This post was first published a few weeks ago. It is being featured today because of the very interesting comment by Maija Andersone-Spurina from Latvia and to encourage further discussion.  – J.G.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Europe has gone through unprecedented changes. Two decades later, there are still conflicting ideas about what Europe means and who belongs or should belong. Moreover, there still is a long shadow cast by the Holocaust, with distinct differences in how to live under the shadow. While there seems to be a tacit understanding in Western Europe of the importance of the Holocaust in twentieth century Europe, there is a rising focus on national suffering in many east European countries that marginalizes the European genocide. Memory and history are in tension, weakening understanding of national pasts and challenging the connection between the east and the west of Europe, weakening European unity.

In the former Soviet country of Estonia, for example, where I have lived for the past decade, the Holocaust is viewed as marginal to the central narrative of Estonian victimhood at the hands of two occupations: Nazi and Communist. There is a lack of knowledge, coupled with the sense that even if there had been Jews murdered on the territory of Estonia, Estonians had nothing to do with them. The problems of collaboration and anti-Semitism in Estonia are not generally addressed. Instead, the Holocaust is externalized, and treated as a German and Jewish issue that is foreign to Estonian national history. Tony Judt’s distinction between memory and history in his posthumous book, Thinking the Twentieth Century (written with Timothy Snyder) highlights the problem.

I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. (Judt 2012: 277)

Judt’s point is important because when memories of certain key events are lifted out of time, they are all too easily raised to the level of myth. Particularly in narratives of national suffering, there is less room for the suffering of others. As Judt cautions: “Without history, memory is open to abuse. But if history comes first, then memory has a template and a guide against which it can work and be assessed.” (Ibid., 278)

While new monuments and museums to the crimes of National Socialism and Communism indicate a steady interest in representing the past in stone, less emphasis might be placed on the memorization and memorialization of past crimes; and more on a common understanding of the past. As it is now, in the building of monuments to the past, old patterns of intolerance and hostility are still present.

More historical research into both the crimes of Communism and the Holocaust in Europe is needed to provide a balanced understanding of what has happened on the continent since 1933. Indeed, as Tony Judt observed, in his epilogue to Postwar: “Europe might be united, but European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.” (Judt 2005: 826) Given the enormity of Europe’s past, belonging to Europe entails bearing collective responsibility for the history not only of one’s individual nation, but also for Europe as a whole.

11 thoughts on “European Memory vs. European History: A Critical View From Estonia

  1. For the past 10 years I have been studying collective memory in another Baltic state – Latvia. Similarly to Estonia, Holocaust is marginal to the public historical narrative in Latvia, and it is not self explanatory taking into account that Latvia tries (even if often not succeeds) to be as European as possible in all respects.
    There is a difference between private and public recollection of the Holocaust. In private those Latvians who have personally experienced WWII typically remember the local Jews with great warmth and recollect the repressions with great sadness. Many of those who lived in small rural communities had Jewish neighbors. Most of those I have interviewed talk about their neighbors with tears in their eyes. Nevertheless this sadness and compassion most often does not appear the the public recollections of the past. Why?
    The main reason for that, in my opinion, is that the Soviet repressions against the Latvian nation are constructed as central to the Latvian national historical narrative. In foreign affairs one of the main priorities of Latvian nationalists has been to show that Latvian suffering during Soviet occupation has been severe, and to do that they liken it with the Holocaust. Inadvertently in this process, the importance of the Holocaust is undermined, and the whole complicity of this historical event (including the role of Latvians in it) is left undiscussed. It is much easier to argue that Latvians are as much victims as Jews, if the complication relationship between the Latvians and the Jews is left unexplored.
    Despite this overall marginalization of the Holocaust in the public commemorative narrative, in recent years there have been several individual initiatives that have opened a public space for discussion of the Holocaust in Latvia. One was opening of a memorial museum of Zanis Lipke – a Latvian guy who saved lives of many Jews by hiding them in the cellar of his house in Riga. The museum was established by a Latvian businessman, real estate developer, and a former prime-minister Maris Gailis. The house of Zanis Lipke happened to be located in the area he was interested to develop into a luxury residential area. Another one was publication of memoirs of a Jewish-Latvian Holocaust survivor, a well respected cultural publicist in Soviet Latvia. Each of these events did not directly address the Latvian role and responsibility in the events of WWII, but they created a public space where it can be discussed without the unnecessary comparison of the levels of suffering.

