Sunday 26. September 2021
#215 - May 2018

European memories: integrating our common past

2018 will be dominated by the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. According to the EU Ambassador to the Holy See Jan Tombinski, addressing gaps in a collective European conscience is indispensable to prevent the degradation of hope for a common future.

History is written mostly by victors, though victims’ remembrance of sufferings lasts for centuries and co-shapes identity. Unaddressed perception of past sufferings is often exploited by populists, anti-European movements that operate with stereotypes and ideas, based on the representation of the past and its suggested moral judgement.


The past, in spite of all investments made in education, popularisation of knowledge and global circulation of results from research, shows its divisive force. A common future might be at risk due to an insurmountable and contentious past.


An asymmetry between East and West


Countries of the European continent have known different national histories since the end of WWI. Consequently, the events of WWI were explained differently in the national education systems and interpreted in public debates for the purpose of fostering national identity, often against others, and not with the sense of overcoming past hostilities. Franco-German rivalry dominated the Western narrative, whereas in the Central and Eastern Europe, the threat of the Bolsheviks and the communist revolution in Europe created the main axis of history teaching. Artistic representations have captured the collective imagination with a more convincing force, than the history books and facts.


A clear asymmetry in the presentation of WWI in European countries was easy to observe. Verdun, Ypres or Marne were better known to children in countries distant from the Franco-German front than the facts from the same time about one's own hometown, region or nation, and Western nations ignored consequences and sufferings of the war in the East.


In Central Europe, the end of WWI has resulted in the emergence or re-emergence of several states, the simultaneous disappearance of three main continental empires, with borders still being disputed over the following years. New myths have replaced the fresh memory of the war; that memory has been preserved in family histories and archives, in graveyards, monuments or ruins.


In addition, there was no clear "ownership" to the memory of WWI in Central Europe, as the war was fought among Empires and considered no longer relevant for the fate of newly established states. People and territories were marked by wounds and sufferings resulting from the war, but it all appeared as part of the history of past political entities. Many fronts of WWI thus disappeared from the collective memory.


Instrumentalisation of memory


In order to avoid the instrumental misuse of past events, with emotions related to the individual or collective suffering, more attention should be paid in Europe to memories of past events in order not to jeopardize the common future. “False history is the master of false policy, ”the famous Polish historian, Józef Szujski, said two centuries ago.


Every society, every person prefers to refer to their own past as glorious or exploit the sentiment of being victim as means to justify claims based on the "moral right" for compensation for wounds or sufferings from the past. Detailed knowledge shows, however, that a black/white attitude is never right and every nation's history contains glorious and inglorious pages.


Pope Francis, in his speech in Krakow, on July 28, 2016, addressed the question of different memories: "In the daily life of each individual and society, though, there are two kinds of memory: good and bad, positive and negative". Should future peaceful coexistence be the goal, the past animosities must be carefully dealt with, whereas amnesia or omission is not the right way to act.


Past decades have demonstrated how easy the demons of the past could return and reignite new conflicts. The wars in the Balkans in the 1990s offer a lot of lessons about the resurgence of hostile sentiments, fuelled by negligence in addressing pains and differences from a not very remote history. The past serves as an instrument to create a stereotypic image of an external enemy in order to consolidate political power in the country in nationalistic narrative in several EU countries.


Integrate our common memories


The amount of mutual sins between nations in Europe is impossible to quantify. The continent has been for many centuries a battlefield in all directions and along all possible dividing lines. For the past seventy years a growing part of the continent has demonstrated that some history lessons were learned and military confrontation is not the way to solve conflicts of interests. Integration mechanisms have helped to open a new chapter of reconciling nations.


Addressing gaps in a collective European conscience is indispensable to prevent the degradation of hope for a common future. The "integration of a common past", based on education and mutual respect for differences must follow as an inseparable way to embrace the common future. An important part of the exercise is the understanding of one's own culpability. The history of one's own nation, own community, own family should be checked against most objective criteria of facts and moral judgement in order to gain the ability to reconcile with one's own past and to confront that of others. Reconciliation and mutual forgiveness might follow as the ultimate act, based on the understanding of the object of forgiveness.


Jan Tombinski

Ambassador, Head of Delegation of the European Union to the Holy See



EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

Teilen |

Published in English, French, German
COMECE, 19 square de Meeûs, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32/2/235 05 10

Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.