The Landscape of Memory and Memorials of World War II in Europe

Christoph Meißner Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf, Germany

5988 words


With 60-80 million lives lost worldwide, World War II remains the deadliest war in human history. Through the extreme violence it unleashed, the conflict left scars on national identities that are still reflected in national, collective, and individual memories today. In Europe, these memories are particularly disparate due to the widely different experiences of the war. Contested views are expressed most visibly in the memorial landscape of the continent. This chapter first aims to look at the politics of remembrance of World War II in Europe and the possibilities of a pan-European memory, and second, attempts to categorise Europe's often confusing memorial landscape. It will be proposed that there are two major memory circles which are codependent in the European politics of memory: the Holocaust; and Stalinist crimes. While the memory of the Holocaust has become the central symbol of the war in Western Europe, it is overshadowed by the experiences of Stalinist violence in Eastern European countries. Only Russia, whose own memory of the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” glorifies the fallen victims, does not really fit into these circles. As will become clear, due to many overlapping national and regional memories, such a proposal can only be an approximation, which by no means claims to be comprehensive.

European memory and its challenges

Swiss writer Adolf Muschg wrote in a 2003 essay on European identity: “What holds Europe together and what divides it is essentially one thing: common memory.”1 With this simple but very precise sentence, he summarised an endless debate that has been unfolding since the end of the Cold War about a European memory and a common history of the European countries. Since the early 1990s, historians and curators have tried and failed to conceptualise a common museum of European history, not least because of the diverse and heterogeneous perspectives of individual countries (and even within an individual country, perspectives are not necessarily homogeneous in themselves). These contested memories continue to shape the memory of World War II to this day, while politicians try to form a common narrative which holds the European Union together. Despite this, according to the thesis of Claus Leggewie and Anne Lang, European states have been able to agree on a common core subject of memory: the remembrance of the Holocaust and its overcoming.2 Germany assuming responsibility for this crime, as a result of a long and intensive debate in the post-war period, was a fundamental factor, thus clearing the way for the development of a complex understanding that combined the perpetrator’s and victim’s narratives. However, in the post-war period this also gave the states of Europe the opportunity to externalise crimes and forget issues such as collaboration and other related crimes perpetrated in their respective countries during the war.3

Apart from this core subject, however, it was difficult to define a common European horizon of remembrance. The discussion was somewhat nationalised, and concerned the number of victims, as well as occasional narratives of collaboration or resistance. As the French historian Ernest Renan said in his famous lecture ‘What is a Nation?’ at the Sorbonne in 1882: “[…] suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”4 To forget the dark and inglorious aspects of one’s own history plays a decisive role not only in individual remembrance, but also in shaping the collective memory of a group of people and nations. To quote Renan again: “Forgetting – I would even go so far as to say the misrepresentation of history – is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality.”5

If we accept Renan’s analysis, then the national experiences and memory of the European states after World War II, which differed and diverged not just marginally but overtly from one another, could not and still cannot be brought together in a common narrative which goes beyond the memory of the Holocaust as a trans-European phenomenon.

The Holocaust as the central focus of the memory of World War II

The fact that the Holocaust was able to become the central focus of remembrance at all is largely due to the universalisation of Holocaust remembrance in the 1990s and 2000s, which was pursued primarily on a political level. The efforts reached a climax at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, which was held on the 55th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and attended by historians, politicians, and heads of state from 46 countries. In the final declaration, all participating states pledged:

“Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences.”6

This laid an important foundation for the future status of Holocaust remembrance in EU member states. Half a decade later, in 2005, these principles were once again laid down on a supranational level when the European Parliament adopted the resolution ‘On the remembrance of the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism and racism’, building on the final declaration of the Stockholm Conference. This resolution called on member states, above all, to fight against xenophobia and racism. In addition, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945 played an important role in the resolution, which declared this date as ‘European Holocaust Remembrance Day’, a day now celebrated in all member states.7 The resolution was followed on a global level by a UN declaration on 1 November 2005 which declared 27 January as ‘International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust’. This declaration also rejects any form of Holocaust denial and encourages member states to actively preserve sites used by the Nazis during the Holocaust.8

