Varying interpretations of 20th century history prevent the movement to acknowledge Communist crimes from spreading throughout Europe
“We should remember the totalitarian epoch when our nations struggled for liberty,” Petr Nečas, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, said at the signing ceremony for the Platform of European Memory and Conscience at the Lichtenstein Palace in Prague on 14 October 2011. The Visegrad Group summit that also involved Poland’s Donald Tusk and Hungary’s Viktor Orban resulted in the creation of a European institution aimed at overcoming the experience of totalitarianism on the continent.
The foundation, whose objective is “to prevent intolerance, extremism, antidemocratic movements and the revival of totalitarianism in any form,” involves 21 government, public, research and education institutions from 13 countries.
The idea of designing a foundation of common historical policy in studying and interpreting totalitarian periods in European history has been in the air in Brussels for years. Eventually, new EU member-states, once FSU countries, initiated the project. To them, overcoming the Communist legacy is still part of the agenda of moving forward.
Central and Eastern European countries responded to the challenges of the painful Communist heritage and to the need to deal with it on a national scale with national memory institutes established after the collapse of Communism. Their objectives range from the rehabilitation of victims of political repression to arranging studies, designing school programmes and promoting memorial and commemorative practices.
The starting point for the pan-European effort was PACE Resolution No1481 passed on January 25th 2006. It condemned what totalitarian Communist regimes had done, including individual and collective murders, deaths in concentration camps, famines, deportations, torture, forced labour and other tools of mass physical terror, labeling them crimes against humanity.
In April 2008, when Slovenia presided over the Council of the European Union in Brussels, a series of public hearings on the anti-human actions of totalitarian regimes was held. The discussion involved MPs, lawyers and historians from Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Poland and Spain. The debate focused on ways to learn more about totalitarian crimes, raise awareness about them, and to seek historical reconciliation. It resulted in the first pan-European attempt to declare the crimes of Communism and Nazism as identical.
PRAGUELEADS THE WAY
The Czech Republic then took the helm in the flight from Communism. In June 2008, European MPs, historians, journalists, former dissident prisoners, and outstanding politicians, including Czechoslovakian and Lithuanian ex-presidents Vaclav Havel and Vytautas Landsbergis, signed the declaration of European consciousness and Communism at the Senate in Prague.
The key provision of the document was the call for worldwide recognition of Communism and Nazism, two totalitarian regimes, as “the gravest catastrophe in European history of the 20th century” and put the crimes committed by both regimes on one scale.
Welcomed by pan-European institutions, national governments and the OSCE, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy, Margaret Thatcher, Jason Kenney and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the declaration caused an immediate response.
Praguebecame the heart of an international effort to produce a legislative and historical vision of the past and implement that vision all over Europe. To promote the process, the Reconciliation of European Histories was established as a non-partisan group of 40 MPs from leading EU parties at the European Parliament headed by Sandra Kalniete. It was set up to draft the relevant legislation on the totalitarian history of European countries.
Presiding over the Council of the European Union, the Czech Republic promoted the passing of the European Parliament Resolution on the common conscience of European countries and Communism on April 2nd 2009. It was to be implemented through the Platform of European Memory and Conscience as the key EU entity to coordinate the study of totalitarianism and the pan-European memorial center for victims of totalitarian regimes. The document introduced the shared practice of commemorating the victims of Stalinism and Nazism by EU entities and institutions. Commemoration events take place every year on August 23, the date that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.
The movement to acknowledge Communist crimes has gradually spread all over Europe. According to the Stockholm Programme adopted in December 2009, the European Union is defined as a territory of common values incompatible with the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and military crimes, including those committed by totalitarian regimes. Each member-state has its own approach to this issue but only collective shared memory promoted by each member-state can facilitate reconciliation. Creating the environment for initiating reconciliation is one of the EU’s commitments.
In December 2010, the European Commission published a report stating that European nations should be united by the memory and knowledge of their totalitarian past—especially the experience of the Cold War. In June 2011, the EU Council of Justice and Home Affairs published its conclusions on the memory of crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe. It focuses on the special role of continental institutions in spreading and promoting initiatives aimed at preserving the memory of these crimes.
