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Debate on “Europe's Postwar Periods”

by Blandine Smilansky, House of European History Learning Department

On 11 February 2019, the House of European History invited Martin Conway, Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford, Kiran Klaus Patel, Professor of European and Global History at Maastricht University, Andrea Pető, Professor of Gender Studies at the Central European University, and Henry Rousso, Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, for a panel debate entitled “1989 in Perspective” and moderated by Constanze Itzel, Director of the House of European History.

The recently published book Europe's Postwar Periods, 1989, 1945, 1918  (Martin Conway and Henri Rousso are co-editors together with Pieter Lagrou from Université Libre de Bruxelles) provided the substance for a rich and stimulating discussion on history writing, the role of the historian and the European dimension in history, based on a reflection on the events of 1989-1991 and their significance for Europe.

Although the discussion involved scholars mainly preoccupied with the study of the past, the debate dealt very much with present times. Speakers showed brilliantly how history, as a way to investigate and understand the world we live in, exists in this constant interaction between the past and the present.

Key dates in history: what’s the relevance?

Defining certain years or even days as turning points in history is a rather common practice, as numerous books can testify. It is quite popular among publishers, journalists and the wider public; it can even be seen as a kind of fashion or hype, especially nowadays in the context of ‘memory inflation’. It is almost like as a history author one has to find and pin-point this key moment he or she can then write about. And indeed, as Patel stressed, “It will depend on the questions we ask which turning point we will see”, which opens up a lot of possibilities. Through a process of ‘appropriation’ described by Pető, the actors of what can be called the ‘politics of memory’ reinvest new content in certain dates, giving them a meaning that serves their ideological and political agenda.

What the authors of Europe’s Postwar Periods have tried to do is definitely different, working with the concept of ‘period’ rather than ‘moment’ and comparing three different ones. They focused on post-war periods (or so-called ‘sorties de guerre’ in French) and not on war times, allowing for a more flexible frame to interpret events and processes, as Rousso explained: “When you work on a war period you have a rather strict chronology, when you work on a post-war period you know where you start [but] not exactly where you end.” Post-war periods – something other historians, like Tony Judt, studied before already, but in his case focusing on 1945 only – then become more than turning points: a postwar period is a time when new things are set up which create the conditions for a new epoch in history.

1989, the beginning of a new era?

If the Cold War was indeed a war, no matter how different a war it was compared to the First and the Second World Wars, and if the years 1989-1991 mark the end of the Cold War, why not look at the post-1989 period as a post-war period? Rousso explained how interesting this exercise proved to be, for instance when the historian John Horne, one of the authors of the book, applies the concept of ‘demobilisation of the minds’, which he originally created to describe the post-WWI mentalities, to the post-1989 period.

Conway insisted on how looking at the post-1989 years as a postwar period helps give them their real significance. 1989 was certainly not ‘the end of history’ as some argued at the beginning of the 1990s, it was not something that happened out there in Central and Eastern Europe as people in Western Europe largely perceived it at the time. It was a formative moment for the whole of Europe, also and maybe particularly for the West. And it may well have been, Conway argued, the beginning of a new era characterised by the new centrality of a (reunited) Germany, the (re-)establishment of a whole series of independent nation states, the emergence of a capitalist definition of Europe, and the marginalisation of Russia in European politics. Could the post-1989 period be considered as a particular era in European History, which perhaps ends with Brexit?

The Historian and the Present

One striking feature of the book that inspired this debate is its regressive approach to the three post-war periods in question, as the subtitle “Writing history backwards” indicates. This approach is not a new one, as Rousso reminded, it comes from French historian Marc Bloch who explains how the historian as an individual living in the present has inevitably an anachronistic perspective on the past he studies. Taking the present or the most recent past as a point of departure, as Europe’s Postwar Periods’ authors did, helps avoid teleological approaches and linear views: reversing the order challenges the causalities, as Patel explained, and brings out new questions.

The question of the connection between past and present takes on a new meaning today, said Pető, in her own country Hungary but in others as well. In a context of ‘mnemonic war’, the positionality of the researcher is threatened by an interventionist state that under the claim of a return to the facts intends to redefine what humanities, social sciences and history are. What is at stake for historians and scholars at large, Pető warned, is the future of doing science.

On Europe

In this context, which European perspective on history, and notably on the post-1989 period, is appropriate and adequate today? According to Conway, the European Union is struggling to have a historically informed story about its present, because it is somehow prisoner of a narrative rooted in the 20th century past. In a way, he explained, it is more fruitful to look at Europe’s 19th century history to understand what happened after 1989 and how this led to what Europe is experiencing today.  Analogies can be made between the 1848-1870 period and the post-1989 one, such as the multiplication of (new) nation-states.

For Pető, the key issue is one of legitimacy when talking about a European perspective on history. Adopting such a perspective requires renouncing the ‘enlightened hubris’ position and using self-criticism; considering alternatives, omissions and other voices which were not taken into account so far, wondering how certain questions are being asked, or not asked, based on what kind of aspirations. This issue of legitimacy is especially crucial in a time when it is challenged by a new understanding of the meaning of Europe and European unity.

As Rousso stressed, today for instance one cannot write anymore about the history of Europe as the story of a political utopia, as a movement going to some sort of progress, largely based around the post-1945 period on the premise that Europe has been constructed to avoid war. Looking back at the history of European integration may help avoiding that trap: up till the late seventies, early eighties, the European Community of those days was just one of many political options, and a rather unlikely one, as Patel explained: “a late comer on the stage of international cooperation” actually. It was therefore not such a decisive factor in bringing peace to Europe: the post-war settlement was largely completed by the time European integration started. The European Community rather played a key role with perceptible effects in terms of social peace later, in the seventies and eighties notably with the southern enlargement, creating forms of transition to democracy.

All speakers acknowledged that we are living in troubled times, facing new realities, certainly destabilising ones if you look at the discourse on Europe and at the European integration project itself. As museum professionals and scholars dealing with contemporary European history and working to ‘Europeanise’ views on the past, are we slightly behind, inhabiting a recent past of 10 years ago more than the present of today? How can we talk to people who have lost their way of understanding Europe and thus see it as over, as a reality fading away?

The discussion showed that, if one can argue that the post-1989 years in Europe form a distinct historical period with its own characteristics, it is now over, and that it is neither enough nor appropriate to try and think 21st century Europe in analogical terms, as simply a new chapter in the same textbook, rather than a whole new textbook.

The vivid debate that took place at the House of European History raised a new question that remains open for discussion: Are we today in a pre-war period, or in a post post-war period? Are we even in a war period?