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Debate: The Memory of Economic Crisis

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Moderated by Prof. Padraic Kenney
Prof. Wojciech Roszkowski
Dr. Matěj Spurný
Tamás Pesuth
Iga Kozlowska

A panel of invited scholars discusses the nature of economic crises as historical events, with a particular focus on the ways they are experienced, interpreted, and remembered, and also their long-term political and cultural implications. The discussants in this conversation consider what makes economic memory distinct from memories of war and atrocities and, conversely, what makes them similar. They probe new lines of research that explore the sources of economic memory, the kind of language employed when remembering economic events, discursive versus non-discursive memories, economic memory as a tool of political legitimation and alternative memories, to date under-examined.

P. Kenney: First, I would like to explain why I understand that we are here. At one of the first meetings of the editorial board of the journal, I remarked that the study of memory tends to always focus on the same things. These are very important things, like the memory of war and the memory of atrocities, and maybe sometimes also the memory of revolution. Scholars discuss memory in these contexts, and there is a great deal more to say about these issues, especially since we continue to have wars, atrocities and revolutions. But I wondered whether a journal whose focus is in part on memory can explore something new? This was shortly after the Great Recession which began in 2007–2008, and so I thought, “Could we have a conversation about this?” or, “Could we not encourage scholarship focused on the memory of an economic crisis?” I suggested this, and I think everybody agreed: “What an excellent idea! We really should have such a conversation or even have an issue devoted to that topic.”

The journal wants to be at the forefront of trends in scholarship. Maybe in this case we are just a little bit ahead of the trend, and so we found that relatively few people are already working on this question of how economic crises are remembered. I should add that we did receive some excellent articles, and they are published in this issue. In most cases, though, the memory of crisis has not moved to the centre of scholarly research. But we should be confident enough to say that, just because we know relatively few people who are working on it, that in itself is not a signal that this is not an important question. Rather it is a signal that this is something worth discussing at greater length. I think I can be safe in saying that it is not only outside of this room that there are relatively few people working on this particular area. Even inside of this room, perhaps none of us would identify ourselves as working on the memory of economic crisis. And that is fine. The best way to stimulate further interest in this area is to talk about what it might look like. What we can offer in our conversation is something like a roadmap. We have not travelled this road ourselves, but we can see, I hope at least collectively, what that roadmap might look like. My hope is that not only will this be helpful for this issue of the journal devoted to memory about economic crisis, but, since it probably has not happened before that a group of scholars has spent a few hours talking about the memory of economic crisis, by doing precisely this, we can also produce something which will be of use to historians who are just beginning their research or maybe looking for a different approach to familiar areas, whether they are historians interested primarily in economic history or historians who are primarily interested in memory studies, or, for that matter, people outside of history, who work, for example, in the cultural study of memory. I hope that we might, in this way, encourage new kinds of scholarship.

Very often when we have discussion forums like this in a journal, there are scholars who have all written extensively on that topic and can speak from many years of experience working in it. That is not the situation here. We are experimenting, in effect using our knowledge of economic history or knowledge of memory to try to map out an area that would seem to be useful and productive. We have different kinds of expertise around this table representing different parts of the region. Since more expertise around this table deals with economic history, I would first like to ask, “What place is there for the study of memory within the field of economic history? How can we bring the study of memory into economic history?”

W. Roszkowski: Taking a step back, I would first like to express my anxiety about certain differences between what we call the study of memory, politics of memory and history in itself. I think that they are very often confused with each other. Politics of memory is basically politics. It uses history, while explaining or appealing to memory, or trying to prove certain things referring to memory which do not necessarily ring true. Anyway, it is a kind of instrumental approach to memory. Secondly, the study of memory is a field, a scholarly discipline, one that is very difficult to intuitively grasp, because memory is very hard to measure. First of all, there is the problem of collective memory, which is a philosophical issue. I do not believe in collective memory, but rather in the sum of individual memories. Next, I would like to ask how we can measure concepts such as hunger, joblessness, etc. as memories, and not as they were actually experienced in real life. Basically, we have a problem here with an image perpetuating the idea that economic memory can be remembered in terms of very simple words such as “hunger,” “fear,” “losing jobs,” “poor pay,” “good pay,” things like that. Usually, economic memory stores bad experiences rather than good experiences. And then there is another field of expertise. There is history itself, the history of events. Of course, in this case it is also “told” by someone and to some extent it is never really true. And the final question here is language. A great deal of memory is stored in simple terms, but the economic reality is told in scholarly economic history using pretty complex terms. If I explain to somebody who is praising the Gierek years here in Poland in the 1970s, that the productivity of fixed capital was declining, then we are instantly moving in different worlds. He is going to say, “Well, I remember Coca-Cola. I remember the Maluch, you know, the small Fiat, but what you just told me is beyond my comprehension. What does productivity of fixed capital mean?” Yet this concept is crucial to understanding the economic decline or the indebtedness of the 1970s. People did not care about the indebtedness, because it did not affect them directly. What affected them were the shopping queues, the length of the actual lines they had to stand in to buy groceries.

