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The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe.

The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe. Edited by Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, and Claudio Fogu. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. xi + 366 pages.

The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe is a comparative study that explores how different European countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, and Russia) remember their respective roles in World War II and how their national memory (and constructions of their national past) has evolved since the end of the war. According to the most general definition, memory is an ability to recall and represent information from the past. However, memories--in the same way as stories--are constructions, so they might be inaccurate and faulty. They assume many shapes, from personal, individual, and private to collective, cultural, and public, and their existence is connected with problems of motivation and individual psychology. Memories exist in the framework of anthropological and political context, and as a result, they change over the course of time. According to David Thelen, the historical study of memory would be the study of how families, larger gatherings of people, and formal organizations select and interpret identifying memories to serve changing needs. In other words, community, politics, and social context influence the way we remember the past. When we or our world is changing, our memories are modified so that they can better suit new circumstances.

Aside from our individual memories, there is what Maurice Halbwasch calls "collective memory." According to him, collective memory bears no similarity to the awareness of history or historical knowledge shared by a specific group. In fact, it is ahistorical and even antihistorical. Understanding something in a historical way means becoming aware of the complexity of the issue, the ability to perceive an event or a phenomenon in many facets, and the acceptance of diversity of meaning involving a moral component together with the motives and behaviors of participants. According to Halbwasch, collective memory simplifies events, perceiving them in one committed way with no tolerance for diverse interpretation and reducing phenomena to mythical archetypes that are in opposition to historical argumentation. Historical awareness and knowledge are focused on the historicity of events. That means that they took place then and not now, and unfolded in circumstances differing from the present ones. By contrast, collective memory does not consider the lapse of time, denies the past nature of its objects, insists on their existence in the present, and expresses everlasting or essential truths connected with a group. Collective memory fixed at one time defines the perpetual identity of group members.

We must remember, however, that the existence of the history/memory opposition does not necessarily argue for the superiority of history. Postmodernism has recognized that memory is a healing remedy and a tool of redemption and liberation for groups who have been deprived of their voice by history. In this respect, history appears to be an instrument of pressure identified with a statehood, modernism, imperialism, anthropocentrism, and scientism.

The editors of this study begin with theoretical considerations of the phenomenon of memory at three levels: collective (the subject of study of sociology, history, and cultural studies), individual (psychology and psychiatry), and institutional (political science and history). Individual memory can be additionally divided into episodic memory (recollection of a past event), autobiographical memory (recollection of an event that plays a significant role in a person's life), and life narrative (a series of autobiographical memories that serves as an important means of self-definition) (11-12). These concepts all function in the literature devoted to the phenomenon of memory, but they are very hard to define, and the editors' effort to determine their meaning is very important to the study's conceptual point of view.

What makes the task even more difficult is the fact that the concepts of trauma or repression are not very useful in this particular case when all kinds of forces that contribute to the making and unmaking of collective memories are to be explained. Groups of people whose members have directly experienced traumatic events have a chance to shape the national memory only if they have access to the means by which they can express their visions of the past and if their visions meet with compatible social or political objectives and inclinations among other important social groups (like political generations or parties).

But the ultimate goal of the book does not consist in pure theoretical considerations but in bringing up for discussion the nature and evolution of national debates about the roles played by the European states in World War II and asking questions about similarities and differences between the politics of memory in these countries. This should allow generalizations about the process by which political memories emerge and are contested. That is why the crucial part of the volume consists of national case studies written by an international team of contributors: Heidemarie Uhl, Richard J. Gosan, Wulf Kansteiner, Claudio Fogu, Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, Regula Ludi, and Thomas C. Wolfe. Their essays are very interesting and informative, and do not overwhelm the reader with details; all the authors try to sum up the progress of the politics of memory in each country. "Although each case is idiosyncratic, the politics of memory is shaped by political and psychological processes that to some extent transcend national and cultural boundaries. One national experience sheds light on another, and collectively, they illuminate the underlying processes," writes Richard Ned Lebow in the opening article of the volume (24). Editors want to determine these most general processes and changes in the politics of memory in Europe.

From the analyses, it turns out that the initial efforts of Europeans tended toward avoiding any confrontation with their own past because it could destroy the elaborate constructions of their national identities. It led to creating and adopting some common strategies. The most widespread of these consisted in separating the war from the epoch of Nazism and the era of collaboration or any "difficult" time or event and characterizing it as abnormal, extraordinary, absolutely different from the "normal" life of the nation. This strategy was first applied by Germany and quickly adopted by France and Italy. In France, the Vichy era was called les annees noires (the Dark Years); in Austria, the Nazi era was described as Nocturno--Hitler and "his" Nazis were blamed for all wrongdoings. Denial of any national responsibility for the Holocaust was related to this approach. Another shared strategy was downplaying collaboration and emphasizing resistance as a common national effort (Italy, Poland).

All the essays--as Fogu and Kansteiner remind us in the final, generalizing chapter of the book--point to the period between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s as the time of the most profound changes in the politics of memory in the states in question. Revision in the collective memory of Eastern Europe began in the mid-1980s--before the fall of the Berlin Wall and breakdown of the Soviet system in Poland and the USSR. In France and Italy, after decades of memory dominated by the myth of resistance, the processes of desecration and demystification of antifascist mythology started in the 1970s and continue today. In Austria reevaluation of anti-Nazi resistance took place also in the 1970s. In Germany the mid-1970s was the most open phase in coming to terms with the Holocaust. In Switzerland from the mid-1970s and in Poland from the mid-1980s, intellectuals began to challenge the mythical images of humanitarian (Swiss) and martyrological (Polish) nations. In the USSR the Brezhnev era (1964-82) was the key phase in the formation of the official (myth of the Great Patriotic War) and popular (a quasi-religious cult of the victims) versions of the memory of the war. The changes in Western and Eastern Europe had two common features: there were, first, efforts at including "dark" periods of history--which earlier had been repressed and rejected as "anomalies"--into national history and consciousness, and second, attempts to confront responsibility for the Holocaust and--more generally--for the treatment of Jews (and other minorities) before, during, and after the war.

A cursory analysis would point to demography and generational change as the main modifying factors in the European politics of memory. The postwar generations had different political and psychological needs than their fathers and grandfathers. "Following Karl Mannheim's 1926 definition of political generations," write Fogu and Kansteiner, "scholars have shown that the worldview shared by the members of a cohort is shaped by a number of formative historical experiences in their youth, which later in life resurface as memories with which the members of the group tend to identify" (297). One generation is thus united by common location in time and space as well as a common historical experience that can create a penchant for a particular kind of thinking, experiencing, and acting that is shared by its members. The beginning of the changes corresponds to the period when the first postwar generation matured and the last prewar generation that had participated in the war passed. The postwar generations brought memories that had been collectivized and institutionalized by the survivors.

Notwithstanding all the similarities, the evolution of memory in Switzerland, Poland, and Italy suggests causes other than generational change. The politics of memory in these three countries were shaped more by the persistence of widespread historical images, metaphors, and paradigms that had existed long before the war (for example, the archetypal image of Poland as a martyr among the nations for democracy and tolerance, the Swiss cult of historical "neutrality" and commitment to humanitarian activity, or the Italian myth of "resurgence"). In all three cases, historical culture had preceded the events of the war that were later incorporated into images of the national past in order to create a coherent narrative. The fall of communism (an obvious condition of change of the politics of memory in Eastern Europe) did not lead automatically to revisions in national memories or a new approach to the past; the progress was uneven.

Another conclusion that the editors have drawn after analyzing individual case studies is that, at the level of content, at least until very recently, there has never been a "European" collective memory of the war, and therefore, no generalizations are possible. "This conclusion," state Fogu and Kansteiner, "holds true not only when we divide our sample according to Cold War criteria among Western capitalist nations (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland) and Eastern-communist nations (Poland, the USSR).... We have found no appreciable similarity among the nations that--from the sole and simplified point of view of their official role in the war effort--we typologically cast as victors (France, the USSR), losers (Germany, Italy), and neutrals (Poland, Austria, Switzerland)" (294). The presence of Poland in the final group seems problematic to me. One cannot compare the postwar situation of Austria and Switzerland to the situation in Poland. For most Poles, the occupation of their country ended in 1989 and not in 1945 when the German occupation was replaced by the Soviet; thus it is hard to describe the period between 1945 and 1989 as "neutral." Even if for editors "neutral" means a politically problematic or indeterminate status, it is still different from the status of Austria and Switzerland. Lebow, in the opening article of the book, separates "occupied countries" from "neutral countries," which seems more appropriate.

For Lebow, "[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" (4). For me, this is an overly optimistic conclusion. After the war, Europe was divided, and this division and any kind of cooperation were artificial and enforced by the political situation. Only recently has it been realized how much different memories can influence all kinds of relationships between European nations, at every level, from interpersonal to international. It is unlikely that Poles will soon recognize as victims the Germans expelled from the western territories assigned to Poland after the war. Polish-Russian relations also point to the fact that "historical animosity" has not in the least been "put aside."

Understanding the past is necessary to interpret the present but also to understand who we really are. For me--as a European--the most surprising thing was discovering the significance of World War II in present European politics and everyday life. I agree with the fundamental conclusion Fogu and Kansteiner drew from all the case studies, namely that the politics of memory takes place mainly within a national frame of reference that does not lose importance in the face of historical events of supranational magnitude.

The editors quote Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter's suggestion that "reality is not a stable phenomenon that can be used to validate memories but is instead established by memories" (12). Comparative studies--like The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe--make us aware of how much shared memories create and sustain identities of individuals and communities and of the substantial impact they have on relationships between nations--even if the thesis about the constructed nature of notions like "Europe," "European identity," or "shared memory" holds true.

Anna Ziebinska-Witek

Maria Sklodowska-Curie University

Lublin, Poland
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Author:Ziebinska-Witek, Anna
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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