“The problem of evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”

—Hannah Arendt (1945)

“Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation; thus the progress of historical studies is often a danger for national identity…. The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.”

—Ernest Renan

By the end of the twentieth century the centrality of the Holocaust in Western European identity and memory seemed secure. To be sure, there remained those occasional individuals and organizations—“revisionists”—who persisted in trying to show that the mass extermination of the Jews could not have taken place (though they were more active in North America than in Europe itself). But such people were confined to the extreme political margins—and their insistence upon the technical impossibility of the genocide paid unintended homage to the very enormity of the Nazi crime. However, the compensatory ubiquity with which Europeans now acknowledged, taught, and memorialized the loss of their Jews did carry other risks.

In the first place there was always the danger of a backlash. Occasionally even mainstream German politicians had been heard to vent frustration at the burden of national guilt—as early as 1969 the Bavarian Christian Social leader Franz-Josef Strauss relieved himself in public of the thought that “a people that has achieved such remarkable economic success has the right not to have to hear anymore about ‘Auschwitz.'” Politicians of course have their reasons.1 What was perhaps more indicative of a coming cultural shift was a widespread urge, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to re-open the question of German suffering after years of public attention to Jewish victims.

Artists and critics—among them Martin Walser, Jürgen Habermas’s contemporary and an influential literary voice in the postwar Federal Republic—were now starting to discuss another “unmanaged past”: not the extermination of the Jews but the underacknowledged other side of recent German history. Why, they asked, after all these years should we not speak of the burning of Germany’s cities or even of the uncomfortable truth that life in Hitler’s Germany (for Germans) was far from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because we should speak instead of what Germany did to the Jews? But we’ve spoken of this for decades; it has become a routine, a habit. The Federal Republic is one of the most avowedly philo-Semitic nations in the world; for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? New books about “the crimes of the Allies”—the bombing of Dresden, the burning of Hamburg, and the wartime sinking of German refugee ships (the subject of Im Krebsgang, “Crabwise,” a 2002 novel by Günter Grass)—sold in huge numbers.

In the second place, the newfound salience of the Holocaust in official accounts of Europe’s past carried the danger of a different sort of distortion. For the really uncomfortable truth about World War II was that what happened to the Jews between 1939 and 1945 was not nearly as important to most of the protagonists as later sensibilities might wish. If many Europeans had managed to ignore for decades the fate of their Jewish neighbors, this was not because they were consumed with guilt and repressing unbearable memories, it was because—except in the minds of a handful of senior Nazis—World War II was not about the Jews. Even for Nazis the extermination of Jews was part of a more ambitious project of racial cleansing and resettlement.

The understandable temptation to read back into the 1940s the knowledge and emotions of half a century later thus invites a rewriting of the historical record: putting anti-Semitism at the center of European history. How else, after all, are we to account for what happened in Europe in those years? But that is too easy—and in a way too comforting. The reason Vichy was acceptable to most French people after the defeat of 1940, for example, was not that it pleased them to live under a regime that persecuted Jews, but because Pétainist rule allowed the French to continue leading their lives in an illusion of security and normality and with minimum disruption. How the regime treated Jews was a matter of indifference: the Jews just hadn’t mattered that much. And much the same was true in most other occupied lands.

Today we may find such indifference shocking—a symptom of something gravely amiss in the moral condition of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. And we are right to recall that there were also those in every European country who did see what was happening to Jews and did their best to overcome the indifference of their fellow citizens. But if we ignore that indifference and assume instead that most other Europeans experienced the Second World War the way Jews experienced it—as a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination—then we shall furnish ourselves with a new layer of mis-memory. In retrospect, “Auschwitz” is the most important thing to know about World War II. But that is not how things seemed at the time.


It is also not how things seemed in Eastern Europe. To East Europeans, belatedly released after 1989 from the burden of officially mandated Communist interpretations of World War II, the fin-de-siècle Western preoccupation with the Holocaust of the Jews carries disruptive implications. On the one hand Eastern Europe after 1945 had much more than Western Europe to remember—and to forget. There were more Jews in the eastern half of Europe and more of them were killed; most of the killing took place in this region and many more locals took an active part in it. But on the other hand far greater care was taken by the postwar authorities in Eastern Europe to erase all public memory of the Holocaust. It is not that the horrors and crimes of the war in the East were played down—on the contrary, they were repeatedly rehearsed in official rhetoric and enshrined in memorials and textbooks everywhere. It is just that Jews were not part of the story.

