the debt logo final

Institutions of Funding: Consortium Humanities in the European Research Area and European Commission

Period of Funding: 1. September 2016 – 31. August 2019


HERA/European Commission acknowledgement of Funding


The imagery of a plural Europe of diversity emerged when no consensus could be reached over a strong European identity shared by a European demos. But since the onset of the Euro-crisis, this benign image of plurality cedes in the face of new North-South divides, in which different layers of the past are invoked to explain the division and justify actions. The observable reasonings mix historical facts with normative, often moralistic claims. At their centre is a concept of debt. This project explores the different historical narratives of debt through comparative analysis of the specific relations between European societies and between European and non-European societies. It focuses on those cases in which the invocation of a past debt leads to the construction of a ‘South’ that is indebted to a ‘North’ or vice versa.

To take a key example, the membership of Greece in the European Union and in the Eurogroup has been argued for in terms of the debt European democracy has towards its Greek origins. Today, in turn, Greece has incurred a financial debt towards the other Eurogroup members – a debt which, in a further step, Greek actors relate to the debt Germany owes to Greece for the destruction during Nazi occupation and Second World War. Invoking a debt is a way of using the past with a view to demanding certain forms of action in the present.
In much current debate, the term debt is used in a divisive way: as staking out claims against someone else. This project aims to show that this use is based on a restricted understanding of debt, emphasizing its economic and current juridical meanings. By exploring literary-artistic, socio-political and moral meanings and uses of the term, a broader understanding of debt will be provided to help overcoming current divisiveness.

The general research question is: what impact does the invocation of a past debt have on the relation between two (collective) subjects in the present? Our hypothesis is that this impact is situated between two extremes: debt can create an instrumental, asymmetric and finite relation between debtor and creditor or, alternatively, a moral social relation based on mutual recognition and solidarity and open towards unfolding in time. Specifically we will ask: Under which circumstances does the invocation of a past debt lend itself to constitute relations of the latter rather than the former kind? How can understandings of debt be transformed in such ways that acknowledgement of indebtedness entails recognition of the other rather than distancing or rejection? What forms of language – art, poetry, bottom-up media, etc. – encourage such a transformation?

These questions will be answered by retrieving the genealogy of the term through European history and by selected analyses of debt in the narratives about the European past. It will expose the ambiguities, tensions and polysemy in the uses of “debt” with regard to the historical reconstruction of European identity and the variety of its interpretations within European institutions and societies. It will demonstrate how narratives on the present and future of Europe vary and even diverge according to the understanding of past debt they have. In particular, it will analyze which relations of debt are invoked between Europe and various forms of ‘South’ and how these relations have changed over time and, moreover, changed the very understanding of who and what ‘South’ and ‘North’ are.