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Review: Elisabeth Kübler, European politics of memory. The Council of Europe and the remembrance of the Holocaust

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Elisabeth Kübler, European politics of memory. The Council of Europe and the remembrance of the Holocaust (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012)
Elisabeth Kübler, Europäische Erinnerungspolitik. Der Europarat und die Erinnerung an den Holocaust (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012)

As Elisabeth Kübler notes at the outset of her book, while memory studies has seen considerable development at the level of nation-states and comparative studies, the European level has been treated mostly in speculative essays or normative epilogues. Moreover, the plethora of studies on European integration and identity rarely question the meaning of the Holocaust in the context of the European project. Kübler’s Europäische Erinnerungspolitik. Der Europarat und die Erinnerung an den Holocaust [European Memory Politics” The Council of Europe and the Memory of the Holocaust] is one of the first efforts to examine memory at the transnational level in a comprehensive way and through a political-science lens. In her persuasively-argued and clearly-written study, Kübler takes stock of the memory politics occurring within and under the participation of the Council of Europe (CoE), which has been largely neglected by scholars of European integration. By placing the CoE in the context of both the existing research on European memory politics and its international environment, Kübler provides a wide-ranging overview of the relatively novel policy field of Holocaust remembrance in European institutions.

Based on numerous interviews with key actors, as well as a careful review of documents and publications issued by European institutions, Kübler paints a comprehensive picture of the institutional structures that shape European memory politics, the ideas that are promoted, and the policies that have emerged from this complex field. The book succeeds in offering a helpful introduction to the topic, while also making nuanced arguments about the political, educational, and normative agenda of the CoE. Moreover, Kübler critiques the focus of the CoE’s memory politics on (universalized) victimhood and a somewhat depoliticized emphasis on “European democratic citizenship.” Further virtues of this book are its straightforward organization, its clear language, and its sharp style of argumentation. While this book is a highly competent contribution to the field, it does have some weaknesses of omission. Its lack of attention to the practical and informal politics behind the official narratives of the CoE, as well as to the influence of memory discourses that compete with those of the Nazi past, are issues that might be addressed in future research.

Kübler’s first chapter lays out her central arguments, discusses the relevant terminology and the state of the research, and provides an overview of the development and work of the CoE. Kübler argues that close scrutiny of the CoE’s memory policies brings an enhanced understanding of how Holocaust remembrance has been shaped at the transnational level by the interplay of competing interests and ideologies. Like any other policy field, the implementation of Holocaust memory strategies is determined by institutional structures, funding priorities, and particular strategic interests. Kübler also identifies the important normative framework of “European citizenship,” according to which Holocaust remembrance serves to guide individual action in order to prevent the repetition of history and to shape a positive future for Europeans. While Kübler’s study, then, primarily offers detailed insights into the work of the CoE and other European organizations, she also shows that norms can play a determinative role in international affairs. Moreover, she demonstrates how “culture” can actively be made into an object of “policy field” creation. The author’s overall goal is to evaluate Holocaust memory politics in Europe through a traditional political-science lens. The book is an exploratory study that is concerned with the institutional context and the substantive focus of Holocaust remembrance policies of the CoE, as well as the image of “Europe” that is being promoted through it.

The second chapter is the most interesting and innovative: it provides a comprehensive “map” of transnational memory politics in Europe. Kübler discusses the most important international players in European memory politics and situates the CoE in the European institutional landscape, whose actors compete and cooperate, but rarely find a way to usefully complement each other’s work to join forces for the cause of Holocaust remembrance. Kübler is to be commended in particular for providing a clear overview of the European landscape of memory policy, while still bringing home the considerable complexity of structures and approaches at hand.

The third chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the specific memory policies of the CoE. Based on a Grounded Theory approach, Kübler carefully assesses documents, speeches, brochures and other items that have emerged from the CoE’s relevant programs, above all the “Teaching remembrance” project. The integration of memory policies into the CoE’s educational agenda profoundly shapes its character: the primary focus is the provision of training and the development of educational material for school teachers. In a highly critical section, Kübler examines the CoE’s programs for support and cooperation of the continent’s Romani population. The author argues that this is where all the components of the CoE’s agenda for Holocaust education are combined and put to the test in a practical sense.

Assessing the general nature of the CoE’s memory discourse, Kübler writes that Europe is presented as a project-in-the-making “that is based on the normative trio of the Council of Europe (human rights, rule of law, and pluralist democracy), as well as the admonition of Never Again” (p. 208, reviewer’s translation). The unifying narrative of these memory policies is the ideal of a European democratic citizenship through which the individual feels empowered to “make a difference.” Kübler rightly critiques this somewhat depoliticized reading of the meaning of Holocaust memory, which is not well suited to address the complicated questions about the reasons for persecution and of biographical entanglements in crimes against humanity. However, she also points out that the size of the CoE and the diversity of its member states make a more nuanced and critical approach to the Holocaust hard to achieve.

In a short conclusion, the author argues that the CoE’s concentration on human rights and democracy education through Holocaust remembrance means that it has an important contribution to make to the idea of European memory writ-large. The CoE is actively engaged in the building of a “European identity” by establishing a link between Holocaust memory and the individual notion of what it means to be “European.” A significant aspect of Kübler’s book is to show how such connections are built in a conscious and strategic way. Her work serves as a case study of how culture and individual identification can be created strategically and through policy mechanisms. Of course, as Kübler points out, it remains to be seen how effective such policies are on the ground. The reception of transnational memory initiatives is an important arena for future research.

While this book is a much-needed and innovative addition to the literature on European and transnational memory, it remains too closely wedded to the official narrative issued by these institutional actors. In other words, Kübler expertly answers the who, what, and where of the CoE’s memory politics, and thereby does much to enhance our understanding of these transnational processes. However, what she neglects to examine is the how: How is European memory negotiated on the ground and on what (sometimes unspoken or unofficial) interests, agendas, or identities is it based? Such considerations do appear in the book, but they are not well developed. One burning question, for instance, is why Holocaust remembrance policies – if they are indeed as important as political leaders would have us believe – are so chronically underfunded. The CoE’s core program, “Teaching remembrance,” must make do with an annual budget of 15,000 Euro (p. 78). It would be fascinating to find out more about the everyday politics and boundaries of European politics that prevent the adequate financing of Holocaust memory.



Jenny Wüstenberg. A political scientist currently living and working in Berlin, Germany. After receiving PhD in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2010, she taught at the School of International Service at the American University, Washington D. C. From 2012–13 she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Free University of Berlin, before becoming a Research Associate working with the “Independent Academic Commission at the Federal Ministry of Justice for the Critical Study of the National Socialist Past.” Dr. Wüstenberg’s research interests include German, European, and comparative politics, as well as memory cultures, civic activism, and qualitative methodology.


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This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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