History as an Instrument of Policy: Are there two Different Post-World War II European Grand Narratives?

T
he European Union was born as a viable polity in the early 50s, a few years after World War II. Some scholars claim that seventy years is too short a span of time on which to construct a grand narrative. Therefore the EU presently has no grand narrative.

It is a mere construct put together to prevent future catastrophic wars and for mere economic reasons. The argument continues: this fact ought not be considered a liability or a deprivation, for it leaves the EU free to imagine and construct a wholly new narrative, one radically different than the one which used to apply to so called Old Europe mired in thorny historical traditions and heritages, the traditions that went all the way back to ancient Greece and Roman Law, and Medieval Christendom, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The conclusion of the argument is that there are now no symbols, no myths, no cultural traditions to hamper in any way this new original polity based on the most progressive ideas of modernity. In other words, as never before, there is now available new wine for old bottles. It’s a new dawn for Europe.

But wait a minute: is that not a myth in itself redolent of the birth of Europa’s journey? Moreover, it is worth pondering the fact that this new polity called The European Union contains in its designation the word “European” which means that there is an historical connection between this new Europe of post-World War II and the Old Europe. How that connection is interpreted will determine the very nature of the new narrative or the new history for the new Europe. Which also means that history is no longer the privileged domain of historians. Vico could have predicted that much three hundred years ago: the time when history would become a public issue and an instrument of politics.

I submit that there are at present two possible interpretations of the origins of the New Europe and they in turn depend on the interpretation of the grand narrative that is World War II. One interpretation springs from the West of Europe and the other from the East. The way they commemorate and celebrate World War II is dependent on how they interpret the victory of that war and will yield two different narratives and two different commemorative ceremonies. This state of affairs was most apparent at last year’s commemoration in Moscow (2015) of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow.

There are also two different dates for the commemoration: May 8 and May 9 and they designate a new start for two different postwar societies: the Western Alliance and the Soviet Union. Those different dates have been a touchstone in the dominant victory narratives and foundation myths of those two European postwar societies. It represents for them a rupture and a new start, a source of legitimacy for competing hegemonic claims which gave rise to the Cold War.

The experience of World War II is fundamental for the development of the European Union. In order to prevent another World War, former arch-enemies had to be embraced into a community of mutual interests. The success of the community was based on consent to the division of Europe, with the consequence that the other half of the continent was written off, and with it, the blessings of democracy, peace, and economic upturn were also kept out. It was only with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire that eastern Europe re-entered the European Union's expanded political horizon. In May 2004, after long negotiations, another eight countries in the region could be admitted.

With the entrance of the Eastern European countries into the EU, the comfortable historical consensus long obtained within and among western European countries was undermined. The reason was that 1945 has an entirely different meaning for most citizens of the states admitted to the Union in May 2004. For them, 1945 is an ambiguous date: it means a transition from one occupation to another, from Nazi rule to Soviet rule. This was bound to spark a heated controversy about the interpretation of their own histories. In the Baltic States, from one point of view, the interpretation was one of collaboration, from another point of view it was resistance. The debate is ongoing and will surely be decisive in forming new cultural identities and historical consciousness needed to overcome centrifugal political forces presently militating against the union.

A debate is needed on a comprehensive twentieth century European history. So far it has been lacking and consequently the EU center does not hold very well and quite often the new member states are internally at odds with each other.

And then there is May 9. Russia which was a victor in World War II, and a loser in 1989 hangs on to the myth of the Great Patriotic War – the last achievement of the Soviet Union which is hardly discreditable despite the ideological wars of the Cold War. It wants to desperately hold on to the world order established at Yalta. Doing so allows it to maintain its claims upon the whole Eastern region. This too is a myth and a narrative which provides national confidence and legitimates the repressive authoritarian character of the centralized social order. This celebration of the Great Victory can hardly be reconciled with the perspective of the West. Moreover, when Putin visited Auschwitz in January 2005 his rhetoric made quite clear that he wished to resuscitate the Soviet myth and place it in a historical continuum with imperial Russian history and the global war against terrorism. Within this perspective Russia’s neighbors (notably the Ukraine) may appear as occupied territory formerly part of the Greater Russia.

In conclusion, one can safely assert that there exists a plurality of narratives, myths and symbols in Europe, but one cannot say that there are none. If anything there may be too many. Symbols will cease to exist as long as man is man lives within time and space. Despite Fukuiama’ s pronouncements on the death of history, it appears that history will existentially remain a sine qua non, and that Jung was right on target when he wrote that while man makes symbols, myths, and grand narratives, the opposite is also true: symbols, myths and grand narratives make man. Our task now is to place those myths, symbols and narratives on the table for an open discussion, a grand symposium, within a communal space that transcends national xenophobic boundaries and aims at the common good.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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