Reconstructing European Memory: The Role of Historians, Politicians and Judicial Institutions

By Capucine Goyet | 26 September 2011

To quote this document: Capucine Goyet, “Reconstructing European Memory: The Role of Historians, Politicians and Judicial Institutions ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 26 September 2011,, displayed on 02 April 2023

Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us”, Oscar Wilde shrewdly wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest. Not only is this diary individual, but it is also national, as the recent arrests of wartime Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić and Croatian Serb President Goran Hadžić have shown. While raising the question of the European future of Serbia, these two arrests also brought back to life different Yugoslavian memories. This paper will analyze the role of historians, politicians and judicial institutions in the (re)construction of memory.

Collective memory appears as both a historical discourse on the past and a political project turned towards the future. In other words, it is more about reinterpreting the past according to the future that has to be built, than facing sociological reality. Two levels of memories cohabit and superimpose on each other in Europe: a transnational and a national one. The first one consists in the different memory spaces which can be drawn within Europe. If one geographical area is symbolized by a specific viewpoint upon the past, the accession of new member-states to the UE also qualifies the collective historical discourse. Nevertheless this geographical differentiation does not imply the uniformity of national memories. So a second level of memory exists and takes place on a national scale. It is epitomized by an internal dialogue between the different subjective memories. Splits exist between the actors and builders of collective memory: historians, intellectuals, politicians and public opinion. Through these confrontations memories and counter-memories are created.

An external factor must be added to these two levels of memories: that of international judicial institutions, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). They have played a leading role in constructing and deconstructing facts in order to re-construct memory. That is why to construct a collective memory is to integrate and reorganize gaps and memories. It is both a voluntary and involuntary process.

Historians: interpreting and synthesizing memories

The task of historians is to elaborate a dialogue between the different discourses: those of the generations, those of the scientific research institutes, those of the political trends etc. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, they also have to elaborate a dialogue between the memory of Western Europe and that of Eastern and Central Europe. What is at stake is the synthesis of all these kinds of memories. On the one hand many subjective elements intervene and sometimes prevail: social environment, family history, witnessing the event… But an historian's role is that of an observer. Therefore the construction of memory appears paradoxical. From subjective viewpoints, historians must reconstruct a memory that is as objective as possible, even though mere objectivity seems unreachable.

The main issue is that of interpretation, especially when the historians are committed and politicized. The very words a person uses may convey his or her ideas. That is why people pay attention to the background of an historian, whether he or she is a Marxist, a Christian, a Conservative etc. Of course, the works of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm or Tony Judt are acknowledged, but at the same time, they are always referred to as Marxist historians. In Bulgaria, the political commitment of historians has raised issues. After 1989, an atmosphere of post-communist revisionism could be noticed. In March 2000, the Bulgarian Parliament discussed a Memory Law that it passed a month later. This law decreed the communist regime as a criminal regime, and imposed an official historical truth. Not only did it not favor democratic and civic education, but it did not stimulate the work of the historians as well. It led to the following question: how to study socialism? For example, we may wonder whether the historians of the Communist Party, that is to say the former teachers of the mandatory courses about the history of the Bulgarian Communist Party – can be objective researchers today. And who are the most objective historians? These persons, who often were victims of the regime, or the authors of the programs of “decommunisation” ? A typology of Bulgarian historians has then been set up: the left-wingers and the right-wingers, the communists and the anti-communists, the reds and the blues. This phenomenon can be observed at a semantic level: the first ones call the former regime “socialist” and the second ones call it “totalitarian”. This topic is definitely a burning issue. It leads us to wonder to what extent we can re-think historical events. While trying to understand the past and rebuild it, there is a risk to express opinion about the present.



Politicians and memory: the risk to politicize history and historicize politics.

After WWII, the will of General de Gaulle was to reconcile the French population. To this aim he emphasized the brave deeds of the French Resistance, overlooking the Collaboration. Because of his political decision, he politicized French history. Regarding Collaboration, change did not come from the inside –from the French historians- but from the outside –from an American historian named Robert Paxton. Thanks to his books and articles about the Vichy government, France had to reassess its memory about these dark years of its history. Temporal and geographical distance is consequently needed when memory deals with taboo subjects. The same issue may happen when history is written by the victors.


A similar issue occurred with the Benes decrees in Czechoslovakia and the German Federation of Expellees . These associations play a relatively major part in Germany when people go to the polls for the legislative and presidential elections. For instance, at the time of the German reunification, when the question of the borders was raised, Helmut Kohl had to be conciliatory with the German Federation of Expellees led by Erika Steinbach. So a risk remains: the use of memory conflicts by the legislative and executive powers. The strategy of these politicians is a double-edged one: they want to be considered as patriots by their electors and they also want to strengthen and reinforce the geopolitical status of their countries abroad. For Georges Mink, this behavior may be defined by the temptation to use the dead in order to rule the living.

