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The “Cosmopolitan Century”: European Re-Membering


Natan Sznaider.  Gedächtnisraum Europa: Die Visionen des europäischen Kosmopolitismus; eine jüdische Perspektive.   Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2008.  153 pp.  EUR 16.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89942-692-2.

As Europe moves into the twenty-first century, its search for a shared identity continues to occupy academic journals, the feuilleton pages, and Eurocrats eager to underwrite a by-and-large successful administrative enterprise with shared cultural imageries.  Cosmopolitanism, based primarily on revulsions against the Holocaust and World War II, represents a central or perhaps potential feature of this new orientation.  Western European leaders and intellectuals have repeatedly invoked the seminal role of the memory of the Holocaust as a foundational event for such a shared past.  This scenario is the starting point for Natan Sznaider’s critical look at the prospects for a new Europe, how they relate to memories of the Holocaust, and the cosmopolitan promises attached to them.  While he is sympathetic to the cosmopolitan project, Sznaider is critical of the old European penchant for projecting its virtues as a universal model.  With the Enlightenment imperative hovering as cultural deep structure over the enterprise, this universalizing universe, so to speak, has a long tradition of rejecting particular attachments as anachronistic.  In its contemporary variant, the particular is frequently perceived as an impediment, if not an outright antidote to, the cosmopolitan project.  Sznaider persuasively articulates the paradoxical results of a European cosmopolitan model based on universalized memories of the Holocaust that does not remember the particular experience of its Jewish victims.  By excluding the memories of Jews, Europeans inevitably fall back on a Kantian conception of cosmopolitanism rooted in a universalism that has no conceptual and actual space for the persistence of particular attachments.  In this volume, Sznaider’s seeks to rescue the Jewish experience in the European story.  Doing so is not merely a matter of giving the subaltern a voice or engaging in a counter-memorial project, to use two fashionable terms for challenging dominant memory cultures.  Rather, he suggests that the universalist narrative obliterates the cosmopolitan potential of the Jewish experience, which straddles the interstices of universal identifications and particular attachments.  Sznaider’s endeavor to reinscribe the Jewish voice in the European narrative reflects a dual move: it is aimed at presenting a competing historical version of cosmopolitanism and, at the same time, alerts us to the cosmopolitan potential the recognition of particularism could yield in the context of Europe’s ethno-cultural-religious diversity.  By bringing the Jewish experience into the equation, universalism and particularism cease to be mutually exclusive categories and become lived praxis.  Jews are too universal to be particular, and too particular to be universal.  The “Jewish question” is no longer merely a problem, but reflects the contemporary dilemmas liberal societies confront in multiculturalism.  In this view, universal aspirations and particularist ethnic identification are not merely Jewish history, but become relevant for, even constitutive of, contemporary debates.  Given these concerns, this book not only treats Jewish history, but also speaks directly to contemporary issues related to migration, creeping internal colonialism, and prospects for a shared Europeanness.  Memories of Jewish experiences in central and eastern Europe — ranging from minority status in imperial contexts to problematic incorporation into nation-states — are shown to stand in elective affinity with the cosmopolitan features of Europe.

The fifteen essays in the book span Jewish European history from the imperial Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the post-Holocaust period.  Sznaider reminds us of the rich cultural, ethnic, and religious tapestries of east and central European Jewry.  One of his objectives is to free the notion of cosmopolitanism from its individualistic bias and reconcile personal liberty with cultural embeddedness.  He tackles these issues with a dual strategy: first, he delves into the Jewish condition before and after the Holocaust to explore how changing historical conditions informed the balance of particular and universal identifications; and second, by combining exegesis with an extra-textual approach, he offers an original reading of Hannah Arendt‘s political theories and writings on Jewish matters in which she is not only the observing philosopher, but very much the embodiment of the kind of particularized cosmopolitanism that is the leitmotiv of the book.

