Maeva Chargros is a French Euroculture student who spent her first and second semesters in Olomouc, Czech Republic and Krakow, Poland, respectively. Having previously studied within programs that take on a multidisciplinary approach, Maeva decided to apply for Euroculture as it offered her the opportunity to dive back into literature, history, and languages (as she did in her BA) without losing the interdisciplinary approach. She has a background in Nordic Studies, and professional experience in digital communications as well as public relations (PR). For her third semester, she went back to Olomouc to do the research track.
Thanks Maeva for taking the time to share your experience!
1. Why did you decide to do research?
Honestly, I just wanted to keep digging into my thesis topic. I was foolish enough to pick a topic I knew barely nothing about, in a field I was not exactly familiar with, so I realised I had to work on my background knowledge as much as I could, and the research track was the best option for this. Also, since I’ve already worked, I did not feel like I would be learning anything tremendously stimulating – quite the opposite of a research track where I’d be learning a lot every day on various topics. Perhaps the comfort of going back to Olomouc – a city I really enjoy to live in – was also part of my choice, but shhh, it’s not supposed to be that important, right…?
Berlin, August, 2006. After two weeks traveling from London – where I used to live at that time -, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, I had arrived in one of the most fascinating cities of the world – at least in my imaginary, which could easily be confirmed later. Summer breeze was blowing through the cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Kastanienallee was the perfect picture of how Berliners could enjoy their lives on a Saturday afternoon, with groups of friends and families hanging out and experiencing all types of foods and drinks, listening to different kinds of music and appreciating the sunny weather. All way down to Alexanderplatz distinct generations were sitting together in front of yellow, blue, green and red buildings talking about life and keeping problems completely away. Alone, I observed that and could barely believe that only a little more than 15 years earlier that part of the city was not that colourful and had nothing similar to that.
On the other side, Mitte was also full of people on the pavements observing passersby. Unter den Linden was like an anthill made by tourists that after walking the whole day could finally have some rest in the “Biergarten(s)” around. The city was beautiful, alive and tender following a World Cup that Germany had hosted less than a month ago and only a few days after the Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and Jon had launched the classic “Young Folks”. You could feel the tenderness in the air. You could feel the spirit of happiness flowing freely in such a vibrant and great atmosphere. It was simply wonderful.
I knew, though, that at least in one of the seven days that was going to stay there I needed to take some time to cross the city and leave all that happiness and good vibrations behind. It would not be easy or pleasant, but I needed to do it. The goal was tough: Sachsenhausen.
What is Europe?
If you honestly think about it, could you pinpoint it out? If yes, where does Europe end or most importantly where does it start? Is Europe an ideology or does the idea of Europe ends with its dynamic borders?
Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden – these ‘Cantons’ laid down the foundation of the modern-day concept of ‘Culture’. You may wonder – How exactly has that evolved?
Well, ‘Cantons’ – the administrative division of states – make up nowadays’ confederation of ‘Switzerland. “Bundesbrief” – the oldest constitutional document of Switzerland documents the alliance of these three ‘Cantons’. In one of these ‘Cantons’, the birth of a prolific intellectual would take place – Jacob Burckhardt was born in the Canton of ‘Basel’ in 1818, he later wrote the 19th century’s masterpiece – ’The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’. Published in 1860 and then revised in 1867, it was a sensational description of the Italian Renaissance.
Burckhardt’s vision that ‘Renaissance’ was the beginning of the modern world would later be expanded into modern politics, economics and aspects of modern society. His ideas encapsulated the idea of social, political, and cultural transformation in Europe. Burckhardt is thus known as the father of the notion of ‘Culture’ and its developments since the 19th century. Today, the stern look of his portrait on the Swiss franc is reminiscent of the path-breaking work for the cultural history of Europe and modernism. Continue reading “Why the Idea of Europe Matters”→
How odd coincidences are, sometimes! On Friday [26.10.18], the French President, Emmanuel Macron, declared that “there is no division between East and West in Europe”. I had just written the draft of this article dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the First Czechoslovak Republic – stating the complete opposite and calling for more efforts from the Western part of our continent.
Therefore, allow me to seize this opportunity to turn this article into an answer to a declaration I know is wrong.
“Czechoslovakia” might not exist anymore, but the ideals of this state, as well as its struggles, are still very much alive. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic was born in the Slovak part, when it was still called “Czechoslovakia”. Born in Bratislava; Prime Minister in Prague. Usually at this point, for the amusement of the readers, the writer tends to add a comparison that turns out to be a joke. However, there is no comparison to make here, even less as a joke: the Czech and Slovak common history was not made only of laughter and joy – it was also made of betrayal, loneliness, and struggle for the right to exist together, or separately. There happens to be only very few similar cases – please name a case of two different nations uniting under one flag, one state, one President, just to have the right to exist and try their luck at this. And when it fails the first time, they try again a second, a third, and a fourth time. Only after the fourth attempt, they agree on a peaceful separation, though not tearless.
If you’re from Western Europe, I might have lost you already at “Czechoslovakia”, at the very beginning of this paragraph: “where is it by the way?”. If you’re Czech or Slovak, I might have lost you with the “four times” – and you’re probably arguing about this number. See the division now, Mr Macron? Here it is.
To clear this point quickly with Czechs and Slovaks (and especially those born as Czechoslovaks): I include in the “attempts” not only the usual 1918, 1945 and 1990, but also the additional attempt with a more federal system during the Communist period. You may disagree, I’m not even sure I agree with myself here. Let’s not lose the focus of this article, though – the division, between East and West. Continue reading “1918-2018: Czechoslovakia, Between East & West”→
The cultural and creative sector is the third biggest employer in the European Union being only excelled by the construction and the food sectors. Besides their rather underestimated economic importance, culture and creativity build bridges between people and positively influence various areas, e.g. education, well-being or democracy. Consequently, culture contributes to the objectives of the European integration. Therefore, it is necessary to foster our cultural and political identity, to preserve our diversity and increase the intercultural dialogue as it is mentioned in Article 167 of the Treaty of Lisbon.
In order to give credit to the cultural sector and to support its further development, the European Union launched Creative Europe in 2014 as the EU’s funding programme for the cultural, creative and audiovisual sectors. As such it is in place for seven years (2014-2020) and consists of two sub-programmes that used to exist independently before: MEDIA and CULTURE. While MEDIA is dedicated to the audiovisual sector and helps promoting audiovisual works, CULTURE covers funding for all other cultural and creative areas including amongst others performing and visual arts, literature, music, street art and cultural heritage. In total, 1,46 billion Euros are foreseen for the whole programme meaning for the whole seven years and all participating countries. Related to the amount of participating countries, this amount can change throughout the years. In addition to the 28 EU Member States, interested European countries can associate with Creative Europe and thereby increase the programme’s budget. In the past years, the list of participating countries grew continuously up to 41 countries in 2018, including amongst others Tunisia, Georgia, Ukraine, Albania and Armenia, boosting the intercultural exchange in the European neighbourhood. Simultaneously, countries can also leave the group as it was the case with Turkey in autumn 2016 and could be happening again with the upcoming Brexit in 2019. Continue reading “The Future of Creative Europe”→
No country exists without its history. Or, perhaps equally as important, the specific way it deals with this history: its memory culture. These memory cultures tell us a lot about a specific society, as it tells us one important thing: how it chooses to deal with its past. Memory culture refers to all practices of memory and commemoration, as well as education about the past – and, especially, the darker pages of its history.
