The network EURHISTXX, involving a dozen institutions, was created several years ago, during the discussions of the European Framework Program # 6 (FP6). Recently, this network has been recognized as a « Groupe de recherche européen » by the CNRS. The initial idea and the ongoing major challenge for EurhistXX is the Europeanization of contemporary histories. In the view of the members of this network, historians, and mainly contemporary historians, often remain caught either in historiographical traditions stressing a national singularity, or in a teleological history of Europe and the European Union, seen more or less as a transnational variant of traditional nation-state building. By contrast, EurhistXX intends to focus on the history of Europe, and on global history in a critical way that emphasizes the ambivalences and contradictory experiences of Europeans in the past. That is why divisive and contentious developments such as war, genocide, revolution, and their contrasting memorialization will be taken as seriously as the consensual aspects of a shared history, such as political and economic integration, cultural transfers, and the growing consciousness of a European identity.
In this perspective, we intend to identify issues which are still divide perceptions of the recent past between the East and the West, the North and the South : the different experiences of the two world wars and their aftermath, the question of decolonization, the experience of Communism and of Soviet rule are among the main topics on the EurhistXX agenda. EurhistXX is less a network on European history than a network of European historians who want to share their different experiences in coping with ‘hot’ historical topics.
The topic we have chosen to deal with today is precisely a hot topic, to say the least. Firstly, it deals with the aftermath of the Cold War. Two years ago, EurhistXX began a general research framework focusing on the three major postwar periods of the 20th Century : 1918, 1945 and 1989-1991. Secondly, regarding our question about « Europeanization », the legacy, the memory, the meaning of Communism profoundly divides European countries. There is a kind of a consensus about the memory of the Holocaust, even in countries that did not really suffer from it, but there is no consensus at all regarding the victims of Communism (as we saw recently when the European Council failed to establish a specific means of commemorating them). Thirdly – but speaking as a non-specialist – I am not sure that we can identify a historiographical trend dealing with the memory of Communism. Of course, there are books on these issues, there are works on the difficulties of coping with the recent past, especially in Eastern Europe. But it is hardly comparable to what happened in the field of the Holocaust or the two world wars, where memory has become a real subfield. For example, as far as I know, there is not a single book on the memory of Communism – not the memory of Communists – in France.
What does it mean to work on memory today, after the « memory boom » of the last two decades ? It could be to identify hic et nunc the narratives over the past, to analyze the public policies of the past, or their absence, to observe the social and cultural presence of the past in a given society, regarding a specific historical event, at a specific moment, to emphasize the battles over the past between different kinds of actors, different kinds of interpretations. Actually, we have to take into account all these different components if we want to understand the legacy of the communist past. But in my own opinion, having worked for a long time on these issues, there is probably something new, compared to the situation in the 80’s and 90’s dealing with the memory of wars, genocides, colonialism. Twenty-five years ago, the politics of memory was located in very specific areas : veterans’ associations, victims’ associations claiming in the wilderness, debates over the building of a monument or the establishment of a new public commemoration ; but most of the protagonists didn’t claim at that time that memory had a special value. The need to remember was not so strongly opposed to the necessity of oblivion as it is today, and most of the problems raised came from the contents, the political meaning of a new commemoration or a new monument. Today, memory has become a major social, political and cultural issue all over the world, both at a national and an international level. It is today a central component of human rights, and the modern democracies have included in their behavior the need to remember the crimes of the past (even those committed by others), the victims’ need for recognition, the need for some kind of reparation—either a financial one, or a political or a judicial one, or both. When a State refuses such policies, for bad or good reasons, when it wants to ignore, to minimize, even to deny them, it can’t do so without many reactions at home or abroad. If coping with the past means public policies, not to cope with it is a political choice and a public policy as well.
I shall eventually raise some last questions about « Communism » in this perspective. Historians can not deal with the memory of communism as they did it with the memory of the Holocaust : communism is a very diverse, world-wide phenomenon ; it is not a closed event but a long process ; and moreover, this process is not only « history » : it is alive. How to deal with the memory of something which is not over ? Analyzing the legacy and memory of communism means identifying its political consequences, and observing its survival, its traces in political traditions, whether or not they openly claim their link with the old communism. It means, moreover, raising the question of the tremendous mass crimes committed by the communist regimes, and supported loudly or silently by many parties and organizations all over the world for almost a century. These crimes – at least I raise the question today after other historians – were underestimated before 1989-1991. Recently, at an international conference organized by the École des Hautes études en sciences sociales and the Institut d’histoire du temps présent on the Great Terror, Arsenij Roginskij of the Association « Memorial » noted that Stalin’s crimes have not yet been perceived as a universal tragedy, not even as a European tragedy. Does the Russian state itself pay enough attention to this problem? Even that is uncertain.
Nevertheless, at this point, historians seem to face a dilemma : on the one hand, they have to analyze the tremendous crimes committed by the communist regimes or in the name of this utopia, they have to produce credible tolls of victims, even to try to find the names of all the victims. On the other hand, for intellectual and scientific reasons, they can not reduce the history of communism to the memory of its crimes – one of the major critiques addressed to the Black Book of Communism, ten years ago, which despite some controversial statements was actually one of the first attempts to deal clearly with this problem. If I may say it in a naive way : what might be « the right place » for communism in the history and memory of the 20th century ? Why is it still difficult to compare, or simply to make analogies, between the memory of communism and the memory of other totalitarian experiences, mainly fascism and Nazism ? Are there scientific obstacles or are we in the register of ideology ? This an old but still relevant problem.
This workshop intends to start a discussion involving the communist experience in both parts of Europe, even if there are obviously tremendous differences between the « socialisme réel » and its Western version, mainly in France and Italy. It wishes, also, to launch a discussion between specialists of communism and non-specialists about the way to integrate this history into the general framework of the history of 20th century, as has been the case for the memory of the Holocaust – which nobody can pretend today is just a « German » or, worse, « Jewish » issue.