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Memory and politics: history traces the profile of a farsighted Europe

Knowing our roots accentuates the present and furthers citizens’ participatory democracy. Three guidelines: to promote the study of history; to strengthen national cohesion and openness towards European horizons; to reaffirm the common good

The question of memory has become an extremely significant challenge in our plural societies where diverse memories – sometimes contradictory and opposed to one another – live side by side. Public interest in history books testifies to this attention. Gone are the times when the French King Henry IV decided to bury the memory of religious conflicts. In 1598, the famous Edict of Nantes, stated: ” The memory of all things having taken place on one side and on the other be extinguished and put to rest, as a thing null and void.” Conversely, today we talk about the “duty of memory.” It is up to the “politics of Memory”, promoted in Countries with a rich and complex history, to unite the citizens around what can unite them, to understand the past, live the present, and build a common future. The “politics of memory” thus has an extremely important social role.

Duty of memory or duty of history? Philosophers have largely debated this issue. Alain Finkielkraut in “Une voix vient de l’autre rive” (2005) warns against the expression “the duty of memory.” In his book “Memory, History, Forgetting”, published in 2000, Paul Ricoeur speaks against “overly remembrance” along with the “injunction” of memory. However, memory and history complement each other, they nourish each other. Memory nourishes the need for rigour of historical sciences. Indeed historical accounts entail going beyond history as such, putting in order recollections, placing them within the development of events, understanding them, explaining them, transforming an emotional experience into thought. Historian Marc Bloch (“The strange defeat” 1946, and “The Historian’s Craft” 1950) has illustrated it clearly. Nonetheless, historical research often stems from a request of information on specific events, places and figures. This enables a renewal of knowledge with conferences, publications …

History thus lays the grounds for citizenship. Thus the question is to know which messages European nations can and intend to transmit, and how.

Which goals should be pursued? I believe there are three goals. First of all, we need to promote the knowledge of the past in order to know where we come from and understand the challenges we need to respond to. Henri-Irénée Marrou in “Historical knowledge” (1954) answers the question: “What is history?” with simple words: “History is the knowledge of human past.” Second, it is necessary to strengthen national cohesion. In his conference “What is a nation?”, delivered in 1882, Ernest Renan gave this definition: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present- day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.”

Living together, the nation, European civilization… It is not a race nor a religion, and not even a political party. It is the sum of differences and the intention to look beyond them.

The third goal is to reaffirm the common good, namely, to recognize common values such as democracy, human rights, social justice, equality, fraternity. The politics of memory has the duty to hightlight them.

Which means should be used? Commemorations are a means of great importance to transmit knowledge and a message. The etymological meaning of “to commemorate” is “to remember with”, i.e. together, to be together, with each other, to remember a particular event or a personality of considerable importance. A commemoration enables the transmission of a message. To commemorate the carnage of World War I in these years marking its centenary means to transmit messages on sacrifice, courage, self-giving, but also messages on the war and its miseries, along with messages highlighting the value of peace and reconciliation among nations, on the significance of Europe’s unity today. Commemorating the liberation from Nazi extermination camps is an opportunity to remember that, at a certain time of our European history, civilization had almost been annihilated by unprecedented barbarity. The current world developments, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, show that a new form of totalitarianism and savage barbarism continues to thrive. Ten years ago we could still consider commemorations as ritual acts pertaining to a bygone past. But we have realized today that they are indispensable more than ever before. As in the years 1940-45, Europe and other peoples are threatened by a new form of totalitarianism, by barbarians who want to spread hatred and fear, who seek to destroy mutual trust without which no society could thrive.


But commemorations have no meaning unless they repose on education and culture.


Our enemies want to destroy all forms of cultural expression and erase the past.

Memory and cohesion. Vladimir Jankélévitch said: “The dead depend entirely on our loyalty.” It’s a heavy burden for historians and for citizens alike. The politics of memory, supported by nation-States and by local authorities (regions and territorial councils) of the continent, must ensure the transmission of a memory that will further the cohesion of the nations, and, through a history often marked by conflicts, of Europe as a whole.



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