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.

Photo of the publication Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations
Katarzyna Sagatowska

Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations

23 December 2022
  • forced migrations
  • Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations

Memory is inseparable from identity. It is a complex relationship. Personal experiences create our individual identity; experiences of previous generations our social and cultural identity. The mechanisms of memory and the manners of its interpretation are topics of research by scholars from various fields: psychologists, sociologists, and historians. These are also motifs taken up by artists.

The project Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations – Transnational Memory in Pictures and Art focused on the transnational experience of forced migration before, during, and as a result of World War II (1933–1949). It is not simply about the historical moment of flight, expulsion, deportation or forced resettlement, but more about experiences and images related to the cultural memory of the affected groups.

We invited young people from various disciplines to join the project and talk about topics related to forced migration in the 20th century, using tools from the field of art and various types of visual materials. We were looking for intimate stories describing the experiences of the participants in the events, because, paraphrasing Martin Pollack’s words in his famous book Topografie der Erinnerung[1] (The Topography of Remembrance), ‘it will be easier to understand a great story when we look at it (...) from the inside out, from the perspective of individual experiences and ordeals, including tragedy.’

During several months of intensive work, an extremely diverse range of projects was created, and the development of the final visual form was preceded by long and thorough research. Some of the authors used archival materials for their analyses, while others decided to produce a completely original artistic statement. Online solutions turned out to be an interesting tool, making it possible to share the collected text, photographic, and video material through publicly available, open-access websites.

The Lighthouses. A Story about the Germans in Yugoslavia by Mladen Nikolić (Serbia) is a visual essay about the fate of the ethnic German population in the territories of former Yugoslavia using the example of the town of Pančevo. The German names carved in the 1920s and 1930s by the town’s inhabitants on the bricks of the two lighthouses pointing the way to the port provided the author with his inspiration. Nikolić also found a large number of archival photos depicting pre-war everyday life, as well as the impact of warfare on the fate of the Germans.

In her project Images of Law and Injustice, Andrea Škopková (Czech Republic) decided on the form of a textual essay analysing visual materials about the forced migration of people living in the border areas of Czechoslovakia in the years 1938–1945.

Several projects have taken the modern form of websites. At www.docpstrazna.pl, Joanna Kowalska (Poland) invites us to take five walks around Pstrążna, located on today’s Polish–Czech border, together with its inhabitants. The author’s idea is that during the video-recorded walks, the witnesses talk about the history of their families and migration in context, pointing out traces of memory and memory loss in the landscape. Kowalska complements the video materials with her own photographs showing the village today and with documentary photographs she has received from interviewees.

Brenna Yellin’s (USA) project Disorderly Trajectories traces the migrations of ethnic Germans from the areas that fell under the influence of the USSR after the war. Usually, these routes are presented in a simplified linear way, but Yellin shows how complicated they were. Based on the histories of several characters, the subsequent stages of the journey and their dates can be traced. The author has also selected quotes from their testimonies, which concisely relate their experiences and accompanying emotions (www.tinyurl.com/BrennaYellin).

The third online project is Displaced People and the Buildings They Left Behind by Badri Okujava (Georgia), available at www.topography.ge. This project focuses on the ethnic minority of German Swabians who had lived in Tbilisi from the mid-19th century and who were forced to leave in November 1941. The main part of the project is a topographical depiction of over 400 former places of residence of minorities. This was achieved by marking the map of Tbilisi with specific addresses, family names, and photos taken by the author documenting the current state of these buildings.

A bridge between online projects and original implementation is It Is Still Before My Eyes by the duo Liana Blikharska and Daria Koltsova (Ukraine), which consists of two parts: an artistic design of a stained-glass window and a presentation using Google Earth. The authors talk about the deportations in the USSR through the fate of the Crimean Tatars who had lived in these areas from sometime between the 13th or 14th century. During the so-called evacuation programme, the Soviet authorities forced the entire Tatar community to leave the Crimea and move east.

The next three works are expressions of the artists’ creativity. Kalina Trajanovska (Macedonia) created a video work combining her own photographs and recorded sound. This poetic tale refers to the history of Madžir Maalo, a district of Skopje in Macedonia. The name of the district literally means ‘refugee settlement’ (Ottoman Turkish muhacir and Arabic muhajir meaning ‘refugee’). Observing the destruction of one of the houses, Trajanovska reflects on the Muslim inhabitants who were forced to leave their homes during several waves of migration.

