9th European Remembrance Symposium: Memory and Identity in Europe: Present and Future
Does the history of the last century unite or divide Europeans? What role in building the identity of the inhabitants of the continent does the memory of the past play today? Is a common, European culture of remembrance even possible?
The 9th edition of the European Remembrance Symposium posed those questions to the broad community of academics, educators, and professionals in the Culture and NGO sectors. As an annual project of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Symposium aims at facilitating the exchange of contacts, experiences, and ideas between institutions dealing with historical education and memory politics across Europe. After a break caused by the pandemic, this year's edition took place between 26-28 October in Tallinn, with the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory as a local co-organizer of the event.
The focus on the exchange of ideas and open-ended dialogue rather than definitive statements was already seen in the format of the event. Thus, the first day featured an opening session on different approaches of remembrance policies in Europe, during which Elazar Barkan, Toomas Hiio, Monika Kareniauskaitė, Michał Łuczewski, Viacheslav Morozov, and Gergely Prőhle discussed the complicated questions about European identity. It was followed up by a series of lightning rounds of 90-second long ‘turbo presentations’, during which the representatives of almost 20 institutions presented their past, present, and future projects. The second day was dedicated to further discussions about the institutional aspects of memory politics. The first panel featured the Heads of ENRS, EUROM, House of European History, and Platform of European Memory and Conscience discussing the broadly understood policies and operational challenges concerning memory politics in the European framework. The second session of the day interrogated the project coordinators in the fields of history and memory on their experiences with addressing contested histories, including perspectives of local communities and uses of new communication technologies. The last panel of the day saw a departure towards topics focusing on contested memories and multilayeredness of the European identities, with Peter Jašek, Tobias Rupprecht, Lars Fredrik Stöcker, and Paweł Ukielski discussing their newest research on multi-faceted changes related to the memory and events of the year 1989 in East-Central Europe. Some aspects of this conversation resonated strongly during the last day of the Symposium, which saw Linda Kaljundi, Beáta Katrebová Blehová, Réka Földváryné Kiss, Velma Šarić, and Lavinia Stan elaborating on the way differing experiences of 20th-century totalitarian regimes still resonate in the divisions between historical perspectives and memories of Western and Eastern Europe. The Symposium ended with the roundtable on the state of the common European identity, with Maria Silvia Crăciun, András Fejérdy, Alicja Knast, and Barbara Walshe asked to contemplate not only its current state but also its possible futures.
Three days of panel debates, roundtable discussions, and turbo presentations brought opportunities for the participants to present their ongoing projects and find new partners as well as to reflect on the state of the European culture of remembrance. The following impressions focus just on selected strands of reflections arising from the debates during the Symposium.
Reopening a dialogue?
True to the vision of the organizers, the Symposium proved not only a place of dialogue but also an opportunity to reflect on the processes of historical dialogue in Europe. The general conclusion of the panels dedicated to the broader questions of European identities, memories, and contested histories was that the lines drawn by the Cold War are still visible in the way memory culture is shaped throughout the continent. More than once discussants of different panels underlined the need for the Western European public to acknowledge the toll authoritarian rule during Communism had on East-Central Europe, as well as more thorough incorporation of the experiences of this part of the continent into the common European memory culture.
This gap in European historical awareness, as explained by Monika Kareniauskaitė and Viacheslav Morozov, has its origins in the deeply rooted narratives constructed during the process of the accession of post-socialist countries into the Union. The transformative political efforts that led to the eastward expansion of the European Union in the early 21st century were seen by the intellectual elites both in the West and East as a moment of ‘returning home’ for countries like Poland, Hungary, or Estonia. Yet the very same narrative implied that old member states of the EU could have seen their common project as already accomplished, reconceptualizing the European Union as an already achieved and fully realized model of liberal democracy. The process of mending Western and Eastern Europe was supposed to take place through imitation, rather than a dialogue. The recent challenges to this vision of the European Union as a finalized project, signal the need for reopening of the dialogue about the common identity.
At the same time East-Central European memory—at least in its official capacity—needs to recognize that the experiences of victimhood brought there by multiple totalitarian regimes do not exclude the contemporaneous examples of the local perpetrators. The unique historical experiences of the region mean that in the local societies the line between the two becomes blurred. Nevertheless, as it was pointed out by Michał Łuczewski the mnemonic metanarrative of victimhood, so popular in East-Central Europe, serves as a backbone of the national “moral capital”. It was the participants' shared belief that overcoming the dichotomy of victim-oppressor, while not surrendering into the moral and legal relativism, should be an important goal reached through the continuous dialogue.
Speaking louder? Learning to listen?
The notion of the dialogue itself became one of the most often repeated themes of the Symposium. This is of course hardly surprising, given that one of the main goals of the event was to provide different institutions with the opportunity to network and share with each other.