Before engaging with the revisions Sznaider makes to European history and ongoing attempts to carve out the European memoryscape of the title, we should consider the innovative methodological and conceptual contributions his work offers for historical social scientists.  Conceptually, he follows in the steps of recent historiographic attempts to recast Jewish history as universal history.  In The Jewish Century (2004), Yuri Slezkine presented Jews as the carriers of modernization because their experiences and dispositions matched the requirements of modernity (literacy, mobility, urbanity).  Sznaider adopts this approach by taking the reader on a fascinating journey through Jewish experiences during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the attendant political and cultural sensibilities that typify the kind of cosmopolitanism that Europe could aim for.  These experiences are rooted in imperial contexts that preceded the advent of the nation-state, with potential relevance for post- or perhaps rather transnational aspirations.  Jewish history presents a definitive example of the affinity of pre- and postmodern experiences, and Jews of a certain type have become the standard-bearers of cosmopolitanism.  However, unlike Slezkine, who stresses the universal potential of the Jewish experience as the quintessential link to modernity, Sznaider insists that precisely the refusal to succumb to an unconditional universalism and the retention of particular attachments transforms Jews into exemplary carriers of cosmopolitanism, understood both as lived experience and symbolic embodiment.

Methodologically, Sznaider makes an invaluable contribution to the burgeoning field of studies in which the nexus of memory and history takes center stage.  In contrast to most case studies, which still focus on the tensions between memory and history, Sznaider’s analysis suggests a more complex dynamic that draws on their interaction.  He is not primarily interested in historical events but rather with their mnemohistory: that is, following Jan Assman, how pasts are remembered over time and how the conditions for their appropriation change.1  What matters here is not so much the facticity of an event, but how the past is inscribed into different memory cultures.  How histories are remembered (and by extension distorted) over time emerges as the main focus of analysis: not the factuality of memories but their actuality.  In contrast to Assmann’s emphasis on what is remembered, however, Sznaider insists on considering who is remembering.  He makes a strong case for recognizing that each group has its distinctive way of immobilizing time, as memory practices are mediated by the idiosyncratic features of a group’s experiences in time and distinctive cultural dispositions towards specific pasts and pastness in general.  Thus, scholars need to attend to the kind of cultural validations specific groups attribute to temporal phenomenon such as progress, change, innovation, and memory itself (and, of course, to the fact that groups have different experiences).  The distinction between what is remembered and who remembers is especially important given that the consolidation of a universalizing Holocaust memory culture in European discourse and public rituals is essentially based on the obliteration of particular (Jewish) memories.  Sznaider’s book is a remedy against the oblivion that has accompanied the European memory boom and its concomitant politics of apology.

Seen from these perspectives, Gedächtnisraum Europa not only contributes to a long-neglected aspect of Jewish history, it also tries to resurrect Jewish memories (as opposed to memories about Jews).  It validates the emergence of particular experiences and in so doing relates to the transformation of memory cultures in the global age, especially the fragmentation of memory and its privatization.  This process manifests itself in a changing relationship of memory and history.  During the last two decades we have observed the emergence of what Dan Diner and others have called Erinnerungsgeschichte.2  Its contrast to conventional historical narratives is instructive.  History is a particularized idea of temporal sequences that articulates some form of (national) development.  Memory, on the other hand, represents a coexistence of simultaneous time transcending a multitude of pasts.  (National) history corresponds to the telos of modernity (as a kind of secularized or civic religion).  Memory dissolves this sequence.  Erinnerungsgeschichte implies the simultaneity of phenomena and a multitude of pasts; as memory, it departs from a state-supported (and state-supporting) national history.  The previous (attempted) state monopoly on the shaping of collective pasts has given way to a fragmentation of memories carried by private, individual, scientific, ethnic, and religious agents.  To be sure, the state continues to exercise an important role in how we remember its history, but it now shares the field of meaning production with other players.  The main interpretive point is the shift from assumptions of homogeneous time and hegemonic memory to non-contemporaneous and fragmented memories.  This conceptual switch is the starting point for Sznaider’s insightful explorations.

