Introduce a European Memory Day

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The ninth of May is officially “Europe Day”, but few people know this – and even fewer celebrate it. This should change. All EU member states should make 9 May an official holiday to commemorate and celebrate European peace and integration.

Juri Viehoff argues that instituting a Europe-wide holiday would create more of a common political identity among citizens of all European states and symbolise their unity. Perhaps some would resent “top-down celebration”, but engaging with those opposing it could itself enhance pan-European citizen involvement. The costs of one additional holiday would be marginal.


In Robert Menasse’s 2017 novel The Capital, the main character, Alois Erhart, is asked to contribute to a think tank’s “reflection group” on the EU’s future. An idealist professor emeritus of economics who is foreign to the corridors of power, Erhart soon turns disillusioned: He resents the corporate environment of the Brussels Eurocracy, the pettiness and predictability of his fellow contributors, and, most of all, the universal lack of genuine interest in re-thinking Europe’s foundations. For Erhart, the EU’s purpose consists first and foremost in overcoming nationalism and war on a continent formerly soaked in blood. Thus, in a crucial scene, Erhart proposes to his speechless co-panelists that the EU should build a new capital, and that its location should be Auschwitz. Irrevocably tying Europe’s future to the site of its most horrific past is necessary, Erhart thinks, to reinvigorate the European ideal.

The proposal will strike most as bizarre. But stripped of its comic eccentricity, I think Menasse’s character has a point: Overcoming violent nationalism no doubt was on the minds of Europe’s founding fathers after 1945. And the fact that this most compelling justification for European integration is fading out of memory should gravely concern its advocates. So, while I will not defend his specific outlandish proposal, I do want to propose something Erhartian in spirit: The EU should create a Union-wide public holiday to collectively commemorate those dark periods of European history and, at the same time, to celebrate the success of European integration and the vision of peace, international cooperation, and liberal social democracy that underpins it. At the moment, 9 May is the official “Europe Day”, but few people know the date, and even fewer celebrate it. I believe that all EU member states should make 9 May an official supranational holiday. This would, at the very least, entail the following: unified dates and events of transnational celebration; common commemorative symbols and practices that stress the collective significance of Europe’s decent into totalitarianism and all-out war; and, conversely, transnational celebrations that frame the peaceful rebuilding of the Continent after 1945 (and 1989) as a collective achievement to be celebrated by all Europeans.

The generation that lived through fascism, communism, and war needed no reminder of why binding Europe’s peoples together in an “ever closer union” was a political imperative. Yet, as this generation is disappearing, proponents of liberal and democratic values and of cosmopolitan openness seem again to be on the back foot. Populist parties with anti-liberal, anti-democratic, xenophobic – and often antisemitic – slogans nowadays gain double-digit results in local and national elections. The European Parliament election that offers the occasion for this volume will likely be no exception to this trend. As we see long-standing social and political institutions as well as norms of political civility crumbling, it is hard not to be reminded of the last time Europe took to fascism and tribalism. My core claim is that once the eyewitnesses are no longer around, Europe needs to find ways to institutionalise the memory of the past that so powerfully bears witness against all forms of nationalism and chauvinism. Having a “European Memory Day” would not be all it takes to reach this end. But it could, indeed, be quite a powerful partial means.

Different types of objection To those welcoming and fostering the current nationalist resurgence, my proposal will sound like a wilful provocation. To these people, there is nothing about European integration that deserves celebrating. I will not address these radical critics here. In fact, I regard such prejudices and basic instincts as a good indicator of the proposal’s merit. Yet, even among those friendly to the European peace project and hostile to chauvinism, many will have worries about my proposal. To convince at least some of these sceptics, I will try to respond to those counter-arguments made in the Twelve Stars online debate that strike me as being the strongest.

There are two kinds of objections: instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental objections question whether a European Memory Day could achieve its purpose of gaining the EU the allegiance of larger swaths of its citizens by imposing public celebration and commemoration. Quite to the contrary, one might argue, the proposal risks turning out to be yet another public relations debacle that citizens will resent. Another instrumental objection points out that, while perhaps commendable in the abstract, the idea will inevitably become extremely divisive once we attempt to settle more concretely what exactly is to be celebrated and remembered given the diverging collective memories and commemorative practices in place at the national level.

By contrast, intrinsic arguments object to the very idea that Europe’s supranational political institutions are such that individuals should develop deep political loyalty or allegiance to them by common social practices. This objection may well derive from a general scepticism about political allegiance. The more pertinent opposition in this context, however, draws a fundamental distinction between national citizenship and supranational institutions. It considers identity-impacting politics of collective celebration and commemoration aimed at forging patriotic citizens to be permissible only for states, but not for supranational institutions, such as the EU.


Instrumental objections

Answering the two instrumental objections allows me to both explain how I imagine this holiday could be introduced and why I think that it would not sow discord regarding what exactly is to be celebrated.

I certainly agree that a top-down introduction would likely be counterproductive. Artificial and forced social practices, including those of commemoration and celebration, are always problematic. But this is not the idea. Rather, a European Memory Day could be introduced as the last step in a prolonged process during which a broad, grass-roots movement of concerned EU citizens would publicly advocate for and defend the proposal.

