The first circle: The Holocaust as Europe’s negative founding myth?
Supra- and transnational memory in Europe can be visualized as a series of concentric circles proceeding out from a central point, each exemplified by historical dates and memorial sites. The first of these is 27 January 1945, the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, observed as Holocaust Remembrance Day in many European countries. This common recourse to the mass murder of the European Jews – which, as a crime against humanity, was unique for many reasons – provides Europe with a negative founding myth. The template for this is Germany’s “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung). Though this process initially concentrated selectively on the Second World War, it has, since the 1970s, emphasized the centrality of the “Holocaust” (to a great extent because of US-American prompting). “This is where it happened”, say German memorials, many of which are located at “authentic” sites of National Socialist crimes. “It can happen anywhere”, reply observers today, taught better by the televised images from Cambodia and Rwanda, by the witnesses of other historical massacres, by the crimes of Stalin, by the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
To want to Europeanize German memory politics might seem pretentious. Yet it is a fact that anti-Semitism and fascism were pan-European phenomena: the murder of the Jews would have been impossible without the broad collaboration of European governments and citizens. In France, a thorough acknowledgement of the close involvement of the Vichy government (1940-1944) in Nazi crimes – not to mention the collaboration of French citizens in the murder of Jews and the deep-rootedness of anti-Semitism at all levels of society – took a long time coming. Yet today, there is nothing extraordinary about there being a Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. Poland, too, is undergoing similar processes, after the debate about the pogroms in Jedwabne and Kielce brought to light the existence of a tenacious home-grown anti-Semitism throughout the whole of eastern Europe.
The Europe forcefully united by the Nazis was simultaneously opposed to Bolshevism, the Jews and the political-cultural West. The issue as to how far the Nazi regime was supported by convinced fascists and opportunists in other European nations often remains controversial, above all in connection with the treatment of collaborators and forced labourers after 1945. Speaking in the German parliament on 27 January 2009, Feliks Tych, Director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw from 1995 to 2007, recalled the fact that many of those sentenced in the “last Nazi trials” were collaborators from the East and the West who voluntarily participated in the work of annihilation carried out at the concentration camps. John Demjanjuk, who has been facing trial in Munich since 2009, is the most famous example. According to a list published by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the most sought-after Nazi war criminals include the Hungarians Sandor Kepiro and Karloy Zentai, the Croat Milivoj Asner, the Dutchman Klaas Carl Faber, the Dane Sören Kam, the Lithuanian Algimantas Delide and the Estonian Mikhail Gorshkov.
Remembrance of the Holocaust has always possessed a contemporary, political-pedagogic facet directed at the present and at the future: Theodor W. Adorno’s famous plea was that the Holocaust be remembered so that “Auschwitz is not repeated”. From the Jewish perspective, the most important precaution against this happening was the foundation of a strong Israeli state. From 2006 to 2010, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) created a scenario that had until then had never been anything other than imaginary: German military engagement in the Middle East. Edmund Stoiber (Christian Social Union) ruled out German participation in UNIFIL for historical reasons; others, including Chancellor Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union), argued that it was precisely for historical reasons that Germany had to participate. The importance of special relations with the Israeli state was and is a basic political tenet in the Federal Republic of Germany, albeit one that is increasingly being questioned both subjectively and objectively.
The successor state to the “Third Reich” assumed legal and moral responsibility for the National Socialist policy of annihilation, however the incantatory slogan “Never again Auschwitz” received an adjunct: “Never again war!” It was this postulate that led to Germany’s resolute refusal of military intervention beyond its borders – a policy the re-unified Germany has overridden on numerous occasions, including in Kosovo in 1998, when, in addition, it lacked a UN mandate. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s request in 2006 for the robust deployment of the German military for the protection of Israel and the Jews put the “special relationship” to the test, suggesting as it did, “Never again Auschwitz, therefore war”.
Then as now, the politicians in Berlin went further than German society. Germans no more wanted to die for Jerusalem than the French and the English for Prague or Danzig in 1938. With public opinion today no longer as supportive of Israel as it was during the Six Day War in 1967, an intervention would certainly have been unpopular. The continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories has caused a change in the climate of opinion, interestingly at the same time that the recognition of German responsibility for the Holocaust has grown. Today, with Israel probably more threatened than at any other time since its foundation (a situation to a great extent of its own making), the majority of Germans consider it to have gone too far. Criticism of the Israeli settlement and foreign policy is, of course, also legitimate in Germany. However the special relationship is degenerating.
At the same time, anti-Semitic prejudices have increased, now attached less to traditional hatred of Jews than to the policies of the state of Israel. Anti-Semitism today likes to cloak itself in the garb of anti-Zionism that characterizes much left- and rightwing radicalism throughout Europe. “Anti-Semitism despite Auschwitz” and anti-Israeli-ism because of Auschwitz has become a hatred of Jews after Auschwitz. Israel barely has a single lobby in Germany any longer, either in the parliament, in the media, among intellectuals, let alone among Germany’s multicultural youth. Nor was Germany ever the guardian of Israel in the past: this role fell to America. Critics of the “Israel lobby” in the US, which include people of Jewish descent, have taken issue with their government’s Middle East policy for concentrating too narrowly on Israel, and with the preference of the Bush administration for purely military “anti-terrorism” strategies. The European Union pursues another route, cultivating good relations with Arab governments. Yet were Hezbollah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad and their supporters to strike at the heart of Israel, there is no doubt as to whose side Europe would take. It is above all the Iranian president Ahmedinejad who challenges the right of Israel to exist and who has taken Holocaust denial onto a new, transnational level.