In East Germany, where the burden of responsibility for Nazism was imputed uniquely to Hitler’s West German heirs, the new regime paid restitution not to Jews but to the Soviet Union. In GDR school texts Hitler was presented as a tool of monopoly capitalists who seized territory and started wars in pursuit of the interests of big business. The “Day of Remembrance” inaugurated by Walter Ulbricht in 1950 commemorated not Germany’s victims but eleven million dead “fighters against Hitler fascism.” Former concentration camps on East German soil—notably Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen—were converted for a while by the Communist regime into “special isolation camps” for political prisoners. Many years later, after Buchenwald had been transformed into a memorial site, its guidebook described the stated aims of “German fascism” as “destruction of Marxism, revenge for the lost war, and brutal terror against all resisters.” In the same booklet photos of the selection ramp at Auschwitz were captioned with a quote from the German Communist Ernst Thälmann: “The bourgeoisie is serious about its aim to annihilate the party and the entire avant-garde of the working class.”2 This text was not removed until after the fall of communism.

The same version of events could be found throughout Communist Europe. In Poland it was not possible to deny or minimize what had taken place in extermination camps at Treblinka or Majdanek or Sobibor. But these places no longer existed—the Germans had taken extraordinary pains to obliterate them from the landscape before fleeing before the advancing Red Army. And where the evidence did survive—as at Auschwitz, a few kilometers from Kraków, Poland’s second city—it was retrospectively assigned a different meaning. Although 93 percent of the estimated 1.5 million people murdered at Auschwitz were Jews, the museum established there under the postwar Communist regime listed the victims only by nationality: Polish, Hungarian, German, etc. Polish schoolchildren were indeed paraded past the shocking photos; they were shown the heaps of shoes, hair, and eyeglasses. But they were not told that most of what they saw belonged to Jews.

To be sure, there was the Warsaw Ghetto, whose life and death were indeed memorialized on the site where it had stood. But the Jewish revolt of 1943 was occluded in Polish memory by the Poles’ own Warsaw uprising a year later. In Communist Poland, while no one denied what Germans had done to Jews, the subject was not much discussed. Poland’s “reimprisonment” under the Soviets, together with the widespread belief that Jews had welcomed and even facilitated the Communist takeover, muddied popular recall of the German occupation. In any case, Poles’ own wartime suffering diluted local attention to the Jewish Holocaust and was in some measure competitive with it: this issue of “comparative victimhood” would poison Polish–Jewish relations for many decades. The juxtaposition was always inappropriate. Three million (non-Jewish) Poles died in World War II; proportionately lower than the death rate in parts of the Ukraine or among Jews, but a terrible figure notwithstanding. Yet there was a difference. For Poles, it was difficult to survive under German occupation but in principle you could. For Jews it was possible to survive under German occupation—but in principle you could not.

Where a local puppet regime had collaborated with its Nazi overlords its victims were duly memorialized. But scant attention was paid to the fact that they were disproportionately Jews. There were national categories (“Hungarians”) and above all social categories (“workers”), but ethnic and religious tags were studiously avoided. The Second World War was labeled and taught as an anti-fascist war; its racist dimension was ignored. In the 1970s the government of Czechoslovakia even took the trouble to paint over the inscriptions on the walls of Prague’s Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue) which gave the names of Czech Jews killed in the Shoah.


When recasting recent history in this region, the postwar Communist authorities could certainly count on an enduring reservoir of anti-Jewish feeling—one reason they went to some trouble to suppress evidence of it even in retrospect (during the Seventies Polish censors consistently banned allusions to the country’s anti-Semitism during the years between the wars). But if East Europeans paid less attention in retrospect to the plight of the Jews it was not just because they were indifferent at the time or preoccupied with their own survival. It is because the Communists imposed enough suffering and injustice of their own to forge a whole new layer of resentments and memories.

