The Spotless Mind

Behind Europe's Attempts to Legislate Memory

Anne Frank in 1940 Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam

In April 2015, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a series of so-called decommunization laws, which make it illegal to deny the “criminal nature” of the Soviet regime. The most controversial provision is one that recognizes veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as “fighters for Ukraine’s independence,” entitling them to government benefits and antidefamation protection despite their role in ethnic cleansing during World War II. Far from anomalous, such politically motivated laws represent just the latest examples of Europe’s attempts to legislate historical memory.

The trend is widespread. As of 2015, for example, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust in 16 European countries. Seven additional states impose generic prohibitions on the denial of genocides, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. A few more have no such legislation but nevertheless prosecute Holocaust deniers under hate-speech statutes. Laws such as these are a decidedly post–Cold War phenomenon; the overwhelming majority of them have been ratified in just the past two decades. Similar laws regarding the Armenian Genocide and the Holodomor, the 1932–1933 famine in Ukraine, are newer still.

Some of these injunctions are not particularly contentious. Holocaust deniers exist only on the fringes of political life, so Holocaust denial legislation has faced little resistance. When the laws concern events for which a wider range of interpretations is still possible, such as the actions of the Soviet Union, the legislative process has been more fractious, pitting differing political agendas and perspectives against one another globally. 

In those cases, legislating memory has become an instrument of statecraft in Europe, wielded as a moral cudgel by politicians intent on fighting today’s battles through the events of the past. This is worrisome. Memories often diverge, and politicians tend to view the past through the prism of present-day expediencies. Legislating memory thus risks driving a wedge between states, harming integration efforts and attempts at compromise and negotiation.

Fireworks explode over the Victory monument during the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Host Photo Agency / RIA Novosti / Courtesy Reuters

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