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Dominik Pick

Conference report: European Remembrance 2nd Symposium

17 August 2014
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  • 20th century history
  • European Remembrance Symposium
  • memory studies
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“European Remembrance” second Symposium of European Institutions dealing with 20th Century History

Date and place: Berlin, October 10–12, 2013

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship (Berlin), and the European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk)


Day One, October 10

The Symposium “European Remembrance” co-organized by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship (Berlin), and the European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk) is addressed to representatives of European institutions and dedicated to the study and promotion of 20th century history. The second edition of the Symposium was held in Berlin on October 9–11, 2013. This edition was an attempt to answer the question “How much transnational cooperation does European remembrance require? Caesuras and parallels in Europe”. The symposium was attended by over 180 participants representing 133 institutions from almost all European countries. In the opening speeches, the directors of institutions organizing the symposium, Anna Kaminsky, Rafał Rogulski and Basil Kerski put emphasis on the social importance of both the research of remembrance and the discussion on the past issues in a transnational environment. They announced also a continuation of the meetings in subsequent years. The academic part of the symposium was inaugurated by the lectures of Andrzej Paczkowski (Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland) and Keith Lowe (historian and writer, Great Britain) who spoke on “European remembrance. A comparison between East and West”. Andrzej Paczkowski noticed that the theme suggested by the organizers actually refers to the division from the time of the Cold War which is not identical with geographical division. In his opinion, the boundaries between diverse attitudes towards history in Europe do not reflect solely this division. Political opinions for example, which exert a considerable influence over historical narration are equally important. According to Paczkowski, the key element of European remembrance is the memory of the events related to the Second World War. He showed how complicated the discussion about the war is, when one takes into account perspectives of various European nations, of which almost each not only suffered because of the war, but also made other nations suffer. Paczkowski said: “each nation has skeletons in its own cupboard but prefers to peer into a neighbor’s cupboard.” While commenting on the fact that memory of the war is not the same for everybody, Paczkowski called to “be wary of memory as a source of knowledge about the past.”

Keith Lowe presented a similar opinion. He noted that all European nations struggle with similar problems concerning the memory of the past. The Europeans are reluctant to deal with the difficult aspects of their past – collaboration with Nazism or communism, or violence against the others. Lowe said: “these are the shadows that lie behind every act of remembrance”. He stated that we focus on the perception of ourselves as martyrs or heroes, without any sensitivity to other nations. We want our history to be a nice memory. Like most of the speakers at the symposium, Lowe found existence of a uniform vision of history unrealistic, an even dangerous. He pointed out clearly that there exists one element common to the memory of all European nations – the memory of the Holocaust as the major tragedy of the twentieth century. While speaking about the differences between fascism and communism Lowe stated that currently there is a tendency to concentrate mainly on the crimes of communism because these are much more recent. He asserted, however, that precisely because of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, fascism should be condemned much more severely than communism. In the summing-up Lowe expressed an opinion that sensitivity to the perspectives of other people plays a very important role in remembrance: “Remembrance should be the bearer of truth – not a French truth, or a German truth, or a Polish truth – but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. We are all retreating to our own nationalist perspectives, and our own nationalist myths, without even bothering to look back at what it is we are throwing away.”

Day Two, October 11

On the second day of the symposium Rafał Rogulski (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, Poland) expressed his conviction about the necessity of exchanging knowledge, reflection and experiences between various communities, nations and institutions. In his opinion this task is difficult. There exist major differences between national historical narrations because, as the speaker noticed, “our heroes are sometimes your enemies.” Rogulski also recalled the film Our Mothers, Our Fathers as a negative example of discussion about history and an unacceptable example of manipulation of history.

Dan Diner (University of Leipzig, Germany), while referring to important dates in the history of Europe said that not only “we cannot write national histories” but also the historical narration on European level is not sufficient. In the era of globalization history should be treated from global perspective. In an attempt to illustrate this statement Diner pointed at the attitude towards the date of May 8, 1945 as a memorial day. This date marks the end of the Second World War but in fact its connotations in Western and Eastern Europe are different. It was the day when the German Instrument of Surrender in Reims was signed but it was also the day when the Act of Military Surrender in Karlshorst was signed and for the nations of Eastern Europe this act was the beginning of another period of occupation. Furthermore, this is also the date of the Massacre in Setif (Algieria), where several thousands to tens of thousands people were killed by the French army. This event from May 8, 1945 also deserves remembrance in the globalizing world. While referring to entanglement history Diner indicated another example – the “Bengal Holocaust” from 1943. The events which took the toll of lives of several millions of Indians were closely connected with the warfare in Europe. Diner perfectly illustrated the problem of treating dates as memorials by reminding the particular anniversaries of November 9 in the history of Germany: the establishment of Weimar Republic in 1918, the Munich Putsh in 1923, the “Crystal Night” in 1938 and finally the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This date posed so many problems for German collective memory that after 1989 not this day but the colorless anniversary of German unification was chosen as a national holiday.

