Explore our collection of articles! The compilation has been created for all those wishing to learn more about the complex issues underpinning 20th-century European history and memory. It consists of both academic and popular pieces, all written and/or edited by experts in their field. The articles cover a wide range of topics, from historical summaries and social history to contemporary commemoration practices.

Anna Opitz

Conference Report: Region – State – Europe: Regional Identities under Dictatorship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

18 August 2012
  • conference
  • report

Region – State – Europe: Regional Identities under Dictatorship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Date and place: 18-20 April 2012, Embassy of the Slovak Republic, Berlin

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS, Warsaw), Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe (Bundesinstitut fur Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im ostlichen Europa – BKGE, Oldenburg), German Society for East European Studies (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Osteuropakunde – DGO, Berlin), Johann Gottfried Herder Research Council (Johann Gottfried Herder-Forschungsrat, Marburg)


The goal of the interdisciplinary conference was the comparative analysis of the cultural and historical factors relating to the emergence of regional identities as well as the discourses surrounding them in the 20th century. In this spirit, questions arose regarding the effects of national socialist rule, of war, flight and expulsion within Central and Eastern Europe, the persistence or transformation of regional identities under real socialism, and whether these regional identities experienced a revival under democratic auspices after 1989. The goal was to compare and contrast the relationship between the centre and regions as well as to understand continuities and changes with regard to their sociopolitical effects during each phase of the post-war period.

In his opening remarks, Igor Slobodník, Ambassador of the Slovak Republic, pointed to the complex issues surrounding the history of the 20th century. The experiences of witnesses to history with different ethnic and national backgrounds led to often conflicting historical accounts and interpretations, which still influence the relationships of the states in question today. This shows the importance of dialogue when it comes to conflicting historical accounts.

Rafal Rogulski (ENRS) and Matthias Weber (ENRS, BKGE) opened the conference. Rogulski briefly discussed the origins of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, founded in 2005, which focuses mainly on the history of 20th century totalitarian dictatorships, with an emphasis on the experiences of victims. The topic of European cultures of remembrance will continue to play an important role within ENRS.

Weber pointed out that European integration and globalisation processes have strengthened the identification of inhabitants with their regions. By way of example, he pointed to the Federal Republic and the countries of East-Central Europe for the ways in which politics has drawn on historical regional structures since 1989, as well as attempts to implement regional constructs ‘from above’ (the Euroregions, for example). At the same time, he pointed out that regions were also flashpoints of conflict in the past, and can continue to be so in the future. The Polish deputy minister for culture and national heritage, Małgorzata Omilanowska (Warsaw), referred to Gdańsk as one of many East European regions and cities whose multiethnicity and important cultural heritage had been constantly and acutely threatened by violent demographic transformations in the 20th century, yet nevertheless consistently retained their role in identity formation.

By way of introduction, Burkhard Olschowsky (ENRS) spoke about the grave consequences of the Second World War, and of forced migration and real-socialist regulatory policies for the different regions, as well as the collective consciousness of the ethnic groups there. In many cases, it was only after the East-West conflict came to an end that reconstructing and constructing ethnic and regional identities became possible. This process is still not complete and requires further investigation.

In her moderation of the first panel, Heike Dörrenbächer (DGO) stressed that it was only in the late 1980’s that the political and social processes in East-Central Europe under National Socialism became the subject of research in historical and cultural studies. Therefore, it is even more important to pursue these questions now, in order to spur approaches to a common European policy of remembrance.

Dieter Pohl (University of Klagenfurt) touched upon National Socialist territorial aims. He stressed that the National Socialists did not pursue any specific regional policy in Eastern Europe, but nevertheless immensely and violently altered the social fabric of the regions through the destruction of regional identity and multi-ethnicity, above all during the Holocaust. In many cases, the elimination of regional political elites eased the transition to the establishment of Soviet rule after 1944/45.

According to Ryszard Kaczmarek (University of Katowice), Upper Silesia is an exception to the National Socialist regional and annexationist policy, the far-reaching effects of which are in this case still much discussed today. The actions of the National Socialist administration were distinctive compared to other East European regions, due not only to the notion of the ‘Germanic’ origins of some Upper Silesians, the categorization of various groups of ‘Volksdeutschen’, and conscriptions into the Wehrmacht, but also to membership in the NSDAP as well as the (wartime) economic usefulness of Upper Silesia.

Through a case study of the region of Pomerania and the newspaper Pommersche Zeitung, Tomasz Ślepowroński (Szczecin University) discussed an example of the means by which deconstruction of regional identity – as measured against the National Socialist ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) – was pursued. In the 1930s, one of the primary goals of the abovementioned newspaper, an organ of the NSDAP, was to denigrate terms positively understood in Pomerania – such as republicanism, pluralism and regionalism – through a negative depiction of the Weimar Republic and glorification of the National Socialist present.

