European Memory: Universalising the Past?

A new special issue of the European Review of History, edited by Friedemann Pestel, Rieke Trimçev, Gregor Feindt, and Félix Krawatzek.

European Memory has become an omnipresent phenomenon of our times. Both scholarship and the public sphere frequently refer to the European quality of something past or a specifically European way of remembering. It is, however, especially in Europe’s present crisis that these discussions on European memory reveal conflicts and a broad, often contradictory meaning of ‘Europe’. Practices of universalising the past are central to these conflicts and allow for an in-depth understanding of European Memory.

Invoking ‘European memory’ promises to overcome such conflicts by acknowledging difference and relating particular memories to other memories, i.e. those of different experiences or those of different people. This process of universalizing memory reduces difference, omits contexts, and eventually diffuses conflicts. To confront this bias, future research needs to employ an understanding of European Memory as a discursive reality rather than a normative ideal. In a new special issue of the European Review of History recently published, we – Friedemann Pestel, Rieke Trimçev, Gregor Feindt, and Félix Krawatzek – have taken up this challenge and confronted our discursive approach towards ‘European Memory’ with a set of empirical examples, ranging from the early modern memory of ‘Turk’, Versailles and French May 1968 to the massacre of  Srebrenica. This blog post outlines ideas and central findings from the Special Issue ‘European Memory: Universalising the Past?’.In 2012, the European Union received the Noble Peace Prize for the ‘advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights’. The award suggested that the European integration stood for a particularly European way of remembering and overcoming mass violence and the horror of two World Wars. In this, the prize committee substantiated a claim that scholars such as Aleida Assmann or Claus Leggewie have formulated over the last fifteen years, namely that EU integrating power exemplifies a ‘universalising’ memory. Similarly, Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider elevated ‘European Memory’ to a key example of cosmopolitan Holocaust memory.

However, neither academic narrative nor the enthusiastic reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in the European public sphere could disguise that this European Memory Regime is not consensual but often conflictive. Central and Eastern European claims to remember Stalinist crimes openly confront a German or French understanding of the Holocaust’s singularity. Similarly, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Jean-Claude Juncker evoked examples of an inner-European integration of migrants, clearly opposing other claims that such migrants could endanger European culture and identity.

These conflicts and the different meanings of ‘Europe’ in such interpretations of the past illustrate that current discourse on European Memory has arrived at a dead end. Instead of adding yet another layer to this debate, we should study the debate itself and discriminate what universalising practices of memory mean. In order to do so, we approach the act of remembering something as European not as the expression of a ‘European’ nature of its object or the interpretation, but instead as the self-understanding of this mnemonic utterance as European.

The memory of ‘flight and expulsion’, i.e. the forced migration of Germans after the Second World War is a case in point. Here, since the 1990s interpretations of this forced migration as European have claimed its significance beyond Germany and made it equivalent with other examples of forced migration. When, for instance, in 1999 German expellees’ organisations pointed at Kosovo to demonstrate that expulsion happened right now and ‘at our doorstep, here in Europe’ (Erika Steinbach) or, in 2015, several German politicians and intellectuals compared Syrian refugees to expellees (e.g. Bernd Fabritius, Andreas Kossert, or Sascha Lobo) they divested ‘flight and expulsion’ of any temporal references. Such a decontextualisation may serve different, often contradicting purposes: it may enable the expression of German victimhood without further reference to the Second World War or underline the need for more empathy for present-day refugees.

In other examples, historians with a background in Central European history and professional experience in joint text book commissions have searched for ways of linking different stories of forced migration beyond the dominant narrative of victimisation. Scholars such as Dieter Bingen, Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, or Stefan Troebst suggested coordinating different national examples of forced migration and therefore introducing an impartial ‘European’ position commemorating every single example. In consequence, this means a different way of reducing complexity than the before mentioned equalisation of memory but still reduces mnemonic complexity.

Universalising practices of commemoration constitute a mode of dealing with difference by reducing it and allegedly freezing conflict. Comparing and relating different experiences and memories does not necessarily alienate other mnemonic discourse, and in consequence interpreting something as European may well stabilise national patterns of interpretations. However laudable and welcome such efforts are, students of memory face a decision: should the opening of memory studies introduce empirical findings into existing theories? Or should memory studies not try themselves to draw theoretical conclusions out of their own empirical findings and translate these theoretical conclusions back to social theory? This special issue suggests that memory studies have all the potential to attempt the yet more difficult second path and gain new insights from the study of an omnipresent topic such as ‘European memory’.


‘European Memory: Universalising the Past?’ European Review of History 24.4 (2017) 

Table of Contents

Friedemann Pestel, Rieke Trimçev, Gregor Feindt, and Félix Krawatzek, Promise and challenge of European Memory

Simon Hadler, Europe’s other? The Turks and shifting borders of memory

Friedemann Pestel, Memory that governs by itself? Appropriations of Versailles memory

Gregor Feindt, From ‘flight and expulsion’ to migration: contextualizing German victims of forced migration

Félix Krawatzek, Made in France? The (re-)invention of ‘Mai 68’

Daniela Mehler, The last ‘never again’? Srebrenica and the making of a memory imperative

Rieke Trimçev, Two models of universalizing memory practices

All articles are available via Taylor and Francis’s Website, see


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Gregor Feindt (August 4, 2017). European Memory: Universalising the Past? Europe Across Borders. Retrieved July 23, 2024 from

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