In his extensive commentary, Gyorgy Dalos (writer and historian, Hungary) who was speaking from his Hungarian perspective, presented a slightly different view on remembrance. Dalos referred to a conviction which is popular in the Danube area, that Hungary played a unique role in the history of Europe, namely defended Christianity against the Ottoman Empire. Dalos indicated that the Hungarians share this conviction with some other nations in the region. This fact proves that rising above a national perspective about which Diner had spoken earlier is necessary to fully understand the events from the past. Unlike his predecessors, Dalos devoted little attention to the Second World War and indicated that this memory is problematic in Hungary, because the country was an ally of Hitler. Dalos pointed out that initially the Hungarians were quite well-disposed towards this alliance, as it offered them a chance to revise the unfavorable Treaty of Trianon. After the fall of the Third Reich, the whole blame was laid on the Germans. According to Dalos, the memory of the events of the year 1956 is much more vivid in Hungary and it is much more important for the Hungarian identity.

A discussion followed between Oldřich Tůma (Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic) Aleksandar Jakir (University of Split, Croatia) and Jan Rydel (Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland). The speakers focused mainly on the issue of remembrance in Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Discussion with the audience suggested that the topic of a specific type of remembrance in Czech Republic, Poland and Croatia is of little utility for participants from Western Europe. This fact well shows how big the differences in the attitudes towards memory in different parts of the continent are.

In his speech Tůma noticed that in the Czech Republic, unlike in Hungary, historical events from before the twentieth century are to a large extent forgotten. He recognized the Munich Agreement in 1938 as the focus of Czech remembrance and proved that this topic has been the crucial element of political discussions in the Czech republic until nowadays. Referring to a possibility of writing a common European history Tůma noted that a national perspective still dominates. And a history of Europe composed of separate chapters on each country would be of little value.

Aleksandar Jakir referred to Croatia as his example and pointed out that the differences in historical narration pertain not only to various nations but also to various social groups. He put emphasis on the diverse attitude to history in Croatia and the existence of many different narrations in one nation. He supposed that it might be the result of the turbulent history of the Croatians who in the twentieth century changed their citizenship several times without leaving their homes. Jakir also stated that memory finds its focus in some symbols and here he mentioned Josip Broz Tito as an example.

The speaker appealed for writing history not only from a national perspective but with other narrations taken into account. In his opinion national issues are losing importance and he suggested that historians should focus on values and not on the history of nations.

Jan Rydel referred to Polish historical memory and stated, like Tůma, that in general historical events from before the twentieth century do not play any important role nowadays. He found that important “memorial points” are the events connected with wars: November 11, 1918 – the date when Poland re-gained independence after the Partitions, September Campaign in 1939, Katyn massacre in 1940, and the outburst of Warsaw Uprising in 1944. All these anniversaries have had political meaning until nowadays and all of them evoke numerous emotions. Rydel also expressed his concern about the decreasing knowledge about the historical events which are celebrated.

In the evening participants of the Symposium could visit German Historical Museum. There the director Alexander Koch gave a lecture followed by a discussion. Koch spoke about the problems and main tasks which the museum has to face. He pointed out that besides fulfilling the traditional role of collecting objects, the museum must also show history to the public. German Historical Museum devotes a large part of its activity to temporary projects, like Entartete Kunst, or Gulag history which is on display at present, and a number of these projects take place outside the museum building. At the end of the day participants had an opportunity to see a fragment of the permanent exhibition devoted to the twentieth century which provoked many critical opinions.

Day Three, October 12

Pavel Tychtl (European Commission, Czech Republic) spoke on the importance of the remembrance issues for the European Commission. He covered the range of their activity and indicated two notions which are important for the Commission: “sense of belonging” and “engagement in the participation”. Both these notions suggest that social activity and projects which reinforce values that are commonly accepted in Europe are very important for the Commisssion. These notions also encompass discussion about remembrance and the past. Tychtl also pointed out how much recollections of the past differ, not only among different nations but also among the inhabitants of the same places. Here he referred to the memory about the Holocaust which constitutes one of the central elements in collective European memory.

Wolf Kaiser (Haus der Wannseekonferenz, Germany) stated that one common European memory is neither realistic, nor necessary, and it might even be destructive. It is much more important to exchange information and understand one another. In his speech Kaiser concentrated on two areas of memory which are fundamental for the Europeans: the Holocaust and the remembrance about the victims of Nazism. He pointed out that in many European countries remembrance of the Holocaust is very limited. This is true particularly about the countries which were not directly involved in the tragedy of the Second World War. At the same time in other countries many sites of the greatest Nazi crimes are practically unknown, while the best known symbolic sites like Auschwitz and Buchenwald play the most important role in the transnational discourse.