P. Kenney: Don’t we also remember wars or atrocities in simple terms?

W. Roszkowski: We use simple terms when we speak of individual memory. Whenever I say something about the general events of the war, usually somebody stands up and says, “No, no, no, my story is different.” So there is a certain collective experience, and then there are individual stories. Usually, they accumulate to form this general image, but there are individual exceptions.

P. Kenney: So, in the case of war, people want to share their individual experiences and think of them as very individual experiences, whereas in the case of economic memory their story might not be so individualistic. Instead, they would say, “I too was hungry, I also had a problem,” or, “I was part of something that everyone else experienced.”

T. Pesuth: Because Professor Roszkowski mentioned the difference between collective memory and individual memory, I would like to start with a joke that is connected to this theme. An economist says: “If my neighbour’s friend is unemployed, then we speak about an economic downturn. If my neighbour is unemployed, then that’s a recession. And if I am unemployed, then that’s a crisis.” Memory studies is an instrument or tool that can be applied to economics. If we take a look at the history of economic history, then we can see that over the past 20 to 25 years, there has been nothing but cliometrics. Cliometrics is all about using economic tools to analyse a historical event, but only from a quantitative approach. I think that since the crisis of 2007–2008, this has changed, because we can now adopt qualitative approaches, while taking into consideration cultural, political, and other contexts. Stanley Fischer, the former Governor of the Bank of Israel and now the Vice-President of the Federal Reserve said, “I think I have learned as much from studying the history of central banking as I have from knowing the theory of central banking, and I advise all of you who want to be central bankers to read history books.”

P. Kenney: Well, after all, if we are looking at how people behave economically, they behave in a particular way because of things they know. In other words, things they remember.

T. Pesuth: We always say that people act rationally, but that is not true. There is also an emotional aspect to our activity that is sometimes derived from memory.

M. Spurný: I am a social and cultural historian, but now I understand it is not so easy to find experts specialising in the memory of economic crisis. I also liked very much the distinctions which Professor Roszkowski proposed, because I think it is important to differentiate between the politics of memory and the study of memory. If we are going to talk about remembering an economic crisis and instrumentalising this memory within a political context, then this is a great topic and we will really have plenty to talk about. I think, for me, as a social historian, one of the crucial notions which might connect these topics is the concept of legitimacy, in the Weberian sense of the legitimacy of a system of domination. Remembering economic crisis may even be more important than remembering wars and conflicts. The mid-20th-century crisis of liberalism in its entirety and the Great Depression are both crucial topics. Remembering of the Great Depression acted as crucial justification for the legitimacy of all types of fascism, corporatism, and of course socialism as well. One of the ways forward is to study the memory or acts of remembering connected to different generations. The generation that remembers the Great Depression is dying out, and the ensuing political elites obsessively used remembering of the Great Depression as a symbol of the economic crisis of liberal capitalism in order to legitimise themselves. This was very effective in the 50s and 60s, and maybe even partly in the 70s, but this approach lost its impact in the 80s, because there were no longer as many people old enough to remember what it means to be unemployed or hungry. But this has not been a popular topic within memory studies, so I agree that historians should pay attention to the memory of economic crisis, because it may not only serve as an important framework for understanding change and the decline in the legitimacy of state socialism, but also the turn towards neoliberalism in the discourse dominant in the West in the 70s.

W. Roszkowski: From what Dr. Spurný said, I see another distinction which I think is very important, and that is the memory of events that people were witness to and the memory of events that people were told about. This is particularly noticeable in Poland, because my generation, for instance, very well remembers the Gomułka years, the Gierek years, and Martial Law. My son was 3 years old when Martial Law was introduced, but he remembers standing in lines for groceries with his mother. But someone who was born in 1988 or 1989 has no memory of economic decline whatsoever. And that constitutes a big difference. I think that the study of memory should not only focus on the things that people remember, but also on the things that people do not want to remember. This reminds me of what was said about the decline of liberal thought and the approach to liberalism in the 30s, 40s, and so on. Currently, how much do people remember of the decline of the command economy? Very little. They do not want to remember it, because it was so humiliating. They do not want to remember this terrible time in which they were forced to do things they did not want to do. They were wasting time and energy. It was a wasteful experience.

