Global Dialogues

European Memory vs. European History II: The Limits of Trauma and Nostalgia

If National Socialism and Communism are remembered primarily through the prism of trauma, pre-communist days or certain aspects of communism are increasingly remembered through the warm haze of nostalgia. Recalling the past through the eyes of traumatized victimhood runs the risk of projecting individual psychology onto collectivities such as nations or people. Museums that depict history though the eyes of victimhood remove historical events from time in order to focus on traumatic moments of suffering. Likewise, monuments to national suffering, while representing key moments, tend to reduce the complexity of historical events into clear visual images that appeal to primal emotions. Recent areas of memory studies that are devoted to the importance of trauma tend to divide the world into two groups: perpetrators and victims. However, what cannot be discussed in a traumatic reading of history are the gray areas of collaboration or passivity. What happens if individuals were neither perpetrators nor victims?

Nostalgia is even more attractive than trauma because it softens time by offering a beautiful image of the past. Inscribed in heritage sites and national folklore, nostalgia offers a simple and powerful image of the nation through the eyes of culture. Clearly there are problems in reading history through the eyes of trauma, because one receives a distorted understanding of the past solely from the perspective of the victim. In a similar way, nostalgia forgets the difficulties of the past by recalling only what was pleasant and what often coincides with the youth of the one remembering.

Both trauma and nostalgia engage in what Tony Judt would call a “mis-memory.” A mis-memory is not necessarily forgetfulness, nor is it an outright lie. However, a mis-memory borders dangerously on mythology by dividing the world into occupying forces and victims, good and evil. Both trauma and nostalgia are mis-memories because they fixate on particular aspects of the past and reject anything that threatens their singular definition.

Thus, those in eastern Europe, who see the past solely through the eyes of national victimhood might view the Holocaust as a threat to a pristine understanding of their national suffering as the central trauma. Likewise, those who cling to a nostalgic view of the interwar years before Soviet occupation also engage in mis-memory because those good old years are remembered through the misty haze of nostalgia. Both trauma and nostalgia offer true, but limited readings of the past. Both fixate on myths of the past that are frozen and removed from critical analysis and the passing of time. Moreover, they are incapable of addressing the difficult moral choices that individuals had to make during National Socialism and Communism. Such moral choices do not and cannot fit into the black and white framework of traumatic victimhood or a nostalgic golden age.

Perhaps the question can be phrased in a different way: Is there a collective responsibility to remember both the crimes of communism and the Holocaust as part of a common European past? It was Hannah Arendt who first raised the question of what collective responsibility meant in her essay entitled “Collective Responsibility” published in 1968. Unlike Karl Jaspers, who argued that there are four types of guilt after National Socialism, Arendt was careful to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. As she wrote, one cannot feel guilt for something that one has not done. “There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them.” (Arendt 2003: 147) Originally written after the Eichmann trial and during the student demonstrations in West Germany and the civil rights movement in the United States, Arendt’s argument for collective responsibility is relevant for the question of a common European past. As she famously wrote: “Where all are guilty, nobody is.” Guilt is personal and linked to an individual. If law and morality begin from the individual, collective responsibility is political and connected with a group. According to Arendt, if we do not want to be held collectively responsible for something, we must leave the group. But, since every person belongs to a community of some sort – national, religious, ethnic and finally the world – he will always be part of a community. In the end, the community that we cannot separate ourselves from is the world that we share. The world is far larger than a single nation or a continent – the world is everything that we share. “This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men…”

Europe is a collective body that people belong to. Given the different war and postwar experiences throughout the continent, it becomes more important to pay attention to the nuances as well as the common points of history. Attempts to read the past through the eyes of trauma or nostalgia risk flattening the complexity of history into simplistic grand narratives. Likewise, although only half of the continent shares a communist past, most of Europe shares some experience with the Holocaust. Thus, the tendency to view the Holocaust solely as a German or Jewish problem has moral, as well historical consequences. Judt’s lecture on Europe that he gave in 1995 seems just as relevant now, as it was then: “Discussion today of the prospects for Europe tends to oscillate rather loosely between Pangloss and Cassandra, between bland assurance and dire prophecy.” (Judt 2011: 12) Questions of how to present a more balanced European history that includes both the Holocaust and the crimes of communism are not only necessary from the point of historical knowledge and collective responsibility, but will also have consequences for what kind of a European future we can imagine: an open community that is hospitable to strangers and based on a broader understanding of citizenship or a provincial fortress that can only see history through the eyes of national suffering or nostalgia for a bygone age. So far Judt seems to be right. We do seem to be somewhere “rather loosely (sic) between Pangloss and Cassandra.”

  • James

    Cool shit.