Between 1945 and 1989 the accumulation of deportations, imprisonments, show trials, and “normalizations” made almost everyone in the Soviet bloc either a loser or else complicit in someone else’s loss. Apartments, shops, and other property that had been appropriated from dead Jews or expelled Germans were all too often reexpropriated a few years later in the name of socialism—with the result that after 1989 the question of compensation for past losses became hopelessly tangled in dates. Should people be recompensed for what they lost when the Communists seized power? And if such restitution were made, to whom should it go? To those who had come into possession of property after the war, in 1945, only to lose it a few years later? Or should restitution be made to the heirs of those from whom businesses and apartments had been seized or stolen at some point between 1938 and 1945? Which point? 1938? 1939? 1941? On each date there hung politically sensitive definitions of national or ethnic legitimacy as well as moral precedence.3

And then there were dilemmas peculiar to the internal history of communism itself. Should those responsible for inviting Russian tanks in to crush the 1956 Hungarian revolution or suppress the Prague Spring of 1968 be arraigned for these crimes? In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolutions many thought they should. But some of their victims were former Communist leaders. Who deserved the attention of posterity: obscure Slovak or Hungarian peasants thrown off their property, or the Communist apparatchiks who ejected them but who themselves fell victim a few years later? Which victims—which memories—should have priority? Who was to say?

The fall of communism thus brought in its wake a torrent of bitter memories. Heated debates over what to do with secret police files were only one dimension of the affair. The real problem was the temptation to overcome the memory of communism by inverting it. What had once been official truth was now discredited root and branch—becoming, as it were, officially false. But this sort of taboo-breaking carries its own risks. Before 1989 every anti-Communist had been tarred with the “fascist” brush. But if “anti-fascism” had been just another Communist lie, it was very tempting now to look with retrospective sympathy and even favor upon all hitherto discredited anti-Communists, fascists included. Nationalist writers of the 1930s returned to fashion. Post-Communist parliaments in a number of countries passed motions praising Marshal Antonescu of Romania and his counterparts elsewhere in the Balkans and Central Europe. Execrated until very recently as nationalists, Fascists, and Nazi collaborators, they would now have statues raised in honor of their wartime heroism (the Romanian parliament even accorded Antonescu one minute’s silence).

Other taboos fell along with the discredited rhetoric of anti-fascism. The role of the Red Army and the Soviet Union could now be discussed in a different light. The newly liberated Baltic states demanded that Moscow acknowledge the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin’s unilateral destruction of their independence. The Poles, having at last (in April 1995) secured Russian acknowledgment that the 23,000 Polish officers murdered in Katyn forest were indeed killed by the NKVD and not the Wehrmacht, demanded full access to the Russian archives for Polish investigators. As of August 2005 neither request seemed likely to meet with Russian acquiescence and the memories continued to rankle.4

The Russians, however, had memories of their own. Seen from the satellite countries the Soviet version of recent history was palpably false; but for many Russians it contained more than a grain of truth. World War II was a “Great Patriotic War.” Soviet soldiers and civilians were, in absolute numbers, its greatest victims; the Red Army did liberate vast swathes of Eastern Europe from the horrors of German rule; and the defeat of Hitler was a source of unalloyed satisfaction and relief for most Soviet citizens—and others besides. After 1989 many in Russia were genuinely taken aback at the apparent ingratitude of erstwhile fraternal nations who had been released in 1945 from the German yoke thanks to the sacrifices of Soviet arms.

But for all that, Russian memory was divided. Indeed that division took institutional form, with two civil organizations coming into existence to promote critical but diametrically opposed accounts of the country’s Communist past. Memorial was founded in 1987 by liberal dissidents with the goal of obtaining and publishing the truth about Soviet history. Its members’ particular concerns were with human rights abuses and the importance of acknowledging what had been done in the past in order to forestall its recurrence in the future. Pamiat’, formed two years earlier, also sought to recover and honor the past (its name means “memory” in Russian), but there the resemblance ceases. The founders of Pamiat’, anti-Communist dissidents but far from liberal, wanted to offer an improved version of the Russian past: sanitized of Soviet “lies” but also free of other influences foreign to Russia’s heritage, above all that of “Zionists.” Within a few years Pamiat’ had branched out into nationalist politics, wielding Russia’s neglected and “abused” history as a weapon with which to ward off “cosmopolitan” challenges and interlopers.

