Historical Memory and the Crisis in Europe

The fast pace of change in European politics has everyone focusing on current events.  Behind the scenes, however, politicians are manipulating how we view the past. Since change requires some kind of baseline or benchmark for us to appreciate its magnitude, we need to be very careful about how our memories are curated. The new ‘normal’ is only normalised when we forget just how far we have travelled and when we stop remembering (or appreciating) the lessons we learned through harsh experience.

Three recent books highlight this dynamic. The first, by James Kirchick, offers an introduction to the present crisis and the ways that politicians are manipulating our memories behind the scenes. Nikolay Koposov adds considerable depth to that analysis by focusing on the use of legislation to highlight and diminish historical events. Koposov reveals that even our best intentions can be used against us in this fashion. Finally, Grigore Pop-Elches and Joshua Tucker demonstrate the importance of memory as shared ‘lived experience’. Through their analysis of the legacies of communism, they expose how different groups are subject to different forms of manipulation. Taken together these three books offer another good reason not to let the urgent obscure the important.


The Ongoing European Crisis

The End of Europe is a book that starts off by announcing that ‘Europe today is breaking apart … and slowly heading down the once unfathomable path to war’ (pp. 1-2) and ends by insisting ‘such a collapse would usher in nothing less than a new dark age’ (p. 230). In between, it focuses on four themes: Russia is meddlesome; democracy is fragile; Muslim immigration is subversive; and the left is anti-Semitic. That said, and despite the title, this book is not a rant. Instead, it is subtle, informative, well-written, even persuasive. There are occasional errors of fact and more common attempts at manipulation. Highlighting a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee’s musings about a world without Israel is only one illustration (p. 134). But this is journalism, not scholarship. It is meant to be read, not studied. James Kirchick is skilled at his craft and that craft involves hooking the reader’s emotions in order to hold the reader’s attention.

There is no prize for guessing where Kirchick falls on the political spectrum or what are the broad contours of the worldview framing his argument. Robert Kagan appears in the acknowledgments and so you know it is only a matter of time before we learn that ‘so allergic are Europeans to the use of military force, and so anemic are their resources, that the thought of picking a side [in Syria] and seeing it through to victory was unimaginable’ (p. 131). Then again, the predictable bits of this book are the least interesting. They are also unprovocative except perhaps for the uninitiated. We have had that conversation around books by writers like Kagan or Christopher Caldwell. Events change, and even hardy perennials can take on new forms, but the broad contours of the debate are well established.

What Kirchick adds to his themes — and what makes this book worth reading — is a reflection on the role and creation of collective memory. This really is a new field of scholarly interest and one that is attracting a lot of attention because of its real-world implications. Readers do not have to agree with Kirchick on the set-pieces in his argument to share his horror at the prospect that Hungary would repaint its role in the Holocaust with bright, clean new hues of color. This rewriting of history is not just an offense to the memory of those who suffered, it is also an open door to those who would repeat the same atrocities. Moreover, the process involves a lot more than the building of monuments or museums. Kirchick finds a similar revisionism in the failure to protect the remaining Jewish population in France, in the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the British Labour Party (which he calls ‘the most influential anti-Semitic institution in the Western World’ (p. 141)), and the use of the term ‘Nazi’ to vilify political opposition in Ukraine.

These repeated mentions of the Holocaust should not confuse readers that Kirchick’s message is only about the fate of the world’s Jewish community. The point is that if people can rewrite a history that is so painful and obvious, imagine what they can do to histories that are nuanced and subtle. Russian President Vladimir Putin can convince the Russians they can only survive under authoritarian rule because that has always been their fate; he can also convince Americans and Europeans that democracy is a failed experiment and always has been. If we do not push back against the rewriting of obvious and painful histories, then we should not be surprised if we lose sight of the bolder and more beautiful accomplishments of the West at the same time.


The Manipulation of the Past

The central point to bear in mind is that memory and history are not the same. Memory exists in the present, history in the past. Memory evolves (active voice); history is revised (passive voice). Sometimes memory can and should be manipulated in order never to forget the lessons of the past. History should not be manipulated; instead, historians should be left to practice their craft. These are just a small handful of the insights that emerge in Nikolay Koposov’s fascinating study of the rationale for writing ‘memory laws’ and the unintended conflicts these laws created.

Following the argument in this book is no easy task. In part this is due to Koposov’s multiple agendas underlying this project. Koposov is an historian. Hence, he is at least as interested in laying out how legislators came up with the idea of writing laws about how we remember (celebrate, revere, reconcile ourselves with) the past, as he is in laying out an argument about how this kind of legislation leads to conflict. A tip for anyone looking to dip into this book is that the conclusion is much tighter than the introduction. More conventional readers should know that the argument only emerges on page 9; the definition of ‘memory’ shows up on page 48; and the prose that surrounds these analytical building blocks consists of tightly interwoven digressions containing distractingly interesting observations.

