We must all examine our recent histories

May 18, 2007

Building a national identity on history can be dangerous, warns Stefan Berger, who leads a European project studying the subject. Below, his colleagues Uffe Ostergard and Attila Pok examine collective responsibility and collective memory

Almost all countries in the European Union over the past 15 to 20 years have been engaged in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. This includes the small, and presumed innocent, Nordic countries.

Norway paid compensation for Jewish property confiscated from Jews who were arrested and deported in November 1942, and reparations have helped to set up a Centre for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, which opened to the public last August.

Even Denmark, with a reputation for having saved the majority of its Jews, commissioned an official investigation of its refugee policy before and during the German occupation of 1940-45 and is about to publish an investigation into economic collaboration by Danish industry and agriculture.

This wave of self-reflection is far from being a new phenomenon; indeed, to a large degree this is what the writing of history has always been about.

What is new is the attempt by European states to face their pasts in an open way and to remember the negative, as well as positive, aspects of their national histories.

Germany has been doing this for a while. After its crushing defeat in the Second World War, Germany was forced to go through a process of Bewaltigung der Vergangenheit - confronting the past to come to terms with it. Until recently this was a concept virtually untranslatable into other European languages, but after 20 years of European soul-searching it is beginning to find a meaning elsewhere.

Nation-states have always preferred to remember their victimisation by others rather than face their own guilt. But, grudgingly, Europeans have come to recognise that the extermination of the Jews and other groups was not an exclusively German matter. Nobody will deny that Germany was the cradle of Nazism and instigator of extermination, but the Second World War was also a European civil war, fought between ideologically motivated factions within each country, and many non-Germans were only too eager to help in the mass killings.

Anti-Semitism was not a German peculiarity. The major difference was that a group of virulent anti-Semites conquered a German state in profound crisis and, through a combination of persuasion and oppression, involved the rest of their fellow nationals, plus allies in other countries, in extermination of a group they rather arbitrarily labelled "Jews", plus other groups such as the Roma and Sinti, Slav peoples, homosexuals and the handicapped.

To some extent we have known this for a long time, but the development of the European Union and the rising interest in so-called European values has necessitated an investigation of the darker sides of the respective national histories. One of the major lessons of recent European history is that the recognition of historical responsibility is a prerequisite for any credible attempt to prevent similar disasters elsewhere and in the future.

Today, the Federal Republic of Germany represents one of the few cases where a whole people has learnt from history and accepted responsibility for the misdeeds of the nation, if not immediately during the 1950s then certainly later by virtue of the youth rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The decision by the EU last month to criminalise racial hatred and Holocaust denial suggests that such efforts to learn from history are now being exported to the rest of Europe.

Uffe /stergard, professor of European history at the Copenhagen Business School, is on the steering committee of the European Science Foundation's NHIST programme.

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