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The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe

The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe

by Richard Ned Lebow

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For sixty years, different groups in Europe have put forth interpretations of World War II and their respective countries’ roles in it consistent with their own political and psychological needs. The conflict over the past has played out in diverse arenas, including film, memoirs, court cases, and textbooks. It has had profound implications for democratization


For sixty years, different groups in Europe have put forth interpretations of World War II and their respective countries’ roles in it consistent with their own political and psychological needs. The conflict over the past has played out in diverse arenas, including film, memoirs, court cases, and textbooks. It has had profound implications for democratization and relations between neighboring countries. This collection provides a comparative case study of how memories of World War II have been constructed and revised in seven European nations: France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, and the USSR (Russia). The contributors include scholars of history, literature, political science, psychology, and sociology. Country by country, they bring to the fore the specifics of each nation’s postwar memories in essays commissioned especially for this volume. The use of similar analytical categories facilitates comparisons.

An extensive introduction contains reflections on the significance of Europeans’ memories of World War II and a conclusion provides an analysis of the implications of the contributors’ findings for memory studies. These two pieces tease out some of the findings common to all seven countries: for instance, in each nation, the decade and a half between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s was the period of most profound change in the politics of memory. At the same time, the contributors demonstrate that Europeans understand World War II primarily through national frames of reference, which are surprisingly varied. Memories of the war have important ramifications for the democratization of Central and Eastern Europe and the consolidation of the European Union. This volume clarifies how those memories are formed and institutionalized.

Contributors. Claudio Fogu, Richard J. Golsan, Wulf Kansteiner, Richard Ned Lebow, Regula Ludi, Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, Heidemarie Uhl, Thomas C. Wolfe

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
This rich volume examines the "politics of memory" in postwarAustria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, and Russia. What emerges is how differently each country has coped with its memories of World War II. In Austria, for example, it has taken a long time to shake up the myth of Austria as Nazism's first victim. Regula Ludi's fascinating study, "What Is So Special About Switzerland?" shows how the debates about Swiss behavior during the war "revealed how deeply ingrained received representations were and testified to the function of wartime memory as a framework of the ongoing quest for a national identity." What is striking in all these essays is, in Kansteiner's words, how "difficult it is to determine to what extent" each one of the historical cultures examined here "reflected the historical consciousness of the population — rather than of small elites, of politicians, scholars, educators and media people." This makes one worry about the concept, so widely used in this book and many others, of collective memory.
From the Publisher
“A stimulating addition to the literature on the intersection between memory and history, this collection is an intelligent and robust engagement with issues that simply won’t go away. One of its advantages is that it takes seriously the need to sharpen the conceptual tools we need to handle a subject as protean as memory.”—Jay Winter, author of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History

“This is not the first collaborative volume on post–World War II memory in Europe to appear in recent years, but it is the best and most important. Two qualities that set it apart are the integration of excellent historical writing with a stimulating social-science framework and the broadly humanistic cultural sensibilities embodied in the country-specific chapters. The book will be read with benefit by students of history and political psychology, as well as by those interested in the comparative politics of the past.”—Martin O. Heisler, University of Maryland

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The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3802-4

Chapter One

RICHARD NED LEBOW The Memory of Politics in Postwar Europe

Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose garden -T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

In April 2005 the College of Cardinals elected a German pope-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-who had been a member of the Hitlerjugend and briefly served in the Wehrmacht. The new pope was controversial in Europe-for his ultraconservative religious views, not for his German past. It was widely accepted that he bore no personal responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era. Just about every youth of his age had been enrolled in the Hitlerjugend, and he had deserted the German army to return to the seminary. Jewish authorities praised him for encouraging his predecessor's official recognition of the church's historical role in fanning anti-Semitism and for his efforts to establish more fraternal relations with the State of Israel and Jewish communities in Europe.