Memory cannot fully exist without being re-appropriated and internalized by public opinion

The political will to highlight some past events belonging to collective memory can be annihilated by the weight of experience within the population. People react to what they are told. Clashes may take place given that politicians tend to minimize the weight, and even the burden of group, family and individual memories. Although a nation may have lived and undergone shared sufferings, individuals tend to crystallize over their own stories. This phenomenon makes it hard to overcome sufferings. People care much more about the symbols of their memories than politicians believe. For instance, when Valery Giscard d’Estaing wanted to stop commemorating the armistice on May 8th as a sign of reconciliation, it was badly received by the generations who suffered from war. In the movie Underground by Emir Kusturica, Blacky says to Marko “I can forgive, but I cannot forget”. This key-sentence epitomizes the common attitude of the population towards collective memory.

Transitional justice: re-constructing memory and the issue of its acceptation

First of all, a distinction has to be made between traditional justice and transitional justice. The first one aims at punishing the actors of mass violence through an investigation then a trial. A verdict is eventually returned. Whereas transitional justice tries to rediscover the facts by other means: it does not necessarily entail the pronunciation of a sentence, but the recognition of the crimes. From this viewpoint, its role is to re-construct the facts and history over a given period.

The collection and confrontation of information is supposed to bring a near-scientific dimension to this reconstruction of facts. The aim of judges is to go beyond the mere political aspect. However, judges do not write the entire history. The depend on an essential communication between historians and justice: historians cannot ignore facts established by courts, and courts can not ignore the decoding and deciphering system established by historians. Besides records and archives, the process of reconstructing the facts calls for“truth and reconciliation commissions” which help the actors and witnesses to tell what happened, even though there is no trial at the end.

All kinds of memories must coexist. And yet the main problem comes from the divergence of memories. It remains difficult to construct compatible memories instead of clashing memories. For example, the choice for silence was a source of conflicting memory about Francoist Spain. People often try to avoid any kind of conflict between memories so that dialogue is preserved and future reconciliation is still possible. But a very vivid desire for reconciliation makes us wonder to what extent complete truth can be achieved. Does memory become comprehensive ?

Since the Nuremberg Trials after World War Two, a role has been granted to the courts created ad hoc. The historical value of such courts has been acknowledged. Many historians used the Nuremberg Trials in order to decipher Nazi acts. These ad hoc courts are created in order to deal with a specific event. Such is the case of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) which is supposed to deal with war crimes that took place in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.



Through a near-scientific approach they re-construct past events. And yet the decision they make always becomes political insofar as it is always used with political aims in view. In many cases memory can be exported on a European scale in order to obtain internal benefits. The arrest of Ratko Mladić,former Bosnian Serb commander who was charged with genocide by the Tribunal, in May 2011 is a good illustration of this phenomenon. For Serbian politicians, especially president Boris Tadić, this event shows their good will to fill the criteria required by the UE so that Serbia may become a new memberstate. In parallel, it might be considered as a symbol for reconciliation, too. But reality is far more complex. The issue is the discrepancy existing between public opinion and politicians. Opinion polls have been conducted by CESID - a Serbian polling group - before Mladić’s arrest. They showed that 51% of the population was against his extradition and 40 % of the population still regarded him as a hero. The same behavior could be analyzed in Croatia when Ante Gotovina was arrested. At the same time, people have short memories, and their disappointment can quickly disappear. So despite these high figures, the Mladić effect at home may be nullified.

Collective memory: democratic construction and critical history

If the Czech writer Milan Kundera defines totalitarian universe as a unique truth that excludes doubt and interrogation, then you make memory totalitarian from the moment you decide to impose an official discourse about collective memory. On the contrary, collective memory has a democratic dimension. In other words, to construct a common memory amounts to reconstructing the different memories it covers. It implies a global and comprehensive approach. Everybody’s memories should be taken into account. The solution is to widen and strengthen the European public space of dialogue. The asset of such a space is to liberate oneself from the framework of the Nation-State which can be asphyxiating when dealing with collective memory.

It is neither about sterilizing past nor forgetting its sufferings, but it is about making peace with it and recognizing the memory of the other. Monumental history that belongs to the construction of the Nation-States must be replaced by critical history that is evaluative and plural.


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website


To read

  • COURTOIS, S. (dir.), Sortir du communisme, changer d’époque, PUF, 2012. (à paraître en octobre 2011).
  • JUDT, T., Après-guerre : une histoire de l’Europe depuis 1945, Hachette, 2009.
  • MINK, G., « l’Histoire nationale comme enjeu de mémoire. Changements d’échelles », dans L’Etat de l’Union 2010, Rapport Fondation Robert Schuman sur l’Europe, Editions Lignes de Repères, 2010.
  • PAXTON, R., La France de Vichy 1940-1944, Seuil, 1999.
  • ROSOUX V., « Les institutions européennes comme acteurs de la réconciliation en Europe centrale : une médiation entre droit et politique », dans L’Europe et ses passés douloureux, La Découverte, 2007.

To watch

  • KUSTURICA, E., Underground (1995)