Antonia Foldes’ (UK) project Threads takes on a unique final form – a hand-embroidered bag created by the author. The embroidery design combines various folk motifs and methods of execution to tell the story of migrations in what is now Ukraine. The bag has been a symbolic object accompanying migrants for centuries. It allows you to ‘package’ the past and ‘take’ it into an unclear future. Referring to Michael Rothberg’s theory of multidirectional memory, Antonia Foldes juxtaposes various narratives about memory without judging them.

Another author who uses embroidery in her work is Olga Filonchuk (Ukraine). Using the format of a book–diary entitled At the Still Point of the Turning World, she captures her daily life since leaving Kiev in March 2022 following the Russian invasion. Together with her sister and seven-month-old niece, they settled in the German spa town of Bad Liebenstein in the company of other Ukrainian women and children. The diary is a collection of photos and texts by Filonchuk that express the complex emotions and memories that accompany the author in her new home. It is an attempt to register a moment of inspiration, a moment of shock, which turned from seconds into weeks, then months, and stretched in time.

The basis of the works within the Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations – Transnational Memory in Pictures and Art were meetings between people from different countries, from different regions, and from different backgrounds. We met initially in June 2022 in Berlin, and then we saw each other online for several months, refining the next stages of the projects. I know that, apart from official meetings, the participants had private contacts, exchanged knowledge, supported each other with experiences, and worked together. Looking for the best artistic solutions and the most precise ways to express their thoughts, they had the opportunity to get to know and understand each other better. They added their contemporary individual experiences and histories to the analysed historical individual stories. The resulting projects are an expression of the potential that the visual arts have in better understanding important historical events by learning about the fates of their individual participants.



[1] Martin Pollack, Topografie der Erinnerung, Residenz Verlag, 2016.


Photo by Mladen Nikolić

Photo of the publication 1989 – das Ende des Kommunismus in Polen
Antoni Dudek

1989 – das Ende des Kommunismus in Polen

18 November 2022
  • academic
  • 1989
  • Jaruzelski
  • Ende des Kommunismus
  • Polen
  • Solidarność
  • Gorbatschow
  • RGW
  • Privatisierung
  • PVAP
  • Polnische Volksarmee
  • Katholische Kirche
  • Politische Opposition

Die Streikwelle des Sommers 1980 und die daran anschließende Gründung der Unabhängigen Selbstverwalteten Gewerkschaft „Solidarność“ leitete eine neue, die tiefste Krise des kommunistischen Staates in Polen ein. Die sich seit 1976 verschärfende Wirtschaftskrise führte 1980 zur Destabilisierung des politischen Systems. Die Zerschlagung der Solidarność nach Einführung des Kriegsrechts konnte die ökonomischen, sozialen und politischen Entwicklungen nicht aufhalten, durch welche die politische Ordnung der Volksrepublik Polen in eine chronische Krisensituation geriet, die mit der Veränderung der internationalen Lage schließlich in ihren Untergang mündete. Nachstehend möchte ich den Versuch anstellen, die wichtigsten Ursachen für den Zusammenbruch des Systems 1989 zu benennen.


1. Die Änderungen in der UdSSR. Dieser ursächliche Faktor trat zuletzt in Erscheinung, nämlich erst, als Michail Gorbačev 1986 die Politik der perestrojka verkündete. Er ist aber deswegen zuerst zu nennen, weil er dafür entscheidend war, die Polen regierende Riege um General Wojciech Jaruzelski zur Einleitung von Systemreformen zu bewegen, die letztlich zum völligen Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus führten. Im Juli 1986 hielt Gorbačev während einer Sitzung des Politbüros des ZK der KPdSU über die Staaten Ostmitteleuropas fest, dass man „sie nicht länger in seinem Schlepptau mitziehen“ könne. „Die Wirtschaft ist der Hauptgrund dafür.“ Mithin hatte sich im Kreml die Überzeugung durchgesetzt, dass die innerhalb des Rates für Gegenseitige Wirtschaftshilfe (RGW) verankerte wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit, die auf dem Transferrubel beruhte, dringender Änderungen bedürfe. Die Lieferung von Erdöl und Erdgas, den wichtigsten Exportgütern der UdSSR, in die RGW-Länder zu Festpreisen brachte der sowjetischen Wirtschaft keinen Nutzen. So war es kein Zufall, dass nach der Bildung der Regierung von Tadeusz Mazowiecki eine der wichtigsten Forderungen Moskaus gegenüber Warschau war, so schnell wie möglich den US-Dollar als Leitwährung im bilateralen Handel einzuführen.

