It is a mistake to see the Eastern vision as undemocratic. Peter Verovšek on European memory

In this conversation with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, Peter Verovšek — author of Memory and the future of Europe. Rupture and integration in the wake of total war — discusses the importance of foundational stories for communities; explains the influence of personal experience on European integration; shows differences in remembering the past in Western and Eastern Europe and ponders the consequences of Russian aggression on Ukraine for European memory. 

Peter J. Verovšek is Assistant Professor (UD1) in the History and Theory of European Integration at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Next to his work on the European Union and memory studies, he also writes extensively on twentieth-century continental political theory and European intellectual history. In addition to his academic research, he also engages in broader discussions in the public sphere, with publications in Social Europe, the LSE Brexit blogEurozine, and The Duck of Minerva, among others.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Let us start with some very broad questions to give some context to our conversation. Do we in Europe have one foundational story that brings together all the 27 EU member states? What is our memory when we are Europeans and what do we remember as citizens of member states?

Peter Verovšek: Let me try to answer these questions briefly. First of all, do we have a foundational story that brings together all 27 member states? I think that we could certainly come up with one: if you look at the 27 member states, you could tell a story about the EU as a response to the experience of totalitarianism in both its forms, namely fascism and communism, since all of its member states had experienced at least one of these. However, it would be difficult to tell such a story because the member states that experienced only fascism and the member states that experienced both fascism and communism learned different lessons from the past; the collective memories they hold are actually quite different. In other words, theoretically we can come up with a common narrative, but in practice there is very little agreement about what the content of that story would be.

Moreover, once you move below the European level or below the level of these big blocks of states, things get even more complicated. There are specific national stories that define each of the member states and, even there, there are always counter-memories. Although the memory culture is unitary, no single memory culture is completely dominant within it. As soon as there is a sort of dominant memory culture, counter-memories always come up: there are people that disagree, people that had a different experience. Thus, depending on how generally you want to view it, you could certainly see foundational stories, but in practice there is a lot of disagreement.

The difference between the memory we have as Europeans and those that we have as citizens of member states is a question of situation. While European memories exist, they tend to come out when Europeans encounter people from other parts of the world. Accordingly, we are more likely to speak as Europeans – or even to remember and to think as Europeans — when we are traveling abroad. Umberto Eco has a famous quote that he feels Italian when he is in Europe, while he is European when he is in the US.

This is how things work: we have these kinds of portfolios of multiple identities that we deploy at different times, and we can see identities in our memories that are linked to those identities, almost like Russian dolls. In this sense, identities exist side-by-side. 

When we speak about memories at the European level, there are also important class dynamics: certain memories are shared by more cosmopolitan Europeans – those who travel a lot, live or study abroad, thereby taking advantage of the free movement of people, labor, goods and financial services – and then there are people who take less advantage of it, whose lives are still defined much more by the national context or even the subnational one.

What is the basis for the collective memory of the European project and how democratic is the process of selecting such foundational memories? And why do we actually need foundational stories?

This is a big question. In terms of memory narratives and memory cultures, there are certain people who act as memory entrepreneurs. Here I refer to political and cultural elites such as writers and those who have more access to media and the education system, which is really important for spreading ideas and collective memories. Nevertheless, there is still a sort of democratic process there: while leaders can put forward memory narratives, they still have to be accepted by the population at large. In that sense, there is always a possibility to push back against the “spreaders” and to reject their narratives. 

Do we actually need foundational stories? This is a very important question.

Insofar as we think that shared identities are important for democracy, I believe that seeing ourselves as part of a single collective is crucial to living a democratic life. In that sense we do need some sort of foundational story. 

If you think of the US experience, for a long time state identity was more important than federal identity. That changed after the civil war, which acted as a sort of re-founding. And this is observable in the language too: older documents would speak about the United States of America using the plural verb “are”, while it becomes a singular verb after the civil war. This is a process that we haven’t yet seen in Europe, except maybe among very small elites. This may also be part of the reason why Europeans have such difficulties forming a democratic community. Therefore, yes, you do need some kind of foundational story, something that everybody – or at least a broad majority – buys into.

