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US Politics, Joe Biden and European History

US Politics, Joe Biden and European History

Following the inauguration of United States President Joe Biden, and over half a decade on from his visit to the European Parliament, we asked the House of European History team to what extent both events have contributed to European History...

How are the deep transatlantic ties described by the future president-elect in his 2010 address to the EP explored in the permanent exhibition of the House of European History? 

When he gave his historic address to the European Parliament in 2010 then Vice-President Joseph R. Biden opened his remarks with a quote from the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats, from his poem Easter 1916. These lines declaring that “all (is) changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born” were written after the independence uprising in Dublin of that year and describe how an epoch defining historical event can change the political landscape irrevocably, in what seems like an instant.

At the time of his parliamentary speech in 2010, with the world still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Recession and with less than ten years passed since the attacks of 9/11, Joe Biden saw US-European relations standing at such a moment of change. It is interesting therefore, that in his address the vice president drew extensively from history and upon historical resonance, describing how both a common heritage and shared system of values have shaped the relationship between Europe and the United States of America at such moments of transition and upheaval. Biden ended his address with a fulsome affirmation, warmly received by his audience, that as much as Europe needs an internationally engaged United States, the United States needs a strong and united Europe.

At the House of European History, we explore many of these defining US-European historical interactions through objects, images, and multi-media. One of the earliest examples in the permanent exhibition is the impact that the American Revolution of 1776, itself shaped by European Enlightenment writers and thinkers, had on European revolutions, most notably the French Revolution of 1789.  We also show the mass migration of Europeans to North America in the 19th century that had a lasting effect on both sides of the Atlantic, a legacy referred to by Biden in his 2010 speech. In regards to the 20th century, the exhibition explores the fundamental ways in which American intervention impacted a Europe torn apart by war. It shows US entry into World War I in 1917 and its shaping of the post-conflict international order via the Paris Treaties. The exhibition also treats the decisive US intervention in World War II and its role in the reconstruction of Europe and the subsequent process of European integration.

As the events of 2020 have shown however, particularly in the US, our understanding of the past is shifting at great speed to confront problematic episodes in our shared history heretofore brushed under the carpet. History is never over. The transatlantic slave trade from the 17th to 19th centuries for example, constitutes a traumatic and shameful point of interaction between Europe, Africa, and the future United States of America. It is one nonetheless that needs to be addressed by museums and historians.

At the House European History the fundamental role that slavery played as a part of European history as well as its relevance today are shown in the opening section of the permanent exhibition dealing the precepts of European Heritage. In all its facets therefore, both good and bad, the dynamic relationship between the United States of America and Europe is a key part of European history. No doubt, as it changes and evolves going forward it will remain a key story in the House of European History also.

President-elect Joe Biden visited the European Parliament in February 2015 as the then Vice-President of the United States. Is it common for high-level political figures to visit European Union institutions? Why do they come and what are the main issues for cooperation they focus on?

US and Europe relations predate for obvious historical reasons WWII, but since the end of that world conflict, the transatlantic relations deepened in a framework that encompassed diplomacy, culture, economy, military, social, legislative and many other fields. With the creation of the European Communities and with time the increased importance of the role of the EU in those domains in relation with the US and world policy, the EU Institutions took a central role as the Interlocutor with the US.

Since 1995, 29 EU-US summits have taken place, where both sides debated, discussed and agreed on many issues (tariffs, privacy legislation, visa reciprocity, International treaties like the Iran nuclear deal etc.). Is in the framework of this narrow relationship that visits of US high level political figures are very common, such as Vice-president Biden in 2015, Vice-president Pence in 2017, but also many more like Secretaries of State, US Senate delegations and US Congress delegations.

As part of the House of European History’s public lecture series, Professor Timothy Snyder was recently invited to deliver a speech on "What past catastrophe teaches us about future possibility".  What can connections and engagement with contemporary American historians and their work tell us about the shared history between the US and Europe. What fresh perspectives can they bring?

Professor Snyder’s approach is an interesting one in the sense that in his online lecture to the House of European History and on other occasions, such as the speech he gave on Europe Day 2019 in Vienna, he characterises the role of the American historian examining European history as akin to that of an ‘outsider’ looking in. As such, the perspective he and other American academics bring to the debate is that of objective and constructive criticism on European approaches to understanding and remembering the past. Snyder’s message to Europe is clear, at once both celebratory and cautionary. “You are more than your myths”, he stated in 2019.

While values of openness, democracy, and international engagement as a means of solving differences make Europe a bastion of hope to the world, in Snyder’s view, this hope can only be realised by privileging an objective and shared history over comforting yet frequently divisive historical myths. This is a view echoed by Synder’s Yale colleague, Professor Jay Winter, who also spoke at the House of European History, in person, in the pre-Covid days of November 2019. Both of these American historians, among many others, offer unique understandings on Europe’s past which have been deeply influential to the work of the House of European History both in its development and since its opening. Since both of these lectures were delivered towards the end of the current American president’s term it would to interesting to see how future political changes will be addressed by US and European historians in the years to come. One of the few upsides of the Covid crisis has been the shift to online events which allows us not only to bring in a wider cross section of international speakers to events but also an international audience, from the US and beyond.

How does the House of European History work with US museums to help show the historical points of connection between the United States and Europe?

In a very specific way there would be no House of European History, without a transatlantic connection. The building in which the museum is now based, our house, was originally part of a network of public dental clinics across Europe founded by the American philanthropist and photographic pioneer George Eastman. As part of our early work researching the history of the building and exploring how to include that in our permanent exhibition we worked in contact with the George Eastman Museum in upstate New York.

Another key American stakeholder for the House of European History has been the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Not only have we benefited through visits and consultations with senior museum staff but the permanent exhibition has also displayed many photographs and objects from USHMM’s collection, since our opening in 2017. Our colleagues in the Parlamentarium have also had the honour of hosting a temporary exhibition from this museum; State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, which ran in early 2018.

Not all our hopes of cooperation have been realised however. For example, we very much wanted to work with the National Museum of Emigration at Ellis Island in New York Harbour for our permanent exhibition but their storerooms were badly damaged and rendered inaccessible during the floods of Hurricane Sandy in 2012  thus making international loans impossible.  It is certainly a museum to be borne in mind for future projects, as it is a lieu de memoir par excellence of the points of contact between Europe and North America.

Our temporary exhibitions have also explored American influence in Europe. For example in Restless Youth, Growing Up in Europe 1945 to Now, which ran during 2019/20 we showed how important American culture, particularly youth culture, was in the lives of young Europeans after World War II and how it became something of a reference culture symbolising ideals of personal freedom transcending the political divides on the continent. Indeed, the title of the exhibition itself, Restless Youth, came from a report compiled by the C.I.A for President Lyndon Johnson on the wave of international youth protests sweeping the world in 1968.

Meanwhile, there are several US presidents featured in the permanent exhibition, most particularly for their roles in shaping the new international order after momentous historic upheaval and conflicts; namely Presidents Woodrow Wilson after World War I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt after World War II, and George H.W. Bush after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. Then Vice-President Richard Nixon also makes an appearance in the famous “kitchen debate” from 1959, going head to head with premier of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and defending the values of American capitalism in front of an international television audience!

Given the scale of the global challenges at the end of 2020, including climate change, the rise of political division and extremes, and the effects of the global pandemic, it seems again that relations between Europe and the United States are at a cross-roads, such the one as Joe Biden saw before him in 2010. There is little doubt therefore, that museums in 20 years’ time will be exploring and explaining the actions and decisions of current and future US presidents through their permanent and temporary exhibitions. Hopefully, for us all, history will judge those acts kindly.

Image credit: © European Union 2012 - EP