      1. Thank you Siobhan and Maija for the post and response. It seems to me, looking closely at the Berlin
        memory scene of the past eight years, that the opening of space to non-hegemonic
        voices does not necessarily rely on historical knowledge, or, for that matter,
        on mature ‘dealing’ with the past in memorial terms. It chiefly consists in
        performing transformation into sadness in invented as well as authentic memorial
        sites. To be sure, such sites must exist in order for such a space to develop,
        like the novels Maija describes, or the long discussion that ‘Gross’s
        ‘Neighbors’ ignited in Poland. However the heart of the matter today, it seems
        to me, is not overcoming some repression, which never really existed (and the
        collapsing divide between local, national and global silences proves this), but
        instead a moral positioning that creates a space for possibilities that look into
        the present and toward the future of a community. Of course, this
        promising venture can prove empty, even when memory rituals aim to acknowledge
        the relations between what happened in ‘the past’ and, say, xenophobia in the

        In this sense, the German case is again telling, as I hope
        to develop further in two weeks’ time, once I have had the occasion to follow
        in real time the culmination of the Berlin 2013 theme year “Destroyed Diversity.” As part of an
        initiative taking part across Germany, Berliners are called to clean
        Stoplersteine and leave candles and flowers by them on November 9. This will
        surely create a space for performing knowledge (perhaps historical, such as the
        Viennese Jews being forced to clean pavements after the annexation); performing
        emotions by making statements about ‘fighting darkness’ as well as the
        experience of catharsis- a kind of “inner cleaning”- that is achieved, say, by
        the press coverage of the fact that a prominent Israeli will be involved in the
        cleaning of the ones by the synagogue in Pestolozzi Strasse (in Charlottenburg,
        a traditionally Jewish neighborhood in west Berlin).

        1. I do not think memory is to “blame” for the silencing of local crimes and collaborations during the Nazi occupation nor that a hierarchical and temporal relations between history and memory are the solution. Memory is selective and constructed in the present, but so is history, as Car (1961) and other historians have pointed out. Neither one is a cure for denial, national ideologies, or distortion, nor provides us with unmediated access to the past (as Nora argues, 1989). Historians have national ideologies and views as well both in Western and Central and Eastern Europe.

          Public memory is indeed shaped by different political interests and ideologies, yet it is also always contested and reconstructed. As Majia pointed out, grassroots initiatives sometimes bring the contested past into public consciousness despite institutional attempts to forget it. Historical research sometimes precedes these memory intiatives but often followes them or takes place at the same time. This has been the case in Poland, where over 500 local memory projects comemorating the pre-war jewish past by non-Jewish polish citizens have been initiated outside state channels in the last decade throughout the country. This is a second-generation of commemoration of the Jewish past outside state channels in Poland, and it is accompanied by a lively journalistic and intellectual public discourse.

          The first generation of Poles who wanted to know more about the Jewish past and Jewish-Polish relations began exploring the issue under Communism in the 1980. After 1989, they could do so more openly and publically. A year and a half after the publication of Polish-American historian Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” in 2000, on the organized massacre or the Jews of Jadwebna by their Polish neighbors under the Nazi occupation, the issue of Jewish-Polish relations exploded into the pubic debate. It has engaged more and more groups and individuals who wished to know more about this silenced past, as well as those opposing such revealations or condemning this publication. The public debate was also radicalized: Nationalist conservatives worried that Poland’s image in the world would be damaged and its own national suffering overlooked, and raged over liberals’ encouragment to airing the nation’s contested past. Along side this debate, both grassroots memory initatives and historical research about Poles’ crimes and pre-war Jewish communities have bloomed, especially in the second half of the decade. These initiatives are presented by their founders as attempts to reclaim the multicultural past of the most homogenious society in the European Union. Presenting a mutiplicity of faiths, ethnicities and intercultural relations that existed before the war is in their minds a preparation for the multicultural future.

          1. Dear Maija, Irit, Jeff and Yifat,

            Thank you very much for your insightful comments on public and private memory, as well as on the rituals of commemoration.

            Last weekend I participated in a seminar on Holocaust memory and the Soviet past: Transitional Remembering in post-Soviet Europe. The seminar was held in Tallinn and we addressed the question of historical comparison.

            In many ways, commemorating the Holocaust has become a ‘model’ for the commemoration of national suffering under communism. The plethora of national museums dedicated to genocide and occupation, in addition to monuments to deportation are all very important. The problem though seems to arise when events are frozen and taken out of historical time. The issues become black and white; victim and perpetrator, while silencing the many shades of grey.

            After the fall of the USSR, national suffering seems to the ‘yardstick’ against which other suffering is measured. In this sense, Michael Rothberg’s book on ‘Multidirectional Memory’ is helpful because he emphasizes that remembering the Holocaust does not exclude empathy for the suffering of others who have suffered under communism or colonialism. Indeed, at last week’s seminar, Rothberg’s book served as a frame for our discussion. We also visited the new monument at the former concentration camp site in Klooga, Estonia. But honestly speaking, who really knows about this monument or former concentration camp on the outskirts of Tallinn?

            There seem to be three narratives for remembering the Holocaust and World War II in Europe and each have distinct differences that are based on historical experience.

            The Western narrative highlights National Socialism as the main evil. The war began on the 1st of September 1939 and ended on the 8th of May 1945. While one might compare Nazism and Communism, the Holocaust is regarded as unique.