The fact that the EU and UN were able to agree on such a resolution in 2005 shows once again the hegemonic status the Holocaust had assumed in the Western and Transatlantic world since the 1980s. However, compared to the knowledge in Western European countries of their own victims and history, that of the victims of World War II in Eastern Europe receded into the background. Next to the Holocaust, there was no room for the millions of murdered and starved Polish and Soviet prisoners of war, or for the approximately one million starved civilians during the blockade of Leningrad, which lasted over 900 days between September 1941 and January 1944. Even when the Holocaust was discussed, it was always seen through a national focus or through the example of Auschwitz. This was done without the wider contextualisation that considers that most war crimes during World War II took place in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the impact on the region, and the remembrance of the multiple and intersecting victim groups.

The Holocaust is still the defining fixed point of memory in the EU today. This unique focus in the common memory of World War II was not called into question at the time of the Union’s eastward growth in 2004 or 2007 with the associated inclusion of the Eastern European space of experience and memory;9 after all, the Baltic states had already been active members at the Holocaust Conference in Stockholm in 2000. However, the inclusion of the states of Central and Eastern Europe now added experience of the crimes of Stalinism, which in the following years established itself as another circle of remembrance alongside the core Holocaust remembrance in the EU.

Stalinist crimes as a part of the memory of World War II

Their specific histories and memorialisation practices, which diverged from those in the West, prompted the newly admitted Eastern European countries to try and make their voices heard in the remembrance policy network of the EU. Their core request was for adequate remembrance of the crimes of Stalinism, which, according to the assessment of these countries, were to be equated with the crimes of the National Socialists. The argument, especially in the Baltic states and Poland, was that both were equally criminal regimes. This perspective is understandable against the background of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (known in Eastern Europe as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and the resulting division of Central and Eastern Europe between the spheres of interest of National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, and the violent crimes that accompanied it. However, this perspective acknowledges that many historiographical questions remain unresolved, and that simply equating both crimes addresses neither the inner complexities of either regime, nor their respective acts of violence.

Nevertheless, this view has resonated, and continues to resonate, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. This continued resonance is emphasised by the states’ commemoration policies and cultures of remembrance, which rarely consider the multi-layered nature of historiographical findings. Thus, the states of Central and Eastern Europe took on the inclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact within the framework of a common European memory as their primary historical-political project. This undertaking has been pursued by the political circles of the different states with admirable perseverance until the present day, and a number of successes are evident.

The first was Resolution No. 1481, the ‘Need for international condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’ of 25 January 2006,10 but this was superseded by the resolution ‘European conscience and totalitarianism’ adopted by the European Parliament on 2 April 2009.11 In this resolution, the proposal of the Prague Declaration ‘On European Conscience and Communism’, which was signed on 3 June 2008 by several prominent European politicians, former political prisoners, and historians, was adopted to make 23 August (the day of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939) a European day of remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian dictatorships in Europe in the 20th century. Since then, it has formally stood on an equal footing with Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January. But this equivalence is only formal. In reality, 27 January continues to receive much more attention than 23 August, especially in Western Europe. This circumstance reflects a fundamental ignorance and lack of awareness on the part of Western European remembrance communities towards the experiences of Eastern Europeans.

The last major success enjoyed by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe was the European Parliament resolution ‘On the importance of European historical consciousness for the future of Europe’ of 2019.12 In this, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was acknowledged as the starting point of World War II, thus attributing blame to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the resolution accused the Russian government of whitewashing communist crimes, glorifying the Soviet totalitarian regime, and using history as a weapon in the information war against Europe. In its concluding paragraphs it urges Russian society to educate itself about this “tragic past”. Here too, from a historiographical point of view, we must follow the plea for differentiation and not generalisation that is characteristic of this resolution. The key question for historians is how these resolutions on remembrance policy usually find their way through parliament unchallenged. The adoption of the resolution was accompanied by a widespread absence of scholarly consultation and social debate, at least in the German-speaking world.13