P. Kenney: Perhaps memory of economic crisis is really a fundamental kind of memory relating to the legitimacy of regimes, and thus we can best understand the decline or the success of some regimes by how people remember economic experience. This suggests that scholars of memory should be spending more time looking at this kind of memory rather than the memories of atrocity and war taking place during the period between regimes. If you are remembering World War II, you are remembering something between regimes. At the time, it was not obvious that we were between regimes, but now we know that was a period when the world was about to change from one set of regimes to another. Revolutions, wars and atrocities, all unusual situations, can be viewed as those periods in between. And Dr. Spurny is suggesting, and I think this is very compelling, that in fact, a central memory story of the 20th century is the memory of how things are “most of the time.” At the same time, there are things that people do not want to remember and often this is the experience of humiliation, of not having a job, not having enough food, not being able to take care of one’s family, having to stand in line. These are things that people suppress from their memories, so on the one hand, these are possibly the most important memories, and on the other hand, they are memories that people do not want to talk about having. This is where I would like to introduce the concept of non-discursive memory. Maybe what has happened with memory studies is that, quite naturally, people have studied discursive memories, things that everybody writes about and have the language to write about. We sometimes say that writing about atrocities is beyond our ability. The Holocaust is a case in point. Yet thousands and thousands of people who experienced the Holocaust have written about it. There are mountains of literature about that, so this is very much an instance of discursive memory. And here we are talking about memories that in a way do not get written about. So is it useful to make a distinction between discursive memory and non-discursive memory? And if we are talking about a kind of memory people push aside or suppress, or at the very least do not write about, well, then, what can a historian do?

M. Spurný: I have a slight problem with this distinction between discursive and non-discursive memory, especially when we are talking about economic crisis. Let me give an example. The most significant social protest of interwar Czechoslovakia was the so-called Most Strike. Most is a city in Northern Bohemia with a tradition of coal extraction. There was a protest in 1932, which resulted in dozens of dead and injured miners. This protest had already become a big topic in the inter-war period, with leftist intellectuals who supported the miners participating in the discourse. Afterwards, especially after the war and within post-1948 state socialism, this memory was reinforced a great deal. Miners wrote down their memories of the crisis and the strike. Hundreds of these memories were put together, and up to the 80s, three hundred publications and articles were written about this event. It was a crucial topic for the leftist narrative of inter-war Czechoslovakia, as well as Czech history embracing the entire 20th century. This is just one example that begs the question of whether we can really talk about nondiscursive memory.

P. Kenney: Also in Poland in the 1930s, memoirs of the unemployed were collected, and this was a very powerful collection. That is another good example where something clearly not discursive became quite discursive.

T. Pesuth: We have to distinguish between having memory and understanding it.

P. Kenney: It seems that discursive memory is that which can be explained and non-discursive memory is that which cannot be explained. For example, a memory connected to the Holocaust can dictate certain behaviour. Some people may say “Well, we don’t want to travel to Germany or perhaps to Poland because terrible things happened there generations ago,” and that is something that can be passed on and explained through memories of the Holocaust. On the other hand, if someone in the family insists on buying 40 kilograms of potatoes in November, she might not say “Well, I’m doing this, because in 1932 we were very hungry.” So in that sense, it’s a non-discursive memory. You just say, “It’s what we do, we buy a lot of potatoes and that’s why the closet is full of potatoes,” and nobody says “that’s really strange, why is there a closet full of potatoes?” So in that way it is a memory which is not explained. At some point, there will be a generation that says “Why do we have so many potatoes?” and nobody is quite sure why that has happened.

M. Spurný: I agree with you that memories of economic crisis are more difficult to understand and explain to subsequent generations in a manner that allows them to internalise them. However, I do not think that people failed to speak about these experiences, because we have studies, publications, articles and collections of workers’ memories of economic crisis. We know from interviews that people actually quite often told stories about economic crisis when with their families. For example, people who were born before WWII and who were loyal to the communist system, would tell their children, “You don’t remember what it means to be unemployed, but we know how humiliating that can be. Of course, we see a lot of failures in this communist system, but at least we had a job and were not hungry.” As important topics emerged in the 70s and 80s, such as human rights and environmental devastation, this argument became less convincing for subsequent generations. On the other hand, maybe there are some differences between remembering war or deportations, and remembering economic crisis, because every human has some experience of physical pain, whereas it is probably more difficult to internalise the experience of scarcity, of not having enough, of being exploited. This slight difference may be important for answering the question of why remembering economic crisis is so bound to single generations, yet loses its impact or meaning for subsequent generations.

