In the era of ‘post-truth’, history isn’t what it used to be—which makes solving the problems of the present so much more difficult.
Collective memory has always been a symbolic political battleground. Historians and politicians have long been aware that shared representations of the past constrain political choices in the present by shaping communal ‘horizons of expectation’ of the future. The link between memory and identity thus helps to explain the import of official chronicles of history, as well as of attempts to forget events through the active practices of damnatio memoriae (erasure of past figures from history), which date back to the ancient world.
The politics of memory has played an especially important role in the construction and maintenance of postwar Europe. Following the second world war, the ‘fear of a political relapse’ to fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust precipitated a rupture which forced Europeans to take a reflexive view of their history. Instead of repressing these painful experiences, communities across the continent engaged in active practices of collective memory, treating the recent past as a moral and political imperative for change. In contrast to the traditional mode of remembrance, based on stories of shared glories, after 1945 Europe sought to unify its historical divisions by refusing to silence or forget the experiences of its age of total war.
Summing up this policy of ‘never again’ and the postwar European approach to remembrance more generally, Norbert Lammert, the former president of the German Bundestag, observed in 2007 that the past could not be overcome—that it was ‘a prerequisite for the present, and dealing with history … is a political, that is, a shared responsibility’. In this sense, the EU and the wider postwar European legal and political order are built on the realisation that preserving memory is vital for democracy.
Legislating for a glorious past
In recent years, however, this reflexive approach to the continent’s history has increasingly come under attack. Among its other consequences, the return of populism has resulted in the spread of legislation enforcing positive images of the glorious national past.
Most notably, in 2018 the Polish parliament passed a memory law which imposes a jail sentence of up to three years on anyone who ‘accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich … or any other war crimes, crimes against humanity or crimes against peace’. The president, Andrzej Duda, asserted that the bill—which outlaws the use of phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’—sought to ensure Poland’s ‘dignity and historical truth’.
Returning to a heroic model of history and identity, such attempts to legislate history weaponise the past. By spreading mythical stories of a ‘golden age’ that has been betrayed, these laws glorify the ‘true nation’ by portraying domestic opponents as unpatriotic traitors. Externally, these narratives of victimhood are used to blame contemporary problems on the European Union and its ‘universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity’.
‘The National Avowal’ contained in Hungary’s new constitution of April 2011 is a good example. Referring back to the mythical actions of Saint Stephen and expressing pride in the fact that the Hungarian ‘people have over the centuries defended Europe in a series of struggles’ against the Ottoman empire, it ends with a call for ‘promoting and safeguarding our heritage’, promising to ‘make Hungary great again’.
Rejecting the European framework of memory and stressing the supposed ‘virtue of nationalism’, such provisions challenge the transnational system of European integration by arguing for a return to the nation-state and to traditional practices of remembrance.
Politics of ‘post-truth’
Poland’s memory law, Hungary’s constitution and similar legislation to ban references to the Armenian genocide in Turkey are part of the broader move towards a politics of post-truth. While these measures fetishise the past, it is not the actual past that is fetishised. For example, historical research has established beyond any doubt that Polish ‘ordinary men’ played a key role in the Holocaust and that the Turkish government’s ‘relocation’ of its Armenian populations qualified as genocide avant la lettre. In claiming to preserve ‘historical truth’, therefore, they are actually part of a broader attack on reality by leaders using so-called ‘alternative facts’.
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The use of legislation to undermine shared understandings of the past is more dangerous than it first appears. In addition to its immediate political divisiveness at home and abroad, these ‘invented histories’ subvert what Hannah Arendt called the ‘common world’—the shared factual basis and assumptions a community needs to engage in political debate. Without a shared understanding of reality, political discussions in the public sphere are replaced by mistrust and anger. By embedding these historical narratives in law, today’s populists seek to use public education and institutions of the state to spread false narratives of history.
This is very powerful technique, because, as Arendt observed, ‘What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition … is only important because it convinces them of consistency in time.’ By destroying the factual basis of political debate, post-truth approaches to history deepen internal divisions and strengthen media bubbles by ensuring that different groups within society no longer share the same history. In so doing they threaten to reignite historical grievances at the international level by destroying the common, European basis for historical debate and problem-solving.
‘Action in concert’
The postwar European order and the project of integration sought to bring peace and security to the continent by creating a reflexive approach to memory based on the ‘moral demands of memory’ contained within past atrocities. While this shared framework did not erase local forms of remembrance, it mediated the past through a supranational arena where diverging understandings of the past could be worked out peacefully through dialogue. By emphasising this plurality—the fundamental condition for politics, according to Arendt—this approach sought to create the conditions for ‘action in concert’ at the European level.
In threatening the supranational political system this approach to the past made possible, these recent attempts to legislate the past undermine peace, as well as the continent’s ability to address today’s most pressing global problems. From migration to climate change to the increasing power of international financial markets, the crises of the present all require co-operation beyond the nation-state. Now is the time for greater reflexivity and more postnational approaches to the past—not a return to the divisive, traditional national stories of glory promoted by memory laws.
Peter J Verovšek is an assistant professor of politics / international relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War (Manchester University Press, 2020).