"Images and Myths of Europe: the Western and the Eastern Perspectives"
December 10 - 13, 2007
  Promoted by:
Romualdo Del Bianco Foundation
Palazzo Coppini Via del Giglio, 10
50123 – Florence (Italy)


Author : Prof. Bohdan Michalski

Bohdan Michalski*
The Divided Memory of Europe – Will Europe Succumb to Disintegration?

Europe shall not disintegrate totally until its two parts, western and eastern, do not become acquainted with the path which they had traversed. At the European Parliament forum it is the past which frequently proves decisive for the future of Europe since the Euro-deputies are outright doomed to become embroiled in assorted debates imposed by various historical experienc
While on the subject of Europe we all probably agree that regardless of the nature of a united Continent its very existence, seen from the perspective of the tumultuous European past and even more so from that of the horrendous twentieth century, appears to be a sheer miracle. This is the reason why it is even more disturbing that the European Union monolith has already disclosed its first cracks (as evidenced by the refusal to enact a common constitution). Will the Europeans, therefore, be capable of creating a single European nation which in accordance with a definition by Ernest-Wolfgang Böckenförde:
Is constituted to a lesser degree by biological-natural factors and to a greater one by … living memory and consciousness passed on from generation to generation [the nation lives - BdB and BM], common hopes, shared suffering and the contempt expressed by others, jointly anticipated pride and finally, jointly cultivated myths.

The phenomenon described by Böckenförde is usually known as ”identity” although Adolf Muschg recommends treating the concept of united European identity rather sceptically [1]. As regards this particular question, he claims, it would be better to manage without words since a ”joint European past” suffices for determining European identity. The heart of the matter, however, does not consist in the claim that there is no such thing as a ”joint European past”! The historical experiences of the new members of the European Union (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia) differ essentially from those of our western neighbours, the old Union members – Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and Portugal, not to mention Sweden, which has avoided war for over two centuries. Only familiarity with history will make it possible to alleviate many of the debates at present conducted on the European Parliament forum. Such knowledge will make it feasible to understand that the source of multiple conflicts between the West and the East is not ill will but divergent experiences. The experiences of communism among the Poles (and the populations of other countries-members of the so-called bloc) were totally at variance from those of the democratic and free West. Parliamentarians from the West are entitled to their own appraisal of communism, which they often conceived as a project for a just social system. That same right is also due to us, who remember much better assorted communist acts of genocide, such as the one committed in Katyn or the death of millions of Ukrainian peasants punished by Stalin by means of an artificially induced famine. Once we become aware of this disparity it will become obvious why the European Parliament refused to commemorate with a minute of silence the victims of Katyn (a gesture postulated by Euro-deputies from Poland) and at the same time remembered the victims of the terrorist attack carried out in Spain in 2004. It will also explain why Western deputies voted about a condemnation of totalitarian systems differently from their colleagues representing the new member-states (located to the east of the former Iron Curtain) and protested against including the word ”communism” in the pertinent document. Just as understandable will be the attitude chosen by the ministers of justice of some of the European Union countries who disagreed about a project establishing penalties for ”historical lies”, or the controversy whether the crimes of the Holocaust and those perpetrated in former Yugoslavia, regarded as crimes against mankind, should be treated on par with the crimes of communism. Although understanding such stands does constitute a step towards constructing a joint identity, it still is not tantamount with their co-ordination.
The reason why attempts were made to divide the victims of twentieth-century genocide into ”better” and “worse“ lies in the absence of consent as regards an interpretation of the past. Up to this day Europe does not have its own “commissions for truth and reconciliation” whose task would consist of determining a certain minimum of facts from the past; all the interested parties universally agree about their assessment.

The onset of a new century inclines towards formulating a fundamental question: will the Europeans become a single nation, or will divided memory prove to be an obstacle? Will it be possible to overcome the different historical experiences of the East and West and discover some sort of a joint foundation that will facilitate better harmony? In other words, will the ”European dream” about a contented 450-million strong nation living in harmony and sharing a past, symbols, dreams and objectives, come true? Will conflicts and apocalyptic twentieth-century European genocide become a mere warning and recollection?
In an introduction to collected material from “Figures d'Europe. Images and Myths of Europe" [2], one of the most important conferences on integration (examined, unfortunately, solely from a Western perspective), organised by the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence in 2002, Romano Prodi wrote: "These ‘Images and Myths of Europe’ remind us that tomorrow’s European Union cannot be based exclusively on economics and that, if Europe is to become a positive example for the whole world, it is perhaps necessary to place greater emphasis on ethical and aesthetic values...looking beyond day-to-day concerns, however elevated these may be, is not the European Union too inclined to neglect these values? I am deeply convinced, and profoundly worried, that this is the case” [3].
Nonetheless, it seems worth asking about the contents of the joint symbols and myths required by the Europeans so that after 1 May 2004 they would be capable of merging the West and the East into a certain entity. Among what sort of myths from their past should the Europeans make a selection in order to render them the joint myths of the future? Does there exist a single idea that could turn two parts of the Continent into a single Europe? We have in mind a conception which all the Europeans will regard as their own and around which they shall commence building a joint identity? [4] Or could it be that in order to exist Europe simply needs diversity? After all, one of its possible definitions mentions ”a maximum of differences in a minimum of space”.
First and foremost, we have at our disposal the old ”minimum of European security” myth, based on fear. Today, it may be expressed by asking what could be done to prevent the twenty first century from becoming an age of a new Auschwitz, Kolyma, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Kosovo and two world wars, an age of “two totalitarianisms”, “an age of the wolf", or of the ”puzzle of evil", so that it may become an age of the ”puzzle of reconciliation”. Second, there is the “Solidarity” myth, over a quarter of a century old, the idea that created the first “civic society” in the former communist bloc [5]. Ten million citizens opposed the monopoly of power wielded by a single party which identified itself with the state. Third, the Europeans cherish the myth of the “velvet revolution” which thanks to the person of Vaclav Havel brings to mind exclusively positive associations. Finally, there are the myth of the “fall of the Berlin Wall”, the “orange revolution” myth and the ”civic society” myth. “Solidarity” demonstrated - Timothy Synder wrote - that a group of citizens is capable of cooperating for the purpose of creating a force that is not identical with the individuals building it and is separate from the state [6]. The same author asserted that the idea of a civic society possesses a European mandate, and that the modification proposed by Eastern Europe, i.e. that society produces means for protection against the state, renders this idea specially attractive for all civic ventures protesting against globalisation. Could therefore, the “civic society” myth be proclaimed the contemporary European freedom legend? Might it become the new founding myth for the second European integration of 2004?

One thing is certain, namely, that the first integration myth (based on the need for security and on economic reasons) has already fulfilled its task. The presence of new members in the Union calls for discovering an equally novel historical myth, a legend that would define anew the factors capable of uniting all the Europeans and showing them the direction in which they should strive. Will Europe prove capable of finding such a common denominator, or will it simply disintegrate?

*Bohdan Michalski, philosopher, professor at the Warsaw School of Social Psychology


[1] A. Muschg, Lekcja z Sokratesa (Lesson drawn from Socrates), ”Rzeczpospolita" 14-15 March 2005 (”Plus-minus"), p. 5. One should agree with Muschg who maintains that every attempt at grasping the entity instead of a fragment is mythical and does not possess a logical character. It belongs to a metaphysical order of thought and not its scientistic counterpart. Today, when positivistic hostility towards the mythical core of culture is already a thing of the past, the cognitive role of the myth can no longer be doubted. We are no longer compelled to protect the myth by referring to the opinions of Cassirer, Jung, Fromm, Levi-Strauss, Eliade, Gadamer and, last but not least, Kołakowski, who consented that we learn about man primarily from his myths and symbols.

[2] L. Passerini, (ed.), Figures d'Europe. Images and Myths of Europe", Bruxelles 2003.

[3] R. Prodi, Preface, in: L. Passerini, (ed.), Figures d'Europe. Images and Myths of Europe, op. cit., p. 9.

[4] After the disillusionment with their ”American dream” experienced by the Americans themselves, the eyes of the whole world turned to the ”European dream” which became a source of new hope for creating an ”ideal” society. This was the spirit in which also the Americans, including Timothy Snyder, George Soros, and Jeremy Rifkin, began to write about Europe. The first of these authors has ascribed the role of the common denominator of European identity of the twenty first century to the myth of civic society. He went on to ponder whether the outcome of Polish ”Solidarity”, i.e. civic society transformed in Eastern Europe into an instrument of protecting the individual against the threat of global forces, could become the myth of an international civic society. Could a thus comprehended freedom legend assume the form of the founding myth of a United Europe? Are the Europeans capable of becoming a ”group of citizens on the European Maidan of Freedom” who in the twenty first century will take matters into their own hands for the sake of joint protection against new global hazards? [T. Snyder, Legenda wolności (The freedom legend), ”Tygodnik Powszechny" 4 September 2005, no. 36 (supplement: 25 lat Sierpnia 1980 /25th anniversary of August 1980/), p. 2]. The advice proposed by Soros is similar: Europe is seeking her identity. In my opinion, she is not forced to seek far. I believe that the European Union is an embodiment of the principles of open society and should serve as a model and spiritus movens of global open society [G. Soros, Zadania dla Europy (Tasks for Europe), ”Europa-tygodnik idei" supplement of ”Dziennik", 31 March 2007]. In turn, Rifkin regards Europe as the first empire in history emerging by peaceful means, without resorting to violence, plunder and conquest: Our links are vanishing. Without a strong binder in which the decisive majority firmly believes, a country is incapable of functioning well. This is why the binder created by another great dream appearing across the Atlantic has become so important…. In the American dream success is individual. Some win all while others lose all. In the European dream no one is a total loser... In our model the superiority of American culture is unquestioned. In the European model each culture has something to offer to the others… In America emphasis is on wealth. In Europe – on the quality of life… We live in order to work, and you work in order to live. [J. Żakowski, Europa przyszłością świata. Wywiad z Jeremy Rifkinem / Europe as the future of the world. An interview with Jeremy Rifkin/, ”Polityka", no. 45 (2529), 12 November 2005]. The above cited positive opinions about the European Union are not the only voices about the Old Continent heard in America: American anti-Europeans have produced a steady stream of books with titles like ‘America Alone’, ‘Our Oldest Enemy’, ‘While Europe Slept’, ‘The West Last Chance’…America’s anti-Europeans have three big complaints about the Old Continent. The first is that Europe is committing demographic and economic suicide: the European birth rate is well below replacement level, and the economy is hog-tied by regulations and overburdened by welfare commitments. The second is that, unlike America, Europe is a post-Christian society…The third complaint is that Muslims are filling Europe’s demographic and spiritual void. Bernard Lewis, the White House’s favourite Islamic scholar, thinks that Europe will turn Muslim by the end of the century, becoming part of the Arab West (Lexington, Against anti-Europeanism, ”The Economist”, 28 April - 4 May 2007, p. 56).

[5] By following the example of Alexis de Tocqueville they could be described as a network of voluntary associations.

[6] T. Snyder, Legenda wolności, ”Tygodnik Powszechny" 4 September 2005, no. 36 (supplement: 25 lat Sierpnia 1980 /), p. 2. Timothy Synder is a professor of history at Yale University.

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