It has long been a cliché that Europe is in crisis. First it was a crisis of “widening”, then it was a crisis of “deepening”, now it is a constitutional crisis. The French EU presidency, despite a hyperactive president Sarkozy, could do little to alter that, while the Czech Republic’s current presidency, with the Euro-sceptic Vaclav Klaus in charge, has hardly given cause for more hope. So it would be a pleasant surprise if the European Parliamentary elections, which will take place in what is now a total of 27 EU states between 4 and 7 June this year, were at least to receive the attention they deserve. Unfortunately, the opposite is likely to be the case.
The European Union’s political future continues to be uncertain, it seems. Not so with the European past. Since the Museum of Europe opened in Brussels in the autumn of 2007, there has been no shortage of sarcastic comments along the lines that while Europe might not have a constitution, at least it has a museum. Given Europe’s political problems, then, is it not perhaps premature to devote a museum to it?
Probably a more serious question is whether Europeans – the many millions of EU citizens, but also Swiss citizens and Ukrainians, Turks and Norwegians – in other words the world’s largest “people in spe“, have shared memories and a common historical consciousness. Or should have, if only to be able to deal better with their political problems. Individual European nations have built up a stock of master-narratives and myths enabling solidarity within established borders. But what about united Europe? In what sense is its memory “divided”? Is European memory divided between European nations, as a “shared memory”? Or does European memory divide European nations off from one another, causing a “memorial divide”?
Sceptics – be they in London, Paris or Athens, not to mention Warsaw – distrust any supra-national diffusion of the European idea because it intrudes upon the national and parliamentary sovereignty of member-states. For those who sense such dangers, a common European commemoration is not worth the effort, since it only re-awakens old conflicts.
This is proved by the bitter conflicts over expulsions and ethnic cleansing since 1944. Nothing illustrates more drastically how historical conflicts can be instrumentalized than the Polish president’s recent comment in connection to the debate on the European constitution that Nazi victims should be included in any reckoning of Poland’s share of the vote in today’s Europe. For the nationally-minded, Europe is essentially a free-trade zone that acts collectively only in the case of attack from outside; worth commemorating are, if anything, wars against external enemies and internal barbarians such as the Nazis.
The defeat of the latter in May 1945 is indeed commemorated almost everywhere on the continent. However, the kind of conflict that can also trigger could be observed in the Estonian capital Tallinn in 2007. The relocation from the city centre of a Soviet memorial – seen in the Baltics, understandably enough, as a monument to decades of occupation and repression – led to a bona fide national crisis between Estonia and Russia. Remarkable was that it did not lead to crisis between the EU and Russia, an indication of how little the EU felt involved in the events. It was with the eastern European experience of Soviet occupation in mind that Jorge Semprún, speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp (where he was a prisoner between 1943 and 1945), commented that EU enlargement could only succeed both culturally and existentially “when we have shared and united our memories”.
My thesis, then, is that anyone who wishes to give a European society a political identity will rate the discussion and recognition of disputed memories just as highly as treaties, a common currency and open borders.
The first circle: The Holocaust as negative founding myth
This raises a general problem: Europe cannot attest to heroic deeds, like its member nations used to do, but can only recall, in historical deep-focus, the catastrophes of the long twentieth century. It must make a point of involving avowed outsiders and erstwhile enemies. This attempt to counteract the re-nationalization of memory stands a chance if the markers of a supra- and transnational memory – its anchors and vanishing points, so to speak – are put down in concentric circles, exemplifying dates and sites beginning with 27 January 1945.
The date of the liberation of Auschwitz is today commemorated throughout Europe as Holocaust Memorial Day. The common evocation of the singular crime against humanity that was the murder of the European Jews provides Europe with a negative founding myth. The Europeanization of German memory politics – Timothy Garton Ash has spoken ironically of the “German DNA norm” – appears plausible at first sight, since anti-Semitism and fascism were indeed phenomena that affected the whole of Europe, and since the murder of the Jews would have been impossible without the broad collaboration of European governments and people. Today, a Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris seems self-evident, while in Poland, after the debate about the pogrom in Jedwabne (by no means an isolated incident), a similar process of realization is beginning, which given the latent anti-Semitism in the country is likely to take years.