Can the Holocaust act as a political yardstick for contemporary Europe? Racial discrimination and xenophobia are widespread phenomena, both in the core EU countries with their longer democratic traditions as well as in transformation societies with their fledgling democracies. At first glance, it would seem obvious to counter these phenomena with the lessons of the past. In January 2000, however, this “educational” technique turned out to be less than appropriate when the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust attempted to apply it to Austria, in response to the coalition between the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Austria felt itself to have been publicly reprimanded while Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing government in Italy had escaped censure from an EU hesitant to offend a powerful member.
Another way in which the Holocaust can become a contemporary issue is in the legal prosecution of denial (negationism) or trivialization (revisionism). These often appear in scholarly garb (and thus claim academic freedom and freedom of speech) and have become a core motif of neo-Nazi, far-right and national populist movements throughout the whole of Europe. Since the mid-1980s, there have been initiatives to make “opinions” such as these criminally liable. According to article 130 (3) of the German Penal Code, “anyone who denies or trivializes, whether in public or before an audience, an act committed under the National Socialist regime of the kind described in the Code Offences under International Law, in a way intended to disturb the public peace”, is liable to a prison sentence of up to 5 years or a fine. An Israeli law passed in 1986 states in Paragraph 2 that, “Anyone who publishes, whether in the spoken or written word, any statement that relativizes the extent of the crimes committed during the National Socialist period, and whose aim is to defend, to expresses sympathy for, or to identify with the perpetrator of such crimes against the Jewish people and humanity, will receive a punishment of five years imprisonment.”
In 1994, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany defined Holocaust denial to be “claiming as fact something that, on the basis of countless witness accounts and documents, the statements of the court in numerous criminal cases, and the findings of historical research, has proven to be untrue. In itself, the assertion of this content does not therefore enjoy the protection of freedom of opinion.” Other EU states, including France, Austria, Belgium, and later also Romania and Hungary, have passed similar laws; others have amended general laws against racial discrimination, while still others (such as the UK) have seen no need for action from the legislature. The Spanish legal code states that “the dissemination of any kind of idea or doctrine that denies or justifies crimes as defined in the previous paragraph of this article, or attempts to reinstate regimes or institutions that protect or guarantee these ideas or doctrines, will be punished with a prison sentence of one to two years” (art. 607 para. 2). In November 2007 the words “denies or” were ruled to be unconstitutional and removed. Interestingly, Luxembourg does not penalize Holocaust denial in particular, but rather war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In 2008, the EU passed the Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia. In the future, the following will be criminally liable in all EU member states: “publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin when the conduct is carried out in a manner likely to incite to violence or hatred against such a group or a member of such a group”
The second circle: Soviet communism – equally criminal?
There are good reasons to doubt whether bringing the Holocaust into the present day in this way is morally and ethically necessary and whether its instrumentalization for contemporary ends has an effect in practical political terms. Now that the ban on the denial of the Holocaust is binding, the question arises as to whether the denial of Soviet communist crimes also deserves to be criminalized. The Lithuanian members of the European Parliament and the former head of the Lithuanian parliament Vytautas Landsbergis (1990-1996) were unable to get anywhere with a motion to this effect, having found barely any advocates among western politicians. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether an appeal made in December 2010 by the foreign ministers of six former communist EU countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) for the EU to consider a law against denying or trivializing the crimes of totalitarian regimes will be any more successful.
The central perspective of the Holocaust becomes problematic when it is imposed as the matrix for dealing with communist state crimes and crimes against humanity across the whole of eastern Europe. On the other hand, it is consistent when in Poland, for example, fines and even prison sentences of up the three years are levelled at anyone who contests “communist crimes” and “other politically motivated repressive actions carried out by functionaries of Polish criminal authorities, the legal authorities or persons acting on their orders” up to 31 December 1989. The Czech law of 2001 is even clearer: “Any person that supports or promotes movements that suppress human rights and liberties or who spread national, racist, religious or class hatred or hate against other groups of persons will be punished with a prison sentence of one to five years” (article 260), continuing: “Any person who ‘publicly denies, raises doubts about or attempts to justify the Nazi or the communist genocide’ or other crimes of the Nazis or the Communists will be punished with a prison sentence of six months to three years” (article 261a).
The origins of the European Union lie in its function as a market and as an economic community, meaning that it constantly strives to attain “harmonization”. It is not easy to carry this principle over into a political field as symbolic as European history, overshadowed as it is by two totalitarian experiences, which, if not exactly simultaneous, are interconnected, leaving millions dead or traumatized. Issues of legal and moral “atonement” remain virulent today. Nationally-minded Europeans would like to determine the form these sensitive issues take – under no circumstances, in other words, do they want to hand over control in this area to Brussels. However, the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has on numerous occasions found it necessary to rule on the legality of the sacking of politically tarnished public servants, and on restrictions in voting rights in post-communist eastern Europe, is evidence of a certain harmonization of the way history is dealt with.
