Skip to content
Review December 2023

Youth and memory regimes in Europe

Review by David Leupold
edited by Félix Krawatzek and Nina Friess, 2022
ISBN 9783110738308
390 Pages
Published by: De Gruyter
Crowds of young people with Belarusian flags protesting. "March of unity". Protest rally against Lukashenko, 6 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus. Wikimedia/Homoatrox (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

In times of resurgent military confrontations between antagonistic power blocs, history has once again turned into a fiercely contested socio-political “resource” (Christophe, Kohl and Liebau 2021) over which relentless battles are fought in the realm of memory politics by competing state and non-state actors. Given their key role in the reproduction of historical narratives and their transmission to future generations, young people are of particular interest to the memory regimes of nation-states and non-state actors alike, which seek to win them over for their proposed historical narratives. In return, young people turn to history in an effort to forge their socio-political personality and make sense of the world and their own place in it.

Drawing from a vast and diverse array of memory landscapes and mediums – from Belarusian graphic novels and post-Yugoslav films to Spanish children´s literature and Russian historical accounts of the 1990s – this extremely timely edited volume on Youth and Memory in Europe promises to illuminate “how both formal education and broader culture communicate ideas about the past, and how young people respond to these ideas” (p. 2). Three short essays on youth and memory in the context of present-day Belarus open the first part (regional perspectives) of the book. Félix Krawatzek observes how anti-government protests in the present are fashioned in the language of historical analogies and argues that the memory regime of Lukashenka – with its emphasis on the victory in the Second World War – is virtually “disconnected from young Belarusians’ polyphonic societal and cultural memories” (p. 41) and, thus, has little to offer to them. Informed by an “abstract sense of Belarusian historical independence” (p. 42) yet lacking any “refined counter narrative” (p. 42), both Krawatzek and Nina Weller stress the importance of an, at times, schematic and diffuse understanding of the pre-Soviet past – in particular, that of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – as essential reference points for the formation of national narratives shared by young people critical of the state.

While providing valuable empirical insight, the presented research on Belarus runs the risk of reproducing binaries (Soviet anti-nationalism versus anti-Soviet nationalism, totalitarian state power versus dissident individuals) rightly criticized in present-day historiography and anthropology of the Soviet period. The historical framing of these case studies tends to reduce the Soviet state to being a simple antagonist of nationalism, thereby failing to recognize the complicated role it played as an agent of nation-building in its own right. Moreover, the articles tend to take a view of Soviet memory politics that downplays the profound paradigmatic shifts in the commemoration of World War II – oscillating throughout the Soviet period between the crude glorification of war and the unsparing portrayal of harrowing individual war fates. For instance, the socialist-era “realistic and moral accounts” (p. 67) of the writers Vasil Bykau and Ales Adamovich, the subjects of Weller’s study, do not necessarily run counter to state-led memory politics, but – just as the poem Cranes (1969) by the Soviet-Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov does – may rather expose the internal contradictions and fragility inherent to Soviet-era commemoration practices.

mass culture, by conjuring up the idea of the wild 1990s as a traumatic experience, (un)willingly cherished a collective desire for stability, thus paving the way for the rise of an authoritarian figure like Putin.

Following these nevertheless empirically stimulating chapters on Belarus, Allyson Edwards and Roberto Rabbia turn to historical narratives in post-Soviet Russia, employing a valuable psychoanalytical lens. Contending that the “wild nineties’ trope […] is not the Kremlin’s political creation” (p. 78), the authors argue that mass culture, by conjuring up the idea of the wild 1990s as a traumatic experience, (un)willingly cherished a collective desire for stability, thus paving the way for the rise of an authoritarian figure like Putin. According to the authors, more recent events to question such a negative portrayal of the 1990s – such as the festival “Island of the 1990s” (2015) organized by the Yeltsin Center – are perceived as a direct attack on the state’s canonized historical narrative and are thus met with fierce criticism by state-affiliated media. Shifting the geographical focus towards the southeastern margins of Europe, Duygu Erbil’s essay –empirically and contextually, one of the book’s most fascinating contributions – illuminates the role of Deniz Gezmiş, a guerilla fighter executed in 1972 in Turkey, and his role in radicalizing the Kemalist national youth myth by seeking to ground it in a Marxist and anti-imperialist world view. Building on Erbil’s work, Lucie G. Drechselová sheds light on the (in-)visbility of female revolutionaries and their mnemonic legacies.

