Ville Erkkilä

In this series, we introduce the researchers of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives.

Ville Erkkilä is a post-doctoral researcher in EuroStorie’s subproject 1, Law and the Uses of the Past. He has a background in history, with a special emphasis on legal history and intellectual history. His research will deal with conceptual history, affective history and history of historiography. More precisely, he will examine the legal historiography of East Germany.

Ville has a Master’s degree in history from the University of Helsinki. In his doctoral dissertation, completed in legal history at the faculty of law in the University of Helsinki, he examined the use of historiography in defining the idea of a common European law. His focus was especially on Franz Wieacker’s thought. Ville wrote his Master’s thesis about the conservative historiography of Finland following civil war and this, according to him, had many similarities with the conservative historiography of Germany. Before starting his work at EuroStorie, he also worked some years as a history teacher.

In EuroStorie, Ville is examining the legal historiography of East Germany after the post-war period as a counter narrative to the Western narrative. In 1930’s, German historians tried to prove that the European history is Germany’s history and vice versa. However, after the war, this no longer worked, but the starting points were kept unchanged. Thus, the aim in the West was to look behind the unpleasant recent events, and instead construct a more amiable, ‘pure’ narrative for Europe. It was a story of human rights, continuity and the idea that legal scholars ought to have a special position in a society.

East Germany, however, had a completely different narrative. The Soviet idea that law was a bourgeoisie concept, on the side of the elite and against people, was often emphasized. The narrative of East Germany criticized the West of being unable to wash off the Nazi past. Thus, the grand story of the West was seen as dishonest and hypocritical.

In the historiography of the DDR, Europe’s future was seen to be heading towards a socialist utopia, where people would be equal, and unequal structures would be demolished.  At first, this narrative was somewhat fruitful, but the further time went and the more totalitarian the governance descended into, law became placed under the command of politics. Thus, law became a tool, with which a suitable society, from the viewpoint of the communist elite, was maintained.

After the unification of Germany, the historiography of East Germany was brushed off thoroughly. It was seen to embody a distorted conception of reality that interpreted the surrounding world falsely from the viewpoint of its erroneous ideology. It was also seen as a travesty of historiography. According to Ville, this is only partly true. “It was all the same an attempt to organize and to understand history.” History also provides a lot of evidence for both of these opposing narratives. “For example, law has, and to some extent still does, favor elites. It often does not treat all people equally.”

According to Ville, what is still interesting and relevant in the historiography of East Germany, is its criticism of our grand narrative of the West. What is not, however, is the future perspective of it, says Ville. Its understanding of the future was purpose-oriented and it left little room for an open future. It also aimed at maintaining a society that oppressed people and reduced their freedom and thus provided an imperfect account of people’s profound needs.

However, one can also question, how adequate was the West’s account of, what people need in order to have a eudaemonic life. Many people today in the regions of former East Germany yearn for a sense of community and humanity. Both right-wing extremism as well as new leftism have gained a lot of support in the former East. What people expected and wished for the unification did not fully meet, what they de facto got. What went wrong after the unification, according to Ville, was also that the identity and self-image of the people at the losing side wasn’t paid attention enough. A great many history teachers were taken to the DDR to teach people that their story of themselves was untrue and was only a product of a socialist totalitarian propaganda. No matter how good the arguments may be, it is often quite difficult to suddenly change people’s own experience from above.

“The western narrative” largely rests on an idea that jurisprudents ought to have a special technocratic position in a society and that they should have the privilege of dictating the meaning of justice – what is right and what is wrong. Then again, this was an understandable result after the law and politics had been mixed in a monstrous way during the Nazi regime. However, the realization of it did not always stick to an ideal level, which was mostly due to the long conservative tradition of the German society and a strong class division. According to Ville, the narrative, in which the elite of jurisprudents tell people from above what is right and what is wrong, has partly led to the fact that many people in today’s Europe do not find it plausible, influential and easy to identify.  More than being a story of the people it is a narrative of the birth of an abstract idea that has been interpreted, maintained and refined by a well educated elite of jurisprudents.

When the juxtaposition between the East and the West collapsed in 1989, the power of future vanished as well, for there was no longer a paradise or a utopia, towards which a certain social system was heading. Nor was there a goal of the triumph of liberalism and human rights. According to Ville, when liberalism won – as Francis Fukuyama has famously argued – the connection between the past, the present and the future broke and what was left was only the past and the present. Thus also historians began to examine history more from the perspective of the present – instead of looking at it from the viewpoint of the future.

Ville does not intend to express any universal truths through his research, but rather he would like to prove, how closely identity and history are interrelated. “Historiography, however, is only one of the many ways to organize the world and also our identity.” According to him, one factor of the emergence of the identity politics in today’s Europe, is that people haven’t been able to identify to the narrative that is abstract and perceived as elitist. This on its turn has led to the strengthening of local, national and nationalist identities as a counter-reaction. 

By surveying the Western narrative of the human rights and the unification of Europe, but especially the counter story to it, the East German version, Ville wants to provide a more polyphonic image of Europe, for there is not only one narrative that would be universally true. He believes that in order to better understand the Western narrative, which has become somewhat of a standard, we need to compare it to other narratives. By doing that, the blind and the dark spots of it become more visible. If we try to sweep away disturbing and unpleasant issues from the past, we will never fully understand why are we at the point where we are today.

You can find Ville Erkkilä's latest publications in Tuhat.

Ville Erkkilä's latest publications in Tuhat.