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Darkening Europe’s Past

On Historical Consciousness
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

The European Union is intervening in the teaching and writing of history to deliberately ‘darken Europe’s past’ as a way of building support for a federal Europe

We are grateful to Professor Frank Furedi for permission to republish this article which first appeared on Roots and Wings with Frank Furedi:

In a recent vote, the European Parliament agreed to affirm a report entitled ‘On Historical Consciousness’ from its committee on culture and education[i]. The aim of the report is to represent Europe’s past in the worst possible light. Through framing the past in the form of a cautionary tale, its authors seek to use it as a resource for the promotion of what it characterises as a ‘negative foundational myth’. At first sight, the term ‘negative foundational myth’ comes across as paradoxical one. After all, why would a negative foundation serve as the ground for promoting the EU? The supporters of this report believe that it can play this role by providing the EU with the justification to break with the past and present itself as the positive alternative to the bad old days. As the authors of the Report explain, they recognise ‘that the horrors of the past serve as a “negative foundation myth”’, which provides ‘a strong sense of purpose for the European peace project’.

The Report’s representation of European history as a story of shame is achieved through communicating it in the language of contemporary identity politics. That is why they stress the need for what they describe as ‘intersectional history’. From this perspective they can claim that ‘gender- belief- and ethnicity-based injustices have been embedded in European history over many centuries, including in the form of antisemitism and antigypsyism’, and that these injustices have had ‘consequences for Europe and the rest of the world’.

The Report’s commitment to intersectional history is justified on the ground that it considers

chauvinism, gender-stereotypes, power-asymmetries and structural inequalities to be deeply rooted in European history, and regrets the lack of a sufficiently multicultural and gender-sensitive approach in the teaching of history; deems it vital to address the marginalisation of women and other underrepresented societal groups in history, and calls on the Member States to provide for a stronger corresponding focus in national curricula

Through reading history backwards, the past is turned into the source of society’s contemporary problems. The Report’s obsession is with identity-related themes that are imaginatively recast as ‘deeply rooted in European history’. From this perspective the settling of account with the injustices of the past underpins the form of historical consciousness being promoted.

The quest for legitimacy

The aim of the memory politics advocated in this Report is to endow EU with the legitimacy of the past. Normally the transformation of the past into a negative foundational myth would undermine its capacity to serve the role of a legitimator. However, since the pathologisation of the past is directed at a history that was rooted within the nation, it does not harm the claim of a transnational body like the EU to moral authority. It is the past of European nations that stands indicted. That is why the report insists that the EU’s version of historical consciousness should transcend the nation and become European or global. In this vein it ‘acknowledges the array of past and present initiatives at European level to foster a common European historical memory’. Furthermore it

Stresses the vital role of education and calls on the Member States to update current curricula and teaching methodologies with a view to shifting focus from national towards European and global history and in order to allow for more emphasis on a supranational historical understanding.

It proposes a school curriculum that highlights the ‘vital importance of learning about European integration, the history, institutions and fundamental values of the Union and European citizenship for a European sense of belonging to emerge’ and ‘calls for the teaching of European history and European integration, which needs to be regarded in a global context, and for European citizenship education to become an integral part of national education systems’. In another words the Report’s negative myth of the past serves to refocus history teaching from the nation to the EU. In this way it hopes to cultivate a ‘European historical consciousness’ at the expense of a national one.

Targeting national history

The Report, ‘On Historical Consciousnes’ is the latest example of a genre of anti-national and anti-sovereigntist attacks on national history by EU federalist ideologues. It was in the 1980s that powerful anti-national currents acquired a commanding status in western European historiography. From the 1980s onwards even the slightest interest in national history was treated with suspicion and in some circles ‘national history’ was condemned as an accomplice to xenophobic politics. ‘We, historians, need to reflect on how to deal with national histories especially after they have demonstrated to be so dangerous in the past by legitimating wars and genocides,’ argued one of its opponents[ii]. Historians like Stefan Berger portrayed national histories as a dangerous virus that needed to be contained. He has argued that such a containment strategy demands that the ‘naturalisation’ and ‘essentialisation’ of national narratives should be forcefully ‘denaturalised’ and ‘de-essentialised’ in order to reduce the harms they can cause. He also asserted that the threat posed by national history should be limited by the creation of ‘kaleidoscopic national histories’ that recast national memory into multiple diverse fragments[iii].