In your book, you claim that the European project was born at least partly out of the shared transnational memories of Europe’s “age of total war”. The EC founding fathers — Schumann, Monnet, Adenauer — remembered two wars, devastation and death, and these experiences served as a constructive resource for the political transformation on a transnational level. But, as you say, the Holocaust became the focal point of the European memory only later. The Holocaust was constructed as the foundational memory of the European Communities in the 1960s (or even later),  only because of the younger generation, which was confronting its parents. If this was the case, then it proves how collective memory is prone to negations and how it is strongly attached to the generational experiences. My question then is: can we even describe European memory in essentialist terms (so to say that some events are the core, the basis of European memory), if even this supposedly core event had to be constructed as such by one generation? And a question linked to that: if collective memory has to be negotiated, can it actually be a reliable source of legitimacy for the European project? 

The example of the Holocaust is very interesting. If you look at the memoirs, the writings and the speeches of the people who founded the European community in the 1950s, if you look at the resources they deploy to think about creating a new political community at the supernational level, they do talk a lot about memory — but it’s not so much the memory of the industrial production of corpses at Auschwitz. What they talk about instead is the repeated experience of war and the suffering it creates, as well as the origins of totalitarianism on the continent.

For them the problem is that nationalism has caused wars. The experience of two nationalist wars following each other really gave people the ability to delegitimize the existing narrative of nationalism.

If you look at the rise of national literature in Germany or the German-speaking lands across the 19th century, nationalism was seen as brewing up even before 1848. And through the writings of intellectuals like Giuseppe Mazzini one comes to see nationalism as a source of peace. The idea was that, once every nation has its own state and has achieved self-determination, there will be peace because states will not want to expand into the area of another nation. But we know that this is overly simplistic because of a number of boundary problems: people do not settle along clearly demarcated borders; some people, who are considered by a centralized government part of its nation, might consider themselves to not be part of that nation. Such problems come up very clearly in the aftermath of World War I, when the Western allies try to create new nation states out of the Ottoman, the Habsburg, and the Russian empires and realize that drawing boundaries quickly becomes very complicated. Moreover, there are officially recognized minorities in every single country who become an important source of tension – and later of migrant crises — in the interwar years. 

I believe that these developments really delegitimized the standard narrative of nationalism leading to peace, showing that nationalism is a source of war instead. Importantly, this delegitimization allowed postwar actors to think about the past in new ways and to search for new guiding principles or new narratives, new frameworks on which to hang events and to tell stories. Accordingly, many of the founders of the European Communities started looking to the pre-nationalist past, where the idea of a unified Christendom – and generally being part of the same broad community – was more important than which nation you were from, even if there were all sorts of differences. Back then, sovereignty was not unified but it was multiple and overlapping: lords would owe allegiance to various people, depending on the context – depending if it was a matter of religion, a matter of taxation, or a matter of war.

This past is also important to understand the EU today, where sovereignty is not unified. The memory of the Holocaust becomes more important later, precisely with the younger generation confronting their parents in the 1960s. Of course, you are absolutely right that this is a constructed narrative, but all narratives are constructed. The point is that a narrative must be broadly accepted, thereby helping the leaders that are compounding these narratives get re-elected repeatedly – like the popular support for the European project through the 1950s.

Indeed, just because something is a construction does not mean it’s illegitimate. Any construction can be endowed with legitimacy through action. 

Think of the divine right of kings, or even the US constitution – all sorts of things that are constructed can be legitimized when they become accepted. In other words, constructs are not the problem. Rather, one could worry about the democratic nature, or the manipulation involved in the acceptance, and about the methods deployed for making a construction accepted. Still, once accepted, a narrative becomes fairly legitimate.

Of course, there are always counter-memories, as I mentioned before. There are always people who remember differently. But the fact of the matter is that these narratives do become real, they become a sort of social fact: they are codified in law; they are codified in school curricula; they literally become petrified and are part of our landscape as monuments that we put up. In that sense, they become part of our surroundings and of our lives, thereby compelling us to talk about them. And discussions are exactly what legitimize these narratives. However, I believe it is fine to maintain that there are certain principles that we can observe, especially from the outside as scholars and academics. Indeed, the past can be a source of legitimacy for the European project, as it has actually been for much of its existence. European integration has been pushed along by the strong belief of certain leaders in the European project, which allowed to forge new agreements, new treaties, and to push integration forward.

