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Andrea Mork

Presentation of the House of European History

20 August 2012
  • 1989
  • First World War
  • Museum
  • 20th century history
  • Second World War
  • European memory
  • 1990
  • European history
  • House of European History
  • European identity

The text was originally presented by dr. Andrea Mork during 'European Remembrance' Symposium in Gdańsk on 15 September 2012.

Szanowni Państwo, Ladies and Gentlemen, meine sehr verehrten Damen und Herren,

Thank you for inviting me. I very much appreciate this opportunity to present the key aspects of the new museum project of the House of European history in Brussels to you. I am very pleased that for the first time since we started working I am able to fully explain the concept of the permanent exhibition to an external auditorium.

Is there such a thing as a common European history? The answer to this question is decisive to the realisation of our project. If the answer is no, any further discussion would be superfluous. Of course there is a common European history. It is about a shared history in the dual sense of the word: at the same time both uniting and dividing. Common European history has bound us together and it has divided us.

Our common history is not in competition with national narratives, but it is their corrective and supplement. It is a contribution to a European public space that does not yet exist.

Even though our work is still very much in progress and even though we are currently in a turbulent phase of work, I should like to provide a short overview of this embryonic project and describe: 

1. a short history of its formation
2. the theoretical basis of our concept
3. the narrative and structure of the permanent exhibition.

1. The formation of the project

• The project to establish a House of European History was initiated by the former President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering in his inaugural speech in February 2007: "It should be a place where a memory of European history and the work of European unification is jointly cultivated, and which at the same time is available as a locus for the European identity to go on being shaped by present and future citizens of the European Union."
• In December 2007, the European Parliament set up a committee of experts, historians and museum professionals to draft a 'Conceptual Basis' paper.
• As set out in the paper, the museum will contribute to a better understanding of European history with a special focus on the 20th century since WWI, paying special attention to European integration after WW II.
• The HEH will be housed in the Eastman building and contain a permanent exhibition of 4000 m2 and a temporary exhibition of 800 m2.
• With the aim of transforming this former dental clinic, currently an office-building, into an exhibition building an architectural competition was organised in 2009.
• In 2010, the architectural consortium Chaix et Morel from Paris was selected to carry out the transformation of the Eastman building into a museum building.
• From January 2011 onward, an academic project team - now composed of 20 historians, museum professionals and assistants - started to work on the project, discussing the exhibition and collection policies, the mission and vision of this House and the historical content and narrative of the exhibition. (content team 14, the whole group covering 14 languages)
• An Academic Committee advises the project team. A Board of Trustees, with representatives of the political groups in the EP and from its parliamentary committee for culture, from the European commission and representatives of the Brussels authorities acts as a supervisory body.
• The highly ambitious plans for this project foresee that the building will be finished at the end of April 2014. In late spring 2014, we will begin the installation of the exhibition.

2. Theoretical basis

The project team started its work by defining a theoretical basis. First of all the methods and objectives needed to be spelled out. Let´s start with the provocative and emotive term "Identity" which is already at the centre of the perception of the HEH in public debate.

Can the House of European History create a European identity?

In today's theory of culture, the question of collective identity seems to have become central to any understanding of history. Since the 1990s this key concept has had an overwhelming success. But it can also be seen as the sign of deep-rooted crisis. In a situation of crisis, the call for a stronger sense of community and of awareness of belonging together, of binding people in a community of shared values - beyond political imperatives and economic interests - is altogether understandable.

But the term “identity” is highly debatable. ‘Identity is the prototype of ideology’. (Negative Dialektik: 115) These words of warning from the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, accentuate the fundamental criticism of the idea of identity:
• There is no truly general, universally accepted definition of what European identity is supposed to be. Attempts to describe it are so general that they lose all concrete meaning. A clear-cut definition of European identity is too simplistic and reductionist. European culture cannot be described as a homogeneous entity. The concept is too static.
• Finally: Having the House of European History define a European identity would be an authoritarian step that would block rather than foster the necessary social debate on this highly meaningful question.
• So our answer had to be this: the concept of identity is unsuited for the laying of a theoretical basis. The House of European History cannot be a stage for the presentation of a pre-defined European identity.

Can the House of European History be a reservoir for a collective European memory?

Instead of defining an identity ‘from the top down’, it seems more appropriate to us to single out the idea of ‘collective memory’, which was developed in the 1920s by Maurice Halbwachs and was reintroduced into the German and international debate from the 1990s onwards by Pierre Nora and Aleida and Jan Assmann.

