'Genealogies of Memory' 2021: Conference Report
European Remembrance and Solidarity
Warsaw, 5-9 July 2021
Is there a European memory? How do the local and national memories interact, shape, and are shaped by it? How do the peculiar Central and Eastern European experiences with multiple overlapping layers of memory resonate in those wider discussions? These were some of the questions posed by the participants of the 11th edition of the Genealogies of Memory conference, which took place in Warsaw on 5-9 July 2021.
The focus of this year's edition of Genealogies of Memory, a project of the European Network of Solidarity and Remembrance that aims to facilitate intellectual exchange between Central and East European scholars of individual and collective memory, was placed on three interconnected topics: European memory, European studies as memory studies, and Central- and Easter-European examples of the regional European memories.
The overlapping nature of the chosen topics was hardly coincidental, since this year’s edition of the project came in the form of a thematic stream within the 5th Annual Conference of the Memory Studies Association, which gathered over a thousand participants from all around the world to present on the leading theme of “Convergences”. Throughout the five-day long event panels and round-table discussions concerning European memory organized as a part of Genealogies of Memory took place, with scholars of Central-Eastern Europe, so dramatically shaped by complex past, speaking on the theory and practice of studying mnemonic landscapes full of entangled and often conflicting memories. What follows is an attempt at a brief overview of the papers and ideas presented during the conference.
European Memory: Re-evaluations, Monuments, and Empty Spaces
The first of the conference panels organized as a part of this year’s edition of Genealogies of Memory focused on bringing in new perspectives into the discussions about the European Memories, with presenters reflecting on the role and methods of studying memory in their disciplines. Daniel Levi argued for the scholars of Memory Studies to turn their focus away from constructivist approaches grounded in national frameworks, toward “Civilizational memories”, deeply rooted in the master narratives. Speaking from the perspective of International Legal Studies, Nadia Kornioti highlighted how the understanding of the history of international law and its institutional memory can inform memory studies by creating a more inclusive framework for memory. Two following presenters, Eugenijus Žmuida and Ian Ellison, illustrated differing approaches to memory in Literary Studies, with the former contrasting Lithuanian literary memories of both World Wars with “lost generations” literature, and the latter tackling the issue of thematization of memory itself in the case of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and its cultural afterlife.
Slightly shifting the focus from contemplating alternative approaches to contemplating alternative narratives, the second panel addressed ongoing debates surrounding European memories of imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and atrocities of 20th-century totalitarianism. Jordi Guixé talked about concepts of Dissonant Heritage and Participatory Memory, drawing from the variety of examples mostly focused on challenging the silence surrounding memories of Francoism. The legacy of Franco’s dictatorship was also a subject of Rafael Pérez Baquero’s presentation, in which he discussed the process of trans-nationalisation of the memory of the Holocaust and of decontextualisation of its victims in a Spanish context. Francisco Martinez discussed how politics of monumental neglect in Estonia reflected the attitude to the Soviet past in the post-Soviet sphere. Finally, Tom Crowley discussed the recent debates about British Heritage in the wake of BLM protests, presenting a discrepancy between positions of activists and cultural heritage professionals and framing of the debate presented in media, which tended to overlook the experiences of exclusion.
Many of the themes that emerged during the second panel carried over to the later discussions. Thus, the presentations by Egemen Özbek, Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermeier, and Halina-Joy Gadbury, all expanded on the previously raised notion of the universalization of the Holocaust as a unifying European, cosmopolitan memory. While Özbek demonstrated how it serves as a framework for transnationalization of memorialization of other genocides, Shapiro-Obermeier and Gadbury illuminated in their studies of memorial’s reception by the local public how Parisian or Lviv’s memories of the Shoah can be transposed onto this cosmopolitan form. In this sense, the struggle to of local communities to integrate the Holocaust into their national narratives while still reckoning with the effects of policies of forgetting--be it of Armenian genocide or French victims of the Holocaust--creates a sense of pot-holocaust emptiness. These kinds of silent spaces were examined by Mariana Freijomil in her presentation on images of repression during Franco's dictatorship in contemporary Spanish cinema, with the following panel’s Bernabé Wesley elaborating on the role of erasure, collective amnesia, and oblivion in the social memory. One of the reasons for such repression of memory, collective trauma, was further explored by Claudia-Florentina Dobre, who discussed the impact of cultural trauma of the communist regime in Romania in the context of postmemory of the descendants of former political detainees.
