Sunday 26. September 2021
#218 - September 2018

Controversy surrounding the House of European History

The House of European History was opened in May 2017 in Leopold Park in Brussels, not far from the EU institutions. It was almost immediately beset by a serious controversy concerning its concept and content policies.

According to a well-known dictum, history is written by the victors. After centuries of fighting murderous wars in Europe, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to write a “European history”. And yet, with the founding of the European Union, Europe has written a new chapter of world history. A whole continent has overcome a series of “traditional enmities” and divisions to find unity, without deleting the chapters of suffering that form part of that history. Old ghosts repeatedly flicker into being and the events of the past are misused as inappropriate instruments. For this reason, Jan Tombinski, writing in the May issue of EuropeInfos, pleaded for a culture of remembrance in Europe to ensure that our shared future is not jeopardised.


The House of European History was created as a location for such a culture of remembrance. The intention is “to contribute to a better understanding of the shared past and diverse experiences of European people” – not to set out the individual national histories, but to bring together the various experiences of individual countries and peoples, and compare them with one another. The permanent exhibition covers pan-European phenomena and focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries, while themed temporary exhibitions examine specific aspects of European history. Visitors will be particularly moved by the displays showing the devastation in the wake of the two World Wars. A film sequence first shows the dropping of bombs from planes, then shifts its perspective to the destruction in the cities.


Protests against the House’s portrayal of history


The museum soon became a source of controversy. Paweł Ukielski, Deputy Director of the Warsaw Rising Museum and member of the Executive Board of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, published an extremely critical article on the House of European History in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 6 November 2017. In addition to pointing out a number of factual errors, his main criticism was that far too little attention was given to Europe’s Christian roots. Similar arguments were put forward by Polish Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski in a letter sent in September to the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, protesting against the version of history presented by the House.


Paul Ingendaay, Europe correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung responded to Paweł Ukielski, indicating that the majority of his attacks could be refuted by an attentive visit to the museum, and that some of his accusations were untrue. To Ingendaay, the subtext of the accusations was to promote the representation of a genuinely different European identity: “Christian, nationalistic, anti-Communist”. He believes this is understandable from a Polish point of view but does not ring true with the intention of the House.


A conversation with the museum’s manager


How does the House of European History itself respond to these accusations? Its manager, a German woman called Constanze Itzel, is pleased to talk to EuropeInfos. In her art history dissertation, she examined the 15th century theological iconoclastic debate, and is therefore fully conversant with the significance of Christian influence on European culture. While stating that there has been absolutely no intention to negate the Christian heritage of Europe, she underlines the political independence of the House and refers to the museum guide which, when talking about European heritage, expressly refers to Christianity as a fundamental aspect of “Western civilisation”: “European values, traditions and cultures are still rooted in this Christian heritage to this day.” So would it not be appropriate to recognise this by appointing a church historian to the museum’s Academic Committee?


Constanze Itzel willingly concedes that some things could have been done differently. For example, the reference in the permanent exhibition to the Sinti and Roma peoples in the Holocaust during the Second World War is too brief. The Communist era in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe following the Second World War could have been portrayed in an even more critical light. An evaluation process is already under way. Itzel states that she is open to a podium discussion in which the various opinions on the House can be talked about openly. Just as, in a balanced approach to European history, there is no alternative to dialogue.


Martin Maier SJ



Translated from the original text in German

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Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.