If the denial of the Holocaust is punishable across much of Europe, then this logically enough encourages demands that the horrendous aspects of communism be dealt with in an equivalent manner. In 2008, The EU commission has therefore called for an investigation into: “whether an additional instrument is necessary to penalize the public endorsement, denial or crude trivialization of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, if the offences cited are directed against a group of persons defined by criteria other than race, skin colour, descent or national or ethnic background, for example social status or political affiliation.”
Nations occupied by the Red Army do not want to and will not celebrate 8/9 May as a liberation, since for them the end of the Nazi occupation was the beginning of another totalitarian regime that many contemporary representatives of central eastern Europe rank as “equally criminal” (Sandra Kalniete). They accuse it of genocide, in other words. The representatives of post-Soviet Russia have neither apologized nor paid reparations for the mass deportations and murders, for the loss of freedom and forced Russification. No one still seriously contests that the occupied nations were victims of the Soviet Empire. What would be controversial, however, is if these nations were to exploit this consensus to relativize or conceal their participation in the murder of the Jews. Attempts to offset one memory against the other occurred in the conflict over German history and served as propaganda for the far-Right fringe; the Jewish victims, it was alleged, had been awarded an exclusive status while the victims of the communist dictatorship (and the western bombing) had been deliberately neglected.
The fact that crimes were hushed up and offset against one other was primarily due to the polemic constellations of the Cold War, which should have been overcome by now, but in fact continue to exist. This is one reason why shared European memory and cross-border commemoration remain difficult. On the other hand, at commemorative sites such as Buchenwald or Sachsenhausen, where in 1945 the Nazi concentration camps were turned into “special camps” by the Soviet occupiers (some people finding themselves being imprisoned twice in the same place), a collective form of commemoration does seem to have been achieved, at least partially. Particularly at Buchenwald, it has been possible, after much negotiation, to find aesthetic-architectural and historic-pedagogic solutions that take into account everyone’s suffering while avoiding false generalizations.
If Europe has – or is developing – a collective memory, it is just as diverse as its nations and cultures. Memory cannot be regulated “mnemo-technically”, let alone by via official acts of state or routinized commemorative rituals such as 8/9 May or 27 January. The only thing that can be European is the way in which the crimes are collectively remembered and the way that the most cautious of lessons are drawn for contemporary European democracy. Probably the most significant challenge is the competition and hierarchy between what are contradictorily called “Holocaust memory” and “Gulag memory”. The detachment of the “Holocaust” from specifically German perpetrators and Jewish victims results in its universalization or anthropologization, and in turn reveals the superficiality to which a dogmatic singularization, just as much as an “undogmatic” globalization (or Europeanization), can lead. On the other hand, if every kind of violence is brought into connection with the Holocaust as icon of the negative, and if, because of comparison and analogy, the mass murder is deprived of its historical depth and turned into an ethical inoculation against genocide (via western popular mass culture), then this is just as problematic as if one were to particularize it and thereby place it beyond historical process and historical comparison.
Insofar as the goal is a complete picture of the crimes against humanity committed in the twentieth century, the Holocaust memory – the core of western European memory – becomes, from the perspective of the “GULag-memory”, a semi-circle. Both memories join together to form the totalitarian experience of the twentieth century. However crude variations of the totalitarianism thesis quickly lead to the uneven ground of mutual relativization and offsetting. The challenge of European commemorative culture therefore 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 or downplaying the systematic attrition of the “class enemy” and “enemies of people” in the Soviet sphere of influence. Speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Jorge Semprún, onetime member of the communist party and former prisoner at Buchenwald from 1943 to 1945, formulated 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, by then, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales will be sitting alongside the works of Primo Levi, Imre Kertész or David Rousset. For one thing, it would mean that we are no longer crippled down one side; it would also mean that Russia has taken a decisive step in the direction of democracy.”
“Eastern central Europe” as a single entity is a western fiction. Stefan Troebst has distinguished four zones according to their memorial modes: a clear anti-communist consensus predominates in the Baltic states, Croatia and Slovakia, while in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, the interpretation of communism is controversial (and even increasingly so). 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 the latter, Stalin is often seen as the sole general of the “Great Patriotic War”, an apologist view that sometimes even extends to his repressive and murderous qualities within Russia itself. The authoritarianism latent in post-Soviet power structures reveals the extent to which an unaddressed criminal past undermines democratic development. Russia’s self-exclusion from Europe is not only expressed in an affirmative and apologetic politics of history, but may also have its deeper causes there.
