Postnational Relations to the Past: A "European Ethics of Memory"?

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In nation-building processes, the construction of a common past and references to a shared founding moment have played a well-documented role in fostering notions of a collective political actor. While notions of unreflective national collective memories no longer hold in an age of a postheroic "politics of regret", the preferred subject of collective memories nevertheless often remains the nation, both in academic literature and in public debates. In this paper, my aim is to establish the role of collective memory in self-proclaimed "postnational" approaches-specifically in the context of European integration-and to assess in how far these approaches can claim to go beyond notions of memory handed down to us from earlier accounts of nation-building processes. I start by laying out two different approaches to a postnational collective memory as they emerge from the literature. The first approach aims at overcoming national subjectivities by focusing on a specific content: a shared, albeit negative, legacy for all Europeans. The Holocaust plays a particularly prominent role in this discourse. The second approach sees and seeks commonalities not so much on the level of memory content but rather on the level of specific memory practices (a "European ethics of memory"). While it is not aimed at dismantling the nation as a political subject per se, it also creates a European self-understanding that makes the symbolic borders of Europe look more porous: potentially everyone can employ these memory practices. However, as I will show, this approach knows its own attempts to define a postnational "essence", most notably by tying the ethics of memory to a specifically European cultural repertoire.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-55
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2013


  • Cosmopolitanism
  • EU membership
  • Ethics of memory
  • Europe


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