The politics of aggrieved memories—however much these differed in detail and even contradicted one another—constituted the last remaining bond between the former Soviet heartland and its imperial holdings. There was a shared resentment at the international community’s underappreciation for their past sufferings and losses. What of the victims of the Gulag? Why had they not been compensated and memorialized like the victims and survivors of Nazi oppression? What of the millions for whom wartime Nazi oppression became postwar Communist oppression with no discernible caesura? Why did the West pay so little attention?

The desire to flatten out the Communist past and indict it en bloc—to read everything from Lenin to Gorbachev as an uninflected tale of dictatorship and crime, a seamless narrative of regimes and repressions imposed by outsiders or carried out in the people’s name by unrepresentative authorities—carried other risks. In the first place it was bad history, eliminating from the record the genuine enthusiasms and engagements of earlier decades. Secondly, the new orthodoxy had contemporary political implications. If Czechs—or Croats or Hungarians or anyone else—had played no active part in the dark side of their own recent past; if Eastern European history since 1939—or, in the Russian case, from 1917 to 1991—was exclusively the work of others, then the whole era became a sort of parenthesis in the national story: comparable to the place assigned to Vichy in postwar French consciousness, but covering a vastly longer period and an even grimmer archive of bad memories. And the consequences would be similar: in 1992 Czechoslovak authorities banned a BBC documentary film about the 1942 assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich from the Karlovy Vary film festival because it showed “unacceptable” footage of Czechs demonstrating support for the wartime Nazi regime.

With this post-Communist reordering of memory in Eastern Europe, the taboo on comparing communism with Nazism began to crumble. Indeed politicians and scholars started to insist upon such comparisons. In the West this juxtaposition remained controversial. Direct comparison between Hitler and Stalin was not the issue: few now disputed the monstrous quality of both dictators. But the suggestion that communism itself—before and after Stalin—should be placed in the same category as fascism or Nazism carried uncomfortable implications for the West’s own past, and not only in Germany. To many Western European intellectuals communism was a failed variant of a common progressive heritage. But to their Central and East European counterparts it was an all too successful local application of the criminal pathologies of twentieth-century authoritarianism and should be remembered thus. Europe might be united, but European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.


The Western solution to the problem of Europe’s troublesome memories has been to fix them, quite literally, in stone. By the opening years of the twenty-first century, plaques, memorials, and museums to the victims of Nazism had surfaced all across Western Europe, from Stockholm to Brussels. In some cases, as we have seen, they were amended or “corrected” versions of existing sites; but many were new. Some aspired to an overtly pedagogical function: the Holocaust Memorial which opened in Paris in January 2005 combined two existing sites, the “Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr” and a “Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation.” Complete with a stone wall engraved with the names of 76,000 Jews deported from France to Nazi death camps, it echoed both the US Vietnam Memorial and—on a much-reduced scale—the ambitions of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The overwhelming majority of such installations were indeed devoted—in part or whole—to the memory of the Holocaust: the most impressive of them all was opened in Berlin on May 10, 2005.

The explicit message of the latest round of memorials contrasts sharply with the ambiguity and prevarication of an earlier generation of lapidary commemorations. The Berlin memorial, occupying a conspicuous 19,000-square-meter site adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, is the most explicit of them all: far from commemorating ecumenically the “victims of Nazism,” it is, quite avowedly, a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”5 In Austria, young conscientious objectors could now chose to replace military service with a period in the state-financed Gedenkdienst (“Commemo- rative Service,” established in 1991), working at major Holocaust institutions as interns and guides. There can be little doubt that Western Europeans—Germans above all—now have ample opportunity to confront the full horror of their recent past. As the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reminded his audience on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, “the memory of the war and the genocide are part of our life. Nothing will change that; these memories are part of our identity.”

Further east, however, shadows remain. In Poland, where a newly established Institute of National Memory has striven hard to encourage serious scholarly investigation into controversial historical subjects, official contrition for Poland’s own treatment of its Jewish minority has aroused vociferous objections. These are depressingly exemplified in the reaction of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Solidarity hero Lech Wal/esa to the publication in 2000 of Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors, an influential study by an American historian of a wartime massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors: Gross, Wal/esa complained in a radio interview, was out to sow discord between Poles and Jews. He was a “mediocre writer…a Jew who tries to take money.”

