Crossed Perspectives in the Context of the War in Ukraine
A review by Jules Bigot and José Ernault, interns at CEFRES
This conference, organized jointly by CEFRES and the French Embassy in Prague, was held in the context of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Opening the conference, the Ambassador of France to the Czech Republic, M. Alexis Dutertre, recalled the words of President Emmanuel Macron at the start of the Presidency in January, which emphasized the need for bringing together the best historians of Europe in order to “build together the legacy of this common history “, to “promote [..] European civilization“.
This question, though, is far from being new. As Jérôme Heurtaux, director of CEFRES, underlined, joint commissions of historians have already been existing between nations with historical disputes, may it be between France and Germany, Czechia, Germany and Slovakia, or, to take a very topical example, between Poland and Ukraine. This question of the harmonization of memories around a common history of Europe, brings about the issue of the uses made of such a history by political organizations and political leaders and conversely about the political motives of the works by those, whom Mr. Heurtaux called “historians in uniform“. This conference precisely aimed at addressing the imperative of awareness about the possible political uses of history, for the war in Ukraine provides us with a tragic example of the worst uses of history that can be made by a political leader, or a “chief historian” as Thornike Gordadzé, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic studies, liked to label Vladimir Putin. Historians and researchers have an essential role to play in this matter, even if, as historian Christian Ingrao recalled, no history is independent, for it is always embedded in a social and political environment.
Therefore, the conference gathered historians, political scientists and “practitioners of Europe“, to quote Gordadzé once more. The first roundtable “Is a common history of Europe possible? Lived experiences, living memories“ brought together, Oldřich Tůma, senior research fellow at the Institute of contemporary history of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, Basil Kerski, director of the European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk and Thornike Gordadzé, who is also former Georgian state Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration and chief negotiator for the EU-Georgia Association agreement. The second panel “How to do the history of the European Union? Converging and diverging points of view“ was attended by Constanze Itzel, art historian and today director of the European House of History in Brussels, Laure Neumayer, political scientist, professor at the University Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens and by Christian Ingrao, one of the prominent French historians of Nazism and war violence, research director at CNRS and former director of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent.
In search for a common history of Europe
Most of the speakers firstly stressed the necessity to build a common history of Europe. Despite the different perspectives chosen in the discussion, a couple of elements arose as preconditions to face this challenge. First of all, such a history should search for the common elements in each national or regional history that might foster a common European identity throughout the Union. As Oldřich Tůma stated, this quest for common elements should not obliterate the differences embedded in these histories. Nor should it lead to a single interpretation of events prevailing over others in the name of a common history of Europe.
One example of this common ground-based history of Europe lays in Brussels, within the walls of the House of European History. As its director, Constanze Itzel, underlined, the mission of the institution is to unify European history in its very diversity echoing the European Union’s motto “united in diversity”. The exhibition, thus, focuses on transnational phenomena and tries, for example, to articulate events, such as the Holocaust or the different revolutions that shaped Europe, around the question of European integration. Making sure not to fall into the previously described traps that stand in front of a common European history, the House of European History tries to show how a European remembrance culture is shaped around such events, which participate in creating our European identity.
This raises the question of the imbrication of the European Union’s history, or the history of the European integration, into the history of Europe as such. These two histories, the House of European History states, are intertwined. The exhibition features this assertion by embedding a timeline set up by the museum into the European integration timeline. Events such as the Second World War and the collapse of the Iron Curtain which, according to Basil Kerski, are founding events of the EU, are put in the light of the European integration process. The Second World War is interpreted as a catalyst for a continental integration that had already been envisioned (by federalist movements, Victor Hugo, etc.), while the fall of the Iron curtain is featured as the latest push to a tighter integration (1992 Maastricht treaty, 2004 enlargement, etc.).
The House of European History aims to transform historical events, with their specific national or local narratives, into events that, when understood and analyzed in a broader European perspective, can become the “acquis historiques“ of the EU, to quote Fabrice Larat. These “acquis historiques“ decisively helped regions such as the Polish-Ukrainian one, to come to terms with important memorial conflicts, and can play a big part in shaping a common history of Europe, prerequisite to the building of any political community.