Moving from the southeastern to the southwestern part of Europe, Spain is introduced as a society marked by an “enduring democratic deficit, passive citizenship and collective forgetfulness” which has its roots in the “whitewashed, innocent and dehumanized narrative of the Civil War” (p. 146). Here the contributors turn to children’s literature (Begoña Regueiro Salgado and Pilar García Carcedo) and family memory (M. Paula O’Donohoe) as pathways to destabilize this “discourse of equidistance”, by highlighting suppressed victim perspectives, challenging Manichaean modes of narration and promoting pacifist and/or anti-war perspectives. Transcending national prisms of memory-making in favor of a theoretically and empirically well-informed transnational perspective, Mirko Milivojevic and Dilyara Müller-Suleymanova engage with the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia, not as a “mere romanticization of the socialist regime” (p. 183) but as “one of the key codes of cultural and political communication” across ethnically diverse post-Yugoslav societies and their diaspora communities abroad (p. 186). Challenging the prevalent framings of “post-socialist” nostalgia as largely restorative and distortive, they draw a more nuanced picture, demonstrating how “nostalgia is combined with irony […] offering a bittersweet re-construction of personal memory narratives” (p. 183) that evokes a destigmatized and decolonized image of Yugoslavia as a “site of vibrant cultural and intellectual life, embedded in global cultural trends, home to the new wave and rock music” (p. 196).

The book is complemented by a second part (thematic perspectives), which again demonstrates the wide geographical and disciplinary angle of this ambitious edited volume. Some contributions engage with the genesis of historical narratives and national identities in Russia and Poland (Jade McGlynn, Karoline Thaidigsmann and Friess). Related contributions explore attempts to engage young Russians in military history (McGlynn), alternative historical narratives in today’s children’s literature in present-day Russia (Friess) and Poland (Thaidigsmann). Further contributions investigate the contestation of troublesome pasts in Algeria and Northern Ireland (Chris Reynolds and Paul Max Morin), the exploration of colonial legacies in European cinema and literature (Thomas Richard and Christiane Connan-Pintado) – with a distinct focus on the French (Connan-Pintado) and Portuguese case (Richard) – and coming-to-terms with the Shoah as a local and cosmopolitan object of memory (Solveig Hennebert and Isabel Sawkins), drawing on more empirical cases studies in  Russia (Sawkins) and the Jewish communities of France (Hennebert). 

With a profound curiosity and sensitivity for “the multiple voices that exist below the everyday historical rhetoric” (p. 4) the authors of this book demonstrate how “[y]oung people express received historical narratives in new – and potentially subversive – ways” (p. 2). As they are coming of age in a vast geography from Southwestern Europe to post-socialist Eurasia, they “come to interrogate their own roots” which in return prompts them to “selectively privilege certain aspects in the history of their family or nation” (p. 2) in their quest to give meaning to the world that surrounds them. At a time when war has returned to Europe, there exists, more than ever, the threat that the plurality of historical experiences will be streamlined in order to suit the antagonistic rhetoric of war. Admittedly, the various perspectives of the authors –especially on the question of the socialist legacy in post-Yugoslav, post-Soviet and capitalist contexts – may at first glance appear irreconcilable and contradictory. Yet it is perhaps precisely in this irreducible tension that the strength of this multi-layered and thought-provoking edited volume lies.

David Leupold is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and the principal investigator of the project “Relicts of Another Future: Life and Afterlife of the Socialist City in Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus”. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Michigan Sociology Department and holds a PhD from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His first monograph Embattled Dreamlands. The Politics of Contesting Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish Memory was awarded the annual book prize of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.