We Europeans have come a long way. Our memories and our dreams are fragmented, and sometimes contradictory. But in this diversity, there is at least a common denominator: we have conquered murderous dictatorships and ideologies that crushed human identity, blinded people, and manipulated them into an army of clones.
In both East and West, we have experienced war and suffering, but also indifference to crime, the danger of conformism, blindness and opportunism. Without this memory, that of our own fallibility, a democratic and free Europe is in danger.
I am the granddaughter of a German member of the Nazi party and of a French policeman who served under the French Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis. My German grandfather was not an ideological National Socialist – he joined out of opportunism and for convenience. He took advantage of Nazi “Aryanisation” policies to buy a Jewish family business at a low price. My grandmother was not a membre of the party, but she was fascinated by the Führer. They were typical of the Mitläufer: those masses who followed the current, through blinkered vision and small acts of cowardice, helped create the conditions for the Third Reich and other Nations to perpetrate their crimes.
After 1945, Germany’s trickiest task was not setting up new institutions or prosecuting high-profile criminals – it was transforming the mindset of an entire population whose moral standing had been reversed by Nazism in ways that made crime appear not only legal but heroic. My grandparents never acknowledged their responsibilities as Mitläufer. But their son, my father, became part of a generation that confronted its parents and forced Germans to ask themselves: what did I do? What could I have done? What should I have done? How would I act now?
Personal and collective responsibility has become the heart of memory work in West Germany. At the international school where I was in Paris, I was taught by German teachers to identify not only with the victim for exemple by reading Anne Franks dairy but also and this is a the west german specificity with the perpetrator or at least with the Mitläufer – those who go with the flow – to become aware of my own vulnerability, and to get armed against political manipulators.
Later moving from France to Germany, in this country which has gone through the experience of both Nazi and communist ideology, I understood the influence each of us has on the course of history.
Today I feel as if the world that I was born into and grew up in is disintegrating, as if the dreams my parents worked for are slowly dying before my eyes. As if we had forgotten the sacrifices so many did to allow us to live in a peaceful and free EUrope.
To many European countries have missed the opportunity to infuse their citizens with a historical conscience, not in a sense of guilt, but of anchoring a sense of responsibility, indispensable in a democracy.
By making citizens the victims of history instead of empowering them, did they not open the floodgates to populism, as we can see in France, Italy, Austria, the former GDR and in many Eastern European countries? To many countries have hidden behind German guilt to avoid confronting their responsibilities. And it is probably no coincidence that it is in these countries that democracy is most at risk.
Even the Netherlands where memory work is very strong, still hasn’t come to terms with its past as shows the incessant postponement in Amsterdam of the construction of a visible Holocaust memorial or a permanent Holocaust museum and the, for me, incomprehensible refusal of the State to issue an official and clear apology for having failed to prevent the deportation of 75% of the Dutch Jewish community.
Is it a basis of human psychology : without excuse, without the acknowledgment of mistakes, there is no cure, there is no appeasement with the past, with former enemies, or former colonized peoples. The price for not admitting this can be high, as shown by the chaos of Brexit, where nostalgia for the lost British empire has played a role.
Memory is not a burden but a richness. A democracy can only benefit from it if the whole society is capable of reflecting about the past mistakes to strengthen its sense of responsibility and its critical attitude towards political parties who try to manipulate citizens with methods today resembles those of one century ago. to sow fear, to exploit our identity crisis in a globalised world, to spread lies, create confusion with fake news.
But we don’t only learn from negative experience, also positive memory teaches us a lot. Especially younger generations who feel less concerned with the history of fascism need a positive memory. We have to give Europeans a pride in belonging to a continent where two totalitarian systems were ultimately defeated in 1945 and 1989. Where the people built a democratic and free world, through sweat and tears and restored dignity to the citizens. Let us inspire the young people to defend their freedom to choose their identity, and no longer be victims of history.