Hans Altendorf (Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde, Germany). Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde is one of the seven members of the European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of Secret-Police Files. All the institutions belonging to the Network are involved in research and study of secret police files in communist dictatorships. Altendorf pointed out how closely all the Network institutions are bound with politics and how important it is for them to remain independent though it is not always possible. All these institutions perceive themselves as belonging to the European culture of remembrance and they are busy in the field of academic research and development of the history of the communist countries.

Johannes Bach Rasmussen (Baltic Initiative and Network, Denmark) introduced a transnational social initiative which does not receive any regular funds. The main objective of Baltic Initiative is to improve mutual understanding among the countries around the Baltic Sea on the basis of the exchange of information about the newest history. The starting point for their work was the poor knowledge of the Danish people about the life “behind the Iron Curtain”. Nowadays the Initiative operates in all the countries around the Baltic Sea and finds it important for each country to present its own history as well as exchange information with other countries.

Jiří Sŷkora (Visegrád-Fund, Slovakia) introduced the main objectives of the Visegrád Fund, for whose support any organization or individual citizen can apply in co-operation with other partners. The two main pillars of the Fund are mobility and grant programs. Sŷkora pointed out that all the projects supported by the Fund must refer to the countries forming the Visegrad Group.

Vesna Teřselič (Documenta, Slovenia) introduced an international initiative Coalition for RECOM which operates in the area of Former Yugoslavia. This initiative is supported by a number of institutions of diverse provenience. Its aim is the creation of a commission tasked with establishing the facts about crimes and victims during the wars on the territory of the Former Yugoslavia. Such a commission should operate in the area of whole Yugoslavia, and should not limit its activity to confrontation with national discourses. Initially this initiative gathered little political interest; nowadays the first steps towards the establishment of the commission are taken.

Goran Lindblad introduced the activity of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience and presented a reader for older secondary school students which was edited with the support of the program Europe for Citizens and Visegrad Fund. This was the opening of a discussion with participants of the Symposium.

Gesine Schwan (Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance, Germany) gave the final lecture of the Symposium. She described the changes in the German perception after the war. Initially the Germans saw themselves primarily as victims of war, but in the course of time they began to feel co‑guilty for the crimes of National Socialism. She emphasized that discussions among scholars are important, however they are not well-audible in Europe. She shared the opinion of Andrzej Paczkowski that the dividing lines do not run only along the state borders. Religious and political divisions are equally important for the remembrance of history. While speaking about the future, she claimed that common memory can only be based on values accepted by everybody, like the rights of man. In her opinion the diversity of perspectives is a good sign, a symptom of normality which enriches Europe.

The Symposium closed with a debate between Oldřich Tůma (Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic), Jan Rydel (Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland) and Matthias Weber (Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe, Germany). Tůma emphasized the fact that the Symposium once again proved the inexistence of one European point of view on history, even though most discussions focused on the Second World War. We may agree that the worst perpetrators were the Nazis, and those who suffered most were the Jews, but if we look closer at the history of the Second World War, things get much more complicated, even within one national discourse. Tůma shared the opinion that a diversity of views on history is valuable. He was convinced that beside academic discussions it is important to talk about the more practical implementation of historical knowledge. Matthias Weber agreed with Gesine Schwan that remembrance about the past cannot be enforced on anybody but he stated that much can be done to protect the past events from being forgotten. Weber remarked that though most participants of the Symposium share opinions on the necessity of transnational discussions, the question about the ways of passing the academic knowledge to wider audience remains unanswered. In his opinion it is necessary for the Symposium to be more down-to-earth oriented. It is also necessary to discuss how to base an approach towards history on values. How to avoid heroization and rivalry of victims and how to step out of national narrations? Even though we agree that it is not possible to present one European vision of history, the question about the alternatives for the future remains unanswered. Jan Rydel supported Weber’ s suggestion that people with a more practical attitude to history should be invited to debates. He emphasized the number of problems which have not been solved so far. Finally, the organizers announced that the third edition of the Symposium will be held in Praque (Czech Republic), on April 9–11, 2014.

During the Symposium most speakers declared that the Second World War and Holocaust are the central elements of European remembrance of history. It was also emphasized that European memory cannot be uniform. It must be diverse because Europe itself is a diverse continent. It was also emphasized that though at present national historical narrations dominate, often there is no one single opinion about the past even within one nation. Lines of division run not only between nations but also along religious and political divisions. Discussions during the Symposium showed that a more practical approach to history is necessary. In future the Symposium should present a greater number of practical activities, good actions and practical ideas of how to popularize history.


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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