At the same time as the College of Cardinals was deliberating, Chinese demonstrators, egged on by their government, were throwing stones at the Japanese embassy in Peking and consulates elsewhere in China, attacking Japanese businesses, and generally protesting Japan's efforts to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nation's Security Council. The demonstrators and the Chinese government had become doubly enraged by the nearly simultaneous publication of a Japanese textbook that sought to downplay or discredit the atrocities, including the Rape of Nanjing, that Japanese occupation forces had committed in China and elsewhere in Asia. The textbook, like most in Japan, also put a favorable gloss on Japan's invasions of China and Southeast Asia, characterizing them as acts of anticolonialism and as economically beneficial for those who had been occupied.

The two events in two different regions of the world were closely related, even if diametrically opposed in their symbolic value. The election of a German pope, and one, moreover, who had worn a military uniform, would have been hard to imagine in the absence of a decades-long effort by successive German governments to come to terms with the past and accept their responsibility for the horrendous suffering the Nazis had inflicted on Europe. The Chinese government was not shy about comparing the German and the Japanese politics of memory. Chinese officials praised Germany for acknowledging its Nazi past, for paying billions of dollars in reparations to victims or their families, and for the increasingly forthright approach of its school curriculum. They noted the visits Chancellor Willy Brandt and President Richard Weizsäcker had made to Auschwitz, as well as their seemingly heartfelt apologies for Germany's crimes. Had the Japanese behaved this way, one Chinese official said, we would view them and their claims for a Security Council seat differently.

These events clearly highlight the positive side of Germany's struggle to overcome its past. But that struggle is far from complete, not only in Germany-hate crimes have reached an all-time high in the former East Germany-but in Europe more generally, where the past continues to weigh on the present in unfortunate and unhelpful ways. On 28 February 2002 Chancellor Gerhard Schröder canceled his visit to Prague to protest Czech prime minister Milos Zeman's branding of ethnic Germans, expelled at the end of World War II, as "Hitler's fifth column." The week before, Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary said that neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia should be admitted to the European Union until they revoked a 1945 decree stripping ethnic Germans and Hungarians of their citizenship in retaliation of their support for Nazi Germany. In September 2004 the Polish parliament unanimously passed a resolution demanding reparations from Germany.

How should one understand such statements and actions? Are they throwaway lines intended to placate aging émigré constituencies? Do they reflect something more sinister: a revival of national assertiveness kindled by still-rankling memories of past wrongs in which all parties concerned consider themselves the victims? And what about the undeniable rise of anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment through Europe? Is this the last gasp of old ethnic antagonisms fueled by the unfreezing of politics in the east and high unemployment in the west brought about by both the collapse of Communism and an economic downturn? Or does it signal a rebirth of xenophobia, fueled by illegal immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, and opportunistic politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, Jörg Haider of Austria, and the late Pim Fortuyn of Holland? What do these events, and the ways in which governments and people respond to them, say about the emerging identity and politics of the European Union?

A growing literature explores these problems and how European public opinion and governments respond to them. Rather than engage these themes directly, the essays in this volume explore the context in which such issues play out and responses to them develop. Even the most cursory review of European policies about national identity, ethnic conflict, immigrants, and antidemocratic politicians and parties indicates the extent to which these issues are refracted through the lenses of the 1930s and World War II. These points of reference appear quite independent of the political views and policy preferences of those involved. To be sure, the widespread appeal to the history of this period is at least partly rhetorical and invoked to sell or justify policy preferences reached for other reasons. However, historical references have been so rife and taken for granted that it is not unreasonable to infer that understandings of the past have provided an important frame of reference for judging the meaning of these events and issues, and for formulating responses to them.

