Identity and collective European memory

Article published on May 9, 2005
community published
Article published on May 9, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The European identity required reconstruction in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is now time for the European populations to come together and create a shared, common history. For some things, time cannot heal.

This May has proved to be a month of happy co-incidence. At a time when more or less everywhere people are celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the French nation will be called to vote upon the European constitution. This treaty, a must for European civil society, forms a landmark in a historically dynamic period which began to blossom at the end of the Second World War. The wish that such an event must “never again” occur, along with an examination of conscience have finally been translated into the implementation of the European project. The goal, then, was to avoid a return to imperialism, to economic protectionism and, above all, to streamline inter-European processes.

Promoting collective awareness

It was as a consequence of this outbreak of genocide that the European identity began to reconstruct itself little by little, bringing with it the construction of a common memory. The journey began with a promotion of awareness of the atrocities of mankind, driving us to take our common destiny in hand. It is upon re-examining our common past, our divisions and our past conflicts that we are able to construct our common future together.

Hence the importance of education and multi-national commemoration ceremonies which allow us, beyond our nationalistic interpretations of the past, to re-write a common history which will be bequeathed to future European generations. Today, however, despite considerable effort, it is difficult to overcome the barrier posed by nationalistic interpretations of the past. Thus the Georg Eckert Institute, upon analysing school textbooks from 20 European countries, realised that less than 10% of the content of them dealt explicitly with European history. “The longer a country has been a member of the European Union, the higher this percentage rate becomes. Conversely, in the newly independent States the textbooks tell a very nationalistic history, insisting on the antiquity and originality of the nation” states Fak Pingel, deputy director of the Georg Eckert Institute. This very institute, moreover, originated as an innovative experiment responsible for the conception of a Franco-German history textbook.

Teaching a common history

Thus education is at the heart of the European project and some, like the European Institute of Cultural Routes, are working on the subject of key ‘locations’ in European memory. The issue, explains the historian Pierre Nora, is to lead a “selective and knowledgeable exploration of the main areas of our collective heritage, an inventory of the principal ‘locations’ and to sketch a ‘framework of common history’”. As yet, much work still remains to be done if the Community institutions and EU member states wish to create this collective history. For if Franco-German relations are at the heart of this communal re-examination of our past, the Poles and Germans or indeed the Croats and Serbs still have difficulties in broaching their own shared pasts.

Equally, in a period when the survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing, a new and vital stage of this work on a collective memory is emerging. It is important to transcend the generational and genealogical aspects since, as German journalist Michael Martins points out, “it would be necessary, for example, for a young German of Turkish origin visiting the Holocaust museum in Berlin to integrate this aspect of the past into his conscience, even if descendents like himself haven’t been directly confronted by it.

He would need to understand that being European also means being able to accept all aspects of the past with a sense of contemporary responsibility.”

Henceforth, Europe still has a heavy workload to accomplish and must maintain a critical review of the past in order to avoid falling into “an apologetic and commemorative souvenir memorial”, as Martins puts it. Is it really pertinent to celebrate the end of the Second World War between allies? Attitudes are gradually beginning to evolve with, for example, the notable presence of the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, at the commemorations of the Normandy landings last year. European institutions must concern themselves more with encouraging European citizens and countries to develop a greater sense of responsibility. What can one do then, to ensure that the Turkish government recognises the Armenian genocide whilst the Jewish genocide is still interpreted differently by EU member states?

In this quest for a collective memory, the European constitution represents a major step towards the creation of a “constitutional patriotism”, which signifies that the sentiment of belonging is being translated into recognition of the principles of democracy and of a constitutional state. It is a question of transcending national applications of Human Rights through dialogue and interactions between member states, stopping short though, of denying national identities. Saying Yes to the European Constitution means having a critical reflection on one’s own identity and making our way towards a new idea of Human rights, social rights and politics, interacting so as to transcend the nationalistic attitudes which originated from the barbarisms of the 19th and 20th centuries. Essentially, we must limit the nationalism which is putting the brakes on the construction of our common European memory and identity.