I. Kozlowska: With regard to the question of discursive and non-discursive memory, as a sociologist of memory, I think it may be interesting to treat this distinction as a spectrum or a process of moving from non-discursive memory – maybe we can call this bodily memory, the sort of memory encapsulated in the hoarding of potatoes – to that memory being mobilised by some groups or actors in such a manner as to become explicitly discursive. For example, people could walk past a building that survived the war and not notice it, even if someone important lived there. We can say that that is a non-discursive memory in that it fails to communicate any meaning or message. But then maybe some people in the community get together, and say, “We should commemorate this building by putting a plaque on it.” That social action then transforms the status of that object or that memory from non-discursive to discursive.

P. Kenney: We can think of massive efforts right after the war to collect memories of people who had survived the war, especially within the Jewish community. There was a very conscious effort to take something which many survivors could not speak about or did not know how to speak about, and to make it discursive. This happened quite quickly and to the extent that it became almost a default position. There is almost an expectation now, or has been for the last 25 years, that if you experienced something in the war, you are almost obligated to talk about it. It is a default thing and it is discursive. There was a similar effort from a very political perspective that sought to highlight the memoirs of the unemployed in the 1930s. So it is often a political intervention. It is the politics of the Jewish community after the war that says, “We need to collect these stories,” and it is in particular leftist politics in the 1930s, either in Most or in Poland, that says, “We need to collect these stories in order to make a particular political point.” It is a political effort that makes a non-discursive memory become discursive.

W. Roszkowski: But I wonder, first of all, what are the sources on which study of memory is based. I think we should start with this. Published and recorded memoirs plus interviews and nothing else? What more is there? I think that we should focus on the representativeness of the sources of study of memory. Because to make the study of memory as watertight as possible, as precise as possible, we should really take care to ensure the representativeness of the sources, i.e. focus not only on the language, but also its representativeness.

M. Spurný: May I be a little bit subversive? So you are making a distinction here between the politics of memory, or maybe something like collective memory, and an authentic individual memory? Yet there are many examples that would appear to suggest that very often the question of the authenticity of this individual memory is of paramount importance, because very often it is a function of the politics of memory. There is a connection between these two logoi. In fact, there is no sharp division between these two areas. Everybody who conducts interviews knows that the manner in which stories are told depends on the contemporary values that are dominant in a given time and place.

W. Roszkowski: I do think there is something useful about the concept of collective memory. I just do not believe that there is a collective mind, but rather, that there is a kind of sum of individuals’ memories. But I would like to go back to the question of how we can explore non-discursive memory. I think this can be achieved through reading between the lines. Economic history is not just about the economy. It is about many other things. It is about culture. Culture is in fact very often underestimated in economic history studies. So what are that other factors that co-exist “between the lines” if you ask a person about economic memory? I think that there are at least two. First, there is national feeling. For example, Germans are reluctant to think about the wartime atrocities. They prefer to remember the public works of Hitler in the 1930s and the big reduction in unemployment. Why? Because they are Germans. The Poles do not think about the liquidation of German unemployment. They think about their wartime experiences. In addition, they reflect on these using very specific language. For example, when posed the question, “Who occupied Poland? The Nazis or the Germans?” visitors to the Museum of the Warsaw Rising in Warsaw from Germany or other countries may say, “Oh, yes, those Nazis were terrible.” And the guides usually say, “You know, we have a problem with that, because in Poland we remember the Germans, not the Nazis. They were not all necessarily party members. They were German soldiers, German policemen etc.”. Therefore it IS important to find out what lies between or behind words that a person is using. Is this contemporary language or the language of the past? Are we dealing with the experience of this person shaped by economic experience alone, or does national feeling also play some role? Secondly, national feeling co-exists with faith. For example, what emerges from a lot of Gulag memoirs is something that hardly anyone speaks about. Frequently, people who survived the Gulag were people who believed in God. I do not know if this correlation is measurable, but it is clear that purely economic circumstances are not the only factor affecting economic memory.

T. Pesuth: To follow up on Professor Roszkowski’s focus on national feeling and faith, I would like to add that the most important thing is culture. I am doing my research on the 2008 financial-economic crisis and its effect on banking culture. I am not primarily concentrating on macroeconomic factors and employment, liquidity, etc. According to my thesis, the main factor contributing to the crisis was the banking culture, the improper banking culture especially prevalent at the “too big to fail” multinational banks, compounded by the shortcomings of the regulatory bodies. Let me use the German example. Despite the 2008 crisis and the Greek crisis, German society, German academics, German politicians and German bankers still remain under the influence of the post-Nazi regime. To this day, their very negative experience with hyperinflation legitimates what is in effect a national consensus on anti-inflationary rules. This is why it is these central bankers that most strongly disagree with the measures that have now been adopted by, for example, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In other words, memories of economic crisis can play an important role in contemporary economic policymaking.

