The House of European History in Brussels is a ambitious project. The idea is not just to display 28 strife-ridden national histories alongside each other, but to imaginatively work them together, without hiding the conflicts they contain. For more than a year, the museum located just by the European Parliament has housed a permanent exhibition on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and temporary exhibitions covering specific aspects of European history. The museum possesses hardly any pieces of its own, instead relying on rare and sometimes flamboyant loans from the EU countries. This means that there is no catalogue: instead, visitors are guided through the exhibition with tablets in their native language.
The planning of the museum, which took years, was accompanied by uninterrupted controversy. Even after it opened in 2017 there were loud complaints. Paweł Ukielski, vice-director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, and a member of the board of the national-conservative ‘Platform of European Memory and Conscience’, protested:
The lack of objective and neutral description of reality is a substantial problem. For reasons unknown … Christendom is the only concept that is not given a neutral title, but is instead evaluated (‘Omnipresence of Christendom’) … On the other hand, Communism, a criminal idea which cost the lives of dozens of millions of people, plainly enjoys the sympathies of the curators. At one point, they ask whether Communism was simply an unsuccessful experiment or whether it still might have a future. For those peoples who lived under communist terror, it is an affront to see an exhibition with this message in the heart of a free, democratic Europe, one hundred years after 1917.
It doesn’t stop there. The criticism of colonialism, Ukielski objected, was too sweeping; the Holocaust was almost totally missing; the calamitous role of the Soviet Union (e.g. the Hitler–Stalin pact) was ‘practically invisible’; the Cold War was represented as ‘a rivalry between two equal blocks, without making it clear that it was a world conflict pitting democracy and European values against an imposed totalitarian system.’ Consequently, the triumph of the year 1989 was given inadequate treatment. These accusations weren’t substantiated in any detail, but Ukielski concluded with a devastating verdict:
Not only is the exhibition’s whole narrative wrong, but its very idea of European integration and shared identity is harmful. For many people who hold dear European values and the Old Continent’s heritage of diversity, this notion is unacceptable. Your museum tells a story that would have them feel ashamed for belonging to their nations, a story that tells them that they are the inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition and that they bear responsibility for all the crimes of the last 200 years. This message is grist to the mill of all those who accuse the EU of wanting to rob European societies of their national identity and bring forth a homogeneous mass of people, in the same way that the Soviet social engineers wanted to create Homo Sovieticus.
In short: EU = EUSSR. The Polish culture minister Piotr Glinski struck a similar note in his letter to the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, in September 2017. He essentially demanded a radical alternative to a project that told a supranational history in transnational terms. Instead, he wanted to present a Christian, anti-communist Europe of nation states. However, that is precisely the impression given in many parts of the museum, just less one-sidedly, and with less political charge, than PiS politicians would like. Tajani, the deputy leader of Forza Italia, didn’t respond but has meanwhile attested to Mussolini’s ‘positive achievements’ for Italy.
Revisionism in Hungary and Poland
The conflict is generally identified as being between Poland and the West. But it is more than that. Polish national-conservatives (and one could say much the same about their Hungarian, Italian and German counterparts) are also aggrieved by representations of history by other Polish institutions. In Gdańsk, two museums stand within sight of each other: the European Solidarity Centre (ESC), which tells the story of the uprising of workers and intellectuals against the Communists from a pan-European perspective, and the Museum of the Second World War, whose new, PiS-approved management will indoctrinate young Poles about their nation’s eternal and desperate struggle against the whole world. Earlier this year, the ESC temporarily avoided having a a sectarian version of the story of Solidarność foisted upon it, according to which the Kaczyński brothers represented the real opposition to the traitor and communist collaborator Lech Wałęsa — a risible revision of history which is not improved by the fact that the PiS, in its search for a pure and unsullied Polish Nation, draws both literally and symbolically on the authoritarian tradition of the Piłsudski era.
Public spaces in Warsaw and elsewhere are already being refashioned to fit this agenda. A path marked at intervals with ‘alternative facts’ runs from from Piłsudski Square in Warsay all the way to Smolensk, where Lech Kaczyński and members of the Polish elite died in a plane crash (said to be the work of the Russians) on their way to the controversial memorial site of Katyn.The memorial erected on the Pilsudski Sqare in Warswa, the Pomnik Smoleński, (nicknamed ‘the launchpad’), makes the official version of history clear, thanks to its position next to Piłsudski’s gravestone and the memorial of the unknown solidier. It was also around this time that the PiS regime tried to cut off funds to the ESC (and indeed to Polin, an excellent museum of Poland’s Jewish history), and started bullying its directors Basil Kerski and Dariusz Stola, refusing to extend the latter’s contract. Glinski, who is planning a museum of the Warsaw Ghetto, has given us an idea of what ‘amendments’ to the politics of remembrance he has in mind.
