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Andrzej Nowak

Is there a specific Eastern European perspective on violence in the 20th century?

18 Feburary 2019
  • Eastern Europe
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • violence
  • Western Europe

This is a lightly edited transcript of a lecture given at the symposium ‘Violence in 20th-century Europe: Commemorating, Documenting, Educating’ in Brussels, Belgium on 6 June 2017.

I am truly honoured to be invited for a presentation of an ‘Eastern European’ perspective on violence in the 20th century. Nevertheless, I would like to begin with a caveat. It concerns the very concept of juxtaposing ‘Eastern European’ and ‘Western European’ perspectives. I think that it is worth remembering that most Eastern Europeans did not know that they were ‘Eastern Europeans’ until about the 19th century because this was the time the very name ‘Eastern Europe’ was invented – as presented by Larry Wolff in his wonderful monograph – by French philosophers at the end of the 18th century (Wolff 1994). One can ask, for example, whether there are Eastern Belgians and Western Belgians? I know that there are Flemings and Walloons but what about Eastern Belgians and Western Belgians? This could be just an intellectual creation. It could be treated, however, as an element of symbolic or civilizational violence that imposes names or categories and with them specific intellectual constructs onto given regions (peoples) from centres of a self-given authority.

But let us try to do this: to presume and to discuss certain interesting elements that enable us to speak meaningfully about the differences in experiences of violence throughout the 20th century and, more generally, about the differences between Eastern and Western Europe.

In order to introduce these differences, I would like to use two very powerful names: Marx and Lenin. First I would like to introduce not Groucho Marx, nor Karl Marx, but Anthony Marx, a political scientist from Columbia University who published a very interesting book, Faith in Nation, some years ago. In that book he presented early modern processes of nation building in Spain, France and England. All these early modern practices were extremely exclusionary and violent, organized around the exclusion of particular religions, for example, Catholics in England, Protestants in France or the exclusion of specific groups of people, such as the Jews, evicted from so-called Western Europe, who were forced to migrate to so-called Eastern Europe. These exclusionary practices, says Anthony Marx, formed an important and steep step on the road to nation statehood, and with that an advance in democracy and liberalism.

In Eastern Europe most societies did not make that step in the early modern period. So we may take into consideration that the nation-making and modern democracy-making (and with them the conflicts and violence connected to these exclusionary practices), which had been already passed in some western parts of Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, would become part of Eastern European experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries. And many times, observed from a Western perspective in the 20th century, they were just perceived as not only ‘barbarous’, but also somehow typically Eastern European. I would like to quote a summary of Anthony Marx’s argument:

The cohering effect of exclusion and intolerance is still reflected in the West’s views of the rest of the world, denigrating others as the basis of cohering us was not only central to the origins of Western nationalism and then justifications of colonialism, it is also recapitulated in our current denigration of latecomers to nationalism. Ironically as Western Europe now begins to move beyond national solidarities, its own coherence as a developed bloc is again solidified by distinguishing itself as more consistently civic than those others still faithfully forging national unity. Thus the West is itself distinguished and thereby given coherence by denigrating the rest – or Eastern Europe – and by pretending that our own past was somehow different, mimicking the pattern by which our own earlier national level solidarities were forged and then forgotten. The West’s idealization of its past has indeed gone hand-in-hand with denigration of those who were encouraged, attempted and failed to live up to that noble standard. Western civic nationalism has been contrasted with the ethnic or exclusionary forms later adapted by the East or the South (Marx 2003, 199).

So here you have a perception of the West on the problems with nationalism in Eastern Europe in the 20th century; nationalism is seen as the core, as the essence and as the source of violence.

