European Historical Memory – the Educational Threat to the Nations of Europe

The European Union has policies and programmes to create and manipulate a common ‘historical memory’ amongst the constituent peoples of the European Union. This is seen as a way to add legitimacy to the European project and foster European identity”.  Sage Vals considers the implications for the member nations of the EU and finds an attempt to destroy their national stories.

A recent policy discussion paper, ‘European Historical Memory: Policies, Challenges and Perspectives’[1], produced by the European Parliament, addresses these policies. While much of it is couched in academic language, possibly to discourage anyone from reading it, its underlying message is worrying in its implications and brings out just how far the EU has gone, and might be willing to go, to culturally undermine the domestic traditions of its member countries. It is an attempt at ‘nation building’, the construct being the European Union itself.

Historical Memory

The paper first addresses the concept of ‘historical memory’, (which is also referred to in the paper as ‘collective memory’, which might have been a better term). While there are academic controversies about exactly what is meant by this term, in short it is that background of commonly known historical beliefs – which may or may not be entirely ‘true’ – assumed common to all or most members of a particular group. Often, this group will be a nation, although it may equally well apply to those living in a particular region, or having a common historical experience of some sort.

The paper is short on examples, but as an English person, born in the 1960s, I would suggest that my and my group’s ‘historical memory’ would include: Queen Boudicca, King Alfred and the cakes, the Norman Conquest, Richard the Lionheart, King John and Magna Carta, Henry VIII and his wives, the English Civil war, Captain Scott, and various tales from the British Empire and both World Wars. I suspect that an English child born in the 1990s might have a different set, and a French or German or Polish person would have an almost completely different ‘historical memory’. I would suggest that ‘historical memory’ differs not just by nation but very much over time. Clearly, Captain Scott’s activities in the Antarctic could not have been in the British ‘historical memory’ before 1912.

The author of the paper makes two key points about this kind of ‘historical memory’. Firstly, it “should not be seen as something objective and unbiased, but as incorporating a distinct degree of subjectivity, and is by necessity based on value judgements”. Secondly, “historical memory can potentially play a functional role, which exposes it not only to politics of memory, but also to the danger of it becoming a tool for a deliberate misinterpretation or falsification of history”.

Considering these points in turn, clearly there is ‘subjectivity’. The common factor in ‘historical memories’ is simply being a good story, often being representable as good versus evil, and easily simplified to be presented to children. A ‘good story’, and even what is good or evil, is to some degree subjective, of course, and what is conceived as such may change over time and with the circumstances of the re-telling.

As far as the functional role is concerned, I doubt that it is significant much of the time, and even less so that functionality takes precedence. That is to say that the story comes first, and is then made use of for whatever ends; not that the story is arrived at and placed in the historical memory in order to make use of it. What is the functionality of the story of King Harold being shot in the eye? The story of the gunpowder plot could be used to spread anti-Catholicism, but it wasn’t ‘made-up’ or publicised in order to do so. It certainly isn’t used that way now. However, the author of the paper clearly thinks that political use can and, in some cases, should be made of these historical tales.

Language problem

“Collective historical memory at a national level is characteristically dependent on the respective state- or nation-building process. While nation-building provides obvious historical landmarks for collective memory, historical memory can make an active contribution to constructing or (re)structuring national identity”. The author cites Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ (Anderson 1983).

However, the author has misunderstood Anderson’s main point: that the printed media helped create a national language for a nation state to use. The common culture, or ‘historical memory’, if any, must follow after this. A second point made by Anderson and ignored by the author is that “It remains only to emphasize that in their origins, the fixing of print-languages and the differentiation of status between them were largely unselfconscious processes resulting from the explosive interaction between capitalism, technology and human linguistic diversity” [Anderson, my emphasis]. Thus, the process is not one of deliberate nation building. In other words, Anderson does not really support the author’s argument, and indeed exposes another problem for EU nation-building in the lack of a common language.

