In this webinar (in French) "European Memory from a Franco-German Perspective : a Memory of War or a Memory of Peace?" that took place on May 11th, 2021, experts Ulrich Bohner (MESA house of Europe, Strasbourg) and Philippe Hamman, Sylvain Schirmann, Birte Wassenberg (University of Strasbourg) discuss memory politics in modern day Europe.
In the first roundtable, Bohner and Schirmann discuss the difference between European memories of peace and of war. For Schirmann, there are as many politics of memory as there are operators of memory. He defines memory politics as a politics that aims to present a historical narrative as it was experienced by a specific group. Bohner extends the topic to that of European integration and identity. For him, Europe exists simultaneously as an idea and as a reality. The European utopia often sabotages itself by refusing to reconcile with the diverse, fractured identity of Europe as it currently exists. Both experts go on to discuss locations of memory and modes of portraying a historical narrative. Schirmann notes that not only do locations of memory provide a specific narrative by highlighting a historical event or figure, they often also provide material historical documents from local residents. Both Panelists are then prompted to discuss issues such as debt and immigration in the context of the European vision. With regards to Greece, they explain that solidarity was the only option for the EU, and that abandoning Greece could have meant the demise of the EU. With regards to immigration, they argue that the EU cannot accept all immigrants and remain stable. However, they insist that accepting as many immigrants as possible is in line with the moral vision of the EU.
Finally, both panelists discuss the possibility of the de-politicization of memory. Both experts agree that it is impossible to do so, and that historical understanding is achieved through dialogue and a multitude of perspectives. According to them, what is important is not to ask what we have in common and declare that to be the truth of history, but rather to question why our memories are different and understand each other's stories. The role of the historian is to avoid teleology and always illuminate the underrepresented perspective. In the case of European memory, one such perspective is that the construction of Europe is not so much an escape from nationalism towards globalisation, but rather the predictable progression of the nationalist expansionism at the heart of many European philosophies such as French secularism. Both panellists also point to the fact that there are systems in place designed to counter the creation of an official history. In this respect, addressing this underlying imperialism of the project of European integration could create a more unified continent.
The second round table features Philippe Hamman and Birte Wassenberg as they discuss topics such as the role of border regions like Alsace in particular with a view to political and economic cooperation. They also address the impact of these borders on the forms of commemorating peace and considering the underlying collective identity of the EU. Hamman discusses the plurality of interpretations of collaboration in cross border spaces with a particular attention on economic and administrative/political processes. Cities like Strasbourg represent the cooperation of two physically close but culturally and administratively different nations. Borders serve as a shared identity. He then discusses how this shared identity is often created by non-border living Europeans which positions border spaces as laboratories for cooperation. This practice plays into the myth of cooperation as a sort of gradualism working towards the ideal of the European project. The lived experiences of modern cross-border Europeans illuminates the elimination of redundant infrastructure created by borders. Hamann further discusses the relationship between the social construction of borders and the material gains and losses of border cooperation.
Finally, Wassenberg switches the perspective from sociology to history as she recites a multitude of receipts from French citizens living in Alsace regarding their understanding of Europe’s inception and purpose. Namely, she addresses how European identity is defined through a pursuit of peace; and consequently how this unifying assertion of peace defines Europe in relation to World War 2. She then discusses how different citizens recall the beginning of Europe integration and how these accounts of the early stages of the project of European integration differ. Noting that not only do people see different beginnings of the European union/vision, she stresses how individuals also appropriate these events and inflate their importance in the creation of their own narratives. What is crucial to all these stories is the memory of borders before the formation of the EC/EU. In addition, Wassenberg argues that a common European identity is formed through shared values. For Wassenberg, Europe is defined by its diversity yet strives to find common values to the unification of the continent. This unifying ambition creates its own dissonances and poses some key challenges to the European Union and its objectives.
Ulrich Bohner is the president of the MESA house of Europe in Strasbourg, Alsace. He studied at Saarlandes University in Germany.
Philippe Hamman is a professor of sociology at the University of Strasbourg. He is interested in sustainability and the environment.
Sylvain Schirmann is a history professor at the University of Strasbourg. He specializes in the history of contemporary international relations.
Birte Wassenberg is history professor at Sciences Po at the University of Strasbourg. She specializes in border issues and the history of European organizations.
Oliver Schmidtke, University of Victoria, Center for Global Studies
Francesca Tortorella, Science Po Strasbourg