The European Union. National History and Memory: A Change of Scale

In the last few decades a resurgence of political confrontation has been observed in Europe around the interpretation of past conflicts. A ‘memory adjustment’ between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Europe appeared necessary after the 2004 and 2007 enlargements of the European Union (EU) to include Central and Eastern European countries. Numerous mechanisms have been set up to encourage a reconciliation process within the context of post-armed conflict situations (former Yugoslavia), post-authoritarian regimes (Central and Eastern Europe) or even bilateral conflictual heritages (Germany/Czech Republic, Poland/Russia, etc.). The means by which to address these ‘wounds of the past’ are many and varied: bilateral commissions of historians and specific museum programmes are just two of the methods that aim for pacification of conflictual heritages and thereby of political and social relations in Europe.
Within this context, the increasing number of works on memory and history imposes a certain degree of conceptual precision: exactly what are we talking about? And what are the challenges underlying relations between national histories and memories? Finally, and in conclusion, we will reflect briefly on a phenomenon that is increasingly present, that of national state management of the past and of its unforeseen effects.

History and memory: a few terminology definitions

Although it is necessary to distinguish the concepts of history and memory as used in social sciences, we must avoid falling into the usual trap of an opposition between history and memory. Ever since the French historian Pierre Nora’s ‘Lieux de Mémoire’, historians have treated memory as seriously as history, in the positivist meaning of the word, some of them even believing that collective memory is part of history. A recent book, in which 25 French historians looked at French wars of memory, recalled that in 1987 Pierre Vidal Naquet invited his colleagues to ‘reflect on memory, to benefit from the transformations it brings to a representation of the past’. The editors of this book were surprised ‘how can one still have any doubt as to the fact that history influences memory and vice versa?’(P. Blanchard et I. Veyrat-Masson, Les guerres de mémoire, La Découverte, Paris, 2008, p.16).

Today all this is clear. Historians who produce accounts that obey certain pre-established rules, which are generally shared by their colleagues, know that memory conceived as a set of representations of what might have happened has affected academic accounts of what happened. Let us take the case of Poland. The renewal of research into the participation by a certain number of Poles in the extermination of the Jews in 1941 may not have become so important if Jan Tomasz Gross had not unearthed witness memories of 1945–6, given at the trial of the torturers of Jedwabne, producing a shock that went well beyond the Polish intelligentsia. Above all, it triggered a wave of research into the pogroms when the Soviets withdrew from eastern Poland.

A telescoping was then observed between a glorious national history and the effect of the memory accounts of a few survivors, amplified by a book criticized for the liberties taken by its author with academic rules. The same goes for Ukraine and Russia: new research into the Holocaust has been stimulated by the rediscovery of the roles of the ‘bystander’ witnesses, present either passively or actively while mass crimes were committed, through memory accounts of the Holocaust such as those collected by the French Roman Catholic priest Father Desbois. But are these ‘bystander’ testimonies history or the representation of what happened?

After the fall of communism, demands by neighbouring countries were made that referred back to events that happened before the communist era. Between Russia and Poland, it was initially claims based on memories without any academic status (Katyń massacre and Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact) that resulted in the formation of a commission for difficult questions along the lines of similar German–Polish, German–French, German–Israeli and Polish–Ukrainian commissions. All of them are made up of specialists who endeavour to place historical accounts side by side in accordance with academic rules and standards.

The relationship between national history and memory can lead to confusion: what are we interested in here? Is it (national) history based on memory? When speaking of memory, its many manifestations must be distinguished: individual memory, social group memory, collective memory within the meaning of a group’s social link and local memory or central (national) memory.

There is every kind of memory: the memory of the vanquished and the victors, joyful, festive memories, painful memories, the memory of the dominators and the dominated. One should add that memory accounts are different within the same population according to whether they have been transmitted through social channels such as the media or school and have become institutionalized, or whether they remain in the private sphere with content that is often opposed to the social framework imposed from on high. These top-down and bottom-up movements are characteristic of democratic systems and are not found in authoritarian political systems. In Soviet-type systems, where a ‘parallel economy’ flourished, the Hungarian sociologist Elemér Hankiss has spoken of a ‘parallel society’, a kind of island of free civil society within the authoritarian Soviet environment.

It is no exaggeration to say that there was also a sort of ‘parallel memory’ containing historical representations that were forbidden by the authorities. In this regard the so-called ‘white pages’ of Sovietized national history were invented. Filling in the white pages (that is, those that were censored by the authorities) was the objective of an initiative by Polish intellectuals who created what was known as the Flying University to teach ‘real history’. But there were no white pages in the memory or in individual memories. The communist authorities could not control memory. The same is true in terms of the question of multiple memories of World War II.

