INTERVIEW | HOUSE OF EUROPEAN HISTORY: it is no question of belief - the memory of communism is receiving increasingly more attention
The ninth European Remembrance Symposium, entitled "Memory and Identity in Europe: Present and Future", took place in Tallinn on 26-28 October 2021. During the conference, we carried out an interview with representatives of the European House of History to ask questions about the permanent exhibition that has been the subject of much controversy since its opening in 2017. What story does the museum tell? How is totalitarianism displayed therein?
Questions were answered by:
Dr. Constanze Itzel, the Museum Director at the House of European History in Brussels. She has worked on the House of European History project as an adviser and curator since its beginnings in 2009, and has been leading the museum since June 2017.
Dr. Simina Badica, a Curator at the House of European History. She defended her PhD dissertation in History at Central European University (Budapest) on practices of curating Communism.
CC.ORG: Would you mind telling us a little bit about the House of European History (HEH)?
The museum offers a bird's-eye view on the events, processes and developments which contributed to shape of the Europe in which we live today, illustrating shared historical processes and the diversity of the way in which they were experienced. On the whole, at present, people learn about European history from their own national perspective, focusing on just certain specific aspects of history, without seeing how these were shaped by and inter-related with the history of the continent as a whole. This museum fills a gap in this respect.
It also allows bringing together a European collection, preserving objects of European significance, and connecting, comparing and confronting the personal memories of Europeans. For example, this museum is one of the only places in which Hungarian objects, documents and memories can be seen in Western Europe. Creating a physical museum allows to explore the multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations of European History at their own pace in a uniquely engaging way. The thought-provoking narratives encourage visitors to reflect upon how Europe’s history has shaped them, and how they should approach today’s challenges in light of the past.
But we are also working on a considerable online extension of the museum's offers: Curious people anywhere in Europe who want to explore how history was experienced in other countries are able to do this through our podcast and video series, virtual tours, or online learning resources for classroom use.
Why did you decide to use the term 'house' instead of 'museum'?
At the beginning of the project, the term “House” was first used to signify a larger concept, encompassing not only a museum but also a documentation and information centre about European history. The name is based on a certain type of contemporary history museum which has been initiated over the past four decades: Several countries, among which Germany and its federal states, Austria, the Netherlands and France have created or attempted to create Houses of History. These are mostly contemporary history museums.
The House of European History team has developed the “House” concept further. The term makes sense for us, it can be associated with “home” – one could perceive our museum as a home for European memories in all their diversity. The concept of a "House" also incorporates the idea that we offer an open space, a meeting place welcoming diverse memories, points of views, material heritage and people from across the space. A container for content that can change over time, as the continent is changing.
What story does the museum tell?
The House of European History presents a European story developed by a European team narrated through objects from nearly 200 collections around Europe. It focuses on European history of the 19th and 20th centuries and the history of European Integration, with perspectives on the main historical processes of previous centuries. Visitors are taken through the main processes having shaped the continent for the last 200 years, such as the revolutions and national and democratic movements of the 19th century, the two world wars, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of Communism, the Cold War, the development of European integration, and other determining processes. This narrative is supported by a collection of objects, documents, and audiovisual material on European history.
At the same time we created ’red threads’ throughout the narratives: Guided, virtual and tablet tours allow exploring, for example, the history of European integration, the history of the Holocaust, the history of migrations, of democracy, or even of languages in Europe.
Next to the permanent exhibition, the House of European History offers temporary exhibitions to delve deeper into the themes of the permanent exhibition, for example, “Fake For Real” which shows how forgery and falsification have been present in society from antiquity to the present day, with every generation falsifying what it cherished the most, and explains techniques to debunk fakes and forgeries.
On your website, you say that the House’s “primary mission is to enhance understanding of European history in all its complexity”. How do you define “European history”? Is there a shared European past to learn?
It is important to stress that the House of European History offers a transnational view of Europe's history, not a juxtaposition of national histories. As neither Europe nor European history are predetermined entities or concepts on which everybody would agree, the team had to chose criteria against which to select what was to be shown in the museum. The team chose to present those historical processes meeting the following criteria: a) to be originally European; b) to have spread all over Europe; c) to be considered as distinctive hallmarks of European culture up to now.
