What is the focus of UNREST and what is its relevance in view of contemporary social, political and economic issues affecting Europe and its inhabitants?  What impact do you expect on your project? What influence have EU political and funding agendas (particularly Horizon 2020 Reflective Societies) had on the framing of your research, its lines of enquiry, methods and expected impacts? What roles  should heritage play to address social division and crisis in Europe? How would this look like as an ‘on-the-ground’ heritage practice?

Until recently the neoliberal consensus, which dominated policy-making at national and at the EU level, exacerbated social divisions but also appeared unchallengeable. Things have changed now that the revolt of the losers of globalisation and of austerity measures has reverberated onto politics and rewarded antagonistic populist and nationalist parties, who often use the heritage of war and violent conflicts in ways that risk fuelling tension both within and across nation-states. The EU has fostered the foundational myth of the Union itself as a story of transnational reconciliation and peace and relies upon a consensual approach to the traumatic memories of the conflicts of the past (especially the two World Wars and the Holocaust) as the basis of social cohesion. But this story is no longer able to counter the rising of extreme nationalism. Therefore, UNREST pursues a third memory way, which acknowledges and engages with wide spread memory discontent without losing sight of fundamental EU ideals. We call this third way ‘agonistic memory’.

Agonistic memory designates a new mode of remembrance, which embraces political conflict as an opportunity for emotional and ethical growth. It should: 1. Give voice to all the parties of a conflict in a multi-voiced manner; 2. Contextualise conflicts and try to understand what makes perpetration possible, without excusing or legitimising the perpetrators; 3. Take a stand against hegemonic interpretations of the past and present, repoliticise the relation to the past and arouse passion for democratic involvement. UNREST has the following objectives: collect new knowledge on the memory of armed conflicts in order to inspire reinterpretation and change; analyse how different modes of remembering shape the memory of war; deliver a portfolio on impact activities in order to promote reflective and multi-perspectival reinterpretations of past conflicts.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 Reflective Societies Programme has given the research consortium the chance to pursue in-depth collaborative research at a European level in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. All researchers have a strong track record of working on the history of memory, representations of war and conflict and images of the past. Hence, EU funding has not fundamentally altered our research topics or methods. However, the process of putting the application together, with its frequent meetings and team-building exercises and the work itself, is providing a very important and stimulating comparative and transnational frame that, in spite of being already pursued by individual members of the consortium, has been significantly facilitated by EU funding.

UNREST aims to question what we perceive as one of the crucial ‘modus operandi’ of the European Union’s official memory politics, namely its belief in cosmopolitan consensus as the basis of forms of memorialisation. Through our research and our practical work with stakeholders, such as museums and theatre companies, we wish to find out to what extent such cosmopolitanism is unable to deal with important differences in the memorialisation of Europe’s violent pasts. Furthermore, we wish to test an alternative agonistic form of remembering that, in our view, might better be able to encourage political debate about memorial differences in the EU. In challenging what we perceive as the dominant mode of memory politics within the EU, the project seeks to contribute toa new role for heritage practices, away from the prevailing cosmopolitan approach with its emphasis on the suffering and passive victims. Revisiting (and contextualising) the social and political struggles of the past heritage can promote critical debates around alternative social orders and help re-establish agency. At the same time, by focusing on understanding perpetrators as well as victims, heritage practices can counter the Manichean contraposition that is privileged by antagonistic discourses and movements.

As for what it would look like on the ground, if we think of current museum practices—for instance, museums of the First World War, which the UNREST project is engaged with—many tend to focus on the terrible conditions of the soldiers in the conflict, in an attempt to promote solidarity beyond winners and losers. However, by doing so the agency of the wagers of war on the one hand, and of the soldiers on the other hand, are being overlooked since soldiers were not just passive victims, as the many acts of insubordination and desertion in several armies testify. The alternative visions of a post-war order put forward by democrats, nationalists, and socialists are not under discussion, even though their representation at a time of crisis for Europe would be helpful in promoting a debate on both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic projects.

Interview by Francesca Lanz, Christopher Whitehead and Michela Bassanelli

*Stefan Berger is the Director of the Institute for Social Movements at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and Chairman of the committee of the Library of the Foundation History of the Ruhr. He is Professor of Social History at Ruhr University. He specializes in nationalism and national identity studies, historiography and historical theory, memory and museum studies, comparative labour studies and the history of industrial heritage. He is currently the project coordinator of the research project UNREST – Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Europe (April 2016-March 2019).

*Anna Cento Bull  is Professor of Italian History and Politics at University of Bath, UK.   She has examined the legacy of 1960s-1970s Italian terrorism, exploring issues related to reconciliation, memory, truth and justice and comparing the views of victims, perpetrators and politicians close to right-wing movements (or parties). Previously she investigated extreme right-wing terrorism.

*Hans Lauge Hansen  is Professor in Spanish Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. He has published extensively on contemporary Spanish literature dedicated to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. He is specialized in memory studies on the topic of memory studies, contemporary narrative modes and their contribution to the construction of cultural communities.