Can the Holocaust be a political caveat for contemporary Europe? This was what the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust held in January 2000 was supposed to institutionalize. Its sole mandate was put to the test (for the first and last time) the same year in Austria, when Wolfgang Schüssel’s ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) formed a coalition with the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party), led by the notorious Holocaust trivializer Jörg Haider. This gave rise to German-led initiatives in 2007 for an EU-wide ban on Holocaust denial. Whether bringing the Holocaust into the present day in this way is morally and ethically necessary, and whether its instrumentalization should be something that practical politics needs to concern itself with, is open to question.
However this is also a problematic route to take in terms of commemorative culture. Certainly, the “mega-event” of WWII affected all Europeans, including the peripheral and neutral nations, and continues to be an issue for them to this day. However for many people in the UK or Portugal, the Holocaust has little to do with their own nation. This governing perspective becomes yet more problematic when imposed as the matrix for dealing with the crimes against humanity committed by communist states throughout central and eastern Europe.
The second circle: Soviet communism – equally criminal?
With the denial of the Holocaust punishable across much of Europe, the question arises whether the denial of Soviet crimes should also be illegal. When the Lithuanian MEP and former head of the Lithuanian parliament Vytautas Landsbergis posed this question at the European level, he found no advocates among western politicians and the matter was dropped. This takes us into the second circle, or to be more precise, into the other half of the circle, insofar as one is aiming for a complete overview of totalitarian experiences in the twentieth century. For nations occupied by the Red Army, the 8/9 May 1945 remains the beginning of another occupation that intellectual spokespeople from central and eastern Europe consider to be “equally criminal” (the phrase used by Sandra Kalniete at the Leipzig Book Fair on 24 March 2004). They are unable to accept it as the date of a collective liberation, as Russian commemorative culture asserts with increasing aggression. Like all crudely drawn and politicized variants of the totalitarianism thesis, this rapidly leads to the uneven ground of relativization, and the offsetting of one event against the other, on one or both sides, something that since 1990 has also dominated German commemorative culture. The difficulty of European commemorative culture lies in establishing what was singular about the rupture to civilization constituted by the industrial-bureaucratic annihilation of the European Jews, without in the process dogmatically refusing historical comparison and downplaying the systematic attrition of the “class enemy” and “enemies of people” in the Soviet realm.
That an ostensibly anti-fascist consensus kept quiet about the Gulag (or offset it against the Shoah) was due to the polemic constellation of the Cold War, which – see Tallinn 2007 – has by no means been overcome. Competition and hierarchy between Holocaust memory and Gulag memory – if you’ll excuse the crude, rather businesslike terminology – is probably the most significant baggage of a “divided” memory that wishes not to separate but to synthesize. However not all acts of violence of the twentieth century can be brought into connection with the icon of the negative – the Holocaust. Speaking at Buchenwald, which after 1945 was used as a camp by the Russians, the former communist party member Semprún expressed the hope that “at the next commemorative occasion in ten years’ time, the experience of the Gulag will have been incorporated into our collective European memory. Lets hope that Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales will by then sit alongside the books of Primo Levi, Imre Kertész or David Rousset. For one thing, that would mean that one half of us is no longer crippled; it would also mean, however, that Russia has taken a decisive step in the direction of democracy.”
“Eastern central Europe” as a single entity is a western fiction that fails to recognize differences between nations, something that applies to memory as well. Stefan Troebst has distinguished four zones: in the Baltic states, Croatia and Slovakia a clear anti-communist consensus predominates, while in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, the past is dealt with in a way that is (increasingly) controversial. Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania share an ambivalence or indifference towards the communist past, while Russia, Belarus, Moldova and other CIS countries exhibit a high degree of continuity in terms of elites and ideology. In this latter group, Stalin is often seen as the sole commander of the “Great Patriotic War”, an apologist view that even extends to his repressive and murderous character within Russia itself.
In the latent authoritarianism of post-Soviet power structures, a criminal past that has yet to be addressed proves potentially explosive: it blocks the path towards democracy. Russia’s possible self-exclusion from Europe is not only expressed in an affirmative and apologetic politics of history – it may also have its deeper causes there.
A preliminary summary produces three reasons for the existing asymmetry of European memory. First, the assumption of the singularity of the Holocaust (particularly from the German perspective), combined with the recognition of Russian suffering in WWII, has unwittingly obstructed awareness about “red totalitarianism”. That also goes for the way the history of the GDR has been addressed in Germany, where, in part, the lazy anti-fascist consensus of the GDR persists and where there has been a tendency to relativize the crimes of the SED (Socialist Unity Party, the East German communist party) just like the crimes of Nazism in West Germany after 1945. Conflicts in eastern Germany over policy towards public memorials and museums’ handling of the legacy of the GDR are part and parcel of this. One can only hope that recent regulations will form a better basis for the principle that whoever wishes to speak of fascism should not keep quiet about Stalinism – and vice versa.
Second, the asymmetry of the perception of the Gulag and the Holocaust is explained by the fact that the murder of the European Jews became far more visible. The crimes of communist regimes, which from 1917 up to present-day China and North Korea have claimed the lives of around 100 million people, have not been iconized nor medialized to a comparable degree. To put it another way: the Nazi Germans predominantly killed other people, the communists in Russia and China predominantly their own. Yet this is also wrong, if one is to be correct and to take into account the persecution of the populations of eastern central Europe, Central Asia and Tibet by Russian and Chinese “colonial powers”.
A third reason sometimes cited is that this murderous experience remained eastern European at its core. Yet in western Europe one cannot seriously claim to have been completely unaffected by Stalinism; the sheer size of communist parties west of the Iron Curtain contradicts this, as does, ex negativo, anti-anti-communism’s identity-forming function in western Europe for many years. While it provided the basis for the peaceful co-existence with the so-called people’s republics, and may have overcome the division of Europe, it did so, as has since been proven, at the expense of human and civil rights groups.
The third circle: Expulsion as a pan-European trauma?
The dominant memory of WWII recollects population transfers taking place across wide areas and affecting millions of people. In this perspective, which begins with the collapse of the great empires of the nineteenth century, the Holocaust comes to be seen as a particularly awful case of ethnic cleansing. The big scandal of the German Historikerstreit was the historian Andreas Hillgruber’s attempt to reclaim a “double memory”, in other words to offset the memory of “Auschwitz” and the European Jews against that of “Nemmersdorf” and the German victims of expulsion and rape. Richard von Wiezsacker’s dictum that Germans during and after WWII were also victims of a history that began in 1933 has since entered the public discourse, yet without the apologetic tone and the offsetting that for a long time clung to the discussion about the “crime of explusion”.
Its European dimension is only just becoming clear, however, and this – the memory of the “population transfers” of the twentieth century from the Armenian genocide to the former Yugoslavia – is where the third, highly controversial circle opens up. It includes the deportations that the totalitarian dictatorships carried out in territories under their occupation, however also the ethnic cleansings that, since the nineteenth century, were almost inevitable wherever nation-state building (including its democratic variants) succumbed to the mad idea that internal and external security and political legitimacy was attainable only on the basis of an ethnically homogeneous collective. The particular problem that, for example, Czechs today have with regard to the political-moral recognition of the expulsion of the Sudetenland Germans probably lies in the fact that a bourgeois-democratic government under Eduard Benes issued the decree. Similarly, the biggest obstacle to addressing the Yugoslavian catastrophe from 1991 onwards could be that it was not the authoritarian Tito regime that was responsible for causing the antagonism between the incompatible Serbs and Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovo-Albanians, so much as the illiberal democracies, whose nationalist majorities could not – and cannot – care less for the protection of ethnic and religious minorities.
