Memory Control
No. 3 2016 July/September
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics
Research Director;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


ORCID: 0000-0001-8139-0976
ResearcherID: Z-1451-2019
Scopus AuthorID: 56321369000


E-mail: [email protected]
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Historical Policy in Post-Communist Europe

The article was originally published in Russian in Politeia, No. 1 (80), 2016.

The world order established in Yalta and Potsdam is gone. We are witnessing global changes that are clearly fundamental but hard to predict. Political transformations are accompanied by major shifts in collective memory. While after World War II most Frenchmen and Germans thought that the Red Army had played the main role in defeating the Nazis, now many of them believe it was the United States. The most pompous parade marking the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II took place in 2015 in Beijing, not in Moscow. Conflicts over the interpretation of the past have become so acute worldwide that a new term, ‘memory wars,’ has come into use.  

In the post-war period, processes in non-communist “Western” and communist “Eastern” Europe were isolated from each other, and this was one of the key factors of historical policy. In the 1960s-1990s, Western European countries gradually came to consensus over the past, which was based on the recognition of the Holocaust as the central—and unique—event of the 20th century. This consensus was intended to emphasize the common responsibility of all Europeans for the dark chapters in their past. It was a long and hard way to go. When in 1970 German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt before the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, he was criticized. In the 1980s, Austria split over the Kurt Waldheim case which marked a transition from describing Austria solely as a victim of Hitler’s aggression to discussing its responsibility for Nazi crimes. France had its “moment of truth” in 1995 when President Jacques Chirac, addressing the audience at the Vélodrome d’Hiver Stadium, spoke of his country’s responsibility for the deportation of Jews to extermination camps during the Holocaust (the Velodrome d’Hiver was the place where a majority of the victims were held after the July 16-17, 1942 roundup of Jews in Paris). The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman and built near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, became the apotheosis of this trend.

Of course, own sufferings of Western Europeans occupied a significant part of their collective memory, but admission of responsibility for the dark days of their past was selective. In fact, one can hardly see as much unanimity among Europeans on their role in colonialism and slave trade as they showed with regard to the Holocaust.

And yet the Holocaust consensus was very important for keeping this part of Europe clear of any national historical narrative where the titular nation would be the main victim. It made it impossible to demand preferences by citing past sufferings. The focus was on Europe’s own responsibility and measures that had to be taken in order to avoid new crimes similar to the Holocaust.

In part, the “old” EU countries could reach this consensus because of their political and economic successes in the closing decades of the 20th century. When their future seemed cloudless and the European Union’s global leadership indisputable, Europeans could easily admit the need to repent for their past sins.


After the collapse of socialism, Eastern European countries could build their narratives as they saw fit. The GDR was the only exception as it was absorbed by the Federative Republic of Germany and had to adopt its narrative. Almost all history teachers in the former GDR were dismissed, and the concept that blamed Nazi crimes on capitalism and declared communists the main victims of the Nazi regime was buried in oblivion.

It is important to remember that the majority of Eastern European Jews were not killed by Zyklon B at the extermination camps but were shot dead in ditches, beaten to death in the street or burned alive. Local residents were actively involved in these executions and sometimes carried them out on their own without the Nazis.

However, these facts are not the principal part of the new historical narratives created in the post-communist countries. Instead, they portray the titular nation as the main victim, placing emphasis on its suffering under the communist oppression imposed by Moscow. Yevgeny Finkel has put it this way: former communist countries are in “search of lost genocide.” In fact, if you enter the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, do not expect to see any exhibits telling of the Holocaust (even though there is much to be told about the Holocaust in Lithuania). Instead, it highlights the Lithuanian genocide during the Soviet occupation. This scheme is also used by the “occupation museums” in other Baltic republics which claim that their titular nations (Estonians and Latvians) were the victims of genocide. The Lontsky Street Prison Memorial Museum in Lwow makes no mention of the fact that this is where a massive pogrom of Jews started, subsequently taking thousands of their lives in July 1941. The House of Terror in Budapest has its biggest room devoted entirely to GULAG, paying only marginal attention to the Holocaust.

In addition to museums, Eastern European countries have created a number of other structures that are in stark contrast to Western European ones. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance (INR) is a good example. It was created in 1998 on the basis of the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, the very name of which clearly points to its main purpose. It is generally believed that it was modeled on the German commission headed by Joachim Gauck, which was tasked with keeping the former GDR’s Stasi records and making them available to researchers and general public. However, there is little similarity between the two. Apart from overseeing security services’ archives, the INR also investigates communist crimes (and has 26 prosecutors to do the job) and conducts lustration reviews (since 2006). Historians from INR research departments have the status of civil servants and get much higher salaries than their colleagues in the Academy of Sciences or universities. The INR is a key player on the market of specialized and popular printed material on history with more than 600 volumes of documents and three magazines published under its supervision. This largely explains why it is so difficult for “outsiders” to get access to the archives overseen by the INR. Its employees simply view them as unwanted competitors.

