Latest Articles

Seyla Benhabib, Slawomir Sierakowski

Nobody wants to be a refugee

A conversation with Seyla Benhabib

The current crisis is generating the myth of borders as controlled, says Seyla Benhabib. But this is only a myth. It is a fact that states are escaping their obligations under international and European law; while migrants themselves may help keep the social peace between classes. [ more ]

Eurozine Review

If the borders were porous

Sofi Oksanen

A lion in a cage

Jamie Bartlett

Under the radar

New Issues


A2 | 20 (2015)

Sebereflexivní filmy [Self-reflexive films]

Mittelweg 36 | 5/2015

Schwerter zu Pflugscharen - Veteranenpolitik und Wohlfahrtsstaatlichkeit

Esprit | 10/2015

Eurozine Review

Eurozine Review

If the borders were porous

"Index on Censorship" compares yesterday's spies with those in the new machines; "Krytyka Polityczna" speaks to Seyla Benhabib; "Kultura Liberalna" detects Soviet heritage in CEE responses to refugee crisis; "Krytyka" reassesses the Europe of rules and the Europe of values; "Fronesis" returns to the origins of the family; "Dziejaslou" tracks down an opposition presidential candidate in Belarus; "Varlik" considers September a troubled month in Turkish history; and "Revista Crítica" critiques progress without development in the Amazon.

Eurozine Review

That which one does not entirely possess

Eurozine Review

A narrative of strength and resilience

Eurozine Review

Still outraged and seeking alternatives

Eurozine Review

Something has to give, soon

My Eurozine

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

Share |

The revenge of memory?

Devotion to "historical truth" can become an easy target for political manipulation. Deconstruction of national myths does not equate to destruction, but rather the rethinking and rearranging of the symbolic meaning of history.

The end of the Cold War and geopolitical changes on the continent have led us to a situation in which the deconstruction of European and national identity has become a fact. Since then, citizens have been exposed to the new cultural dimension of the united Europe – which is still under construction – and are captured in the process of the revaluation of the history of the continent.

Concord and conflict

This article is part of the Focal Point European histories (2): Concord and conflict.

In recent years, the possibility of a "grand narrative" that includes both East and West in a common European story has been discussed intensely. In this new Focal Point, Eurozine seeks to broaden the question beyond the East-West historical divide. How are contested interpretations of historical and recent events made active in the present, both uniting and dividing European societies?
History is not only a repository of data from the past. It also offers critical interpretation and legitimizes group identity as memory of shared experience, codes of behaviour and systems of ethics. European history developed in such a way that our historical awareness is first of all built on a consciousness that pits one country against another. This, together with demographic challenges facing the continent, make the problem of building a collective European identity much more complex and delicate.

If discussion about the new cultural identity of Europe does not necessarily produce heated debates and arguments, the historical narratives produced by each European country are much more disturbing and dangerous. Devotion to "historical truth" equals society's dedication to justice and may become an easy target for political manipulation. Stimulated nationally by leaders of radical parties or social movements and media, historical debates have their impact both on bilateral and multilateral international relations, and on citizens who, not accustomed to differentiated reflections on international matters, are often manoeuvred into exploiting historical myths.

"The revenge of memory"[1] is present in diverse and sometimes ambiguous historical debates; and it affects everybody. It has both an individual and a collective dimension, and stands both for the need to revaluate one's own historical past and the desire for its proper recognition on an international platform.

In the Central European context, "the revenge of memory" takes the form of a confrontation of opinions and political statements between – for example – Poles, Czechs and Germans, resulting from the demand made by some German organizations (the so-called "expellee Germans") for a recognition of their status as victims of the forced migration of ethnic Germans after the Second World War.

Another form of the "revenge of memory" is the demythologizing of formerly dominant national narratives, like the one in which the Polish nation has always been the victim and never the aggressor. This view was seriously drawn into doubt during the Polish debate about the massacre in Jedwabne, and much exploited by international media.

More cases of ambivalent revaluations of the past can be found when we compare Polish history books with those written in Belarus, Ukraine or Lithuania. Viewed from the perspective of these nations, Poles were rarely the victims but had a rather more sinister role. Another example comes from a recently published French-German history book. The authors' claim that Poland in the 1930s was nothing other than an authoritarian regime (and that Commander Pilsudski – an autocrat – was extremely popular among Poles) may lead to the peculiar conclusion that there is no real difference between autocrats like Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Pilsudski. More of these examples can be found in the past of other European countries and in the present, as in the current Hungarian-Slovak relations.