A second conversation that runs throughout the book relates to the emerging intellectual and scholarly movement of cosmopolitanism.  Sznaider is in the vanguard of this “cosmopolitan turn” as one of the leading European scholars to push cosmopolitanism onto the agenda of the social sciences.  This notion is based on a sustained critique of “methodological nationalism,” an un-reflected adherence to the nation-state as the core category of modern social and political order and to the national as the key principle for the study of social, economic, political, or cultural processes.3  Cosmopolitanism argues that a national ontology (and the network of conceptual linkages and practices intertwined with it) can no longer serve as a self-evident point of departure for research.  This critical engagement should not be mistaken for an “end of the nation-state” thesis.  Rather, it undertakes a reflexive interrogation of the validity of a historically specific and malleable conceptualization of the national.  “Critical cosmopolitanism” thus contests the largely national-territorial assumptions that, often taken for granted, continue to inform the social sciences and humanities.  Instead, it focuses on processes of de-territorialization and their attendant mechanisms of de-nationalization.

Sznaider applies these insights to the otherwise nation-centric treatment of memory prevalent in the social sciences and reflected in the frequently interchangeable use of the terms “nation” and “state.”  Against approaches that associate memory with national identifications, he argues for a cosmopolitan conception of memory that focuses on the simultaneity of universal and particular outlooks.  Historicizing “universalism” and “particularism” makes these notions the object of investigation.  In this light, the cosmopolitanization of memories refers to practices that shift attention away from the nation-state.  Cosmopolitanized memories are based on and contribute to nation-transcending idioms by overcoming territorial and national borders or making global concerns part of local experiences.  In contrast to the universalizing view of the Enlightenment, in cosmopolitanization, the universal and the particular are no longer mutually exclusive but rather coexist.  A cosmopolitan methodology does not deny the persistent reality of the nation for social actors.  Rather, it entails considering the circumstance that the nation-state itself, as well as new forms of nationalism that may emerge, perhaps as a response to cosmopolitanism and the legitimacy it vests in human rights, is best understood from a cosmopolitan perspective.

While indebted to the cosmopolitan turn, the book also advances a critique of some assumptions that guide the work of cosmopolitan scholars, as well as those eager to create a European cultural space.  Most notably, Sznaider objects to the sometimes explicit but frequently implied equation of cosmopolitanism and universalism.  Theories of cosmopolitanism must be described in conjunction with the praxis of cosmopolitan people.  Though Sznaider conceives of the Jewish experience as typical of the cosmopolitan century, he refuses to reduce that experience to the implied universalism of modernity and cosmopolitanism.  A Jewish-rooted cosmopolitanism is the historical and analytical prism through which Sznaider suggests the re-situation of cosmopolitanism.  This endeavor becomes more urgent when we consider the paradigmatic quality of the particular Jewish experience within universalism: At the same time that the Holocaust (of the Jews) becomes a cipher for universalistic trends, such as the prosecution of “crimes against humanity,” this very universalism brackets outs the particular experience it claims to commemorate.

Arendt serves as the personification of this kind of particularized cosmopolitan ideal even as her thinking provides a theoretical framework for the book.  Sznaider quotes Arendt’s remark, premised on the notion that a meaningful identity is predicated on particular attachments, that “[o]nly within a people can a human being live as a human being among human beings” (p. 14).  Historical and social identities coincide as one’s life story is always embedded in the story of the communities from which we construct our identities, a notion that draws on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.4  This stance could easily be misinterpreted as a foundation for the exclusionary and parochial loyalties that exaggerated group identifications frequently command.  Instead, Sznaider advocates the recognition of particular attachments as a prerequisite for a cosmopolitan orientation in which memories are lived before they are told.