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party won legislative elections and got full control of the parliament and government, thus giving the INR a chance to fulfill its Orwell potential. “Our sacrificial nation is portrayed [by opponents] as a nation of criminals, and we need to go on the offensive in historical policy in order to fight back these malicious attacks,” said historian Jan Zaryn, who has recently been elected to the Polish Senate. His view is shared by historian Andrzej Nowak, the newly appointed historical policy adviser to the president.    

The term ‘historical policy’ got firmly established in the Polish discourse in 2004 when several intellectuals called for working out and actively advancing a patriotic “historical policy.” Borrowed from the German language, this term has not only lost the negative connotation it originally had in Germany from the 1980s, but it has also become the banner for an aggressive-instrumental approach to the past. Like in many post-communist countries, in Poland the past has become a weapon to fight with on the domestic and international political fronts. The term ‘historical policy’ now used in Eastern Europe in most cases conveys the Polish interpretation. 

The Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR) was founded by a government resolution of May 31, 2006 to make suggestions on how to “restore unbiased and fair history of the Ukrainian people” and “promote the antiquity of the Ukrainian nation and its language” as well as determine “areas and methods for restoring historical truth and justice in studying the history of Ukraine.” It is quite logical that a leading role in the Institute has been played since its foundation by Vladimir Vyatrovich, who became known in 2006 after the publication of his book, in which he claimed that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) had saved Jews from the Nazis during the war. His other book was equally controversial as it attempted to prove that the massacre of Poles by UPA in Volhynia was part of “the second Polish-Ukrainian war of 1942-1947” where Ukrainians were victims rather than the perpetrators. 

In 2014, Vyatrovich, appointed UINR director, drafted four new laws intended to regulate the historical policy in Ukraine. In April 2015, these laws were hastily pushed through the parliament.

In 2008, Western European historians and some of their colleagues from post-communist countries issued an appeal saying:

“History must not be a slave to contemporary politics nor can it be written on the command of competing memoir writers. In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions.

“We call on historians to marshal their forces within each of their countries and to create structures similar to our own, and, for the time being, to individually sign the present appeal, to put a stop to this movement towards laws aimed at controlling history memory.

“We ask government authorities to recognize that, while they are responsible for the maintenance of the collective memory, they must not establish, by law and for the past, an official truth whose legal application can carry serious consequences for the profession of history and for intellectual liberty in general.

“In a democracy, liberty for history is liberty for all.”

Known as Appel de Blois, it came as a response to the inclination of Western European parliaments to give legislative interpretations of historical events. This practice was started by the Gayssot Law adopted in France in 1990, which introduced criminal penalty for negation of crimes against humanity imputed to Nazi officials at the Nuremberg trials, primarily the Holocaust. While Western Europe realized the danger posed by such laws (as borne out by Appel de Blois), all Eastern European countries passed their own “memory laws” and only one of them, adopted in Romania, prohibited the glorification of Romanian WWII criminals. The rest shamelessly use the Gayssot Law to justify numerous acts that criminalize not the denial of crimes committed by their nationals but objections to certain interpretations of their sufferings.

In many post-communist countries some of those who fought against the communist regime had been involved in the Holocaust and mass killings of people belonging to other ethnic groups. However, this is not an obstacle to eulogizing them as new national heroes. For example, Ukraine has erected dozens of monuments to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. In November of last year, the municipal authorities in Uman, the main pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews, allowed the unveiling of a monument to 18th century Cossack rebellion leaders Ivan Gonta and Maksym Zalizniak, who became infamous for the so-called massacre of Uman during which thousands of Jews were killed.   

Over the entire period of its independence Ukraine has been a battlefield in the “war of monuments” involving representatives of different political trends. It reached its peak in 2014 when monuments to Vladimir Lenin were demolished countrywide. The first monument was torn down by supporters of the Svoboda (Freedom) Party in Kiev in December 2013. Inspired by their success, they marched along the streets of Kiev on January 1, 2014 in a torch rally, bringing together more than 10,000 people. These events marked a fundamental change in the nature of Maidan protests, making it practically impossible to speak in public without shouting the slogan taken from the Bandera movement: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” And although Maidan protesters made attempts to “reset” the meaning of this slogan, radical neo-Nazi nationalism clearly won the battle for the symbolic nature of the movement.