Some visitors expect that this would be a museum where the EU institutions define their view on history. On the contrary, it is a museum – although financed by the European Parliament – which has been entirely built by a team of historians and museum professionals, without any kind of political influence. We have brought together historians and museum professionals across Europe in an international team, which at present has colleagues from 20 different nationalities.
It was a hard work to agree on a joint narrative. There is no agreed common perception on history in Europe, and experiences of historical events are very different, for example, according to whether people were victims, perpetrators, bystanders, or according to their nationality and groups they belonged to. This diversity is very difficult to address. Moreover, history museums around Europe are very different and so are the expectations of what to find in there.
What are the central themes of the House of European History and what are the ideas that guide it?
From 300 topics proposed in the first brainstormings of the museum team, six major themes were chosen, broken down into 24 topics and arranged in roughly chronological order, in order to facilitate orientation by the visitor.
In order to arrive at the definition of the content, the three criteria mentioned above were applied to the reading of history, to determine which topics we would present. Therefore, the exhibition does not present a complete history of Europe, but a selection of themes according to these three criteria, a selection of those historical processes that Europeans share.
The visitor's journey starts with a prologue, confronting him or her with seemingly simple but in reality highly complex questions, such as: What is Europe? Can it be geographically defined? Where does its name come from? What is European heritage? Can Europeans agree on it? These questions are explored through the changing representations of the myth of Europa, through the evolving cartographic representations, and through a reflection about historical developments which can be considered constitutive of Europe. The quintessential message of this exhibition space is that Europe not being a pre-defined entity; views on Europe change with the time- and space-bound perspective from which Europe is seen. What the continent is was shaped by its history and by the evolving ideas people have been making themselves of it.
The four remaining floors tell a story with a strong focus on the 20th century. The six themes are Shaping Europe, Europe - A Global Power, Europe in Ruins, Rebuilding a divided continent, Shattering Certainties, and Europe Now. There is a red thread running through the permanent exhibition about European integration history. Other topics are interwoven with the main narrative and allow for specialised visits, for example through guided tours, about the history of migration, the history of Communism, the history of European integration, the history of democracy, or the development of human rights, among others.
From time to time, the birds’-eye perspective on European history is given up to narrow the focus and examine specific case studies, namely historical events that had an impact on the whole of Europe, such as the Russian Revolution, the war in former Yugoslavia or the German Reunification.
The exhibition is layered, giving the visitor a first overview in 90 minutes, but for returning visitors, there are deeper layers with much more detailed information. The visit can therefore be adapted to the interest of the visitors. The approach chosen is the one of a constructivist museum, in which knowledge is constructed by the learner according to their own experiences and interests.
The limited available space means a selection needed to be made. This limitation can be quite frustrating for some visitors, who expect to find certain elements, for example from their own national history, in the exhibition. It is important to note that the museum does in no way intend to compete with the national museums, which tell the history of one country often with many more square meters than what is possible here.
There are many objects, images and documents related to the national history of many countries, which are here contextualised differently to form part of an unusual European narrative. The museum team strives to improve the representation of objects from across Europe in the collection by acquiring and borrowing objects from underrepresented regions.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the concept of memory is an important theme that comes back four times in our exhibition. It is the appropriate concept to address issues such as the impact of history on the present, the diversity of memories related to one and the same historical event, memory competition and memory conflicts. We explain the ‘operating mode’ of memory and oblivion with the help of different case studies. We show how both are subjective, how they can change with the context, how they can be manipulated, and how different uses of memory can lead to motivate revenge but also reconciliation.
We also examine the various ways of dealing with difficult pasts, between late recognition, silence, distortion of facts, long-time repression, or even punishment of those who want to remember. Finally, we question the shared and divided memory after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The concept of collective memory is therefore, for us, a significant tool to break up a chronological historical narrative made for laymen by a critical reflection on perceptions of the past.
Prof. Chiara De Cesari (University of Amsterdam) has suggested that HEH as a museum that focuses on postwar integration history “tends to reproduce a success, even a teleological, story—a kind of new master narrative of the EU—which has in fact deeply divisive implications in spite of well-meaning inclusionary goals”. How would you respond to this criticism?