The action was finalized when Hungary and Poland presided over the EU Council in 2011. At an international conference in Warsaw involving EU member-state justice ministers and representatives of academic institutions, a declaration was signed condemning the crimes of Nazi and Communist regimes and calling on the public to remember their victims. This was an introduction to the adoption of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience in October 2011 with Prague chosen as the heart of the foundation, the Czech Institute as coordinator and the Visegrad Fund as the source of funding.
However, the EU’s integration in memory policy is most likely only symbolic. The Platform was the visible implementation of Central and Eastern European countries’ ambitions to fix a shared European interpretation of the Communist period in their histories as a totalitarian, occupational and criminal regime. Daniel Herman, Director of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, once said that the totalitarian Communist experience of FSU countries became part of European heritage after they joined the EU.
Despite the official acknowledgement of Prague’s initiatives by the leaders of Western countries, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – the heart of European entities after WWII – offer different priorities in historical policy. They resist the construction of shared European identity based on the painful totalitarian past because they had a different experience of post-war socio-political and socio-economic development and integration compared to that of former socialist countries.
Post-war Western Europe worked hard to create a shared vision of the past. The reconciliation of France and the German Federal Republic played a crucial role in this vision, creating one of the cornerstones for the establishment of a new community. The EU emerged from the deep crisis caused by WWII seeking to forget or reconcile the European past linked to the crimes of two world wars, totalitarianism, colonialism, imperialism and nationalism.
The pact of silence that served as a foundation for the European commonwealth during the Cold War was broken by the collapse of Communism and the integration of FSU countries into the EU. The entrance of new member-states carrying the heavy burden of a totalitarian past facilitated the transformation of European oblivion into the memory of Communist and Nazi crimes.
Compared to the West, where the page on WWII was turned long ago, the new EU member-states have not come to terms with the much more violent and destructive effects of the war in Eastern Europe – a reality that the countries of Old Europe barely experienced. This, in turn, led to the rivalry of memories between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany, among others. Warsaw expected Berlin to admit to the crimes committed against the Poles during wartime, and abandon the aspects of national memory Poland saw as a threat to its interests and self-identification as a victim of German aggression.
Another part of the WWII legacy for Poland and the Czech Republic is their ongoing concern that Germans have never dropped claims to their pre-war territories in the East. Meanwhile, Western Europe does not really understand this hysteria; this sort of reaction to a war that occurred over 70 years ago tends to irritate France and Germany.
The memory of Communism and the USSR is yet another dividing aspect. The West never experienced the kind of “socialism in action” faced by Central and Eastern Europe after WWII. In Western Europe, “red” memories are mostly linked to the activities of powerful Communist parties in post-war France and Italy and the soviet threat of the Cold War years curbed by the US military presence in Europe. This experience is hardly comparable to the tragic everyday life of post-war Central and Eastern European countries.
Different backgrounds, a diverse burden of memories about relations with Russia and the USSR, as well as the role of economic and strategic interests explain why Warsaw, Vilnius, Berlin, Paris, London and Prague all have differing attitudes toward Putin’s Russia.
Another important aspect that divides EU member-states’ historical memory is the Holocaust and the fate of Europe’s Jews. Even though the European commonwealth resolved to not allow the crimes of WWII to be repeated, the West preferred to not mention the genocide for 20 years after the war ended. Something that was crucial for the understanding of Nazism as a phenomenon was hushed up. Paradoxically, though, the evolution of this matter pushed the suffering of other nations caused by the Nazis and Communists to the sideline. Central and Eastern European countries whose strong anti-Semitic traditions persisted longer than elsewhere and whose awareness of the Holocaust essentially began after 1989 have had a hard time understanding the version of European history where Jews are in the limelight.
The myth of Franco-German historical reconciliation that served as the foundation of European integration and the memory of post-war Western Europeans does not have a sufficient impact on Germany’s eastern neighbours that were not involved in the process. This is a legitimizing factor in the attempts of new EU member-states to tilt the unquestionable leadership of France and Germany within the EU that is now pushing them to the sideline.
The imperialistic background of Western countries, including the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, and the colonial past of Central and Eastern European nations that once fell victim to various local empires set up by the Russians, Germans, Austrians or Turks, forms another line upon which European memory is split.
The two parts of the continent cannot merge on the basis of a common market, open borders and common values alone without producing a shared policy of history and mindset aimed at shaping European identity. The EU’s latest moves in that direction will signal how productive the strategy of constructing collective European memory actually is.