[New research project] ‘The challenge of populist memory politics for Europe: Towards effective responses to militant legislation on the past (MEMOCRACY)’

Published 15 October 2021

Senior researcher Uladzislau Belavusau

Earlier this month, work has started on the new MEMOCRACY research project, co-organised with University of Cologne, University of Copenhagen, and Polish Academy of Sciences. As part of the MEMOCRACY research consortium, Asser senior researcher Dr Uladzislau Belavusau will study the proliferation of the nation-centric governance of memory through laws and policies in Germany and selected countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

Hanna Arendt warned that the fragile truth of historical facts was vulnerable not only to being forgotten but also to manipulation (Arendt, Human Condition, Chicago University Press 1958, p. 232). However, she hardly meant in mind back then so-called memory laws, which represent an attempt by governments to legally preserve the memory of the past. Memory laws are legal acts and policies endorsing certain narratives about the past, often aimed at strengthening the collective identity of a nation or community. They encompass a wide array of laws from acts penalizing genocide denial, through bans on insulting the state, or bans on the use of symbols of totalitarianism, to parliamentary declarations about the legal qualification of a given historical event. Memory laws have an impact not only on the legal situation of individuals and groups, but they also shape the historical narrative of a given place and community. These narratives are increasingly codified in criminal law provisions. The proliferation of memory laws and policies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has instigated a contemporary culture war in Europe, a clash concerning the meaning of the past for present European identities.

Populist memory politics 
Earlier this year, Dr Uladzislau Belavusau, senior researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut, together with Prof. Angelika Nußberger (University of Cologne), Dr Maria Mälksoo (University of Copenhagen), and Dr Aleksandra Gliszczyńska-Grabias (Polish Academy of Sciences), was awarded a grant by the Volkswagen Foundation to undertake a three-year research project entitled ‘The Challenge of Populist Memory Politics for Europe: Towards Effective Responses to Militant Legislation on the Past (MEMOCRACY).’ From the 150 proposals, the Volkswagen Foundation awarded grants to eight research consortiums, including the MEMOCRACY project, which received 1.2 million euros.

The consortium will study the proliferation of the nation-centric governance of memory through laws and policies in Germany and selected countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The study will also unpack the relationship of this memory governance with rising populism and the erosion of fundamental democratic rights in the region. Employing the concept of ‘memocracy’, meaning ‘ruling on the basis of memory’, the study seeks to shed light on how particular abuses of memory laws and policies can undermine common European values such as democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law as well as to facilitate a move towards authoritarianism, in particular, in Central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the project aims to raise awareness about the inherent dangers of these laws and policies.

Uladzislau Belavusau is senior researcher in European Law and part of the Human dignity and human security research strand. 

Read more
Memory laws in European and comparative perspectives (MELA)
In the recent years, the T.M.C Asser Instituut has been involved in various studies of memory laws and policies. Its Memory laws in European and comparative perspectives (MELA) research project (2016-2019), was a four-nation, EU-sponsored consortium which examined memory laws throughout Europe and the world. Several Asser researchers undertook studies for this consortium, including senior researcher Ulad Belavusau, then-postdoctoral researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz and Marina Bán, who successfully defended her PhD thesis within the ambit of the project.

Memory laws – online symposium Verfassungsblog
This online symposium in constitutional law blog Verfassungsblog, explores the topical issue of memory laws. It provides a theoretical examination of the discipline as well as real-life examples from various countries of laws governing historical memory, serving as the launching point of debate on legislating history, and the impact of memory laws.

[Recording] Online expert panel on missing persons and memory governance
In 2020, the Asser Institute and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances co-hosted an online expert panel on ‘Missing persons and memory governance’. The online panel was part of the MELA-project, and it discussed memory laws in the context of enforced disappearance. The main topics of the event were the right to truth and combatting state-sponsored narratives of enforced disappearances. Watch the recording.