Addressing Europe’s Colonial Legacies

By: PSjoberg

The European integration project has always proclaimed itself to be a champion for unity through diversity and an advocate for a common European identity that achieves this goal. However, as seen in this week’s readings, a European identity appears to be fundamentally at odds with the idea of being “United in Diversity” (the motto of the European Union). At the core of this identity crisis is the lack of self-awareness on the part of white Europeans to acknowledge the privileges afforded to them by their imperial and colonial ancestors. No matter how much white Europeans may wish otherwise, they cannot (and should not) completely divorce themselves from the legacies of colonialism. Many Europeans’ mindset that colonialism has stayed in the past makes them prone to resuscitating those racist values and actions. Colonialism should be treated throughout Europe as Nazism is treated today in Germany: it must be addressed directly and not swept under the rug.

This is a problem of ‘collective memory,’ as discussed in Dan Stone’s article “On Neighbours and those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Stone challenges the writings of two other scholars, Jan T. Gross and G. M. Tamas, who each respectively published an article addressing the 2015 European refugee crisis wherein they argued that Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary were trapped in the past, demonstrated by their “failure to respond in a humanitarian way to the refugee movements.” Reacting to these two articles, Stone is correct in his critique that Poland and Hungary are trapped in the past, but that this is not a strictly Eastern European phenomenon: it can be expanded to all of Europe. As Stone states, collective memory is as much about ‘forgetting’ as it is about ‘remembering.’  

While Poland and Hungary have no issue ‘forgetting’ the fact that many Poles and Hungarians were co-conspirators in the Nazi-administered Holocaust, Gloria Wekkers demonstrates in her chapter, “…For Even though I am Black as Soot, My Intentions are Good,” that the entire collective memory of the Netherlands seems to forget about the legacies of Dutch colonialism. The absolute refusal by so many Dutch people to acknowledge that the figure of ‘Zwarte Piet’ is in fact a racist caricature, was shocking to me. For the modern descendants of European-colonized populations, it is impossible to escape the legacies of colonialism – they exist in a state of decolonization and postcolonialism. For modern descendants of European colonizers to believe they can simply move on from their colonial ancestors as if nothing ever happened is the ultimate display of white European privilege.

Fatima El-Tayeb expertly demonstrates this privilege in her article, “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay.’ Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City,” wherein she explores how queer Muslims are repressed within the wider pan-ethnic queer community in Europe because of their ethnicity. This Othering of queer Muslims by queer white Europeans illustrates the prejudice shown by Europeans even in which kinds of people they choose to include under the slogan of “United in Diversity.” Thus, Europe clearly still has not addressed its ugly colonial past, creating the environment for this past to rear its ugly head even under the guise of “tolerance” and “diversity.”


El-Tayeb, Fatima. “”Gays Who Cannot Properly be Gay.’ Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19/1, (2012): 79-95.

Stone, Dan. “On Neighbours and Those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Patterns of Prejudice 52, no. 2/3 (May 2018): 231–43.

Wekkers, Gloria. “….For Even Though I am Black as Soot, My Intentions are Good”: the Case of Zwarte Piet/Black Pete” in White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Duke University Press, 2015), pp. 139-167

Comparing the Holocaust to Everything

In analyzing how we treat Europe’s refugee crisis, Dan Stone makes the argument that our actions and the lens we view such things through is heavily influence by World War II and the Holocaust specifically. Stone says that the world never properly came to terms with the Holocaust, and so now it colours the way we think about all kinds of different crises. For example, we might not pay attention to something as much as we should if we deem it ‘not as bad as the Holocaust.’ Stone invokes a 1945 quote from Alan Moorehead that warns that the “danger of indifference” will always be present, bringing up many tragedies that happened over the course of the war which Europeans didn’t care to hear about, unlike the Holocaust, which was huge news. There is a paradox here in how we treat crises or tragedies. For example, we have a tendency to analyze tragedies in regard to how they compare to the Holocaust, which either leads to an incorrect likening of some tragedy to the Holocaust, or if we do not liken some tragedy to the Holocaust, it is downplayed and minimized because it is ‘not as bad as the Holocaust.’ Stone says that it is correct that Europe’s current refugee crisis is not like the Holocaust, but once we begin to insist upon that idea, there is the danger that we don’t respond seriously enough to the problem. For Stone, this seems to stem from the idea that the Cold War was not comprised of the postwar period, and that the postwar period could not happen until the end of the Cold War, so we are only now grappling with the consequences of World War II and the Holocaust, as we try to compare them with every new crisis. However, Stone does not provide any solutions to this problem which he, in my opinion correctly, identifies. How can we properly analyze and take notice of tragedies that went unnoticed by Europeans in World War II and accurately and appropriately respond to the current refugee crisis?

Challenges to European Self-Understanding

The European Commission has put forth a clear objective to “reinforce EU citizens’ commitment to Europe’s common democratic values” (fundamental values of respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law). The EU’s goal is to defend these values and promote peace and wellbeing among its citizens. However, when faced with the challenges of mass migration, these values seem to falter for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as Fatima El-Tayeb summarized, the West, or in this case the EU, does not see Islam as a religion practiced in many forms, but an all-encompassing ideology. This thinking strips away all individuality from Muslims. This is what Edward Said argued was part of the Orientalist tradition. The West has defined itself as a civilizing power in the uncivilized East (the other). This means that the EU has committed to common democratic values, but only as long as they fall within what the EU defines as correct/civilized/democratic. I found El-Tayeb’s discussion of the exclusion of Muslim Europeans “through the claim of Islam being incompatible with a European commitment to human rights” very convincing. This is particularly evident and relevant with the rise of far-right populist movements across Europe. However, I was unsure about the argument of marginalizing queers of colour for not being “properly gay.” I wondered to what extent they were marginalized by (the implicitly white) gay community because they were queers of colour, or just because they were of colour?

Secondly, as Nilüfer Göle argued, “Europe cannot be approached as a pre-established entity equipped with a given structure and narrative with which others are expected to comply.” This line of thinking creates a problem for the idea of acceptance and freedom of expression and religion. That being said, I don’t exactly buy Göle’s statement about Europe. I do not think we should see Europe as a pre-established entity, it was very much consciously established with consciously created objectives and commitments to Europe’s common democratic values. I think this raises a bigger question of migration and assimilating/integrating into a new society or culture. To what extent can we expect migrants to adopt new customs and social norms? To what extent are these norms based on historical claims to the area? Should migrants to Europe fully adopt the “civilized West’s” way of life while rejecting their past?

Thirdly, while there may be clear objectives to common democratic values now, this was not always the case. As Dan Stone argued, some parts of Europe may not have come to terms with the memory of the Holocaust, which is why they were not prepared to respond to the refugee crisis. I think Stone offers many interesting reflections on this line of argument, but I could not help but think of other reasons for the response to refugees in Eastern Europe. Stone brings up Viktor Orbán as well as Poland’s readiness to accept refugees as long as they are Christian. In the case of Hungary, I think anti-migrant sentiment runs much deeper than Orbán. I would argue Orbán capitalized on anti-migrant sentiment among the Hungarian people (that are ethnically homogenous). The population in Poland is also very ethnically homogenous, which would exacerbate the difficulties of “the Other” to integrate into society. There are other concerns in Hungary and Poland, such as lack of media freedom, that make these problems worse.

Overall, I think this week’s readings brought up many good points that highlighted the challenges that mass migration has posed to European identity. They are however parts of bigger questions: to what extent should ‘European identity’ be preserved? What is European identity? What are valid threats to European identity and what are not valid threats? Can we classify mass migration as a valid threat to European identity? Is this inherently a bad thing?