Can Europe Make It?

Struggle, dissent and debate: politics and memory in Europe

Especially in some European countries, dealing with the dark sides of one’s history has become a significant topos. Without such a change in cultures of commemoration of the different European countries, a European Union would have been impossible.

Christian Volk
29 July 2014

This article is part of a series we are publishing this summer from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field. Here we look at the possibilities opened up in Europe by the demise of the 'common faith'.


Judith Butler receiving the Theodor W. Adorno Prize donated by the city of Frankfurt, 2012. Wikipedia/DontWorry. Public domain.In the last fifteen years, the links between politics and memory have pressed forward in public attention. In this context, the trials of Ratko Mladic at The Hague and of Nuon Chea, one of the former heads of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, were among the most spectacular recent events.

As we can see with Mladic or Chea, the question of how to deal with former violence often arises after regime change, after genocides, wars and civil wars. Answers range from international criminal prosecutions, to the instituting of ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’, to a public culture of commemoration, which remind us about the wrongs which were committed. At first glance, therefore, it seems that remembrance in political communities is directly related to violent phenomena.

However, historically speaking, such interplay between politics, law, and the commemoration of wartime atrocities is a relatively recent phenomenon (not to mention the fact that an international court sits in judgment on a person extradited to The Hague by his own government, for which he fought during a war).

I argue that the fact that political atrocities and injustices are remembered and commemorated at all, as well as the way they are remembered and the way to commemorate them depend first and foremost on the prevalent notion and understanding of ‘the Political’. In other words: it depends on how politics is conceived and understood in the respective historical era.

Political-historical trajectories

Now, the fact that memory, remembrance and politics are related to each other can be illustrated with reference to the seventeenth century. The seventeenth century was the century of classical political rationalism: of Thomas Hobbes. Politics was reduced to a reason of state; and ‘the Political’ was perceived in Hobbesian terms as a rational power chess-game between powerful rulers and kings, and their group of advisors.

Public political practices of commemoration or of mourning were thought to jeopardise the ideal of rational-strategic political behaviour – since they could trigger irrational and uncontrollable collective emotions of the masses.

In short: there was no place for collective public practices of remembrance and commemoration in the seventeenth century. For example, the Treaty of Westphalia, which finally ended the punishing Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), implored all parties to the Treaty to exercise, "perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these Troubles."

In contrast, almost 270 years later, the ‘War Guilt Clause’ in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, assigned Germany full responsibility for causing all loss and damage. The commemoration of the First World War in general and the question of ‘war guilt’ in particular turned out to be one of the crucial political issues in Europe during the period between the Wars. During that time, oblivion and amnesty were totally out of the question.

But how can we explain this shift? With the French Revolution, the Hobbesian understanding of politics was replaced by Rousseau’s volonté générale – and this gave rise to a political worldview in general and a conception of ‘the Political’ in particular based on the idea of popular sovereignty. From now on, the prevalent question was how to form a homogenous unity with a homogenous general political will out of a multitude (of people), being able to replace the king and to take his place.

For such an endeavour, a nationalistic-monumental conception of the past is of paramount importance. What is meant by a nationalistic-monumental conception of the past? Friedrich Nietzsche, who can teach us a lot about memory, argues that the monumental attitude to the past is favoured by the "man of deeds and power, to him who fights a great fight, who needs models, teachers, comforters and cannot find them among his contemporaries".

With reference to Nietzsche, we could say that the purpose of a nationalistic-monumental culture of commemoration is to produce certainty in uncertain times; is to present history as a big struggle which teaches us and provides us with role models, and which proclaims the conviction that the greatness and heroism which once existed, will possibly exist once again.

Applied to our problem of unity, this means that remembrance and commemoration should recall the achievements and heroic deeds of ‘the nation’; remembrance and commemoration should form the nation and tell stories about common achievements in the past. Such a nationalistic-monumental policy of remembrance should establish a Gemeinsamkeitsglauben ('common faith') as Max Weber calls it, which gives rise to political unity and a general will. And it is established through monuments, history lessons, memorial days, lyrics, songs and so on which should highlight former heroism and the willingness to make sacrifices.