Another central facet of the Jewish experience in affinity with the currencies of cosmopolitanism in the global age is the diminishing significance of territorial attachments.  Sznaider argues that Judaism as a religion is not based on the unity of a people and a territory; the nation-state model created ethnic homogenization.  Current manifestations of post-national, multi-ethnic, and transnational ties have long been an integral part of the Jewish experience.  Similarly, the Jewish origins of the notion of diaspora reject the necessity of geographically defined nations and rootedness.  In the context of a state-centric political Zionism, such rootlessness is linked to an allegedly unsatisfactory Jewish existence outside of Israel.  Other dispersed peoples attribute a similar negative status to diaspora.  Contemporary usages of the term, however, suggest that diaspora can be perceived as an alternative to the metaphysics of the nation and be celebrated as an existential condition that straddles attachments and belonging in non-territorial terms.  Diaspora is thus the prototypical cosmopolitan condition, although the point is not to valorize diaspora, but rather to address its current normative validation.

Rather than suspending the notion of de-territorialization or letting it linger, suspended in vaporous conceptual space, Sznaider introduces a second Jewish thinker, Salo Baron, to provide historical perspective and lived experience.  Born at the end of the ninteenth century in Galicia, then part of the Habsburg empire, Baron, later an eminent professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, was skeptical of modernity and its emancipatory side effects on European Jewry.  For him, premodern formations that provided minority group rather than individual rights ensured cultural autonomy, while emancipation was predicated on assimilation.  For Baron, territory came secondary to the need for group autonomy, foreshadowing an important feature of cosmopolitanism.  Baron’s concern for Jewish minority politics is mirrored in Sznaider’s interest in the status of Jews in imperial contexts, where rights-based autonomy trumped the assimilating demands of nation-states associated with emancipation.  Both Sznaider and Baron thus engage the reader with a non-territorial conception of collective identification.

Arendt and Baron soon recognized that after the Holocaust, Europe was no longer an option for Jews.  The two commanding alternatives were national sovereignty in Israel or ethnic pluralism in America.  For a brief moment after World War I, however, a (short-lived) alternative left enduring traces, when a Jewish ethnic minority diplomacy emerged at the Paris Peace Conference that proposed a de-territorialized political vision of rights.  Although it failed, this vision became constitutive for a number of Jewish intellectuals who were actively involved in articulating Jewish identity after World War II.  Neither Zionist and striving for national sovereignty, nor assimilatory and thus reducing Judaism to a privately held religious creed, they advocated a form of cultural autonomy that would guarantee minority rights beyond national boundaries.  Baron personified this outlook, which became the hallmark of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR), an initiative he co-founded in 1947.  The group grew out of the New York-based Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which planned the rescue of Jewish property beginning in 1944.  Baron appointed Arendt, his close friend, its executive director.  After the war, heirs to most Jewish property could not be located, and many properties were entangled in legal and geopolitical disputes.  Aside from religious objects and archival materials, the JCR processed mostly books, often entire libraries.  Property that could not be restored to its rightful owners was usually distributed to existing Jewish communities.  About 80 percent of these materials, hundreds of thousands of books, were shipped to Israel or the United States.  The remainder were dispersed throughout the world, with about 10 percent left in western Europe (mostly England).  For Sznaider, the JCR demonstrates the duality of presence and absence of Jewish identifications in Europe after the Holocaust.  It also speaks to an internal debate about competing conceptions of Jewish identity, thus challenging the Zionism-assimilation dichotomy.  The example reminds us that de-territorialized, transnational religious and ethnic notions have long played roles in Jewish history.