The exhibition displays a narrative about the European Union and its history, embedded into the wider European narrative. However, this narrative explains not only achievements, but also setbacks of the European integration process. Examples are the failure, in the 1950s, to create a European Defence Community, the Empty Chair Crisis, the rejection of a European Constitution through the French and Dutch referenda, the Financial Crisis, Brexit, and others. Also, different points of view and opposition to this process, for example around the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the Euro, are well illustrated in the exhibition. The divisive implications mentioned in your question are explicitly addressed in the exhibition.
On the other hand, it is true that the amount of cooperation, the human rights, the freedom of movement and long-term peace achieved in most of Europe through the European Union are indeed a positive development against the background of the bloody wars presented on the lower floors of the exhibition. But the end of the exhibition is open-ended, it presents the challenges of today against the background of many questions about Europe's future.
It is interesting to note that the reading of a master narrative is countered by many other reactions to our exhibition which read it in a very different way: Quite some visitors have told us that they were surprised by the nuanced approach of the museum, which, far from being a Black-and-White narrative, offers a critical view of the past incorporating many grey zones and multiple perspectives.
You also make comparisons between (or even equate) what the exhibition calls the ‘totalitarian systems’ of Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union, or as some have argued, present them as a two sides of the same coin. What message, with this, did you want to convey to the visitor?
The section of the exhibition you are referring to is the interwar period, which we present as a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. We compare, but definitely do not equate Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, nor do we present them as two sides of the same coin. What we show is that, during the interwar period, parliamentary democracy flourished all over Europe, whereas the Soviet Union became the first Communist dictatorship.
However, by 1939 the majority of these democracies had failed and most Europeans lived under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, which forcibly controlled public and private life and limited individual freedoms. The display explores the two most brutal forms of these regimes, Stalinism and National Socialism. We have chosen to compare and contrast these systems which were ideologically opposed to each other and yet so alike in their brutality and oppression.
Nazism is compared not to communism in general, but to Stalinism (ignoring the Bolshevik and Leninist mass terror after 1917). Why?
Nazism is not compared to communism in general because, at the time, USSR was the only Communist dictatorship in the world. As historians, we cannot compare a regime from the 1930s and 1940s with one from the 1950s, isn’t it? Also, we use the words Stalinism and communism alternatively. We make this very clear that the USSR was a Communist dictatorship.
The Platform of European Memory and Conscience (PEMC) reported that the exhibition represents totalitarianism only on the surface, and fails to honestly represent the criminal nature of Communist rule and the imposition of the Soviet system in Central and Eastern European countries. It is also alleged that the portrayal of crimes against humanity under communist regimes is lacking (see the list of missing aspects, such as Soviet deportations in Estonia or the Great Terror). How would you respond to this criticism?
We have very carefully read and discussed within our team the PEMC report. I must tell you that, as a museum, you appreciate the positive and enthusiastic comments, and we have had a lot of that, but you are even more grateful for criticism. Because criticism is what helps you build a better museum. We are always very interested to see the different interpretations of our exhibition and how are visitors react to the objects they see and the stories they read in our museum halls.
I should also mention that ours is a very dense museum. It cannot be fully visited in a few hours. We had one visitor who came back, day after day, for five days. He then left us this message, saying that after five days he finally managed to see the whole exhibition! Every object represents a different side of the theme we display, and one needs to take one’s time to see, read and reflect.
I made this long introduction to explain that while we were very grateful for the analysis and the suggestions for improvement delivered through the PEMC report, most of them were unfortunately the result of missing out on important parts of the exhibition. The list of missing aspects that they created was mainly a list of subjects that we already have in the exhibition. While some parts of the report present points of view that we fully understand and reflect upon, other parts misinform its readers about the actual content of the museum's permanent exhibition. We also regret the political interpretation of our narrative and the accusatory tone of the report - both are unusual among the academic reviews written about our exhibition.
And now I can answer your questions more directly. I do not think we represent totalitarianism only on the surface, we actually dedicate a lot of space (physical space, even) to this topic: we trace the origins of Red Terror to the Bolshevik Revolution and we consequently present the Gulag, with amazing objects first lent and then donated to us by our partners, the Memorial organization. We display collectivization as a criminal process, carried out with ruthless terror leading to the deaths of millions of people, mass deportations, Stalin’s cult of personality, the ideology of the regime and we never shy away from using the correct words: terror, crimes, death, famine, torture.
