More than a decade after the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined the European Union, there is a widespread belief that deeper European integration has got stuck. Most of the analysis explaining why this is so focuses on issues of economics, political institutions, and corruption. But a big reason why this is so comes from different narratives of history. 

From Poland to Bulgaria, this is a region that, as Winston Churchill once reputedly said of the Balkans, “produces more history than it consumes.” Recent amendments to Poland’s law on the Institute of National Remembrance are a prime example. The amended law now outlaws any public claim that the Polish nation bears responsibility for and participated in the Holocaust. It puts the actions of “Ukrainian nationalists” on a par with those of Nazi and Communist regimes. This change has caused a strong backlash in the United States, Ukraine, and Israel. 

The first change in the Polish law is a challenge to the commonly accepted notion in EU countries that a pan-European collective memory of the Holocaust means collective responsibility for the actions of the past, with a view to preventing their repetition in the future. The second part is unacceptable for Ukrainians, who are in the midst of redefining the historical myth of Ukrainian nationalism, in which the World War II–era Ukrainian insurgent army is a central national symbol. In Poland, these Ukrainian insurgents are blamed for having carried out genocide of Poles, and they also had a murky role with regard to the Holocaust.

Arguments of this kind are common to all the former Warsaw Pact countries that have joined the EU and NATO since 2004. In so doing they began to rediscover and reassess their pre-Communist histories. 

In the nineteenth century, a sense of history and collective memory played a crucial role in the formation of new nation-states in Europe. This inspired political mobilization in the cause of state-building and the formation of a modern collective identity—regardless of whether or not a national identity had previously existed. As a rule, the titular ethnicity (Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and so on) played the key role in shaping memory around an ethno-national narrative. This confirmed not just the individuality and uniqueness of a community but also its special role in history, usually contrasted with its neighbors.

In the Communist period, governments in Central and Eastern Europe actively discouraged these narratives. After the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, national history reacquired significance as countries legitimized their national sovereignty once again. History was used as a defining proof of belonging to Europe and, by extension, the EU.

Yet as Central and Eastern Europeans were rebuilding a distinct national past, the European Union was engaged in a different project: defining a shared transnational pan-European past. The EU promoted the idea of an overarching common European history that would serve as a kind of historical basis underpinning its Euro-integration projects. It backed various cross-European projects, including the writing of common history textbooks. It also strove to inculcate the idea of a shared responsibility for terrible deeds in the past for the sake of a common present and future. 

Central to this reflection on the dark pages of the past was a shared commemoration of the Holocaust. Reflecting on and sharing the memory of this tragedy across Europe was meant both to send a message of “Never Again,” and to serve as protection against the kind of xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and dangerous nationalism that plunged Europe into the inferno of World War II. 

By signing up for this conception of a shared pan-European history, the former Communist countries were meant to acquire, in the phrase of Tony Judt, an unofficial “pass into the EU.” Poland, specifically, had to face one of the darkest episodes of its own past on the eve of EU accession. A public apology issued by then president Aleksander Kwaśniewski sparked a national discussion about one dark episode, the massacre by Poles of the Jewish citizens of Jedwabne in the summer of 1941. The debate forced Poles to reevaluate their self-image of their actions during World War II.

By accepting the pan-European narrative, Central and Eastern European countries had to accept a certain degree of complicity in the Holocaust. This tarnished their own image of being the supreme victim, the eternal fighter for freedom and democracy, during and after the war. 

World War II was remembered differently in the East of Europe to the West. After the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, many politicians in these countries made a push for Nazism and Communism to be put on the same level. There was a series of resolutions in the European Parliament to this effect. 

Within a decade, a group of leaders had gone further. They actively undermined the pan-European normative rules of behavior and the EU’s conception of historical memory. Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser degree Lithuania began a historical revision process based on ethno-nationalist narratives.

Lithuania has actively advanced the concept of “double genocide,” in which the Lithuanians suffered at the hands of both the Nazis and the Communists. This idea was institutionalized in a museum to the victims of genocide in Vilnius. The Holocaust was not officially denied, but it was downplayed somewhat as many of the national heroes who had resisted Communism had also turned out to be Nazi collaborators.

In Hungary, a monumental museum of totalitarianism, the House of Terror, was opened, whose main subject was the crimes of Communism. A monument was erected in Budapest, which depicts all Hungarians as the victims of Nazism, thereby lessening the toll of the country’s Jewish and Roma communities, and whitewashing the memory of Hungary’s alliance with the Third Reich during the war.

Poland, despite its economic success within the EU, has fought several battles with Europe’s leadership. The current Polish government has curbed free speech, reduced judicial authority, and imposed its own nationalist interpretation of history. As well as the aforementioned Holocaust law, there has been a change in both management and conception of the new Museum of the Second World War and vilification of the historian Jan Gross.

Of course, historical memory is not the only cause of turbulence between the newer and older EU nations. There are many others, such as the migration crisis. But a different perception of history is indicative of wider differences over basic values and ideas. We should not forget that some of the first cracks presaging the breakup of another union, the Soviet Union, occurred because of different understandings of history. 

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Georgiy Kasianov