P. Kenney: What seems to be a problem here is that economics is assumed to be an entirely objective science, so the case of the German bankers is wonderful because the assumption is, “They are German bankers, they’re the best bankers in the world, they are professionals!” It becomes very difficult to say, “Well, yes, but they have a particular perspective and a particular policy, which is shaped by history and the memory of economic crisis.” As a social historian, I was thinking about the memories of people standing in line, hoarding potatoes and so on. But what you pointed out is that there is another group of people that has memories of economic crisis, and they are bankers, corporate leaders, politicians, trade union leaders etc.

T. Pesuth: Economic memory has an important place in contemporary politics. For example, during the Greek crisis, Greece pointed out that Germany should remember that, when they were in a very bad economic situation, the Greeks helped Germany by forgiving their debt under the terms of 1953’s London Agreement. So now, why can they not do the same for Greece?

P. Kenney: I think that there are a couple of closely related problems that keep coming up that I would like to put back on the table. One is the problem of sources of memory and the other is a problem of the language with which people talk about economic crisis. It seems to me that these are related because the source problem is partly a language problem. If the sources that we have are created by, perhaps, political activists who decide that it is important, for example, to interview unemployed workers or to get them to tell their stories, or artists or novelists who decide that it is important to write about an economic crisis like the one in Most that was mentioned, then we have a particular view of the economic crisis. That is the story of course of the literate people and also expressive in particular ways. It may be that as a result we lack a full panoply of sources that could really produce a good understanding of economic crisis. At the same time there is the problem of language. The point was made earlier that we tend to think about the economic crisis in very simple terms: “It was bad,” or conversely, “Things were good”. We mentioned the Gierek era and the 1930s in Germany. They are both post-crisis eras that people can remember as, “Life was good. Things worked. I had access to goods that I didn’t have before.” Therefore, given the simplicity of language and the bias of sources, it seems to me that the historian trying to capture the memory of economic crisis faces a real challenge. So, what do we do?

T. Pesuth: Concerning the issue of contemporary language, we have to distinguish between language that is understandable or not understandable. If I talk to a person who has never studied economics, and I tell him or her that actually the bankers reacted rationally on the basis of financial incentives, they won’t understand. But if I tell them that the bankers were selfish or greedy, they will understand. So this is something that we should change. It is a crucial problem that economists only talk to other economists about using their technical language.

P. Kenney: So this should be changed, so as to give people tools to be able to talk about their experiences?

T. Pesuth: Exactly.

W. Roszkowski: But the language problem is rooted in different understandings of objectives. For a banker, robbing the depositors seems rational, while for the depositors it is unfair. It is an injustice. So there are different points of view I’m afraid. Can these be brought together in such a manner as to definitely state that there is one common denominator of evaluation?

M. Spurný: Another thing that makes remembering economic crises difficult is that there is rarely a clear distinction between victims and oppressors. This is also the problem when it comes to remembering late socialism, where it is unclear whether the regime or the society is to blame. It may be even more difficult when it comes to remembering economic crisis: people know where an injustice has occurred, but there were also people who benefited financially from it. Maybe a banker ends up in prison, but generally it is hard for people to make sense of an economic crisis. So it is not only the language that is of significance, but also the nature of what happened.

P. Kenney: It seems to be precisely a language problem, because sometimes one can say, “Yes the banker is the oppressor,” or the capitalist owner is an oppressor who has thrown people out of work. Or it might be obvious to somebody that it is the banker’s fault that they have now lost their apartment or their home. But most of the time it is just a little bit harder to see that. And of course it is not the banker who shows up at your house, and says, “You must leave.” It is somebody whom the bank has hired or maybe it is the police. Being unable to say “I know who the oppressor is,” makes that story much more difficult.

I. Kozlowska: I think there is something really important about the facile distinction between the oppressor and the victim when it is applied to cases of remembering war or atrocity as opposed to those involving the remembering of economic crisis. I think this is really important, because frequently one of the goals of collective memory is to build some sort of collective identity. And, historically, that has been a national identity. In the process of nation-building, for example in Germany and Poland, collective memories were important in defining who “we” are in opposition to who the “Other” is. We are Poles, and they are Germans. With memories of economic crisis, the “Other” is less clear, and maybe that is why economic crises are harder to understand and remember.

W. Roszkowski: I would like to bring up a question that I do not think we can avoid: Can the study of memory be normative or can it not? Is it good that people have a certain type of memory or not? I think this question is critical because the kind of memory that exists in certain communities or societies very often creates a certain type of politics. If people are brought up in a false reality which they have been taught at schools, or exposed to in the family home or by the media for generation after generation, then they are different people. They become people that we sometimes cannot communicate with. Because if I say, “Well A is the truth,” and the person has been told by his grandparents and parents and by teachers at school for his whole life that A is bad then difficulties in communication naturally arise, because a person like this simply does not know the facts.