The history of ethnic cleansing can hardly prima facie contribute to the development of a common memory because it is not yet “water under the bridge”, in other words complete, and continues to divide memories like a knife does a wounded body. Initiatives such as the European Network of Memory and Solidarity campaign against a purely national and backwards-looking commemoration of the sort advocated, according to its critics, by the German Zentrum gegen Vertreibung (Centre Against Expulsion). In the course of the debate, the initiators of the centre, above all the League of Expellees, had to integrate a European and global dimension into events and exhibitions; thus the Centre could, in the end, form part of a European network. However it will probably be a long time before Poles and Germans can get used to the idea of jointly-authored school text books, as has become possible in the German-French case (albeit after a period of reconciliation lasting 40 years).
The example of expulsion illustrates the controversial nature of shared memory both for domestic and foreign policy. In the West, such conflicts are an occasion for a reassertion of the Right-Left schema, while in the East they pit national(ist) forces (including on the Left) against pro-European, liberal circles. Geopolitical and geostrategic divisions within “Old Europe” that had been frozen by the bloc confrontation of the Cold War superpowers re-appear. Yet it is not old conflicts that are hindering a unification of the new Europe, but rather new conflicts – over security, energy, permissiveness etc. – and it is these that bring about the continuation of a “Europe of nations”. Moreover, they are reheated by domestic political quarrels: Polish intransigence about the issue of expulsion of course has to do with the long-suppressed but then hysterically addressed communist past. In all post-communist societies, the heirs of the nomenklatura and the descendents of an often compromised authoritarian Right do battle for historical legitimacy, the lack whereof they compensate for with ethno-nationalist sentiment.
The fourth circle: The Armenian question
A fourth circle opens up with the question as to where Europe’s borders lie, and thus to what extent supra-national EU intra-identities extend transnationally at the European and non-European levels. Many euro-sceptics have hinted that especially Turkey, due to its “different” cultural and religious history, could never share Europe’s “common destiny”; even the biggest supporters of Turkish membership, the British, have indirectly endorsed this view by understanding the Union as a free trade zone without a cultural memory. In no other issue are the divisive dimensions of a shared memory more clearly evidenced than in the supposed cultural boundary between a blanket definition of “Islam” and “secular” Europe. Regardless of the actual degree of “de-Christianization” in Europe, many see in it a historical community of memory and destiny that is opposed to Islam and Turkey. At the same time, Kemalism was the prime example of a westernization process, and the secular Turkish republic the best proof that such a process is possible. If Europe were to take its secularity seriously, religious affiliation would not pose an obstacle to integration, either within migrant communities or in relation to non-EU countries. However other things no doubt would, for example deficits in democracy and development, and the “Armenian question”. A majority of liberal as well as secular Turks resolutely refuse to acknowledge the weight of historical responsibility for the “genocidal murder” (if not the genocide) of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915. The question thus morphs into an informal membership criterion, one clearly articulated both in national and supranational parliaments.
The French and the Swiss have made much of the issue and, taking “the Auschwitz lie” as a precedent, have outlawed the denial of the Armenian genocide; the German parliament has taken a more cautious approach, issuing statements geared towards consensus. As far as the Armenian question is concerned, it seems that before the wider Europe can come together, it will be commemoratively split. Yet there can only be consensus when the approache is reversed, in other words when Turkey comes to terms with the Armenian issue in a European fashion, both internally and with old allies and enemies on the international stage. While the term “genocide” is occasionally used inside Turkey, generally speaking there is an insistence on the essential difference between a “massacre” (katliam or kiyim), which is acknowledged to have taken place in WWI and which is regretted, and “genocide” (soykirim), which is strongly denied.
The controversy has taken on a transnational dimension not least because it is an emotive issue for the Turkish diaspora, which in turn competes with the Armenian diasporas in the US and France. This first became noticeable in March 2006, when ultra-nationalists, led by the former Turkish President Süleyman Demirel and the former president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus Rauf Denktash, called in highly martial tones for a “Talaat-Pasha rally” in Berlin. Mobilization was limited, however the incident shows how transnational migration easily causes unresolved conflicts over European history to become domestic political issues. The Armenian question, which the Turks consider to be a strictly domestic matter, is connected with an equally ethno-nationalist reflex against critics of the migration policy of the Turkish and Islamist umbrella organizations, whose representative legitimacy is contested.