Therefore, the key question is where these ideas came from as well as why certain leaders committed to them while others did not. The literature on European integration usually refers to the experience of the war and the role its memory played, yet this does not answer the question. Whereas the scholarship traces everything back to politics and the rescuing of the nation-state, my book suggests that we need to look at personal and collective memories – something that everybody recognized as important, but nobody actually has treated as a causal factor.

You claim in your book that the founding fathers of the European Communities had shared personal memories of total war which equipped them with cognitive, motivational, and justificatory resources to construct peace in Europe. You also claim that the lack of personal memories endangers the European project — those who do not remember the war and do not share pro-European attitude tend to be focused on short-term benefits rather than committed to any European ideals. However, you also elaborate on the politics pursued by de Gaulle, who shared with the “European saints” memories of the wars, but nonetheless did not subscribe to the federal vision — actually, de Gaulle provoked the grave empty chair crisis in the 1960s. My question then would be: is really the personal memory of the total war crucial to the European project, if even the very first generation of politicians had competing visions for Europe?  

This question takes it to the theoretical level, for it is about the relationship between personal and collective memory. In the book, I go back to Maurice Halbwachs, who was one of Emil Durkheim’s students, and who coined the concept of “collective memory” in the aftermath of World War I. He was very interested in how French soldiers remembered the war and, being a student of Durkheim, he was influenced by the concept of “collective mind” as a single entity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Accordingly, the collective gives individuals certain markers; it helps to tell us what events are important, and to define the events that we will then use to center our own personal identities. 

For instance, for those who like me were born in the mid-1980s, the attack to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 was an event that everybody remembers as part of their own personal story of where they were – or what they were doing – when they got the news. And that story may not be true, it may change over time, but the main event will always be remembered. The same may end up being true for the onset of the Eurozone crisis or the Covid lockdown.

In some sense, our collective experiences define what we as individuals come to see as important. However, that is not to say that all individuals will always agree with what the collective memory defines. And de Gaulle is a very good example of what Michel Foucault calls counter-memory, namely a person who is reacting very much against the supranationalism of someone like Robert Schuman. Hannah Arendt refers to him as “the last thinker of the 19th century”, because he was still very much defined by the national framework. He really rejects the framework of Europe and sees the problem of the two world wars as a problem of French greatness: the fact that France was not great enough to prevent the German attacks. Thus, we could explain de Gaulle as someone who is rejecting the dominant narrative of collective memory based on his own experiences or his own interpretations of the past, but he is still part of the broader memory culture inasmuch as he reacts to the same events. And that is key in terms of the interaction between personal and collective memory. 

Moreover, although de Gaulle was a sort of opponent of the European project, although he provoked the “empty chair” crisis and rejected the United Kingdom’s application to join the Communities twice, he did not succeed in dismantling integration. In fact, in many ways he was not an opponent of integration as such but rather an opponent of the community model. He wants Europe, but he wants a Europe of nation-states. That is why it is extremely interesting that de Gaulle doesn’t pull France out. There is no Frexit under his rule but only attempts to change Europe into this more intergovernmental direction.

Thus, even as a sort of 19th-century nationalist, de Gaulle is still buying into the European project to some extent. And that shows the power of the collective on the individual. 

I have a feeling that for you the 2004 eastern enlargement posed a real challenge to the classic integration narrative. It was because of the difference in past experiences: the West somehow established anti-Nazi and anti-fascist identity, what — in your perspective — proved to be irreconcilable with the anti-communist identity of the East. However, in your book the process of establishing shared collective memory of the founding states with the (West) Germans, the chief former perpetrator nation, was a pretty easy process that did not pose that much challenge (at least you do not elaborate on that). You even write somewhere in the book that “the EU was founded as part of the Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union”, so it would seem that countries that had experienced and rejected communist regimes would be very much welcomed with their memories within the EU. Why then do you assume that constructing a common past with the (West) Germans just after the war was not as demanding as sharing it with the post-communist countries?

