- A European Memory? Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance eds. by Malgorzata Pakier and Bo Strath
“Oublier … jamais!” These two resonant words splashed in red letters across a large wall greet visitors to the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux, France, which opened on 11 November 2011 (11–11–11). “Forget … never!” Never forget what, exactly? That museum, located near the Marne battle sites, in an area where rows of poppies line the wheat fields, constructs a narrative for 1870–1918 that culminates in a war between France, Germany, and Great Britain, with the United States playing a heroic salvational role. Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, much less any smaller belligerent countries, are hardly in evidence. The emphasis is on shared responsibility and shared suffering with a German enemy, which in this war was not all that bad. Memory politics will be with us for a long time to come.
A European Memory? is based on a seminar series on history and memory held at the European University Institute in Florence in 2007, that is, before the economic crisis of the following year. This timing helps explain a heightened sense of rarified decontextualization evident in many of the 22 short essays in this rich volume. More than one-third of the book, Part I, takes on large normative and theoretical questions. In Part II, “Remembering Europe’s Dark Pasts,” thirteen essays address the remembrance of four themes: World War II; the Holocaust; Europe’s Communist past; and the “dark continent’s” (Mark Mazower’s term) colonial past, which, disappointingly, includes just two chapters.
Editors Malgorzata Pakier and Bo Strath and the score of contributing scholars deserve commendation for a collection of ambitious essays, many of which represent bold attempts at explaining and synthesizing complex concepts and processes. The collective (collected) attempts to delineate the contours of a pan-European memory culture proved impossible. So the task turned, rather, to “the construction of European collective memories in the plural, which strive for a growing understanding of diversity” (p. 13).
The book’s three most striking conclusions are: the centrality of the Holocaust memory to European cultural consciousness; a seemingly unbridgeable divide between western and eastern Europe over the question of horror-scale-balance between Nazi-dominated and Communist pasts; and the crucial importance of Vergangenheitsbewältigungswille (the will to face down the dark aspects of one’s past) as a gold standard [End Page 213] of European mnemopolitical behavior, a “barometer for the liberal-democratic quality of a political culture,” (p. 26) as Jan-Werner Müller puts it, in a strong opening essay. More specifically, asserts Cecilie Banke in an essay on Holocaust memory, “to be a member of the European club, a country has to confront and acknowledge its own Holocaust record” (p. 173). But that imperative is less legal than moral. In 2007, the European Union endorsed legislation that criminalized Holocaust denial but allowed member countries to refrain from enforcing it if they had no such law of their own.
Although the long theoretical first part of the volume contains numerous reimaginings of how Europeans have made sense of their mid-twentieth-century past, the second cluster of essays on actual themes have a longer half-life. As one nears the end of the book, those seven (eight, if one counts the introduction) opening chapters have somewhat blurred into one another. However, one statement about the Dutch, who have long enjoyed an image as virulent resisters under occupation, is apt to lodge more firmly in the reader’s mind: that their active popular participation in handing over Jews to the Nazis resulted in the death of 75 percent of Holland’s Jewish population, as opposed to 25 percent of French Jews and 40 percent of Belgian Jews (p. 128).
The construction and partial dismantling of the memory of Italy’s humanity toward its Jews receives a fine treatment in Ruth Natterman’s essay, which ends with a preview of a Museo della Shoah that originally was supposed...