Russia, the Holocaust, and Stalinist crimes

A third circle of memory primarily concerns Russia. In Russia, it is above all the narrative of victory in the Great Patriotic War – which began on 22 June 1941 with Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union and ended on 9 May 1945 with the surrender of the Wehrmacht — that shapes the World War II memory landscape; a landscape which ignores Soviet responsibility for the start of the conflict in September 1939. In the process, something akin to a cult of victory has been created in the seven decades since the end of the war, which includes the hero-worship of the victims and ultimately justifies the horrors of the war through its victorious result.14 In addition to the domestic political benefits of this narrative for Russia, such a development can be read as an answer to the remembrance policy initiatives of the Central and Eastern European states, who try to make the Soviet Union jointly responsible for the outbreak of the war. Moreover, these states consider the liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944 merely as the beginning of a new Soviet occupation which lasted until the regime's collapse in 1991. It is therefore not surprising that Russian President Vladimir Putin, in reaction to the aforementioned resolution ‘On the importance of European historical consciousness for the future of Europe’, felt compelled to respond a year later with his own essay on “the real lessons of World War II”.15 In this text, he rejected the responsibility of the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the war and instead blamed Poland, further arguing that the Baltic states had voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940 and that, in any event, the Soviet Union had saved the whole world. Of course, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was not mentioned in this example of blatant historical distortion.

Other victim groups and Soviet nationalities and ethnicities assumed a subsidiary role in this glorification of a narrowly defined “Russian” victory and the accompanying liberation of Europe from fascism. Over the last three years, however, the global trend in memory politics towards self-victimisation can also be observed in the Russian Federation. From a heroic victory, the memory has evolved into a narrative of victimhood with a strong emphasis on the notion of genocide. For example, in October 2022 the St. Petersburg City Court recognised the blockade of Leningrad by the German Wehrmacht from 1941-1944 as a genocide against the Soviet people.16  With the promotion of this tendency, the Russian Federation appears on the one hand to want to join this trend in memory politics in order to mitigate its status of a pariah, and on the other hand, against the background of a supposed “genocide” of the Russian population in the Donbass, this legitimises the war of aggression against Ukraine; then, as now, soldiers are dying in order to avert genocide and defeat “evil”. Victims of the Holocaust are thus largely overshadowed in the official view of history.17

It is all the more painful for the victims and their relatives, then, that there is no place left in Russia's culture and politics of remembrance for the horrors of the Gulag, which claimed about four million lives. These crimes have been admitted by the Russian state, but their commemoration has not been promoted in any way, and has been completely suppressed in the recent past.18 In December 2021, the Russian Federation showed that it was no longer interested in coming to terms with this chapter of its own history by issuing a court order to ban Memorial International, the only independent organisation conducting research on the victims and the apparatus of the Gulag.

Is there a European memory of World War II?

This schematic threefold division of European memory spaces to World War II, all mutually dependent and built upon one another, is by no means sufficient to depict the memory landscape of Europe in all its complexity. Nevertheless, such a division can help cut a swath through the thicket of memories and, by focusing on the politics of remembrance, more readily highlight the contrasts. It is by no means intended to level out the disparate memories of World War II. Rather, a unity in diversity should be allowed for, which is what the final part of this section pleads for. It will deal with a central question: is a unified European memory possible?

Jewish victims of the Holocaust have received increasing attention from the general public since the 1980s, while the victims of Stalinism, who were deported, tortured, exploited, and murdered as forced labourers, have not yet been given an appropriate place in European memory. But how can these different circles of memory be brought together?