2. Der Zustand der Wirtschaft. 1983 wuchs erstmals seit fünf Jahren in Polen das Bruttoinlandsprodukt wieder. Allerdings resultierte das nicht aus wirklichen Änderungen des Wirtschaftssystems, sondern daraus, dass die Ökonomie wieder in ihre alten Geleise zurückfand, aus denen sie zuerst durch die Fehler der Gierek-Regierung und dann die Streiks der Jahre 1980/81 geworfen worden war, schließlich auch durch die Unterstellung vieler Betriebe unter Militärverwaltung und die ökonomischen Saktionen der westlichen Länder gegen Volkspolen. Bereits 1985 verringerte sich das Wirtschaftswachstum erneut.

Die von dem Jaruzelski-Regime nach Einführung des Kriegsrechts ständig wiederholten Beteuerungen der Notwendigkeit, die Wirtschaftsreformen fortzusetzen, deren Einleitung 1981 verkündet worden war, erwiesen sich bald als bloße Propaganda. Erst die Regierung von Ministerpräsident Mieczysław Rakowski machte sich an der Jahreswende 1988/89 an wirkliche Reformen, indem sie beispielsweise Garantien für die Freiheit der Wirtschaftstätigkeit abgab und die Vorschriften für den Außenhandel liberalisierte. Wenn nicht kurz darauf das politische System kollabiert wäre, hätten die Reformen Rakowskis vielleicht dazu geführt, eine Transformation nach dem chinesischem Modell umzusetzen, d.h. die Marktwirtschaft zu installieren, ohne das autoritäre politische System aufzugeben.

3. Ansätze zur Privatisierung des Staates. Inmitten des allgemeinen wirtschaflichen Schlamassels der achtziger Jahre gab es ein bemerkenswertes Wachstum des privaten Sektors. In den Jahren 1981‑1985 steigerte er seine Produktion um nahezu 14 Prozent, während der staatliche Sektor ganze 0,2 Prozent Wachstum erreichte. Das private Unternehmertum war zwar immer noch von zahlreichen Beschränkungen gegängelt, allmählich setzte sich jedoch besonders in den mittleren Etagen der Staatsmacht die Überzeugung durch, dass sich ohne den Ausbau des Privatsektors das Konsumgüterdefizit nicht würde bewältigen lassen.

Innerhalb des Privatsektors hatten die sog. Polonia-Gesellschaften einen besonderen Stellenwert. Sie wurden auf der Grundlage eines Gesetzes vom Juli 1982 unter Beteiligung von Ausländern polnischer Abstammung gegründet. Die Polonia-Gesellschaften wurden für die Staatsmacht, insbesondere für die Geheimdienste eine Art Experimentierfeld. An ihnen wurde erprobt, wie sich Personen innerhalb marktwirtschaftlicher Zusammenhänge verhalten, und sie wurden auch für operative Vorgänge genutzt. Infolgedessen machte sich ein Teil der regierenden Elite allmählich den Gedanken zueigen, dass das in den vierziger Jahren eingerichtete Wirtschaftssystem unbedingt aufzuheben sei, das wesentlich auf dem Staatseigentum beruhte. So entstand eine den genannten Reformen der Regierung Rakowski günstige Atmosphäre, die im Nebeneffekt allerdings auch die sog. Privatisierung für die Nomenklatur mit sich brachten.

4. Die Deregulierung des politischen Systems. Deren Hauptmerkmal war die Schwächung der Position der Polnischen Vereinigten Arbeiterpartei (PZPR), die bis dahin das Machtmonopol in Volkspolen besessen hatte. Aufgrund der Krise von 1980/81 und des anschließenden Kriegsrechts verlor die PZPR ungefähr eine halbe Million Mitglieder. Erst in der Mitte des Jahrzehnts hörte die Partei auf zu schrumpfen, und ihre Mitgliederzahl lag fortan stabil bei etwa 2,1 Millionen. Dagegen setzte sich der Alterungsprozess in der Partei fort. Der Anteil von Mitglieder im Alter bis 29 Jahren fiel von 15 Prozent 1981 auf kam 6,9 Prozent 1986, das Durchschnittsalter der Mitgliederschaft stieg auf 46 Jahre. Ähnlich erging es dem engeren Parteiapparat, der über 12.000 Funktionäre zählte.