An understanding of the past not only helps us interpret the present; it tells us who we are. Shared experiences and memories, and the values and commitments they create and sustain, provide distinctive identities to individuals and communities. Seminal works on nationalism by Hans Kohn, Carleton J. H. Hayes, and Karl W. Deutsch all maintain that a shared past, whether based on territory, language, religion, history, or some combination of these, is the foundation of nationality. Deutsch defines a people as "a community of complementary habits of communication" and emphasizes the ways in which stylized representations of the past shared by a community create a "we feeling" among its members. At least as far back as Herodotus, students of community have recognized the largely mythical nature of the founding sagas of communities and how these myths and later events have been woven into master narratives to "invent" a people and provide them with a distinctive and uplifting history. Individual identity appears to be shaped by an analogous process; Ernst Kris and Erik Erikson contend that people construct narratives of their pasts to shape and justify their lives and their responses to contemporary challenges.

Historians, political scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists now recognize that collective and individual memories are social constructions. Both kinds of memory not only run on parallel tracks but also have a dense net of switches connecting them. Historians of collective memory have sought to map such systems in individual countries with regard to specific events (e.g., World Wars I and II and the Holocaust). Political scientists have analyzed the construction of national memory, and psychologists have studied some of the processes that mediate between national and individual memories. One of the most striking findings of this research is the extent to which individual memories are shaped through interactions with other people and reflect, and often reinforce, dominant discourses of society. Those discourses and their contents, in turn, are generally created by elites and counter-elites to justify themselves and to advance their political, economic, and social goals. It is at once a top-down and a bottom-up process. In both directions, and at every level, the construction of memory is infused by politics.

This volume explores the politics of memory in postwar Europe with several goals in mind. Our objective is to better understand the timing, nature, and evolution of debates about the roles that European states played in World War II, not only as an end in itself but in the context of a controlled, comparative analysis that allows more general observations about the process by which political memories emerge, are contested, and take root. Such comparative analysis also offers insight into the emergence and content of postwar national identities, which are based in part on shared constructions of the past. These questions are addressed in seven country case studies-France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union-Russia-and a final chapter in which the findings of these country studies are then used to evaluate the longstanding debate in the humanities about the relationship between memory and history.

Memories and the policy lessons they generate or sustain shape our responses to the present. They also influence external perceptions of and responses to a nation, and accordingly have powerful implications that extend beyond national borders. One of the most remarkable and least expected features of postwar Europe has been the ability of former enemies to put aside their historical animosity to cooperate in a series of economic, military, political, and cultural projects. The success of these supranational projects has led to the forging of new identities that extend beyond traditional ethnic and national boundaries.

European cooperation was inspired by visionaries, motivated at the outset by a range of national and common interests, and energized and supported by a powerful third party, the United States. To take root, cooperation needed extensive backing beyond the narrow elites who brought these projects into being. Popular support was not merely the result, as some have suggested, of a positive feedback cycle in which the economic benefits of cooperation prompted further efforts at integration. Nor was it primarily the result of institutions that reshaped the interest calculations of actors, although this process was not insignificant. Leaders and the public alike made-and continue to make-judgments about the character, goals, and reliability of other national partners. Trust and empathy were critical components of these relationships, just as they are in interpersonal relations. Democratization was an important pillar of cross-national trust. So, too, were the judgments that leaders and publics made about how their putative partners had addressed their pasts. It is hard to imagine that Germany's neighbors would have bound their economies to a Germany in which the rule of law was threatened by authoritarian political movements, or one in which a leading party was committed to revanchist territorial goals, or even a Germany in which the political and intellectual elite refused to acknowledge the special burden placed on them by the crimes of the Nazi era. Facing up to history and democratization are closely related; several recent studies of postwar Germany argue that the former is an important requirement of the latter. If so, the politics of memory, democratization, relations with neighbors, and European integration are all integrally connected and best analyzed as components of a larger interactive system.

This volume represents a multinational and multidisciplinary collaboration that brings together scholars from Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, and the United States in the fields of critical and literary studies, history, sociology, political science, and psychology. To avoid producing a Tower of Babel, we developed a kind of common language and set of concepts. At the same time, we wanted to reap maximum benefit from our cultural and disciplinary diversity. Early on, we discovered two kinds of tensions that needed addressing: first, that between the national focus of case-study authors and the comparative perspective of the authors of the "bookend" chapters; second, that between disciplines, the important cleavage being less between individual fields of study than between humanists and social scientists.