To this end, we should first let go of the idea of a common, uniform, and harmonious European memory and shift our thinking more in the direction of the motto of the EU: “United in diversity”. A coherent European history of World War II must therefore be more than just the sum of all its national and regional parts; we should accept and engage with the diversity of memories. If you don’t know about a person’s past, you cannot talk to them about their future. For this, however, empathy towards the other and a praxis of self-critical reflection are fundamental prerequisites. Only those able to put themselves in the other’s shoes to take on and understand alternative perspectives can develop empathy. Therefore, a multiperspective and dialogical approach is needed when looking at Europe's manifold memory spaces.19 Another prerequisite for this approach is developing a precise knowledge of how one's neighbours deal with history. Ultimately, a multiperspective and dialogical approach requires a consensus on the forms of dealing with history and conflicts of memory. At a bare minimum, this consensus should avoid offsetting debts and a competition between victims, e.g. debating who suffered more. Such an approach means, crucially, that it shouldn’t be an option to redeem one’s own debt with the debt of another, as this attitude leads to a relativisation of one’s own guilt. The Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy characterised this in 2004 as follows: “Covering one’s own crimes by referring to German crimes is a European habit. Hatred of the Germans was the foundation of the post-war period.”20 Opening up a competition between victim groups or national suffering leads to marginalisation.21 Promoting one group as having suffered the most means overshadowing or even calling into question the suffering of another. Neither approach is in the interest of upholding the pluralistic memory politics that have prevailed in the last three decades since the end of the Cold War (at least in Western Europe).

A second and even more important prerequisite is the fact that peaceful resolution of memory conflicts always happens on the basis of the mutual and reciprocal understanding that there is no exclusive memory that has precedence over others. A common discussion is only possible if all agree on the premise that history must not be weaponised to legitimise acts of war in the present. Even agreeing on such a small and necessary basic consensus is difficult, as shown by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. In this war, historical myths and alleged grievances that initially triggered a “war of memories”22 in Central and Eastern Europe are now used as a pretext to question the European peace order through a military invasion.

Nevertheless, European civil society and politicians should not despair. There are enough examples in recent history of projects that had and still have a multiperspective dialogue as their goal. The ‘Confronting Memories’ programme is one such successful example. Teachers, historians, and civil society activists from different Eastern European countries meet to shed light on the contrasting ways history is viewed and, at the same time, understand one another's thinking and actions. Another important initiative is the European Network for Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS). Founded in 2005, the organisation supports academic research, educational projects, and promotional events through a network of international scholars and ENRS partner institutions. These two examples of initiatives can thus provide a model for a larger remembrance policy framework. A European collective memory of World War II must be as diverse as its nations and cultures; it should not be regulated by resolutions passed in the European Parliament and certainly cannot successfully be imposed by acts of state and routine remembrance rituals. A uniform memory is therefore neither possible nor desirable, as it can only be incomplete and therefore highly selective. Rather, it is necessary to acknowledge history’s contradictions and establish a basis for coexistence in the present and the future through the complex elucidation of the past.

German political scientist Claus Leggewie wrote about the “European battlefield of memories”.23 Ending this war of memories would require highlighting the importance of the Holocaust without placing it upon such a high pedestal that it downplays the systematic extermination of “class and national enemies” in countries under the Soviet sphere of power. This aspiration requires a broader knowledge not only of our own national history, but also of the history of our neighbours. Therefore, the final plea is as simple as it is logical. What is needed in the future is an even greater transnational and multiperspective approach to history teaching, so that pupils are given the ability to develop empathy towards other lived historical experiences right from the start. Such a goal may sound idealistic and difficult to implement in the reality of public European classrooms – but it is certainly worth a try.

The European memorial and museum landscape – attempting an overview

The European memorial landscape is just as heterogeneous as its remembrance landscape. Pierre Nora wrote: “Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. […] Memory instals remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again.”24 This tension becomes clear in the fact that memory is connected to places and history to events. Individual memories are thus incorporated into collective memory through the establishment of places of remembrance and memorial sites with the aim of preserving them for future generations and preventing these narratives from disappearing into oblivion. With the extinction of the generation of contemporary witnesses, interpersonal communicative memory is transferred into a wider collective memory and crystallised in physical spaces that take on a new and important function. Collective memory aims to provide future generations with a historical and moral compass. We cannot know how memory will change in the future, considering new contexts and debates. Therefore, an overview of the current memorial landscape can only ever be a selective snapshot of the present, and the following section is thus only one attempt to categorise memorials.