Confrontation over monuments is engulfing other Eastern European countries too. In 2012, a monument to Latvian SS battalions was unveiled in Bauska. In Estonia, a monument to an Estonian soldier wearing a Waffen-SS helmet was erected and removed three times in 2002, 2004, and 2005. It was last removed at night as the authorities rightfully thought that their decision would hardly be welcomed by people. They explained the removal by considerations of national security (apparently, at the strong insistence of EU officials). At the same time, in 2007 Estonian authorities initiated the relocation of the monument to Soviet soldiers who had died during the liberation of Tallinn in 1944. The decision spurred mass protests among Russian-speaking residents of the country.     

The “export of guilt” has swept the entire Eastern Europe, standing in glaring contrast to the previous European memory culture which gradually taught people to think of their own responsibility. Even in Hungary, which was an official Nazi ally, a stone statue of an angel, a symbol of Hungary, unveiled in 2014, stands at the edge of Budapest’s Freedom Square looking innocent while an eagle, obviously crafted to depict predatory Germany, dives towards him with extended claws.


Over the past twenty-five years hitherto isolated memory cultures of Western and Eastern Europe have begun to interact. Eastern Europe’s historical policy, which focused on the suffering of its own people, confronted the West with reproaches for betraying small nations “kidnapped” by communist Moscow. This motive was clearly stated in the late 1970s by Milan Kundera in his essay A Kidnapped West, where he told the American and Western European public about the Central Europe concept.

After regaining independence from Moscow, Eastern European elites sought—quite rationally (in political terms)—to prevent a new deal between leading Western countries and Russia that could harm their own interests. They tried hard to raise the cost of such a deal for Western European leaders by pursuing a certain historical policy and forging alliances with various political forces in the EU. This policy, which was carried out most persistently by the Baltic States, was supported by well-known maverick presidents Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel as well as Western European politicians and public figures from among former Maoists and Trotskyites who were drifting towards the right end of the political spectrum, ranging from the foreign ministers of key EU countries, including Joschka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner, to intellectuals such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Andre Glucksmann. 

Western Europe’s memory culture in the 1990s reflected the confidence of the “old” EU countries in their own success and the growing influence of the European Union. This world outlook made it quite easy for them to focus on rethinking their own sins. Portraying oneself as a victim was not popular in those societies. But the situation was different in the east of Europe. Existential fears haunted Eastern European elites throughout the 20th century, and their admission to NATO and the EU made little difference. On the contrary, in the early 2000s in the wake of the split between Washington, on the one hand, and Berlin and Paris, on the other, over the Iraq crisis, new NATO members experienced an acute feeling of “ontological concern.” 

Russia as a source of threat became a key element of new narratives. This topic is deeply rooted in the European tradition. Iver Neumann believes that the perception of Russia as a “barbarian at the gate” has dominated the European thought for the last three centuries, occasionally yielding to the view of Russia as “an eternal apprentice” (but most often the two perceptions blended). Key elements of this discourse changed very little after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “There is no use talking about the end of an East/West divide in European history after the end of the Cold War. The question is not whether the East will be used in the forging of new European identities, but how this is being done,” Neumann rightfully pointed out in 1999.

In the 21st century, the interaction of the Western and Eastern European memory cultures has led to a radical transformation of the European historical policy as a whole. The Eastern European model, which focused on the suffering of its nations and the existential threat has prevailed over the Western European one dominated by the feeling of one’s own guilt and responsibility. In part, this happened because Western European elites for various reasons did not consider it necessary to stand up to new EU members over historical policy issues. Another reason is that self-confidence and faith in the success of the EU as an integration project have been shaken in the “old Europe” over the past ten years. As a result, Eastern Europe’s collective memory and identity-building mechanisms have prevailed in Western Europe’s understanding of the growing tensions between Russia and its neighbors.

In 2009, the EU’s new approaches to the past culminated in the European Parliament’s resolution that proclaimed August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes. True, the initial focus on two totalitarian regimes and their acts of genocides was slightly toned down in the European Parliament’s resolution as Western European countries insisted that, first, the document acknowledge the unique nature of the Holocaust and, second, and this is very important, that both totalitarian (Nazism and Communism) and authoritarian regimes be treated as criminal. But the tendency was set and three months later it was followed up in the Vilnius Declaration of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which did not mention authoritarian regimes but focused entirely on the condemnation of totalitarian regimes. These documents do not equate Communism to Nazism, but this parallel is clearly implied in the Eastern European historical policy since the abovementioned documents do not expressly forbid such interpretation.    

In this new coordinate system Eastern Europe may as well claim a leading role since it knows about the “sufferings” and “the barbarian at the gate” much more than Western Europe and keeps reminding it who the main victim is and who “owes” whom in the EU.