I must say that this is a really complicated question, but in general I believe we are talking about different situations. And by picking out that quote about the Atlantic Alliance in the Cold War context of integration, you have put your finger on one of the key differences. The other key difference is derived from the fact that collective memory can used instrumentally by politicians for all sorts of reasons. If you look at what happens in the Western sectors of occupied Germany and what becomes the Federal Republic of Germany – or West Germany – after the war, yes, there is this sort of economic, military and geopolitical interest in integrating Western Germans. In fact, Schuman is pushed to propose the Schuman Plan by Dean Acheson – the US Secretary of State who pushes for a certain resolution to the German question. He notes that France has rejected all the solutions the US has proposed; and that is why he expects that France comes up with some alternative proposal. The West needs to have a policy for West Germany that the French can agree to. And it’s at that point that Schuman comes across Jean Monnet’s proposal for integration. Thus, although it is Monnet’s proposal, it comes to bear Schuman’s name because he takes political responsibility for it. 

The context is really important. There is a willingness on the part of the French and the other initial founders to forgive Germany – or at least to let Germany into the EC because they actually need it economically and geopolitically. However, to understand why that was not a problem, we have to look at what is happening in West Germany, where the political elite has changed. This is evident by looking at the leaders of the two major parties, Konrad Adenauer on the center-right and Kurt Schumacher on the center-left. While Adenauer was not active in the resistance like Schumann, he spent part of the war in hiding and had contacts with the Catholic resistance to the Nazi regime. It was in their interest to express remorse and to distance themselves from the Nazis. Accordingly, joining the project of European integration was somehow required: it was a way for them to distance themselves from previous mistakes of their nation and to build a new identity. By the way, this is the reason why ‘68 is such a shock: it brought out the continuities with the previous regime that had been denied. 

Especially for Adenauer and the Christian Democrats it was a way to address the bigger problem, namely godless communism – the threat from the East. However, such a plan did not really contemplate learning any lessons from the past. Rather, it was very receptive to the idea of moving on – the idea of supranationalism – and, for this reason, must be distinguished from what happens in 1989. Here, there is no longer a geopolitical threat in the background; the desire of Central and Eastern Europe to join the EU is driven in part by economics, of course, but it is also driven by the desire to be European – and to take the heritage that those states had been denied for 45 years under “communist occupation.” 

However, the difference is that Central-Eastern Europeans actually felt that their experience of totalitarianism gave them certain insights – experiences that they did not want to give up. 

Indeed, they were not ready to forget and move on the same way West Germans did in the late 1940s and ’50s. This difference is relevant insomuch as also Central-Eastern Europeans were interested in portraying themselves as democrats, as well as in distancing themselves from a communist regime that was imposed by the Red Army rather than chosen. They were interested in stating that 1945 was not a liberation from fascism as it was for other Europeans, but rather a second occupation from which they learned important lessons. Lessons that gave them something to teach other Europeans, something to contribute to the European project without denying their past experiences.

These differences become even more clear when one thinks of the German MEPs’ proposal to extend the ban on Nazi symbols to all of the EU. This ban is obviously easy to agree upon for Europeans, but many Central-Eastern European MEPs also note that such an action would justify the same ban on the hammer-and-sickle symbol. Interestingly, that provokes a lot of outrage especially among social democrats across Western Europe whose past does not compel them to view that symbol as a threat. Thus, we could talk about different lessons of communism and fascism, but the situation in 1940s Germany is very different than the one in Central Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

This reminds me of a research on evolution of memory by the ECHR: the court decided that displaying communist symbols in Hungary is not so harmful as displaying Nazi symbols in Germany. Another question that I have is that it seems that you perceive the memory of the Nazi and fascist atrocities as in competition with the communist crimes. Why do you view those two as irreconcilable? What are the shared memories within the EU? Would you say the EU has to choose only one of these memories and reject another? And if so, don’t you think that it makes the EU close to an imperial power that tries to impose its identity on its peripheries? What, what is this authoritarianism actually? 