Three reasons for the asymmetry of European memory have thus been identified. The first is the assumption of the singularity of the Holocaust (particularly from the German perspective), combined with the acknowledgement of Russian suffering in WWII, which has caused a blindness towards “red totalitarianism”. This includes the way the history of the GDR has been addressed in Germany, that partly clings to the lazy anti-fascist consensus of the GDR persists and tends to relativize the crimes of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in the same way as was the case with Nazi crimes in West Germany after 1945. Second, the asymmetry of the perception of the Gulag and the Holocaust can be accounted for by the far greater visibility of the murder of the European Jews; a comparable iconization or medialization of the crimes of communist regimes (which from 1917 until the present day in China and North Korea have claimed the lives of around 100 million people) has clearly not been obtained. To put it another way: the Nazi Germans predominantly killed other people, the communists in Russia and China predominantly their own. Yet if one is to be correct and take into account the persecution of the populations of eastern central Europe, Central Asia and Tibet by Russian and Chinese “colonial powers”, then this is also wrong. A third reason often cited is that this murderous experience remained eastern European at its core. Yet in western Europe it impossible to seriously claim to have been unaffected by Stalinism; the sheer size of communist parties west of the Iron Curtain refutes this, as does the identity-forming function of anti-anti-communism in western Europe for many years. Although anti-anti-communism may have provided the basis for peaceful co-existence between the West and the so-called people’s republics, and have overcome the division of Europe, it is now clear that this peace was at the expense of human and civil rights groups.
The third circle: Expulsion as a pan-European trauma?
In the collective mind of Europe, the dominant memory (one kept alive by the media) is of large-scale forced “population transfers”. Ethnic cleansings, mass expulsions and genocides began with the collapse of the major empires in the nineteenth century and provide the background against which the Holocaust appears a particularly extreme and systematic “special case”. The American historian Norman Naimark has referred in general terms to “ethnic cleansings” that from the nineteenth century onwards occurred wherever emergent nation-states succumbed to the madness of believing that political legitimacy and domestic and foreign sovereignty was attainable only on the basis of ethnically homogenous national communities.
Democratic systems were (and are) susceptible to this. The particular problem the Czechs have with the political-moral recognition of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans may lie in the fact that the decree for their expulsion was issued by a bourgeois democratic government under Edvard Benes. Similarly, the biggest hindrance to addressing the catastrophe in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards might be that the authoritarian Tito regime kept a tighter grip on the historically fissiparous Serbs and Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovo-Albanians than the (illiberal) democracies after Tito, which succumbed to ethno-nationalist furore and religious war.
It because they are not “over and done with” that the legacy of these ethnic cleansings and acts of genocide obstructs, more than anything else, the development of a pan-European memory. A counter example would be the “Europeanization” of the subject of the expulsion of Germans at the end of the Second World War. Initiatives such as the European Network of Memory and Solidarity campaign against a purely national and backwards-looking commemoration of the sort allegedly advocated by the Centre Against Expulsion (Zentrum gegen Vertreibung) in Germany. In the course of the controversy over the centre, its initiators, above all the League of Expellees, were obliged to integrate a European and global dimension into events and exhibitions. The “Charter of Expellees from the Homeland” of 1950 is now retroactively interpreted as a transnational document.Ultimately, the Centre has succeeded in becoming a hub within a European network, even though it will probably be a long time before the Germans and the Poles or the Czechs are able to issue jointly-authored textbooks with the same degree of normality as is now possible between the Germans and the French (albeit after a 40-year long reconciliation).
The example of the expulsion of the Germans, a bone of contention between the German and Polish governments that seems gradually to have outlived itself, illustrates how sensitive common memory can be both for domestic and foreign policy. In the West, the issue of expulsion is used to revive an outdated Left-Right schemata, while in the East nationally oriented (and especially leftwing) forces stand opposed to liberal, pro-European ones. Of course, Polish intransigence on the issue of expulsion has to do with the long-suppressed then almost hysterically debated communist past. In all post-communist societies, the heirs of the nomenklatura compete alongside the descendents of an authoritarian Right (often with a record of collaboration with the Nazis) for historical legitimacy, the lack whereof they attempt to compensate with ethno-nationalist sentiment.
The geopolitical and geostrategic divisions of the “Old Europe”, frozen by the bloc confrontation between the Cold War superpowers, thus reappear. Yet it is hardly the case that old conflicts are hindering a unification of the new Europe; rather, they serve as distractions from new conflicts – over security, energy, cross-border mobility and suchlike.
The lasting traumatization of victims of expulsion and the extreme vulnerability of societies with a high share of expellees, not to mention the shocking comeback of ethnic cleansings in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the volatility of the refugee issue outside Europe, all call for universal norms and definitions. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines any forcible population transfer as a crime against humanity. In other words, according to international law, expulsion is criminal. This goes for the expulsion of millions of Germans after 1944/45. However, like all other expulsions, this one needs to be seen in its historical context. This includes the national-territorial policies of the “Third Reich” in eastern Europe, the widespread disloyalty of many Sudeten Germans towards the Czechoslovak Republic, the unstable position of the Polish and Czech governments after the German occupation, and the obligations imposed by the Soviet occupational regime.
Viewing the normative and historical levels together precludes both the automatic equation of different types of population transfer as well as their relativization on the grounds of contingent historical circumstances. In Europe, the controversial issue is which acts of expulsion and ethnic cleansing are to be categorized as “genocide”. The Convention of the United Nations on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 defines genocide as “any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. This includes: a) killing members of the group; b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Despite the clarification of these offences in international criminal law and the toughening of the prosecution of these offences in line with the principle of universal jurisdiction, which obliges the United Nations to intervene in severe cases, in recent decades major controversies between nations have arisen over the existence, the effects and the persecution of events categorized as “genocide”. Both the moral and the legal seriousness of the charge of genocide means that perpetrators wish to dissociate themselves from it as far as possible. It is also a charge that is often made falsely, and genocide accusations have become a weapon in the battle for global recognition and a currency of international diplomacy.