Budapest’s Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) looks incomplete in comparison. It contains a Soviet war memorial, memorials to the Americans Harry Hill Bandholtz and Ronald Reagan near the US Embassy, and a national memorial, the latter an artistically and historically unfortunate statue of the Archangel Gabriel, depicted as the patron saint of the defiled and blameless Hungarian nation. This has been offset by a permanent counter-installation, a ‘living memorial’ that serves to contradict this revision of history. Nearby, on private church land, there stands a bust of the interwar governor Horthy, erected by a priest sympathetic to the far-right party Jobbik. This bizarre constellation also speaks of an alternative historical narrative of abandoning Europe, and of resistance to it.
To stay in Budapest for a moment: since 1996, across from the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, there stood a memorial to Imre Nagy, whose name is closely associated with the Hungarian uprising of 1956. At the time the Communist Party’s Prime Minister, he recognised the demands of the demonstrators and sought to negotiate with the Soviets to obtain a neutral status for Hungary. Betrayed by the CP, he was arrested and executed following the bloody suppression of the uprising. It is a story that might well merit a memorial. But currently, Google Maps shows the notice, ‘Imre Nagy Memorial closed’. Images of the memorial – Nagy standing on a bridge – can still be found online, but the installation itself was removed on the night of 28 December 2018. Another monument is to be raised in its place: a reconstruction of a memorial to the victims of the 1919 communist Republic of Councils in Hungary. The original was erected in the 1930s by the authoritarian right-wing regime of Miklós Horthy, and torn down by the Communists after the Second World War. The Nagy memorial is to be put up somewhere else – but precisely where is not known.
Anyone unfamiliar with Hungarian history might be confused by this monument-swapping: but those with more knowledge might be angered. Why did the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán permit the removal of a memorial to Nagy, when 1988/9 he himself officiated as a student leader at his ceremonial exhumation from an anonymous mass grave and reburial in Lot 301 of the Budapest municipal cemetery of Új Köztemető? The answer is: because Imre Nagy was a Communist, and as such a participant in Béla Kun’s 1919 Republic of Councils, whose victims are now to be honoured at the site in question. And why was a Communist so honoured in 1996? Because, back then, the anti-communist uprising in 1956 was treated as a part of the heritage of post-communist Hungary. Now it is not.
Today, the historical-political boundary has been redrawn at 1944. The Horthy era is expressly included in that and regarded positively. It is an imaginary Hungary that was neither ruled over by National Socialism nor collaborated with it (in fact, it was officially allied with Nazi Germany and collaborated in deportations and military actions) nor yet conquered by Communism. The revisionism goes all the way back to the First World War and its aftermath in 1919–20: the Hungarian Soviet Republic was a Communist sin and the Treaty of Trianon, under whose terms Hungary lost substantial territories, is called into question by the irredentist supporters of a ‘Greater Hungary’. So it is only natural that the historical-political purge of the Parliament Square in 2012 should have dismantled the 1975 memorial of the first President of the Hungarian Republic, Miháli Károlyi, who signed the Treaty with the Allies in 1920, and was held responsible for ‘the Shame of Trianon’.
Western European memory culture under attack
In the West, too, there is no shortage of revisionism. Attempts during the Sarkozy-era to portray (French) colonialism in a positive light proved a failure, but now the AfD in Germany wants to revise the culture of memory that had summarised the lessons of National Socialism in the pithy slogan ‘Never Again!’ This German Sonderweg could be running out of road.
Multi-party democracy is coming under pressure from rightwing outsiders. A key trope in rightwing intellectual currents is the polemic against the notion of ‘bearing responsibility for the past’, which detractors say doesn’t allow Germany to become a ‘normal nation’. As early as 1988, the popular writer Martin Walser admitted in St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt ‘that something inside me revolted against this constant presentation of our shame’. It resulted in a resentment that the radical-right outrider Björn Höcke addressed in 2017 at a meeting of the Jungen Alternative in Dresden: ‘We Germans – that is, our Volk – we are the only people in the world to have planted a monument to our own shame in the heart of our capital.’ Alexander Gauland, chairman of the AfD, radically trivialized the Nazi period, calling it ‘a bird’s shit in over 1000 years of successful German history’, adding some standard relativization for good measure: ‘We have a glorious history – and, dear friends, it is longer than those twelve damn years!’ Just as the French and British are proud of their leaders or the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he went on, so ‘we have the right to be proud of the service of German soldiers in two World Wars’.
The aim of such well-calculated provocations is to overcome the taboo that has hindered the rehabilitation and restoration of the German far right since 1945. The struggle for cultural hegemony is no longer being waged by a few sectarians and backbenchers, but by the 94 representatives of the ‘strongest opposition party’ in the German Bundestag, which under parliamentary rules is entitled to all kinds of rights and privileges, as well as a troop of far-right assistants. A similar picture can be found in regional and municipal legislatures. And so begins the ‘march through the institutions’. It was all the more significant, therefore, when the historian Saul Friedländer confronted the historical blindness of the right-nationalist opposition in the Bundestag on 27 January 2019.
For other far-right wing parties and völkisch-authoritarian movements in Europe, the Shoah and collaboration with National Socialism (discussion of which risks criminal prosecution in Poland) are stumbling blocks to a full rehabilitation of the far right. Viktor Orbán seeks to achieve this by associating himself with the autocrat Horthy; the Polish national-conservatives by criminalizing and stigmatizing any talk of Polish antisemitism and Polish complicity in the Shoah. Both culminate in the attempt to replace the liberal, supranational European Union with a Christian and völkisch version of Europe, sailing on the tailwind blowing out of Russia and the USA, where autocratic rightwingers have also established themselves.
‘Sites of memory’ and the deconstruction of history
It certainly seems that the supranational and transnational view of history is being attacked across a wide front – and with it, the whole methodological approach to the history of nations that seeks to answer the question of ‘how it really was’. An example of this would be the bi-national history books, which French or Polish and German historians and educationalists drew up with great effort. Their success didn’t just lie in the fact that there was now ‘official’ support for a procedure that judges both sides equally, but also in the mutual respect that underlay the work. It didn’t lead to superficial, diplomatic compromise paired with suppression of either side’s historical responsibilities, but rather to a self-critical attitude on the part of both nations.
The House of European History in Brussels came about in the same spirit. For nationalists of all nations, this approach is an intellectual bridge too far: it poses a danger that they would like to head off at the first opportunity, by means of bureaucratic and financial repression. The current strategy of the European far-right is no longer to cut nations loose from the European Union, as with Brexit, but to aim for cultural as well as political hegemony and to marginalize the powers that until now have been the motors of supranational integration – above all in Germany, France and the other signatories to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It is now clear what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meant in July 2017, when he said that ‘twenty years ago, we thought that Europe was our future. Today, we feel that we are Europe’s future.’ On a visit to Jarosłav Kaczyński in Warsaw, Mario Salvini, the head of La Lega and Italian deputy prime minister, proposed a toast to Poland and Italy as ‘part of a new European Spring … the Renaissance of European values.’ Steve Bannon, too, embarked on a one-man mission to Brussels from Washington to bring PiS, La Lega and Fidesz into a broad cartel of the European far right. ‘Politics today’, Bannon claimed ‘is about those who see the nation state as an obstacle to overcome and those who see it as a jewel to be polished.’
With these words, the universalizing quality that ‘Auschwitz’ assumed in the global discourse of remembrance is being revised: the dual character of the place is being done away with. It was always the concrete location at which hundreds of thousands of European Jews were exterminated: ‘it happened here’. But it was always, also, a symbolic place, that served to tell us that it can happen anywhere. This was a strong message of survivors like Eugen Kogon, Władysław Bartoszewski, Primo Levi and others. The understanding ‘Auschwitz’ as a universal metaphor with global reach first emerged in the early 1980s, when the term ‘Holocaust’ became a kind of trademark through the eponymous American TV series. As a colloquial term in Europe, it reacted to the ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav War, epitomized by the name Srebrenica, which also brought up the issue of pan-European collaboration with the Nazi crimes. Prominently featuring the Hitler-Stalin-pact, the House of European History reflects Auschwitz within an anti-totalitarian paradigm; and it also puts the crimes of colonialism in a historical perspective as precursors of the Holocaust. Social history and post-colonialism underline the Holocaust narrative, but they also relativize it in a way.
What does this revision mean for Auschwitz as a site of memory? Pierre Nora defines a site of memory as ‘any kind of meaningful entity, whether material or immaterial, which either through human will or through the work of time becomes a symbolic element within the commemorative heritage of any kind of community’. In this sense, Nora also speaks of a ‘second degree’ writing of history which ‘no longer looks for events in themselves but their construction in time, the disappearance and reappearance of their meanings; not the past as it truly was, but its constant re-deployment, its use and abuse as well as the meaning of its content for successive presents; not the tradition, but the way that the tradition is created and transmitted.’ The subject is no longer ‘the past as it was’, but its exploitation, utilization, and manipulation; the question is less ‘what happened?’ but ‘what is remembered?’ (and by whom?) Factuality is less interesting than actuality, determinants count less than effects, the irreversible, linear history is replaced by an infinite, circular history; transmission is more important than tradition itself, the deconstruction of events is more relevant than the reconstruction based on the sources. ‘Afterlife’ in the sense of the Aby Warburg school, or Walter Benjamin, or Jacques Derridas ‘hauntology’ became predominant.