Natalya Lazar (Clark University, USA) examined attempts to come to terms with the history of the Bukovina region. Bukovina, characterized by multi-ethnicity, experienced a strong homogenizing influence under Soviet dominance after 1940. It was not until the end of the East-West conflict that a return to the multicultural past was possible. Today this is being encouraged by museums and institutions and used as part of the tourist scene. One problem has been that certain aspects of the past, such as the deportations and violence towards the Jewish population, have not or have only rarely been the focus; rather, historical writing tends towards a onesided, positive, and multicultural picture of Bukovina.

Along the same lines, Stanislava Kolková (Herder-Institut, Marburg) presented a talk on the levelling of regional differences leading towards the creation of a homogeneous nation state in the Spiš region. The history of this historically multi-ethnic region had been ‘Slovakized’ after the Second World War. Since the 1940’s, institutions have been created solely for the purpose of heightening the identification of the population with the Slovak nation state and propagating the Slovakian character of the region.

The significance of language in the Spiš region was examined by Justyna Joanna Kopczyńska (University of Warsaw). She pointed out that, with the changing cultural and national influences, a particular plural identity emerged over the course of the centuries. It is still favoured today over a national Polish identity, and constitutes an identifying factor for the local population. A central aspect of this identity is the Spiš dialect—a regional dialect rooted in Polish grammar, which even at present remains the colloquial language of the region and is perceived as the mother tongue.

Jaroslava Benicka (University of Banska Bystrica) described a further example of regional structural ruptures in the post-war period, namely the resettlement of the population of the Javorina region as part of the creation of a military training ground for the Czechoslovak army. Over the course of this violent resettlement, which involved roughly 490 families, plots of land and private property were destroyed and the social structure of the region underwent long-term alteration.

In these four lectures, the phenomenon of discontinuity and dynamics pertaining to certain historical, regional, and multi-ethnic entities after the Second World War was apparent, according to Aleksandr Jakir (University of Split) in his comment. This shows that the comparative analysis of different ethnicities and multi-ethnic groups in Eastern Europe should receive greater attention within the field of historical regional studies. In the Bukovina region, with respect to its ethnic minorities and above all the Jewish communities, a ‘policy of forgetting’ has long prevailed and should now be scrutinized. The simultaneous alteration and preservation of cultural identity, as well as the central importance of languages and dialects as a way of conferring identity, become apparent in the case of the Spiš region in the Polish borderland. The threats and repressions that ethnic minorities were subjected to during the Soviet years are illustrated by the resettlement of the population in the Javorina region. These examples show that memory and the culture of remembrance cannot be seen solely as static and objective representations of past events, but rather are much more a product of social and political processes which everyone interprets and communicates according to their own perspective. The turning of a blind eye to the crimes committed against the Jewish population in Bukovina shows that the culture of remembrance can also be instrumentalised to serve ideological ends. With respect to the flight, expulsions, and resettlements in Eastern Europe, one can also speak of memories in conflict. According to JAKIR, it is all the more important, therefore, that a multiplicity of perspectives within historical writing be encouraged.

In the introductory paper to the first panel, Klaus Ziemer (University of Warsaw) referred to the numerous modes of identification conferred through language, religion or politics. Thus, revolutionary transitions lead time and again to the destruction of historical regions in order to cut off ties to pre-revolutionary regional identities, values, or traditions. This was the ultimate goal pursued by the Soviet leadership in the states of Eastern Europe, for example in Poland, which after the Second World War was divided into 14 provinces (voivodeships) with new names. This certainly also had the desired effect of weakening the local administration in favour of the central administration.

Paul McNamara (University of Galway) concerned himself with the ‘repolonisation measures’ of the Polish central government in the former German regions in the 1940’s and 50’s. In this way, the categorization of the population according to descent and language as well as the resettlement of Poles and cooperation with the Catholic Church were implemented with the ultimate goal of forcing identification with the nation state. This policy had clear limits: on one hand, it had to do with the heterogeneity of the affected population, and on the other with the social insecurity and the expectation of a new war or further border revision in western Poland.

Kerstin Hinrichsen (University of Erfurt) illustrated the encounter of citizens with history and identity in the ‘recovered’ territories through the case of the Lubusz region. Indeed, efforts to come to grips with the region’s history dated from the 1950s. However, this was exploited on the part of state institutions primarily to demonstrate the region’s Polishness. A first, intensive engagement with the historical German heritage of the region was only possible after the political transition of the 1990s. Over the course of this intensification, carried out through citizen initiatives, new research institutions were also created.

