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Highlights - ‘Commemorations in perspective: how do European memories interact?’

By Blandine Smilansky, House of European History learning team

The legacy of certain events and phenomena played a great role in uniting or dividing Europeans through time, as sections of the House of European History exhibition such as Memory of the Shoah or Shared and divided European memory show. In our museum indeed, and perhaps only here, memory is exhibited as being in itself a component of European history, as Simina Badica, one of the speakers and a curator at the House of European History, explained during the discussion. Organising a scholarly discussion on historical memory was therefore particularly relevant for the museum. Simina Badica, Ruramisai Charumbira and Michael Rothberg specialise in significant historical memories at a European level – communism and Stalinism, colonialism and slavery, and the Holocaust. Their in-depth and nuanced discussion facilitated by Markus J. Prutsch provided a positive answer to the question brought forward by Constanze Itzel, House of European History Director, in her introduction: ‘Can we conceive Europe as a reflective space in which we discuss the multidirectional impacts of memories upon each other?’

Below are extracts from the debate. You can watch the full event online here.

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Are slavery and colonialism underrepresented parts of Europe’s historical memory today? Is the neglect of colonialism perhaps expression of more fundamental underlying issues, such as a latent racism and sense of superiority in Western nations?

Ruramisai Charumbira started her remarks with a tribute to indigenous peoples all over the world ‘whose lives were lost and squandered to make possible the idea of a modern world and in particular of a modern Europe.’ She highlighted how we need to remember the dead when we are having the kind of conversations covered in this debate. She raised in the debate a very compelling perspective on European history and memory from an African and global history scholar’s point of view, and analysed the difficult conversation on colonial memory in Europe. According to Ruramisai Charumbira, ‘Europe (...) tends to play the innocence card’ as far as slavery and colonialism are concerned. There is a sense of relativism about what happened outside of Europe. ‘It is happening someplace else, what comes back is the chocolate and the coffee’, as she put it strikingly. Contrary to the Holocaust for instance, that scared European territories with death camps and mass graves, the ‘crime scenes’ of slavery and colonialism are not right here. The fact that history of oppression is not even documented by those to whom it happened adds to that tendency to relativise the responsibility of Europeans and European countries. Social and cultural history globally have strived to change for a while already, but for a long time writing African history, and indigenous history worldwide, relied exclusively on the records of the coloniser.

This phenomenon is all the more unacceptable given that the colonial violence perpetrated outside of Europe defined and keeps defining the inside of Europe. Europe was constructed through its relations with non-European territories, and slavery and colonialism played a big part in how Europe came to define itself, based on exclusion and exclusivity. Colonialism is a foundational stone to what it is to be European, and for Ruramisai Charumbira there is an in-built idea of European white supremacy, and consequently an inherited amnesia that is spread over time, that in many ways defines us all. What the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement shows today, is that this European idea that the African as an inferior human being has durably pervaded Western mentalities: that even today, somebody has to say that ‘a black life matters’ is a direct reference to the negation of black people as human beings.

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For at least the last two decades, the Holocaust and Communism have represented the two dominant memory frameworks of Western and Eastern Europe respectively. Should the Holocaust still be considered as the single most important historical reference point in Western Europe? How has the communist past been remembered and interpreted in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain? And in how far are those memories in a competition with each other?

According to Michael Rothberg, a scholar of Holocaust studies who coined the concept of ‘multidimensional memory’, there is no doubt that the Holocaust remains central for the European public, especially as far as institutionalised memory is concerned, but also if one looks at school curricula and popular history. This centrality remains true even when it is contested, for instance when other memories seek acknowledgement. However, that centrality is uneven – there are differences between the public and the private spheres, like studies in the German context show; there is unevenness across national and regional contexts; and finally, the meanings of this memory are complex and complicated. “We have to realise that (the) history of Holocaust memory has never been linear” said Michael Rothberg. And that is true also of other memories, if you think of the increased attention the memory of slavery and colonialism gets nowadays, or the fate of the memory of communism and Stalinism in Europe.