An example has recently come to light in Poland. Does the Kashubian ethnic minority from north Poland, the home region of the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, have the same memory of the Wehrmacht as the patriotic Polish intelligentsia that was sorely tried by the Nazi occupation? Remember that men from this ethnic group were forcibly enlisted and sometimes were not paid, as a group of non-Slav origin. Jacek Kurski, one of the best-known figures in the Kaczynski brothers’ Law and Justice Party (PiS), instrumentalized this difference during the 2005 presidential election campaign in Poland. It was not the memory of violence committed by the Germans against the rebellious Kashubians that was highlighted in the selected version of national history, but rather the heroics of the Polish resistance that live on in the memory. The title of this text may suggest another perspective, namely how memory alters the course of national history, which is made up of sudden events and social demands. The victims of communism, groups with a certain memory, would like to find in the archives of the national memory institutes that have been established in all post-communist countries proven historical facts, such as the names of agents and collaborators. They ask historians to do this work.

And to take just one example from another dictatorship, Spanish Republicans would like to legitimize and officialize by means of tangible proof, the memories confined to the private sphere by the agreements of the Moncloa Pact (1978), expressed by the idea of ‘amnesia and amnesty’. Here the official national history, incomplete because it has been imposed by the victor, is added to and completed by bearers of a memory that has been forced to remain concealed. This memory, like all the other academic accounts, can be used in various ways.

More and more the users of both history and memory are institutional state players. Increasingly, the challenges raised by memory are exported into the international arena in order to maximize internal benefits. States’ foreign policy can evolve, in interaction with other states or with transnational institutions, by confronting memory or in the direction of a reconciliation process. We will return to this aspect later.

National history as a challenge to memory

Two functions are clear in the relationship between certain memories and national history. These are the search for identity references and the phenomenon of historical legitimization.

A nation state, like any other united social group, will tend to claim a distinct shared past, going back as far as possible. Memory is then used as a reservoir to back up the work done by historians. The history of ancient writings in the Czech language, some of which were invented, illustrates the process in caricature, a process that was efficient in the past in mobilizing the Czechs against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

‘The past makes the present sacred for a group or nation,’ as Barbara Szacka would say (Szacka, Czas przeszły, pamięć, mit, Warsaw, 2006, p.48). Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm demonstrated the identificatory and legitimizing functions of ‘the invention of tradition’, particularly for nation states in the 19th century (T. Ranger et E. Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983). Places of memory, which reinforce memories of the past, as Pierre Nora in particular understands it, can consolidate national history.

A French person out for a Sunday stroll in Compiègne forest will think about the railway carriage where two armistices were signed, thereby remaking the identity link between memory and history, between glory and humiliation, between 1918 and 1940.

It was indeed back in the 1970s that the questionings and uncertainties of the French people began, which suggested to Pierre Nora the concept of ‘places of memory’, along with the idea of analysing and listing them. Post-1968 concerns would be addressed: the first oil crisis, the international situation with the war in Vietnam spiralling out of control and the intervention of Warsaw Pact troops in Prague, the generational changeover after the Glorious Thirty (1945–75), a period of rapid economic growth. Some historians, political scientists and sociologists believe that a historicizing wave on a scale never seen before submerged the old Western societies, and slightly later began to affect the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Some circumstances accelerate recourse to history or/and its representations in the memory in inter-state or inter-ethnic games. One of these circumstances, demanding that we change the analysis paradigm for the memory questions that have prevailed for three decades, is the crumbling of ideological-military frontiers between 1989 and 1991, at the same time as symbolic virtual frontiers, due to media globalization. We can no longer be content to study the relationship between memory and history within the national framework alone. The internationalization of historicizing games is being observed thanks to the multiplication of international arenas in which supranational public standards and policies circulate freely. They interact with what is happening within a strictly national framework.

It is quite normal to question the memory ‘contamination’ aspect of various states seeking routes to reconciliation represented by truth and reconciliation commissions or bilateral historian commissions. It is striking to observe that these reconciliation mechanisms are based as much on players and their memory (victims and torturers alike) as on the sources and works of historians. Thus, the national history of apartheid was extensively modified by the oral history obtained during confrontations between torturers and victims, set up by the Truth and Reconciliation commission. But information can also be selected in order to meet objectives of antagonism and confrontation. The institutes of national memory are interactive not only in terms of their function as guardians of the archives, but also in terms of stigmatization being used as ammunition against political adversaries. Some criminal states also have to take into account the right to encroach on memory and examine it for legal purposes by the international tribunals dedicated to universal rights. They anticipate that these tribunals will conduct legal investigations, and remove all trace of their crimes while they can.

