Friday 17. September 2021
#219 - October 2018

Shared memory: reflections on the political identity of Europe

The European past is marked by a liability of mutual violence that has yet to be sufficiently discussed. French philosopher Jean-Marc Ferry asserts that part of that past “will not be consigned to the past”.

The significance of European heritage differs depending on whether certain dark aspects are suppressed or whether, on the contrary, there is sufficient discussion of the dark sides of the tradition and of a historic past marked by the destiny of violence, humiliation and injustice – aspects that could be a threat to current relations by loading them with resentment. Recognising this liability means assuming responsibility for the past; and this is what distinguishes reconstructive identity.


Recognition of past faults: a constructive act


There is debate around this subject. People willingly stigmatise the discussion of a past that is painful and not very gratifying for the national memory, and sometimes delight in seeing it as a masochistic act of delectatio morosa, an ambiguous mea culpa or a lack of virility. In so doing, we are psychologising the act of recognising past faults instead of seriously asking ourselves if the European Union could have been constituted in its current form in the absence of such reconstructive acts; if France can exempt itself on a lasting basis by making itself an exception; and if Europe could avoid the reciprocal opening up of historical memories that only these acts can initiate to any degree. But people prefer to say that a critical attitude towards one’s own history weakens a national identity which is already suffering at the hands of a Europe that prefers to forget its history. To counter such prejudice, I would like to argue that an identity is all the stronger if it is capable of making harrowing revisions. By assuming responsibility for the past, by associating reciprocal recognition with a position of recognising the violence that peoples have mutually inflicted on one another, we are engaging in a reconstructive process of reconciliation, imbued with a value that is both moral and political, in particular within the context of the enlargement of the Union.


Practically, recognition of this kind provides a starting point for a shared historical memory, the ethical substance of a post-nationalist political Constitution. For a long time now, we have witnessed a rush to issue official declarations of contrition, from State to State, from people to people. This is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the world. Public recognition of past political errors gives ethical value to the act that, above all else, enables us to engage in the reconstructive process, indeed, to liberate it. The self-reflective relationship of Europeans with their own history and identity conditions their pursuit of democratic integration beyond the limits of their State, in other words expansion on a continental scale of civic solidarity. Its extension has become inseparable from a critical historical awareness that favours the discussion of events which once hindered the process of reciprocal recognition between peoples, increasing distrust.


A new relationship with memory


With regard to the European Union, in terms of relations both between its members and with the rest of the world, a reconstructive process of this kind is far more than merely ornamental. It enables the authenticity of a mutual recognition of the political principles devoted to federalising the nations to be tested. For example, we feel instinctively that there is an internal link between Turkey’s internalisation of the values of a State based on democratic rights and its official recognition of the massacre of the Armenians. Also, the self-critical connection with one’s own past created by the “politics of memory” does not deserve the virulent stigmatisation accorded to it in France regardless of all political trends. In the guise of an honest assessment of oneself, there lies concealed a firm chauvinism closed to the possibility that Europe, throughout its nations, could invest its history with a reflective relationship, one which should put national memories in a position to open up to one another and then instigate a reconstructive process authenticated by public recognition of the acts of violence perpetrated in a past where the resentments that compromise the future are accumulated. This new relationship with memory is the ideal way to liquidate the liabilities of international relations, so that Europe can embark on its new history, where the relations between nations, formerly dominated by fighting to the death, are part of a process that enables reconciliation to prevail.


Prof. Jean-Marc Ferry

Chair of Philosophy of Europe – Alliance Europa


Translated from the original text in French



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


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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.