• Memory as an Apparatus

  • By Leonardo Paggi | 06 Mar 18
  • The challenge facing European political democracy is reflected in the fragmentation of its historical consciousness. With a new monetary system (1944), the Marshall Plan (1947), and NATO (1950) a solid supranational network was erected under US leadership that coexisted peacefully with the re-establishment of the national sovereignty of the European states. The Bretton Woods System allowed Keynesian social state policies that gave new legitimacy to European states that had emerged broken from the second world conflict. This path of reconstruction is essential for understanding how we arrived at a sum of national memories that ignore the geopolitical cataclysm that the world arrived at by 1945. These are divided and often even counterposed memories, but all equally anti-German. Still more, they are memories marked by phenomena of omission and self-exaltation. British memory celebrates the heavy defeat inflicted on Germany but forgets the twilight of the British Empire. French memory puts Vichy in parentheses so as to exalt the uninterrupted continuity of the Republic. Italian memory excessively broadens the consensus acquired by the Resistenza to support a programme of national renewal that clashed with stubborn feudal residues. One cannot delude oneself that precisely because of their partiality these memories were characterised by an unequivocal anti-fascist will that was written into the post-war constitutions.

    The German case diverges sharply from this European framework. In his lecture at the Collège de France on 31 January 1979 Foucault accords a veritable constituent value to the speech given by Ludwig Erhard on monetary reform on 21 April 1948.1 What was at stake was delineating the features of a new German state the day after the Nuremberg Trial, which had put the horrors of Nazism before world public opinion. Putting ‘the economic game of freedom’ at the centre of discussion, emphasising the two programmatic goals of competition and price stability, meant, for Foucault, shifting the problem of legitimation onto economic terrain. It was the task of this liberalist economic model to ‘produce a consensus that is a political consensus’.2

    Only with the new self-confidence resulting from German re-unification was the overcoming of the past achieved, with the assumption on one side of the absolute centrality of the Holocaust, and promoting, on the other side, a policy of monumentalisation of the memory of Nazism’s victims. If it has at first been the intellectuals within civil society who debated and reflected on the country’s history, now it is the public authorities which are deciding on the politics of memory.

    The new German paradigm directly influences EU policies, which have chosen the Holocaust as the appropriate supranational memory with which to accomplish the unification of European memories that had not previously existed. It is a bureaucratic operation and has the same abstract and binding character as all European governance legislation. This is seen in the proliferation of new laws aimed at institutionalising the memory of continually new events (in 2009 it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact condemning two totalitarianisms) with corresponding sanctions for offenders.

    The memory of the Holocaust, negating in fact the multiplicity of European memories is substituted for that of the Second World War. There is a radical decontextualisation of the event that is seen as a symbol of absolute evil. The analyses of the best international historiography that has wanted to programmatically locate the Holocaust ‘within history’ (Arno Mayer, Philippe Burrin, Goetz Aly) have been followed by a de-historicised narrative that reflects the juridical definition of crime and establishes the compensation of the victim. It is a language of human rights, that which dominated Nuremberg, typical of the way in which US politics has always measured itself against the problem of the ‘nomos’ of the earth, which strongly re-emerged starting in the 1990s in the spasmodic succession (1998, 2001, 2003) of various projects to ‘export democracy’.

    To isolate the Shoah from its context also means to expunge the Soviet Union from historical memory, putting ‘Stalingrad’ in parentheses. It is becoming increasingly hard for new generations to know that the decisive contribution – however complex and contradictory it was – to Nazism’s defeat was made by Stalin’s Soviet Union.

    The theory of the two totalitarianisms is the other pillar of the EU’s politics of memory. In this case, it also involves a borrowing from the liberal culture of Germany (ordoliberalism) and Austria (Hayek and Mises) of the early 1940s, which has unexpectedly returned on the scene. This direction of thought interpreted the collapse of democratic systems in Europe between the two wars as the result of a culture that had violated market freedom through planning policies for economic development. The Nazi war economy, the Soviet plans, Keynesianism itself, are various forms of the same road to serfdom, to use the words of Hayek’s famous 1945 pamphlet.

    This is a dangerous theory, in its abstract logical coherence, because it is hermetically closed to any consideration of history whose only role is ideological motivation in the establishment and continuation of Cold War policy. It is in the shadow of this theory that a full re-evaluation of fascist memories is underway in the ex-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe: in Croatia Pavelić is being reassessed and in Hungary Horthy. The abandonment of the Second World War as an object of reflexion for all EU countries has thus led to the proliferation of memory ‘apparatuses’3 that are manipulatable because they are disconnected from real experiences – in contrast to anti-fascist memories arising after 1945 – and incapable, paradoxically, of counteracting the resurgence of anti-Semitism that is occurring – and this I think is essential – within the increasingly general recourse to the instrument of war. We cannot do true justice to that large population of the dead that never ceases to press against and crowd the borders of our minds and memory if we do not struggle always and everywhere for a world made up of mutual recognition, co-existence, and peace. The sole result of the political manipulation of memory and historical consciousness, also demounced by the great French-Jewish historian Pierre Nora,4 is the intensification of the clash between the major collective identities now present in the world.


    1. See Ludwig Erhard, Deutsche Wirtschaftspolitik. Der Weg der sozialen Marktwirtschaft, Düsseldorf: Econ, 1962.
    2. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 (quoted from the Italian edition, pp. 79 ff.).
    3. In French, ‘dispositifs’ (Foucault).
    4. Pierre Nora, Esquisse d’ego-histoire. Suivi de L’historien, le pouvoir et le passé. Précédé de L’histoire selon Pierre Nora, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2013.