The clearest example is the “Armenian question”. A majority of liberal as well as secular Turks resolutely refuse to acknowledge 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 EU membership criterion, one clearly expressed both in national and supranational parliaments. The French and the Swiss have adopted the Armenian cause as their own, and, taking “the Auschwitz lie” as a precedent, have outlawed the denial of the genocide; Germany has assumed a more cautious approach, issuing statements geared towards consensus. In terms of commemoration, the wider Europe will be divided over the Armenian question before it can start converging. Yet consensus can only be achieved when the issue is approached the other way round – in other words, when Turkish society deals with the Armenian issue in a European fashion, both domestically and with old allies and enemies at the international level.
The conflict is exemplary in that it raises the question as to where Europe’s borders lie, as supra-national EU intra-identities extend transnationally at the European and non-European levels. Many opponents of Turkey’s EU membership have hinted that because of its “different” cultural and religious history, Turkey can never share Europe’s “common destiny”. Even Britain, the strongest advocate of Turkish membership, indirectly endorses this view by conceiving of the Union as a free trade zone without a cultural memory. No other complex more clearly evidences the divisive dimensions of a shared memory than the supposed cultural boundary between “Islam” and “secular” Europe. Regardless of the actual degree of de-Christianization in Europe, public opinion polls show that many people see in Europe a historical community of memory and destiny that is opposed to Islam and Turkey. This, despite the fact that Kemalism was the prime example of a westernization process, and the secular Turkish Republic the best proof that what essentially remained a very Islamic country could take such a course. If Europe took its secularity seriously, religious affiliation would not pose an unassailable obstacle to integration, either within immigration societies or in terms of Europe’s relations with other countries.
The other contemporary point of contention concerns the mass death of millions in the Ukraine (known as the “Holodomor”) as part of the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. While the denial of the Armenian genocide stands in the way of Turkish accession hopes, western-tending Ukrainians energetically claim the term “genocide” for the famines of the 1930s. One of their major reasons for doing so is to define themselves against their Russian neighbours, who continue to attempt to relativize the crimes of Stalinism. By using the term genocide, Ukraine attempts to garner maximum attention for the Holodomor at the European and international levels, not least in order to use it as an entry ticket to the European Union. However, despite Ukraine’s numerous efforts to raise awareness about the famines in western Europe, the tragedy – one of the most dramatic of Soviet Communism and one that claimed millions of victims – remains largely unknown in the West.
Another reason why the Ukrainian case needs to be considered is that, once again, it raises the question as to whether systematic racial and ethnic repression is the only crime that fulfils the definition of genocide, and whether the targeted persecution of social classes and strata also deserves to be counted. The catastrophic famine in Ukraine was not a natural phenomenon but rather a result of collectivization, a policy intended to force forward industrialization and, in the process, wipe out a class of private rural landowners. In the case of the Holodomor, the issue is not one of ethnic but of political cleansing, one carried out just as systematically and with similar methods of liquidation and deportation, on the basis of an equally murderous ideology. Even if it is necessary to introduce an objective and heuristic distinction between classical genocide and other, class-war motivated forms of democide, this distinction cannot equal a demotion.
The fourth circle: War and wartime memory as motor of Europe?
A further circle of European memory surrounds the experience of dictatorship and genocide, one that goes back to wartime and economic crises. The mass attendance of exhibitions and the high quotas for historical television programmes and websites reveals how strong interest in this subject is. The memory of the First World War, associated with the name of Verdun, plays an extremely important role, above all in England, France and Belgium (The Great War, La Grande Guerre, De Groote Oorlog). Very much alive in Germany and Austria, even among younger generations, is the memory of hyperinflation, the collapse of the banks and the Great Depression. The memory of the Second World War is very strong in all these countries, and is also immensely important in Russia (The Great Patriotic War) and eastern European societies.
An interesting example is the emergence of the so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 as (western) European site of memory of the First World War. “The example of the popularization of the Christmas Truce shows that in recent years the First World War has become a European site of memory,” according to Sylvia Paletschek. “It allows the European nations to meet in common sorrow, without accusations of guilt, and serves to create a European identity and to legitimize a (western) European mission of peace. This tendency is manifested both in the ‘informal’ media of historical culture, e.g. in the tenor of the numerous Internet sites on the Christmas Truce or films on the subject, as well as in the formal institutions of historical culture, for example museums.”
A pop-cultural example of the active European memory of the Christmas Truce would be the German-English-French-Romanian co-production Merry Christmas, which in 2005 run simultaneously at German, English and French cinemas over the Christmas period. Various memorial media (non-fiction, film, memorials, commemorative events) interconnect with one another at different levels, ranging from the local to the European and the global, as do academic historical research, oral history and popular culture.
While in exile in London, Charles de Gaulle referred to the whole period between 1914 and 1945 “the second thirty years war”. He wanted to highlight the profundity of the rupture, the connection between the two world wars, and notably the memorial potential of a period of terror during the seventeenth century – one that was equally as influential to Europe’s national structure, society and culture. After all, the justification for the existence of the European economic community was initially based not on the Holocaust, and even less on the systemic competition with communism, but on the traumatic experience of two “total wars” and the Damocles Sword of mass unemployment, which had destroyed the European nation-state system, de-democratizing it and robbing it of its central position in the world.
