Europe seeks reconciliation with its violent twentieth century past | Culture

Europe seeks reconciliation with its violent twentieth century past | Culture

What do the remains of those executed after the Civil War exhumed a few years ago in the cemetery of Guadalajara with the anti-Communist guerrilla pits of the 1940s in the Powazki military cemetery in Warsaw and with those of the civilian victims of the Civil War? the massacre of Srebrenica, in Bosnia, in the nineties? That, when a country has to face the memory of a violent past, it is inevitable to face the thorny decision of what to do with the mass graves, probably its most tangible reminder. "Even not doing anything is already a decision", explains the anthropologist of the Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) Francisco Ferrándiz, who has just written, together with the professor at the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) Marije Hristova, an article about how this conflictive memory is faced in the three countries. That is, between the bitter public debates around the Francoist footprint in Spain, the institutional instrumentalization of the anti-communist resistance in Poland and the wounds that still ooze in Bosnia, no matter how much recipes of international justice and human rights are applied to it.

"In Spain we are not crazy about discussing these issues, but we are part of a global process," adds Ferrándiz. In fact, your article - which will be included in the book Rethinking the past: European (trans) cultural memory, that the Dykinson publishing house is about to publish - it is only the last of all that it has done on the subject and that they are included within a much wider research project, financed by the European Commission with almost 2.5 million euros. In it, a score of historians, anthropologists and political scientists from six universities and research centers in various countries seek -studying graves and other expressions such as war museums- a theoretical and practical alternative capable of counteracting, according to the promoters of the project. , the growing "political and identity conceptions combative and antagonistic against which the European cultural memory sometimes seems impotent". That is, memories based more on myth than on the search for truth and that exacerbate ultranationalist feelings, of heroes and demons without nuances.

This last way of looking at the past is what theorists call antagonistic, the most basic, which seemed to have remained in a secondary plane since, after the the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, another model became dominant. One more analytical and, in some way, administrative, emerged from the reflection on the Holocaust, based on human rights and the principles of truth, justice, reparation and guarantee of non-repetition, with the victims at the center of everything. "But after all the truth commissions, all the resolutions of the UN, the international tribunals, we are returning to new forms of fascism, to new, very primal antagonisms," says Ferrándiz, trying to explain the perplexity of the the project was born, which started in 2016 and ends this year, under the name of UNREST, which in English means agitation, concern, but in this case responds to the initials, also in English, of disturbing memory and social cohesion in Europe transnational.

"Europe needs to finally make peace with its violent past," says social anthropologist Elisabeth Anstett, a member of the advisory board of UNREST. This specialist from the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), in Paris, explains that it is about building "social, cultural, pedagogical spaces" where critical analysis is possible. Because, he warns, in these times of false news and resurgence of old extremism, "it is not so many people with access to documented facts and not only to personal or collective opinions and feelings".

Exhumation in 2016 driven by the family of Timoteo Mendieta in the cemetery of Guadalajara.
Exhumation in 2016 driven by the family of Timoteo Mendieta in the cemetery of Guadalajara.

For Stefan Berger, a professor of Social History at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, rather than making amends, what Europe needs is to "confront its violent past more sincerely". Berger, principal investigator of UNREST, believes that the cosmopolitan model has ended up depoliticizing processes around memory and that putting it back into the political discussion is essential to face the new challenges.

The starting point of the project was the creation of a kind of third theoretical way, which they have called agonistic, consisting in "increasing the democratic quality in such a way that they can coexist, always within legal limits and respect, different memories in a same environment ", explains Ferrándiz. "And we wanted to study also if that could be a solution for Europe in the medium term," he adds.

From there, he and his team They chose three countries with very different contexts - one from a civil war prior to the Second World War, another linked to it and the other from a State's most recent implosion war - to study what type of memory predominates in each one. And the first thing that stands out is that "the abstract global discourses in each country land in a different way".

For example, in Poland "cosmopolitanism is a way of disguising its antagonism". That is to say, that under a discourse of human rights, justice and reparation, some victims are left out - those of the Holocaust and the communists - to focus on others, on the "cursed soldiers", a paramilitary group that in 1945 continued the fight against communism. Professor Hristova explains that the party in power - Ley y Justicia (PiS), headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski- has built from this group a kind of "foundational myth of anti-communism", turning into heroes some who really were, "like Witold Pilecki (who went to Auschwitz voluntarily to extract information and create a resistance from within), but also to war criminals like Józef Kuras, responsible for the death of many Slovaks, Jews and Lemkos. " There are not many descendants of the cursed soldiers, but some of them have spoken out against the instrumentalization of their memory, adds the researcher.

Books produced by the National Memory Institute on the Damned Soldiers.
Books produced by the National Memory Institute on the Damned Soldiers.

In Bosnia, they give the example of the strong controversy that caused in 2011 the construction of an Orthodox church just a few meters from the graves of the victims exhumed in one of the 14 mass graves in which the Serbs distributed the bodies of the killing of Srebrenica in which some 8,000 Muslims perished in 1995. They use it to explain how, despite having done the whole process under the umbrella of the UN, through the international tribunal of the former Yugoslavia that has condemned the perpetrators and with acts of reparation , the practice remains very antagonistic at the level of local governments and municipalities.

In Spain, finally, they talk about a social and associative movement that, since 2000 and after two decades of the pact of Transition, pushed to obtain a law of historical memory with funding and has continued to do so without help at times when institutional support has been scarce, as in the case of the exhumations in the cemetery of Guadalajara between 2016 and 2017 50 bodies shot after the Civil War. However, despite the bitter debates that the historical memory raises in Spain, Ferrándiz and his colleagues conclude that there is "a coexistence of models with greater force of cosmopolitanism, even with the discourse of the Transition, of conscious forgetting".

In the coming months, the UNREST project will elaborate its final conclusions. At the moment, Ferrándiz advances his: "In contemporary Europe there is not a problem of memory, but many, and the manifestations are multiple and changing. That's why we need new models to understand and deal with it. " His proposal, he adds, has encountered difficulties, in terms of the limits of freedom of expression or what to do with the voice of the perpetrators, among others. "We are leading the way, but we must continue studying." But not only: "All this theoretical knowledge has to be translated into public policies that encourage more open, more sophisticated debates" in a context of messages that explain black and white reality. "When institutions call us, we always go. We are not right but we can diagnose problems, "he adds.

The transmitting force of theater and art

The UNREST project on the traumatic memory of Europe has non-academic partners. This is the Spanish theater company Mimomicon, which, led by Laila Ripoll and Mariano Llorente, premiered the play in 2017 Where the forest thickens, a trip of two women in search of the memory of their grandfather that will take them from Santander to Bosnia. The European Commission has also financed other research projects linked to memory and culture. For example, Traces, in which academics, artists and cultural workers from Norway, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Poland, among others, investigate new ways of transmitting the most traumatic inheritance, from the Holocaust to the colonialist past or terrorism in Northern Ireland, through art


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