Are there four memory spaces in Europe?

By Philippe Perchoc | 3 October 2011

To quote this document: Philippe Perchoc, “Are there four memory spaces in Europe?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 3 October 2011,, displayed on 27 March 2023

The question of a European memory has become one of the great axis of European integration since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Commemorations of this event have actually been a way for the Polish government to protest the omission of Solidarity and its contribution the fall of puppet Communist regimes in Europe from the official European Commission video.

Not only did Western and Eastern Europeans not share an opinion about this event, but European institutions were under attack for nor having upheld a pan-European vision. This we call Eastern Europeans held a different view of this event. In Vytautas Landsbergis' memoirs, one of the top Soviet dissidents and key in helping Lithuania accede to independence, there is no mentioning of events regarding the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The question of collective memory is therefore raised by enlargement of the EU. Not only did a great number of European states face heavy modifications of their “national stories” because of regime changes, but also after the creation of new states on the map of Europe and because of European integration. How can we channel our thinking around this conjoint mutations ?

First and foremost, one has to know what a collective memory is. It has long been generally accepted that memory was an predominantly personal faculty. In an individualistic point of view, each individual has its way of seeing the world and perceptibility of experiences. If memory is the capacity to bring parts of the past to the present, as Saint Augustine put it, then it can only be an individual capacity since each individual has its own past. This tradition points out two types of memories : involuntary memory and voluntary memory. The first one amounts to the uncontrolled remembrance of past events, the second to a planned effort of remembering.

It is this second type of memory that was put forward by collective memory sociologists. To Maurice Halbwachs, this memory is a collective act. One remembers because others compel us to do so. People and objects that surround us are many more markers that allow us to remember. Therefore memory is tied to history. It is a past remembered through the present. If remembering is a collective act, then what kind of groups remember ? At least two are obvious : the family and the state – to which can be added Europe.

This presentation can not pretend to discuss the entirety of these complex issues, but it will try to raise a number of questions that will orient our discussions.

Family memory, state memory and European memory

Memory is structured around events that involve the life of the group. As showed by specialists of national movements in 19th century Europe, elites assemble the past in order to justify the existence of a group and its autonomy. This particular subject will be detailed later, but it amounts to creating a specific memory depending on history, and someone contradicting it. All states and regimes tend to assert their legitimacy by using an idealized version of history. It remained a generally accepted idea in France that all French people had resisted German occupation and the deportation of Jews during World War II until 1995. The myths of General de Gaulle and of a resisting France allowed the national community to overcome to shame of defeat and keep some degree of national pride. But it does not only try to create positive events, it may as well try to present a group as a victim of an other. Many cases can be brought to mind: the Battle of Kosovo (1939), the Katyn massacre (1940) or the Holocaust as the central element of Western European memory after the war.

But it also created a deformed vision of 20th century French memory. Only in 1995 did president Chirac, only 13 at the end of the war, declare that the Vichy regime was also a part of French history. All historians, including a large number of French families, has known for decades that the state-sponsored memory was inaccurate, but it took fifty years to be publicly acknowledged.

In this case, the memory of family or of some political groups such as the French Communist Party were in contradiction with the official memory. However, this uneven memory was the very core reason of these groups' existence while also being a corner stone of state legitimacy. This state-sponsored memory can be witnessed in a number of ways.

There were first of all commemorations and official ceremonies. Families are used to all sorts of gatherings. Not only do we celebrate birthdays, but we also gather to remember our dead. Almost each state has its national holiday, marking a founding event. In France, it is the Revolution, as well as the victories of WWI and WWII. In Turkey, it marks the founding of the Republic of Turkey. All are tied to the memory of some groups. Therefore, when president Giscard d'Estaing proposed not celebrating Victory in Europe Day, a campaign led by veterans forced him to back down.



History books are yet another example. School books are generally written by historians, but they also carry a national ambition. They tell history from one point of view.