Now to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Exactly a hundred years ago, he published probably one of his most incisive books: his analysis of ‘Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism’. In that study he presented a concept according to which most Western European countries existing at that time were able to diminish social and economic conflicts in their metropoles, due to the fact that they had and exploited, more or less brutally, huge colonial overseas possessions (Bocharov 2001, 497–532). One can add that there were Western European countries, nine countries within the contemporary European Union (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark), that had overseas colonies. And there were no countries of Eastern Europe with such possessions (save Russia, which deserves a separate mention). Let us now do an intellectual experiment: we know that during the last decade of the 19th century in a Central Africa colony ruled by the Belgian king five to ten million native dwellers perished in one of the worst examples of brutal colonialism. But how many people in the world connect Belgium with such a practice that could be compared to the most horrible crimes of the 20th century? I dare suggest that very, very few. Let us imagine that such a colonial crime had been committed by one of the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland or Hungary, for example. I think that it would have been treated as an example of a typical Eastern European act of violence, as opposed to Western European civility. And it would have been known the world over, as well as an obligatory element of an all-European memory in the making. But it is not. And why is this? It is because the source of the colonial crime was ‘here’ rather than ‘there’? Here in Belgium we can see public monuments to the real organizer of the death of these five to ten million Africans in the Congo. Could you imagine the pressure stemming from Brussels if there had been monuments to perpetrators of such gigantic colonial crimes in, shall we say, Warsaw, Budapest, Vilnius or Riga?

I want to stress that most of Western Europe exported much of its violence (violent exploitation and conflicts) outside Europe, while most of Eastern Europe was dominated throughout ‘the long 19th century’ (to use Eric Hobsbawm’s title) by three empires. I put certain stress on this word: these were empires, not national states. I mean here: the German Empire (the Second Reich), the Romanov/Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire (with its imperial centre in Austria, and – after 1867 – another one, in Hungary). These empires clashed finally in 1914.

This was the beginning of a real experience of differences in violence between Eastern and Western Europe. Why was this? To put it simply: because there was the Eastern Front and the Western Front. They provided, so to speak, slightly different experiences. There were devastating military campaigns and occupation regimes on both fronts of the Great War. The occupation regimes existed, however, for a longer time and covered a much larger space in Eastern Europe, encompassing contemporary Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Serbia. What also made an important difference was the fact that Eastern Europe experienced mass migrations (usually forced and frequently violent) of several millions of people. These people were forced to leave their original dwellings and evacuated, as it was called, with ‘their’ imperial armies. Imperial Germany was usually successful here, so forced mass migration was predominantly the experience of Austro-Hungarian, Russian and later also Romanian subjects.

Probably the most important difference connected to the violence at that point in European history stemmed from the fact that the war meant uprooting millions of peasant soldiers. As regards peasant soldiers fighting also on the Western Front, most of them had already identified themselves, even in the pre-war period, as Frenchmen, Germans or Englishmen, while on the Eastern Front most of these millions of peasants, many of them illiterate, were objects of nation-formation processes, of imperial and antiimperial political agendas, as well as specific social goals that turned the war on that front into a war for their identities. And that made changes connected with the First World War probably even more disruptive. While in societies engaged on the Western Front, the results of the war were relatively quickly seen as a mass suicide in the trenches, a completely absurd final conflict that brought nothing good, causing only tragedy. This experience marks the beginning of an evolution in Western memories of war that would concentrate its attention on the victims rather than on the heroes and would lead towards pacifism. All of this would finally come to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s.

The curve of memorial changes stemming from the war was (or at least seems to be) different in Eastern Europe. Almost as many people were killed on the Eastern Front as on the Western one. However, there were numerous Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks and ‘Yugoslavs’ – I have purposely grouped them together – that believed that the war would lead towards something good, that it opened the possibility of forming or recreating their nation state, to reaffirm their cultural and political identities of which they had been previously deprived. Many hoped that they would be able to build their own (to use the words of Balfour’s memorandum on Jewish settlement in Palestine from 1917) ‘national home’ on the ruins of the former empires: the Second Reich, Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov. But there were also other experiences in Eastern Europe that influenced further developments in the problem of mass violence in the 20th century in Eastern Europe. There were people who perceived themselves as nations who were on the losing side in the First World War, among them Hungarians, Bulgarians, Russians and Germans. With that new situation, there loomed dreams of retaliation on the political horizon; the dream to avenge the losses, lost territories, lost greatness and to regain imperial domination over these ‘peripheries’, which now formed separate statehoods. There were also peoples that did not realize their national elites’ dreams of independence (for example, Ukrainians or Belarusians), and there was a huge Jewish population which was – generally speaking – rather unsettled within the new boundaries, in which new statehoods, new legal systems and cultural-political frames of existence created after 1918 replaced old empires. These politically very different, extremely divergent perceptions of the results of the First World War formed, dare I say, a very important factor in the development of future mass violence in the region.