For our theoretical concept, the definition expressed by the Swiss writer Adolf Muschg, is defining our route: ‘What binds Europe together and what divides it, is quintessential: the common memory...’ (NZZ, 31.5.2008)

The HEH should become a "reservoir of the European memory" as the basis for the evolution of a common consciousness. The advantage of this concept lies in its multiple perspectives and its critical potential. Its particular appeal is the twofold perspective that leads us in very practical terms to the following questions. These should be formative for the permanent exhibition:

• What binds Europe together? What are the core elements, characteristic features and key events of European culture and civilisation, social and political history?
• What are the historical experiences, interpretations and memories that bind the various nations and social groups to these central events and developments in European history, each of the nations and groups having been involved in a different way? What experiences, traditions and achievements could present-day Europeans recognise as the basis for their awareness of a shared past?

As a consequence the House of European History will not be just an addition or the representation of the multiplicity of national histories. It will be a reservoir of European memory, containing experiences and interpretations in all their diversity, contrasts and contradictions. Its presentation of history will be complex rather than uniform, more differentiated than homogeneous, critical rather than affirmative, but it will be one with a synthetic perspective towards the European Community which itself seeks to combine views and ideas in such a way as to forge a common European self-awareness.

3. Narrative and structure of the House of European History

What is the central theme of the House of European History and what are the ideas that guide it?

Two narratives will run through all of the exhibition:

• In line with the conceptual basis paper, the 20th century will be the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition, with particular attention paid to the process of integration after WW II.

• Even if we reject any teleological approach to this process the exhibition should explain that European integration is based on foundations, achievements and traditions whose roots reach far back into history. Thus, the documentation of post-war history will be embedded in a broader context aiming at explaining the long-term developments of European history.

Doing this the exhibition will focus on phenomena,
a) which are originally European,
b) which have spread all over Europe and
c) which are relevant up to now and considered as distinctive marks of a common European civilisation.

Even though the museum will have a special focus on the history of the European integration, the HEH will not restrict its narrative to the outer borders of the European Community or European Union. Such a limitation would not be deserving of the notion of “European history”. Our perspective and the radius of our presentation encompass all of European.

In the meantime we have worked out the narrative of the permanent exhibition. At the same time we developed together with Arnauld Dechelle, a French architect living in London, first ideas how to present the content in the framework of the highly difficult architecture of the building.

Now, let´s have a look how the narrative is organized.

Introduction: Shaping Europe

'Shaping Europe' has as its purpose to engage visitors with the fundamentals of Europe and to familiarise them with core issues of its history. As the starting point of the permanent exhibition, this theme will provide an introduction into the subject matter of the House of European History.
Geographically, Europe is not a self-evident entity – the perception of Europe, its images and concepts have changed radically from antiquity until today. Maps determine and reflect the image of Europe and the political self-image of the continent. They are not defined by sharp-edged geographical boundaries, but rather by cultural characteristics and distinctions.
Europe is shaped by history. It has a common heritage, meaning that it is characterised by particular features, traditions and achievements, which distinguish it from other continents.
The introduction makes the visitors aware of the fact that memory is formative for mankind, as the basis of its self understanding and of its learning, whether as individuals or as members of a social group. The visitor will become aware of the fact that memory is inextricably intertwined with oblivion. Memory is never fixed and is continually changing. That is why any reflection on cultural identity and any description of history are, essentially, constructions.
Europe owes its name to the ancient myth of Europa and the Bull. The tale of the Phoenician princess, robed by Zeus, has become the emblematic figure for the continent and has been interpreted in a multiplicity of ways throughout history. Viewed from a modern standpoint, the myth hints at the fact that European culture has ancient roots beyond Europe. It can be related to the fact that the Greeks adopted the Phoenician script and developed their own full alphabet from it.

The 19th century

The narrative, in the proper sense of the term, begins within the 19th century. In the 19th century Europe entered modernity - politically, economically, socially and culturally. The concepts of human and civic rights, self-determination, industrialization and liberal market economy were the leading factors in this transformation process. Before WWI, Europe reached the peak of its global power. The exhibition will point out that social and political tensions and international rivalries led to the build-up of an enormous and multifaceted potential for conflict, which then exploded at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Age of Destruction

The first half of the 20th century was an 'Age of Destruction' - shaken by two traumatic world wars, an economic crisis of unprecedented depth and the decline of liberal democracy, while totalitarianism advanced. The rivalry between three social systems (Fascism, Communism, and Parliamentary Democracy) was the signature of the interwar period. The dialectics of modernity became manifest in the mutation from extreme rationality, as it had been developed in modern times, into the extreme irrationality which became apparent in the different scenarios of mass war and totalitarian terror.

The topic entitled 'Rise and Fall of Democracy' is the centrepiece of this theme, pointing out the wave of political change in the aftermath of World War I on the one hand and the rapid decline of the new democracies created by the Versailles Treaties in the interwar period on the other hand. In this context the comparison between National Socialism and Stalinism is a constituent part of the exhibition. These two extreme manifestations of totalitarian systems should be placed face to face in order to explain both their similarities and their differences.