The example I have in mind is that of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Petitioning for this national commemoration day over many years – at times against considerable official resistance – spread awareness of both King’s contribution to peaceful change and the importance of continuing the fight for civil rights and racial equality in the present. The public recognition of King’s legacy was never intended to conclude the social debate about civil rights and racial discrimination. Rather, it was seen as one way among many to advance this debate by changing social attitudes and official political positions.

Similarly, a campaign for a European Memory Day would primarily seek to spark cross-societal political debates about the purpose of European integration and the joint responsibilities stemming from Europe’s experience of totalitarianism and war. Moreover, its aim would not be to supersede existing national commemorative practices, but to raise awareness of the collective dimension of this experience for the present. Introducing this pan-European element does not threaten distinctive national ways of commemorating and celebrating national historical facts, such as celebrating national resistance to German occupation or remembrance for the particular suffering that fascism, war, and occupation meant for compatriots. Much will depend on the way in which this European dimension is formulated. It can only be the result of wide debates that inevitably will involve scrutinising the content of national practices. This ought to be done in any case, as national memory also should not adhere to some unalterable myth, but instead should seek truth. Hence, national and EU-wide commemorative and celebratory practices need not clash with each other.

Intrinsic objection

Let me turn to the intrinsic objection. Practices of institutionalised commemoration and officially sanctioned society-wide celebration are means to mould collective political identities. For example, when Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they partake in a joint activity officially designed to forge a certain kind of citizenry, namely, one that abhors racism and shows respect towards those who peacefully fought to end racial discrimination and injustice. Sharing common political identities, in turn, is thought to strengthen community bonds. As Cécile Fabre observes: “In just the same way as valuing our kin and the transgenerational family which they constitute requires remembering what previous, now dead, family members did that made the family what it is, so does valuing our relationship to fellow nations.” The intrinsic objection to introducing trans- and supranational official remembrance practices considers such identity-forging projects to be permissible – and likely required — for families and co-citizens. It insists, however, that it would be illegitimate for a supranational political institution to attempt to forge such allegiances even if it thereby gave voice to a broad social movement in various member states.


Responding to this objection, I think we must draw a categorical distinction between the value of intimate personal relationships (e.g. our connection to family and friends), on the one hand, and identity-dependent relations that are fundamentally political in nature, on the other. Unlike such intrinsically valuable personal relationships, the value of large-scale social relationships that make political claims on us, including those of common nationality, can only ever be instrumental. Unitary political identities, that is, those that locate the perceived object of political allegiance in some ultimate political loyalty, are always in danger of fostering and reproducing exclusionary tendencies. Pluralistic identities that aim for a range of political allegiances on various levels or in separate domains of human communities are less likely to foster such tendencies. Thus, insofar as it is within our ability to change political allegiances for better outcomes (at costs that do not impose unreasonable burdens on those who already have them), we should structure and mend them in a way that they foster political relations that are more just.

Identity-forming

What this principle means for the permissibility of identity-forming projects, such as designing commemorative and celebratory practices, is clear: So long as the adoption of these additional practices is likely to foster more inclusive political allegiances, and so long as the process through which such allegiances are fostered is transparent and inclusive, we have good reason to engage in such a reconstruction of political identities. Defenders of nationalism who question the legitimacy of political-identity-enhancing projects should remember the fact that, whatever else they were, all national unification projects in Europe, from 17th-century France to 19th-century Italy and Germany, were also large-scale – and often top-down – exercises in identity-meddling to unify the imagined nation’s citizens. So, it is not clear after all why non-state institutions above (or below) the nation-state should not also develop a suitable form of “allegiance” or “patriotism”. The trickier question is which exact shape the European political loyalty should have. Whatever it is, I do not think that it should replace the existing national and regional allegiance, just as I do not think that the role of the European Union is to replace the existing member states that make it up.

Postwar, Tony Judt’s monumental account of post-1945 Europe, concludes with the following sentences: “Europe’s barbarous recent past history, the dark ‘other’ against which post-war Europe was laboriously constructed, is already beyond recall for young Europeans. Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust – visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives. If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link – if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose – then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation.” A European Memory Day is unlikely to sustain the past’s ability to provide such admonitory meaning and propel moral purpose by itself. It can, however, be quite helpful in achieving these worthwhile goals. Indeed, promoting a collective memory of the past and instituting joint celebrations would likely foster more of a common political identity among European citizens. Admittedly, knowledge of the Continent’s violent history and a more inclusive political identity will not reconcile European citizens to their frequently inadequate political institutions. My proposal will not solve the EU’s current problems, which require wide-ranging institutional reform. Yet, executed in the right way, the proposal would vaccinate present and future generations against the forms of violent nationalism whose resurgence we are currently witnessing.


Further reading

Fabre, Cécile. Cosmopolitan Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 


Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. London: William Heinemann, 2005.  


Menasse, Robert. The Capital. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017.


Online Debate

On 26 May 2018, Juri Viehoff defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.



Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.


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