For Nora, this transposition was still substantially contained within a national – in this case French – narrative. The historian must trace a fragmented national consciousness, bring it together and – with pedagogical intent – route it back towards a ‘unified polity’, in order to facilitate the collective self-exploration. The sites of memory were to give rise to an ‘acceptance of the unity embodied in symbols and national heritage’. But the studies of French sites of memory are points of departure and points of reference for bi-and transnational, as well as local, regional and ideological studies of commemoration.
This mutation, too, was ambiguous: on the one hand it ties a history back to its physical-concrete sites, and on the other hand builds in universal conclusions and references in each respective ‘history of the homeland’. The sites of remembrance are never just physically there: they are historically constructed; their symbolism is not inherent, but rather it is ascribed to them; their meaning is not fixed, but constantly changing. National consciousness and national identity are seen in an anti-essentialist light, as only ever being contingent results of historical processes of construction. Nora the historian, inspired by postmodernism and comfortable with analyses of both European and global history, is locked in combat with Nora the patriot, who concentrates on his own country. His approach is at once deconstructivist and concerned with attempting to save nation and national history from excessively radical deconstruction.
Technologies of memory and their risks
While the sites of memory are generally carefully preserved or – as the Polish case illustrates – reconstructed, the witnesses of the events themselves are successively dying. This concerns Holocaust survivors as guarantors of historical truth in a particular sense. ‘Contemporary witnesses’ are treated as multiple-faceted physical ‘sites of memory’: they tell a story of a certain event in a certain place in a certain time, and they testify: ‘this happened here, I was there’. At the same time they tell their stories of another time to younger generations, who might draw a lesson: ‘what happened to me can happen again – so do everything you can to stop it’. Where these witnesses are no longer available, we have to rely on episodic or systematic recordings of the things that they said. This creates another form of delocalization, and a challenge to memory culture: that is, the recording of witness statements, which is advanced as the central medium of remembrance, in particular in relation to the Holocaust.
Today, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive is one of the world’s most comprehensive informational and archival resources for oral history and audiovisual materials pertaining to the Holocaust and World War II. It includes 220 hours of film outtakes from Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, featuring Holocaust survivor testimonies.
The format of the contemporary witness interviews is constantly being updated, especially now through the use of digital technologies and online services. Most recently there have been moves to develop a holographic and interactive variant, which have not yet come to fruition due to technical limitations. Holograms appear less outmoded than video recordings, and most interestingly allow for something of a dialogue. At this initial stage the project is a matter of two-dimensional installations: but the goal is to create digital Doppelgängers of survivors, three-dimensional, life-sized entities that can be looked at from different angles. Another format is virtual reality applications such as ‘The Last Goodbye’. This allows a user, equipped with a VR headpiece to accompany an eyewitness on a virtual visit to a former concentration camp. This visit will combine 360-degree recording of the journey with fully explorable virtual reconstructions of different parts of the camp. Whether such immersive applications are appropriate is something to debate critically. In any case, so-called ‘deepfakes’ present problems. That’s because the same technology which permits 3D avatars of contemporary witnesses also makes it possible to synthesis a moving image and audio content matched to the original but from a different source.
Even where this opportunity for manipulation has not so far been employed as widely as other variants of digital disinformation, Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron have warned of its problematic potential. In terms of the culture of memory, a particular challenge arises for the archiving of audiovisual content, which affects not only institutions, but also accidental storage, for example on online streaming platforms.
And this in turn presnts a paradox: where eyewitnesses are present as holograms, the former power granted their testimony through its media presence is undermined by deepfakes. With this offspring of artificial intelligence ‘the capacity to create professional-grade forgeries will come within reach of nearly anyone with sufficient interest and the knowledge of where to go for help.’ Modified audio or video of a survivor can be created for the purpose of educating children. But deepfakes will also be extensively used for darker purposes as well, e.g. to insert survivors’ images into revisionist propaganda without their consent or even knowledge.
With this virtual twist, de-localization may become a very dangerous tool. It seems to be the time to return to the event, to physical place and to face-to-face communication.
This article is a follow-up and update to my earlier contrbution to Eurozine from 2009 ‘Battlefield Europe’ and 2010 ‘Seven circles of European memory’. It is based on a presentation for the conference ‘European Collective Memories in an Age of Populism’ at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. 12th of April 2019.