What will be the common historical points of reference?

Dr Odila Triebel is Head of the Department Dialogue and Research, Culture and Foreign Policy at the ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) and one of the organizers of this year’s conference “European Commemoration 2014”. Prior to the event, we wanted to find out what is particularly challenging in organizing an international conference, how the choice of topics came about and what she believes to be some of the most pressing issues to be discussed in the various workshops, panels and keynotes.  


The year 2014 was marked by several commemorations. Especially the First World War was a source of reference all over Europe. How is the conference “European Commemoration“ linked to this?

We are now at the end of this particular year. With the experience, after commemorational events and debates all over Europe, we can raise crucial questions like: What differences among European countries did we notice? How have different national perspectives been shaped? How could we deal in a productive way with the differences of experiences and commemoration?

What was particularly challenging in organizing an international event like this one? 

People, societies and nations practice remembrance. Commemorating the First World War involves a multitude of individual and collective experiences as well as political perspectives, especially considering the amount of countries and humans being involved. It was quite a challenge to reduce this complexity into twelve workshops. We were seeking for questions that allow at the same time regional, national and transnational answers. In this respect transnational means both European as well as answers even outside the political categories of state organization.

The conference focusses on four main sectors: society, culture, education and science. How did you decide on this particular composition?

Remembrance is a process related to society as a whole. Therefore, we chose four sectors of society that play a crucial role in processes of societal self-conception, coherence building, understanding and dialogue, all relevant for forming and reflecting remembrance. Within each of these sectors we will discuss three central questions: The first relates to the significance and aims of remembrance for societies. The second focuses on major dividing lines in European memories such as national narratives on war experiences but also generational and social dividing lines. The last question deals with the potential of different European narratives and strategies for how a joint dialogue on remembrance in Europe could be supported.

Portrait Odila Triebel
Dr Odila Triebel, ifa

What are the main aims of the conference and who is the conference addressed to?

With this conference we seek to provide room to discuss the plurality of commemoration in Europe. We aspire for a better understanding for the differences in remembrance. This conference with its workshop sessions is addressed to international experts of the different sectors involved. The target audience of the public evening events are European citizens, who cherish the idea of sharing communality while at the same time tolerating differences. Citizens who understand how the past shapes the present and therefore realize how different pasts shape different presents. It implies to be aware, how Europe might be conceived from the outside.

What were some of the most important aspects in deciding on the mixture of chairs, speakers and workshops?

The most important aspect was to provide among speakers and participants a broad range of perspectives and to achieve a balance between different regions, experiences, perspectives and generations. This relates also to the chairs. The conference design seeks for sections open to the public as well as background discussions in the workshops. This is needed in order to give room for experimental thinking. But in order to share the most valuable insights from these background discussions, the chairs of each sector (society, culture, education and science) will report during the public panel debate at the closing ceremony in the evening.

According to you, what are some of the most pressing issues to be discussed at the conference? In which areas are some of the most exciting debates taking place?

Historical events cause long lasting consequential effects, sometimes lasting over the period of several generations. Some of the recent and actual conflicts today can only be understood when taking the past 100 years into consideration. We need to know, how to pass on this knowledge to the next generations. Young people nowadays and even more so future generations have no access to private testimonial memory of the beginning of 20th century within their families. Moreover, these generations will be even more heterogeneous, people of a myriad of backgrounds are living together in most European societies due to mobility, migration, etc. all with specific historical legacies.What will be their common historical point of reference? How will they remember it in a binding way that at the same time respects the plurality of perspectives? What will a future consensus for Europe look like?

Apart from that, what are your overall expectations for the conference?

I sincerely hope for a trustful atmosphere that allows room to speak also about hurtful topics and difficult public debates. We want to foster better understanding for diversity and plurality. I hope for good experiences, networks among the participants. For the public evenings to trigger productive debates.

At the closing ceremony, on December 17th, a Russian-German theremin duo will frame the programme. The theremin is the only musical instrument which is played without direct contact to the human body. The musicians in a way play the air. For me this is also a metaphor: Like the air, we cannot grasp the future – but we can shape it. It is us to decide on the tune.

How can a conference like “European Commemoration” contribute to keeping this topic on top of the international agenda beyond 2014?

There will be 2018. The conference could be a start, discussing challenges and opportunities of a collaborate planning with what kind of events and debates there could be a common commemoration of “100 years of ending this horrifying brutality called WWI”.

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