Die kommunistische Partei alterte, verlor zugleich an Einfluss und wurde immer mehr vom politischen Entscheider zu einem bloßen Instrument in den Händen unterschiedlicher Pressuregroups innerhalb des Machtapparats. Die wichtigste davon war ein gewisser Teil des Offizierskorps der Polnischen Armee. Im ersten Jahr des Kriegsrechts wurden auf Leitungspositionen des Parteiapparats 32 Armeeoffiziere delegiert, in die Staatsverwaltung weitere 88. Darunter befanden sich elf Minister und stellvertretende Minister, 13 Wojewoden und Vizewojewoden sowie neun Sekretäre von Wojewodschaftskomitees der PZPR. Neben den Militärs gewannen in den achtziger Jahren die höheren Funktionäre des Sicherheitsdienstes und Leute aus dem Wirtschaftsapparat an Einfluss. Auch die Leitung des Gesamtpolnischen Gewerkschaftsverbandes (OPZZ) gehörte der kommunistischen Partei an; sie wurde im Laufe der Zeit zu einer Kraft, die ebenfalls die Kontrolle der PZPR über den Staatsapparat und insbesondee über die Wirtschaft beträchtlich begrenzte.

5. Die Entwicklung der Stimmung in der Gesellschaft. Nach der Einführung des Kriegsrechts schien sich die Stimmung zunächst zu beruhigen. 1983 glaubten 40 Prozent der Befragten, dass sich die Wirtschaftslage verbessern würde, acht Prozent glaubten das Gegenteil, und über die Hälfte waren der Meinung, dass es keine Veränderungen geben würde oder hatten keine Meinung. Diese abwartende Haltung begann sich seit Mitte des Jahrzehnts in eine für die Staatsmacht ungünstige Richtung zu ändern. Während noch im Dezember 1985 46 Prozent der Befragten die Wirtschaftslage für schlecht hielten, wuchs dieser Anteil in den Folgemonaten ziemlich regelmäßig: 55 Prozent waren es im April, 58,5 Prozent im Dezember 1986 und nicht weniger als 69,1 Prozent im April 1987. Mit der Stimmung ging es in der Folgezeit immer weiter bergab, was bei der Führungsspitze erhebliche Beunruhigung auslöste. In einer Denkschrift vom Januar 1988 äußerten sich die drei engsten Berater General Jaruzelskis, der Sekretär des ZK der PZPR Stanisław Ciosek, der stellvertretende Innenminister Władysław Pożoga sowie Regierungssprecher Jerzy Urban hierzu: „Die Stimmungskurve ist unter den Warnstrich gefallen, mit anderen Worten: der kritische Punkt vor der Explosion [...] ist überschritten.“

6. Die Aktivität der Kirche und der politischen Opposition. In den achtziger Jahren wandelte sich die katholische Kirche in den Augen der volkspolnischen Machthaber vom Hauptgegner zu einem wichtigen Stabilisierungsfaktor für die Stimmungen in der Gesellschaft. Zwar verzichtete die Staatsmacht bis zum Schluss nicht auf ihre gegen die Geistlichkeit gerichteten Machinationen – Symbol dessen war die Entführung und Ermordung des Pfarrers Jerzy Popiełuszko durch Beamte des Sicherheitsdienstes. Aber die Führung der PZPR nahm praktisch in Kauf, dass der Einfluss der Kirche in dieser Zeit in unerhörter Weise weiter zunahm. Das kam ebenso zum Ausdruck in der Rekordzahl neugeweihter Priester und neugebauter Kirchen wie in der raschen Steigerung der Auflagen katholischer Zeitungen und Druckwerke. Mitte des Jahrzehnts erschienen 89 katholische Zeitschriften, die zusammen eine Auflage von anderhalb Millionen erreichten. Auch gegenüber dem Aufbau neuer kirchlicher Einrichtungen und der Gründung von Klubs der Katholischen Intelligenz (KIK) betrieb die Regierung eine liberalere Politik. Die kirchlichen Organisationen waren auch bei der Verteilung der aus dem Westen eintreffenden karitativen Hilfe federführend, deren beträchtlicher Umfang den Behörden erhebliches Kopfzerbrechen bereitete.

Die Regierung hoffte, dass ihr liberaler Kurs allmählich die Akzeptanz des Regimes bei der Geistlichkeit steigen lassen würde. Aber das Doppelspiel der Kirchenhierarchie, die einerseits den Dialog mit der Staatsmacht führte und andererseits den gemäßigten Teil der Opposition diskret unterstützte, brachte die Regierung Jaruzelski in Verwirrung. Diese war sich im klaren, dass zur Durchführung der seit Mitte des Jahrzehnts heranreifenden Systemreform die Unterstützung der Kirche benötigt würde, aber man hatte keine Vorstellung davon, bis zu welchem Grade die Bischöfe die Reformen mittragen würden, noch inwieweit sie sich mit den Zielen der Opposition identifizierten.

