The New York Times

January 29, 2000, The New York Times

Idea of a Unified Cultural Heritage Divides Europe

BRUSSELS – When a group of prominent Europeans gathered recently to discuss an ambitious plan to found a Museum of Europe, a British participant suggested — not entirely in jest — that the new institution might acquire one of Margaret Thatcher’s notorious handbags that became a symbol of her angry opposition to taxpayer support for the European Union.

That such an artifact would actually go on display is unlikely. The museum aims to emphasize Europe’s shared cultural heritage rather than the rancorous conflicts that frequently plague European integration. But the challenge facing the museum is considerable because, as its mission statement admits, most Europeans regard the 15-nation European Union as a “cold, bureaucratic monster, a soulless producer of administrative edicts.”

Indeed, banana import quotas and demands for agricultural subsidy cuts are hardly the stuff of which dreams are made. Advocates of the “European idea” are increasingly concerned that it be perceived as more than a technocratic enterprise and acquire democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the average citizen. “We are seeking a shared identity — a new European soul,” the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, has declared. “We need to build a union of hearts and minds, a shared sense of common destiny, of European citizenship.”

The museum, which backers hope will open on a site fronting the European Parliament in Brussels by 2003, is an attempt to reinforce the idea of a common European identity. “The European Union which is taking shape before our eyes is not a recent invention born of politicians’ whims but the product of a long maturation of a time-honored idea as old as Europe itself,” the mission statement argues.

Of course, the quest for the roots of Europeanness far predates this late 20th century experiment in pooled sovereignty. Since the political necessity that helped forge the community of West European nations vanished with communism’s demise, the examination of these roots has intensified, yet just where the broader idea of Europe began is proving open to contentious interpretation.

Most recently, Greece, regarding itself as the cradle of European democracy, has geared up to torpedo the museum project as currently conceived. The Greek government objects that the core exhibition is to have as its starting point not the classical era but the Middle Ages. Museum organizers consider the ninth century empire of Charlemagne and Latin Christendom as having set Europe upon the path toward unification.

Greek civilization failed to promote a larger European consciousness, argues the museum’s scientific director, Elie Barnavi, because it discriminated between citizens and barbarians. Roman civilization featured a similar dichotomy, he says, and therefore the exhibition timeline should begin with the Holy Roman Empire, not ancient Rome. In response, the Greek government lodged a formal protest against the museum at a meeting of E.U. cultural ministers in November. Italy has yet to weigh in on the treatment of the Roman world.

“Europe has had many different ideas of itself over time,” said Anthony Grafton, professor of European history at Princeton, whose survey course is sometimes dubbed “Plato to NATO.” In such a course, or in a museum exhibition, Mr. Grafton said, it is important to remember “you’re teaching a construct.” He added, “Eastern Europe, for example, was at times central to European history in ways we tended to forget earlier in the 20th century.” Indeed, Europe’s geographic borders have shifted continually. In a forthcoming volume, to be published by an E.U. think tank, Heinrich Schneider, a professor at the University of Vienna, writes, “How far Europe will reach tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or in the next century and later, cannot be looked up in a historical atlas of the Antique, the Middle Ages, of the 20th century, or of the cold war period.”

Lack of consensus has not hindered the proliferation of museum shows emphasizing that today’s Europe is being built upon a shared culture, however. An exhibition financed by the Council of Europe, which promotes pan-European cultural cooperation, is currently touring the continent, embracing the Greek view. The exhibit argues that the story of Ulysses is European culture’s founding myth, and that even before people in this part of the world wrote down their myths and legends, Europe could be distinguished as an emerging entity.

“Diversity is doubtless a richness, but it is not by stressing our differences that we shall improve the lot of our children,” the exhibition catalogue reads. In Berlin, the Museum of German Folklore reopened in June in a new incarnation, the Museum of European Cultures. “The founding of a cultural-historical museum with a European orientation reflects political circumstances: Europe is growing together and museums want to do their part,” the revamped institution states in its literature. And in Paris, France’s National Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions has proposed undergoing a similar metamorphosis.

In earlier efforts to inspire its citizens, the European Union devised a repertory of symbols amounting to the traditional trappings of nationhood: European flags, passports, automobile tags and an anthem.

More recently, the European Parliament has called for a new history textbook to be written for use in schools across the continent that will place individual national histories in a European context. The new Europe, supporters of revised textbooks say, needs to develop its own set of shared heroes and villains, battles and revolts.

But others are wary that such reinterpretation is really a rewriting of history. In a recent issue of the journal Antiquity, the British archaeologist Mark Pluciennik cites increased financing for academics from the E.U. and the Council of Europe as creating “pressures to consider, write about and work on a pan-European scale.” He goes on to warn of the “potential abuse of archaeology as propaganda” and that “some academics have accepted the challenge of rewriting the past with an alacrity that is far more Orwellian than anything produced by the E.U.”

Still others worry about a loss of national distinctiveness, fears that have only increased as concern mounts about globalization as a homogenizing force. As the E.U. looks ahead to negotiations to admit Turkey and Central and Eastern European nations as members, the search for a clear-cut identity to undergird the integration process grows more complex. The eastern and southern boundaries of Europe are being heatedly debated and the growing presence of immigrants from other continents throws up questions about what qualities distinguish Europe from anywhere else.

At present, the authorities at the European Commission, the E.U.’s administrative arm, regard curriculum policy as the prerogative of individual countries and are loathe to interfere after an earlier E.U. attempt to create a new history textbook ended in failure. An eight-language edition by the French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle was published amid fanfare in 1989, but the Greeks vetoed the commission’s distribution of the text because they saw it as shortchanging Hellenic influence in European civilization.

Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, argues that grassroots awareness of Europe’s shared destiny is about to undergo a sea change. (Just under half of E.U. citizens support their country’s membership in the union, according to a poll last spring.) He says the tangible catalyst for this will arrive when national currencies are traded for newly minted euros in 2002.

Irving Mitchell, the E.U. official overseeing higher education cooperation concedes that there is “an underlying agenda.” He added: “We have to learn to understand each other and to accept diversity. It doesn’t mean creating the ‘identi-kit European,’ as Mrs. Thatcher called it.”