Casual conversation can sometimes offer an unexpected route into matters of scholarship, offering imaginative and moral insight into events otherwise remote or inaccessible. And whilst the memories of individuals are fallible they can record experiences which might otherwise defeat the imaginations of later generations. Here the private recollections of ordinary people offer direct access to the catastrophe that European elites brought down upon the peoples of the continent in the middle part of the twentieth century. In retrospect the scale of the violence was extraordinary. Over a thirty-one-year period some fi fty million died, millions more were displaced and communities across the continent had settled forms of life turned upside down. The subsequent long period of recovery created a novel pattern of success in the guise of the European Union, and now, as the member countries move uncertainly in the direction of greater unifi cation, received national pasts, the collection of interlinked memories, the stock of available collective identities, are being revisited by scholars, commentators and publics in a slow, tentative process of revision which moves towards the creation of a European national past.