De-imperial Europe: a resentful confederation of vanquished peoples? Raw and lapsed memories of post-imperial minorities

A project carried out within the framework of the TANDEM program, developed by the Czech Academy of Sciences, Charles University and CEFRES/CNRS united within the Platform for Cooperation and Excellence in Humanities and Social Sciences.

This project proposes a pioneering study of the ghostly, material and symbolic memorial landscapes of defeated minorities who have been displaced and dispersed after the successive collapse of imperial and multinational entities during the 20th century, followed by the Cold War reconfiguration of countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and later on, due to the fall of the communist regimes. We define defeated minorities as populations who have been identified or associated with the aforementioned political formations and considered at best as accomplices, and at worst as responsible for their political systems of domination and/or dictatorship.

The territorial, social and human dismantlement of these entities often led the former imperial powers to either deny or ignore the loss and defeat or to disguise them as a victory in order to build and strengthen national identity, leaving the former minorities to carry the burden of still present troublesome pasts. Based on different modalities and temporalities, the ethnic minorities such as the Sudeten and Bukovina Germans or the Europeans of Algeria, among others, are considered to be “the losers of history”, and they perceive themselves as being “fooled” by history. Their cultures and pasts, at the same time local, transnational and/or cross-border, are neither truly integrated into a national framework nor outside of it. They are put in a purgatory of stories and narratives of different communities among which they once lived and are currently living.

Given the dissolution of social and human spaces, we can therefore think that the memories of these minority people could no longer be anchored in places and linked to their historical context. However, although their relationships and identifications with these now-extinct spaces vary, many of them preserved the memory of such spaces and have sometimes transformed them into “cultural homelands” (Trier, 1996; Voutira, 2012), cultivating a “retrotopic” attitude (Bauman, 2019) and alternative forms of History (Baussant, 2019). What is more, their diverse pasts and traces are nowadays invested in different ways in societies of departure and in host societies, by various social actors in the public sphere. They are even revalued in a nostalgic mode of consumption, and sometimes provide the materials for “pedagogies of resentment”.

How to explain these phenomena? Is it because of their ideological power that the traces, vivid memories and imaginations of these pasts still constitute active social forces both inside and beyond the national frameworks? Do they persist in complex, sometimes connected forms, which are often on the fringe or the edge of historical interpretations, in and through the landscapes, narratives, habits, languages, practices and surroundings? Or is it because that “the earth, in its depth, does not forget” (Benvenisti, 2000: 6)? These “postsigns of memory” which evoke vanished landscapes reveal the lasting impact of the pasts on the present of these defeated minorities on various material and social spaces of the European countries and beyond them, as if “the landscape is the work of spirit” and that “its decor is constructed as much from strata of memories as from layers of rocks” (Schama, 1995:7; Halbwachs).

This project, thus, does not aim to reconstruct the history of defeated minorities or to compare them from a historical perspective. It intends to offer a new critical perspective on the multiple persistent forms of European (post)imperial pasts along the old extra- and intra-European borders and on their diverse and sometimes connected uses. It focuses in particular on their uses in the debates on the enlargement of the EU: be it the instrumentalization of Sudeten Germans or the Italian question of the esuli (refugees/migrants of Yugoslavia) that conditioned the entry of  Slovenia into the EU.

In order to do this, this study’s aim is to describe the effects of these pasts on the present, their complex and ambiguous forms of presence and absence, exclusion and inclusion in the territories where these populations disappeared and in those where they transported and sometimes transposed their heritage(s) and imaginations in a symbolic and material way. The project is based on a choice of different cases – Germans expelled from East Prussia and Silesia, Italians from former Yugoslavia, “foreign” or “local” minorities of Egypt, Portuguese of Angola and Mozambique-, and deeply rooted in ethnographic fieldwork. It will cross the memories of the displaced people in an unprecedented way and of those who lived or continued to live in the cultural and physical spaces after them, offering mirror images or images that are shifted, distorted or blind.

Through a body of various collective practices (commemorations, creation of community museums, websites, preservation of places, recreation of symbolic geographies anchored in these material spaces etc.) and of narratives, the idea is to reveal the stratified and multifaceted cartography of places, stories and memories, by relying on the transversality of cases, the mirroring of points of view, the collection of ethnographic data and the production of databases. Such work will also serve as an empirical basis for a reflection on the norms of heritagization around these pasts. It will analyze what is valorized, what is not intentionally valorized, and what is left in ruins and why.

Initiated by Michèle Baussant, anthropologist and research director at CNRS, this Tandem project is also carried out, on the Czech side, by Johana Wyss, anthropologist and researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Maria Kokkinou, anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow at CEFRES and Charles University is a member of the Tandem team as well.