Trotz ihrer Schwächephase um die Mitte der neunziger Jahre wurde die Opposition zu einer Kraft, die für ständigen Widerstand gegen das System sorgte. Die Opposition war zwar in verschiedene, einandern bekämpfende Lager gespalten, allgemein gesagt bildete sie aber zwei Hauptströmungen, die sich in ihrer Haltung zum volkspolnischen Regime unterschieden. Innerhalb der radikalen Strömung verfügte die 1982 von Kornel Morawiecki gegründete „Solidarność Walcząca“ („Kämpfende Solidarność“) über das größte Potenzial; dieser Flügel beabsichtigte, das Regime mittels eines Generalstreiks und einer revolutionären Erhebung zu stürzen. Dagegen ging die gemäßigte Strömung, die sich um Lech Wałęsa und das bis 1986 im Untergrund tätige Provisorische Koordinationskomitee der Gewerkschaft Solidarność sammelte, davon aus, dass die sich verschlechternde Wirtschaftslage und der Druck aus dem Westen schließlich das Jaruzelski-Regime zur Aufnahme von Gesprächen mit der Opposition zwingen würden. Aus Sicht der Regierung war von Bedeutung, dass die gemäßigte Strömung stärker war als die radikale, und als 1988 die PZPR-Führung sich schließlich zu Gesprächen mit Wałęsa und seinen damaligen Mitarbeitern bereitfand, erwiesen sich die radikalen Oppositionellen als zu schwach, um die Gespräche am Runden Tisch zu blockieren und danach die dort ausgehandelten Parlamentswahlen vom Juni 1989 zu boykottieren.

Aus dem Polnischen von Andreas R. Hofmann



Prof. Antoni Dudek (geb. 1966) – Politologe, beschäftigt sich mit der neusten politischen Geschichte Polens. Mitglied des Institutsrates am Institut für Nationales Gedenken.




Photo of the publication The ups and downs of German-Polish reconciliation
Jan Rydel

The ups and downs of German-Polish reconciliation

14 September 2022

As is well known, Poland suffered enormous human and material losses during the Second World War. These losses were relatively - i.e. in relation to the pre-war population - the largest in Europe. Moreover, the German Nazi occupation authorities embarked on a cruel and humiliating programme of degrading the Polish nation to the function of an uneducated workforce. This provoked widespread and strong Polish resistance during the war and, once it ended, condemnation, resentment and even hatred towards Germans in general, based on the largely correct conviction that a large part of German society supported Hitler’s regime. Of course, the generalisations presented here should not be taken literally, but as a characterisation of a certain dominant tendency.

In Germany, a certain section of society may not have known the horrifying facts about the occupation of Poland, while another section effectively pushed the tragic truth about it out of its consciousness. Under these conditions - especially in the western occupation zones, from which the Federal Republic of Germany was formed in 1949 - Poles came to be seen as the main culprits for the great misfortune of the German people, which was considered to be the loss of the eastern part of the former Germany and the displacement of the German population living there until then. German critics of Poland and the Poles did not want to understand that these territories were compensation for the even more extensive areas that the Soviet Union had taken from Poland, and not simple territorial spoils. Importantly, it was the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who at the Big Three conference in Potsdam pushed through the course of the Polish western border and the displacement of the German population from Poland within the new borders.

This mutual antagonism was exploited by politics in both countries. In Poland, Stalin installed the rule of the communists, who were very unpopular among the Polish population and there was a partisan war against their rule in the country. One of the very few aspects of the reality of the time in which the positions of the communists and the Polish population appeared to agree was the hostility to the Germans and the conviction that Poland necessarily needed the territories taken from the Germans in order to rebuild and in the future develop. For this reason, the communists literally nurtured hostility to Germany and the Germans, as it was probably the most important factor at least partially legitimising their power in Poland.

On the other hand, in the Federal Republic of Germany - created by the decision of the Western occupying powers (the United States, Great Britain and France) after the beginning of the Cold War in 1949–1950 - recalling the alleged and actual guilt of Poles and hostility towards the Polish People’s Republic as an ally of the Soviets was politically very convenient, as it emphasised the pro-Western stance of this new German state and at the same time relegated the moral and legal reckoning with German Nazi crimes to the very background. In addition, certain provisions of the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945 allowed the West German side to claim that the actually existing Polish-German border on the Oder and Neisse rivers was not definitively established and therefore Germany still existed within the 1937 borders. This argumentation, as one can easily guess, caused much concern in Poland for the future of the country.

As we know, a communist state was created in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany in 1949 under the name of the German Democratic Republic. Despite their declared friendship, relations between communist Poland and communist East Germany were only seemingly correct. In 1950, East Germany, on the express orders of Moscow, signed a treaty with Poland on the recognition of the new border, but the two governments were still very distrustful of each other and competed fiercely for the favours of the Soviet hegemon.

Although the resentment and alienation prevailing between Poles and Germans was deep and almost universal, keen minds on both sides of the unrecognised border increasingly came to the conclusion that such a state of affairs must end one day and that the two large nations in the middle of Europe could not live with their backs turned to each other. In 1956, Władysław Gomułka, a politician described as a ‘national communist’, took power in Poland. Just after the war, he had been Minister for what was known as the Recovered Territories, as the communist propaganda named the territories taken from Germany, and well acquainted with the complexity of the situation of these territories. One of his important foreign policy goals was to have the Oder-Neisse border recognised by the Federal Republic of Germany. He was keen to do this because he wanted to weaken Moscow’s role as the sole protector of communist Poland and create more stable conditions for the country’s development than before. In the Federal Republic of Germany, its first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had already made it his policy objective in the early 1950s to establish normal, correct relations with France, Israel and, precisely, Poland, as he saw in this an opportunity for Germany to return quickly to the ranks of respected members of the international community. While the normalisation of relations with France and Israel had indeed already taken place in the 1950s, progress in relations with Poland had to wait much longer. Despite confidential talks that had been ongoing since 1957 (Carlo Schmid, Berthold Beitz), their only achievements were an initial trade agreement and the opening of trade representations in each country in 1963.

Regardless of the politicians’ unsuccessful attempts, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the emergence of tendencies in Germany, especially among the younger generation, to settle the Nazi past of German society. In the case of those following the Christian ethic, this led to the learning about and confession of guilt, as well as repentance and atonement. In 1958, the Evangelical youth organisation Aktion Sühnezeichen (Sign of Repentance Action) was founded in Germany, which dedicated itself to such simple but very meaningful activities outside Germany as working to clean up former crime scenes, mostly concentration camps, and caring for former prisoners who were sick and infirm. At the beginning of the 1960s, activists of the Christian churches in Germany began to increasingly convince German society to abandon the idea of revising the existing border with Poland and to seek understanding and reconciliation with the Poles. Information about the change of mood in Germany reached Poland, arousing more and more lively interest in the Catholic Church, a dominant force here. The most perspicacious among the Catholic clergy and intellectuals were aware that the hatred of Germans pouring profusely from the communist media and into the heads of children and young people at school, was profoundly immoral from a Christian point of view and further weakened the mental ties between Poles and the free democratic world.

In assessing the situation at the time, we must remember that the communist authorities in Poland harshly persecuted the Catholic Church, whose adherents were well over 80 per cent of Polish society until 1956. The Communists imprisoned many bishops and priests for years on trumped-up charges, made it difficult for Catholics to practise their religion and discriminated against them. The most notorious of the prisoners was the head of the Church in Poland, the Primate of Poland Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. He was released from custody in 1956, at which time the repressions against the clergy and the faithful eased somewhat, but nevertheless relations between the communist state and the Catholic Church were still very tense.

Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council took place in Rome, its aim being a profound modernisation of the Catholic Church. The participating Polish cardinals and bishops, who shared their experiences of coexistence between Church and state guided by an anti-religious ideology, made many contacts with representatives of other churches. They used them to invite bishops from all over the world to the great celebrations planned in 1966 for the Millennium, the 1,000th anniversary of the adoption of the Christian faith by the Polish ruler Prince Mieszko I and his state. On 18 November 1965, in the last days of the Council, a comprehensive letter signed by 36 top representatives of the Polish episcopate and containing such an invitation was handed over to the German bishops. The author of the letter was the Archbishop of Wrocław Bolesław Kominek, a clergyman who had grown up both in Polish and German culture. The concluding sentences of this document included the words:

In this most Christian, but also very human spirit, we extend to you, sitting here on the benches of the concluding Council, our hands and grant forgiveness as well as ask for it. And if you, German bishops ... fraternally embrace these outstretched hands, then only then will we be able to celebrate our Millennium in a most Christian manner with peace of conscience.

The words we grant forgiveness, as well as ask for it[1] have become the foundation of German-Polish reconciliation and a leitmotif of many other reconciliation processes. Today, these words can be found on the author’s memorial and commemorated in dozens of different ways.

The reply of the German episcopate sent on 5 December 1965 was polite and diplomatic, but completely in line with the formal legal position of the Federal Republic of Germany towards Poland. It also did not contain such an emotional plea for forgiveness, which - on the face of it - marked the failure of the Polish bishops’ initiative. A few days later, the communist authorities in Poland unleashed a violent propaganda campaign against the Church and the signatories of the letter. The bishops were accused of violating the government’s exclusive competence in foreign policy and of betraying the Polish raison d’état by addressing the Germans with these words. Communist Party chief Gomółka was so furious with the bishops that he seriously considered arresting them or deporting them from Poland to the Vatican. Questions were raised about who had given them the right to forgive the Germans and what the Poles were supposed to apologise to them for. A major problem was that the content of the letter to the German bishops also came as a surprise to Polish Catholics, and criticism of this act of forgiveness was voiced in many Catholic milieus.

Over the next few months, however, the bishops successfully convinced Catholics in Poland that, twenty years after the war, a religious and moral act of forgiveness was necessary and imperative. In time, the communist campaign against the authors of the letter also weakened, as it turned out that this appeal had nevertheless been noticed in West Germany and had become an impulse to increasingly seek dialogue with the Poles. Moreover, in December 1966, a government was formed in the Federal Republic of Germany, with the Social Democrat Willy Brandt as Foreign Minister and Deputy Chancellor, who began to implement a plan for what is known as Ostpolitik (eastern policy), whose motto was Wandel durch Annäherung (change through rapprochement). This policy was to lead to the establishment and expansion of relations with the Soviet Union and the countries of the Soviet bloc, including Poland in particular. In October 1969, Willy Brandt became Chancellor and a year later visited Poland, where he signed a treaty for the normalisation of relations with Poland, the most important part of which was the recognition of the Oder-Neisse border as Poland’s western border and the declaration of the renunciation of all mutual territorial claims. On the same day, the German Chancellor made an unexpected gesture that became a true icon of reconciliation. Laying a wreath at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, he knelt in humility.

It was proof to the Germans themselves, to the Poles and to many observers around the world that a fundamental mental change had taken place in Germany, which on the German side opened the way to reconciliation. The agreement between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Federal Republic opened a new stage in Polish-German relations. In 1972 the German-Polish Textbook Commission was established, which exists to this day, with the task of issuing joint recommendations to authors of history textbooks in both countries on how - taking into account the latest state of scientific research - to present the history of German-Polish relations. It is worth mentioning that a team of authors working under the aegis of the Textbook Commission has since 2008 produced a set of secondary school history textbooks which are identical in content in the German and Polish versions. Thanks to the work of the German-Polish Textbook Commission, which has been going on for half a century, and the intensive scientific contacts between historians from both countries, which also began in the 1970s, the old academic disputes about the history of German-Polish relations have been resolved together. This is by no means to say that the common past is not a source of sometimes sharp disputes and tensions, but their cause is nowadays basically only the way the past is commemorated and not the historical facts. The former is the domain of politicians, the latter of historians.

In the 1970s, intensive German-Polish economic cooperation developed. It was driven by West German loans, which were large by the standards of the time, and were intended to bring about a modernisation leap in Poland, which had suffered from deep economic and technological backwardness in the previous decades. These intentions, implemented under the conditions of the communist planned economy, failed. In the course of time, it became apparent that the increasingly intensive contacts between the two societies, the tourist trips in both directions, the temporary work of Poles in Germany, the emerging city partnerships, cultural exchanges, etc., were of far greater importance. It should not be imagined that these contacts were as intensive and uncomplicated as they are today between friendly countries, but they were fundamentally different from what was possible in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.

One of the most spectacular successes of the then stage of German-Polish cooperation, with virtually all the hallmarks of reconciliation between the churches, was the election of the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope, i.e. head of the worldwide Catholic Church, in 1978. Under the name John Paul II, he became one of the most recognisable and popular figures in the world at that time. Years later, it became clear that this election was mainly due to the very active support given to the Polish cardinal by the German members of the College of Cardinals.

At the same time, among the numerous illegal opposition organisations working in Poland for the reform or outright overthrow of communism, a clandestine think-tank called the Polish Independence Alliance emerged. It published expert reports on various aspects of Polish politics outside state control. This group published two texts on Polish-German relations. They concluded that an authentic and partnership-like Polish-German understanding was a necessary condition for Poland to liberate itself from Soviet hegemony and overthrow communism, for if Poles and Germans gained trust in each other and reconciled, any justification for Soviet guarantees of the territorial status quo in Poland would disappear. Moreover, expert reports by the secret think-tank concluded that the division of Germany into two states was completely unnatural and harmful to Poland, as the communist German Democratic Republic walled Poland off from Western Europe. Therefore, any steps leading to the reunification of this country by the Federal Republic of Germany should be supported. Such ideas went virtually unnoticed in West Germany, but their compelling logic had since become a permanent component of the geopolitical thought of the Polish anti-communist opposition.

