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Dominik Pick

Conference Report: European Remembrance. Europe between War and Peace 1914-2014

18 August 2014
  • 1989
  • communism
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • 20th century history
  • European Remembrance Symposium
  • conference report
  • Second World War

European Remembrance. European Year of History. Turning Points in the 20th Century European History. Europe between War and Peace 1914-2014

Date and place: Prague, April 9–11, 2014

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, European Commission


The third International Symposium „European Remembrance” was held in Prague in the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic on April 9–11, 2014. It was organized in co-operation with European Commission, along with the fourth meeting of institutions involved in activities pertaining to remembrance which are supported by the Europe for Citizens Programme. The main objective of the symposium was to reflect upon the turning points in European history in connection with numerous anniversaries celebrated in 2014: the 100th anniversary of the First World War; the 75th anniversary of the Second World War; the 25th anniversary of the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe; and the 10th anniversary of the accession of Central European countries to the European Union. The theme of the symposium was the question about the common European experience of dictatorships and wars.

Over 200 participants from 29 European countries, the USA and Israel took part in the symposium. They represented almost 150 institutions: museums, universities, scientific institutes, non-profit organizations, international associations and research groups. The full list of institutions taking part in the symposium is available online: www.europeanremembrance.enrs.eu.

The symposium was organized by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity; Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship; European Solidarity Centre; and Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences; in co-operation with European Commission.

On the first day participants were greeted by Jan Bondy, Director of the Department of Public Diplomacy, who spoke on behalf of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. A speech by Małgorzata Omilanowska, State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland followed. She indicated the importance of the symposium for discussion on memory and remembrance in Europe, as well as for the interest in this subject among the institutions involved in historical research and publishing on history. She most aptly characterized the objective of international discussions on remembrance: „What we need is an open dialogue held with respect for other interpretations of history and different sensitivities and also based on solid grounds of scientific knowledge. A dialogue in which we will not avoid difficult and painful issues.” Omilanowska presented the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity as a model solution to the challenges present in the sphere of discussion on remembrance. The next speaker was Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic which had taken patronage over the 2014 Symposium. Drahoš concentrated on showing that this year’s anniversaries celebrate events which were both tragic and positive and opened the way for freedom. Using as an example the history of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Drahoš argued that in the twentieth century scientific investigations had been influenced by, among others, wars; expulsions; concentration camps; Communist regimes; and 1968 revolution. Then the participants were greeted by Sophie Beernaerts, Head of Unit of Europe for Citizens Programme, who spoke on behalf of the European Commission. She stated that the past is never too distant and it keeps having impact on our lives as well as triggering conflicts among different historical narrations. This is the reason why Beernaerts recognizes the series of symposia devoted to remembrance as extremely important. Finally, Jan Rydel, Chair of the Steering Committee of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, greeted the participants on behalf of the main organizers of the Symposium. He pointed out how differently the anniversaries which were to be discussed are understood in various countries of the region and how difficult it is to talk together about some of them. He put emphasis on the significance of pluralism in the dialogue about the history of the twentieth century.

In the opening lecture, Marci Shore (Yale Univeristy) quoted Tadeusz Borowski who said “The history of Europe in the twentieth century is unbearable” and pointed out how difficult and complicated the Central European history is. While characterizing the Central European debates on remembrance, Shore showed how complicated and ambiguous they are. The question about the guilt and assessment of choices enforced by the totalitarian regimes is raised and discussed again and again; and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe find it difficult to escape from the legacy inherited from Communism. Referring to the first words of the Communist Manifesto Shore said: “The specter of communism is still haunting Europe but it is a specter from the past.” She referred to Milan Kundera, Lesław Maleszka and the Jedwabne pogrom and showed how problematic it is to formulate judgments about the past and to understand the choices made by people living in the times of dictatorships. While asking questions about the causes and assessment of getting entangled in the activities of the totalitarian regimes, collaboration and co-guilt, Shore pointed out that nowadays, 25 years after the collapse of Communism, these issues still divide Central European societies. At the same time these issues constitute the fundamental questions about human nature and as such are subject to constant debate.

