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How can Europe’s history be disarmed?

For the first time the Körber History Reflection Group brings together 20 distinguished international experts to discuss in Minsk on 6 December issues related to the politics of memory. The issue of overcoming divisions that follow from conflicting views on history in Europe’s former ‘bloodlands’ will be at the heart of the confidential debates.

Whether in Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, Belarus or Ukraine, the violence that took place during the 20th century has left deep scars in the countries of Eastern and Central Eastern Europe, and its effects continue to be felt. In times of growing political, national and religious divisions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate historical discourses from their actual political significance. With regard to issues of national unity and identity, values and current political controversies, a deeper understanding of historical interdependencies and their origins is indispensable in order to counteract an instrumentalisation of the past.

After the upheavals which took place between 1989 and 1991, two main challenges faced the countries in the former Eastern bloc: the question of how to approach the Soviet past and a critical reappraisal of Stalinism. These debates were supplemented by debates on hitherto suppressed or overlooked aspects of National Socialist tyranny. This led to lively debates in Central and Eastern Europe about the respective national cultures of remembrance and their significance for both European history and the present day.

Bilateral conflicts and tensions have increased in recent years and their justifications have included national or nationalist historical narratives and claims of redressing historical injustices. The Crimea and Donbas conflicts are the most prominent and crucial among these. Yet Polish-Ukrainian disagreements on the Volhynia massacres, marred Baltic-Russian relations regarding Soviet occupation, Hungary’s dealing with the “Trauma of Trianon” or the wary relations of self-searching Belarus with its Eastern and Western neighbours illustrate the ubiquity of contested pasts throughout the region. Furthermore, all too often, Western European countries lack awareness of the extent to which divergent interpretations of history can contribute to divisions in Europe.

Over the next two years, the Körber History Reflection Group will bring together high-ranking experts from academia, politics, diplomacy, civil society and the media. The aim is to meet in small groups in places that are crucial to the controversies linked to Europe’s past. The meetings will discuss how and whether the divisions that stem from diverging views on history in the former “bloodlands of Europe” can be overcome. The first meeting in Minsk includes roundtable debates centred on politics and history as well as excursions to the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War and the memorial sites in Maly Trostenets and Khatyn.

By providing opportunities for in-depth exchange, the Körber History Reflection Group complements the Körber History Forum’s aims of broadening the debate about political conflicts to include their historical dimension and preventing history from being weaponised.

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