How do societies form collective memory around historical events?

For Europe, the end of World War II and the Nazi regime marked a new beginning: a period of remembrance. To move forward, European countries vowed to candidly look back on this grim period. From policies to education, they eventually committed to remembering the war, generation after generation, and to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

“Now, there’s a backlash against what is seen as too contrite or maybe even too pluralistic memory where different groups can see themselves in history,” said Jennifer Yoder, the Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies. “Some of these memory challengers would like to have a more unified, more heroic memory.”

An expert on German and European politics, including memory politics, she has been examining how societies shape collective memory around historical events. Before the pandemic, she visited remembrance sites in Europe and interviewed locals. Now, she’s continuing to read the news, study speeches from leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as keep a close eye on the literature.

And in Europe’s reckoning, she noticed a change in the last decade. With a surge in support, right-wing actors in both Eastern and Western Europe have shown a growing desire to revise collective memory around World War II.

Their purpose? To strengthen their nationalistic agendas.

“Nationalist, populist, right-wing actors, parties, and leaders are basically denying or fabricating information about things that happened in World War II to push back on what they see as too much reckoning with the past,” she said. “They want to return to the days when it was all positive, positive, positive.” The memory pendulum has even been swinging toward that new direction in Germany, a country Yoder noted had made so much progress in reckoning with its difficult past.

Driven by post-war treaties, Germany endured denazification, demilitarization, and reeducation. Taking a top-down approach, the government made a concerted effort to include World War II and Holocaust education in the school curriculum. It created museums, memorials, and monuments for the public to learn from history as well as to question and reflect on it. Public television and radio networks aired documentaries and talk shows raising awareness.

“That really pushed, I think, the larger society to reflect and then eventually to feel very strongly about how truthfully looking at the past is an important part of German identity,” she said. Longtime Chancellor Merkel, whose term ends in fall 2021, has also been publicly emphasizing the importance of learning from and taking responsibility for the past, Yoder stressed. “They [Germans] were seeing their role in the world as a country that was contrite, that accepted responsibility and learned those lessons to project a different kind of power, a different kind of presence in the world.”

But that narrative has been contested recently.

“If we are to embrace the good things, the good symbols [from the past], we also need to at least be aware of and not deny that alongside those positive things are also some darker periods.” —Jennifer Yoder, Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies

 

Frauke Petry, Chairwoman of the AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland, or Alternative for Germany) political party, speaks to supporters at an AfD rally on October 29, 2015 in Dessau, Germany.

Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) political party, speaks to supporters at an AfD rally on Oct. 29, 2015, in Dessau, Germany. The AfD, which saw its popularity swing upward as Germany grapples with a flood of migrants, campaigned in local elections in Saxony-Anhalt in 2016. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

 

Conservative and right-wing parties, historians, and think-tanks have called for Germany to make amends and move on like any other country. When the nationalist right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag (the federal parliament) as the largest opposition, these views found a platform at a national level.

AfD’s leaders have been pushing back against World War II memory, said Yoder. One of their politicians, for example, called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial the “monument of shame.”

“They would basically like to edit out the 12 years of national socialism [under the Nazi regime],” she explained. What do they want to focus on? Either the early German history featuring Martin Luther or Frederick the Great, or the post-war era highlighting Germany’s economic miracle of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

While right-wing actors in Germany and other Western European countries oppose political correctness that they believe involves too much apologizing, Eastern European countries began to question their World War II memories in another way.

Post-communist East European countries, Yoder explained, are just beginning to debate World War II memory publicly and in their educational systems. Right-wing actors are advocating that the Stalinist era should be at the forefront of their World War II remembrance, rather than the Holocaust.

“There’s this strategy of trying to create equivalence between the communist dictatorships and the Nazi dictatorship or fascist dictatorships,” she said. This thinking introduces a competition of victimhood and has become a source of tension between Eastern and Western Europe. “That’s probably not a healthy thing for new democracies to want to win the race of victimhood,” she said, “instead of really thinking about how complicated things were.”

Complicated episodes from history also reach the other side of the ocean in the United States.

“It’s really interesting that the United States has for so long been comfortable with a certain narrative,” said Yoder, referring to U.S. history, including slavery, treatment of indigenous people, and racial segregation. But lately, that narrative has been shifting. She pointed to movements like Black Lives Matter, renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, discussions on replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, or removal of Confederate memorials—an act that had a ripple effect in Europe for statues of King Leopold II.

Whether it’s colonialism, slavery, genocide, or other wars, most countries have difficult times and atrocities to look back on, unpack, and remember so that they, too, don’t repeat them in the future.

“If we are to embrace the good things, the good symbols [from the past],” Yoder said, “we also need to at least be aware of and not deny that alongside those positive things are also some darker periods.”