Another example, since you mention the Soviet deportations from the Baltic countries. We cover these tragic events in our Second World War section, where we display letters thrown from the trains by the deportees taken unexpectedly during night-time. We have transcribed and translated these letters in 24 European languages, but including the transcription in the permanent exhibition would lengthen even more the time-investment of the visitor (as I have mentioned before, we are talking five days of careful visit).
But we are preparing a Virtual Tour of the Permanent exhibition, to be launched early next year, and there we will include one of these letters translated in 24 languages. As we will include in our Online Collection, another digital project soon to be launched, the letters of deportees to the Gulag donated to us by MEP Sandra Kalniete, a piece of her dramatic family history, for which we are extremely grateful.
Do you believe that issues of memory of communism and Stalinism in Europe deserve greater attention than they currently receive moving into the future?
Last year, on August 23, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes, we organized a debate on this precise topic. Among the speakers, professor Michael Rothberg, who coined the concept of ‘multidimensional memory’, argued that memorialization of one traumatic events actually triggers memorialization of other forgotten traumas. That there is not a competition, but a fertilization and an opening up of more spaces of memorialization, even if for a determinate period of time, one memory seems to take more space in the public sphere.
As a museum of European history, we observe that there is memorial competition going on, but we do not take sides. We exhibit it, we document it, we make our visitors aware that the way we remember the past influences our present lives and decisions. The only side we take is that victims should never be made to compete with other victims.
As a museum of European history, we observe that there is memorial competition going on, but we do not take sides. We exhibit it, we document it, we make our visitors aware that the way we remember the past influences our present lives and decisions. The only side we take is that victims should never be made to compete with other victims. We truly believe this. And we are really eager to have more research, more knowledge about the history of communism, more museum in East-Central Europe who could become our partners and lend us their objects and knowledge so we are even better equipped to exhibit these themes. It is not a question of belief, but of factual reality, that the memory of communism is receiving increasing attention as we speak.
The 2021 symposium in Estonia takes place 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR and the relevant breakthrough events in the region that marked the end of the Cold War. What role do you think museums such as yours have to play in illustrating the traumatic memories of communism in Europe to visitors, especially considering the relative recency of the events of 1991 to the present day?
We conceived our museum as a reservoir of European memory. We are unique in the European museal landscape in that we address memory in our museum as a highly important phenomenon for European history, especially in the 20th and 21st century. We recognize and show our visitors that memory is historical. It can be repressed and then it becomes vocal, it can enter into conflict or competition with other memories. It is a part of history, because it makes history. Traumatic memories, especially those silenced, heavily influence our everyday lives and our decisions.
To give an example, in the section Memory of the Shoah, we historicize the memory of the Holocaust and show the geographical, ideological and chronological phases of how this tragic event was perceived in Europe. The memory of the Holocaust is still changing as we speak. In the section Shared and Divided memory, we show the emergence of amemory of communism after 1989. We show the difficulties of dealing with the past, for example, the painful opening up of the archives of political police, the emergence of new public monuments and museums (to the victims of communism), with different examples showing that different countries took different paths and had different rhythms in coming to terms with the memory of Communist regimes. As you know, this is also an ongoing process in many countries.
If you had to choose just one single, most important overarching theme or message vis-à-vis communism in Europe for visitors to take away and reflect on after their visit, what would it be?
This is a difficult question, as it is always very hard to choose between the many stories, showcases, nuanced stories we tell. For me, the showcase showing the desperate attempts of East European to flee their countries, risking their lives while doing so, is one of the most touching and thought-provoking. This showcase leaves no doubt in the visitor that these regimes where awful dictatorships in which most of their citizens were held prisoners. This is directly followed, in the exhibition, by the video installation of the revolutionary movements of 1989. It is again one of the most emotional moments in our permanent exhibition. You can just see on the face of those people, be them in Baltic chain, or on the streets of Bucharest, or climbing the Berlin wall, you can see their desire for freedom, their hopes for a better life, their courage to stand up to dictatorship and occupation.
So, I would say that one very important message about communism in Europe is: we have overcome it! Our belief and willingness to fight for freedom, democracy and human rights has brought Communist dictatorships down in Europe. And maybe one way of honoring the victims of these regimes, is making sure these fundamental human rights are never trespassed again in Europe.