Milan Olejník and Soňna Olejníkova-Gabzdilová (both of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava), described the consequences of the homogenisation efforts of the East European nation states on the resident population through the example of Czechoslovakia and its Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Between 1940 and 1960, the Czechoslovak authorities attempted to create a homogeneous Slovak population through violent resettlement and the ‘Slovakisation’ of the Hungarian population. Only in the late phase of the ČSSR were certain minority rights granted. Until 1989, differences motivated by ethnicity between Hungarians as well as Slovaks and Czechs persisted under the camouflage of the much- ballyhooed ‘proletarian internationalism’.

In his comment, Burkhard Olschowsky stressed the significance of the above-mentioned themes for East and Central European post-war history. It became clear that regional diversity and identity were not desirable during the period when real socialism was being established. Rather, the main focus was on the creation of national identity. Olschowsky reminded us that the centralized organization of the GDR mentioned by Ziemer was only gradually introduced. Initially, a federal system existed, among other things in order to facilitate possible reunification, but this was gradually undermined so as to weaken regional party and administrative units vis-à-vis the centre. Furthermore, the research on regional history in the Lubusz region demonstrated that the need for coming to grips with the past and the remembrance of German-Polish coexistence in the border region was already in evidence by the 1960s. The exchange of populations between southern Slovakia and Hungary illustrated the problem of the newly emerged nation states of Eastern Europe with respect to their ethnic minorities, as was also made clear by Operation Vistula. Under Stalinism the problem of minorities, referred to as ‘internationalism’, was declared obsolete.

In the post-war period, when the Communist rulers all too often aspired towards a homogeneous central state, the population of numerous East (Central) European regions lived under the threat of losing or having to conceal their regional identity. The continuities and ruptures surrounding this topic were the subject of the fourth panel.

Roland Borchers (Free University, Berlin) used the example of Kashubia to illustrate the attitude of the Polish central government. Here, too, the state suppressed regional identity by accusing the Kashubian population of separatism or collaboration with the Germans. This charge was symptomatic of many Poles’ attitudes towards everything they perceived as German, and was often based on their wartime experiences. Such attitudes are still noticeable today in discussions over regional identity and language preservation in Kashubia.

In their talk, Mykola Genyk and Maria Senych (both of Ivano-Frankivsk University) took an overview of the historical and political development of multiethnic Galicia, a region positioned between Eastern and Western Europe that frequently changed hands in the course of its history. For both Poland and Ukraine, Galicia possesses great value due to its distinctive architectural and cultural heritage.

Stephanie Zloch (Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig) utilized textbooks to illustrate the perspectives of Polish and Russian youth in the former East Prussia. In the days of the People’s Republic of Poland, textbooks omitted any mention of regionalism in their historical depictions; it was only after 1989 that the multiethnic and cultural heritage of the region was recognized. This led to the introduction into the classroom of a supplementary history textbook, as well as the emergence of several pedagogical projects and initiatives. The situation in Kaliningrad was shaped on the one hand by its multicultural heritage, and on the other through its affiliation with Russia. As a result, the textbooks’ depiction of the city’s German past was thoroughly positive. In addition, there were numerous measures to increase identification with the Russian Federation.

Abel Polese (University of Edinburgh) called for general methodological reflection and pointed out that essential concepts like ‘nation’, ‘territory’, ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ are being used inconsistently and must be clearly defined.

Robert Traba (Historical Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Berlin) began the fifth panel by highlighting the special significance of Polish regional initiatives and movements at the time of the political transition, and emphasized the necessity of terminological clarity surrounding concepts such as ‘region’ and ‘identity’. Traba proposed speaking in terms of ‘identification’ rather than ‘identity’. Furthermore, as he pointed out, the term ‘region’ can vary dramatically depending on the country and historical context or ethnic origin in question. It is evident that regions are frequently demarcated by national categories, or in opposition to the nation state. Traba did not interpret the transition during the debates after 1989 as a renaissance of regionalism. It was rather the ‘discovery’ of locality, the attempt to understand the world through the treatment of one’s own environment and corresponding proximate social and geographical surroundings, what he terms the ‘magic of place’. The trailblazers at that time were less interested in a revival of historical regions or regional identity than they were in creating a basis for a positive frame for the citizen in his/her own environment.

Traba cautioned against artificially overanalysing the participatory efforts of the citizens and thereby creating theoretical constructs which do not correspond to reality. Today, three phenomena above all play an important role in connection with regionalism: globalisation and the return to a regional origin; the idea of a Europe of regions, which serves to better accommodate economic and social differences; and the possibilities offered by the multicultural regional heritage to nation states that are relatively homogenous today. Above all, Poland must develop a new consciousness of its own partly German cultural heritage in order to facilitate a ‘new life under old roofs’ for subsequent generations.

In this same spirit, Paweł Czajkowski (University of Wroclaw) examined the ways of dealing with monuments and architecture in historically multiethnic cities, and the effects of such architecture on the communicative and collective memory of the population, which varies according to ethnicity. The city of Wroclaw and its architectural heritage provide the example of a common project by the four dominant religions in the city. They came together in the early 1990s to preserve the cultural and religious heritage in a ‘Quarter of Four Denominations’. The initiatives that emerged from this quarter were gradually institutionalized and harnessed to the needs of the tourist industry. Overall, an identity-building effect is evident. Czajkowski presented a study that examined the historical knowledge and interest of the youth of Wrocław in their city. The study shows that engagement with the multiethnic history of the city is above all an elite phenomenon.

Marcin Wiatr (Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig) examined the possible significance of the multiethnic history of Upper Silesia in terms of Poland’s modernization processes. The transmission of the multicultural heritage of Upper Silesia to subsequent generations is not only an important contribution to their socialization within a globalized world. The demand for greater autonomy in Upper Silesia could also help create a consciousness of a federal Polish state, in which the individual regions—following the example of other federal European states—can become more economically and socially efficient. Federalism continues to be a controversial and widely derided concept in Poland.

In his comment, Csaba G. Kiss (ELTE University, Budapest) referred to the importance of the regions of Eastern and Central Europe. The constitution of the Czech Republic represents exemplifies this by listing all its constituent regions. Kiss differentiated between political, cultural, geographic and economic regions, which can exist together in the same nation state. Wrocław, as Czajkowski’s talk demonstrated, is a city with a rich and diverse multiethnic cultural heritage. The case of the region of Upper Silesia poses the question of whether the Upper Silesia autonomy movement actually represents an effort towards modernization, or rather a protest movement against the central government in Warsaw.

The topic of Mieste Hotopp-Riecke’s talk (Institute for Caucasica-, Taurica- and Turkestan-Studies in Berlin/Simferopol) was the specific identity which emerged in the Romanian region of Dobruja through contact between settlers of German and Tatar ethnic descent, and which was preserved in the communicative memory even after the expulsion of the Germans.

Mirek Nĕmec examined the political and cultural conceptions and developments surrounding the terms ‘Sudetenland’ and ‘Sudeten Germans’ (Sudetendeutsche). The term ‘Sudetenland’ is primarily a product of German- Czech discourse denoting territorial belonging and claims. While after the First World War the term ’Sudeten Germans’ was used by Czechs, above all, in order to differentiate between Germans and Austrians, and mostly for geographical purposes, for Germans the term became increasingly instrumentalised politically, which culminated in the Munich Agreement and the surrender of the three provinces in question. During the Soviet period, the term ‘Sudeten Germans’ became taboo in Czechoslovakia. Today, however, it is enjoying a renaissance, above all in the Czech Republic, where it is associated with an idealised multiethnic and multicultural region.

Sebastian Kinder and Nikolaus Roos (University of Tübingen) offered insight into bilateral cooperation in the Polish-German border region of Szczecin-Western Pomerania through the example of three initiatives. All these projects share a positive depiction of the region, active participation in the creation of projects, and emphasis on the social component of friendship and contacts across borders.

In his comment, Raphael Krüger (Berlin) highlighted the fascination which Dobruja engenders due to its multi-ethnicity. The development of a rapport between Germans and Tatars demonstrated that traditional prejudices can be changed and overcome. The development of the term ‘Sudetenland’ illustrated that language is also a means by which to gain territories and power. As a result, today one can understand regions not only in terms that are geographical, political, and historical, but also dynamic. With respect to the contribution by Kinder and Roos, the commentator pointed out that the transnational links between regions have become a reality not only in education but also in the property market, without any state involvement. From an economic standpoint, it is sensible to aim for closer cooperation as well as to recognize and seize upon specific locational advantages.

In his closing remarks, Burkhard Olschowsky recounted the various political and social premises to which the different regions of Eastern and Central Europe were exposed over the course of the 20th century. Since 1989/90, we have seen a shift toward a geographical and political approach to regions both in research and among citizens, with the result that questions surrounding identity and identification retain a high social relevance even today. Central questions remain: What does the term ‘region’ embrace? How one can define ‘identity’? And finally, what risks and opportunities exist for an open regionalism?



Anna Opitz, German Society for East European Studies in Berlin. Studied philological and political studies at Martin Luther University in Halle Wittenberg. From April to July 2012 worked for eleven weeks as an intern in the German Society for East European Studies in Berlin (der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde in Berlin) in the field of event management, organization and management. She specializes in the field of international cultural co-operation with a focus on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

>> Click here to see the R&S Studies site