The difficulty of incorporating the destruction of the Jews into contemporary memory in post-Communist Europe is tellingly illustrated by the experience of Hungary. In 2001 the government of Viktor Orbán established a Holocaust Memorial Day, to be commemorated annually on April 16 (the anniversary of the establishment in 1944 of a ghetto in wartime Budapest). Three years later Orbán’s successor as prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, opened a Holocaust Memorial Center in a Budapest house once used to intern Jews. But much of the time this Holocaust Center stands nearly empty, its exhibits and fact sheets seen by a thin trickle of visitors—many of them foreign. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Hungarians have flocked to the Terrorháza.

The Terrorháza (“House of Terror”), as its name suggests, is a museum of horrors. It tells the story of state violence, torture, repression, and dictatorship in Hungary from 1944 to 1989. The dates are significant. As presented to the thousands of schoolchildren and others who pass through its gloomy, Tussaud-like reproduction of the police cells, torture equipment, and interrogation chambers that were once housed there (the House of Terror is in the headquarters of the former security police), the Terrorháza’s version of Hungarian history draws no distinction between the thugs of Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross party, who held power there from October 1944 to April 1945, and the Communist regime that was installed after the war. However the Arrow Cross men—and the extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to which they actively contributed—are represented by just three rooms. The rest of the very large building is devoted to a copiously illustrated and decidedly partisan catalog of the crimes of communism.

The not particularly subliminal message here is that communism and fascism are equivalent. Except that they are not: the presentation and content of the Budapest Terrorháza make it quite clear that in the eyes of the museum’s curators communism not only lasted longer but did far more harm than its neo-Nazi predecessor. For many Hungarians of an older generation this is all the more plausible for conforming to their own experience. And the message has been confirmed by post-Communist Hungarian legislation banning public display of all representations of the country’s undemocratic past: not just the swastika or the Arrow Cross symbol but also the hitherto ubiquitous red star and its accompanying hammer and sickle. Rather than evaluate the distinctions between the regimes represented by these symbols, Hungary—in the words of Prime Minister Orbán at the opening of the Budapest House of Terror on February 24, 2002—has simply “slammed the door on the sick twentieth century.”

But that door is not so easy to close. Hungary, like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, is still caught in the backdraft.6 The same Baltic states which have urged upon Moscow the duty to acknowledge its mistreatment of them have been decidedly slow to interrogate their own responsibilities: since winning their independence neither Estonia nor Latvia nor Lithuania has prosecuted a single case against the surviving war criminals in their midst. In Romania—despite former President Iliescu’s acknowledgment of his country’s participation in the Holocaust—the “Memorial of the Victims of Communism and Anti-Communist Resistance” inaugurated at Sighet in 1997 (financed in part by the Council of Europe) commemorates assorted interwar and wartime Iron Guard activists and other Romanian fascists and anti-Semites now recycled as martyrs to Communist persecution.


In support of their insistence upon “equivalence” between the suffering under fascist and communist regimes, commentators in Eastern Europe can point to the cult of the “victim” in contemporary Western political culture. We are moving from winners’ history to victims’ history, they observe. Very well, then let us be consistent. Even if Nazism and communism were utterly different in intent—even if, in Raymond Aron’s formulation, “there is a difference between a philosophy whose logic is monstrous, and one which can be given a monstrous interpretation”—that was scant consolation to their victims. Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of those responsible for it. In this way of reasoning, for those being punished or killed there a Communist camp is no better or worse than a Nazi camp.

Similarly, the emphasis upon “rights” (and restitution for their abuse) in modern international jurisprudence and political rhetoric has furnished an argument for those who feel that their sufferings and losses have passed unrecognized—and uncompensated. Some conservatives in Germany, taking their cue from international condemnation of “ethnic cleansing,” have re-opened the claims of German communities expelled from their lands at the end of the Second World War. Why, they ask, was theirs a lesser form of victimhood? Surely what Stalin did to the Poles—or, more recently, what Milosevic did to the ethnic Albanians—was no different in kind from what Czechoslovakia’s President Benes did to the Sudeten Germans after World War II. By the early years of the new century there was talk in respectable circles of establishing in Berlin yet another memorial: a “Center Against Expulsions,” a museum devoted to all victims of ethnic cleansing.

