‘What’s the point of history… if we never learn’ – an international forum in Berlin has ended.

‘What’s the point of history… if we never learn’ – an international forum in Berlin has ended.

‘What’s the point of history… if we never learn’ – an international forum in Berlin has ended.

‘Historical education is not only about the politicians, it’s about all of us spreading the word’ – an international forum ‘What’s the Point of History… If We Never Learn? Dialogue, Remembrance and Solidarity in Europe. New Challenges for Public History and Historical Education’ has ended in Berlin.

The politics of memory of any given country is not always identical with the one of civil society. Occasionally, even the discourse on a common European past, which began at the turn of the millennium and served as the foundation of a European community capable of acting in unison, seems to be called into question. Is a common memory possible in the face of such diversity of experience? Can national interests and international solidarity be reconciled? And last but not least: what challenges do European practices of remembrance and historical education face in the light of the migratory movements of recent years?

The Berlin forum posed these and other questions to a broad community of the politicians, policymakers, and representatives of cultural education institutions, as well as actors in the field of historical, political and civic education. The event aimed to showcase the diversity of perspectives that serve as a basis for discussing the current challenges for public history teaching and historical education. The forum focused on a shared conversation about the past and its importance for the search for truth, peace, democracy, freedom and tolerance, as well as for a remembrance that respects differences, seeks for connections and strengthens understanding and solidarity in Europe. The emphasis on the exchange of ideas and open dialogue, rather than definitive statements, was evident in the format of the event.

Not coincidentally, the welcoming speeches by Harmut Drgeloh (Humboldt Forum, Berlin), Rafał Rogulski (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, ENRS, Warsaw), Matthias Weber (Bundesinstiut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa, BKGE, Oldenburg) and special guest Claudia Roth, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media on the first day of the event were followed by the screening of the short film 'Sound in the Silence', which presented the previous edition of the project of the same name. The project ‘Sound in Silence' could be a model for modern, inclusive history teaching. One that does not shy away from difficult issues, from different interpretations, and at the same time allows this history to be touched. It was the participants of this project who, in their rap text, posed the question – ‘What’s the point of history, if we never learn?’ – the main thematic focus of the forum. ‘This is a legitimate question. Whether we actually learn very little is another matter, but if the young people feel that way, the question needs to be asked’ – noted Rafał Rogulski, Director of the ENRS. And it actually was, during the two days of inspiring talks and vivid discussions in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

Following the screening of the film, the participants of the forum were able to listen to the first panel discussion chaired by Marek Zając (International Auschwitz Council, Krakow) ‘Do We Ever Learn from History?’ exploring the challenges of the public history and historical education in the 21st century. Participants of the panel discussed the issue from different perspectives. Johannes Schraps, a member of the German Parliament, and Villano Qiriazi, the Head of the Education Department of the Council of Europe, presented their

observations into what challenges public history education faces at the institutional level. Dan Wolf, the Artistic Director of the project ‘Sound in the Silence’, and Alexandra Mészáros, who participated in the project just last year in Kaunas, shared their hands-on insights of it. There could be no better conclusion of the panel than remarks of J. Schraps, who admitted that: ‘Historical education is not only about the politicians, it’s about all of us spreading the word. […] Thus, we all have to challenge our prejudices that we grew up with’.

The second panel discussion moved on to issues of migration societies and European memory. A vigorous discussion took place between Nadette Foley from the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, journalist and author Dima Albitar Kalaji (wearedoingit e.V.), Agnieszka Kosowicz from the Polish Migration Forum Foundation, and Patrick Simon from the French Institute for Demographic Studies. Do we deal with migration, and how does it shape our day-to-day life? The past is not even the past yet; our countries have always had a history of relations. So, how can we move forward? – these were the questions posed by moderator Laura Balomiri (University of Vienna) to the participants of the panel. Answering these questions is as difficult as debunking the many myths surrounding migration. ‘Myths come from fear. Give people space to speak up, what they are concerned with. Just give people space to be heard. […] Refugees are just like us’ – A. Kosowicz appealed. ‘Imagine a migration museum. What kinds of objects would be displayed there to present migration – the struggle, the process, and how it affects the world?’ – this closing question seems to be a topic for reflection not only for policymakers, but for all of us.

The second day of the forum began with an opening lecture ‘Remembrance and Solidarity in Europe: Challenges of Antagonistic Memories’ by Georgiy Kassianov from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University (Lublin). After outlining the three archetypes of the memory narrative – antagonistic, cosmopolitan (transnational) and agonistic – G. Kassianov took a closer look at the trends dominating the contemporary Europe. He observes a new wave of revitalization of antagonistic narratives. The latter represent the past as a moral struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them’, where ‘the other’ turns into an alien. As a rule, the antagonistic narrative is based on an ethnocentric version of history and memory. Nowadays, as the researcher points out, the most striking examples are the revision of the Holocaust, the intensification of contradictions between national and transnational narratives, and finally, the extreme instrumentalization of the past in the case of Russia's large-scale war against Ukraine. G. Kassianov draws particular attention to the fact, that it is easy to see that the prospects for the agonistic approach are hardly rosy. ‘We are witnessing a clear hardening of antagonistic discourses and their large-scale invasion into analytical and scientific discourse. The increasing pressure of dominant political and ideological discourses impacts the academic sphere. It is not difficult to observe this trend over the past decade. For example, left-liberal, right-conservative, and nationalist discourses, regardless of their ideological coloring, have the same simple goal: the imposition of a homogeneous dominant discourse that leaves no room for others. Scholars dealing with Memory Studies who try to adhere to academic standards and disciplinary objectivity find themselves in a minefield when entering the realm of public interaction’ – G. Kassianov said. What does the researcher suggest in the light of the above? ‘To begin with, it is necessary to ensure a more effective transfer of research results and expertise to the fields of actual implementation. Secondly, we need to systematically monitor the field of mnemopolitics (not only in Europe) in order to detect and anticipate the emergence of conflicting antagonistic narratives of the past. Mnemopolitics is the most sensitive indicator of possible problems. Finally, a top down approach to transnational mnemopolitics should be complemented by paying more attention to the history and activism of memory, to the activities of non-scale actors, networks and other informal communities. Memory is engineered, but it is a part of human existence, memory is a part of identity’ – he concluded.

