The first meeting of the Körber History Reflection Group from 6 to 8 December 2018 in the Belarusian capital brought together a total of 21 historians, politicians and diplomats as well as representatives of civil society and the media. The two-day talks focused on the legacy of the two world wars in Eastern and Central Europe. In an interview, journalist Natalie Nougayrède talks about the threats to the European project and the instrumentalisation of history.
The interview was conducted by journalist Gemma Pörzgen
You wrote in one of your articles that history had returned to Europe. After 1990, many people thought there was an end to history, but it seems that things have turned out quite differently?
History is back in Europe at one stroke and for the European project it is all about existential topics. We talk a lot about economics or migration, but we neglect the debate about the need for a common understanding of our collective history. This is being questioned from many sides – we should develop a greater awareness of the mosaic of national memories, family memories and regional memories in Europe.
How can we become more aware of this?
Europe is a mosaic and a concentrated diversity with different languages and historical experiences. Anyone who thought that we could fly together into a beautiful future and become a single harmonised space was too naive. In my view, we should not be seeking a unified version of European history. That does not correspond to how people feel. But there are a few facts that need to be identified and that should be accepted.
The media play a central role in relaying history and historical debates. How are journalists performing this task?
I think that history and knowledge of history should play a greater role in journalism. We have many problems in the media, whether it is with business models, technological innovations or urgent topicality. Today, I would recommend to all journalists that they concern themselves with history as much as possible. When a colleague travels to Catalonia or Warsaw for an article, he should know the history of the country and the region. I am convinced that readers will be interested.
We thought for a long time that the European project would bring us all closer together. But now it often seems as if the EU is driving its citizens further and further apart. How is that possible?
Over the past ten years, the European project has gone from one crisis to the next. There is also targeted disinformation, which has only recently been recognised in Brussels and other capitals and is now to be combated. The danger is that artificial intelligence will do even more to manipulate information. Let us imagine that in the light of history. There could then possibly be forged documents, fake videos or books. I think that is a real threat and a common challenge. History is interwoven with memories and emotions. That's why it's so important that the journalistic preoccupation with history also takes these feelings and memories into account sufficiently.
2019 will be a very decisive year for Europe with Brexit in March and the European elections in May. What do you expect in the coming months?
On a political level, we will see how history is being instrumentalised even more. There are contradictory narratives that intensify tensions between individual countries, but also have repercussions and polarise within our societies. We will experience a lot of disinformation. Brussels has recognised this danger and is therefore taking action against "fake news". The European elections in particular present a strategic challenge. This also applies to disinformation on historical issues.
Can you name an example?
A good example is the currently resurgent name dispute surrounding Macedonia. It seemed to be almost resolved, but then passions boiled up again between Greece and Macedonia. Another example is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine with the different interpretations of history that play a very significant role in today's conflict. So if you have a Russian narrative that says that the conflict with Ukraine is a fight against fascism, a solution remains difficult. The interpretation of history is often projected onto current events and that is dangerous. There is a lot of revisionism, also in Western Europe.
During the celebrations commemorating the end of the First World War one hundred years ago, President Macron paid tribute to the subsequent Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain as a "great soldier". How do you assess this interpretation of history?
In his speech, Macron referred to a debate among historians and talked about the role of Pétain. He said something very problematic and in doing so fell into a trap. Historians are responsible for history and politicians should be very careful with its interpretation. I work in London and I am currently witnessing how the Brexit debate is being fed with strange historical interpretations. For example, the European project is being discredited as an 'empire'. A historian can analyse and define what an empire is. But when a politician uses this word to describe the EU, we know that it is a very hostile statement. It is dangerous and manipulative.
In this context, how important is the memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which we will commemorate this year in particular after 30 years?
When we concern ourselves with history, we should not focus solely on its dark chapters. We should also reflect on the good things that we have in common and can share. Freedom, civil rights and the rule of law were what many people hoped for in 1989. It is particularly interesting to look at these phases of transition to democracy and to discover parallels with similar processes in Greece, Spain or Portugal. They have a lot in common. We should not just worry about our dark spectres in Europe, but also recognise the good elements in our European history.
With its focal topic "The Value of Europe", the Körber Foundation is contributing to the debate on the past, present and future of the European project. In various activities with political decision makers and social thought leaders, we name different points of view and values and identify commonalities.
The French journalist Natalie Nougayrède is a member of the editorial board and columnist at the British newspaper "The Guardian". Prior to that, she worked as editor-in-chief at the French daily newspaper "Le Monde" and as foreign correspondent and head of the Moscow office. The journalist received awards in France for her reporting on Russia and the Chechen war. Nougayrède writes on international politics, security policy and human rights.