The author notes, correctly in my view, that even within nations, there may well be differences in the ‘historical memory’ in terms of class, region and, following many years of immigration, ethnicity. Given this, the problem of creating a common ‘historical memory’ for Europe is much harder. This is especially true as the ‘winners and losers’ in many historical events will be other European nations.

Nation Building

The paper moves from describing what a nation’s ‘historic memory’ is, and the part that takes in forming a nation, to talking about how to create a new ‘historic memory’ in a pan-European context. This is part of a prospective ‘nation-building’ exercise with the new ‘nation’ being the EU. Although the major difficulties in doing so are recognised and indeed form much of the rest of the paper, the desirability of doing so is almost unquestioned. Doing nothing and allowing the diverse range of ‘historical memories’ within Europe to continue is dismissed out of hand, as this would have unspecified “ensuing problems”. Nor is there a suggestion that a pan-European ‘historic memory’ could come into being on its own, organically, without deliberate intervention by ‘nation-builders’.

The author considers it best “to construct a genuinely new European collective memory working with clearly defined historical landmarks”. This is clearly a call for action on the part of the European Parliament, to whom the report is addressed.

The Political Elite

It should be no surprise to discover that “Attempts to add a transnational layer to existing national collective identities and memories have been made by European political elites ever since the beginnings of European integration” [My emphasis]. These attempts have drawn on three strands: “generic notions of ‘European heritage’” that is a common European culture; the ‘horrors’ of the two world wars as symbols of the bad effects of “radical nationalism”; and “European Integration itself” such as the flag, and anthem of the EU and so on, “seen as source of self-legitimacy for the Union”.

So clearly there is currently a conscious and deliberate attempt by the European political elite to ‘nation-build’ for the European Union. While this is hardly a scoop, there can be little denying it when a paper such as this spells it out. More especially, the paper notes that this policy became more urgent and intensive after the rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 by referenda in France and the Netherlands. In other words, as that ‘project’ failed, so the political elite decided upon “decisive political action going beyond what had mainly been symbolic politics”. The people must be ‘convinced’ by artful means to be prepared to adopt the EU elite’s political policies, if not now, then soon.

Hitler and Stalin

The resulting EU policies aim at developing a greater ‘European identity’ amongst the various peoples in the EU, and this includes the use of history as a means to that end. So far, this has been largely restricted to commemoration, ‘remembrance’, of both the Holocaust (Shoah) and the crimes of Stalinism. The rationale behind this being “only by raising awareness for Europe’s violent past and the Second World War in particular can citizens meaningfully engage in reflecting on the origins of the EU, the history of European integration as a civilising project preserving peace among its members, and finally on today’s Europe, thereby moving beyond the past and building the future.”

This is of course the repeated meme that the EU is somehow the guarantor of peace and human rights in Europe. It lazily ignores the role of NATO and, earlier, the Marshall Plan in creating the conditions of peace which allowed the EU to be formed in the first place. Here is an example of the selective use of history by the EU and its apologists for political ends!

The paper recognises that there is some contradiction in putting Communism and National Socialism on an equal basis of ‘horror’. Stalin assisted the West – after the USSR had itself been invaded – to get rid of Hitler. There are still some, in Western Europe at least, who consider Stalin as a hero for his achievements in the war. So are either of these historical episodes suitable as part of the ‘founding myth’ of the European Union? And, given the role of Germany and Austria (and other countries) should the present day citizens of these countries continue to feel moral guilt about the Holocaust? These are major points of contention for a pan- EU ‘historical memory’. There is no analogous problem for having, say, the Battle of Trafalgar in the ‘historical memory’ of an Englishman – except of course in the context of being a ‘citizen’ of the EU.

There are other problems too: “Basing the legitimacy of any political project primarily on a negative foundation myth is daring per se, and historically the exception rather than the rule”. In other words, ‘foundation myths’ work best if they are positive, ‘good’ events, not just ways of presenting the past as ‘worse’ than the present.