The political-cultural understanding of minority rights championed by Baron and other “autonomists” had mostly been relegated to the margins of the larger stream of European history.  The treaties at the end of World War I gave sixty million people states of their own and turned another twenty-five million into minorities.  The fall of the prewar empires forced national minorities to search for solutions to their volatile post-imperial status.  Their rights were not protected by national states, but rather by the League of Nations, which sought to come to terms with national aspirations without surrendering to them completely.  International law was supposed to check nationalism.  As the victorious powers assembled to make peace in Europe, news of massacres in eastern Europe reminded everyone that peace and stability in the new successor states depended on protections offered to their minorities.  Jews had fought for their respective countries, but when Wilson and the victors offered national liberation to the peoples of eastern and southern Europe, the fate of the Jews depended on international guarantees.  Their life-worlds had been shaped by premodern empires; their integration as a body into the modern nation-states failed.  Jewish communities had been dependent on the niches provided by the multi-ethnic variety of the now-extinct large empires, and were decisively challenged by the exclusionist politics of the 1920s and 1930s.  National sovereignty trumped minority rights, and the League of Nations had few instruments to enforce compliance.  In that post-imperial context, a pervasive sense — echoed in the later works of Arendt — emerged that a nation state could not protect members of a different nationality.  The limitations of this international system and the failures of the League of Nations to hinder the catastrophe of World War II led to the creation of the United Nations.  Even then, human rights were supposed to be independent of governments, but no institution outside of government guaranteed them.  While in current debates minority rights are conflated with human rights, this was not the case when human rights were codified in the wake of World War II.  Quite the contrary: human rights were seen as the “correct” response to pervasive memories of Europe’s failure to protect its minorities.

Sznaider chooses a number of occasions that underscore the epochal significance the Holocaust both for Jewry and the new European self-understanding.  Throughout the book he carefully distinguishes between the function that cosmopolitanized memories of the Holocaust have for perspectives on the future and explanations of the past.  A related virtue of his analysis is to situate responses and reactions to this “civilizational break” in a historical perspective, to remind us that memories of the Holocaust were primarily shaped by the perspectives of who was remembering (Jews or non-Jews), what was being remembered (concentration camps or occupation), and where the remembering took place (western, central, or eastern Europe).  In spite of this variety, the dominant tropes of European Holocaust remembrance are characterized by a universalism that comes at the expense of the recognition of Jewish particularism, sometimes even bracketing the Jewish experience out altogether.

Drohobycz — zmierzch
(Dir. Wojtek Grabowski)

However, this result is not a foregone conclusion, but frequently an outcome of contestation.  For instance, Sznaider recounts the story of painter Bruno Schulz in the East Galician town of Drohobych.  Under Nazi occupation, he was ordered to paint the walls of the villa in which the SS commander resided, and was killed later by a different SS officer.  A German documentary filmmaker discovered the walls in 2001.  When Yad Vashem took possession of the murals and brought them to Jerusalem, questions about the ownership of the materials related to Schulz’s identity exploded, since his nationality was seen to attribute ownership of the works; even UNESCO, with its universalizing mission to protect the human cultural heritage, got involved in the debates.  For Sznaider, the problem was not the claims of different communities to Schulz’s artwork; rather, the public dispute indicates a “retroactive universalization of Jewish life and Jewish experience, which seeks to understand contemporary discourse on cosmopolitanism and a cosmopolitan Europe without any historical context whatsoever” (p. 23).

Thus Sznaider uncovers a dynamic in which the Holocaust serves as the background and motivating factor in articulating a European cosmopolitanism that leaves no room for the particular, a tendency demonstrated by Karl Jaspers‘s attempt to reconcile issues of political responsibility and personal guilt.  His book, Die Schuldfrage (1946), became a founding document of the new West Germany and its subsequent attempts to come to terms with its past.  He argued that the postwar world needed to be based upon a universal, Kantian cosmopolitanism, a world without “others” or borders.  He sought to refute the notion that Germans collectively were guilty for the crimes committed.  Distinguishing between criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical guilt, Jaspers established the view that to condemn a people as a whole violates its claim to being human.  Of no less interest in Jaspers’s articulation of European cosmopolitanism was his failure to make any reference to Jews and their extermination, a step certainly not taken for lack of personal empathy or courage, since Jaspers’s loyalty to his Jewish wife cost him his job and almost his life.  Sznaider detects a comparable dynamic in postwar legal deliberations about Nazi war criminals during the later 1940s.  The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal introduced legal precedents that addressed human rights violations.  The American understanding of the Holocaust, which framed the Nuremberg Trials, was universalistic: Nazi war crimes were committed against sixty million people, among them six million Jews.  Crimes against the Jews made up a tiny segment of the Nuremberg indictments, and the Jews remained abstract victims.  Neglect of the fate of the Jews provided a backdrop for Nuremberg’s universalistic message: civilization was the victim, Nazi barbarism the perpetrator.  The Jews were there, but they stood in for “humanity as a whole.”