Most Europeans probably associate Sarajevo more with the assassination that triggered off the First World War than with the massacre during the Balkan Wars less than twenty years ago. It is no coincidence that the icon of German-French reconciliation – the handshake between French president François Mitterand and German chancellor Helmut Kohl over the war graves of Verdun – was preceded by the equally impressive gesture of peace between Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle in Reims. It marked the transformation of hostility between the two European powers, which had dominated relations until the mid-twentieth century, into a hitherto unimaginable degree of political cooperation and social-structural and cultural convergence. Since many readers are certain to be sceptical about the notion of a pan-European memory, it is worth emphasizing that political processes like this have always been accompanied by historico-political measures such as city twinning, pupil exchanges and the authorship of joint history books, which now happens between former wartime enemies in eastern Europe. Even a name like Katyn, which used to imply never-ending feud, has lost some of its volatility in Russian-Polish(-German) relations, and there are signs that it may even be the starting point for a less antagonistic community of memory between the former wartime opponents.
As can be observed from the interest in the Battle of Stalingrad, in the aerial bombardments (Rotterdam, Coventry, Dresden), and in the fate of the prisoners of war, wartime experiences and traumas have once again formed the collective expectations and mentalities of Europeans across borders. A crucial place is also occupied by the memory of the “Cold War” and the bloc confrontation, above all the threat of mankind’s nuclear self-annihilation, which in central Europe is experienced as a virtual Ground Zero, but which is also particularly strongly experienced in Great Britain, where it has impacted on the civilian use of nuclear energy. In Germany, the central site of memory of the East-West division is not so much Buchenwald and Hohenschönhausen (the site of the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin) as places like the Fulda Gap (the corridor between the FRG and GDR east of Frankfurt), and above all the Berlin Wall. However these only function to a limited extent as European sites of memory.
Post-war events such as inflation and depression, which caused social insecurity, impoverishment and mass unemployment, have been re-evoked in the most recent financial crisis as frames of reference. Like the two world wars, these were pan-European experiences whose vehemence gave cause to base European reconciliation and integration in political-economic measures such as the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the construction of the European welfare state – in the latter case each country following its own national model. Remarkably enough, despite a considerable residue of mutual stereotypes and grudges, Europe has distanced itself from images of “the enemy within” and from national “arch-enmities”, and the “East-West division in the mind” has gradually dissolved. In some areas, images of the external enemy have become more pronounced, above all with respect to Islamist terrorism, which has sparked the growth of a general Islamophobia in Europe too. In the face of alleged and actual external threats, it remains to be seen how resilient the “democratic peace” that has marked Europe since 1945 really is, and which normative and moral demands the EU is able to bring to bear in its foreign policy.
The fifth circle: The black book of colonialism
Occasionally, victims and deniers of the Armenian genocide gather at Steinplatz in Berlin, near to where Talat Pasha was assassinated by an Armenian survivor in 1921. At different ends of this rather unkempt park, one can find two memorials to the victims of Stalinism and National Socialism that were erected in the early 1950s. Steinplatz could, then, almost come to symbolize the history of European memory. However a further memorial site would be missing: one that recalled European colonial crimes. If one wanted to pursue this idea, the occasion commemorated might be the Berlin Conference in 1884, which took place a few kilometres away on Wilhelmstrasse. Under the aegis of the Germans, the Belgian Crown Colony of Congo was divided up between European interests. In Germany, the colonial crimes committed primarily against the Herero and Nama came to be discussed relatively late, in the course of the more general process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung; in other countries, the colonial past has been the subject of greater attention, including recent 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 policies of the present. The Congolese case enables a politics of memory not solely limited to the European space. However it also shows the limits and the pitfalls of the globalization of commemoration and memory under the aspect of a Holocaust divorced from time and space. Again, the thesis of the singularity of the murder of the Jews must not be allowed to narrow the perspective and underpin what is ultimately a hierarchy of victims that assumes racist stereotypes. The non-affirmative comparison between the Shoah and colonial genocide is no longer taboo; during the reign of Leopold II, up to ten million people were brutally murdered in the Congo – there too, “the unthinkable” became reality. Biographical continuities between the colonial crimes and the murder of the Jews are also impossible to ignore: the racial anthropologist Eugen Fischer began his lethal career in German Southwest Africa and ended it on the ramp at Auschwitz.
Colonialism emerges in three historical forms: that of the trading company, which was based on the exploitation of raw materials and human labour and was active above all in southern Africa; that of the military conqueror, which lent economic exploitation territorial form and satisfied the imperial hunger for a “place in the sun” of both the elites and the masses; and lastly, that of the clergymen and the pedagogues, which added a civilizing mission to the colonial and imperial expansion. As is well known, the proselytising impact of this mission was negligible, while the destructive and racist dimension was far more lasting. What has not been discussed so much, however, is how this peripheral memory rebounded on European social history. A comfortable, anti-colonial ideology of justification has spread throughout the ruling classes of post-colonial societies that conceals the role of autochthonous elites in the continuing exploitation and underdevelopment of the South. The combination of both has meant that the rule of law, democratization and transitional justice has progressed only very slowly.