P. Kenney: I think the idea of legitimacy actually helps us put more weight on popular memory of economic crisis. Because in the end it does not matter if it is true or not that people remember the depression in one way or another, or if their memories of the communist period are true or not, or their memories of the recession of 2008 are true or not, because those memories create actual facts. People process that story in a particular way, and then they assess the current regime in a particular way. So if a politician asks, “Are you better off now than you were ten years ago?” the answer becomes a political fact, and in a way it is kind of useless for the historian to say, “No, no, no, actually that’s not true that you were better off under late communism,” or whenever it might have been.

M. Spurný: I actually do not understand the view that the perceived role of historians is to correct people’s misconceptions. If there is a reason for historians to consider memory, then it is to help extract alternative memories. For example, in post-socialism, it is very difficult for ex-party members or people who were collaborating with state security agencies to remember the past because there is a dominant narrative which makes these people semi-criminal. If they talk about their past, then all that is left for them to do is to apologise or to search for some way to justify what they did. As historians, we have to historicise. That in practice means that we should not only write about the prominent narrative, which is the narrative of those who fought against the regime, but also to show that different narratives are legitimate, and in an extreme case, the narratives of the Nazi oppressors or SS officers are as well, because they are important for understanding why things happened the way they did. There is a trend in German historiography active since the late 80s that recognises that ordinary people were also part of the Nazi regime’s power machinery, and for that reason their perspective is also important. For me as a historian, it is always important, through historicising events, to relate alternative narratives and to describe the very different positions of different social groups, because all of these groups have the right to remember.

T. Pesuth: Besides uncovering alternative memories, the study of economic memory is also an important factor in reconciliation and even in economic cooperation. One Hungarian economist stated that historical knowledge and historical awareness are factors that can increase productivity. For example, on the Slovak and Hungarian border, there is a Suzuki car factory. About half of the workers are Hungarians and half are Slovaks. If they only had a very simplified knowledge of history, the Hungarians might dislike the Slovaks because, following the Trianon Treaty, “they stole our mountains,” and the Slovaks might dislike the Hungarians because, “they were always exploiting us.” It is important that simplified economic knowledge and awareness is developed into something more substantive, so that the two groups can get along and work well together, thereby increasing economic productivity and economic cooperation within the European Union.

P. Kenney: One of the things of importance that we have neglected so far in this conversation is the vital role of gender in understanding economic memory. If we think about how people remember economic crisis, surely it would be the case that people’s different positions in a society would be relevant. For example, women who are homemakers or who are standing in line to buy food are going to remember that story in a way that is different from men who are operating differently within the economy. How would we advance the discussion about gender in economic memory?

W. Roszkowski: I think it depends on the role of women in economic life at the particular time and place. I think in terms of employment or unemployment, for instance, the memory of men and women under communism in Poland would not differ very much, because most women worked and most men worked. That is not the problem; the problem was the sharing, or not, of all the duties within the household. The memory of women in Poland during communism therefore definitely differs not in terms of whether they worked or not, but in terms of the fact that they had to combine their professional duties with household duties.

M. Spurný: I would not agree. I do not think this is some kind of anthropological constant, though there is of course a long tradition prevalent since the 19th century that women functioned in the private sphere and men participated in the public sphere.

I. Kozlowska: When we are talking about women’s experiences in economic crises, I think it might be interesting to look at periods where there was economic prosperity sometimes experienced by women as a crisis. One such memory that is very prevalent in the feminist historical narrative in the U. S. is that of women’s employment post-WWII. During WWII, there was mass employment of women in traditionally male, blue-collar jobs. In factories, and so on. When the men returned from the war, many women were pushed back out of the labour force, in what was of course a very economically prosperous time. So it might be interesting to look at transitional moments. In post-1989 Poland, for example, there was of course a difficult economic situation, but it was also a moment of great potential for economic development and many women did in fact lose out, as they were the first to be pushed out of the labour force.

M. Spurný: A similar thing happened in post-WWII West Germany. Some historians talk about normalisation in the 50s when, more than in any other period, women were pushed out of various functions they had held in society. However, it is not only the question of gender differences in remembering, but also maybe one of recognition. The notion of recognition might help us to understand how things are remembered and why they are remembered. Everybody wants to be recognised, whether they are women or men.

W. Roszkowski: Recognition is a good word, because I think, in terms of language, very often in Poland this raises the question of whether women actually work at home. Are household duties work or not? In terms of national income, they are not. Somebody once said that if a man marries his housemaid, he decreases the GNP because it ceases to be a market relation. From the point of view of recognition, what matters in memory is appreciation.