Sznaider then directs our attention to another instance in which history is dispensed with as particular events are subsumed under the linear, quasi-teleological assumptions of theories of modernity.  The Holocaust has become a prism through which modernity is reassessed, typically via the association of modernity with progress and Enlightenment ideals, or via the envisioning of barbarism as the flipside of these concepts.  Neither perspective can say with certainty whether barbarism is a breakdown of civilization, or whether it is inherent in modernist rationalization and bureaucratization itself.  The functionalist view of Nazism, which conceives of barbarism as an inherent or even inevitable outcome of modernity and Enlightenment, has taken center stage.  But, from this perspective, “the idea of the Nazis as perpetrators is dissolved into metaphors, in which the real culprits are not concrete people, but ‘modernity,’ ‘bureaucracy,’ or just ‘human beings'” (p. 81).  According to Sznaider, this structural approach to understanding Nazi crimes is the same attitude at the roots of a new European cosmopolitanism in which “the Holocaust becomes a monument to the omnipresent modernization of barbarism and not to institutionalized hatred against the Jews” (p. 82).

This universalizing trope also characterized most postwar responses by European intellectuals, which Sznaider sees as affected by a series of competing universalism.  At the Rencontres Internationales in Geneva in 1946, one of the first postwar meetings of European intellectuals, the conference theme, “The European Spirit,” was also the title of a lecture by Jaspers.  His views of a cosmopolitan Europe were based on the humanistic values he saw as the political antithesis to nationalism and the devastation it had unleashed.  For him, Europe was to become a cultural project in which the values of the Enlightenment could be preserved.  Another participant in the talks, Hungarian socialist philosopher Georg Lukács, objected to Jaspers’s attempt to claim a universal heritage by implicitly equating socialism with fascism.  In contrast, Lukács suggested an alliance of progressive and democratic forces in Europe with the Soviet Union, which he saw as the embodiment of European democracy.  The meeting typified the Cold War atmosphere, with competing universalisms whose one shared feature was the absence of the Jewish experience from them.  In neither were Jews remembered nor their virtual extinction mourned.

Sznaider identifies similar undercurrents in the current proliferation of a discourse of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Both are predicated on the assumption that victims and perpetrators can put aside the past and embark on a shared path toward the future.  But rituals of apology create a temporal distance that makes it impossible to satisfy the original intent of the apology.5  Such processes both omit mention of the actual experiences that triggered the need for reconciliation in the first place and forestall the option to refuse this ritual.  By focusing on the works of Jean Améry and Vladimir Jankelevitch, Sznaider provides an alternative narrative in which recognition rather than reconciliation is the key to a constructive cosmopolitanism.  Without the recognition of the particular (which entails the right to resentment and refusal to reconcile), forgiveness too is likely to be an abortive ritual.

