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The past in the present of Europe

This video explains how the way Europe represents its own culture evolved since the 19th century, to integrate a wider diversity of national histories
How do we remember our past? Do we all share the same memories? Is European history the sum of national histories or a distinctive way of feeling and remembering? The way Europeans remember the past has changed through time. In the 19th century, history became linked with the birth of the nation. Museums and galleries, libraries and monuments, commemorations and festivals all represented and created the national community. History remained throughout the 20th century a given, a specific body of knowledge. People were encouraged to learn and identify with the facts and adapt their personal and community memories to the grand narrative of the nation.
After 1945, in the West, European history was understood as the sum of separate national histories. It was presented as a progressive and unitary march in history from antiquity to Renaissance and then modernisation. Social movements and critical ideas spread across Europe in the 1960s and ’70s challenged this understanding of the past. What about all these minority groups whose stories were excluded, ignored, or hidden from the state accounts of the past? History is written by those in power who silence alternative identities in the past so as to control the present. Social historians started to discover the history from below, to rewrite the past from the perspective of those repressed– women, the working class, colonised, and black people.
Dark sides of European history, such as imperialism and colonialism, challenged celebratory accounts and what was seen as a distinct and supreme European civilisation. Today, things have changed radically. Any understanding of European heritage has to balance diversity with unity, taking into account the diversity of regional and national cultures following the European integration process, the diversity of ethnic and religious cultures arising from the different traditions of migration and multiculturalism, the wider diversity of popular and digital culture due to globalisation. So what kind of past and heritage fit with this present?
The classroom, the library, and the school textbook are no longer the only authorised spaces where we learn history in Europe today. It seems that the writing of history has become public and participatory. We can see history everywhere– in movies, theatre plays, documentaries, and TV series, in literature, comics and children’s books, in photographs, in landscapes, and in urban buildings, and nowadays, also on social media, where people share their experiences and views of the past. In an interconnected world, ordinary people can become agents of their own history.
Then what does history become if we understand it as public history? Its use is opened up in everyday life. History is no longer a given told by some experts and archived in museums. The past is constructed in a history and heritage through a practise that involves people, communities, and nations in the creation of their own histories. This is even more the case with European history and culture that cannot be reduced to the memories of a given people.
European cultural heritage can be imagined as a house with many rooms inhabited by people residing in Europe. This house offers a way to communicate with the others by visiting or even inhabiting more rooms. It can become an arena of struggles and emotions, while its many rooms provide different and conflicting ways to interpret the world around us.

The way Europeans remember the past has evolved over the last two centuries.

  • In the 19th century: cultural institutions representing national communities, proposing a grand narrative of the nation.

  • After 1945, Europe’s representation of the past consisted of a set of national histories.

  • The social mobilization of 1968 resulted in calls to make space for alternative identities and to revisit history to tell about oppressed groups such as women and coloured people.

  • Today, spaces where we write and learn about history have increased and diversified. A participatory approach to history is on the rise.

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Cultures and Identities in Europe

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