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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


United Europe, Divided History

Timothy Snyder

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1In this brief comment I would like to address a problem that arises from a juxtaposition of some of the main concepts of the Europe Paper: how to build and maintain a “common European European culture” despite “cultural differences” dating from the Cold War; how to reconcile the project of “expansion” with the deepening of “European solidarity”? The proposal takes the view that solidarity is a matter of moral positions and positive action, rather than simply a question of the correct redistribution of goods. In this spirit, I would like to suggest a problem and an opportunity for Europeans who are concerned with solidarity: the absence of a common historical narrative in Eastern and Western Europe.

2Although it would be difficult to be precise about the connection, it seems clear that the sentiment of European solidarity has grown along with a sense of common European history. In some measure this is the common history of epochs and events that concerned all of Europe, as reflected today for instance in the historical styles represented on European currency. More important, however, is the common history that members of the European Union have made together since the end of the Second World War, since 1945. Although every nation has a different narrative of this common history, it is probably not too grave an error to summarize the postwar West European narrative in the following way: the Second World War taught the lesson that peace must prevail in Europe; European integration promoted both peace and prosperity as well.

3What could possibly be wrong with such an account? As with every historical narrative, the starting point is very important. The starting point of this common European narrative is 1945. 1945 is indeed a moment when lessons were learned, and is surely the right moment to begin the history of Franco-German reconciliation, and then the beginning of the European project. 1945, however, means something entirely different in most of Eastern Europe, for most citizens of the states admitted to the European Union in May 2004. For them, 1945 means a transition from one occupation to another, from Nazi rule to Soviet rule. It is the beginning of two full generations of communist rule, which for most people was no experience of political progress.

4To begin a historical epoch, 1945 also offers Germany (and in some measure Austria, but Germany is most important) itself the opportunity for a fresh historical start. West German (now German) participation in the European project has naturally involved a particular attempt to redeem the nation from the atrocities of the Second World War. This has involved a special relationship with the State of Israel. During the Cold War, this sense of redemption motivated both Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to pursue an Ostpolitik with the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. Now, sixty years later, it may appear to Germans that this work has been, if not finished, at least addressed honorably. Germans, one might believe, have earned the right to treat their history as beginning again in 1945.

5Yet few East Europeans can see the matter in quite the same way. After the Holocaust, the center of Jewish political history is now Israel rather than Eastern Europe, and Germany’s attempts to pursue a correct relationship with Israel (and with other Jewish communities) have little significance in Eastern Europe. Germany’s Ostpolitik was not an attempt to engage East European societies, but rather to improve relations with communist regimes. It addressed itself mainly to the Soviet Union and to East Germany. Whether or not this was a fruitful approach at the time can be debated; in my own view, it was on balance the right policy. But Ostpolitik simply cannot be remembered, in an Eastern Europe liberated of communism, as an especially generous gesture. The very policies that might have persuaded Germans that they were authorized to begin a new historical epoch in 1945 are unconvincing in Eastern Europe.

6Moreover, East Europeans know certain important things about German occupation that have escaped the West European narrative. East Europeans know, for example, that the eastern front was more important than the western front to the outcome of the war. They know that German occupation policies were incomparably more savage in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. They know that the Holocaust does not nearly exhaust the record of German mass murder of civilians. No Pole and no Jew, for example, would confuse the Ghetto Uprising of 1943 with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. This happens routinely in Western Europe. That the French do not know about the Warsaw Uprising suggests a certain limit to their interest in opposition to Nazi occupation. That Germans have not heard about the Warsaw Uprising means that they are unaware that German forces killed tens of thousands of civilians, and then burned a neighboring European capital to the ground.

7German historians and German elites know these things, of course. The problem is rather one of general public education. So long as the West European narrative of history remains unamended, the West European public will have difficulty understanding the actions of East Europeans. For example, the Polish choice to join in the occupation of Iraq (which most of us, including the vast majority of the Polish population, probably agree was a mistake) cannot be understood without some sense of postwar Polish history. The communist experience left Poles sympathetic to American arguments about liberation. Likewise, Polish resistance to a museum for German expellees is grounded in historical experience.

8In both cases, the absence of a common European historical narrative, embracing both East and West, leads to failures of understanding and solidarity. German and French reactions to Poland’s policy in Iraq generally referred to a mindless and reflexive pro-Americanism. In fact, this trust in America grew, understandably, from the Polish experience of the Cold War. One sometimes hears from Germans (including German academics) that Poles are unable to discuss the expulsion of Germans because of a kind of national taboo. Polish objections to an expellee museum in Germany are even characterized as Polish nationalism. In fact, Poles are afraid that Germans do not understand just how widespread expulsions were during the Nazi occupation and the two Soviet occupations. Poles also believe that Germans have not yet come to terms with the totality of events before 1945 that preceded the expulsions thereafter.

9The future of European solidarity, in other words, depends on a rethinking of the immediate European past. Without historical knowledge of the East, European mass publics will be swayed by simple arguments flowing from national prejudice. European leaders, whether they know the facts or not, will be tempted to resort to such arguments in a whirl of domestic political competition. Moreover, it will be very hard for East Europeans to believe that they are full partners in Europe so long as their experiences in the second half of the twentieth century are not part of a larger European story. These experiences are sufficiently similar (within Eastern Europe) and sufficiently different (from Western Europe) that the May 2004 enlargement poses a new kind of challenge.

10Europeans must find a way to rewrite the larger narrative so as to include both East and West. This requires a confrontation with two basic matters of the recent European past: that the center of the suffering Second World War was in the East rather than the West, and that East Europeans had to experience communist subjugation for four decades rather than European integration. It should be simple, one might think, to accept the full historical force of Nazi and Soviet terror. The European Union, after all, is built upon the premise that totalitarianism must never return. Yet in practice this requires some humility. One often hears the argument, nowadays, that Americans can learn about total war and political terror from Europeans, because they experienced the horrors of twentieth century. This is true. By the same token, West Europeans have much to learn from East Europeans.


Timothy Snyder is Associate Professor of East European history at Yale University. He is recently author of The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999, Yale UP, 2002. In 2004–05 he was Visiting Fellow of the IWM, working on an East European history after 1948 with the tentative title Brotherland.

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