Some of the supporters of the project of the construction of a shared European memory explicitly acknowledge the instrumental and artificial character of their scheme. The French EUphile political scientist, Fabrice Larat, an enthusiastic proponent of this endeavour, wrote that the ‘instrumentalization of the past for means of legitimization and community-building is not restricted to nation states’[iv]. For Larat the instrumentalisation of the past is an essential precondition for ensuring that all members of the EU sign up to what he characterised as an ‘Acquis historique communautaire’; that is, a shared historical memory that communicates ‘a shared belief about the historical purpose of the common system of governance that is now the EU’[v]. The objective of an acquis historique communautaire was to ensure that the values of the project of European unification are underpinned by a common narrative of the past.

The instrumentalisation of the past by the partisans of a shared European memory is essentially an administrative exercise conducted through technocratic and public relations practices. This is a public relations campaign, which Chris Shore well described as a ‘characteristically top-down, managerial and instrumental approach to “culture building”’.  He rightly questioned ‘its assumption that “European identity” can somehow be engineered from above and injected into the masses by an enlightened vanguard of European policy professionals using the latest communication technologies and marketing techniques’[vi].

The project of Europeanising memory has relied on administrative fiat and the re-writing of history. The promotion of the Europeanisation of memory does not depend on the elaboration of a sophisticated or subtle historiography. Its influence relies in its institutional power to subject EU member states to political and cultural pressure to de-nationalise their past. The implication of the acquis historique communautaire is that the nation no longer possesses the authority to decide how it wishes to memorialise its past. According to the vision projected by partisans of the Europeanisation of memory – in all but name – the interpretation of the past becomes a shared enterprise in a post-national Europe. Their aim is to underwrite economic and political harmonisation with the co-ordination of historical memory. Attempts to promote common memory laws on Holocaust Denial or the denial of the Armenian Genocide illustrate some of the initiatives undertaken to institutionalise the Europeanisation of memory.

Schemes designed to re-write history textbooks and to promote transnational historiography at the expense of national ones are regular themes in the EU’s memory war. The European Commission’s financial support for historical research is influenced by its political objectives, and consequently, as one recipient of its largesse noted, ‘academic selection criteria were not strictly applied’[vii]. Oriane Calligaro’s study of the EU’s research policy concluded that the institution ‘actively encouraged de-territorialised and teleological histories of Europe while simultaneously worrying that by doing so it replicated the efforts of so-called ‘totalitarian’ states to rewrite history’[viii].

Since the 1980s anti-sovereigntist, de-territorialised history has merged the outlooks of identity politics to provide an intersectional account of Europe’s past. In this way contemporary concerns about issues such as the politics of gender and decolonisation become eternalised and recycled as a negative foundational myth. That ideologues promoting EU federalism rely on a negative foundation for its institutional authority underlines its fragile basis. The darkening of Europe’s history may serve to dispossess people from their cultural legacy but it will do little to endow the EU with authority. That is why the is project of Europeanising memory is unlikely to inspire the people of the continent.

[i] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[ii] Martín-Arroyo, P. (2014) ‘Histoeuropeanisation’: Challenges and Implications of (Re)writing the History of Europe ‘Europeanly’, 1989–2015, College of Europe Natolin Campus: Warszawa, p.45.

[iii] Berger, S. (2007) ‘Writing National Histories in Europe: Reflections on the Pasts, Presents, and Futures of a tradition’, in Jarausch, K.H. & Lindenberger, T. (eds), Conflicted Memories: Europeanizing Contemporary Histories, Berghahn Books: Oxford. pp. 65-66.

[iv] Larat, F. (2005) ‘Presenting the Past: Political Narratives on European History and the Justification of EU Integration’, German Law Journal, vol. 6, no.2, p.273

[v] Larat (2005) p. 287.

[vi] Shore, C. (1999) ‘Inventing Homo Europaeus: Cultural Politics of European Integration’, Ethnologia Europaea. Journal of European Ethnology, vol. 29, no.2, p.31.

[vii] Cited Klinke, I. (2014) ‘European Integration Studies and the European Union’s Eastern Gaze’, Millennium Journal of International Studies, vol. 43, no.2, p.575.

[viii] Calligaro is cited in Klinke (2014) p.574.



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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed