Managing the post-war period: the European ‘example’?


An article by Valérie Rosoux on reconciliation speeches related to the European Union received the Journal of Contemporary European Studies prize. We took the opportunity to return with her to her chosen field: managing the post-war period. 

After the weapons fall silent comes the hardest part: learning to live with yesterday’s enemies, turning the page of violence. It’s a real challenge. ‘During negotiations, we often talk about the interests of the parties: economic or strategic interests, control of territories, power relations, etc.’, says Valérie Rosoux, professor of political science at UCLouvain. ‘That's important, but there's another dimension, just as crucial: emotions. As soon as massacres occur, no "happy end" is possible in the short or medium term. To hope that the warring parties return to normal relations, devoid of hatred and resentment after only a few years, is illusory. And dangerous. Denying or minimising the emotions of victims of conflict can lead to a rapid resumption of violence.’ 

Europe: a success story…really?

For 20 years, Prof. Rosoux has been working on post-conflict management and the hard work of remembering. In 2015, she was invited to participate in a symposium at the College of Europe, in Bruges, concerning narratives in Europe. Based on her experience there, she wrote an article recently published by the Journal of Contemporary European Studies.1 ‘Very quickly, the theme gelled with my own work, on the one hand because the narratives play a key role in managing a violent historical heritage’,2 Prof. Rosoux explained. ‘On the other hand because, all over the world, the history of the European Union and of the Franco-German partnership in particular has been established as an exemplary model of reconciliation. An "example" that some people think can be transposed in any (post-)conflict: the Balkans, the Great Lakes region in Africa, the Middle East, etc. In fact, it's not so easy.’    

Exceptional conditions

The Franco-German reconciliation is exceptional, because the conditions that made peace and post-war collaboration possible were also exceptional. Admittedly, during the two world wars, French and Germans engaged in fierce hatred. ‘At the same time, there was – and still is – a form of mutual respect for the other nation’s intellectual, artistic and/or economic achievements’, Prof. Rosoux explains. ‘It’s quite different in conflicts where the adversary is portrayed aggressively as inferior: he’s not only the enemy but an ill-bred child, a barbarian to be civilised, even an animal to exterminate. In these cases, rebuilding ties is much more complex.’


Unfinished peace

According to many commentators, European reconciliation has long since been achieved. Prof. Rosoux nuances this point of view. ‘We’re not done with our past. Because the meaning we give it is never fixed once and for all. It evolves from generation to generation. An example: Verdun.’3 She explains, ‘For my grandfather, the battle represented the paroxysm of the "hatred of the Boche". Whereas for me it’s collective European martyrdom. As for the Second World War and the Shoah, many Germans feel that, 70 years later, they still have to apologise. And when Angela Merkel was intractable during the Greek crisis, some referenced Germany’s Nazi past. This is evidence, in my opinion, that European reconciliation is neither finite, nor definitive, nor even irreversible. Hence the interest of continuing the work of memory by taking into account a plurality of stories and voices. Polyphony is a prerequisite for living together.’ 

Necessary modesty

The history of the European Union is remarkable in its transformation of relations between former belligerents. But the processes that allowed this transformation are not a universal model, transposable as such to all regions of the world. Europeans play the role of third parties in several post-conflict areas. However, Prof. Rosoux invites more realism and modesty in our expectations regarding these regions, both in terms of timing and objectives: 

  • Modest expectations regarding timing: ‘It took decades to bring Europeans together’, she says. ‘We cannot decently expect Rwandans or Balkan peoples to be fully reconciled just 20 years after the atrocities that took place in their regions. The post-war period is not calculated in years, but in generations.’ 
  • Modest expectations regarding objectives: ‘Reconciliation has many degrees, ranging from coexistence to harmony. To have yesterday's enemies manage to coexist without violence after only a few years is already a remarkable result! We can’t "solve" the past, but we can unlock the future. For this, it’s important, as Marguerite Yourcenar desired, to keep our "eyes open".’ 

Candice Leblanc

(1) V. Rosoux, ‘Reconciliation narrative: scope and limits of the Pax Europeana’ in JCES, 2 October 2017. 
(2) Prof. Rosoux works on three types of corpus: authorities’ official speeches, stories of individuals affected by violence (survivors, relatives or descendants of victims, etc.) and testimonies of third parties (mediators, judges, diplomats, NGO workers , etc.).
(3) The 1916 battle of Verdun between French and German armies resulted in 700,000 killed.

A glance at Valérie Rosoux's bio

Valérie Rosoux has been a professor of political science, specialize in international relations at UCLouvain since 2000 and an FNRS researcher since 2014. She holds a bachelor's degree in law, a master's degree in philosophy, and a master's degree and PhD in political science. Winner of several awards, she was elected a member of the Royal Belgian Academy in 2016. Her research is funded mainly by the FNRS, UCLouvain, the Belgian Science Policy Office and several research organisations abroad such as the USIP, GIGA, the Max Planck Institute, and the Clingendael Institute.    

Published on January 28, 2019