P. Kenney: Thinking about housework makes me think about an essay by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, where she recalls her grandmother, who had drawers full of recycled aluminium foil that she saved and pressed out and folded in drawers. Raising her children during World War II, there was nothing that she would throw out. This is the kind of thing that is remembered, in this case only because Slavenka Drakulić opened those drawers, remembered them, talked to her grandmother about it, and is then able to create a memory out of this and connect specifically to the war. She also reflects upon herself and the way that she saves things, and how she is different from her daughter, who was born in the late 1970s and who remembers things entirely differently. Drakulić even sees that she has difficulty in communicating with her daughter about the shortages that she herself does not really remember, since she, Drakulić, was born in the late 1940s. So she does not even have these memories of shortage herself, but somehow tries to convey them to her daughter for whom shortages have no meaning. So these kinds of memories are reconstructed precisely because of the lack of recognition and despite the fact that none of these women, Drakulić’s grandmother, Drakulić herself, or her daughter, are able to articulate these experiences and relate them to clear economic processes.

Years ago I did research where I interviewed people who were workers in the 1940s to learn about their everyday lives. I found that when I interviewed men, they wanted to talk entirely about high politics. They wanted to explain communism to me, which of course was entirely useless information. When I would speak to women, they would respond very differently and say, “I remember nothing from those years.” They too assumed that I must want to talk about politics, and they did not feel competent enough to talk about that or they really did not feel like they had anything additional to say. But when eventually it became clear that I wanted to ask about daily life in a factory or about buying food, all of a sudden they had an incredible amount to say, and it was actually far more interesting. So I had to make it clear to them that their daily life is history too and that the experience of the workplace is history.

M. Spurný: I think this is a very good point. Many people think when you interview them that they have nothing to say. Sometimes it is very difficult to explain to them that they do have a lot to say, and this is also gendered. Maybe women talk about their studies and what happened during the war, and then the children came. But after that there is no story. I would like to hear from them what it was like to raise children in the 50s and 60s, but it is very difficult, because there is a deep fear that “I” wasn’t really a part of the history of that time. It is very difficult for people to remember normal life.

P. Kenney: Because it has no narrative. If you are deported, there is a narrative. Just taking care of children, you do not have a narrative. Maybe the children have a narrative of growing up. Other people have a narrative of working. That makes it very difficult to pull out that history or that memory. Again we have a memory that is lacking in structure. So a common memory in Poland of the late 1970s, and then especially in the “Solidarity” year and a half, is this idea that there was nothing in the stores. You would go to the store and there would be nothing but vinegar in the store. There is a common trope of “nothing but vinegar” and yet clearly you know there was something sometimes in the store and people were able to buy food.

I. Kozlowska: I think maybe one of the goals of memory studies that focus on women and men’s relative experiences of economic crisis may be to point out different gendered experiences and the historical moments where we see those things changing, rather than to make generalisations like “women are like this and men are like this, and it never varies through time.” Historians should try to historicise and contextualise men and women’s experiences under different conditions in different periods of time.

M. Spurný: I agree. It is not our task to say in which ways men and women are different and in which ways they are the same. Rather our task is to really show that, historically, there have been different roles for women and men and of course this shapes different memories. This also shapes how boys and girls are brought up, and this division between public/private, men/women runs very deep in societies. As historians, we have to show that perceptions are different, because people have different experiences and they remember different things.

P. Kenney: One of the things that seems to me, from this discussion, to be different about memory of economic crisis is that, broadly, and I am sure we can think of exceptions, if we ask a large number of people about memories of atrocity they may remember different things but their judgment of that thing would be largely the same. No one could say, “Well, actually, deportations, you know, there were some good things about those.”. It is going to be a negative memory, and it is not even going to depend on things they have read. With economic crisis, we have a different situation, I think, where people can regard an experience with different emotional attachments. We have a few examples that gender actually helps us to get at. We might take a period of crisis, and on the one hand, the man who has lost his job would remember it with deep shame, so much so that it would be difficult to talk about such a shameful event. Whereas the women might say, “Well, it was difficult and I felt sorry for him but you know we continued on.” Conversely, we had situations, like in late socialism, where the man might say, “Things were great. I finally had my car and I had these various opportunities.” And women might say, “My God, it was such a hassle to buy food and to feed everyone day after day.” They would remember things entirely differently. Am I correct in saying that economic crisis is a different kind of event, because people would actually disagree even about whether it was bad? Gender might not be the only way in which things are remembered differently, but it might be one of the ways that memory of the economic crisis could be differentiated even from a qualitative point of view.