            For the Soviet/ Russian narrative, fascism is the main evil. The victimhood of the Russian people is the primary trauma against Nazi/ fascist aggression and invasion. The Red Army soldier is a liberator, not occupier of Europe. The war is the Great Patriotic War, begun on the 22nd of June 1941 and ended on the 9th of May 1945. The years when Stalin was allied with Hitler from 1939 to 1941 are forgotten.

            The post-Communist/ post-Soviet narrative remembers two evils: Communism and Nazism, but Communism is by far the greater evil. National victimhood is the primary trauma that has been silenced by occupation and forgotten by the West during the Cold War. The Holocaust is often viewed as peripheral to the national narrative — as I tried to show in the case of Estonia. Both Nazi and Soviet soldiers are remembered as occupants. Neither the 8th nor the 9th of May ended wartime suffering — occupation only ended with the fall of the USSR.

            If in Western Europe, the Holocaust has been internalized into a narrative about World War II, for both the Soviet/Russian and the post-communist/ post-Soviet narrative, the Holocaust seems to be external to many of their national stories. However, given that most of the concentration and death camps were in Eastern Europe, it is misguided to view the Holocaust as simply a German or Jewish part of history. It can’t really be externalized somewhere else because it is part of European history.

            I completely agree with Yifat that memory is not to ‘blame’ for the silencing of local crimes. However, I wonder whether memorials alone are enough. There does seem to be a ritualized process of remembering and reflecting which is important. But rituals alone are not sufficient. School history books and public discussion are needed so that both the Holocaust and national suffering under Communism can be remembered together.

          2. Siobhan Kattago has raised an important issue
            in which Estonia
            is far from being the only case that may be cited. I agree with her that Tony
            Judt’s idea that memory and history are not the same. Maija Andersone’s response that for
            Estonians, Soviet domination is a more vivid experience than the fate of the
            Jews in much of central and eastern Europe. Of course, their experience might be more vivid if a larger
            proportion of the Jewish populations that had previously inhabited those countries
            had survived and been welcomed back once Hitler’s Totalitarianism was overcome.
            But Irit Dekel is right to challenge the idealized perfection embodied in
            Judt’s presentation of History. Yifat Gutman spells out even more clearly the
            skepticism that academics should retain with respect to their own disciplinary

            Modern history is a discipline that scholars
            like to think embodies objectivity and adherence to Ranke’s injunction to
            present the events of the past AS THEY ACTUALLY WERE. Unfortunately, since
            often they do not attain that ideal, it is important to maintain one’s guard
            against their failings. No country is immune to welcoming what suits dominant
            groups as accurate, while rejecting or strategically ignoring the rest. In
            fact, sometimes “memory” (that is, family or local traditions) may be rejected
            as lacking the validity that the academic discipline claims, and yet be more
            accurate. In the United States, we
            should remind ourselves that it took a very long time for the history of
            slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the totalitarian Jim Crow regime of
            much of the South and some of the North are only one example of the distortions
            of the past in which an important segment of academic historians were complicit.
            It is largely in recent decades that they were more successfully challenged.

            It is indeed encouraging that at both the
            official governmental level and among many members of the public in countries
            like Germany and Poland, and even in Japan, as well, to some extent in Rwanda, there
            are efforts to open up the sensitive subjects of a nation’s past genocidal
            policies and/or the collaboration of their forebears. But we should not ignore the xenophobic trends
            in many of the same countries. Implicit in the analyses of Georg Simmel, and as
            the Norwegian anthropologist, Frederick Barth has argued, the construction of group
            membership – “ours” in contrast to “the others” – underlies the history of
            nationalism wherever it is found. We
            have seen how the evidence of in-group memory may be effectively evoked by ambitious
            politicians, as they were during the collapse of Yugoslavia and elsewhere. The older,
            the better for myth making that may be used to justify discrimination and worse
            against those groups that may be losers. Unless the academic institutions are
            able to maintain their autonomy, and be supported by external bodies of scholars
            who are less dependent upon a particularistic memory of the past, what may
            start as traditional memory may itself be elevated into the status of the
            nation’s History.

          3. Thank you Vera for your insightful post.

            I agree with your emphasis on the democratization of memory from below in opposition to official histories from above. The US is indeed an excellent example of the slow process of democratization with respect to slavery and Manifest Destiny.

            It seems that those scholars, who are interested in memory focus on ways in which the past is remembered, while historians tend to focus on the historical event itself. Both approaches are needed and sometimes overlap.

            One final quick comment with respect to history museums. There seems to be a fascinating merger between the function of history museums and memorials in recent decades that leads to overlaps between memory, history and even myth.

  2. Memory is there to assure that revisionist Historians do not re-write History to satisfy a currnent political agenda! Stalin and Hitler, both totalitarian Dictators, murdered millions of people in the name of Communism and Nazism! That is “History” and the dead are “Memory”!

  3. Why should Estonians commemorate the Holocaust? Were Estonians killed in it? Let Estonians commemorate their own tragedies.

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