A panel discussion “Turning Points of European Remembrance. Different approaches” between James Mark (University of Exeter, UK); Heidemarie Uhl (Austrian Academy of Sciences); and Włodzimierz Borodziej (Warsaw University/University of Jena) followed. Heidemarie Uhl referred to the unique anniversary of the First World War. She put emphasis on the fact that different historical narrations not only cause differences between nations but are also the cause for conflicts within particular nations or social groups. Discussions about how to remember past events and how to look upon history take part not only on a national level. Uhl pointed to the troublesome tendency to exclude the problematic aspects of history from the national discourse. James Mark concentrated on two questions: 1) who creates the turning points in history and 2) who is responsible for placing them in the historical narration. He also made an attempt at showing European remembrance in a global perspective. Mark stated that remembrance about the turning points in history depends on the point of reference. Giving the example of Polish remembrance about the year 1989 he indicated the lack of consensus on the national level and the existence of contradictory narrations. At the same time there exists, in his opinion, a high consistence in narration about the events of the year 1989 in Poland on the international level. According to Mark, by finding common elements in historical narration we can speak of regionalization of remembrance. Włodzimierz Borodziej, on the other hand, used the example of the remembrance about the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact of August 23 in 1989 to argue that there is no common historical narration in Central European countries. The memory of historical events in the countries of the region is selective and totally diversified. Borodziej referred to Norman Davies, stating that there exists no theory which would prove the existence of a phenomenon such as European remembrance.

At the end of the first day of the symposium Anna Kaminsky, Director of the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, opened the exhibition “Dictatorship and Democracy in the Age of Extremes: Spotlights on the History of Europe in the Twentieth Century.”

The second day of the symposium began with Basil Kersky’s presentation of the European Solidarity Center and Oldrich Tuma’s presentation of the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences. These presentations were followed by a panel discussion entitled “The collapse of Communism and its aftermath. Legacy of the Cold War period in Europe.” Laure Neumayer (University of Sorbonne, Paris) pointed to the existence of diverse interpretations of 1989 and the fact that there is no consensus about the assessment of the Communist past in post-communist countries: “There is a huge diversity of interpretations of 1989 and there is no post-communist country which reached a consensus about the Communist past.” She stated that in the field of remembrance many actors are active and they promote various historical interpretations. At the same time however, paradoxically, this pluralism of opinions and lack of unity may be perceived as an achievement of the 1989 transformation. Neumayer also emphasized the significance of the Cold War for remembrance on the European level and pointed at the still huge difference in the interpretation of the twentieth century in the East and in the West of Europe. Łukasz Kamiński (Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw) claimed that the events of 1989 are best described by the phrase “anti-Communist revolution”. In Kamiński’s opinion in 1989 there existed no such phenomenon as a community of Central European countries and the only common element was the rejection of Communism and a wish for freedom and a life that was better in economic terms. There existed no positive transformation program. Kamiński explained that the disappointment with the democratic transformations in Central European countries is so big because in 1989 expectations were too great. Kamiński also emphasized that there is no predominating historical narration in Europe. On the contrary, we can see a sort of victim competition between various countries also in the area of the history of the Communist period. Michal Kopeček (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Republic) presented a slightly different point of view. He claimed that interpretations of the events of 1989 are a part of identity both on national level and on the level of particular communities. He pointed to the diversity of interpretations and visions that fight each other; and also to the criticism on the part of groups which consider 1989 to be an unfinished revolution. In reference to Łukasz Kamiński’s speech, Kopeček pointed out that even though there is no dominating narration, the narration framework is formed primarily by the liberal-democratic views. However, this framework is constantly attacked by competing narrations. Hence the policy of remembrance gains unusual significance in Cental and Eastern Europe. Kopeček emphasized that it is much easier to achieve consensus about remembrance of the 1989 events on the international level than on the national level.