The fifth circle: European periphery
There is no monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide at Steinplatz in Berlin, near where Talaat-Pasha was murdered and where the “hundreds of thousands” of Turkish nationalists wanted to march. Yet at different ends of this rather unkempt park one can find two memorials to the victims of Stalinism and National Socialism, erected in the early 1950s. Steinplatz could almost, then, symbolize the history of European memory sketched above. However a further memorial site would be missing, one included in the fifth circle, that of European colonial history. The occasion commemorated might be the Berlin Conference in 1884, at which, under the aegis of the Germans, the Belgian Crown Colony of Congo was divided up between European interests. In Germany one came to speak relatively late, and only in the course of the more general process of “coming to terms with the past”, about the colonial crimes committed above all against the Herero and Nama. For this reason, colonial apologetics and nostalgia does not really exist in Germany, unlike in other countries, where there have even been attempts to pass laws making it compulsory to include the “positive aspects” of colonialism in school curricula.
This broad field encompasses a historical period from slavery to the neo-colonial economic policy of the present. To allude to the complex with just one example: in 2006, the European Union, having been requested to do so by the United Nations, sent troops to the Congo to oversee the orderly running of the elections there. That would have been a debate worth having. Either in general terms, about whether it is right, when in doubt, to support democratization using external military means, or about whether postcolonial Europe, given a past that was rarely more brutal than in Central Africa, can ethically afford such an intervention. However a debate at a genuinely European level never took place; each nation evaluated the intervention in its own way and according to its own tradition. Mostly it was argued that the Congo has plentiful natural resources, and that instability in the country would increase migration to Europe and offer a haven for terrorists. Is the establishment and reinforcement of democratic conditions in a country afflicted by dictatorship and a weak state, by civil war and warlords, not an end in itself? While this was what the EU declared, its main concern was to demonstrate the readiness and the ability of its troops – in other words, to show that it was a “global player”.
Remarkably, in Germany the parliamentary debate about military engagement in the Congo barely took on a moral tone, either on the part of opponents or supporters, unlike with other “out of area operations”. In 1999, the Social Democratic and Green Party ministers Rudolf Scharping and Joschka Fischer had justified intervention in Kosovo with an argument (“Auschwitz”) that until then had legitimized their refusal. Now, it was apparently because of “Auschwitz” that military intervention for humanitarian reasons was called for. After Afghanistan, as well, a sense of moral duty dictated against abandoning America in the “War on Terror”. It was only in 2003 that “national interest” deemed further military engagement alongside the US in Iraq inappropriate. In contrast, the European colonial past was not mentioned once, despite the leftwing opposition in the national and EU parliaments speaking of a neo-colonialism underwritten by military force. Ought this not to have been responded to? After all, the same sleaze does continue to exist in the form of the pact between European foreign policy and companies who want peace in Congo primarily in order to be able to do business there undisturbed. In its dimensions, of course, it is nothing like the colonial exploitation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; however anyone seeking to bring sustainable development and democracy to Central Africa needs to take this sinister history into account. If one were to make a slogan to this effect, it would be: whoever in Europe wishes to talk about the Holocaust should also not keep quiet about colonialism.
This is only partially accomplished in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren near Brussels. Founded in 1910, the museum had until recently depicted the history of Belgian policy in the Congo as adventurism. Belgium’s blame and responsibility for a monstrous system of exploitation and repression during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is now half-heartedly acknowledged at best, in the face of opposition from Belgian society itself, which after two world wars had got used to seeing itself as the victim of German aggression. However there is no doubt that the extraction of natural resources, above all ivory and rubber, which relied heavily on compulsory labour, at times had genocidal features. The fact that there was an underlying civilizing tone to the colonial mission of Leopold II incriminates today’s military engagement still further. The fatal trinity of military violence, misanthropic greed for profit and proselytizing zeal makes every postcolonial engagement liable to this suspicion. This gave weight to the “Hands off Congo” and “Africa to the Africans” campaign; however, after seeing the appalling TV images and press photos from Darfur and in retrospect Rwanda, the same public opinion that had preferred isolationism demanded a little bit more internationalism after all.