Furthermore, just like Shapiro-Obermeier and Gadbury before, so did the other presenters return to the theme of the materiality of memory and the possibility of recontextualization of memorials in the wake of changes to the way in which societies approach their past. Jovana Janinovic and Jörg Hackmann investigated the mechanisms for dealing with the "unwanted" legacies of totalitarian dictatorship in Central-Eastern Europe, by discussing touristification of sites of the totalitarian regimes in former Yugoslavia and a contemporary fate of Soviet War Memorials in the countries of the former Eastern bloc respectively. Maria Czaputowicz-Głowacka had an opportunity to look at the transformation of meanings and forms of the Central-Eastern European Tombs of Unknown Soldiers over time, inviting reflections about the comparisons within the region and with the Unknown Soldiers commemorations in Western Europe. Finally, Susanne Buckley-Ziste investigated the forms taken by memorials themselves, documenting the shifts in politics of their aesthetics.
The end of End of History: Crisis, Trauma, and Hopes.
In recounting the themes emerging in the first days of this year’s edition of Genealogies of Memory, one can spot a preoccupation with the contemporary moment as a moment of change in European Memory. Be it a re-evaluation of approaches and questionnaire of the discipline itself, contested memories of European colonial, imperial, and totalitarian atrocities, transformative effect transnational memory has on national narratives, or question of deliberate cultural forgetting and memorial neglect, they all seem to suggest that we live in the times of transition, if not an outright crisis, of European societies and memories. It is then hardly surprising that organizers of Genealogies of Memory invited Ivan Kratsev and Marek Cichocki, two well-renowned scholars and public intellectuals representing liberal and conservative sides of political debate, to characterize the source of the feeling of the crisis that seemingly dominates European political and cultural discourse, fueling the anxieties concerning historical memory. Without recounting the whole debate, it is worth pointing out that both speakers that our approach to the past, still dictated by the logic of the Fukuyamian End of History in which it is seen as a subject of memory, will have to change in order to face the challenges ahead. When reflecting on broader problems of unified European memory and identity, Kratsev proposed that while creation of such a memory narrative would require accepting certain exclusions, the lack of one reading of history is paradoxically a unifying factor of Europeanness, while Cichocki pointed toward the problem of still not discussed-over differences in the memory between Western and Eastern Europe.
While both of those ideas resonated throughout the whole conference, the following panel discussion on Eastern-European memory in the post-socialist German literature showed that concerns voiced by Krastev and Cichocki were not alien to other European intellectuals. Speakers of the panel--Kristin Rebien, Maria Mayr, Michel Mallet, Amy Leech, and Timothy Attanucci--demonstrated how contemporary German-language writers dealt with the Eastern enlargement of European Memory. Panelists pointed out not only the importance of those kinds of transcultural reflections on past and memory contribute to the formation of the sense of European unity, but also highlighted how recovering the “lost futures” of post-socialist memories can help us not only understand the East’s complex relationship to socialist past, but also to better navigate the issues brought by the end of End of History.
Unlike those previous panelists, who deliberately aimed at reaching beyond the traumatic memory in post-Socialist Europe, the presenters from the last of Wednesday's panels specifically focused on traumascapes of Sarajevo during its siege, returning to the previously touched upon a problem of the materiality of cultural heritage, re-examining this aspect of memory in the processes of private and collective remembrance. For architects Selma Ćatović Hughes, Ena Kukić, and Sabina Tanović, it was an occasion to present differing design approaches to the memory architecture on the one hand, while discussing the differences between generational experiences, their private and collective memories of the siege and the Sarajevo Tunnel, which--just like in the previous Yugoslavian examples discussed by Jovana Janinovic--became a site of touristisation of memory. They were joined in their discussion by art historian Claudia Zini, who discussed her curatorial approach to the exhibition of Mevludin Ekmečić works, just like her colleagues drawing attention to the subjugation of the complex memories of the siege into a straight-forward national narration of endurance.