The exhibition pays special attention to the memory of the Shoah. As the 'break of civilization', the Shoah is the beginning and the nucleus of the European discourse of memory. For a long time, not only did German society repressed its guilt, but also other nations were equally silent about their failings. In the meantime, the recognition of the Shoah as a singular crime against humanity has become the negative reference point of European self-consciousness.

Fragile Stability

The third theme encompasses the period of time from 1945 to 1973.
In 1945 Europe was a landscape of ruins, disempowered and divided,
the theatre of the Cold War between two antagonistic political systems. Nevertheless, for nearly 30 years, on both sides of the 'Iron Curtain', Europe experienced a period of unexpected economic growth. The idea of European integration marks a turning point in European history, laying a political path towards the principle of supranational cooperation.

After World War II, Europe had hit rock bottom. It was transformed from being a leading global power into a devastated continent, dependant on the two superpowers even in decisions on its own future. The 'Iron Curtain' became the historical divide of the continent. The United States and the Soviet Union each emerged with antagonistic programmes corresponding to their mission: economic liberalization and democratization on the one hand, modernisation via state-planning and the leadership of the communist party, on the other hand.

Western Europe experienced a phase of international reconciliation, economic prosperity and consolidation of democratic institutions and structures. On the other hand the Socialist states under Soviet control underwent a period of forced industrialization, alphabetization and social security, under duress from varyingly brutal dictatorships, stabilized under the pressure and military support of the Soviet Union.

The European Economic Community, an entirely unique form of organization with the aim of integrating the economies and to some extent the legal systems of a number of independent nation-states, marks a turning point in the history of the continent. It prevents Western Europe from falling back into previous chauvinistic, aggressive, imperialistic mechanisms. The exhibition will focus on the key events of this process: Extending from the Hague Congress in 1948 to the European Coal and Steel Community, the failure of the European Defence Community, the Treaties of Rome, as well as the establishment of a common agriculture policy, the Elysée Treaty, the 'Empty Chair Crisis', and the first enlargement of the E.C. in 1973. Thus, the exhibition points out that the European integration was a “child” of the Cold War.

Breaking Boundaries

The 1970s mark the end of the post-war era. Western Europe entered a period of long-term economic transformation and far-reaching political and social diversification. The Socialist countries, already concerned about their relative economic backwardness, were now confronted with systemic problems and the decreasing legitimacy of their socio-political system. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the following enforced globalization, the process of European integration has undergone considerable acceleration and deepening.

In relation to the constant confrontation of the two antagonistic camps in Europe, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was a turning point bringing about a ‘change through rapprochement’ in this period of time.
The Helsinki Final Act (1975), which largely through the initiative of the European Community established human rights as a basic norm for relations among European states, became the reference point for dissidents and opposition in Eastern Europe. It serves in the exhibition as the starting point for the description of the final phase of Socialist countries. Stagnation, the growing discrepancy between promise and reality and the erosion of public authority were palpable. People mobilized for more freedom, social justice and political reforms, later on encouraged by Gorbachev´s reforms in the USSR and the recall of the Brezhnev doctrine. These movements finally led to the 1989 revolutions and to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War, which had dominated and had frozen the political situation in Europe for 45 years, came to an end.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire accelerated the European integration process. This became most evident in the enlargement 'marathon'. In deepening the supranational structures and the expansion of its competence to more and more fields of politics, the Europe Union has been breaking political, geographical, economical and mental boundaries.

1989 was the starting point of a phase of a serious and seismic re- interpretation of history, a time of fierce debate, which continues to this day. This will require another detour into the domain of memory in this part of the exhibition. In the last two decades, the Shoah and the GULAG have become the central points of reference in European history. On the one hand, the exhibition will reflect the fact that the memory of the two dictatorial systems of the 20th century did not unify but, very clearly, divided the continent. On the other hand, the interpretations of the two most brutal dictatorships of that past 'century of the extremes' reveal astonishing similarities in their deep structures. Because we deal with history on the basis of a set of mostly common values the visitor should be able to learn to be able to tolerate very different interpretations of history and memories on this basis.


To summarize: There are three devices, which are fundamental to our project:
1. It is our firm conviction: Memories both divide and unify us. This is the basis of our research. Shared memory can be the starting point for a learning process in which different experiences and diverse interpretations are mirrored and related to each other in a new way.
2. The HEH should become a platform for the dialogue on European identity. The refusal to give a complete answer does not make the question of identity redundant. On the contrary: We will not offer complete answers but rather, historical interpretations competing for acceptance.
3. Since Eric Hobsbawm (The Invention of Tradition, 1992) we know about invented traditions. It was not only nation-states which sought legitimacy by inventing a fictional past and which made great efforts to create a particular bond that held people together. In contrast to these historical precursors, the construction of a transnational, pan-European memory should take place through a process of communication, in the light of public discussion - as Jürgen Habermas would put it. (Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida: Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt Europas. FAZ, 31.5.2003)

It is our view that the House of European History will be a good place for a public debate on this topic!