It also seems important to note the fact, or rather the interpretation, that within Eastern Europe there were many different cultures. They had been different in terms of violence creation and violence reception, too. Vladimir Bocharov, an eminent Russian sociologist-anthropologist, wrote a fascinating book on a specific culture of violence that developed throughout history in Russia. According to him, violence has been treated in that particular Russian political culture as an inherent attribute of power. The authorities not only may but also must refer by tradition to violence if they are to hold power and this is violence against their subjects. For Bocharov such a phenomenon is quite typical of non-Western societies in general. This internal violence is presented to the subject as a model of parental authority; its task is to separate society from dark forces and ‘destabilizing agents’, of course, by using violence. In such a case sacrifice was natural and socially acceptable. Bocharov analyses elements of the said phenomenon in the history of relations between Russian society and its authorities throughout the centuries until the horrors of Stalin, after which period, he remarks, many victims were willing to excuse state violence post facto, saying: ‘such were the times’ (Bocharov 2001, 497–532).

Such broad generalizations made by this Russian anthropologist with regard to violence are obviously quite risky. If, however, one were to reject the general term ‘non-Western societies’ and limit oneself to an analysis of trends dominant in the Russian political tradition, then Bocharov’s observation concerning some acceptance of state violence in that particular tradition might be worth considering as a working hypothesis.

I would say that even if this analysis is not totally accurate, it is important to note that there are different cultures of violence and some of them were or are exported to other countries by means of imperial power. This was exactly the experience of many societies that were subjugated to the Russian Empire throughout the 18th or 19th centuries and they either accepted some elements of that particular state violence culture or fought against it. Through that fight, some of them joined or formed a specific anti-state, anti- Tsarist (or anti-imperial) violence culture within Russia itself (Nowak 2009, 59–82). Through this fight there developed exactly the phenomenon that we are so passionately discussing today, namely that of terrorism. Of course, the phenomenon was also developing in Southern and Western Europe, but it was especially well embedded in the Russian imperial state structure of violence and rebellions against that state’s structure of violence. One should recollect not only the names of the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin but one should also recollect the names of Józef Piłsudski, as well as the second and the third President of the Second Republic of Poland, Stanisław Wojciechowski and Ignacy Mościcki, respectively. They were all terrorists (or at least were helping them with their knowledge) at the beginning of their careers; they used to prepare bombs and some of them made attempts against the imperial powers of Russia. And this is not only the Polish case, by any means. This was just one example of the imperial culture of state violence transferred and transported to its peripheries, and its backlash on the imperial centres.

With that we can come back to Lenin and to his particular case that unites many levels of analysing the problem of mass violence in the 20th century, especially in Eastern Europe. One is at a personal level: it combines the experience of state violence with a particular response by Lenin. His older brother was hanged for participating in an attempted coup against Tsar Alexander III. This example of state terrorism (or counter-terrorism), or state violence, influenced Lenin personally. One can add the level of specific traditions of state violence to it, as suggested by Bocharov in the Russian case. That specific tradition engaged and influenced, as we have mentioned, different societies overtaken by the Russian Empire even before the 20th century, but it expanded further and much more brutally to other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which had never ‘belonged’ before to the Romanov Empire’s domain but would be attacked and attached to the Soviet bloc throughout the last century. But the mass violence there was not just connected to the new version of traditional Russian imperialism. There was a third level formed by a specific ideology. Communism was obviously developing within Western Europe, but Lenin and Stalin developed it in a special way. In order to illustrate this I would like to use a quote from the first day Lenin came to power in November 1917. It was the moment when the Congress of Soviets decided to abolish the death penalty for frontline deserters, which Kerensky had reintroduced in mid-1917. Lenin, busy elsewhere, missed that event and when he learned of it he became utterly indignant, ‘Nonsense,’ he said, ‘how can you make a revolution without executions? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there, prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war, when each side hopes to win? It is a mistake, impermissible weakness, pacifist illusion’ (Pipes 1990, 791).

