Conferences     click for more

Eurozine emerged from an informal network dating back to 1983. Since then, European cultural magazines have met annually in European cities to exchange ideas and experiences. Around 100 journals from almost every European country are now regularly involved in these meetings.
Mobilizing for the Commons
The 27th European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Gdańsk, 4-6 November 2016
The Eurozine conference 2016 in Gdańsk framed the general topic of solidarity with a focus on mobilizing for the commons. The event took place in the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk and thus linked contemporary debate to the history of a broad, non-violent, anti-communist social movement which has started in the city's shipyard in 1980. [more]

Support Eurozine     click for more

If you appreciate Eurozine's work and would like to support our contribution to the establishment of a European public sphere, see information about making a donation.

Eurozine BLOG

On the Eurozine BLOG, editors and Eurozine contributors comment on current affairs and events. What's behind the headlines in the world of European intellectual journals?
In memoriam: Ales Debeljak (1961-2016)
On 28 January 2016, Ales Debeljak died in a car crash in Slovenia. He will be much missed as an agile and compelling essayist, a formidable public speaker and a charming personality. [more]

Time to Talk     click for more

Time to Talk, a network of European Houses of Debate, has partnered up with Eurozine to launch an online platform. Here you can watch video highlights from all TTT events, anytime, anywhere.
Neda Deneva, Constantina Kouneva, Irina Nedeva and Yavor Siderov
Does migration intensify distrust in institutions?
How do migration and institutional mistrust relate to one another? As a new wave of populism feeds on and promotes fears of migration, aggrandising itself through the distrust it sows, The Red House hosts a timely debate with a view to untangling the key issues. [more]

Editor's choice     click for more

Jürgen Habermas, Michaël Foessel
Critique and communication: Philosophy's missions
Decades after first encountering Anglo-Saxon perspectives on democracy in occupied postwar Germany, Jürgen Habermas still stands by his commitment to a critical social theory that advances the cause of human emancipation. This follows a lifetime of philosophical dialogue. [more]

Literature     click for more

Karl Ove Knausgård
Out to where storytelling does not reach
To write is to write one's way through the preconceived and into the world on the other side, to see the world as children can, as fantastic or terrifying, but always rich and wide-open. Karl Ove Knausgård on creating literature. [more]

Jonathan Bousfield
Growing up in Kundera's Central Europe
Jonathan Bousfield talks to three award-winning novelists who spent their formative years in a Central Europe that Milan Kundera once described as the kidnapped West. It transpires that small nations may still be the bearers of important truths. [more]

Literary perspectives
The re-transnationalization of literary criticism
Eurozine's series of essays aims to provide an overview of diverse literary landscapes in Europe. Covered so far: Croatia, Sweden, Austria, Estonia, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Hungary. [more]

Debate series     click for more

Europe talks to Europe
Nationalism in Belgium might be different from nationalism in Ukraine, but if we want to understand the current European crisis and how to overcome it we need to take both into account. The debate series "Europe talks to Europe" is an attempt to turn European intellectual debate into a two-way street. [more]

Multimedia     click for more
Multimedia section including videos of past Eurozine conferences in Vilnius (2009) and Sibiu (2007). [more]

powered by