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Sharing memories for a stronger Europe

In Culture
Written by  Jolien Linssen Thursday, 05 February 2015 11:14

On 12 September 1944 the first Allied troops set foot on Dutch soil, in the village of Mesch, near Maastricht. Their arrival marks the start of the liberation of the Netherlands and paves the way for the freedom that we enjoy today. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, this freedom could easily be taken for granted. But this is not the only good reason to commemorate the past: it may even help to create a stronger sense of European identity. 

“I’ve always viewed those days with great curiosity”, says Aline Sierp, referring to 4 and 5 May in the Netherlands. Herself German, Sierp is assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She has spent the last few years studying memory cultures in different European countries, focusing on the Second World War.

“Your country is the only one in Europe that has two separate, consecutive days to commemorate its war victims and celebrate its freedom”, she explains. “As both experiences are closely connected, this seems to be somewhat of an artificial separation. I believe that one can celebrate freedom while simultaneously paying tribute to the victims. In fact, it would allow for a much more differentiated discourse, which makes it easier to look at the grey areas.”

Convergence
Our actual history is not black and white, straightforward or unequivocal – notwithstanding the narratives we might construct of it afterwards. Sierp scrutinised the manner in which the Second World War has been commemorated nationally in several European countries. She found that over time, memory cultures have started to become increasingly alike, at least on the supranational level. “Think of a politician who addresses an international audience, or a commemorative session attended by representatives of more than one country. Instances like these seem to reflect a certain remembrance code that is consciously adopted by everyone.”  

Victimhood is the common denominator here. However different our historical experiences of war and dictatorship might have been, we can nevertheless derive certain shared values from them, such as freedom and equality. “You could also call these lessons from the past”, says Sierp, adding that she is not a huge fan of the term. “I don't know whether one can actually learn from the past.”

The convergence of memory cultures might be a result of the efforts of the European Union, which since the 1990s has actively fostered the creation of a shared European memory framework. “The EU is often accused of wanting to create one uniform narrative that neglects historical differences. I don't think this is true. Rather, the aim is to create an arena where different narratives can be heard.” This is important, because if we want to continue working together, it is necessary to find some common ground. Only then can the idea of a ‘European identity’ or ‘European citizenship’ start to make sense.

Discussion
For obvious reasons, Sierp's homeland has a long tradition of public confrontation with the Second World War, which still gives rise to vivid debate. "For Germans, the war is a past that does not pass", she explains. "Naturally, as an academic I strive to be as objective as possible, but I’m aware of the fact that this experience has influenced my way of seeing things. As has my experience abroad – I’ve spent the last thirteen years of my life in other European countries."

Here, too, the war and its commemoration are the subject of public discussion. A hot topic in the Netherlands is the question whether we need to remember the perpetrators in addition to the victims of war. According to the National Committee for 4 and 5 May, the answer is a firm ‘no’. Sierp: “Yet the line between perpetrators and victims is not always clear cut. What about the grey areas in between?”

Today, seventy years after the end of the war, perhaps the biggest challenge lies in keeping history alive. “Before coming to Maastricht, I worked at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site”, says Sierp. “There we dealt with a lot of young people who have no direct connection to the Second World War. To create awareness of the past, we had to find ways to link it to their current lives and experiences. Bring history closer to home, so to speak, by talking about the structures that led to the Second World War: exclusion, racism and xenophobia. Unfortunately, these are phenomena that are still very much alive, and that we can therefore relate to today.”

Aline Sierp (1982) studied European Studies at the University of Reading. She received her master’s degree in European History, Politics, Policy and Society from the University of Bath, Sciences Po Paris and the University of Siena. After obtaining her PhD at the University of Siena in 2011, she worked as a researcher at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. Sierp joined Maastricht University in 2012, where she is currently assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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