Affirming one’s history — towards a European identity

Hella Dunger-Löper

Hella Dunger-Löper | Photo: Landesarchiv Berlin

Live without lies’: this is the provocative title which Christophe Bourdoiseau, Germany correspondent for Le Parisien, penned for an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 11th April this year. In doing so, he holds the lack of a culture of memory in France and the insufficient examination of collaboration under Nazi occupation and the colonial past acutely responsible for the country’s high susceptibility to right-wing populism, contrasting it with the culture of memory in Germany.

“All the places of memory — which grow in number with passing years — could have triggered a sense of weariness. The opposite has actually happened. Berlin and, with it, all of Germany has liberated itself from the dark past. Indeed, it has done good to live without lies. It was a long process that could only be completed after reunification. For 20 years, I have seen how the Germans dispel lies about the past. ‘Germany has regained its collective memory,’ the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, rightly asserted ten years ago.”

This is what Bourdoiseau is calling for, and not only is it happening in Germany but also in many large and small cities in Europe. ‘Stumbling blocks’ that commemorate those who were deported and murdered under National Socialism can now be found in more than 20 European countries, to name just one example of this culture of memory throughout Europe.

The fierce debate currently being held in Madrid with regard to renaming streets named after Franco’s generals, or the initiative in Cordoba that criticises the appropriation of the Mezquita by the Catholic Church are also part of this process.

A particularly successful example for the comprehensive appropriation of history can be seen in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau). This city, with its tumultuous and even nightmarish history, is currently experiencing a renaissance as an attractive and youthful metropolis of diversity. During his address at the award ceremony for the 2017 German National Prize to the incumbent City President Dr Rafal Dutkiewicz, the former Federal President Köhler said:

“Today we honour a man, Rafał Dutkiewicz, for his ability to create new beginnings, start a new history, stimulate new discussion and revive the magic of the past, without repressing its horrors.

… In the lives of cities and nations, there have always been and continue to be two forces: a constructive, opening and productive force, and a force that only seeks to take, exclude and destroy. Breslau also experienced both of these forces. Today it flourishes, because it is open to all who wish to contribute to the positive community, and to all who have a new song, art or knowledge to offer. And these have always been the best times in the history of our cities and nations. Today, all of Europe comes together in Wroclaw; the city is young and international. It is a city of students — a city for learning, and for falling in love.”

Think global = European, act local!

The approaches and initiatives that deal with local history often emerge out of civil society. They begin in the individual communities (act local) and unearth shared experience such as oppression, authoritarian regimes and persecution, as well as resistance and self-determination, solidarity and self-organisation. They are an act of self-affirmation, creating transparency about events that have happened at one’s door step and in one’s local community. They are an act of dispelling lies; they stand against repressing memory of oppression and persecution, suffering and death in order to appropriate their own living space in the truest sense of the term, and in order to also find an emotional connection with the current environment — in an age of increasing mobility and geographic uprooting. They give rise to emotional connection and a feeling of rediscovered home to a certain extent.

How can these local initiatives that primarily strengthen local identities form the basis for a European identity? The local initiatives bring forth many experiences that are shared by the European continent: war, separation, displacement and flight, but also tolerance in living with different cultures, religions and ethnicities. These various groupings have each produced their own specific local characteristics that together make up Europe.

All these experiences have to be combined in order to also make a European identity, created from the bottom-up by civil society, perceptible to people (think European).

To create this combination of experiences, civil society needs the support of various levels — from local organisations through to the national level, the European Union and its institutions. They should support this exchange and promote the development of a European identity through interaction with different local identities.

Urban Agenda

The time is right: the European Urban Agenda was passed one year ago. The 21st century will be seen as the century of cities: major cities around the world are growing, while rural regions depopulate. The future lies in cities with their economic power, productivity, potential and infrastructure for a knowledge society. If cities are successful in reducing environmental pollution and energy waste, particularly also in reducing and equalising social disparities, and shaping diversity into a positive sense of community, then the course will be set for a prosperous future. Only then will it be possible to accomplish the 2020 goals of the EU.

Consequently, the Urban Agenda is also increasingly becoming the focus of political action; the European Union defined specific steps in this area for the first time in 2016 with the Pact of Amsterdam, and implementation is underway. However, only an initial step has been taken here; many, many more must follow. The initial outcomes of the Pact of Amsterdam will be presented this year and the effectiveness of the Agenda reviewed.

This specifically concerns the question: have all the important cooperation fields been taken into consideration, is it not necessary to add the topic of culture — which was invoked repeatedly in the discussions on preparing the Pact of Amsterdam — as a further focus?

The time is still right because in 2018, i.e. next year, the European Cultural Heritage Year will take place, which will encompass a highly participative and citizen-centred programme. It is therefore of key importance to avoid the mistakes of 2014 which occurred with the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War, where a great deal of memory work failed to give rise to a shared European remembrance. The motto ‘Sharing heritage’ offers new hope here for the 2018 Culture Year.

However, it will be essential to not only reference the ‘stone witnesses’ of a common European history, but also include that which creates identity and that which emerges from customs, traditions and codes of conduct — norms negotiated in society which constitute a shared culture. This is because it is only histories that are recognised and felt together, and common traditions and experiences, that lead to a shared sense of identity and solidarity, closeness, affinity and home.

And where do the responsibilities now lie for a successful process that is demanded in the online debate?

It is clear that this will be a highly complex process involving an interplay between the local and the European, the roots of which lie in the local, in the respective societal initiatives. Bringing these many components together and initiating new local initiatives through example will require a new multi-level governance, as stipulated in the Pact of Amsterdam. This new governance will strengthen and support the assumption of responsibility at the various levels, bring together the many valuable experiences — such as from Europe’s cultural capitals — and harness them. It would therefore be important to form a new partnership, much like the partnerships of the Pact of Amsterdam, which would develop and advance this multi-level governance.

In doing so, we would make a major step towards our goal: to live without lies in a shared Europe, with its local identities and a shared consensus of values based on our shared historical experience.


Hella Dunger-Löper (SPD) served as the Permanent Secretary for Building and Housing at Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development (2004–2011). Until 2016 she represented the State of Berlin, acting as Permanent Secretary, State of Berlin Delegate to the Federation, Commissioner for European Affairs, and Commissioner for Active Citizenship at the Berlin Senate Chancellery.

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