The Myth of a European Memory: A Voyage to Poland and Back

More than a quarter of a century after the fall of the iron curtain, western and eastern Europe are still divided, especially when it comes to collective interpretations of the European past. Whereas the centrality of the Holocaust for European memory politics has been widely accepted in the west, this paradigm is challenged by many voices within eastern European states. Revisiting Poland – literally and through the lenses of literature and film – highlights the intricate set of the problems that muddle the path from a European past towards a European future.


The ghost of a so-called ‘European memory’ has been wandering through the floors of universities and research institutions for more than two decades now. In cultural studies especially, but also among literature critics and historians, the concept of a collective European memory has been discussed and refined extensively. Over the last years, it has finally reached public discourse. For many, one of the major goals of developing a common European identity constructed through memory, is to bring Europeans closer together and in doing so strengthen the internal solidity and broader legitimacy of the European Union; first and foremost this familiar discourse presents the events of the past as a collective mistake that should not be repeated since they contributed to the wars and catastrophes of the past. One of the latest examples of this trope could be observed at the joint commemoration ceremony of France and Germany on the occasion of the centenary of the battle of Verdun. The French president François Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel called for European unity and warned against nationalist thinking at a time when Europe is in a deep (identity) crisis and when populist leaders in different countries are regaining influence.

The First World War has often been seen as the ultimate outburst of nationalism in Europe and as a terrible setback on the way towards continental peace and unity. Moreover, it was interpreted already at the time as an existential threat to what was perceived by some as a common European culture. As Romain Rolland put it in a letter to Stefan Zweig in 1918: “I feel a drunkenness in the air, a sacred drunkenness of joy and at the same time this drunkenness of the masses that are befuddled by the smell of blood. There is a glow on the horizon: is it the new dawn, is it the reflection of a huge funeral pyre on which our whole culture burns to ashes?” Against all efforts of joint commemoration, it is specifically the memory of the First World War that is very diverse in Europe: in France and Great Britain it has long held a key place within public discourse whereas especially in Germany it has been overshadowed by the commemoration of World War Two and the Holocaust. This rather short elaboration already shows how heterogeneous a presumably unitary ‘European memory’ actually is and how problematic it might be to claim that such a ‘collective’ memory exists at all. Furthermore, the recent commemorations of Verdun clearly do not prove the existence of a common memory or even a collective sensibility about the past, but rather provide an example for how European memory politics are developed for contemporary purposes by those in power.

A Trip to Poland

In the summer of 2016 our annual Europadialog field trip led us to the border region of Germany and Poland. Although the borderlands between Germany and France we visited the previous year are full of scars of Europe’s long history of violence, my feelings about going to Poland were different. I know Poland mostly from my research in the field of Jewish Studies, and more specifically from my work on the Holocaust, its perception among the children of the survivors, and commemoration practices in Israel. I have visited Poland two times before. The first time was for a Jewish Studies conference in Warsaw in May 2012. Two Israeli colleagues from my university were there as well and the three of us confronted the difficult past with black humour. The second time was in September 2015 at a conference about European narratives that took place in Krakow, at the Przegorzały Castle, where the European Studies department of Jagiellonian University is located. During the German occupation, however, it had been the residence of the Nazi Governor of the Cracow district, Otto Wachter, who oversaw the deportation of most of the Galician Jews. Spending a nice, interesting, and fruitful time at this place, a stone’s throw away from the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, felt odd; this time, I was not even among the right crowd to joke with.

On the second day of our Europadialog trip we took the train from Frankfurt to Poznań. Trains in Poland come for me with certain images. For most of the trip, I watched the landscape outside fly by; I pictured vanished villages and partisans hiding behind the next tree. Then, we arrived in a sunny Poznań, and all those thoughts disappeared behind the splendour of a beautiful city and the pleasant experiences similar to those I remembered from my visits to Warsaw and Krakow. This lasted until our stay was almost over and a ‘souvenir’ sold at various stands on a particular part of the beautiful market in the old city caught my eye: a little sign made of wood, showing an orthodox Jew recognisable by his long black coat, the black hat, a beard, and his peyot. A griming smile brought to light enormous teeth under an oversized nose. The polish saying printed underneath read: ‘In order to have money in the house, and never run out of it, you need a Jew at home. He will keep watching over it‘.

This clearly anti-Semitic depiction, evoking all the age-old stereotypes about Jews and displayed in public on the city’s main market square, demonstrates that Europe does indeed not have a united memory, no matter how elaborate the speeches at joint commemoration ceremonies. A European memory, one that naturally puts the Holocaust at its centre as argued by Aleida Assmann, Claus Leggewie, and many others, should also lead to a more critical approach towards anti-Semitic stereotyping. However, the above described depiction of the Jew that watches over money is not only perfectly accepted within the Polish society, hardly anybody associates it indeed with anti-Semitism. This demonstrates how diverse the historical narratives that are taught in school and dominate culture and public discourse in the European Unions’ member states (still) are; in fact too diverse to lay claim to something akin to a collective memory shared amongst the people of Europe.

It seems clear to me that the call for a European memory that puts the Holocaust at its centre is especially attractive to and thus promoted by Germany – or, to be more precise, by specific sectors of German society. This approach has shaped memory in Germany for decades now and it is part of Germany’s constant attempt to reassure others that it has indeed changed. The recurring commemoration of these events is necessary, of course, especially in light of the current re-awakening of nationalism, xenophobia, islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. It moreover reminds us of the foundational principals of the European Union – to assure peace, human rights, and dignity as well as liberty. The crucial question, however, is if the commemoration of the negative experiences of the past is the right path towards constructing Europe’s joint future.