We both come from Central-Eastern Europe, and I think that in this region there is often a sense of the EU’s memory politics as being a sort of imposition. While I believe there is certainly an element of truth to this, it is also a matter of perception. You started off by asking whether the two visions are irreconcilable, and I would reply they are not necessarily irreconcilable in the sense that a common memory of totalitarianism can be constructed which gives us certain lessons and says certain things about what it means to be European. Accordingly, it is possible to reconcile the two narratives. Of course, it is not easy, especially because these narratives teach very different lessons.

One of those lessons refers to the fundamental protection of human rights. If you look at the kind of repression that fascist regimes use – which ultimately culminates in the gas chambers – it always starts with the taking away people’s identity, their citizenship and, crucially, their fundamental human rights – the right of Habeas Corpus, the right to assemble, and so forth.

Thus, we come out of 1945 with the lesson that the protection of fundamental human rights is pivotal to the idea of democracy itself. 

This is not obvious if you think of what majoritarian institutions could do in a perfectly legitimate way in earlier times. They could decide to get rid of a certain part of the population, for instance. Indeed, the 17th-century doctrine of the omnicompetent British Parliament argues that there are no fundamental rights: the parliament could make it a capital offense to be in bed after 8 am, or it could decide to kill all blue-eyed babies. And that would be perfectly legal and, to a certain extent, democratic. While in 1945, we learned that fundamental rights are key to democracy. 

The second lesson is that nationalism is the primary threat. Therefore, when one combines those two things the result is a liberal democracy that prioritizes rights protection and delegitimizes nationalism. You can see that in the German Grundgesetz – the Basic Law – that puts human dignity right up front as an inviolable aspect of the constitution. You also see it in things like the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg, whereby the protection of fundamental rights becomes key also at the supranational level, for nations can be dangerous. 

Things are different in the East. This is not to say that there aren’t human rights violations under the communist regime. There obviously are, but the lessons drawn are very different. On the one hand, as I mentioned earlier, almost everybody – including former communists – agree that the past is not a taboo that prevents society from moving on. It is fine to say that communism was this external imposition and to tell a story about the loss of domestic control – or the loss of sovereignty – which has to be brought back to the state level. Accordingly, the future is not about the protection of human rights but rather about democracy in a majoritarian manner. Indeed, people want to be able to vote and decide things on their own – which then constitutes the premise for the story of “Brussels as the new Moscow”, as well as the rebellion against European law and against  accepting the judgements of the Court of Justice.

On the other hand,

if you look at the resistance to communism, this was national in almost all post-communist member states, in the sense that it was about writers and cultural figures writing in the national language against a sort of international power. And, as a result, instead of nationalism being considered bad as it is the Western narrative, it is actually considered a source of liberation. 

Therefore, if you combine that with the first lesson about local control, the result is a desire for national sovereignty – precisely what Western Europeans are most wary of. They rather want rights protection and supranationalism. Thus, we have similar experiences of occupation and rights violation committed by totalitarian regimes, but very, very different interpretations of what the lessons are that come out of those. And it’s hard to know exactly how to reconcile those two things. The ongoing negotiation will probably take a long time, for the conciliation must first happen socially and politically.

Personally, I believe it is a mistake for the EU, and particularly for its Western member states, to try to impose their vision on the East.

It is a mistake to see the Eastern vision as fundamentally wrong or undemocratic. 

Of course, I would defend liberal democracy; I am from Slovenia and in the last elections, we only narrowly avoided potentially becoming an illiberal democracy. In this sense I’m somewhat Western, but I think it’s wrong to see the Eastern desire for local control as being just about certain leaders wanting to take advantage of things. There is a historical basis for this desire and denying that does not help anyone. Instead, the West needs to understand the Eastern experience and Eastern memories. It needs to be willing to negotiate to find a balance between the desire for popular sovereignty and the need for rights protection, as well as a balance between the need for national determination – after all, the concept of the nation-state is still relevant – and the need for some sort of supranational rights protection. 