Official memorials of military campaigns

The first category of memorials pertains to those built on sites that were crucial to military operations and battles. World War II was a dynamic war that affected essentially all of Europe, as well as parts of Asia and Africa. As such, it left behind a large number of sites that fit this description. The majority of monuments and memorials that fall into this category, however, are found in Eastern Europe. There, the Wehrmacht and other National Socialist paramilitary organisations waged a merciless war of annihilation. But the ranks of the Red Army also suffered immense losses on the battlefields because of Soviet war tactics, which were not designed to spare the lives of individual soldiers. Large memorial complexes were erected on the sites of major battles to commemorate both the victims and the conflict itself, notably in Brest, Stalingrad and Kursk, or near Minsk and Kyiv (see Learning Activities and Annex II). Their monumental size celebrates the victory of the Red Army and the liberation of the Soviet fatherland from the horrors of the German occupying regime. These memorials are by no means mere relics of the Soviet past, since the installations in Șerpeni (Republic of Moldova) and Rzhev (Russian Federation) were built long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not surprising that these monumental new complexes were mainly built on territories formerly part of the Soviet Union and have been widely accepted there. After all, as mentioned in the first section, the heroic narrative was the defining element of the Soviet commemorative culture, which in part continues to this day. If this narrative was becoming fragile after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has radically changed since Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine, in the course of which the Baltic states and Poland have torn down a large number of Soviet victory memorials, e.g. in Riga and Narva.25

In contrast with these monumental complexes, there are countless military cemeteries of differing sizes. Even within this category there is a great disparity in commemoration practices. The American military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, located on the famous Omaha Beach, commemorates around 10,000 soldiers who fell during the Normandy landings in June 1944, with 10,000 white crosses. By contrast, Soviet military cemeteries usually have large mass graves and only a small number of individual graves. Some of the mass graves are not even marked as such and it is unclear how many soldiers are buried in them. This anonymity is particularly obvious at the Soviet memorial in Berlin-Treptow, inaugurated in 1949, where there is no indication of the graves’ location, nor is there any individualisation of the victims (although their names are known). In contrast, German military cemeteries, which are maintained and still erected by the German War Graves Commission, consist mostly of stone crosses and plates on which the names of the fallen soldiers are inscribed. This is a permanent work in progress, because bodies are still being found to this day. These two groups (memorials and graves) commemorate the soldiers who died on the battlefield. But soldiers did not only die in battle, as is the widespread assumption. Prisoners of war (POWs) constitute a large and underrepresented victim group due to the sheer number of soldiers that took part in the war. With more than three million dead whilst in captivity, i.e. 60 percent of all captured, Soviet POWs are the largest victim group of Nazi violence, behind the victims of the Holocaust.26 In the collective memory, both in former Soviet countries and the rest of Europe, they are unfortunately largely forgotten. Thus, the POW camps, so called Stalag (Stammlager, main camp) for rank soldiers and Oflag (Offizierslager, officers’ camp) for officers, in which the soldiers were gathered after their capture, and in some cases subjected to serious crimes, have become places of remembrance that should be given special attention. Crucially, the strict separation between military and civilian victims becomes inevitably blurred and can no longer be maintained among this group of memorial sites. In the case of the German Reich, these camps were often concentration camps for other victim groups of the Nazi regime (e.g. Neuengamme near Hamburg) and forced labour camps, in which prisoners were also interned.27 The same can be observed in post-Soviet territories, where camps of the Gulag system were also filled with German POWs.

Official memorials of victims

The blurred boundaries between different categories of military victims draw attention to a second commemoration category, that of civilian victims. Concentration and extermination camps, but also urban ghettos for Jewish victims, often stand out in people’s mental maps as the most well-known memorial sites. In this guide, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the ghetto in Chişinău represent this tendency (see Learning Activities). However, when teaching about the industrial-scale mass murder of the Jews, educators must also talk about its preface, which can be characterised as the ‘Holocaust by bullets’. This phase is especially significant in Central and Eastern Europe, where thousands of Jews were shot in large massacres. The memorial site to the Babyn Yar massacre in Kyiv in September 1941, when more than 36,000 Jews were killed in one day by Germans and their Ukrainian helpers, is probably the most well-known symbol of these earlier crimes (see Annex II).

To this day, many of these sites remain on the outskirts of the memory culture surrounding World War II, and some are not even marked. In Ukraine, a cooperation project between German and Ukrainian memorial sites has set itself the goal of tracking down these places and marking them.28 The universalisation of the Holocaust and its important place in the memory cultures of European states both support taking the business of commemoration in this direction. However, the victims of massacres in camps and cities were by no means only Jews, and this prompts us to take a closer look at other victim groups that have been largely overlooked in the European memorial landscape. For example, in the centre of Berlin, within walking distance of the world-famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there are further memorials dedicated to the murdered Sinti and Roma, to the murdered homosexuals and non-gender conforming individuals, and to those murdered by euthanasia – victims of the National Socialist racial ideology, killed in the course of the T4 action. This example suggests pathways to recognise other groups of victims, and this, step-by-step, is being done in many places all over Europe, not only in Berlin.

Outside cities and camps, in so-called ‘burnt villages’, other victims of war crimes are also commemorated by memorials. In many cases, these crimes of intimidation were meant as revenge for the resistance actions of partisans during German occupation, resulting in the destruction of entire villages.29 The best-known and most famous memorial in this category is in Khatyn, Belarus. This memorial, opened in 1969, commemorates the destruction of 5,295 Belarusian villages. However, its fame is limited to Eastern Europe; in Western Europe, the commemoration of ‘burnt villages’ focuses on the Oradour-sur-Glane memorial, similarly referring to the fate of a village destroyed by the National Socialists. Listing all the places and groups of victims of National Socialist violent crimes remains an unattainable task, but it is important to note that there are memorials, places of remembrance or simply commemorative plaques across all European countries. It is not uncommon for the memory of resistance to the occupation regime (Nazi Germany and/or the Soviet Union) to play a prominent role in national remembrance, as a source of collective pride and patriotism. This can be observed particularly in the territories occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, notably in the Baltic states and Ukraine. Some of these states had an overwhelming double experience of occupation. The first Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941 was followed by the German occupation after the start of the German war against the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944. With the retreat of the German army, it was followed by the first or second Soviet occupation, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Both legacies are an important part of the memorial and museum landscape. One example of Nazi crimes in the Baltic region is Salaspils in Latvia, located some twenty kilometres from Riga. The so-called ‘work education camp’ and the ‘extended police prison’ were both constructed in the winter of 1941-1942 under inhumane working conditions by Jewish men who had been deported from the German Reich. It was the largest camp in the Baltic region not only for civilian prisoners from Latvia, but also political prisoners of different nationalities. Today’s memorial was erected in 1967. Seven larger than life sculptures stand on the former roll-call grounds of the camp, symbolising the suffering of the victims, but also the tenacity and success of local anti-fascists in their fight against the National Socialist regime. In contrast, the memorial at Torņakalns railway station in Riga addresses the history and legacy of Stalinist crimes. This memorial, which is dedicated to the deportations of the Stalinist regime from Latvia in 1941, was opened by the Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga in 2001 to mark the 60th anniversary of the event. The group of sculptures in the centre of the composition is supplemented with stones engraved with the names of different places of exile (Vorkuta, Omsk, Vyatlag, Karaganda, etc.)  

Museums dedicated to historical events

As designated sites of learning and cultural preservation, museums must be strictly separated from memorials and places of remembrance. In memorials, the focus is on commemorating the history of a place and the people who once lived or died there, which is why they are predominantly located in authentic historical places. On the other hand, according to a definition proposed by the statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM):

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.32

It follows that these institutions do not necessarily have to be located in ‘authentic’ places or spaces of historical significance, e.g. Le Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris or the Jewish museums in Berlin and Warsaw. This pedagogical guide uses the example of the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (see Learning Activities). The museum is located at the historical site where the German Wehrmacht signed its surrender on 8/9 May 1945, and the permanent exhibition focuses on the German war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. The museum does not commemorate a particular group of victims like a memorial. Rather, it focuses on the end of the war as a redemptive moment, at the same time not forgetting the victims that the war claimed. Other museums similarly attempt to provide a wider perspective of World War II without excluding the commemoration of its victims – for example, in Gdańsk, Kyiv, Minsk, and Moscow.

Stalinist crimes also feature in museums, notably in the famous Museum of Occupation in Riga, as well as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Vilnius, itself located in a building that was once both the headquarters of the KGB and the Gestapo. These two museums succeed in focusing both on the National Socialist past and the era of Soviet occupation. Similarly, the House of Terror in Budapest has adopted the same approach, displaying from the very first room the joint commemoration of the victims of both dictatorships side by side. From a didactic point of view, this is unfortunately not necessarily successful, as the approach inevitably leads to a comparison of victims which, as mentioned, should be strictly avoided.  

Unofficial memorials / private initiatives

The institutionalised memorial landscape made of monuments, memorial signs (plaques), and museums, is supplemented by less public and informal civil society commemoration. This pedagogical guide provides the example of the Stumbling Stones (Stolpersteine), a civic initiative founded in Germany in 1992, which has set as its goal the concrete, individual remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. Over the last three decades, this initiative has spread across the entire continent, and today we can find these small places of remembrance across thirty European countries. From 2014 its counterpart, the Last Address (Poslednij adres) campaign developed in Eastern Europe to remember the victims of Stalinism, has followed a similar path. (see Annex II) In both cases, a small stone or plaque is placed in front of the last known place of residence of the victim. These unofficial places of remembrance, which are nevertheless supported or at least tolerated by political authorities and society, have found their way into the culture of remembrance of European states despite or because of their roots in civil society.


This chapter’s panorama of memorial sites highlights the diversity of memories and remembrance practices, but also the diversity of the crimes. There is a constant need for the revitalisation and balancing of remembrance so that the victims of World War II are not forgotten. This is now more important than ever against the backdrop of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This war, too, tears open wounds and leaves new scars which, like those of World War II, will go down in European memory and require collective healing. Remembrance must not degenerate into an end in itself but must have mutual and historical understanding as its goal, to recognise the suffering and destruction that war and occupation bring. The central concern of remembrance lies in its consequence: to draw conclusions from the past for the present in order to shape a common future in a peaceful and democratic Europe. We should never lose sight of this, despite all our differences about history and memory.