Monuments are critical manifestations of collective memory. This state memory policy is part of an architectural policy. For instance, the Royal Palace of Vilnius was rebuilt in 2009 to point out the continuity between the medieval Lithuania and the contemporary state. Moreover, memory landmarks such as Auschwitz, Katyn and Srebrencia have been turned into memorials.

Alongside this memory policy, there is also an omitting policy. This omitting, sometimes a prohibition, is often subjects to legislations. In France, it is forbidden by law to discuss the existence of the Holocaust. One can not talk about some aspects of national history, or to view them in an alternate way and some historians and families do indeed disagree with the state-sponsored version of memory.

Four memory areas and only three memorials

If collective memory is embodied in speeches and monuments, then one can try to view what messages a symbolical monument carries for the many European memory areas.

After WWII, Western Europeans centred the legitimacy of European construction on the ideal of peace and the horrors of the Holocaust. The Germans accepted to carry the entire responsibility and Auschwitz, although behind the Iron Curtain, would become the symbol of this European memory.

For the Poles, who underwent German and Soviet occupations, one event also carried a lot of importance : it was the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn. After this was discovered, the USSR declared that the Germans were responsible, although millions of Poles knew the truth. Besides, the Soviets were building on a nearby site a memorial to the destruction of a village by the Nazis.

The memory of Katyn remained central in Polish-Russian relations, and Poland is one of the states of Europe which tries the hardest to turn the memory of the Shoah into a memory of the victims of the two totalitarianisms. What matters for Eastern Europe is what happened after the way.

Another distinct memory area is probably the Balkans. The events at Srebrenica symbolize the conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s to the Europeans One can see that this element has integrated European consciousness because the Serbian government has been obliged to surrender all criminals to justice.

At least two areas seem excluded from this debate. Spain and Portugal on the one hand, who went through the 20th century in a very different chronological way, and on the other hand, Turkey. In Spain and Turkey, a certain trauma dating from before WWII remains unsolved.

Memory and history debated

A fundamental question which is raised is the relation between memory and history. We have discussed that collective memory is necessary to the cohesion of political areas. However, the various national political areas on the continent are now put together in a giant European area. Along with the problems of the frictions between group and state memory must now be added the frictions with that of the EU. And the memory compromise of WWII is increasingly denied by some. And the adhesion of Turkey to the EU would create yet another shock.

The confrontation of memories can not, by itself, solve these memory differences. Still, the European Union must be able to be a forum of expression which will allow to cool tensions between states. This plurality of memories is needed and must be backed by historical research which allows to understand past societies. Exchange of historians and opening of archives will allow to heal the injured European memories.

But it must also go beyond them by using the aforementioned means to create a European memory : ceremonies, commemorations, educational policies and an architectural policy. Or in these three domains, there are yet to have noticeable effects.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

  • B. ANDERSON, L’imaginaire national : réflexions sur l’origine et l’essor du nationalisme, trad par. P. DAUZAT (Paris: La Découverte, 2002).
  • M. HALBWACHS, La mémoire collective, Bibliothèque de sociologie contemporaine (Paris: PUF, 1968).
  • M. HALBWACHS, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Bibliothèque de L’Évolution de l’humanité (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994).
  • V. LANDSBERGIS, Un peuple sort de prison (Paris: UAB Baltijos Kopija, 2007).
  • G. MINK et L. NEUMAYER, L’Europe et ses passés douloureux (Paris: La Découverte, 2007).
  • P. RICOEUR, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, L’Ordre philosophique (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, 2000).
  • V. ROSOUX, Les usages de la mémoire dans les relations internationales : le recours au passé dans la politique étrangère de la France à l’égard de l’Allemagne et de l’Algérie de 1962 à nos jours, Organisation internationale et relations internationales (Bruxelles: Bruylant, 2001).

Illustration : Cornelia Kopp, dancing thought bubbles, octobre 12, 2008.