European Politics of Memory since the Peaceful Revolution in 1989
When the Berlin Wall fell; when the barbed wire at the Czech border was cut through; when the tanks on Red Square in Moscow retreated in the face of peaceful citizens’ protests and millions of people across Central and Eastern Europe took to the streets to fight for their freedom – that was when memory in Europe was also liberated. Communist dictators had imprisoned memory in the cell of an imposed ideology and attempted to silence forever any remembrance that didn’t fit in their officially permitted memory chamber, which the state authorities policed using violence and prohibitions.
Yet it wasn’t just behind the Iron Curtain, but also on the other side, that memory wasn’t really at liberty. Here in the so-called free West there were tendencies towards self-censorship. A number of taboos were erected against undesirable memories and the confrontation of the two systems behind and before the Iron Curtain meant that in the democratic societies too, conflicting historical narratives were constrained by simplification or canonisation.
As the prison walls of memory were torn down, and self-inflicted bonds untied, many millions of victims suppressed for decades were finally accorded the recognition, commemoration and mourning due to them. Across Europe a memory boom began, manifesting itself in waves of new museums and memorial sites. Memory had barely been liberated, before the long-suppressed stories and experiences were to be frozen in stone, iron, concrete and glass.
It was less a time when dialogues between different and frequently conflicting memories were engaged, more a spectacle of each side seeking to manifest its particular perspective on history. This process repeatedly ignored the grave, malign potential lurking in the Pandora’s Box of history.
In the last two decades Europe has experienced the disintegration of states; ethnic or religious groups shooting at one another; neighbour torturing neighbour – because, for example, an injustice occurred 600 years ago leaving, as the demagogues claimed, an open wound to the present day.
Imre Kertesz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and Holocaust-survivor, observed these resurgent myths of history, writing: “Who would have believed that for the peoples of Eastern Europe the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ would prove a time machine that would set off, not forward, but backward in time for them to carry on the petty games from roughly where they had left off in about 1919, at the end of the First World War?” Memory, only just set free, became an instrument of a politics that abused it to legitimize a new wave of violence and discrimination.
Since the turn of the millennium a new participant has made an increasing role for itself in the politics of memory – the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Strasbourg Parliament began its involvement with a declaration in January 1993, composed at the request of concentration camp and Holocaust survivors. In a few, sparing words the appeal – signed by all parliamentarians with the exception only of those on the extreme right – called above all on the Federal Republic of Germany to preserve the authentic sites of the National Socialist Terror.
At the same time the European politicians also declared themselves decisively opposed to any conflation, any mixing of the memory of the victims of different state crimes. The succinct and authoritative tone of this resolution displayed the parliamentarians’ reserve in the face of demands for an active ‘memory policy’.
Ten years later the same parliament cast away its previous self-restraint and launched an offensive into the realm of memory politics, which has continued without moderation to this day. The intention of numerous initiatives, all supported by large majorities in the European parliament, was nothing less than a ‘comprehensive re-evaluation of European history’, as one of the many resolutions formulated it.
The cause of this change, which converted the European parliament into a leading actor on the historical-political stage, was obviously the accession of eight states from East-Central Europe on 1 May 2004. The ‘27 January Resolution’ on Holocaust Memorial Day 2005, and the rejection of the new European constitution in national referendums at about the same time, prompted a growing desire among politicians for – as it was put, and I quote – “…a common view of (European) history, (that) recognises Nazism, Stalinism and fascist and Communist regimes as a common legacy and brings about an honest and thorough debate on their crimes in the past century” . In composing this resolution the European Parliament had clearly already forgotten that it had expressly declared itself against this kind of mixing of memory, in the 1993 resolution I have just cited.
Naturally, hardly anyone wishes to deny those – principally East-Central European – states the right to the discussion they have demanded, nor would it be possible to do so. It is also beyond question that the commemoration of the millions of victims of communist crimes – suppressed and forbidden for so long – must be integrated into the European memory. So it is not surprising that since then, on the initiative of European institutions, conference has followed conference, and resolution has followed resolution. This work towards a unified European politics of memory reached something of a climax in 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On 2 April that year the European Parliament passed a resolution, by a large majority, to make 23 August the: “Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes” .
The principle actors in the new European politics of memory knew what they were doing when they chose 23 August – the date in 1939 when the foreign ministers of the ‘Third Reich’ and the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop and Molotov, signed a secret treaty to divide Poland and other states between them. This new day of remembrance imposes the idea that state crimes in the 20th century should be reducible to one common paradigm – the contrast between totalitarian and free political systems. Once one accepts this historical master narrative, which is to be enforced by state decree, then the causes of the Holocaust and the Second World War become relativised and falsified, the state crimes of non-totalitarian states are belittled or forgotten, and dangerous ideologies that remain dangerous today – such as anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism – are played down or pass out of sight.
In the wake of these resolutions some European states have already introduced a national day of commemoration on 23 August, they called it the black ribbon day. Even Canada and the OECD have followed suit. With not inconsiderable funding at their disposal, closely stage-managed meetings between politicians and historical witnesses deepen the impression that history is being brought into line. In Brussels a museum is even being put together, under the auspices of the European Commission, to illustrate and codify this new-old European master narrative.
It is noticeable that among the leading participants in the new European historical politics are internationally and rightly celebrated dissidents of the communist dictatorships, such as the late Vaclav Havel for example, but no survivors of the National Socialist Terror or representatives of memorial sites of National Socialist crimes. This apparently intentional exclusion stands in stark contrast to the official resolution, which repeatedly professes to champion the commemoration of the victims of National Socialism. In a joint testament, formulated in 2009, all the presidents of the international concentration camp survivors’ associations strongly objected, once again, to falsifications of history of the kind we have seen in these resolutions. In an additional letter to European parliamentarians as well as the European Commission they explained their concerns. The concentration camp survivors delivered their testament and letter personally, to many presidents and other senior representatives of individual European states, and the European Commission. Yet there has been no sign of any change of heart in return. Is the intention to wait until the voices of the Holocaust survivors fall silent?
In my opinion we do not need master narratives of European history imposed by means of state decree. Have we not had enough grim experiences with our previous attempts to manipulate the politics of history? We must not allow the diversity and contradictions of European memories to be lost again, not after they have already spent so many decades under the boot of state-sponsored master narratives. What we do need, I think, all the more urgently in the light of current developments, is an agreement on the ethics and practical principles of memory and commemoration. The International Committee of Memorial Sites, established under the auspices of UNESCO, last year agreed just such a resolution on the ethics of commemoration, to which all memorial sites and historical museums can subscribe. We have a duty to continue to protect the dignity of victims from all kinds of political appropriation, and to keep history open to interpretation. But we also must try to raise a ‘cordon sanitaire’, so that history in Europe can never be exploited again as a political weapon.