Though I did not see you discussing colonial past in your book, I still wanted to ask you about it. How much do you think the colonial experience of the founding member states has impacted the shape of the European Communities? Do you see some explicit legacies of the colonial and imperial past of the founding Six in the institutional shape of the Communities? Or in the contemporary political narratives in the post-Brexit UK? Have you dis-covered any reflections of the so-called founding fathers on this topic? How has the EU been dealing with the imperial and colonial past of many of its members?

This is a very interesting and timely question. This issue is becoming very important right now, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and related protests. It is a little-known fact that, until the mid-1970s, Algeria was de facto member of the European community, including in terms of the free movement of labor and guaranteed security for migrant workers. Also, we should not forget that the Nazi push into Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s was really driven by the desire for colonial expansion in Europe. Germany had always been denied extensive colonies in Africa and in the New World. That is why it sought to colonize Central Eastern Europe. In fact, many of the laws for the occupied areas in Central Eastern Europe were really based on colonial ideas. And we should not underestimate the way colonialism played into memories.

When it comes to understanding to what extent the colonial experience of the founding member states has impacted the shape of the European communities, I think it would be hard to draw really specific conclusions. However, we can view the colonial experiences as really important – especially demographically and culturally. Indeed, an overlook fact is the idea that the West is multicultural and cosmopolitan while the East is still largely based on a certain kind of cultural and ethnical homogeneity of nation-states. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon driven in part by the much greater degree of colonialism experienced in Western Europe. Indeed, during the postwar period, a lot of previously colonial subjects were able to emigrate to the West. Many of the major former colonial powers are so multicultural precisely because of their colonial pasts. 

Interestingly, you would tell a very different story if you were looking at Europe before 1945, or even before 1914.

Back then, it was Western Europe that had the typical nation-states – very unified with relatively little multiculturalism – while it was in the empires of Eastern Europe that you had people of different nationalities, different languages, different religions living side-by-side. 

In the East, there were major Jewish and Muslim communities. Regions like former Yugoslavia were really cosmopolitan places. And it was actually one of the underrecognized aspects of communism that communists homogenized the state by pushing out many of the minorities. 

But coming back to your question, I believe we can see the colonial experience of the EU today precisely in multiculturalism. These are the major areas that are dealing with issues as black lives matter, precisely because they were colonial powers. 

As for Brexit, I could talk a lot about the whole saga and the imperial ambitions of post-Brexit Britain. Indeed, these ambitions are very clear if you look at the language that is used – things like “global Britain going it alone”. When the British talk about the trade deals that are going to form after Brexit, it is always about the US, Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand. What countries are those? Those are all former British colonies. I believe there really is this idea that the EU was a constraint on the UK when it comes to reconstructing the British Empire, an idea that is linked to the rejection of the place the UK took in postwar Europe, as if it was a sort of US lapdog. Accordingly, Brexit was seen as a vehicle for regaining glory.

Thus, I believe it is not an accident that memory and narratives are so powerful in the UK. Among the countries that participated in World War II, the UK is the only one that can really see itself as a vainqueur in a classical sense. In fact, France was officially listed as a vainqueur, but it was occupied: its sovereignty was taken away; it is hard to depict that as a glorious triumph. The UK, instead, resisted and played a significant role in pushin back the Germans. However, the UK lost its colonies after the war, and became less important as a military power. These facts are very hard to accept for some, given that the UK did not experience the kind of national humiliation that almost all the other EU member states experienced. That is why I believe that

the UK has a very different kind of memory culture. In a sense, it is not surprising that certain anachronistic images have a greater impact in the UK than on the continent.

How would you assess the narrative that is presented in the House of European History?

For those who do not know it: it is a very interesting place. I believe it fulfils the function of national museum that you find in every European capital, except that it tells history at a sort of European level. It is right next to the European Parliament, the entry is free and you even get an audioguide in any official language of the EU – probably it is the only museum outside of Slovenia where you can get a Slovenian audio guide. 

