Global Dialogues

European Memory vs. European History: A Critical View From Estonia

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Europe has gone through unprecedented changes. Two decades later, there are still conflicting ideas about what Europe means and who belongs or should belong. Moreover, there still is a long shadow cast by the Holocaust, with distinct differences in how to live under the shadow. While there seems to be a tacit understanding in Western Europe of the importance of the Holocaust in twentieth century Europe, there is a rising focus on national suffering in many east European countries that marginalizes the European genocide. Memory and history are in tension, weakening understanding of national pasts and challenging the connection between the east and the west of Europe, weakening European unity.

In the former Soviet country of Estonia, for example, where I have lived for the past decade, the Holocaust is viewed as marginal to the central narrative of Estonian victimhood at the hands of two occupations: Nazi and Communist. There is a lack of knowledge, coupled with the sense that even if there had been Jews murdered on the territory of Estonia, Estonians had nothing to do with them. The problems of collaboration and anti-Semitism in Estonia are not generally addressed. Instead, the Holocaust is externalized, and treated as a German and Jewish issue that is foreign to Estonian national history. Tony Judt’s distinction between memory and history in his posthumous book, Thinking the Twentieth Century (written with Timothy Snyder) highlights the problem.

I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. (Judt 2012: 277)

Judt’s point is important because when memories of certain key events are lifted out of time, they are all too easily raised to the level of myth. Particularly in narratives of national suffering, there is less room for the suffering of others. As Judt cautions: “Without history, memory is open to abuse. But if history comes first, then memory has a template and a guide against which it can work and be assessed.” (Ibid., 278)

While new monuments and museums to the crimes of National Socialism and Communism indicate a steady interest in representing the past in stone, less emphasis might be placed on the memorization and memorialization of past crimes; and more on a common understanding of the past. As it is now, in the building of monuments to the past, old patterns of intolerance and hostility are still present.

More historical research into both the crimes of Communism and the Holocaust in Europe is needed to provide a balanced understanding of what has happened on the continent since 1933. Indeed, as Tony Judt observed, in his epilogue to Postwar: “Europe might be united, but European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.” (Judt 2005: 826) Given the enormity of Europe’s past, belonging to Europe entails bearing collective responsibility for the history not only of one’s individual nation, but also for Europe as a whole.

  • Wieslawa Niziol

    “More historical research into both the crimes of Communism and the Holocaust in Europe is needed to provide a balanced understanding of what has happened on the continent since 1933. Indeed, as Tony Judt observed, in his epilogue to Postwar: “Europe might be united, but European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.” (Judt 2005: 826) Given the enormity of Europe’s past, belonging to Europe entails bearing collective responsibility for the history not only of one’s individual nation, but also for Europe as a whole.” Wonderfully written – I could not agree more.