This latest twist, with its suggestion that all forms of collective victimhood are essentially comparable, even interchangeable, and should thus be accorded equal remembrance, aroused a spirited rebuttal from Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when he signed a petition in 2003 opposing the proposed center:

What sort of remembrance! Did they suffer that much? Because they lost their houses? Of course it is sad when you are being forced to leave your house and abandon your land. But the Jews lost their houses and all of their relatives. Expulsions are about suffering, but there is so much suffering in this world. Sick people suffer, and nobody builds monuments to honor them.7

Edelman’s response invites a brief commentary. Among the many millions of Europeans forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes during and after World War II were more than eleven million ethnic Germans: from postwar Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary. These are the people whose sufferings some in Germany would like to see memorialized. The expulsions were carried out indiscriminately and with considerable brutality, especially in Czechoslovakia: of the 3.5 million “Sudeten Germans” removed from their pre-war homes and farms, many thousands died en route to Germany (though perhaps not the figure of 270,000 traditionally proposed in Sudeten German sources).

The experience—a textbook instance of “ethnic cleansing” avant le mot—was far worse than Edelman suggests, and made worse for many by its neglect in European public memory. On the other hand, while the overall number of Germans forced out between 1945 and 1947 was considerable, the hardships they underwent are simply not comparable to Germans’ own wartime treatment of Poles, Greeks, or Serbs, much less of Jews—as Edelman, more than almost anyone alive today, is well placed to know.8

In any case, Edelman’s reaction is a timely reminder of the risks we run by indulging to excess the cult of commemoration—and of displacing murderers with victims as the focus of attention. On the one hand there is no limit in principle to the memories and experiences worthy of recall. On the other hand, to memorialize the past in edifices and museums is also a way to contain and even neglect it—leaving the responsibility of memory to others. So long as there were men and women around who really did remember, from personal experience, this did not perhaps matter. But now, as the eighty-one-year-old Jorge Semprun reminded his fellow survivors at the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald on April 10, 2005, “the cycle of active memory is closing.”

Even if Europe could somehow cling indefinitely to a living memory of past crimes—which is what the memorials and museums are designed, however inadequately, to achieve—there would be little point. Memory is inherently contentious and partisan: one man’s acknowledgment is another’s omission. And it is a poor guide to the past. The first postwar Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life. Since 1989 Europe has been constructed instead upon a compensatory surplus of memory: institutionalized public remembering as the very foundation of collective identity. The first could not endure—but nor will the second. Some measure of neglect and even forgetting are the necessary condition for civic health.

To say this is not to advocate amnesia as a way of life. A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it. Until the French understood Vichy as it was—and not as they had chosen to misremember it—they could not put it aside and move on. The same is true of Poles in their convoluted recollection of the Jews who once lived in their midst. The same will be true of Spain, too, which for twenty years following its transition to democracy drew a tacit veil across the painful memory of the civil war. Public discussion of that war and its outcome is only now getting underway.9 Only after Germans had appreciated and digested the enormity of their Nazi past—a sixty-year cycle of denial, education, debate, and consensus—could they begin to live with it: i.e., put it behind them.

The instrument of recall in all such cases was not memory itself. It was history, in both its meanings: as the passage of time and as the professional study of the past—the latter above all. Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialization incomplete.10 Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless: “Only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard.”11

Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive—which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins. But history does need to be learned—and periodically relearned. In a popular Soviet-era joke, a listener calls up “Armenian Radio” with a question: “Is it possible,” he asks, “to foretell the future?” Answer: “Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing.”

So it does—and not only in totalitarian societies. All the same, the rigorous investigation and interrogation of Europe’s competing pasts—and the place occupied by those pasts in Europeans’ collective sense of themselves—has been one of the unsung achievements and sources of European unity in recent decades. It is, however, an achievement that will surely lapse unless ceaselessly renewed. Europe’s barbarous recent history, the dark “other” against which postwar Europe was laboriously constructed, is already beyond recall for young Europeans. Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust—visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives.

If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link—if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose—then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. “European Union” may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.

Copyright © 2005 by Tony Judt


This Issue

October 6, 2005