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Cross-border Collaboration and the Construction of Memory Narratives in Europe

Sara Jones, University of Birmingham.                


The way in which we remember the past is strongly influenced by individual and institutional actors, whom we might term ‘memory entrepreneurs’. Memory entrepreneurs have a stake in ensuring that we think about and understand history in a particular way. Memory is political; it can shape our understanding of what we are and how we should act and relate to others.

Memory entrepreneurs act in a particular national context; they contest or confirm dominant ideas about their country’s history, what is important and what should be forgotten. However, they also act in a transnational context. They collaborate with partners across the world through joint events, seminars and exhibitions and in so doing they encounter memory entrepreneurs with shared or different views on the past and how to remember it.

This chapter asks what happens to memory at these points of ‘intercrossing’. It considers how two state-funded German institutions, focused on memory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany), collaborate with partners across the globe in the period 2011-2014. It takes a two-pronged approach. Firstly, it uses an innovative digital humanities method to recreate the networks constructed through these collaborations and explore which actors play a central role within them. Secondly, it examines how the German actors conceive of and explain the motivations behind the collaborations in terms of national and transnational memory politics.

The article reveals that the collaborative activity of the two institutions includes, but extends well beyond Europe. In particular, it involves several partners in the MENA region in the context of the ‘Arab Spring’. However, this does not mean that they bring actors from different regions together; instead, they create more-or-less discrete ‘zones’ formed almost entirely of actors from a single region. These zones are held together by powerful German state actors (e.g., the German Foreign Office, or political foundations) who do not have ‘memory’ as part of their official remit, but who play a central role in connecting these memory entrepreneurs with actors across the world and especially outside of Europe. 

The article uses narrative analysis to explore the motivations behind the co-operations in these different zones. Narrative analysis is used to show how the institutions perceive an event or encounter in retrospect. In co-operations outside of Europe, the motivation is often described in a way that suggests that the non-European actor should ‘learn from the Germans’. In this narrative, - which we might understand as Eurocentric – the transfer of experience and knowledge flows only in one direction. In contrast, co-operations with partners located in other post-socialist contexts are described in terms that suggest equal exchange between partners and a common effort to transform European memory culture that (they argue) tends to exclude the crimes of communism.

In this way, these (eastern) German institutions shift their self-presentation between East and West. On the one hand they are Easterners struggling to be heard over a dominant Western European culture of memory; on the other they present themselves as representatives of this approach, as German ‘masters of remembrance’ exporting the ‘right’ way to work through histories of authoritarianism, state violence and dictatorship. These insights are used to develop the novel concept of ‘collaborative memory’, which seeks to capture the impact of such relationships or ‘intercrossings’ on how we understand and remember the past at a national, European and global level.

Further research publications on this topic can be explored in the following links: