Tackling nationalist memory politics in modern Europe
Across Europe, nationalist movements are challenging the narrative of post-war reconciliation embodied by the EU. In response, EU-funded researchers are developing ways of remembering that are able to defeat such views.
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Much of the EU’s legitimacy is derived from the idea of peace and prosperity brought about by reconciliation following World War II. This is now being challenged by nationalist movements who are using the memory of war to promote confrontation-based notions of belonging.
The EU-funded UNREST project aims to counter these antagonistic forms of memory in a way that cosmopolitan forms such as those upon which the EU is based cannot, by developing a third way which it calls ‘agonistic memory’.
Viewing political conflict as an opportunity for emotional and ethical growth, agonistic memory aims to re-politicise memory and increase social cohesion around it. This happens by democratically channelling opposed views, political passions and social imagination through an adversarial dynamics of public contest and confrontation.
‘Agonistic memory’ is thus better able to engage with nationalist memory politics and to find ways of overcoming it. To formulate the concept, the project combines theoretical reflection with studying memory cultures and testing practices.
“The research addresses the problem of how to remember violent conflict. Nationalist memory politics is on the rise across Europe and our research aims to contribute to mechanisms that can defeat it,” says coordinator Stefan Berger of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. “Our results show that memory politics surrounding war in Europe are determined by antagonisms and cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitan memory frames are, however, relatively powerless in countering nationalist memory politics as they refuse to engage with them.”
UNREST is hoping to get a clearer idea of dominant modes of remembering by examining mass grave exhumations and war museums. It is looking at the exhumation of graves of civilians killed in Poland during World War II, the Spanish Civil War and the Bosnian War, exploring how they elicit different forms of remembering and the memory practices and narratives arising from them.
The history, reception, narrative, aesthetics and political-cultural contexts of five war museums the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, France, the Kobarid Museum in Slovenia, the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow and the Military History Museum in Dresden are being analysed in depth. This is mainly achieved by research and interviews with people involved in creating and running the museums, as well as visitors.
Work on exhumations and museums feeds into the development, testing and dissemination of approaches aimed at promoting more reflective memory practices. A key part of this is creation of a museum exhibit and a theatre performance.
The exhibit at the Ruhr Museum in Essen, Germany showcases opposing opinions about different 20th century wars, without a priori favouring one perspective over another. Thus, it provides a space for testing new memory strategies.
The theatre performance is intended to challenge audiences on issues such as guilt, justice and revenge, and relations between perpetrators, bystanders and victims. Discussions and interviews reveal how people of different genders, ages and cultural backgrounds respond. It will be staged before an audience in Spain, while three screenings are planned for policymakers, cultural heritage professionals and memory activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland and Spain.
“The play can be used by other theatre companies across Europe,” says Berger. “The results of the research will be made available through scholarly articles to the research community. Stakeholders will be informed of results via social media and a regular newsletter. We also develop teaching materials to encourage more agonistic approaches to memory politics.”