Radical History Review 83 (2002) 1-5
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With the end of the Cold War and the onset of novel forms of globalization in the 1990s, it sometimes seems as if a chasm has opened up between the present and the recent past. Of course, it is a familiar lament among those of us who teach high school and college students that, as we grow older, they become "too young" to remember and share with us certain defining moments of our lived past. But it is particularly disconcerting to ponder the frequently repeated claim by politicians and commentators in the United States that the world changed completely on September 11 and the implication that what went before does not matter anymore. What many of us have taken, for better or worse, as the historical backdrop of the present—fascism and communism, colonialism and anticolonialism, the rivalry of the postwar blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union, the popular upheavals and social movements across the "three worlds," the elusive promise of the modern nation—has apparently receded into the shadows, if not vanished utterly like the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Of course, it is not such a sharp or irrevocable break; far from disappearing, the past sometimes circles around only to confront us again in the future. Indeed, some journalists, scholars, and public intellectuals have from the beginning of the current crisis called attention to its overdetermined, historically specific economic, political, and ideological nature. If we consider more generally the recent histories of European countries and their former colonies, and Russia and the other former Soviet republics, the last decade has seen numerous discoveries, commemorations, and controversies concerning events once forgotten or suppressed. The disturbing disclosures include the lengthening list of German and foreign perpetrators of and collaborators with National Socialist enslavement and extermination during the Second World War and the Holocaust; newly opened records of the fate of victims of [End Page 1] Stalinist repression; compelling testimonies about the human suffering and staggering loss of life during the partition of India; documentation setting forth some of the decisions and policies that brought about the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe); admissions of the use of torture during the French war in Algeria; confirmation of suspicions about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo; revelations of brutal violations by security forces in the countries of "liberal democracy" as well as "actually existing socialism." But what we are witnessing is not simply the return of the repressed in history. The past always exceeds what we know as its history, whether official, popular, or academic. To the degree we respond to the pressure of the past on our reductive accounts of modern and contemporary history, and come to recognize the mingling together of what we had assigned to the past and the present, the production of new and critical histories becomes possible.
Changing real and symbolic borders, the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the independence of Ukraine, the growing autonomy of Catalonia and Scotland, the possible incorporation of the Baltic states into NATO, and that of Turkey into the European Union underline the fact that "Europe" and its "nation-states" are not self-evident units of historical analysis. It is tempting, for example, to regard the division of Europe into East and West as an artificial phenomenon of the Cold War and the reemergence of Central Europe as the resumption of interrupted historical patterns of political and economic development, and thus a more natural or normal state of affairs. But what is this Central Europe, in which Turkish, Vietnamese, and other immigrants and refugees are murdered, Gypsy or Roma people are persecuted, and anti-Semitism is manifesting itself again? If we are ever to escape the binary historiographical logic that for so long has produced, on the one hand, a liberal, progressive, modern Europe and, on the other hand, a shifting array of exceptional, backward, violent Europes—Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and overseas displacements in the form of colonies like the Congo—we need to deconstruct the whole idea...