The participants of the third panel discussion: prof. Luigi Cajani (Sapienza University of Rome), Eva-Clarita Pettai (Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena), journalist and author Géraldine Schwarz (Berlin), prof. Jan Rydel (Pedagogical University, Krakow), Alain Lamassoure (Council of Europe, OHTE, Strasbourg), were asked by Paul Ingendaay (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) about national interests and transnational solidarity. It is not just a question of state policy, of civic and pan-human solidarity, of humanism. It is also, and perhaps above all, about the emotional background – both in history, and in history learning. Speakers discussed how nations create a particular image of the past that serves political ideas. History is not memory – memory is a kind of imagination, and it can be analysed by social sciences because it contains a mix of images of the past and present. How can we transmit history without colouring it with our own emotions while also keeping in mind that emotions keep the interest in history alive? As G. Schwarz rightly pointed out: ‘Transmitting history should be done without emotion. Younger generation can’t emotionally understand all the symbols and references. To establish emotional tie it is a good idea to use family histories’. Paul Ingendaay also summed up the question: ‘We all have to learn, unlearn and expand our knowledge. We have to be careful and aware of the emotions, but also keep the emotions alive in order to stimulate the interest in history’. Another question arises in this context – how can we rethink the process of remembrance work on a European level and between generations? As A. Lammassoure remarked: ‘History used to be simple – it was expected to strengthen or even create national identity. The final goal is not to have one European idea, but to have various number of approaches. We should focus on the values of remembrance and solidarity in EU countries’.

The second day of the forum concluded with three parallel sessions, experts’ talks and meeting with practitioners working in the field of historic education and memorial places. The discussions covered topics ranging from the internet to remembrance sites and dealing with conflicting parties and topics. Participants of the first one Paweł Sawicki (Auschwitz Memorial, Katowice), Marlene Wöckinger (Mauthausen Memorial, Linz), Vjeran Pavlaković (University of Rijeka, Zagreb) and film director Alina Gorlova (Kyiv) were asked by Ulrich Herrmann (SWR, Baden-Baden) to share their first hand recollections on the remembrance and education on the Internet and in other media. The second session featured by Axel Klausmeier (Berlin Wall Foundation, Berlin), Chantel Kesteloot (Cegesoma/State Archives, Brussels), Robert Kostro (Polish History Museum Warsaw), József Mélyi (Hungarian University of Fine Arts) and chaired by Constanze Itzel (House of European History, Brussels) was devoted to issues of remembrance at sites of memory and in urban spaces. During the third session, chaired by Andrea Despot (Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ), Berlin), the representatives of various European institutions, such as Oriol López-Badell (European Observatory on Memories, EUROM, Barcelona), Łukasz Kamiński (Ossolineum Library, Wrocław), Kamil Nedvědický (Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, ÚSTR), Prague), Aurora Ailincai (Council of Europe, OHTE, Strasbourg) gave an overview of the projects they facilitate emphasizing the issue of the remembrance and dealing with conflicted topics and parties.

Two days filled with insightful panels, sessions, discussions, and animated talks over coffee and tea brought opportunities for the participants to present their observations and ongoing projects, to share their experiences and insights, as well as to compare different perspectives of public history and historical education. The event has served as another one strong starting point for exploring new common background for dialogue about the past, the present and the future, as well as sharing the care for culture of remembrance.

As the director of the ENRS, Rafał Rogulski, pointed out: ‘The war in Ukraine and very recent attacks on Israel has been in the center of many of our reflections, questions and statements, which means that past and present (and the future) are – as always – connected’. In this context, the words of George Orwell ‘Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past’, quoted by L. Cajani, seem to gain in importance. ‘The discussions were sometimes heated, which is good, because it triggered also our thinking, at the ENRS, of how to make use of our projects and ideas so that they serve our audience in the best way. Multiperspectivity, diversity, different points of view have always been in the center of the ENRS and creating a platform to discuss them (such as this forum) is at the core of our existence’ – R. Rogulski concluded.

We expand our sincere thanks to co-organiser of the forum: Bundesinstiut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa in cooperation with Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, Botschaft von Rumänien in der Bundersrepublic Deutschland, Botschaft der Republik Polen in Berlin Deutschland, and the partners: Polnisches Institut in Berlin, Slowakisches Institut in Berlin, Nordost-Institut, Collegium Hungaricum, Agentur für Bildung Geschichte Politik, Stiftung Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft, Lernen aus der Geschichte, Deutsches Kulturforum östliches Europa, Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung.

We wish to thank everyone who contributed to the event! Thank you to all distinguished panellists and participants of sessions for sharing their experiences, exchanging ideas and creating an atmosphere of cooperation and understanding.

We invite you to visit photo gallery .  of two-day discussions in Berlin!

Be always up to date with our projects!
Sign up for the ENRS monthly newsletter
& stay up to date with our news and events.