Simina Badica, whose research work addresses the memory and memorialisation of communism, explained the changing status of that memory at the beginning of the discussion. In the early 1990s, the communist past was something that needed to be forgotten, buried under the enthusiasm for democracy and celebration of the free market. With the process of European integration came the confrontation of East European societies and historians with the great overarching memory of the Holocaust, that became some sort of a model, almost a template for memorialisation practices. The official condemnation of Holocaust in Eastern Europe was quickly followed by that of communism and Stalinism. While the memory of the Holocaust emerged mainly as a Western Europe phenomenon, the Holocaust itself is firstly an Eastern Europe tragedy, reminded Simina Badica. However, that memory remains secondary to that of communism in this part of Europe. According to her, if there has been a competition between the memory of Holocaust and the memory of Stalinism, it is now ‘nearing its end’.  With time, the potential for such a conflicting relationship diminished as the first stages of recognition and acknowledgement of Central and Eastern Europe’s past under communist rule are over. Nazism and communism affected Central and Eastern Europe one after each other, creating actually a continuity in terms of historical experience and perception, and a great complexity in terms of roles and responsibilities in those European societies - people being in turn victims and perpetrators, and vice-versa. That played an essential part in the making of memory narratives afterwards.

To people afraid that the Holocaust will lose out its centrality if more memories come into play, or those afraid that the centrality of Holocaust memory has blocked the way for the memories of Stalinism or colonialism, it is important to remind, said Michael Rothberg, that this is not how it works. It is rather that, because the Holocaust became central, that we started to talk about some of these other memories as well, not necessarily in adequate ways, but at least a process has begun. Decentering the Holocaust does not mean to relativise it: rather, bringing other histories to the front alongside that of the Holocaust can help us conceive ‘even more complicated versions of human rights’. New memory work should go beyond the paradigm of victims and perpetrators, factoring in the people in-between, whom Michael Rothberg calls ‘implicated subjects’. All speakers expressed from their own perspective the idea that making multiple memories interact is the right way to go – their interventions amounted to a plea for what Michael Rothberg called ‘a more complicated cultural memory sphere’, one that has multiple centers, intersections and entanglements.

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What are those entanglements, and to which degree are histories and memories of totalitarianism and colonialism intertwined?

Ruramisai Charumbira and Michael Rothberg explained how the memory processes related to the history of the Holocaust and of colonialism have more to do with each other than one may assume. Michael Rothberg mentioned an archive of works by, among others, Jewish and black intellectuals trying to understand the Nazi genocide precisely in relationship to the history of colonialism and slavery. The ‘boomerang effect’ - how violence perpetrated outside of Europe in the colonies had returned to Europe in the form of Nazi violence - was theorised by people such as Hannah Arendt and Aimee Césaire. As Rothberg reminded, the emergence of a memorialisation process on the Holocaust in Europe dates back to the early 1960s (with the Eichmann trial in 1961 as a milestone) - that corresponds to a period of decolonisation wars and processes. These two things happening at the same time certainly had something to do with each other. In France, memories of the Holocaust emerged among pro-Algerian activists during the Algerian war of independence. In South Africa, the antiapartheid movement was largely an African (Black) people's movement, and the few white people who joined that movement were mainly Jewish people (most famously the deeply committed political couple Ruth First and Joe Slovo of the Communist Party aligned with the ANC). In a sense, as Ruramisai Charumbira put it, as populations that have been treated as inferior in European history because of their race and skin colour, Jewish people and black people both ‘interrupt whiteness’ understood as a sense of European superiority. 

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What other memories can we acknowledge as integral parts of a European remembrance culture?

Several interventions, notably from the audience, contributed to giving concrete substance to this idea of decentering and complicating memory discourses. When asked about the reason for a specific word for the genocide of Jews, Michael Rothberg stressed that, while it is fair to have a singular word for the genocide of Jews, the histories of other victims of Nazism certainly deserve more attention, without competition. Roma people are among them – the memory of their history lacks acknowledgment not only in the context of Nazism, but also as part of the history of slavery within Europe. Roma have been an enslaved people for 500 years in Eastern Europe, reminded Simina Badica: this is absolutely not remembered, and racism against this people is still a widespread reality in Europe at large. A person from the audience also brought up the memory of World War One as an element of European memory that is less visible but no less significant and also multi-layered. In Eastern Europe its end corresponds to the independence of many nation states, while for colonial history and in particular pan-Africanism it also plays a role. The centenary of WWI contributed to bring those memories more to the front, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the amnesia of the Spanish flu, a forgotten episode also linked to WWI, that at least in academia will now receive more attention because of recent events.

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What can we take home from such a rich and multi-faceted debate? And how does it inform our attitudes towards how our societies deal with the past?

To understand how cultural memory works and contributes to shape public discourses and mentalities, it is necessary, and rather exciting, to observe the role of grass-roots activism – people taking to the streets to reclaim their dignity in relation to their past, as we see in particular today with colonial memories. We should not only observe, but also participate in this type of activism – creating new memories, engaging with them, nuancing and complexifying them. Such agency is what keeps memory alive, and how history is made – not academic history, but history on the ground: the two are not as far apart as we may think.