Sznaider’s book is at once an important contribution to the emergent field of cosmopolitanism and a challenge to existing cosmopolitan perspectives on a European memory sphere.  He does not in principle object to the universalization of the Holocaust — or cosmopolitanism, for that matter — but adamantly opposes the tendency to de-contextualize the extermination of European Jewry by presenting it as a nation-transcending icon.  Rather than treating cosmopolitanism as the antidote to nationalism, he views particular national attachments as potential mediators between the individual and the global horizons against which identifications unfold.  His historical analysis not only contributes to a much needed historical-empirical operationalization of cosmopolitanism, it also serves as an important reminder that theories of cosmopolitanism must attend more closely to political culture and the underlying beliefs and ideals that foster shared understandings in national, ethnic, and religious groups.  The cosmopolitanization of institutions sustained by a Eurocratic sphere is not the same as European identification on the popular level.  By situating Jewish experiences in actual historical contexts and with reference to their mnemonic appropriations and (mis)remembering by non-Jews, Sznaider reminds us that cosmopolitanization is a relational process.  At the same time, he also reminds us not to view Europe or its memory politics as monolithic.  His mnemohistorical approach underscores how different cultures may apprehend the past and how this process relates to questions of noncontemporaneity.

Despite the tendency to privilege the mostly western European conception that situates the origins of the memory boom during the 1980s, a concept that developed in response to a late reaction to the events of World War II, it should not be mistaken for the sole or preferred form for how the past should be commemorated.  What is officially remembered is not identical to the memories particular groups carry; a unified European memory should recognize that divided memories result inevitably from different experiences.  Pragmatically, scholars need to recognize the constant realignments of temporality in memory, a relationship outlined in the work of David Gross.6  Sznaider provides us with a historical mirror for these dynamics and the post-national universalism that informs contemporary western European cosmopolitan visions in polyvocal Europe.  The universal European version of cosmopolitanism flattens the divisions of Europe rather than acknowledging particularity as a key feature of European diversity; similarly, European expansion largely ignores the divergent historical memories of existing (and prospective) EU member states.  Faced with such nonrecognition, new member states in the East seek legitimacy for their particular experiences and memories, most notably, by displacing the Holocaust with their own victimhood under Stalinism.  As the western European presumption that memories of the Holocaust would provide the foundation for a shared European identity has clashed with the memory politics of post-Stalinism, state-imposed commemorative practices have become the subject of fiery debates, contributing to the re-nationalization of European memories.  This fragmentation of memory regimes makes a singular and unifying notion of European cosmopolitanism highly controversial, even as a binary discourse celebrates western universal post-nationalism and condemns the persistence or return of ethnic, religious, and/or national particularism in the East (or anywhere else).

Underlying this debate is a continuous balancing of competing conceptions of victimhood.  National memories tend to privilege their own victims.  In comparison, cosmopolitanized memories complicate matters by contributing to an emerging duality as nations must engage with their status as victims and their role as perpetrators.  Competing conceptions of victimhood are thrust into a dynamic that oscillates between de-nationalization and re-nationalization, comparable to the tension between universal human rights and specific privileges.  On the one hand, the European gaze rejects clear-cut perpetrator-victim distinctions and any hierarchy of victimhood, stressing the virtue of dialogue among the parties.  On the other hand, precisely this absence of a hierarchy of victims de-contextualizes (and at times de-historicizes) the actual deeds of past injustices.  We are not supposed to distinguish between the respective sufferings of groups and every attempt to privilege one group over another is met with strong resistance.  Leveling the field of suffering also has unintended consequences, as it challenges beliefs about who the perpetrators and who the victims are.

Sznaider’s critique of the fallacy of universalism seeks to provincialize European cosmopolitanism as it pertains to its own internal colonies.  He reminds us that European debates not only concern competing memory cultures and the “Jewish question,” but also typify the ways in which European universalism circumscribes contemporary majority-minority relations.  The central problem with the prevalent vision of Europe vision is that it tends to denigrate all particularism as an affront to its post-national vision of politics.  Despite its resolve to recognize otherness, core-European cosmopolitanism falls back into well-established patterns of “othering.”  Aside from outright xenophobia, which is, of course, the main problem, European identity politics operate with a double stand in which culture (such as Jewish contributions to Europe) is celebrated at the expense of the experience and memories of those who belong to it (consider the absence of actual Jews in Poland, where the marketing of Jewish heritage tourism is at its height, or, for that matter, the lack of political voice among the immigrant population in continental Europe).