Memory and politics in the formation of Europe

In the last twenty-five years there has been another significant change in the way political communities – particularly in Europe – deal with their past. A ‘national’ policy of remembrance which highlights the heroic deeds of its members, commemorates its own victims and crimes inflicted by other entities, and forgets about crimes committed in the name of one’s own community – such a ‘national’ policy of remembrance seems to be replaced by a critical and self-reflective policy of remembrance and culture of commemoration. Especially in some European countries, dealing with the dark sides of one’s history has become a significant topos.

Without such a change in cultures of commemoration of the different European countries, a European Union would have been impossible.

Insofar as this critical and self-reflective approach towards the past deconstructs emotionally charged images, symbols, narratives and other patterns of national self-description, we can talk about practices of a post-national memory, a post-national policy of remembrance and cultural commemoration in many European countries. The affirmative reference to the national past is challenged and called into question.

For instance, after a long period of amnesty and amnesia Spain has started coming to terms with the trauma of the Franco Regime. France has broken with the illusion that every French-man was a member of the Résistance and engaged with the fact of the Vichy regime as well as with the role French élites played during the Algerian war.

In Germany, it took more than twenty years after the Second World War, many different struggles and external interventions and, of course, the protests of the student movement of the sixties for the nation to confront the Nazi period and the Shoah – although the student movement was only indirectly concerned with the problem of coming to terms with Germany’s National Socialist past.

In the meantime, the so-called Historikerstreit, the Historians’ Dispute about the singularity of the Shoah and the possibility of comparing the Nazi terror with the Stalinist terror at the end of 1980s; the public debates about building a ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ – the debate started in the early 1990s – and the building itself, finished in December 2004 in the middle of Berlin – all of this creates the symbols of Germany’s post-national memory.

Such a shift in the policy of remembrance and culture of commemoration does not happen accidentally. It is based on the precondition that memory and commemoration cannot be dictated by a central power for the sake of unity and compliance. Rather, there are a great number of different domestic and external actors today who are involved in the political debates about the policy of remembrance and commemoration, and who come up with opposing narratives.

It is not for nothing that ‘memory research’ highlights generation change, migration, the breakdown of political systems, important criminal trials etc. as the main reasons for change and shifts within the collective cultural memory of a political community. Such events, incidents or developments raise the number of conflicting voices in public debates about politics and memory and, in doing so, challenge or even change the hierarchical structure and composition of this policy area.

The fact of plurality

A post-national culture of commemoration corresponds with a notion of ‘the Political’ which dismisses the unifying approach towards politics but rather corresponds with a notion of the political for which unity and homogeneity are no longer the purpose of politics.

Rather, a post-national culture of commemoration corresponds with a notion of the political which takes the ‘fact of plurality’, as Hannah Arendt calls it, seriously.

The sovereign nation as Union Sacrée (Sacred Union) is no longer the political reference for justification; a pluralistic global public sphere, or better: pluralistic global public spheres have become the new reference of justification.

In many parts of the world, criminal prosecution and jurisdiction in cases of wartime or civil wartime atrocities have become the business of international institutions and are no longer at the disposal of nations; in these countries the state is no longer in a position to dictate the commemorative narrative but has to engage in a debate with domestic and international civil society actors and supranational institutions (in Serbia for example with the EU).

Europe and the problems of a post-national memory

So, is everything perfect today? Well, unfortunately not. The political problems resulting from a nationalistic culture of commemoration, which glorifies the national achievements and victims, are obvious. However, a post-national conception of memory is not per se free from all kinds of odd idealisations and is not per se resistant to curious distortions. This becomes obvious when we take a close look at Germany.

Germany, with respect to its dealing with the past, is considered to be a role model. However, one could assume that its reflectivity is ossified, i.e. that its critical and self-reflective approach is kind of deadlocked. The consequence is that the German history of coming to terms with its past has become a fetish itself for the Germans which leads to gestures of self-homage and missionary self-assurance: "We dealt with our past, we came to terms with our past in an exemplary manner! Nobody should reproach us any more! Put your own house in order first!"