The core of the argument is worth untangling because of what it implies about the vulnerability of the popular imagination. Koposov suggests that the end of ideology robbed western society of its purpose. If there is no utopia to be created, then there is no future. (The echoes of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ are manifest). Nevertheless, progressives can strive to make the world a better place. They do so by remembering humanity’s tragic failures and promising never to repeat them. The Holocaust features prominently in this narrative. And in many ways, ‘memory laws’ rose to prominence as western governments prohibited efforts to deny the Holocaust or to minimize (relativize) that genocidal act.

This western project to protect the memory of the Holocaust was progressive — both in tackling persistent anti-semitism and in underpinning a wider appreciation of universal ‘human rights’. The use of legal instruments to do so, however, opened up the possibility for abuse. Koposov shows how Central and East European countries used similar legislative acts to privilege specific national histories. For many of these countries, the goal was to put fascism and communism on equal footing as external sources of victimization. In this way, governments sought to whitewash their national experiences in order to escape, rather than reconciling themselves with, the lessons of the past. Often these countries — Hungary, Poland — were the most vigorous in rebelling against communism and are the most prosperous in the region. What is at stake is whether the governments of these countries have embraced western liberal democracy or distorted it. The parallels with Kirchick’s argument are tight here.

For some countries, the manipulation of popular memory has a more openly anti-democratic agenda. The goal is not simply to escape responsibility for past failings but also to relocate political agency (and the legitimacy that goes with it) from the individual or the cultural collective to the national state. Koposov shows how Vladimir Putin uses the politics of memory to recast Russia as a ‘state sovereignty’. In doing so, Putin not only elevates himself above the Russian people, but he also asserts the primacy of memory over history; what matters most is not what happened but how the people feel about it today. This is a terrifying prospect, and not just for professional historians. (Again, Kirchick’s argument resonates.) Koposov has written a challenging book on a new and unfamiliar topic; that book deserves to be widely read.


The Long Shadow of Communism

Popular attitudes may be another form of memory. If they are, though, they are something closer to the muscle memory than to narrative memory. This is what Grigore Pop-Elches and Joshua Tucker find as they look for the legacies of communism in the survey responses of people who lived under communist rule. The puzzle they address is the systematic differences in responses captured by large, multinational surveys about attitudes toward a range of social and political institutions: respondents who lived under communism or in post-communist countries are more skeptical about democracy, more critical of the market, and more supportive of the welfare state, than respondents who did not share that lived experience. Moreover, this difference cannot be explained by the conditions that prevail in a post-communist environment. People in post-communist countries may be unhappy with their lot, but such unhappiness is not the source of their attitudinal uniqueness. Rather, the explanation for the difference in attitudes traces back to the length of time they spent under communism and is influenced by factors that make the socialization of communist values more intense or individuals living under communism less resistant to conditioning.

This socialization of values is more likely to be a result of what communists did than what they said. For example, communists talked a lot about gender equality and yet Pop-Elches and Tucker found little evidence that survey respondents in post-communist countries expressed more support for gender equality than respondents elsewhere. Indeed, once Pop-Elches and Tucker control for variables related to living under communism or living in a post-communist environment, they find evidence to suggest that sexism may be even more prominent among Central and East Europeans than elsewhere (although, to be fair, these findings are often not statistically significant). The point is simply that ideology matters less than experience in shaping attitudes and communism was no more respecting of gender equality in practice than elsewhere. Incentives matter as well. People with adult experience under communism were more likely to be socialized than people whose experience ended after childhood despite having been educated in communist schools.

What is less clear from this research is how much these differences in survey responses between people who experienced communism and people elsewhere translate into differences in political behavior. Pop-Elches and Tucker place their work clearly in the ‘behavioralist’ camp in order to distinguish the legacies they identify from the more widely studied persistence of institutions, political or social groups across the fall of communism. The scholastic nomenclature should not create confusion. We can speculate about how such attitudes will feed into policy, politics, or protest and yet the causal mechanisms are not self-evident. What we lack are mobilization dynamics – and for those we need to add both institutions and narratives back into the mix.

Pop-Elches and Tucker are well aware of the limitations of their findings. That is refreshing in a world where scholars too often overclaim their contribution. What Pop-Elches and Tucker offer is a new toolkit for taking advantage of the wealth of survey data that is being harvested both across and within countries. They also point to socialization dynamics that are likely to emerge over time whenever the mix of political, economic and social institutions that define society have a kind of underlying ideological coherence. This is a chilling prospect when the ideology boils down to ‘the state is always right’ (p. 299). Here both Nikolay Koposov and James Kirchick could easily join the conversation. Communism cast a long shadow and yet the shadow of post-communism may prove darker.


These reviews were originally published in the IISS journal Survival.  You can access the review section of the latest issue here.

The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. By James Kirchick. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia. By Nikolay Koposov. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Communism’s Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes. By Grigore Pop-Elches and Joshua A. Tucker. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.