Europe and the memory of conflict: Some thoughts on history and identity

In modern Europe, there emerged a differentiation of spheres such as the economy, religion, politics, etc. but in 20th century European politics, especially ideologically-led politics tremendously expanded its reach, ideologically motivated agendas and practices have acquired unprecedented importance (remaking societies, remaking humans). This produced deeply divided historical cultures. They are primarily divided primarily between left and right, even if in many ways we now live in what is called a post-ideological world.

As you know the emergence of the terms left and right dates back to the French revolutionary parliament and the very same revolution also led to civil war. If you want to apply this to the 20th century, you may want to translate this into anti-fascist and anti-communist stances. Even though there are clearly anti-fascist on the right and anti- communists on the left, the general tendency is that the right emphasises the importance of anti-communism and the left uses anti-fascism. While I do not think that there is a great fascist or communist threat in Europe right now, anti-fascist and anti-communism still have considerable mobilization potential.

Frerenc Laszlo

We should not forget that historically speaking they are also deeply intertwined: anti-communism was an aspect of fascism and anti-fascism an aspect of communism. It is rather interesting to see that what we now consider the age of catastrophe was also the age of utopia while our age, the post-totalitarian age, connects the notion of history and trauma much more.

You may say this has to do with the democratisation of historical consciousness where not only the victors but also the victims acquire voices but it can easily lead to a grave problem: the nearly singular focus on victimhood, especially on one’s own victimhood can fuel battles of memory with group fighting for the status of victimhood.

Now to simplify the matter: European history and European memory is often a combination of positive images of history focusing on the European heritage and a dose of the traumas of the 20th century. It is both celebratory and self-critical but above all emphasises the current achievements of Europe. Important questions are by whom and for whom is the European project made? Who are its actors, what are its goals? How does European history and memory it relate to national history and memory? Is it modeled on it, is it an alternative to it, is it its partner? How are various national constituencies represented in discussions of European memory?

There has long been a bias towards the greater nations, Germany and France in particular but one of the most interesting developments is precisely the growing involvement of East Central European actors in these discussion who are increasingly able to shape European memory. The central question, of course, is what this involvement brings, what it changes? The European unification process, when it star-ted, was based on an anti-fascist reading of history and more recently, this anti-fascism was challenged by anti-communist revisions. Especially in the last decade anti-communists have achieve notable successes in canonizing their version of history and this has to do precisely with the new involvement of East Central European nations.

While they were previously largely excluded from European version of history that tended to focus on Western Europe, with the notion of totalitarianism and the simultaneous recognition of communist and fascist crimes this region is moving to the symbolic center of the continent. This is the region where the overlapping (sometimes nearly simultaneous and oscillating, sometimes subsequent presence) of the two totalitarian regimes happened. On the other hand, this new anti- communism that comes from East Central Europe also has internal political consequences, namely rather strong attempts to historically delegitimate the progressive cause.

Europe and its others. On identity, borders and histories

When trying to define the essence of a common European identity (in contrast to others), I would mention four points:

  1. For a long time the main partner of Europe was America together with which it is the Western world, but its liberal teleology or optimistic vision of history differs from the European.
  2. The main opponent of the European project as it was built was, of course, communism but especially Russia with its non-democratic view of history and sometimes even downright apologetic stance towards Stalinism.
  3. There is an important difference between the presence of the Holocaust in Israeli society and its political uses and the central position in coll- ective memory it has in Europe.
  4. There is no common sense yet whether European history should be written including the Ottoman Empire or not. It is not clear wether the genocide against the Armenians have any role in European consiousness. Thus, the role of Turkey regarding European identity remains undefined.

One could ask: Is Europe an entity that offers an alternative to America, a critique of Russia, a partnership to Israel and excludes the Ottoman experience and Turkish history? Colonialism remains a main problem for Western Europe (also as multicultural society in the post-colonial present), except that the debate on whether Soviet rule can be characterized as such. Curiously while East Central Europe was much more multicultural than Western Europe throughout its history, now it seems to be the other way round In addition, it still can be debated whether we can we talk of a history and a historical memory for such a varied space as Europe.

This text is based on a presentation which Ferenc Laszlo gave during the final conference of our How We Shape Our Past project on 31 August 2012 in Weimar.