However, the institutions concerned with the remembrance culture and historical education were not the only conversation partners the participants of the Symposium pointed out as necessary to engage in dialogue with. The representatives of ENRS, House of European History and Platform of European Memory and Conscience spoke at length about the need to garner further support from the EU officials. After all, lively and meaningful historical debates, with the participation of representatives of diverse backgrounds are hard to organize without consistent and well-thought-out support. The funding mechanisms, however, should be constructed in a way that would ensure that even younger, less established institutions can participate in the discussion. Some panelists expressed their frustration with the lack of political engagement at the highest level of the EU institutions. Their testimonies highlighted the need for clear communication channels through which organizations would be able to reach proper offices in the European Commission, suggesting that the establishment of some kind of liaison office might be a good solution. Besides increasing the lobbying efforts, both at the European and national levels, Symposium participants pointed toward the different ways in which already established European tools could be utilized in the aid of common memory politics. For example, the use of the Eurobarometer to gauge the popular beliefs concerning the European past and identity was suggested.
This seemingly straightforward idea brought up a different layer of partners in the conversation about the common European memory - namely the broadly defined European public. While governmental or nongovernmental institutions make an effort to foster reliable historical research and fact-based historical and civil education, the success of any common European remembrance culture ultimately relies on the resonance the narrative it provides will have in broader society. Here, especially during the panels of the Symposium dedicated to the exchange of best practices, two different--but not mutually exclusive--approaches were seen. The first one focused on reaching the audience, with new technologies allowing the institutions not only to better understand their current patrons and visitors but also reach the new ones - especially the youth. The second approach utilized the technology in a different way, platforming the voices of the local communities themselves. This kind of participatory way of building common memory was illustrated by the examples of the projects that encouraged bottom-up initiatives, in which memory politics institutions act as partners of an engaged citizenry, as well as important work of collecting and disseminating artifacts and oral histories important for the local communities. The connection between the digitalization of European heritage and its democratization seemed obvious for most of the participants, with the Europeana platform being hailed as one of the best examples of successful projects in shaping the common European identity.
While the visible spike in the interest in digital solutions might have been caused by the ongoing pandemic, it does not seem to be only a temporary nor unreflective trend. Furthermore, while most of the participants recognized the opportunities presented by new technologies and media, the tone of the debate was far from vague techno-optimism. Especially the participants of the panel session dedicated to the future of the European historical debates highlighted that social media are a double-edged sword. As observed by András Fejérdy, while social networks make outreach easier, they do not lend themselves to fostering dialogue and discussion. The valid criticism of social media as tools for historical disinformation voiced during the session echoed discussions from the recent conference organized by ENRS, which focused more explicitly on the strategies of countering such false narratives. However, some criticisms of the new methods of communication did run deeper than simple complaints about digital tribalism. When talking about her reflections on the process of post-Civil War reconciliation in Irish society, Barbara Walshe pointed out the importance of the places from which social media are barred as the spaces for true reconciliation. As she convincingly argued, in the process of understanding there is no place for social media-fueled judgment, since the first step on the road to real dialogue is an open and self-reflective exploration of one's own prejudices.
Beyond the national framework?
The discussions about the active role the public should play in shaping the European remembrance culture brought also an intertwined reflection about the pluralistic, multidirectional aspects of the memory cultures in contemporary Europe. The process of creating a common European memory, whether constructed as a singular post-national identity or an overarching umbrella spanning over different national memories, invites reconsideration of the framework which still places most attention on the national communities of memory. While the nation-state, ever since the dawn of modernity, was--and may as well remain--the most important actor actively shaping the identity of community through the narrative about its past, it is important to historicize it and recognize its artificiality. Otherwise, as pointed out by Barbara Walshe, national frameworks tend to overshadow the complexities of multi-faceted individual identities.
Thus, for example, Viacheslav Morozov pointed out that the national memory of the communist oppression often ends up excluding significant population groups of the post-socialist countries. This is the case with the inhabitants of the parts of post-socialist countries heavily indebted to the legacy of socialist industrialist policies, who now find themselves facing the material decline of their regions. Interestingly, this process can be taken out of its post-socialist context and seen as a part of a larger, global phenomenon of social division into cosmopolitan “anywheres” and embittered “somewheres”. Somewhat paradoxically, these kinds of experiences that run contrary to the national memories can be accommodated within the transnational framework, and as such lend themselves better to creating pan-regional connections. This was one of the key insights brought by the panelists who discussed the newest research on the transformation of the year 1989. In their opinion, the processes that took place in that year are too entangled to be told as a series of national histories. What can cast more light on those events is placing them in an even broader global context of emerging liberal globalization, marketization of socialist economies, and other similar processes that took place across the world - especially in Latin America.
This reflection about the place of European memory within the global context was not out of place. Throughout the whole Symposium questions about the geographical extent of European memory returned, though never to be satisfactorily addressed. With the narratives of global slavery, expulsions, and (post)colonial experiences becoming increasingly more prevalent points of reference in the globalizing memory, Europe’s remembrance culture will have to find a way of addressing those issues. For now, the participants of the Symposium highlighted the need for reaching beyond the Europe of the European Union, discussing their attempts at building institutional networks that reach beyond it, with projects in the Balkans, Ukraine, Turkey, and countries linked with the continent by their colonial past.
In the end, the 9th edition of the European Remembrance Symposium brought few definitive answers to the questions posed at its beginning. However, this was never a goal of the organizers. The intention behind the event was, after all, to facilitate the discussion and to provide a space for the exchange of opinions, experiences, and best practices. This objective was definitely reached. The set of the commonly reached policy recommendations, advertised during the Symposium as the additional fruit of the participant’s labor, will hopefully serve as a springboard for further continuous dialogue and cooperation.