Regardless of their discipline, all seven case-study authors are specialists in the history, politics, and culture of a particular country; their propensity was to describe the unique paths of their countries and account for them largely with reference to the idiosyncratic political and cultural attributes of the societies in question. The editors were certainly interested in describing the range of national diversity but also were committed to discovering what experiences and patterns might be more widely shared. We wanted our case-study authors to develop a "double vision" that would enable them both to describe and interpret national experiences as informed insiders and to use analytical categories that would facilitate comparisons across cases.

After struggling with the issue, we hit on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America-a single-country study whose questions derive from a comparative framework-as a model. Tocqueville's framework remained implicit but nevertheless provided a template that helped him distinguish the particular from the general, gave him latitude to explore the idiosyncratic in some detail, and allowed him to compose his analysis as an artful narrative. Inspired by Tocqueville, we drew up a list of research questions based on the premise that postwar elites sought to impose interpretations of their country's role in World War II that were self-justifying and supportive of their domestic- and foreign-policy goals. We recognized that the needs of self-justification and policy are not always consistent and may have posed difficult choices for some elites in some countries. Nor did we expect elite constructions to be consensual or unchallenged. Members of the governing elite may disagree among themselves, especially in cases where self-justification and more practical political and policy concerns tug in different directions. (President François Mitterrand's address of 12 September 1994, a self-exculpatory speech about his role in World War II that was televised to the French nation, offers a striking example of how long such efforts can continue and how divisive they can become even within leadership circles.)

Counter-elites and diverse groups in society have different needs and interests, and are likely to construct the past in a manner that supports those interests. Depending on the nature of the regime and the broader political culture, proponents of contrasting conceptions of the past may engage in open conflict with each other and seek wider support for their own interpretations and agendas. We encouraged our case-study authors to identify and track such conflicts, their timing, the arenas in which they played out, how they evolved, the extent to which they were intra-elite or involved the clash of top-down and bottom-up perspectives, and to make informed judgments about the reasons behind the patterns they observed. In doing so, they observed the interaction between history and the politics of history, which in the end determine what history becomes and what becomes history.

The second tension, again, emerged between humanists and social scientists. Humanists value historical description as an end in its own right, and one that requires a different notion of conceptual sophistication than commonly employed in theory building. They embed arguments in a narrative structure, which is entwined with and grows out of the evidence that is presented. While none of the participating social scientists are of the neopositivist persuasion, they are nevertheless accustomed to framing problems in the form of hypotheses and propositions, and collecting and organizing data in a manner that facilitates evaluation. Both the humanists and social scientists among us worried that humanists who read this book would skim through the introduction and theoretical conclusion and concentrate on the case studies and the Claudio Fogu-Wulf Kansteiner chapter on the implications of those analyses for the study of collective memory. We were also concerned that all but the most dedicated social scientists might read the bookend, theoretical chapters and gloss over, even ignore, the "data" chapters unless they had a special interest in a particular country. After two rounds of workshops and revisions, we believe we have struck a balance that makes the case studies and comparative chapters entirely interdependent. We also have chosen to eschew in this introduction the standard format and language of neopositivist social science, advancing no propositions and avoiding terms like independent and dependent variable, covariance, or even testing. Instead, we have chosen to follow the tradition of Verstehen, an approach to social science that bridges more easily to the humanities. Thus, we have attempted to identify the dimensions and processes in terms of which the European politics of postwar memory might best be understood, and to show the relevance of these politics to democratization, relations between neighbors, the formation of collective identity, and the emergence of the European Union.


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Meet the Author

Richard Ned Lebow is James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. He is the author of many books, including The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests, and Orders.

Wulf Kansteiner is Associate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at Binghamton University. He is the author of In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz.

Claudio Fogu teaches in the French and Italian Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Historic Imaginary: Politics of History in Fascist Italy.

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