One such country is Sweden. Traditionally a militarily neutral country, its post-war memory culture was concerned with exactly that: its perceived neutrality, especially in Europe’s most traumatic experiences in the twentieth century. There has been a shift in Swedish memory culture since the late 1990s, with Swedish historians paying more attention to Sweden’s role in World War II, and its perceived lack of involvement in the conflict. The country now has its own institute for Holocaust commemoration, which uses the Holocaust as a starting point to discuss issues of tolerance, called ‘Forum för levande historia’ (Living History Forum). Why has Swedish memory changed so drastically since the 1990s, so many years after World War II?Continue reading “Collective Memory in Sweden: the Living History Forum”→
The Polish Sejm has passed a Law at the beginning of this year, which makes it illegal to blame Poles for any crime committed during the Nazi occupation. Even though it also covers crimes committed during the Communist era (and war crimes by Ukrainian nationalists), it came to be known as “The Holocaust Law” in the debate that it sparked all around the world. This shows not only the sensitivity of the topic of the Holocaust, but also that 73 years after the victory over the Nazis, it seems the different Holocaust narratives are rather dividing than uniting Europe. Can, and should a consensus be reached when it comes to Holocaust memory? Or is the motto united in diversity a legitimate solution for the European memory? Especially the latest EU-enlargement challenges the concept of a common European memory, as the Western countries have agreed on their memory more or less, while new members have not been included yet, and bring other, fresher memories to the table: the communist past. Considering that the Holocaust, however, is said to be part of the European memory as negative founding myth, in cooperating Eastern narratives and agreeing on what and how the Holocaust is to be remembered is an integral part of the integration process. Continue reading “Interpreting the Polish “Holocaust Law””→
As students of Europe, we like to believe we have a good grasp on the history and political development of the continent. Too often, however, we have been educated from a singular perspective, one that rarely includes the perspective of what we have labeled “the East”. The tragedy of Central Europe, as Milan Kundera once called it, is not that the Soviet Union gobbled up so much of the continent after World War II, but rather that “the West” allowed such a massive piece of its cultural heritage to slip away. One of the most common things Euroculture students say after spending a semester in Olomouc is, “I never knew.” “I never knew about Václav Havel.” “I never knew about the Prague Spring.” “I never knew about Tomáš Masaryk.”
The Euroculture program, however, is fortunate enough to have among its professors Josef Jařab, a person with a keen memory and a knack for being around at the turning points of history. Professor Jařab, or JJ as he is more commonly known among Euroculturers, is a professor, former rector and dissident who calls Olomouc his home. We sat down with JJ to speak to him about his life, the Velvet Revolution, and lessons we should be taking from Central Europe.
A Central European Story
Born in 1937 in the Silesian region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, JJ’s life has been studded with academic and literary accomplishment. He glibly refers to his birth as his first major achievement; he somehow managed to be born full term only three months after his parents’ marriage: “It usually takes nine months! My first surprising sort of record was to make it in three or four months.” This, he told me, is why he is so famous in Olomouc.
All joking aside, JJ’s reputation in Olomouc – and throughout Central Europe – truly does precede him. At the risk of turning this article into a listicle of defining moments, I would like to mention a few that stand out. Throughout the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia, JJ worked to bring Western culture beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, he led the students in Olomouc to a similar revolution. On the day he was officially fired by Palacký University, he became its first freely elected Rector. He was a close friend to Olga and Václav Havel, served as rector of the Central European University and as a Senator of the Czech Parliament and pursues, to this day, his passion for poetry, literature and jazz. This, too, is a fitting profile for a Czech revolutionary; the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution were, after all, not driven by activists or the overtly politically minded, but by the writers, the students, the poets, the actors.Continue reading “Professor Jařab & the Velvet Revolution: “Freedom is a Sleeping Beauty””→
In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.
The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.
Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.
In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida,click here.
Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.
However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts,far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.
The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups. Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.
Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tankInstitute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.
Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.
There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.
Eric Hartshornewill be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.
‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is a coinage generally referred to a small patch of landmass on the bank of river Hooghly in the Indian province of Bengal, where a number of European national groups, such as the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Danes and the Armenians, had once settled, in order to carry out their trade and colonial ventures. The setting up of these trade settlements and their indulging in colonial rivalry dates back to late sixteenth century. Although the area became more and more homogenised as Britain rose to dominance in and around this region, the French held their last bastion, Chandernagore, right up until 1952, when this town was handed over to the Republic of India.