The Landscape of Trauma

In her novel On the Brink of Something Beautiful second generation Israeli author Lizzie Doron describes vividly how constant confrontation with a traumatic past can shape people’s lives negatively. In the novel’s three sections, the narrator tells the story of three children of Holocaust survivors: Amalia, Hezi, and Gadi. All of them spend their early childhood in the same neighbourhood in southern Tel Aviv until life leads them on to different paths: Amalia flees from the influence of her traumatized mother to a Kibbutz and becomes later on a speaker at Israel’s army radio station; Hezi studies history in Paris and becomes a professor at the Sorbonne; and Gadi moves to the United States where he marries and works in his wife’s family business. Amalia and Hezi are particularly haunted by the past time and again: Amalia tries to run away and Hezi becomes deeply involved with the past until the point where it can no longer be understood whether it is simply his professional interest as a historian or the personal obsession of the “Holocauster” (as his Parisian girlfriend calls him). Amalia and Hezi meet again in their fifties and decide to live together in Paris. However, Hezi dreams of rebuilding their parents’ village in Poland. When Amalia lands at Charles de Gaulle airport, he takes her on a spontaneous trip. The sudden confrontation with the past leads to a drastic reaction on her part during their flight: ‘For three hours I threw up into a bag and imagined my death under the sky of Poland’.

Neither Hezi nor Amalia personally remember what happened to their parents. However, they are traumatized by their childhood experiences and survive with a memory that is shaped by the social group they grew up with. According to Maurice Halbwachs, ‘it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories’. Halbwachs continues arguing that ‘it is in this sense that there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection’. Collective memory remains, however, a construct while social frameworks are the instrument that can be used to establish a certain image of the past. According to Halbwachs, this image can change over time along with society.

A Collection of Memories

In Europe, however, many different social frameworks operate at the same time. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka argues in her book Frames of Remembrance, ‘realities of the past’ are socially constructed as well as the rules and orders of remembrance. Thus, it is almost impossible to speak of a common European memory. Moreover, ‘remembering the Holocaust is not politically neutral’. One crucial point in Europe’s commemoration of its past is the year 1989 and the changes that came with it. The example of the commemoration of the battle of Verdun by Hollande and Merkel mentioned above, as well as Jacques Chirac’s historical recognition of French responsibility in the deportation of French Jews and the invitation to Gerhard Schröder to commemorate the D-Day together, symbolize the old axis of Franco-German partnership and cannot represent ways of commemoration in a new Europe nor any kind of European memory. Indeed, there is a huge memory divide between the western European countries that “embarked on a European adventure” (Tony Judt) after 1945 and their eastern neighbors who went through 40 years of communist rule. Judt argues that if the problem in Western Europe has been a shortage of memory, in the continent’s other half the problem is reversed. Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw, usually as a weapon against the past of someone else’.

Poland’s landscape is full of the scars left from the former ‘bloodlands’ (Timothy Snyder). The movie Am Ende kommen Touristen (Germany, 2007) by Robert Thalheim shows how burdensome it can be to live next to the places that symbolize the sheer horror of the events of the twentieth century. Sven Lehnert, a young German, comes to the Polish town of Oświęcim. During his year of Zivildienst (civilian service) he is supposed to take care of an elderly survivor who guides groups through the nearby former concentration camp of Auschwitz. On the surface, life in Oświęcim seems normal, even boring. Sven goes to a rock concert, meets Ania, a young Polish woman and falls in love. However, over time he discovers the weight of the past lies heavily over the town and Ania´s growing wish to leave illustrates the common feeling of frustration and hopelessness.

The lieux de mémoire of Poland which together form a landscape of multiple memories are not exclusively traces left behind by the Holocaust. Conversely, Poland underwent many tragic periods in its history, i.e. the partitions in the 18th century, the occupation by Nazi Germany and the Communist era. Especially the occupation holds still a crucial place in the memory of Poles, and it is mostly disconnected from the Holocaust. In the memory outside of Poland, however, the occupation is mostly overshadowed by the Holocaust. The memory rivalry between east and west therefore forces Europe into a new discussion about its past as well as its future. There are new challenges ahead that will involve finding a way of respecting each other’s memories instead of trying to cover all of them under the heavy symbolism of Auschwitz. This is particularly important in the west. Countries like Poland, however, still need to come to terms with their anti-Semitic past. Considering the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as part of their history does not mean to preserve an exclusive narrative, though. Rather multiple voices and stories of the past should be heard and commemorated. The scars in the east and west, but also the various fractures that do not conform this particular territorial divide are very different, or to speak with Jeffrey K. Ollick, Europe does not have a collective memory but many collected memories.

Historical events can be commemorated together, but public commemoration ceremonies should not be confused with a collective ‘European memory’ that can lead the way into the future. In fact, the negative experiences that are collected in a however defined ‘European memory’ can indeed not be the sole ground Europe’s future will be built on. How destructive this might be has been shown above using the examples of fictional narratives in film and literature. The lacking of a positive memory, or rather the fact that the positive experiences are not communicated as extensively as the negative events, might be one among many aspects of the identity crisis Europe goes through today. Nevertheless, there remains a need to raise a deeper awareness and sensibility for Europe’s history and thus create a new understanding. Stereotypical depictions, like the one described above, are not only problematic, but poisonous and jeopardise a European future built on the values of tolerance, human dignity, and individual freedom.

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Suggested Source quotation:

Judith Müller: The myth of a European memory: A voyage to Poland and back. In: RUB Europadialog 2016. URL:


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