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Heroes or villains?

Panagiotis Kouparanis /ai
October 14, 2013

Common European history books for schools are unrealistic, yet books based on the same set of values would be a project worth pursuing. Historians are meeting in Berlin to discuss the challenges of such a project.

EU flags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

People usually see their country as either hero or victim. And although "each country has some skeletons in its closet, it prefers to look at the neighbor's closet." That's the way Polish historian Andrzej Paczkowski put it at the second European Remembrance Symposium. Museums, foundations and other European institutions met up in Berlin. The topic of discussion: commonalities and dividing lines in European memories.

While there are "common places where history takes place, the memory of what happened in such a place is different," according to Paczkowski. That's why it's important, he said, not to limit oneself to just one isolated view of history. You'd have to accept that other countries see the same historical event in a different light. And accepting this means that there is not one common take on history, the historian said.

Napoleon as painted by Louis Jacques David. 1801/2
Hero or villain? There are different views on figures like NapoleonImage: picture alliance/Imagno

Common values

Fellow historian Martin Weber puts things more bluntly. The head of Germany's Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe warns not to fall for a kitschy sense of European reconciliation. He sees this as a danger, should there be an attempt to come up with one single European history book for schools across the bloc. At the same time there's a need for exchange, a dialogue on European values and for independent research, Weber says.

History research must avoid stagnation and always be in touch with international developmentsw within the field, explains Wolf Kaiser, Deputy Director of the House of the Wannsee Conference Museum in Berlin. Recognition would help an institute to "resist being used for political purposes." It's only on this basis that it was possible to question "myths that have been created and fostered with a political goal," says Kaiser with reference to East and Southeast Europe.

GDR symbol (Photo: Horst Sturm)
Recent Central and Eastern European history should not be used for political goals, the historians warnImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The necessity of international cooperation

Politics is not the only realm where there's a lack of determination to question "national myths," or to deal with the "darkest questions" of the recent past, says Croatian peace activist Vesna Terselic. She's one of the leading figures of the network Coalition for RECOM, an organization documenting human rights violations on the territories of the former Yugoslavia. She sees very little motivation to deal with uncomfortable questions in society as well.

Which is why institutions, like museums and memorials and NGOs, which focus on history and remembrance need international support, Terselic says. She calls for a "broad European platform," to support the "cooperation of initiatives and institutions as well as contribute to the ongoing dialogue."

A sign of just how important such international cooperation can be, is the example of a Romanian commission tasked with preserving the documents of the country's Communist past. Two years ago, media reports suggested that the governments had plans to shut down the commission. Then the German equivalent – the body archiving Stasi documents – sent an open letter and offered help. For a few weeks there was no result, but then a letter arrived in Berlin sent by none other than the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself. He said that he had heard about the Berlin initiative and that it was a personal cause for him to clarify that the rumors from the media were false and that certainly there would be continued support for the Romanian commission.

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