The second panel discussion entitled “The next generation. New interpretations of recent European history” was an exchange of opinions between Zofia Wóycicka (House of European History, Brussels); Irit Dekel (Humboldt University, Germany); Lenka Koprivova (Post Bellum, Czech Republic); and Sandra Vokk (Unitas Foundation, Estonia). Irit Dekel pointed out that there is no one memory but there exist various actors and various roles which have influence on the shape of remembrance of the past. Memory is selective and takes different shapes in different social groups. She criticized the German way of remembering the past and pointed out that it is rather a kind of lament and not an active memory. It does not encourage greater openness to the challenges of the contemporary world. Lenka Koprivova (Post Bellum, Czech Republic), pointed out that teaching history is more than teaching about the facts; it is also teaching skills such as critical thinking, ability to compare etc. She claimed that we should not focus on seeking one European remembrance but we should discuss various views on history: „European culture of memory is not about one narration but it is mainly the effort to understand different views and perspectives.” Sandra Vokk (Unitas Foundation, Estonia) suggested the use of more innovative and modern ways of teaching history. She pointed out that in teaching history, not only pure knowledge (what one reads and writes about past events) but also the experience of history are important. Today the younger generations use new technologies to experience and learn history and that is why historians should be better prepared to use them as well. Zofia Wóycicka (House of European History, Brussels) pointed out that the younger generations of historians are not so much interested in political issues, nor in the problem of guilt and responsibility, nor in the relationship between the victims and the perpetrators. More and more young historians try to analyze first of all the everyday, deeper social transformations, the dynamics of protests etc. This is why they are less interested in the period of Stalinism or Nazism and more interested in the later years of Communism.

In the afternoon the participants watched a presentation and film about Lidice, a village destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War in retaliation for killing Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. They also had an opportunity to visit the Libice Memorial.

The third day of the symposium offered five simultaneous workshops: “Europe for Citizens” (European Commission); “Museums and Projects about the Great War” (Imperial War Museum); “Reflecting Remembrance in History Education. Three case studies on Turning Points in Europe’s 20th Century History from Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Ukraine” (Euroclio); “Sound in the Silence. Art and historical education” (Die Motte); and “Legacy of 1989 and the Collapse of Communism. Presentation and discussion about successful international projects” (European Platform Memory and Conscience). Workshops were devoted to various methods of educational work (Euroclio, Imperial War Museum and Die Motte); international projects (European Platform Memory and Conscience); and also postulates and aims of the Europe for Citizens Programme.

The final lecture, entitled “The Gospel of the Superiority of the Present over the Past? Reclaiming the critical potential of history, 25 years after 1989” was given by Pieter Lagrou. Lagrou began with a fundamental question „Why are we interested in history and why do we investigate history?” Then he enumerated several traps we fall into while analyzing history. He pointed out that remembrance is more than the opposite of forgetting. It is important what we remember and what we forget: „We live in a situation of memory competition, in which we pay more or less attention to one or other memory. We have to make choices what memory we find more important, which doesn’t mean forgetting the other events.” In his opinion, another popular mistake is the predominating approach to historiography through the prism of national history. Such an approach precludes analysis of the social transformations in Europe at the end of the twentieth century. Lagrou also pointed out that a simplified attitude which reduces the history of Europe to a clash between democracy and its enemies enables us to see the events of the twentieth century in a wider perspective. At the same time he claimed that European integration cannot be understood as a pursuit of democracy because at its core it has primarily economic and political factors. He also criticized attempts to unify historical narrations. Using the European Parliament, where controversial exhibitions are forbidden as an example, Lagrou stated that this is the way to exclude many important topics. History presented in this way becomes only a lullaby which deprives us of sensitivity.

The symposium was summed up in a panel discussion between Pieter Lagrou, Dušan Kováč (Slovac Academy of Sciences) and Siobhán Kattago (Tallinn University, Estonia). Kováč stated that individual remembrance is connected with the life experience of particular persons. Hence it is not easy to break free from national narrations and political views. In Kováč’s opinion, historians are facing the important task of discovering in what way totalitarian regimes emerged, in order to draw lessons for the future. He also suggested that it is important to remember about the Nazi regime and not concentrate only on the Communist period: „The institutes of national remembrance in Central-Eastern European countries should take up the task of finding out where and how fascism and other right-wing dictatorships were born, not focus only on communism.”

Siobhán Kattago pointed out that there exists a dependence between democracy and the ability to regret one’s deeds: “There is a real link between processes of democratization and the politics of regret: if one is to be a democrat, one needs to deal with the past.” She also claimed that the question whether there exists such a phenomenon as Europe, i.e. whether there exists any European specificity, still remains unanswered. It is possible to look at it in a double perspective.