Such a self-assured posture, a new kind of German self-confidence, causes some serious difficulties: one difficulty is the silencing and moralising exclusion of alleged politically incorrect viewpoints, especially where the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned in particular, or Israel in general.

Let me give you an example: when Judith Butler received the Theodor W. Adorno Prize, donated by the city of Frankfurt, a bitter conflict broke out. This dispute was about whether or not it is permissible to award a person who – Jewish herself – harshly criticises Israel for its policy towards Palestine and who supports the Boycott Israel Campaign. Those who criticised the jury’s selection charged Butler and her supporters with anti-Semitism.

To be charged with anti-Semitism in public debates in Germany – justifiably or not – does not only bring an end to debate but also fundamentally questions the moral integrity of the respective person and his/her permission to speak publicly.

In return, however, the tendency to moralising exclusion within public-political debates triggers a situation in which those who are accused of political incorrectness – whether they be right-wing or left-wing – stylise themselves as brave taboo-busters: "There is no law saying this and that".

The consequence of such moralisation is not only that justifiable objections, proposals or critique from the other side are being ignored but also a decrease in a culture of political conflict and the power of political judgment.

Additionally, Germany’s commemorative approach displays unwillingness to engage with the counter-narratives of eastern European states like Poland or the Baltic states which do not regard the Second World War as a war of liberation, particularly because of the Soviet occupation which from their perspective was the outcome.

After the break up of the Soviet Union several countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states etc. have sought to establish the remembrances of the crimes of the Soviet Union as one pillar of their new national self-understanding and to use them to build up their national identity.

Without going into details here, the nationalisation of remembrance of the terror of the Soviet occupation, especially that of the Gulags, tends to establish a cultural memory of universal victimhood, ignoring the dark sides of the nation’s history, i.e. the collaboration with Stalin’s Russia as well as with the Nazi regime, but especially the long tradition of anti-Semitism in these countries.

In combination with the above outlined opposed narratives, this political-commemorative setting seems to be conflict-laden, as we see for example with Orban in Hungary today.

However, this specific kind of duality – on the one hand advocating a free, open, critical and self-reflective debate on memory and on the other hand this kind of ossified reflectivity – is in line with the tendency in many European countries to determine the content of commemoration and remembrance in legal terms by so-called ‘memory laws’.

The paramount example in this sense is France. It is established by law, for example, that all those men and women who worked in the French Départements in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia should be thanked. Also, at a certain point, France legally fixed a positive role and function for French colonialism – even though this has since been withdrawn.

Furthermore, it has been established by law that slavery is to be considered a crime against humanity with retrospective effect from the fifteenth century. One last example: to argue that the Armenian genocide should be given a different label although genocide is an offence punishable by law.

In this respect, in December 2013, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment (in the case of Perınçek v. Switzerland), in which it held that a criminal conviction for denial of the Armenian genocide violates the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Whatever the case may be with the Armenian genocide, because of the increase of memory laws in Europe, the association Liberté pour l’Histoire (‘Freedom for History’) was founded in 2005, under the chairmanship of René Rémond, following an appeal signed by one thousand historians who criticise these new memory laws. Their intention is to remind the world that ‘history is neither a religion nor a moral doctrine; that historical research should not be a slave to current affairs, nor dictated by memory.’

Of course, there are cases where I sympathise with criminal prosecution, for example in cases of Holocaust denial. However, we need to be clear about the fact that such an approach is – at least in structural terms – very close to sovereign instrumentalisation of commemoration and remembrance; we need to be clear that such an approach can obstruct historical research and prevent necessary political debates from taking place.

Such debates, however, are necessary because a critical and reflective culture of commemoration and remembrance can only flourish when freedom of expression and opinion is given; it can only be experienced through struggle, dissent and debate. Or, in other words: in comparison to a nationalistic-monumental culture of commemoration, the opportunity to dissent marks the difference of a political way of life based on a critical and self-reflective culture of commemoration.


Further reading

König, Helmut, Politik und Gedächtnis (Velbrück, Weilerswist 2008) and Die Zukunft der Vergangenheit. Der Nationalsozialismus im politischen Bewußtsein der Bundesrepublik (Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 2003)

This article was first published on Eutopia on July 18, 2014.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData