Exploring the Dangers of Collective Identity and Othering in European Society

By Christine Collins 

According to Stone, collective memory refers to the “images and representations of the past that circulate in society and shape a group’s self-image.” When considering this week’s theme on how myths surrounding European identify are challenged with the increased polarization of the rhetoric surrounding mass migration, this definition emphasizing the selective nature of collective memory rings true. 

The selectiveness of collective memory to fit a particular image is showcased by Göle in her comparison of the commemorations (or lack of thereof) of the Berlin Wall and the Moster Bridge. While both structures are historically interconnected, the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of Communism, and is thus celebrated. By contrast, the destruction of the Mostar Bridge— a symbol connecting the Muslim and Christian communities in Bosnia—was “stripped of its symbolic and historical significance” after being shelled by Croatian gunman while fighting the Bosnian Muslims. In choosing to honour a monument symbolizing a Europe freed from Communism while forgetting the continent’s history with Islam, we are presented with a European self-image that overlooks inconvenient moments of its history. 

Depending on national, international, or transnational contexts, collective memory can take different forms and emphasize certain aspects over others. As articulated by Marhoefer, a Holocaust memorial in Berlin commemorating the persecution of gay men was argued to be a “falsification” of history if it simultaneously portrayed lesbian women. Since women did not face the same persecution as homosexual men under Nazi Germany, there were debates on whether they should be included in this collective memory. Ultimately, in 2012, the video memorial was changed to show both female and male same sex couples kissing. However, we must consider how the intersectional, diverse makeup of modern-day Berliners would support this inclusion as a result of their present outlook and values. Based on arguments made by El-Tayeb, it is reasonable to assume this same inclusion would not be extended to homosexual Muslims in Amsterdam. 

Stone further builds his analysis of collective memory by considering why, after swearing “never again,” Europeans have failed to draw connections between the Holocaust and the Syrian refugee crisis. Stone agrees with other historians that the current refugee crisis does not parallel the atrocities of the mass genocide of Jewish people. However, he astutely notes that a consequence of this differentiation is that Europeans have distanced themselves from the Syrian refugee crisis, and thus excused their underwhelming response. One reason for this could connect to El-Tayeb and Göle’s articulation of the Othering of Muslims in Europe, creating an “us vs. them” dynamic routed in collective identity.

So while it is important to respect the diverse histories of secular groups in Europe, at the same time, we must be aware of the impacts memory may play in shaping future actions—political or otherwise—that impact our current society. 

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