It would be impossible to employ a kind of counterfactual history to represent, let alone quantify, the developmental possibilities hindered by colonization and exploitation. Still, in terms of the prerequisites for a symbolic as well as factual atonement, Europe has done little in comparison to its reaction to the consequences of wars and genocides in Europe. This begins with the restitution of cultural artefacts that today decorate the museums of the western metropolises, and extends to reparation payments to the descendents of the original inhabitants of colonized regions who suffered as a result of slavery and the countless massacres carried out in the course of imperial wars. Were the same standards applied as with the reparation payments awarded after the two world wars, or with the entitlements of Holocaust victims and forced labourers, the sums would be enormous. However that cannot mean that a blanket apology, of the type expressed in Africa by US president Bill Clinton or Pope John Paul II, should be perceived to be sufficient.
This can be illustrated by the still unsatisfactory ruling on the claims of Herero, a people living in the northern part of what is today Namibia, who are pressing for recognition and compensation for victims and for damage caused by the colonial policies of the German Empire. The colonization of “German Southwest Africa” occurred along the lines described above: in 1883, the merchant Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz signed a contract with the clan leaders of the Herero and one year later the region became a German protectorate. Shortly afterwards, conflicts broke out over land and water rights (mainly in connection with the construction of the Otavi railway), over sexual assaults on Herero women, and over the draconian attempts to convert the locals to Christianity. In 1897, a cattle plague and locust swarms resulted in the loss of almost three quarters of the cattle stock, forcing the Herero to sell their land and to work as hired labour on German farms. The German administration’s failure to manage the crisis prompted the Herero uprising in 1904, in the course of which farms and villages were burned down and around 250 German settlers murdered. When the governor, Theodor Leutwein, was unable to quell the uprising, the German Empire sent in an expeditionary corps of around 15 000 men, under the leadership of Lothar von Trotha. After they arrived their plans radicalized and they resolved to wipe out the Herero people.
The following words have been ascribed to von Trotha: “It was and is my policy to carry out violence using crude terrorism and even cruelty. I annihilate the rebel tribes in streams of blood and streams of money. Only from this seed can something new arise.” The result was the first genocide of the twentieth century. Up to 80 000 people died; after the battle at Waterberg, troops encircled many Herero in the waterless the Omaheke Steppe, leaving them to die of thirst. Only around 1000 were able to escape, later some fought at the side of the rebelling Nama.
On the centenary of the slaughter of the Herero in 2004, the German government acknowledged, via the then minister for development aid Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the political and moral guilt of the German colonial politics and asked the Herero for forgiveness. Until this point, all “formulations relevant to reparations” (as Joschka Fischer put it) had been avoided. The financial reparations previously claimed by the Herero and pursued without success by the American courts were rejected by the German and by Namibian governments; instead, development aid in the region assumed particular importance. In 2004, members of the von Trotha family invited the leader of the Herero, Alfons Maharero, to Germany and asked for forgiveness for the crimes of Lothar von Trotha.
An apparently marginal aspect of Germany’s still unresolved colonial history concerns demands from Herero victim initiatives for the release and return of skulls from the archives of Freiburg University, the Linden Museum in Stuttgart and the Stuttgart natural history museum, where they ended up as trophies of the Herero uprising. The German authorities, who are principally willing however have done little to act, underestimate the meaning of the skulls for the Herero: without their return, the Herero believe that the souls of both of the living and the dead will not find peace. The intention is to exhibit the skulls in Namibia’s museum of independence.
In Germany, there is no complementary monument specifically to the memory of German colonial crimes, while there are a whole series of street names that recall Lüderitz and other former colonial heroes. It was only in 2006 that the Munich city council, against the vote of the Christian conservatives and liberals, decided to rename the city’s Von-Trotha-Strasse “Hererostrasse”. The Christian Social Union justified its rejection of the proposal with the argument that the name of the street had long since applied to the entire von Trotha family. If the acknowledgement of responsibility for colonial crimes is insufficient at the national level, it is all the more so at the pan-European level. Humanitarian catastrophes, civil wars and border conflicts, state collapses, terror attacks and environmental and climate catastrophes appear to the European public to have nothing to do with this history. At the same time, metaphors of the “dark continent” and “the white man’s burden” are back in circulation, especially in connection with immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
The sixth circle: Europe as continent of immigration?
Europe’s colonial history leads directly or indirectly into the sixth circle of European memory: the transnational migration to Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and above all since the 1950s. That this is also a story of asylum and escape from poverty means that there is a close connection to Europe’s colonial history. Since then, however, immigration has diversified greatly, leading to a situation today where one in four members of the population of western European societies will soon have an “immigrant background” (and in the metropolises 40 to 50 per cent).
The museums Europe dedicated to migration throughout western Europe, still in their early stages, raise further issues regarding cultural globalization. One particular question is how far these museums merely thematize the success or otherwise of migration from the perspective of the migrants, and/or the difficulties connected with their social integration, political naturalization and cultural assimilation from the perspective of the “majority society”, or whether they also reflect on migration’s connection to the criminal and catastrophic history of the Shoah and the Gulag. These did not affect migrants and their parents directly, however the second and third generations find themselves posed with the question as to how they should approach these histories and how, in the light of these, they should observe and evaluate their “own” history, from which they have since become alienated.
