International Forum for U.S. Studies

Fellow Interview

An Interview with Dr. Kryštof Kozák, Charles University

Collective Memory and the Relation of History to Contemporary Politics

Dr. Kozák is Head of the Department of American Studies at Charles University in Prague, The Czech Republic. He is currently working on a research grant focusing on the role of collective memory in transatlantic relations. Dr. Kozák was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September, 2014.

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: You take a transatlantic approach to your work. What would you say is “the European perspective,” or rather some of the particular European perspectives, with transatlantic work?

Dr. Kryštof Kozák: If you study American Studies in Europe it makes a lot of sense to study it from a transatlantic perspective. Certainly the Americans are very good at studying the U.S. and it’s very difficult to compete with all the intellectual resources they have. For example if you are studying American government there are thousands of departments and thousands of people in the U.S. who are studying American government. That’s why I think it is enriching to bring the transatlantic perspective. It’s a bit comparative and it also brings an interesting new light on the subject. And I think it’s very enriching if you can draw on expertise from both worlds and something positive and constructive can come out of it. And of course at the end of the day we are studying the U.S. because we want to make sense of the transatlantic relations, and ask on some level what does it mean for Europe? So you are not studying in a vacuum and the reason is that the relations with the U.S. are very important for Europe and that’s why this transatlantic perspective automatically creeps into your work whatever you do.

IFUSS: What are some of the directions that this transatlantic work has been taking recently?

KK: Well, it’s difficult to speak of general directions, but at our department we like to study more contemporary subjects, and we try to ask the relevant questions, and in this sense it is new in that the department was originally founded by historians and we still have a strong historical component. And I’m glad for that because understanding U.S. history is crucial if you move up to the contemporary issues. But I think it’s important to look at the next generation of people and the young people; they like U.S. history but they ask themselves more difficult and more relevant questions that are related to the present. That’s why the project on collective memory is a study of contemporary problems in transatlantic relations. Colleagues of mine are doing things with an emphasis on Asia. I have a colleague Dr. Jana Sehnalkova and she is doing U.S.-Chinese and U.S.-Taiwanese relations also from the contemporary perspective. And it changes the methodology, because some of this stuff is in the archives, but some of it is still restricted, and if you study contemporary subjects you have to be more eclectic with your sources. So we are trying different ways of how to approach it. If there is any direction it is looking at the contemporary problems and issues.

IFUSS: You talked about “collective memory.” So you posit this concept of collective memory as some kind of collective memory that connects the U.S. and Europe. Of course, this idea has been around for a while as well, and I think you’ve stated in your work that collective memory is something in consciousness, but that there may also be some things that are not fully in awareness. Could you speak to this a bit: a collective memory that somehow connects the U.S. and Europe?

KK: Yes, this is what we are trying to do the research on; and the preliminary findings are that there are strong shared frames of reference both in Europe and in the U.S., that certain historical events are deeply ingrained in the minds of people. And like you said it might not be fully conscious, but at the end of the day everybody knows Independence Day in the U.S. And Independence Day in the U.S., even though it’s the birth of the American Republic, has clear linkages to Europe. To begin with there was the fight with Britain, but also there is a lot of European heritage going into the Declaration of Independence. There are a number of fascinating things. If you look at the famous paintings depicting these events you see that of course these are all white men declaring their independence. And the Europeans are conscious of that and the Americans to some extent can establish the links. Marquis Lafayette is a famous hero of the American Revolution, he’s one of them. But it’s not only American Independence, but also the more recent memory of World War II that is important. I’m interested in these iconic images. I looked at it in a variety of U.S. textbooks and the iconic image of the Normandy Landing is omnipresent. So even if you don’t like history and you don’t know much about it, at the end of the day if you saw the film Saving Private Ryan you have this image in the background and this image conveys a lot of connections in the sense that the U.S. was able to come to Europe’s aid in this respect and this works to strengthen these ties. And so we know that collective memory and the memory of these events is important. The difficulty is how to exactly measure it. So we are getting all kinds of indirect evidence from the text books, from the State of the Union Address, and from other sources to sort of map out a terrain. We know that it is out there and it is relevant, because we know from experience that it’s in our own minds to begin with.

IFUSS: When you say things like “World War II and collective memory” it makes me wonder about the extent to which “collective memory” is dependent on “living memory.” Is there, in fact, perhaps now more than ever, an emphasis on the kind of collective memory that doesn’t depend on living memory, as those who experienced things like World War II die off?

KK: Yes, this is a very good observation that there are these two types of memory and there is a sense of urgency about memory because the sort of Great Generation that had World War II as a formative experience is dying off. But society has lots of ways to sort of recreate and commemorate these events—it’s a different kind of memory. And the young people they know about it and you can commemorate the end of World War II, but it’s not the same. And this might be a problem because in many ways the lessons from World War II are important in the sense that the whole Human Rights concept is based on these horrors of World War II. The memory of this large-scale destruction coming from these authoritarian tendencies is important and it’s one thing to know it rationally and have some kind of argument about it, but it’s another thing if you really had a direct experience and you and your family were deeply affected by it. So it is important to commemorate, or to pass on, these memories also to the younger generation. But in the age of Face Book it may be more difficult than it was before.

IFUSS: Okay, one last question I’d like to ask you about: In terms of transatlantic relations between Europe and America, are their still collective memories—in the plural—in Europe, in terms of differences between eastern and western Europe? How do the collective memories of the pre-1990 Cold War era affect how Europeans of different regions relate between themselves, and how might Europeans of different regions have different memories in relation to the United States?

KK: I think the biggest difference is in the collective memory related to Russia. And in that sense the post-communist countries’ whole legitimacy of the liberal regime is based on a sort of anti-Russian sentiment. And this totally makes sense from the historical perspective. You can see it in relation to the crisis in the Ukraine in that, for example, the Polish government was the most hawkish in the sense of how they wanted to react. And Germany and France were much less enthusiastic about the proposed military steps, for example. So there is definitely a divide in collective memory. And if you want to tie it in with the U.S., if you are anti-Russian because of the Cold War memory it automatically brings you into the U.S. camp in the sense that the collective memory of the role of the U.S. in the Cold War is positive and there is a legacy of that. So former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, for example, is still a very popular figure. In all of Eastern Europe there were statues of Reagan erected. But you have to view it in this context of being “anti-Soviet,” and now it will be “anti-Russian.” That said, the whole process is dynamic. We have been part of the European Union for a while now and so it also brings new perspectives. Still you can see that this collective memory divide is going to stay there for a while.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.