M. Spurný: I do not think there is a difference between economic crisis and “other” topics, the Holocaust of course being an extreme example. If you take other war experiences or post-WWII experiences like forced expulsion, these memories too depend on the positions of people at that time. Memories of those who were expelled would differ from those who were offered the house of someone who was expelled. People’s memories also depend on their contemporary political position. Whether someone thinks that it was great that the Germans were finally expelled and we could finally have our country back, or that it is always bad to force someone to leave their home, no matter who has been forced to do this, will depend on that person’s current political position. There were probably many people who, as late as the 40s or 50s, continued to remember the early 40s or late 30s and the Aryanisation of property as a great time, because they got rich. But you cannot say that today, so memory is silenced because of the contemporary value system. Again, any difference in remembering does not depend on whether what is remembered is an economic crisis or some other event, but rather on the common values present in a given time and place.

I. Kozłowska: We have not yet brought up the practice of commemoration. Thinking about what makes the memory of economic crisis different from the memory of war or atrocities, it seems that we have many statues for war victims or war heroes, but we do not generally commemorate economic disasters or hardship. Professor Kenney mentioned the woman with the drawers of nicely folded aluminium foil, and I visualised a statue of a woman pulling this neatly folded aluminium out of a drawer.

P. Kenney: That would be a powerful image. Anthropological museums try to recover life of the 1930s, for example, or the communist period. A colleague of mine has recreated the kitchen of her parents in Lódź. At the moment it is a virtual museum, but she is trying to create a real museum out of it in Lódź, where you can walk into her family’s kitchen. And there might be a drawer that is full of the folded tinfoil. There is a monument to the Irish famine in New York, and there are several in Ireland. There are also monuments to the Ukrainian famine. These are exceptions that prove the rule because they are then recast as atrocities. They are not only memories of hunger but also of the intentional starvation by Stalin or by the British. In a way it does not matter how intentional the Irish famine was or the Ukrainian famine. The most important thing is that they get commemorated as atrocities and not simply as economic crises.

M. Spurný: You had these commemorations in the communist times, especially of heroic workers on strike and of workers as victims of capitalism. These existed in many towns and some are still there, but people do not know what they mean any more. Again, it is a question of our contemporary values, and if we historicise, we see that these monuments are commemorating victims or heroes somehow connected to economic crisis.

W. Roszkowski: You are right that, as far as monuments are concerned, we never see an image that represents an economic event.

M. Spurný: There was this Stalin monument in Letná Park in Prague which showed workers and peasants standing in a row around Stalin, and because they were standing, people would say that it was a queue for meat (Czech: fronta na maso). It was a humorous redefinition of what the monument was supposed to symbolise.

P. Kenney: That is actually a great example. You cannot have a monument of a bread line under communism. You can only have one if you have Stalin in front of a “line” that is then reinterpreted as a bread line. That is an excellent point. And I think it is a good point on which to end. Thank you all very much.

The discussion took place on 23 October, 2015 in Warsaw at the offices of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity.


Pardraic Kenney. Professor of History and International Studies, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, and Chair of the Department of International Studies at Indiana University (USA). He has written on the experience of workers in early Communist Poland, on the gendered nature of anti-communist opposition, on social movements in the fall of communism in Central Europe, and on Eastern Europe’s road from communism. His most recent book, on political prisoners in the modern world, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. He is the Vice President of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He has received many research fellowships, including from the German Marshall Fund, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Fulbright-Hays Program.


Wojciech Roszkowski. Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Silesian Voivodeship with the Law and Justice party. He sat on the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets and was a substitute for the EP Committee on Culture and Education and a former member of the Delegation for relations with Japan. From 1980 to 1983 he was a Member of the independent self-governing trade union Solidarność. He is a former fellow of Collegium Invisible and the Wilson Center in Washington D. C., and a signatory of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.


Matěj Spurný. Senior lecturer and member of the Department of Social History at Charles University in Prague. His fields of research include modern social history, nationalism and multiethnicity in the Czech lands in the twentieth century, and the history of modern European dictatorships. In 2010, he completed his PhD at the Institute of Economic and Social History, Charles University. His dissertation was titled, “Not like us. The social marginalization and integration of minorities in the Czech borderlands while ‘building the new order’ (1945–1960).”


Tamás Pesuth.Assistant Professor at the Department of Finance at Corvinus University of Budapest. He lectures on finance, monetary policy, banking regulation and international financial institutions. He is the Honorary President of the International Circle of Hungary and the Secretary-General of the Hungarian Association of Foreign Affairs.


Iga Kozlowska. Doctoral Candidate (ABD) in the Sociology Program at Northwestern University. Her research areas of interest include (trans)national identity, gender, collective memory, post-communist societies, and European affairs. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Transnationalizing Historical Memories: Memory Entrepreneurs and the Invisible Iron Curtain.” She received a Fulbright Award (2015–16) to support her dissertation research on memory entrepreneurs in Poland. In her spare time she blogs about transatlantic relations at


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