Christian Ingrao nevertheless insisted on the importance of not restricting the shaping of a common European history to institutions only, such as the House of European History or the different political institutions of the European Union. He advocated the necessity to give some space to citizens as well. The Erasmus program was for example mentioned as one of the most important means of the EU for allowing young people from around Europe to “acknowledge“ one another. An acknowledgment which is both a key to create a common history of Europe, but also to continue the pacification process that has been at work on our continent for more than 70 years.
Challenging different narratives on history
One of the central issues addressed by the speakers as related to the possibility of a common history of Europe and of the European Union, was the polarization between centers and peripheries as a perspective leading to two different perceptions of history. Indeed, it has been a prism to analyze historical phenomena such as the Enlightenment, revolutions, the first democratic or national movements, and in the contemporary history the division of Europe into two blocks during the Cold War.
Oldřich Tůma first emphasized the contestable nature of this center/periphery division at the historical level, showing that phenomena usually associated with peripheries are in fact transnational and European. The example he highlighted was Communism. On the contrary, the historical elements associated with the center such as Enlightenment or Humanism are fully belonging to the periphery’s history as well, as the Polish Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791 shows.
According to Constanze Itzel, this division reflects a lack of knowledge on the part of laymen of other parts of Europe, especially of the so-called peripheries. She underlined the important stake that this lack of knowledge represents for the museum that she directs, whose exhibition gives a very important place to the evolutions taking place in Europe since 1989, and to the end of the logic of blocs, concretized by the enlargement of European Union to the majority of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc.
To tackle this shortcoming and put an end to this division, Basil Kerski advocated a “common learning process” for all parties. “The West” must make efforts to understand the Soviet past of the post-communist countries. This effort, though, as he pointed out, should not be unilateral and it is incumbent on the leaders of Eastern Europe to understand the equally complex history of Western Europe since 1945, for instance the important milestones and processes of the European integration, such as the Treaty of Rome or the Franco-German reconciliation, as well as certain realities that some states do not share, like decolonization processes.
Laure Neumayer provided a concrete example of the differences in the relationship to history between the center and the peripheries, through a case study of “entrepreneurs of memory”, i.e. academics, politicians and activists, mainly from conservative movements in Central and Eastern Europe who mobilized after the fall of the communist regimes in order to obtain recognition of the crimes committed by the communist regimes. These mobilizations, which shifted from national to international venues (European Parliament and Council of Europe), aimed to obtain an equivalent recognition of communist and Nazi violence and crimes. According to her, this phenomenon reveals two very different visions of the European collective memory. According to the western (thus central) perspective, the Holocaust represents the darkest hour of European history, as it is the very negation of what the new Europe is based on: the protection of human rights. This point of view can be considered as an “acquis historique”. The second vision, advocated by memory entrepreneurs from peripheries, uses the same vision of Europe as a continent shaped by human rights, and demands that the seriousness of communist mass violence crimes be recognized as equivalent to those of the Holocaust.
To respond to some of the contentious issues on collective memory at the European level, Laure Neumayer highlighted the role of the EU and in particular of the European Parliament, which can act as a forum for open discussion on memory, in order to reconcile the differences and hear the claims of the different actors. In this respect, the European Parliament has made it possible to obtain common decisions on the difference in perception of memory, by commemorating jointly, on August 23rd, the victims of Nazism and communism and more recently all the victims of authoritarian regimes.
Adopting consensual bases through debate and dialogue is the guiding principle of the narrative featured by the House of European History: “unity in diversity”. In this respect, Constanze Itzel emphasized that the museum does not promote the EU as a “pure success story”, arguing that this history must indeed include crises and rejections. As such, the museum’s “open end” leaves room for various interpretations of the history of the EU, which is described neither as the beginning nor as the end of something, but as a process, with its progresses and its failures.