Politics of Transnational and Local Memory
The two panels of the fourth day of the conference shared a theme of exploring the way in which transnational memory interacts with national narratives, often contingent on political pressures and interests. The speakers of the first one focused their case studies on the instrumentalization of the historical narratives in the contemporary conflicts between Russia and its neighbours. Malkhaz Toria presented the way in which the Russian-Georgian conflict was reflected in the national narratives of both countries, and how the fabricated historical claims were used to legalize the presence of the Russian Federation in the separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Jade McGlynn reflected on how the Russian policy of building memory alliances through public diplomacy can serve not only as an example of deliberate endeavour in transnationalizing one’s politically instrumentalized vision of the past. Somewhat problematizing Krastev’s statement from the debate, she pointed out that it is precisely the empty spaces of grievance excluded from the unified European memory that serve as convenient points of contention exploited by the Russian Federation in their challenge to the Europeanisation of Memory. Finally, Kateryna Bohuslavska explored through the lens of recent Ukrainian state-financed historical film productions the way in which the double-edged strategy of “Mnemonic Security” shapes the new national memory narrative, preventing not only misuses of history on part of the Kremlin, but also broader historical discussion about the past in the Ukrainian society.
The second of the panels, which took the form of the round-table discussion, was concerned with the very peculiar transnational memory - namely the one of the Holocaust. Harboring back to the discussions about the universalizing power of this cosmopolitan memory from previous days of the conference, participants discussed how the global turn from victims, perpetrators and collaborators, toward the figures of non-Jewish helpers and rescuers was reflected on the level of national memories of the Shoah. Zofia Wóycicka, Natalia Aleksiun, Anna Bikont, Anna Maria Droumpouki, Sarah Gensburger, and Mark Roseman discussed the findings soon to be published in the edited volume, in which they aimed at freeing the figure of the rescuer from the confines of moralising and politically useful side of memory by looking at the political and cultural processes that led the selection of the memories and figures being foregrounded, and by historicising the process of the rescue through investigation of broader social, organizational, and ideological environments in which it took place.
The last day of the conference brought two panels that similarly shared the preoccupation with the memory politics in East-Central Europe, but focused more on the political and social contingencies behind the shifts in the promoted memory narratives. The first, devoted to the examples from Poland and Czech Republic, saw Igor Pietraszewski’s and Tomas Sniegon’s presentations on two monuments--of the Accursed Soldiers in Wrocław and Ivan Konev in Prague--the erection or removal of became a subject of heated political debate, revealing deeper memory conflicts within Polish and Czech societies. Their examples were followed by the paper by Radmila Svarickova Slabakova, who presented the results of a large qualitative study on shifting perspectives on World War II in Czech society, demonstrating that generational changes can also create a rift in collective memory, though markedly not as dramatic as those caused by political partisanship. The transformation of imaginarium linked to the war by the new generation of Czechs was explained in her argument by the tendency of the young generation to perceive the war in abstract terms and incorporating a home narrative of suffering into a larger universalized frameworks of cosmopolitan memory.
The second panel focused on political underpinnings and expressions of the trans-national memory conflict between Poland and Ukraine. Tomasz Stryjek and Volodymyr Sklokin gave in their presentations an overview of the immediate cause and course of the devolution of the reconciliation process and proceeding conflict, which reached its peak in 2014-2019 and manifested itself in the memory laws adopted by the parliaments of both countries, as well as the deeper sources of the conflict grounded in the differing historical cultures. Marta Studenna-Skrukwa gave an overview of the results of her research on contemporaneous changes in the patriotic discourse in historical education in both countries, while Grzegorz Demel traced the same discourse in the political speeches of the Polish and Ukrainian heads of state. Their analysis revealed similarities and differences in a way conservative and nationalist governments used politics of memory as tools of identity politics, while either striving to place their national narratives within European framework or, feeling it sufficiently established, to accentuate the unique national experiences for the purpose of national consolidation.