Yet, "the revenge of memory" is not just a hot political issue; it may also bring positive results and become a lesson of history. Deconstruction of myths does not equate destruction, but rather the rethinking and rearranging of the symbolic meaning of history. Here Poland can serve as an example of the problems connected with identity based on historical mythology, and of adopting a new language and political culture in international relations.

Seen from the past, Polish national identity was created through dramatic events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: partitions, wars, Stalinism and an authoritarian regime. All of these shaped Polish attitudes and the collective will to survive, and helped preserve dreams of the romantic past. Since then, Poles have talked of national martyrdom, a messianic and symbolic vision of the world in which Poland, through its suffering, saved itself and the whole world. This view has been part of public education, and the history of Poland has been presented as the history of an oppressed and innocent country. It also influenced the language of public debate and a specific rhetoric was adopted: we never ask whether we were attacked or not, but whether we lost or won. Even when speaking about accession to the EU, radical sceptics wondered if it was going to be the next battle of Grunwald (when we won) or the next partition (when we lost).

In 1989, the political independence of Poland and its neighbours was restored and a major obstacle to the attainment of new quality of political relations was thereby eliminated. The ethos of survival was substituted for a logic of equity and fairness. Poles started to do their "history lessons" and asked if they had harmed anybody in the past or if they were doing so now. Yet the nation's feeling of "suffering-and-saving-the-world" should not be substituted by a feeling of guilt, so eagerly encouraged by international "experts", diasporas or media.

Polish-Ukrainian relations can serve as a positive example of the reworking of memory to overcome a tragic historical legacy. The cooperation was initiated by Polish and Ukrainian intellectuals, and soon after regaining independence this intellectual activity was faced with a new economic reality. Borders were opened to ordinary people, Ukrainians started to visit Poland and direct contact helped remove stereotypes. In 1990, the Polish Senate condemned The Vistula Action; the Ukrainian democratic opposition met with the Citizens' Parliamentary Party's (Obywatelski Klub Parlamentarny) authorities in Jablonna; and the presidents of both countries initiated talks on the more difficult issues. The result of these conciliatory actions was the general support by Polish citizens for the Orange Revolution. For some time now, political cooperation has slowed down, but non-governmental institutions and local governments continue their activities and feel responsible for the development of partner cooperations that can prevail over the toxic past.

A tragic historical legacy can be overcome if the efforts of governments meet the expectations of civil society and citizens who understand that the tragic lessons of history are not "traps" but warnings. As Zdzislaw Mach once observed: "Legitimization of historical and memory pluralism, revision and deconstruction of national myths and building up a new symbolic world in a more pluralistic way, closer to a citizen, will allow people to become more aware of their history and make better use of their thinking about the future and their historical heritage"[2]. Instead of judging, we should try to understand, and to this end history can be of use.


  • [1] The term is attributed to Jacek Zakowski.
  • [2] Silent Intelligentsia, Villa Decius, Krakow 2006, 10.

Published 2009-10-22

Original in English
© Danuta Glondys
© Eurozine

Focal points     click for 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]

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 focus
Ten years after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is in the throes of yet another major struggle. Eurozine provides commentary on events as they unfold and further articles from the archive providing background to the situation in today's Ukraine. [more]

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?
Victor Tsilonis
Greek bailout referendum, Euro Summit, Germope
Victor Tsilonis of "Intellectum" (Greece) comments on recent developments in the Greek crisis: the short-lived euphoria of the 5 July referendum, Alexis Tsipras's subsequent "mental waterboarding", and the outlook for a German-led Europe. [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]

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.

Vacancies at Eurozine     click for more

There are currently no positions available.

Editor's choice     click for more

Timothy Snyder
Europe and Ukraine: Past and future
The history of Ukraine has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe. Prior to Ukraine's presidential elections in May 2014, Timothy Snyder argued cogently as to why Ukraine has no future without Europe; and why Europe too has no future without Ukraine. [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]

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.
Law and Border. House Search in Fortress Europe
The 26th European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Conversano, 3-6 October 2014
Eurozine's 2014 conference in southern Italy, not far from Lampedusa, addressed both EU refugee and immigration policies and intellectual partnerships across the Mediterranean. Speakers included Italian investigative journalist Fabrizio Gatti and Moroccan feminist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rita El Khayat. [more]

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

powered by