The Congolese case makes the demand for a politics of history that goes beyond Europe plausible, however it also shows the limits and the pitfalls of a globalization of commemoration and memory under the aspect of a Holocaust stripped of temporal and spatial co-ordinates. Once again, the thesis of the singularity of the murder of the Jews must not be allowed to narrow the perspective and to underpin what is, ultimately, a hierarchy of victims that assumes racist stereotypes. The intricate relation between German colonial histories exists; the non-affirmative comparison between the Shoah as a historically specific phenomenon and colonial genocide is not taboo; during the reign of Leopold II, up to ten million people in the Congo were brutally murdered – there too, “the unimaginable” became reality. The racial anthropologist Eugen Fischer began his harmful career in German Southwest Africa and ended it on the ramp of Auschwitz – this personal continuity represents just one facet of the connection. Compensation claims by people affected by the slave trade and colonial persecution remain unfulfilled and are probably more difficult to fulfil in general. However a Eurocentric interpretation of the causes and effects of genocides based on the thesis of singularity would be a misunderstanding of the cultural pluralism of modern societies, and an anachronism.
Sixth circle: Europe as migration continent
The sixth circle of European memory, that will only be mentioned here in brief (undeservedly so), has to do with the massive transnational migration to Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and above all since the 1950s. Since this is also a history of asylum and migration to escape poverty, it is closely connected to Europe’s colonial and postcolonial history. The museums in western Europe dedicated to migration, still in their early stages, deal with numerous facets of cultural globalization. However the question remains whether these museums merely deal with the success or otherwise of migration from the perspective of the migrants and/or the difficulties connected with their social, political and cultural integration from the perspective of the majority, or whether they go beyond this and reflect on migration’s relation to the criminal and catastrophic history of the Shoah and the Gulag. This definitely did not affect migrants and their parents, however it does pose itself as a question to their children in the second and third generations, offering a perspective from where they can observe and evaluate their “own” history, from which they have meanwhile become alienated. European sites of memory, starting with the Roman heritage and relics of the Middle Ages, can no longer be communicated without bearing in mind how to make these comprehensible to migrants of the third generation, strongly confronted as they are with non-European identity options from the Islamic umma, for example. Hence, a European memory will only become transnational when migrant Europeans (insofar as they are recognized as citizens) take on responsibility for crimes and events that lie outside their country of origin, and when, at the same time, European human rights and asylum policy can be applied in international crises without their being used as a normative shield for protecting Eurocentric interests.
The seventh circle: Europe’s success story after 1945
To summarize: Europe’s collective memory after 1989 is just as diverse as its nations and cultures and just as divided – in the double sense – as its national and social world. Memory cannot be regulated “mnemo-technically” via official of acts of state or routinized commemorative rituals such as 8/9 May or 27 January. However it is possible to establish a European way to remember past crimes together and to carefully extract lessons for present-day European democracies. The strong and recurring impulse to believe that forgetting is better than remembering in and for Europe is understandable, and has attracted prominent advocates – in postcolonial France as in post-Franco Spain and in post-socialist Poland.
On the other hand, there is the slogan of one prominent member of the opposition: “Amnesty yes, amnesia no!” Experience shows that processes of democratization in transitional societies – which is what almost all European nations were after 1945 – remains precarious and incomplete if they fail to conduct a critical review of their own past. Just as European democracies no longer wage war upon one another, so the democratic process itself offers sufficient legitimization by means of an increasingly European politics of history, in which local grassroots initiatives are equally as involved as school text-book commissions and state and supra-state events.
At this point, it is perfectly justified to capitalize, both pedagogically and politically, on the success of western Europe after 1950, which in the Brussels exhibition receives equal emphasis. Since that date, Europe has taken a course of development that leads out of the cycle of totalitarianism and the ideological division of East and West. The eastern European view of this history, on the other hand, is marked by envy and sorrow, since during the Cold War the success and happiness of the West was relativized by the unhappiness and failure on the other side of the Iron Curtain. One can hardly claim that the eastern enlargement in 2004 has already mended this rift. Yet one need not also be afraid of building a European museum that addresses this success.