So what to do? The paper recommends “active commitment on the part of each individual European country to ‘come to terms with their own past’, or rather ‘work through the past’, a notion that might prove effective in describing an open-ended process of societal and political work on rather than a final mastery of the past.” Because this is supposed to be national, rather than pan-European action, it will not be homogenous, but can be tailored to each nation. From this, the author then advocates an “open sphere of discussion and developing mutual understanding that allows for bi- and multilateral reconciliation deserving this name.” In other words, EU nations should indulge in ‘the politics of regret’. No particular judgement should be made of one ‘crime’ against another. The process is to be one of mutual apology, for “difficult moments” in history.

Does Britain really need to apologise for Alamein or Waterloo? Should David Cameron bend the knee to Hollande for Crecy or Agincourt, or indeed Merkel grovel to Hollande for the Franco-Prussian war? What is any of this to do with the present generation? The example given in a footnote to the paper is the ‘Warsaw Genuflection’ of German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970 as a gesture towards the victims of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This was an apology given to living people by Brandt, who, while not being at all personally involved, was both German and alive in 1943. It’s quite different from making universal apologies to all-comers.

The paper recognises that, by indulging in “bi- and multilateral reconciliation”, there may have to be a “renouncing the idea of ‘historical truth’ as an absolute category”. This is justified on the grounds that many historians, and philosophers of history, recognise that “there is no singular or static historical truth”. This is not the place to consider historiography, but the paper is surely wrong to assume that the debate involved in reconciliation will somehow necessarily get closer to ‘the truth’ than adopting one side or other of the argument. The mean of two views maybe as much apart from ‘the truth’ as either of the ‘national’ versions. Who is to say? The European Union?

The paper explicitly says ‘no’ to this, or indeed any, attempt to impose any ‘historical truth’. It rejects “any attempt to legislate on the past or its remembrance”. Which is just as well, but it doesn’t drop the idea that the EU shouldn’t be involved somehow.

Education, education, education…

Education is a “key broker for any memory policy” says the paper. It proposes to “Adapting existing curricula” and teaching methods; and changes to teacher-training. In summary, history should be taught using viewpoints from all the related nationalities, not just that of the country in which the teaching is done: “not only do the respective national sensitivities have to be considered, but respective national myths also need to be qualified.” Of particular note as regards history teaching in the UK is concerned, “This involves turning away from ‘fact learning’ to understanding structures and interconnections”, not something perhaps that Mr Gove would approve of. The changes to teacher training would support this change to the curriculum, of course, but the lag between training and the classroom is recognised.

There are already EU projects which support the tenor of the policies suggested in this paper. These include the ‘Erasmus +’ and ‘Europe for Citizens’ projects, and “EU-funded projects that have taken up issues such as ‘Developing Competence-Orientated [sic] Teaching of Historical Memories’ and ‘Sharing European Memories at School’” This is despite the fact that the EU does not (yet) have the power to enforce any of this either under ‘culture’ or ‘education’, which are still matters for EU member-states.

The paper concedes that the building of a “common European remembrance culture via the Europeanisation [sic] of memory practices” has to be done via nation states. This is partly a matter of competency, and partly that it is national ‘historical memories’ that need to be overcome to allow a European perspective to develop.


The EU already exercises influence and goes about building a ‘common European History’, and hence trying to construct a pan-EU ‘nation’ using its soft power of grant funding to encourage  the teaching of ‘shared historical memory’ across the EU. This is particularly insidious, as it means that the EU is in effect acting outside its competency in that education and culture are supposedly matters for the member states.

It is made very clear that these initiatives, while they may have some benign side-effects, are political in inspiration and intent – to undermine the nation states of the EU.

This paper advocates encouraging nations within Europe to change their teaching of history, ostensibly to accommodate ‘reconciliation’, but in the process undermining long-established national ‘collective histories’. The goal is to replace them with a European Union collective historical worldview, and hence move towards political acceptance of the EU as a state in itself.

[1] European Historical Memory: Policies, Challenges and Perspectives, (European Union 2003) Markus J. Prutsch, Policy Department B: Structural and Cohesion Policies, European Parliament

Accessed April 2014 (h/t Bruno Waterfield @BrunoBrussels)