It is a time-honoured maxim that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it; and considering the current volatile political and social climate in Europe, it has never been so apt.
During this year’s Schuman Lecture at Maastricht University on 9 May 2017—the 67th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration that laid the foundation for a united Europe— renowned historian Stella Ghervas reminded attendees that it is vitally important to learn from the past and not fall prey to a dangerous “political amnesia”. You can watch the lecture in full here.
The passionate pursuit of knowledge
The Schuman Lecture from Ghervas—who is currently assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an associate of the department of history at Harvard University—was appropriately titled “Europe’s Pursuit of Peace, Past, Present and Future”. Wars, she explains, have long been the focus of the historians, rather than the study of peace, which has been considered “boring”.
“We have so many historical books on wars in Europe,” Ghervas says. “They concentrate on the battles and the feats of great generals. Who would be interested in the episodes of peace that inevitably came after them? It is time to challenge that interpretation of European history.”
Ghervas is no stranger to challenges, both in her professional career as a historian and as a witness to political changes. Born in Moldova, she experienced first-hand perestroika, the economic policy introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev that indirectly led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A teenager at the time, Ghervas was surrounded by a world that had suddenly “turned upside down.”
While at the University of St. Petersburg—where she received her bachelors and later masters degrees in philosophy and political science—she saw a marked change in the way education was given in the Soviet Union. Encouraged by the sudden introduction and availability of new ideas, Ghervas pursued her education in Romania at the University of Bucharest, where she received her PhD in history; after that, she moved on to the University of Geneva in Switzerland for (yet another) PhD, this time in European studies. Switzerland, where Ghervas spent most of the years of her life, is now her home country.
Ghervas did not stop after her studies. She has continued to research but also to teach; before taking positions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Harvard University, she taught at the University of Geneva and the University of Chicago, as well as in many other institutions in Europe.
“Teaching is not only gratifying—it feeds my own research and my curiosity,” she says. “It’s very useful to have feedback from colleagues and also students. Research and teaching go hand in hand.”
Cultivating a love for history
Ghervas’ continual pursuit to understand European history did not come solely from experience; her personal life contributed a great deal. Growing up in a multilingual household—she was raised speaking both Romanian and Russian—and in the naturally multicultural environment of Eastern Europe, she had always been exposed to a wide variety of ideas, while living in Switzerland also exposed her to diverse languages and cultures.
The first book she remembers reading as a child was a collection of ancient Greek legends, which she says gave her a passion for history. The volume, now completely worn out, is still in possession of her parents, who (though not historians but mathematicians) encouraged her to learn more about history and its movements.
“History is not just events and the number of soldiers in military battles, for example,” Ghervas says. “It’s about dynamics—the underlying waves of history. Following the example of French historian Fernand Braudel, I separate those short-term events from the social movements of the middle term, and the ‘slowly moving history’ of the long term (what is often called longue durée).”
Ghervas sought to follow this history with her book, Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance (Reinventing Tradition: Alexander Sturdza and the Europe of the Holy Alliance). This work, written in French over the course of ten years, received the Guizot Prize from the French Academy in 2009. To Ghervas, it was one of her greatest achievements—not only because French is not her native language, but because when she accepted the award, her father and friends were proudly sitting in the audience.
Reflecting on the past for the present
The research interests of Ghervas position her as one of two types of historians, she says. Some historians study the past to simply understand the past, while others study the past in order to understand the present—and prepare the future.
Ghervas is currently completing a new book, Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union (to be published by Harvard University Press next year), which seeks to answer a specific question, namely, “why has the aim of peace been so important for a united Europe?”
“[Ethno-nationalism] is a real threat to freedom and for peace in Europe today,” says Ghervas. “We live on a diverse and multicultural continent, and the glue that keeps the European construction together is the solidarity that was born in the tragedy at the end of WWII. In Central and Eastern Europe, that European solidarity emerged again in the late 1980s with the pacific uprising against the oppression of communist totalitarianism.”
Nationalistic quarrels have been the source of most recent major wars, a point she made in the lecture. But even though there are always sentiments of “never again” immediately after a great war, political amnesia eventually sets in and the peaceful resolutions fall away.
“New generations tend to lose the memory of older conflicts, like healthy people tend to forget what it was to be ill,” she says. “Ten years later, we’ve already forgotten about the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Very few had predicted such a war in Europe. We thought that with the European construction, peace had been established. Unfortunately, peace is never granted. One has to work continuously in order to maintain and improve it.”
It seems, in the current state of European and global affairs, political amnesia is rampant. News outlets report the imminent collapse of the European Union on an almost daily basis, driven by a rise in ethno-nationalism and fearmongering, while winds of war are sweeping over Ukraine. But even though the European Union experiment could collapse, she adds, “the idea of Europe” would go on because one cannot kill an idea.
“But why should the Europeans take such a risk?” she asks. “The role of historians is to remedy this debilitating loss of memory in society. Otherwise, we could forget the fundamental reason for our European solidarities—and violence could repeat itself.”
About the Schuman Lecture
The annual Schuman Lecture commemorates Robert Schuman and the Treaties of Rome (1957) and Maastricht (1992). Schuman (1886-1963) was French Minister of Foreign Affairs and co-founder of the European Community of Coal and Steel in 1950, an ancestor of the modern EU. The lecture is organised yearly by Maastricht University and the City of Maastricht.
Stella Ghervas is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an Associate of the Department of History at Harvard University. She is currently also the Mihaychuk Fellow 2016-2017 at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.