Sznaider’s historical analysis sheds light on current xenophobic sentiments against immigrants, which may be just as much a hallmark of Europeanness as its purported cosmopolitanism.  To be sure, anti-immigration sentiments can be found in all corners of the world.  However, Europe is distinguished by its failure to come to terms with difference, which was facilitated by the effectiveness of the Holocaust in eliminating its primary “other”: “In theory, Europe remembers the Holocaust.  But the depth of that memory may be doubted when many Europeans seem to have forgotten that their continent was home to other outsiders well before the arrival of today’s Muslim minority.”7  Inverting previous multicultural ideas and policies that celebrated particularism, many European states and intellectuals now reject Islamic traditions by portraying them in their most particularistic extremes.

Sznaider’s historical analysis prefigures these contemporary omissions, as the acceptance of Jewish and Muslim others remains predicated on a universal notion of humankind that tends to insist on assimilation, flatten difference, or relegate it to the cultural sphere.  Paradoxically, then, the “culturalization” of the other is less a sign of tolerance and inclusion than the basis on which the recognition of the other as such is politically marginalized.  Gedächtnisraum Europa is a formidable example of how a historical perspective can illuminate present concerns.  It reminds us that particular attachments remain an integral part of political culture and a prerequisite for the cosmopolitanization of Europe.  Like his intellectual precursors, Baron and Arendt, Sznaider views the pluralism of North America as a counterpart to the homogenizing pressures Europe has exerted on Jews and Muslims alike.  This exceptional book should be of great value to a broad audience interested in general questions of actual cosmopolitanism, the history-memory link, and Sznaider’s original treatment of Arendt’s contribution to an ongoing debate about competing conceptions of Jewish identity.  Jewish history is not only the object of his study, but also becomes a mirror for understanding the complex consolidation of the European cultural sphere.


1  Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 9-10: “Mnemohistory is not concerned with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered. . . .  It concentrates exclusively on those aspects of significance and relevance which are the product of memory — that is, of a recourse to the past- and which appear only in the light of later readings. . . .  The present is ‘haunted’ by the past, and the past is modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present. . . .  Mnemohistory analyzes the importance which a present ascribes to the past.”

2  Dan Diner, Gedächtniszeiten: Über Jüdische und andere Geschichten (Munich: Beck, 2003).

3  Ulrich Beck and Natan Sznaider, “Unpacking Cosmopolitanism for the Social Sciences: A Research Agenda,” British Journal of Sociology 57 (2006): 1-23.

4  Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981), 221-223: “The fact that the self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities . . . does not entail that the self has to accept the moral limitations of the particularity of those forms of community.  Without those moral particularities to begin from there would never be anywhere to begin; but it is in moving forward from such particularity that the search for the good, for the universal consists.  Yet particularity can never be simply left behind or obliterated.  The notion of escaping from it into a realm of entirely universal maxims which belong to man as such, whether in its eighteenth-century Kantian form or in the presentation of some modern analytical moral philosophies is an illusion. . . .  An adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.  Living traditions, just because they continue a not-yet-completed narrative, confront a future whose determinate and determinable character, so as it possesses any, derives from the past.”

5  Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Abortive Rituals: Historical Apologies in the Global Era,” Interventions 2 (2000): 171-186, 174, 185: “Collective apologies are rituals in history, for history, which engage their participants as doers and as narrators, thus on both sides of historicity. . . .  In claiming a past, they create pastness. . . .  They are abortive rituals.”

6  David Gross, Lost Time (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

7  Noah Feldman, “The Way We Live Now: The New Pariahs?” New York Times Magazine (June 22, 2008).

Daniel Levy is Associate Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University.  This review was first published by H-German (August 2009) under a Creative Commons license.

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