We should mention not just individual quotes, but also the countless victims of the new state mass violence and the physical consequences of this kind of ideology. Building on the experience of Western European colonial empires and their methods, one such development was the creation of concentration camps. They had been introduced as a new means of mass violence by the Bolshevik regime in 1918, but they were based on two previous examples, one American – in Cuba 1898 – and another one English – in South Africa in 1900–1901. The Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who reinvented the concept of concentration camp for the sake of Bolshevik power in 1918, was well aware that the concept had been tested elsewhere. He introduced it on the geographical fringes of Europe – on the Volga River near Kazan. From those relatively modest beginnings, it later developed into the whole Gulag system, with tens of millions of inmates (in reality slaves) and millions of deaths. Nazi Germany would go a step further, by organizing death camps during the Second World War.

So we can observe many different, as I called them, levels of factors that made violence in Eastern Europe a specific phenomenon in the 20th century. But this experience of mass violence was not connected solely with the Russian version of communism or with that combination of the First World War experience of mass killings and mass deportations that helped create a Bolshevik ‘synthesis’ of violence. We also have to mention elements connected to nation building, and fighting for the foundation of new nations that created unstable and unclear boundaries and issues with ‘alien’ minorities (causing fights or persecution). This was the experience of many Eastern Europe countries that found their way onto the political map after the First World War.

I would like to take three examples: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In all these countries we not only have a nation-state project, but there were imperial-like structures, sometimes with elements of a federative idea, but at the same time it connected with efforts aimed at dominating minorities by the ‘core’ nation and turning from an imperial-like structure or federative structure to a nation-state structure. Were experiences in Poland, in Yugoslavia or in Czechoslovakia different? One is tempted to suggest at least part of the answer by linking Poland to Russia’s political (violent) culture experienced in the previous century. Most of Poland created after the First World War was founded on the territories that experienced more than a hundred years of Russian imperial influences, control and administrative practices. Rebellions against this culture somehow imitated some violent elements of that culture. Yugoslavia bore the influences of Turkish, Islamic imperial domination over large part of its territories. Czechoslovakia was based on territories exclusively belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. It does not mean that the Habsburg Empire was ideal with no conflicts, nevertheless the political culture of the Habsburg Empire in the late 19th century was evidently slightly different to the one developing in the Russian or Ottoman Empires. I am aware that it could be only partial and a very provocative suggestion of an answer for the development of violent clashes between different national projects in these particular countries. There were other, probably more pressing, sources of differences in ‘eruptions’ of violence, too. For example, the fact that Ukrainian nationalization was not fully realized during or after the First World War somehow postponed the final clash of that project (along with a specific culture of violence that was involved there too) until the Second World War.

Other factors could be connected to the uneasy geopolitical, economic context (notably the Great Crisis of the early 1930s) and the ideological attempts to peacefully solve the tensions that we have just mentioned: that is, the tensions between fulfilled and unfulfilled national aspirations, as well as different social projects during the interwar period in so-called ‘East- Central Europe’, a term coined by Oskar Halecki (Halecki 1950; Arnason and Doyle 2010; Troebst 2003, 293–321). These difficult conditions were created on the western side by acts of German imperial revenge that soon loomed large after 1918. On the eastern side communist ideology became more widespread – it had already tried to take over all East-Central Europe in 1920, but was stopped at the gates of Warsaw and was forced to recede for the next twenty years. Throughout the 1930s Stalin turned that ideology to a large degree into another instrument of Russian imperial revenge. There was an evident change when compared with the times of Lenin, though not in terms of the mass killings (because those also took place under Lenin’s regime), but in the ‘rationalization’ – if one can use that word – for these mass killings. Stalin was reorganizing the Soviet state around the Russian imperial core in order to prepare it for the ‘new Great War’. That is, for example, the reason for one of the least known, the least remembered experiences of mass violence in the 20th century. I mean here so-called national operations led by the NKVD security service in 1937–38.

