Revisionism instead of reinvention
How CEE countries have impacted European remembrance and vice versa.
In recent years, we have seen multiple attempts by state institutions and international bodies to use or even abuse history for political-ideological purposes. Since the revolutions of 1989, Europe has experienced a gradual shift from a liberal era – in which professional historians and other dedicated researchers freely explore and publics openly debate historical subjects – to one defined by new historical policies. Strikingly, self-declared illiberal forces are not solely responsible for such policies today. Nominally liberal states and increasingly, EU institutions are also to blame. Most conspicuously, the European Parliament has also started to shape the way societies understand the ‘meaning of history’ and have made repeated attempts to define the boundaries of admissible interpretations and remembrance in particular. This political shift has taken place while there has been too little public debate about what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate forms of historical policy, i.e. what uses of history by state institutions can be admissible in a liberal democratic environment.
The shift has also dovetailed with an intellectual shift from the analytical-critical language of history to that of memory. Instead of critical analyses and rational debates regarding historical causes and processes, attention has been refocused on subjective experiences and recollections of the past. This refocusing could potentially have humanizing and democratizing effects. However, many a politician who prefers to employ the language of memory today tends to reference memories uncritically or even solipsistically. Since such references to memory are closely intertwined with questions of identity, they are difficult to meaningfully contest.
CEE representatives’ unusual impact and its consequences
The Central and Eastern European member states of the EU, still often treated as marginal players in Western European discussions, have emerged as unusually influential at these new European memory games that yield historical policies. Through the canonisation of the theory of twin – Nazi and Soviet – totalitarianisms in particular, CEE representatives and their allies have managed to dethrone the anti-fascist consensus that was so characteristic of the Western European mainstream until the early 21st century and reshape the European Union’s understanding of the recent past. As a consequence of European enlargement and the ‘CEE factor,’ there is currently ambiguity and much oscillation at the heart of the European Union’s historical policy. Official declarations assert the uniqueness
CEE representatives’ notable successes in impacting the European Union’s historical policy have to do with a widespread, if rather vague sense that Western Europeans had around the time of the 2004-2007 enlargements that they owed a symbolic debt of historical recognition to CEE countries. More generally, the success of CEE representatives was related to the European Union’s self-understanding as a consensus-making machine, which implied a desire to recognise, accommodate and incorporate perspectives of the ‘newer member states.’ An equally, if not more critical factor behind CEE’s unusual influence in shaping the European Union’s new historical policy is that – despite all the expert talk about the supposedly mutually antagonistic nationalisms of these countries – their representatives have managed to build a region-wide right-wing coalition.
When these countries joined the European Union and started to have more intense exchanges about recent history at the regional and European levels, important changes resulted. After all, equating the totalitarian evils of Nazism and Soviet communism – the pre-dominant view in historical declarations made by the European Parliament in recent years – does not adequately reflect domestic discussions within CEE countries. Prior to the European Union enlargement, not many participants in national debates subscribed to the notion that the Soviet-type regimes continued to be totalitarian all the way until their implosion. Within the individual counties, the history and memory of Soviet-type regimes have been highly contested since 1989 with public opinion in most countries sharply divided. The European Parliament has thus unwittingly introduced perspectives into the mainstream that had been polemical and controversial within the newer member states.
Becoming part of the European Union has played a role in the rightward shift of the historical cultures of CEE countries – a shift that has often proceeded through the thesis on dual occupation. What we have seen since the European Union’s ‘big bang enlargement’ may be briefly summarised as the extrapolation of the September 1939 experience of Poland to a regional scale. Through propagating a thesis on dual – subsequent or almost simultaneous Nazi and Soviet – occupation, numerous CEE states can make a subtle move to externalize responsibility for mass crimes in the twentieth century. In CEE states that were allied with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy (such as Hungary, Romania, Slovakia or Croatia), or where support for the anti-Bolshevik ‘war of annihilation’ was widespread (such as in the Baltics), this new focus on dual occupation has gone a long way to obfuscate these countries’ actual roles in WW2. The dual irony here is that European Union institutions have been only too eager to accommodate such an ‘anti-imperialistic’ perspective on the dual occupation of CEE, even though the right-wingers propagating such views have been deploying the same tactics to attack ‘Brussels’ designs’.
Many recent European declarations and policies regarding history continue to revolve around the concept of totalitarianism, despite the fact that the totalitarian theory has received extensive and convincing critiques in historical scholarship for the past half-century. Building a totalitarian system may indeed have been the cherished goal of certain regimes and rulers (or at least one of their propaganda slogans). However, total control was never exerted and the masses have not actually been collectivised. Alongside all the mass violence, a level of individual agency was preserved and various institutions continued to compete in Nazi Germany as well as, if to a lesser extent, in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Assessed in the light of current historical scholarship, recent declarations on the national and European levels condemning ‘totalitarianisms,’ such as the most recent one “on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe,” sound like doctors declaring that ‘illness is bad.’ While such a statement is not unreasonable, it does not offer a diagnosis of symptoms or a proper analysis of causes, nor does it suggest potential remedies. By expressing strict opposition to totalitarianisms, such nominally historical declarations do little more than provide ideological legitimation for our current but vaguely-defined political order.
World War II and totalitarianisms remain basic points of reference in the European Union’s historical policy today because the European project has largely failed to reinvent its historical narrative after 1989. The European Union has not only weakly institutionalised ‘1989;’ it has not sufficiently opened towards global perspectives either. The European Union has continued to propagate its narrative of ‘peace and prosperity,’ which was developed to highlight the contrast of the world wars and the Great Slump of 1929. Whereas many members of younger generations tend to take the absence of war within the Union for granted, it is no longer clear to them that the European Union is also a source of economic prosperity.
1989 might have provided a more positive founding narrative for the European project beyond the East–West divide, a narrative that was sensitive to differences in postwar historical experiences and emphasised common European political values. However, as the meaning and memory of 1989 continue to be marginal in the European Union’s new historical policies, European institutions lack a resonant narrative to substantially contest attempts in countries like Poland and Hungary to appropriate ‘1989’ for anti-liberal purposes.
Colonialism and de-colonisation have not emerged as mainstream subjects in the critical historical self-understanding of Europeans either. Ironically, this neglect and ignorance has had grave consequences in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years – countries which, unlike their Western counterparts, have not been directly involved in the history of colonialism but continue to subscribe to a more exclusively Eurocentric vision of the world.
In conclusion, through challenging key tenets of the anti-fascist consensus and successfully promoting the notion of occupations by totalitarianism twins instead, CEE representatives have achieved the highest symbolic recognition of their own countries’ suffering under Soviet regimes. They have transformed the way European institutions interpret and intend to remember the continent’s recent past without placing the liberal democratic values of 1989 at the very center. At the same time, the political representatives and societies of CEE countries, largely in accordance with Western reluctance, have ignored what could serve as another negative foundation for contemporary European memory: the history of European colonialism and colonial crimes. Viewed in this light, all the recent insistence on the history of two totalitarianisms has been a way to not devote sufficient critical attention to racially-based discrimination and violence – the issue that most intimately connects the history of colonialism and that of Nazism.
Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor in European history at Maastricht University and, most recently, co-editor (with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič) of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 (CEU Press-Eurozine, 2019)