The effect of all these mechanisms is to produce either legitimacy or delegitimization, in other words, to say what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for a nation within the international context.

Both the break-up of the Soviet bloc and the wait for integration into the European Union have also aroused new memory challenges. The return to Europe has often been presented as reparation after abandonment, symbolized somewhat unjustly by the Yalta Conference by the Western powers (an example of memory stereotypes), and as an opportunity to remind them of their historical responsibility. But this new aspect of normative European policy, which sets out conditions for accession or even belonging according to a certain number of criteria, has opened up more widely the route for a range of claims made by numerous stakeholders. These stakeholders reactivate painful periods of the past, certainly in the context of national confrontations but also on the initiative of groups with painful memories, and intervene in international arenas in order to put pressure on other states. This normative conditionality thus stimulated the movements of populations evicted between 1945–8 in the name of respect for the rights of minority groups. One thinks here of the German populations evicted from the Sudetes and Upper Silesia, or of the Poles forced to leave Kresy (Poland’s eastern borderlands, annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II). It is certain that 1989 caused a destabilization of memory reference points and, in many ways, of collective identities. This is probably one of the explanations of the return to a heroic national history, with intensified nationalistic overtones. One thinks, for example, of references to a legendary memory of pre-Christianity Hungary, of the ‘Garden of Hungary’ used by the Hungarian far-right politician Istvan Czurka who, not without success, and in view of the prospect of Hungary’s membership of the EU, took the liberty of reinterpreting his country’s history. He hoped to revive in the memories of his fellow citizens a claim for the identity of Great Hungary, ruined by the Treaty of Trianon. Other far-right leaders from the region attempted to perform the same recycling operation with the ancient symbols of a mythical national history, hoping to reconnect with a memory that idealized and embellished the past. The far right in Eastern Europe, and particularly the Hungarians, have therefore made a great play of the myth of being the final frontier against unbelievers, and therefore of not needing to take any lessons on Europeanness from the EU. This position has increased Euroscepticism among the fraction of the population that is receptive to this kind of rhetoric. But let us not forget how the German far left also played on memory, creating a sense of Ostalgie (ostalgia, meaning nostalgia for aspects of communist East Germany), to improve history’s account of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

To conclude we will add a few thoughts on the relationship between the state, memory and history. In France we tend to think that controversies regarding the growing recourse to legal intervention, in terms of painful pasts and the monopolization by legislative and executive authorities of conflicts of memory in order to regulate their use by law, is a purely French problem. Maybe this is because it is only in France that historians have organized themselves into a powerful association that is there to defend their freedom to work as historians or to oversee political use of history and memory. In reality this is a worldwide phenomenon, omnipresent in the lives of different societies. Everywhere, governments are giving in to the temptation of ‘using the dead to govern the living’. The Polish authorities have even reactivated the concept of history-based politics (polityka historyczna) in order to justify state interventionism in interpreting historical facts. Like other governments, they are exporting their version of national history to international arenas in order to win a double trophy: appearing patriotic at home and consolidating the country’s geopolitical status abroad. Recently this game has resulted in dangerous controversies regarding the interpretation of responsibilities in the triggering of World War II which does not augur well for relations between the Poles and the Russians. All of this certainly calls into question the autonomy of history as a discipline, especially when judges, policemen, parliamentarians, journalists and diplomats all see themselves as experts on the subject.

Conversely, in some countries it is the historians themselves who are cutting off the branch they are sitting on, by exceeding their prerogatives. They are using their academic legitimacy for political ends only. This is the case with several historians in post-communist countries, who have been organizing leaks from police archives in order to compromise their political adversaries in the name of a supposed justice of the transitional period. It is probably not possible to put a stop to this trend of historicizing politics.

Still, it is crucial that there are people committed to guarding against the abuse of history for political ends. Those in power do not necessarily obey academic rules, but rather the criterion of political profitability. The more a historical reference pays politically, the more often it is used by politicians. Within this context memory laws, made in the name of the protection of the historical ‘truth’ or the repair of past injustices, end up being counterproductive: they threaten the freedom of historians but, above all, they become a political weapon in the name of a certain monopoly of interpretation. They create still more problems, opening up a wide road for the instrumentalization of historical facts and their representations in the memory, which they cannot resolve. Yet the question still remains: what can be done to prevent negationism (denialism) and the purging of a criminal past – two phenomena that demand some form of regulation – while, at the same time, avoiding having the dead govern the living?

Georges Mink

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