Since then for almost half a century there has been little, if any, interest from these different European ‘national’ communities in the region, mostly because there was no immediate necessity on their part to do so. There were indeed a few archaeological remains of the bygone era, scattered around in Dutch Chinsurah or Danish Serampore. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took unfocused measures to preserve some of the prominent remains such as the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah or the Danish one in Serampore. However, it was neither the priority of, nor feasible for, the ASI to physically maintain every single tangible ‘heritage artefact’ belonging to the Dutch, Portuguese or Danish settlers in the region. The French case has been unique. French Chandernagore has been the only place that succeeded in maintaining its both tangible and intangible Frenchness. The façade of Frenchness on its architecture has been one aspect of this. It could sustain certain other features as well. Chandernagore’s French museum, which is housed at the erstwhile residence of French governor, attracted tourists for a long period of time. Chandernagore’s College still boasts of its department of French language and literature, although it has rechristened itself in recent years to remove the name of a former French Governor of India, Joseph-François Marquis Dupleix (1697 – 1763). Now the college has adopted the name of a local hero rather than a colonial figure- Kanailal Dutta, a Bengali revolutionary fighting against the British Empire,. Up until the time when the common European framework of language learning (we usually know it as A1-C2 system) and the global networks like Allinace Française conquered the French-teaching industry in India, Institut de Chandernagor religiously offered French tutelage to its Bengali pupils and had its own accreditation system named certificat d’études primaires, or ‘certificat’ in local Bengali parlance. There has been, sadly, no Portuguese, Dutch or Danish cultural centre of similar repute in the formerly held territories. There have also been instances in the 1990s of PhD students of history in that region, dropping their plan of researching Dutch settlement in Chinsurah primarily because of the dearth of any place in the entirety of Eastern India that offer Dutch language courses.
Here comes the questions as to how and why did everything change in recent years? The last few years of twentieth century saw a major upheaval in the interest shown by Europe in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. 1999 marked the four hundred years of the establishment of the Basilica of Holy-Rosary in Portuguese-held territory of Bandel, considered to be the second oldest surviving Christian church in India. A major renovation and reconstruction project was carried out with a lump sum coming from the Holy See. This, in a way, changed the course of the wave, and more and more European powers started coming in with a renewed interest in their Indian past. The Dutch followed suit. Different parties with their individual interests came ashore. The Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in India took keen interest and invested a substantial amount of money in order to document the Dutch remains in Bengal. A conservation architectural firm, ATA (Aishwarya Tipnis Architects) has been appointed to do an extensive survey in the region, and come up with plans to engage contemporary populace of Chinsurah with both the tangible and the intangible remnants of Dutchness in their town.
ATA, along with a number of personnel from the Presidency University, Calcutta, tried to offer newer directions for conservation. At the end of this a multi-disciplinary project was meant to be on the table, focussing on creating a digital archive for shared cultural heritage of the erstwhile Dutch Chinsurah. These initiatives involvedthe physical mapping of remaining tombstones in the historic Dutch cemetery, and digitally showcasing the mapping on a digital platform wherein the visitor can actually click on the location of a single tombstone and be redirected to a lot of stories for that era of Dutch rule. A lot of students from the Presidency University, under the leadership of Souvik Mukherjee, a professor of English literature and one of the key figures interested in digital humanities in India, worked day in and day out deciphering the almost washed out Dutch inscriptions on the tombstones. They simultaneously spent time in the archives, going back to the historical narratives around those people whose tombstones they were trying to read. All these findings came together to form a single online platform. By clicking on a location in today’s Chinsurah, one could navigate from one temporal frame to another, from an inscription on a dilapidated tombstone of an erstwhile Dutch governor to a digitally organised visual representation of the lifestyle he could have led in eighteenth century Dutch Chinsurah. One mouse click after another can now lead us to endless possibilities for knitting together a number of otherwise disconnected tales from the Dutch past.