Transnationality between Centre and Peripheries: Writers, Artists, and Protesters
The other panels organized on the last day of the conference, though more loosely, were still connected by the throughline of the cultural lense, through which they explored the impact of artistic reflections in literature and other media alike on shaping the European memory. Thus, the presentations offered by Leszek Drong, Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdottir, and Biljana Markovic all focused on the ways in which literature illustrates the impact of the process of forming individual and collective memory impacts one’s identity. Drong’s comparative exploration of provincial memories of Northern Ireland and Lower Silesia, as well as Gudmundsdottir’s discussion on the peculiar position of Icelandinc memory of World War II offered a new dimension to the larger discussions about centres and peripheries of European Memory. Bringing another example of commonalities between two seemingly unrelated authors, Stefan Zweig and Milos Crnjanski, Biljana Markovic convincingly demonstrated how the shared trauma of the 20th century led both of them toward developing visions of shared European cultural memory. The dominant experience shaping their transnational memories--living in a multicultural community and losing it--was also present in the memories of their German lives by Turkish migrants returning home, who were the subject of Irmak Evren’s presentation. By focusing on the way in which memories become transnational through migration, her paper brought this often overlooked way through which memories converge and are disseminated to the forefront of the discussion about the creation of wider European memory.
Shifting focus away from the expressions of identity in transnational memory, but staying in the realm of literature, Jan Miklas-Frankowski discussed Polish literary reportage’s preoccupation with disappearing collective memory connected to Polish-Jewish past and its preservation, pointing toward the leading role of its authors in creating new kind of fluid, transcultural identities. This crucial place of artists in bringing about the convergence of shared memories was a subject of further discussion by the co-participants of the penultimate debate panel. Catharine Bulbatzky elaborated on used by Miklas-Frankowski concept of Memoryland, coined by Sharon Macdonald, in order to ask the question about whose memories and about which events are obsessed over in European Memoryland, illustrating with the example of the 2015’s European migrant crisis how art can prove a powerful political tool in resistance against forgetting. Dimitra Gkitsa’s presentation somewhat unexpectedly echoed voices from the previous panel on Eastern-European memory in post-socialist German literature. Her project, by focusing on the Artistic Collectives in the former Eastern Bloc, similarly demonstrated how artists draw from post-socialist experience, re-evaluating past language and forms to imagine alternative futures. While she studied artists coming together to create communities on their own, Branislava Kuburović’s focus was on Europe’s broken communities. She argued that their shattered geographies and memories should not be expected to re-gather into coherent narratives and are much more poignantly remarked in works of art that acknowledge the paradox of such dispersed cartographies. Returning to shared landscapes, Ondřej Váša pondered the philosophical implications of the light pollution of the night sky, which as he pointed out constitutes a universal landscape deeply culturally connected with the figures of friendly remembrance and forgiveness.
Finally, the last panel of the Genealogies of Memory stream concerned protesters - who, like artists, spontaneously perform forms of citizenship and resistance through remembering and forgetting. The roundtable discussion between Volodymyr Ishchenko, Kristof Van Den Troost, Jan Kubik, Nelly Bekus, and Simon Lewis, explored the proliferation, reinvention, and reappropriation of historical symbols and colonial legacies in the recent mass protest movements in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Hong Kong. With all of those places sharing colonial legacy, such a widely cast comparative framework brought interesting insights about burgeoning shared patterns and ways of adapting the global ‘protest repertoires’ and language of dissent.
In lieu of a conclusion
It is an impossible task to summarize all of the ideas raised during this year’s edition of the Genealogies of Memory. Perhaps quite fittingly for the form in which it was organized, within the framework of the larger event, and its main theme of convergences, the content of this year’s edition escapes easy categorization and division into thematic strands, with each of the panels bringing nuanced perspectives and interplaying voices. What was shared by all of the participants was their preoccupation with the interactions between local, national, and transnational memories in Europe, and the way in which it creates and fosters identities. With Europe's anxious preoccupation with collective memory only further exacerbated by the end of End of History, the many attempts by the attendees to re-evaluate the questionnaire and methods of Memory Studies as an academic field, as well as addressing the ongoing debates about European Memory feel much welcomed. So does the attempt at reaching to the memories of lost futures which, as history starts anew, provide a new form and language to describe and--if the need arises--protest dominant forces and narratives. I am convinced that these endeavours will continue producing new, thought-provoking scholarship on memory in global and regional, Central-Eastern European context, which will be a subject of equally exciting discussions in Genealogies of Memory and Memory Studies Association conferences to come.