The House is providing a story of legitimation and it does so in a really quirky way. You start off on the bottom floor and you work your way up; you go from a sort of foundational Greek myth, namely the story of Europa, to the Gutenberg and the printing press, but the center of the narrative is World War II. At the top floor, it is all about the expansion of the EU, the common market and “look how great things are”. In this sense, I believe it seeks to legitimize the EU. Hinging more on the narrative of 1945 and less on the narrative of 1989, it still is very much a Western perspective, but there is some desire to bring in “the perspective of 1989.”

In other words, the museum is trying to make an institutional argument for the legitimacy of the EU.

It is a good example of the social fact of memory that I was talking about before, as well as of the way memory narratives are spread. And the House is very explicit about its desire to do this. 

However, I do not like the very didactic approach the museum proposes. As I said, it offers a sort of whiggish history which I would hope we had gotten beyond in Europe. It is not very dialogical, nor is it questioning. I believe many of us would like to see a post-conventional image of history instead of watching the creation of a national type of story at the supernational level. While it is interesting in terms of how certain institutions – or certain people in those institutions – view the EU, I do not think it is a success in terms of what it’s trying to do. Moreover, copying the national model at the European level is not what European identity should auspicate. That identity has to be different; it has to coexist with national identities.

What might be the potential content of the foundational memory of the European Union in the future? How the future accession of Ukraine (and Moldova) might change its memory, and what kind of conflicts you predict?

That’s a very difficult question. We are still in the middle of the war; we don’t even know which borders Ukraine as a potential member state might have, nor whether Moldova will even exist. There is a real possibility that if Odessa and the south of Ukraine fall, Moldova will fall soon after – especially given that Russian soldiers are already in Transnistria. In other words, the easy answer is “we’ll see”.

Anyway, going back to the framework of the book, especially the conflict between 1945 and 1989 I described earlier, it could tell us something about Ukraine. I believe we might have to deal with a new rupture, a sort of new foundational experience.

Ukraine already experienced fascist occupation, it experienced communism, and now it is experiencing Russian imperialism. 

Indeed, I do not think Putin is trying to reconstruct the USSR; he is rather trying to reconstruct the Russian Empire. Therefore, Ukraine is experiencing a kind of imperialism.

This third experience is still underway. It is going to be a fundamental rupture for Ukrainians based on damage and trauma; it is also a rupture for the EU, for the idea that Europe no longer needs armies. Nevertheless, it is hard to foresee what kind of lessons the Ukrainians will take away from it after the end of the battle, or even how the battle will end. Probably we will have to deal with a different kind of Ukrainian nationalism which will develop as a response to the war. Given the EU’s reticence to nationalist phenomena, dealing with this issue will be troublesome – as you can observe in the difficulties the EU has had when negotiating with, and integrating, Western Balkan countries. The latter, by the way, also experienced war and a nationalist response – in Croatia, in Serbia, in Bosnia, to a lesser extent in Macedonia. 

I expect similar trajectories in postwar Ukraine at the level of memory politics. Perhaps this rupture will extend to Western Europeans as well. Of course, it will have a lesser impact there than it will have on the Ukrainians who are the front-liners. Nevertheless, to a certain extent it is a rupture for the West as well, namely in terms of its views of Russia and not only for matters related to energy supply. That might lead to new steps in the direction of a European defense community – a proposal that failed in the ‘50s. This is a foundational aspect of the nation-state which is part of the rupture of the 24th of February 2022. Common European defense would be a big deal, and perhaps one common ground with Ukraine. But where that would lead and what the spillover effects of combining militaries would be remains a huge and open question. In addition, it will require a great amount of funding to reconstruct Ukraine after the war, and this may spur further movement towards joint European debt and fiscal policy.

As for the effects this will have on memory, it is too early to say. In the book, I talk about ruptures that become foundational events triggering a re-evaluation of what the past meant. These ruptures give us opportunities to tell new stories. When I started my project in the aftermath of the financial crisis, people asked me whether the latter qualifies as such a rupture. I always said it did not, and I am skeptical about the pandemic as well. Indeed, hardly anybody remembered the Spanish flu until Covid came along and newspapers started writing about it again. Conversely, Ukraine is more likely to have major long-lasting effects on memory than Covid, the financial crisis or the migration crisis. But, again, only time will tell.

In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi

The text has been slightly edited after publication.

Contact Us