Book Review: Auf dem Weg Zu Einer Europäischen Gedächtniskultur?

Auf dem Weg zu einer europäischen Gedächtniskultur?, Wiener Vorlesungen im Rathaus: Picus Verlag Wien, 2012
Aleida Assmann
Reviewed by Hüseyin I. Cicek Cluster, Anthropology and Violence University of Innsbruck

Europe has a complex and violent history and the European nations have to deal with it.

However, since the end of World War II (WWII) and especially since individual European nations have taken responsibility for their actions during the last war, a collective transnational tradition of remembrance, according to Assmann, has been developed. Such developments are not the outcome of politics which are concerned about the past; they are rather the result of relations which gain an own dynamic at a certain point and lead to such traditions. Right after the WWII there was little if not any interest for the Shoah. The historical developments after the defeat of the Nazi system show that there was a huge interest to keep Germany very close to its former enemies like Great Britain, France, USA and among them others, who had a vital interest to support and build a liberal and democratic Germany.

Aleida Assmann approaches the topic “On the Road to a European remembrance Culture?” from different perspectives. The question mark includes that the process is in progress, and the outcome of it is still unknown. There are many challenges European nations have to deal with. They have to face their past and need solutions for its impact on today’s society. Assmann refers to Ernest Renan (17), who believed that a nation is a “construct” of a common past or memory. If we take a closer look to the national founding myths of the western states, we have to acknowledge that Renan is right with his assumption. For instance, Kosovo is the common memory for the Serbs; for the Turks it is Ataturks war of independence and for Italy it is the movement of Risorgimento. All these memories share a very important and crucial fact: they all are exclusive and they prefer only one group of people. In other words: the perspective a foundational myth reveals could refer to a particular time in history, or a war and etc. Such myths are not invented to realize a peaceful policy between nations, they are produced to develop imaginary borders, as well as to create a legitimate ground for demonizing enemies or antagonistic states.

As mentioned above the main focus of Assmann is the development of a remembrance culture among the member states of the European Union. Here we are confronted with different historical realities. Europe is a conglomerate of very exclusive traditions, like the ancient Greek and Roman, as well as the biblical tradition. Nevertheless, Europeans are inherits of the two World Wars. The cruelty and damage which was experienced back then is – according to Assmann – a very important point in the memory of European nations and it could serve as a core of a collective remembrance-tradition for European states. In some way, all the member states of the European Union and those who desire to become a member in the future have participated in the two World Wars, the Holocaust and Gulag (21).

Assmann divides her essay in five points, which should clear her perspective on the topic: (1) Erinnern oder Vergessen? Remembering or Forgetting; (2) Der Holocaust als europäischer Gründungsmythos The Holocaust as common European foundational myth; (3) Nationalsozialismus und Stalinismus – Das gespaltene Gedächtnis Europas National Socialism and Stalinism – The divided memory of Europe; (4) Dialogische Erinnerungskultur Dialogic Remembrance-culture; (5) Die Europäisierung nationaler Erinnerungen The Europeanization of national memories.

(1) Remembering or Forgetting: Assmann tries to show that the European tradition (since the Peace of Westphalia) can be summarized as a policy of “perpetua oblivio et amnestia”; in short: forgive and forget. This kind of a specific consensus between the conflict parties was a “necessary” act, because it worked as a cocoon (Kokon, 25) which was designed to stop revenge and a new wave of German radicalization (26). The Author refers to Hermann Lübbe who invented the term “communicative silence” [kommunikatives Beschweigen]; the Author also cites Winston Churchill who also tried to convince the European nations to “turn [their; HC] backs upon the horrors of the past” (28). However, Assmann criticizes Christian Meier, an ancient historian, who strongly disagrees with an intellectual, political or cultural remembrancetradition because for him, the ancient world memories never stopped violence rather than accelerating the conflicts between different cultures (23). Nonetheless, her critics should be taken not too serious, because Meiers arguments are not quite that simple as Assmann points out.

(2 and 3) The Holocaust as a common foundational myth / National Socialism and Stalinism – The divided memory of Europe: more than twenty years after the WWII the Holocaust appeared in German society as well as in other European countries. Germany’s attempts to find a way to deal with its history during the reign of National Socialism, was also a possibility to achieve a new identity. The identity which Germans gained from a negative memory did not humiliate the collective conscious; it rather helped to transform and build a new identity which is based on remembering the own crimes against humanity. It also allows to give the victims a “voice” and to see the history from their perspective. While usual foundational myths are trying to achieve a “pathological homogenization” the German one is the opposite of such an achievement. In this chapter the author also refers to the former president of the Federal Republic of Germany Roman Herzog, the Swedish president Göran Persson and others, who had a particular influence in establishing an Holocaust commemoration day. Every country who wants to join the European Union has to participate in the remembrance cooperation, which is a request for a successful accession. Because all of the eastern European states after WWII were transformed to communistic satellite states, there are gradual differences in connection with their past. First, they focus on communism and (maybe) less on WWII. Therefore Assmann tries to explore a remembrance tradition which includes WWII, the Holocaust and Gulag. Her argument is very simple and also very effective: all Europeans – and even those who have claimed to be neutral, like Switzerland and Turkey for example – have contributed in some way to enabling what took place in Germany during 1933 and 1945. Once again, after WWII some European states, which were collaborating with Nazi-Germany, became the victims of Stalinism and had in part experienced what the Jews went through. As Assmann tries to show a competition of victims could arise: all “victims” try to convince the other “victims” that their experiences were much more cruel than those of their “opponents”. According to Assmann, it is necessary, that all European nations accept their involvement in the past and also transform their negative past into one which not only emphasis their sufferings, but also of those who had been killed because of their actions.

(4 and 5) Dialogic Remembrance-culture / The Europeanization of national memories: In those two chapters, Assmann emphasizes a dialogic remembrance-culture which can be summarized as an agreement between all states of the European Union. It includes that they do not only work on their victimhood but also accept their role during the war, Holocaust or Gulag.

A Europe which is really interested in a stable political system and which wants to learn from its historical failures – so Assmann – has to reveal its past and its crimes.

Assmann’s essay is really tempting the reader to think about a foundational myth for Europe and how it could be realized. However, she is not referring to the European rightwing parties who are abusing the remembrance-tradition. For example, Austrian rightwing fraternities organize a yearly “remembrance-day” for all the victims of WWII on May 8th. The “Burschenschaften” were one of the elites during the Nazi system. There is a big challenge inside Europe emerging from the rightwing corner to undercut a project which is really necessary for the European Union. The financial crisis shows once more how fragile the concept of the European Union is and how important it is to have a source which strengthens the political identity.

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