At the same time Bauke van der Pol, a Dutch anthropologist, was trying to unearth the hidden narrative of Dutch presence in India. This has culminated in his book, De VOC in India: Nederlands erfgoed in Gujarat, Malabar, Coromandel en Bengalen. These two projects – one narrating the tale of the fringes of the Dutch Empire, and another documenting with the tools of Digital Humanities the remnants of that past scattered across present-day Chinsurah – came to mingle at a dingle juncture, when in 2014 Presidency University simultaneously launched van der Pol’s book and the website of ‘Dutch in Chinsurah’.
The French Embassy has commissioned a similar approach to conservation. This project ran until 2012 and received support from the Embassy of France in India and the foundation Vieilles Maisons Françaises (VMF), and was executed by the same architectural firm involved in Dutch Chinsurah, ATA. Although it was not exactly like what the Dutch initiative tried to pursue, it has its own charm as well. Apart from documenting the French architectural heritage and presenting the findings on an online platform, ATA organised workshops with children to encourage them draw comic strips about the French past, and hosted a French cookery show.
The Danes, as usual, were not lagging behind. The‘Serampore Initiative’, a project initiated by the National Museum of Denmark in 2008 with the purpose of documenting and preserving cultural heritage from the Danish period in Frederichsnagore (today Serampore), is among the largest conservation projects taken in recent years by any European nation outside Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. Apart from the funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture andthe local population, it could also garner interest from other quarters of Danish society and life, and could therefore secure funding from a Danish philanthropic organisation, Realdania. As a result of this initiative- taken as an Indo-Danish joint architectural venture- the dilapidated church of St. Olav has undergone a major facelift, resulting in its reopening after being declared abandoned and unsafe in 2013. This year the totally renovated St. Olav’s has again been consecrated to the parish of Serampore. The Danish Tavern, the residence of the Danish governor and the riverfront in the Danish style are now being restored.
As far as this narrative of restoration goes it appears like a pretty and tranquil tale of European powers suddenly remembering their bygone past and investing a huge sum of money in the conservation and the restoration of their heritage. A closer scrutiny would, however, prove otherwise. The path towards the conservation of heritage can always lead to certain uncomfortable questions being asked, like whose heritage is it, and why at this point in time it has suddenly come under the umbrella term of heritage? Since, with the exception of Chandernagore, most of these settlements did not have a unilineal colonial narrative attached to them, defining what ‘true’ heritage is, in certain towns, gives rise to a lot of itchy smirks. Should the conservation recently carried out in the name of restoring Dutch heritage in Chinsurah prior to its British annexation in 1825 totally neglect layer after layer of British ‘heritage’ laid there over the next one hundred years? How should a conservationist deal with the alterations the Anglican establishment had once made to the erstwhile Danish Protestant Church of Serampore?
Even these problematic questions are sometimes overshadowed by even trickier questions of entitlement and participation. Who is indeed entitled to stake a claim to a physical space inhabited by people who by no means feel interested in the colonial narratives of these European powers? Although it did not always appear like an old-school colonial rivalry between major European powers of early modern times, the way one conservation project taken up in one town by a modern European nation immediately gets rivalled by another one in an adjacent town might raise one’s eyebrow. There seems to be justifiable reservations from other quarters as well, the most prominent being from the local historians. These are the people who often devoted their life sustaining in the public the interest in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. For almost half a century, up until the first decade of the twenty-first century, these individual endeavours kept the awareness alive. How do they feel when governmental bodies armed with professional architectural firms start expressing renewed interest in conserving the heritage or generating historical awareness in the region? ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is again at the crossroads. It is in a unique situation in its contemporaneity, where different national communities from Europe are again chiselling in its physical territory, not as the colonial intruder but as the conservationists. The future of the ‘Little Europe in Bengal’, and its ties with Europe would definitely be subject to its various approaches to conservation, and simultaneously the love-hate relationship of the local populace with those approaches.