Former European sites of memory, starting with the Roman heritage and relics of the Middle Ages, can no longer be adequately communicated without bearing in mind how to make these comprehensible to migrants, strongly confronted as they are with non-European identity options from, for example, the Islamic umma. 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 own sense of their ethnic origins; 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.
Today Europe has a distinct “migration background” that is barely reflected in the public sphere and in policies on immigration and integration. Immigration is nevertheless perceived in most countries as a legacy of conflict, with critical advocates categorizing it alongside other traumatic episodes or aspects of European history. Neither for the receiving societies nor for the immigrant communities is migration a collective trauma, however; rather, it represents a remarkable success story – with significant dark sides. On the plus side are economic prosperity and social advancement, as well trans-cultural innovation, which has had a positive influence not only on European cuisine. On the minus side are aspects of social segregation and ethnic-religious discrimination.
In this respect, Europe is clearly at a crossroads. In many countries, an open rejection of ethnic minorities is emerging and more or less serious conflicts are instrumentalized by politics either to gain or to maintain power. This is not only the case for far-Right and neo-Nazi parties, but also for populist parties and mainstream parliamentary parties. They foment resentment, stigmatize scapegoats and violate legal guarantees and conventions that have effectively protected minorities since 1945. The connection with the permanent economic crisis has been clear since the 1970s, raising the question as to whether European tolerance is a mere fair-weather phenomenon, which with the end of the economic success story could come to an abrupt end. To this also belongs the issue of far-Right and far-Left hostility to Europe, positions that are strongly represented in the European parliament.
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. It is also just as divided – in the sense both of “shared” as well as “split” – as its national and social world. The strong and recurrent impulse to believe that forgetting is better than remembering in and for Europe is understandable, and has attracted prominent advocates – in postcolonial France as well as in post-Franco Spain and in post-socialist Poland. On the other hand, there is the slogan of the equally prominent former dissident Adam Michnik: “Amnesty yes, amnesia no!” Processes of democratization in transitional societies – which is what almost all European nations were after 1945 – demonstrably remain fragile and incomplete if they fail to conduct a critical recapitulation of their own past. This goes for the debate on Polish or Hungarian anti-Semitism, or for the inhumane treatment of the Roma in eastern Europe, or for the top-level amnesia in France regarding the Algerian War. Just as European democracies no longer go to war with one another, so the democratic process begins to find legitimacy through a pan-European politics of history, in which local grassroots initiatives are equally as involved as officious school textbook commissions and governmental and non-governmental bodies.
It is perfectly possible to capitalize on this, both pedagogically and politically. Here we come to the undeniable success of western Europe after 1950, which will occupy an important place in the “House of European History”, due to open in Brussels in 2014. Since the end of the Second World War, a development has taken place in Europe that leads out of the cycle of totalitarianism and the ideological division of East and West. 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 story.
There can be no doubt that European integration has been a success. For most people, economic performance is what counts – one only need compare present-day levels of development and affluence with those of the 1930s or 1950s to get an idea of the strength of the economic union. For others, what is important is the political dividends of permanent peace between states that once were bitter enemies. This goes as much for communication between states (“Germany is hemmed in by friends”, as one German foreign minister put it) as for the overcoming of irreconcilable internal political ideologies and fault lines. Today’s Europe consists exclusively of parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies that rank highly on global freedom tables; legal and constitutional orders are equally stable. Others emphasize the strengths of European cultures, claiming that Europe can draw on its heyday in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nowhere else does there exist such a dense network of cultural initiatives; nowhere else in the world is so inclusive; nowhere else have cultural workers – despite increasing encroachments – obtained such a high degree of autonomy. For the present author, finally, what is most important is the strength of European civil society, which, it might be added, is responsible for many of the merits listed above.
There is no guarantee of any of these things, and in many places economic and cultural globalization and neoliberal policies of social exclusion have already severely clouded the picture. Even more remarkable is the fact that the positive balance of Europe after 1945 has so far barely impacted on European self-confidence, which account for Europe’s relatively limited influence in world politics. In this respect, the claim for a European success story hardly has the character of self-congratulation; ironically, one aspect of a critical discussion of European history is that too much confidence is placed in the nation-states and that Brussels is notoriously mistrusted.
The aforementioned House of European History should, experts say, remain scientific; it needs to draw on the most recent museological and museum-pedagogical developments and include a wide variety of object-, text- and media-elements. The museum can use the concept of the site of memory, which in this case must a priori be supra-nationally oriented, in other words be recognizable in different European countries and thus be capable of being viewed and categorized in numerous and possibly controversial ways. Controversies will always exist within as well as between states. The central idea being presented here is that, as long as these conflicts are waged peacefully and a treated at an institutional level, they are precisely what can create and strengthen a community of memory.
This article, parts of which have already appeared in Eurozine, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik and Social Research, forms the introduction to the book Ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt. Der Kampf um die europäische Erinnerung [A battlefield is surveyed. The struggle over European memory], forthcoming from C.H. Beck, Munich 2011.