Most people asked what the Great Terror means, would answer: yes, of course – old Communist guards were executed, Lenin’s comrades were victims; others would probably answer that the Great Terror was one more tragic experience of the Russian elites – seeing this tragedy through the prism of artistic expressions such as Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem poem (depicting the fate of Russian mothers asking for the release of their sons imprisoned in the NKVD jails) or other literary testimonies. However, numerically speaking – and by numbers we should always mean individual people – the most numerous of the Great Terror victims were those shot in so-called national operations of the NKVD. In 1937–38 there were almost 260,000 such victims. By far the most targeted were the Poles: in a single ‘Polish’ operation, initiated in August 1937, 111,097 people were shot. Germans were the second; Finns, Koreans and other nations that Stalin’s imperial perspective perceived as a ‘potential danger’ followed the pattern. Norman Naimark (a professor at Stanford University) called the NKVD operation against the Poles ‘one of the most unambiguous cases of genocide in the history of the twentieth century’ (Naimark 2010, 92: see also Snyder 2010; Kuomiya 2007; Martin 2001).

What came afterwards? The Second World War, of course, instigated by the Hitler–Stalin agreement of 23 August 1939 to divide ‘Eastern Europe’ with a single act, signed in Moscow. Nazi Germany’s ideology that joined the imperial revenge of the Deutsches Reich (this was the official and appropriate name for Hitler’s state) over especially Slavic neighbours with the anti-Semitic core of Hitler and his comrade’s worldview (Weltanschauung) led to the physical elimination of almost all Jewry from East-Central Europe. It is necessary to stress that the particularly tragic experience of the Second World War in that region stems from first the collaboration and then the clash of two imperial projects – Russian/Soviet and German/Nazi. This was the essence of the Molotov–Ribbentrop handshake: the totalitarian empires will to eliminate what was between these two empires in East- Central Europe: to eliminate Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Moldova, to completely subjugate Belarus, Ukraine, and so on and so forth (Czechoslovakia had been already erased from the map, though, fortunately, with much less violence).

Most of the above-mentioned countries and peoples inhabiting them (after the Holocaust eliminated the Jewish population from the region) were overtaken by the communist imperial expansion of Stalin’s ‘Russified’ Soviet Union. This expansion reframed older imperial patterns of domination and infused them with more mass violence than in the 19th century. The rest of the ‘shorter 20th century’ was perceived by many from that perspective as a fight or an experience of waging more or less violently suppressed rebellion against this foreign occupation, against this imperial domination. From that very perspective annus mirabilis – that of 1989 – was seen by many (not by all, of course) as liberation. The experience of violence obtained a meaningful narrative of a struggle for independence, a struggle for freedom, against ‘the evil empire’ (a reminder of Ronald Reagan’s catchy metaphor from 1983). It became similar to the narrative that followed the First World War in these Eastern European (or East-Central European) countries that gained or regained their independence after 1918. For most people in Western European countries, the experience of violence in the 20th century, beginning with the First World War, was not remembered as one of heroic struggle, but rather, increasingly towards the end of the century, it was remembered as one where innocent civilian victims were at the centre of these horrors. Some (in fact, millions) of the specific victims of the horrors that happened in Eastern Europe during the same century, but stemmed from such an exotic (that is, not experienced by Western European societies) source of violence as totalitarian Soviet/Russian imperialism, looked for the recognition of which they had obviously been deprived before 1989.

And yet they were deprived of that recognition, at least on an official ‘all- European’ level again after 1989. Their desire for recognition clashed with the new culture of memory that had already matured in Western Europe based on the model developed in the Federal Republic of Germany over the last five decades. There was no time for the many dramatic (different and conflicting) memories of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe, suppressed or marginalized before 1989, to find a place in the public space – unlike in Western Europe, where the Nazi-occupation horrors, collaboration and Holocaust supplanted previous more ‘heroic’ or individual national memorial narratives within only three to five decades. There was no time for many of the hundreds of thousands of victims (and living mourning communities of these victims) to find recognition – and then graduate to the ‘healing’ stage. They were to be ‘healed’ without recognition. They faced the demands of a new centralizing memory politics, one which had come – once again – from ‘outside’, from Western Europe, whose memorial elites used their own model of commemorating past violence.

I have discussed that model elsewhere, perfectly summed up by a German culturologist, Claus Leggewie, in his formula of the ‘Seven Circles of European Memory’. He composed his model after the EU memorial elites decided also to include, symbolically, the Gulag experience, in about 2004. So, after the ‘Holocaust’ and the ‘Gulag’, there are five more circles, three of them dealing with the traumatic experiences of violence: ‘Expulsion as a Pan-European Trauma’, ‘War and Wartime Memory’, ‘Black Book of Colonialism’, ‘Europe as a Continent of Immigration’ and ‘Europe’s Success Story after 1945’ (Leggewie 2011, 123–24; Nowak 2015, 38–56). The outstanding question in that list is connected with experiences of colonialism and its violence. Are they the same in Belgium and in other Western European former colonial metropoles – and in, let’s say, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Ukraine, or even Hungary and Poland (which have their own specific imperial histories)? Were these Eastern European societies perpetrators of colonial crimes committed outside Europe (predominantly in Africa and Asia) or rather victims of imperial (according to some concepts – just colonial) violence exerted by such imperial centres as Germany, or Russia, or even a non-European, Islamic Empire (the Ottoman Empire that for centuries subjugated the populations of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary – to mention just contemporary members of the EU)?

Now we can return to the beginning of our commentaries. That violence that was ‘exported’ overseas throughout the 19th century by Western Europe to their colonies is coming back here. From an Eastern European perspective of unrecognized, regional memories, there seems to arise an unfortunate temptation to look at this situation with some Schadenfreude: you Western Europeans looked at our problems with nation-making, with our Eastern European tragic experiences of mass violence from the high point of the acclaimed ‘Europe’s Success Story after 1945’. Most Eastern Europeans had to wait for the beginning of their success, for their chance – only after 1989. When will we be ready to achieve success together? Probably only after we talk and listen attentively to each other, to all ‘sides’ of European experiences and memories of violence (and I believe there are many more of these ‘sides’ than just ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’). Just as we do here, at this conference.

I would like to end with a short quotation from Joseph Brodsky, an American poet of Russian-Jewish origin, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. I want to present his poem that is entitled ‘Bosnia Tune’. It describes Eastern European anger with Western Europe’s lack of real compassion, lack of understanding of the violence that is still happening in the East. I would now propose to reverse this meaning for a moment and read this poem as ‘London Tune’, ‘Brussels Tune’ or ‘Paris Tune’ and to address its moral pathos: Eastern Europeans now watch violence happening in the West. So let us listen, together:

As you pour yourself a scotch,
crush a roach, or check your watch,
as your hand adjusts your tie,
people die.
In the towns with funny names,
hit by bullets, caught in flames,
by and large not knowing why,
people die.
In small places you don’t know
of, yet big for having no
chance to scream or say good-bye,
people die ...

We would never eliminate violence with simplistic formulas that stem only from our particular experiences. The experience of a clash or rather of differences of memories of mass violence, of different reasons for that mass violence in Western and in Eastern Europe should not lead to a lack of solidarity. Only, just as Professor Wieviorka said, when we begin to address our different experiences, can we find solidarity versus violence – our common enemy. Thank you.



Andrzej Nowak is a professor at the History Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the History Institute of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He was the founder, and for eighteen years, editor-in-chief of the socio-cultural magazine Arcana. He is currently a member of the Presidential National Development Council, as well as the Council of the Institute of National Remembrance. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent publication The First Western Betrayal; 1920 – The Forgotten Appeasement (2015). Professor Nowak’s main research areas are Eastern European cultural and political history and thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, political philosophy, international political relations, modern mass media and Polish–Russian relations. He is a member of the ENRS Academic Council.



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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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