1 Muschg, A. (2003). ‘“Kerneuropa”. Gedanken zur europäischen Identität’ [“Core Europe”. Thoughts on European identity], Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 31 May,, accessed 20 November 2022.
2 Leggewie, C. (2011). Der Kampf um das europäische Gedächtnis. Ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt [The Battle for European Memory. A Battlefield is Visited], C.H.Beck: München.
3 Judt, T. (1992). ‘The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe’, Daedalus, 121 (Fall 1992), pp. 83–119.
4 Renan, E. (1882). What is a Nation?, 11 March, Sorbonne, Paris.
5 Ibid.
6 ‘Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust’, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, 29 January 2000,, accessed 20 November 2022.
7 ‘European Parliament resolution on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and racism’, Official Journal of the European Union, P6_TA(2005)0018, 27 January 2005,, accessed 20 November 2022.
8 ‘Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 1 November 2005 – 60/7’, United Nations, A/RES/60/7, 21 November 2005,, accessed 17 January 2023.
9 In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, and Cyprus joined the EU; in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined.
10 Resolution 1481 – Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’, PACE, 25 January 2006,, accessed 17 January 2023.
11 ‘European Parliament resolution of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism’, Official Journal of the European Union, P6_TA(2009)0213, 2 April 2009,, accessed 20 November 2022.
12 ‘European Parliament resolution of 19 September 2019 on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe’, Official Journal of the European Union,  P9_TA(2019)0021, 19 September 2019,, accessed 20 November 2022.
13 For more on this discussion see, for example, Drăgulin, A. & Ciobanu, M. (2019). ‘History is not an “Option”. Collective memory and ideological fragmentation in Europe’, Revista Română de Studii Eurasiatice, XV(1–2), pp. 171–192; Pistan, C. (2020). ‘Collective Memory in the context of European integration processes. Some critical reflections on the EU politics of remembrance’, De Europa, 3(2), pp. 21–38; Barile, D. (2021). ‘Memory and integration. The European Parliament's 2019 resolution on European remembrance as a case study’, Journal of European Integration, 8(43), pp. 989–1004.
14 See Hoffmann, D. L. (ed.) (2022). The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, Routledge: New York.
15 Putin, V. (2020). ‘The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II’, The National Interest, 18 June,, accessed 20 November 2022.
16 See ‘Горсуд Петербурга признал геноцидом блокаду Ленинграда’ [The St. Petersburg City Court recognised the siege of Leningrad as genocide], Interfax, 20 October 2022,, accessed 20 November 2022.
As early as 2020, a court in the Novgorod region recognised the massacre of civilians in the village of Zhestyanaya Gorka in 1942-1943 as a genocide. In August 2021, the Pskov Regional Court followed by recognising the crimes committed by Nazi Germany in the region as genocide against the Soviet people.
17 See Zeltser, A. (2019). Unwelcome Memory. The Holocaust Monuments in the Soviet Union, Yad Vashem: Jerusalem.
18 See Bogumił, Z. (2018). Gulag Memories. The Rediscovery and Commemoration of Russia's Repressive Past, Berghahn: New York/Oxford.
19 Dialogical remembering is contrasted with antagonistic remembering, which seeks to find a way of dealing with the past in which some demand that others ultimately recognise their view, thus formulating a claim to absoluteness.
20 Esterhazy, P. (2004). ‘Alle Hände sind unsere Hände’ [All Hands Are Our Hands], Süddeutsche Zeitung, 11 October.
21 See Assmann, A. (2006). Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik [The Long Shadow of the Past. Remembrance Culture and Politics of History], C.H.Beck: München, p. 268.
22 For more on the term ‘memory wars’, see ibid. 
23 Leggewie, C. (2011). Der Kampf um das europäische Gedächtnis. Ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt [The Battle for European Memory. A Battlefield is Visited], C.H.Beck: München.
24 Nora, P. (1989). ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26(Spring), pp. 7–24.
25 Henley, J. (2022). ‘Estonia removes Soviet-era tank monument amid Russia tensions’, The Guardian, 16 August,;
‘Latvia removes Soviet-era monument in Riga’, DW, 25 August 2022,, both accessed 20 November 2022.
26 See Blank, M. & Quinkert, B. (2021). Dimensions of a Crime. Soviet Prisoners of War in World War II, Museum Karlshorst: Berlin.
27 Otto, R. & Keller, R. (2019). Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im System der Konzentrationslager [Soviet Prisoners of War in the Concentration Camp System], New Academic Press: Vienna.
28 For the results of the project, see ‘Protecting Memory. Protecting and Memorialising Holocaust Mass Graves in Ukraine’,, accessed 20 November 2022.
Another important German/Ukrainian project which has already produced remarkable results is ‘Erinnerung lernen’ [Learning Memory],
29 For examples see Davies, F. & Makhotina, K. (2022). Offene Wunden Osteuropas. Reisen zu Erinnerungsorten des Zweiten Weltkriegs [Open Wounds of Eastern Europe. Travels to places of remembrance of the Second World War], WBG: Darmstadt, pp. 195–220.
30 See Rudling, P. A. (2012). ‘The Khatyn Massacre in Belorussia: A Historical Controversy Revisited’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 1(26), pp. 29–58.
31 For an overview of memorial sites connected not only with the Holocaust, but other victim groups as well, see the ‘Information Portal of European Sites of Remembrance’,, accessed 20 November 2022.
32 ‘International Council of Museums (ICOM) Statutes as amended and adopted by the Extraordinary General Assembly on 9th June 2017’, ICOM,, accessed 20 November 2022.

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