The campaign to promote Timothy Snyder’s two latest books Bloodlands and Black Earth is an excellent example of how this approach is intentionally inculcated into the minds of Europeans. Both books received negative response from professional historians. They believe the books contain no new facts but brim with factual mistakes and biased interpretations. However, they got positive coverage in mass media which portray Snyder as a guru, even though his professional reputation has been tarnished. But this is his choice. What is important about these two books is their underlying motive—only two totalitarian regimes, and no one else, are fully responsible for all the horrors that occurred between the wars and during World War II. To substantiate his postulate, Snyder manipulates numerous facts. For example, he claims that the Holocaust happened across Eastern Europe by the same scenario even though he is well aware of Jeffrey Kopstein’s work which convincingly proves otherwise. In his book about the participation of the local population in the extermination of Jews in 1941-1942, which is based on the analysis of events in several hundred cities and towns, Kopstein shows that all the places where Jews were killed on the initiative of their neighbors are located west of the Soviet Union’s border that existed in 1939. But neither the facts cited by Kopstein nor his explanations interest Snyder, because they disagree with his position.

As the abovementioned tendency gains momentum, one cannot help wondering if the European historical policy focusing entirely on the issue of totalitarianism is ready to sacrifice the main achievement of the previous period, that is, the feeling of common responsibility. The striking difference in the attitude towards refugees in the western and eastern parts of the EU prompts a firm conclusion that different memory cultures are one of the key reasons for this divergence. Eastern Europe’s reaction clearly reveals its unwillingness to give up the role of the main victim (with all the dividends it is entitled to) and deeply rooted existential nationalist fears. In Western Europe, collective memory of common responsibility for the Holocaust makes people treat the issue of refugees differently. In Germany, many view them as a chance for some sort of “redemption.” 

Naturally, collective memory covers a much wider range of political differences in the east and west of the EU. The perception of democracy as unconditional dominance of the majority, as in Orban’s Hungary five years ago and in Poland after the victory of the Law and Justice Party in 2015, is largely rooted in the national historical narratives that originated in Eastern Europe.  

How could it happen that the notion of Geschichtspolitik, coined for discussing certain techniques for politicizing history, was revived with a positive meaning as an ideology which glorifies one’s own past as the main method of building identity and which claims that discussing one’s own nation’s sins is tantamount to aiding the enemy? How could polityka historyczna turn into an ideological standard for historical policy in Eastern Europe?

Manipulative use of history becomes one of the central issues in today’s political language. When the Nord Stream gas pipeline is described as a new Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Putin is portrayed as the Hitler of the 21st century, this devalues people’ memory and paralyzes their ability to conduct a substantive political discussion, thus providing a powerful instrument for propaganda and indoctrination.

We are in a situation where historians’ discourse is guided by the logic of political negotiations rather than academic rules. An academic discussion is essentially a dialogue where one should present his arguments and substantiate them in order to be understood. On the contrary, the purpose of political negotiations is to achieve an advantageous position and realize one’s own political interests. Presentation of arguments will only spoil things in this case.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the EU’s massive eastward expansion, the magazine Transit asked intellectuals in different countries if they thought that consensus about the past could provide the basis for the consolidation of the rapidly enlarging European Union. I was the only respondent who was unambiguously skeptical about this. Today it has become quite obvious that the historical memory policy and, in broader terms, memory culture are not the glue but a dissolvent that erodes the EU’s integrity.

*   *   *

I intentionally did not touch on Russia and its historical policy in this article. First of all, Russia is not Europe, meaning that no one in our country believes any longer that it can become integrated into European structures in the foreseeable future or pursue a policy based on such hopes. This is our fundamental difference from all the countries that lie between Russia and the EU.

Another important difference is that Russia does not build its identity as a victimized nation, which is good. But instead, our historical conscience and memory policy are underlain by a besieged fortress mentality, which is not so good.

Second, the question of how the evolution of the historical policy in Europe impacts Russia’s practices deserves to be discussed separately. Certain forms, methods and sometimes rhetoric techniques have been borrowed. Our historical policy has many elements that can be found in Eastern Europe. In 2014, the Duma passed the Yarovaya Law, which contains all the negative aspects of Eastern European memory laws. Like Eastern European countries, we have “securitized” our historical memory, that is, we look at discussions on history and collective identity through the lens of national security threats. Russian authorities openly interfere in the teaching of history, giving it an ideological slant. There is a network of organizations in the country which are formally independent from the government but which actually pursue its historical policy.   

And yet, Russia’s approaches towards the historical policy may be quite creative. The Immortal Regiment and the St. George ribbon are perhaps the most vivid and successful examples. They sprang up as public initiatives but unfortunately are falling into the stifling grip of the government authorities now. 

In 2014-2015, several public associations (including the Free Historical Society) were set up and initiatives were launched, which has proved the ability of professional historians to organize and oppose negative tendencies in historical policy. The program commemorating the victims of political repressions, sent into oblivion in 2014, seemed to have partly revived in 2015. 

At any rate, in order to analyze all these contradictory tendencies, it is important to understand the processes that are taking place in Europe’s historical policy and cherish no illusions.