In the summer of 1980, i.e. not long after the election of Pope John Paul II, the non-communist Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity was established in Poland, which was in the midst of a severe economic crisis, after a huge wave of strikes, soon having nine million members. This huge peaceful political force attempted a radical democratisation of Poland, which the communists saw as a threat to their rule. On 13 December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s government imposed martial law, and the police and army arrested more than 10,000 Solidarity activists. A communist military dictatorship took power in Poland for several years, and a political and humanitarian crisis engulfed the country. West Germany’s attitude to these events in Poland was complicated, as the government of the Federal Republic, which had so far achieved much success with its change-through-rapprochement policy towards the Polish communists, was very reluctant towards the Solidarity Trade Union, as it disturbed - as it was believed in Bonn - this apparent harmony. For this reason, Solidarity as an organisation received hardly any support from the West German authorities. The attitude of German society was different. The powerful, spontaneous social movement, which courageously strove to democratise and expand the sphere of freedom in its homeland, aroused widespread support there. For this reason, in order to alleviate the consequences of the crisis in Poland manifesting itself in dramatic shortages of food, medicine and clothing, a massive campaign was organised in Germany to send parcels of food, medicine, baby food and clothing to Poland. This aid, going directly from individual German donors to Polish families or distributed by church structures, reached millions of Poles for several critical years. In the eyes of the Poles, this great aid campaign became visible proof to everyone that the Germans as a nation had changed and had now become friends who could be counted on in times of need. This was another foundation of the reconciliation process.

In the following years, the crisis of the communist state and the loss of credibility of its leaders was so great that in the spring of 1989 they decided to share power and responsibility for the state with the opposition and agreed to almost entirely democratic elections. In these elections (held on 4 June 1989), they suffered a crushing defeat and the first non-communist government in the entire Soviet bloc was soon formed under the leadership of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The first foreign leader to visit the new Polish government was German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was a very special visit, as on its very first day, 9 November 1989, the infamous wall that had divided Berlin during the Cold War came down, marking the fall of the communist German Democratic Republic and opening up the prospect of German reunification. On 12 November 1989, during the remainder of Kohl’s visit to Poland, a ‘Reconciliation Mass’ took place in Krzyżowa in Silesia, where German opposition to Hitler had been active during the Second World War. During this political as well as religious ceremony, Polish Prime Minister Mazowiecki and the German Chancellor embraced each other, passing on the ‘sign of peace’ to each other. The news and photographs documenting this event became another symbol that spoke of progressive reconciliation.

As I mentioned, Poland had a positive attitude towards the expected German reunification. However, that process, according to the letter of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945, once again (this time for the last time) opened up the question of recognition of the Polish western border, which caused serious anxiety on the Polish side. This anxiety was not unfounded, as Chancellor Helmut Kohl, motivated by domestic political considerations, was for an exceptionally long time dragging his feet as regards deciding exactly how this recognition of the border with Poland was to take place. It was finally decided on 17 July 1990, during negotiations between the Foreign Ministers of the two German states, the four former occupying powers and the Polish Foreign Minister, who had been invited for this purpose.

The agreement on the definitive recognition of the German-Polish border itself was signed on 14 November 1990, and less than a year later a comprehensive agreement on good neighbourly and friendly cooperation between the two countries was concluded.

These pacts formed a very convenient basis for the development of cooperation. From the point of view of the reconciliation process between the two societies, the creation of a strong organisation called the German-Polish Youth Cooperation was of particular importance. Its task is to organise and co-finance exchanges of schoolchildren and university students, school partnerships, joint workshops, etc., all with the aim of getting the younger generation from both countries to know each other, which should then lead to their cooperation in adulthood as a matter of course. To date, more than three million participants have taken part in Youth Cooperation programmes. Thousands of city, municipal, county and regional partnerships were (and still are) established in the 1990s with a similar objective in mind. In the same period, the number of mixed German-Polish marriages skyrocketed and Polish women are still the most frequently married foreigners. In conclusion, one can venture to say that the 1990s saw a complete normalisation of German-Polish relations in the sphere of interpersonal and social relations, which can probably be described as reconciliation. And this state of affairs has proved to be permanent.

Harmonised with these overwhelmingly positive trends were the joint political actions of both countries. A strategic goal of Polish foreign policy, vigorously supported by Germany, was Poland’s membership of the European Union, opening up the fastest possible path to modernisation, as well as that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), giving the country the best possible guarantee of security. Both of these goals were also in the interest of a reunified Germany, if only because of the opening up of the Polish market and Germany’s participation in Poland’s modernisation. At the same time, after Poland’s entry into NATO in 1999, Germany ceased to be a frontline state and gained considerable strategic depth. Consequently, one began to speak of the 1990s as a period of Polish-German ‘community of interest’.

This period essentially came to an end at the beginning of the 2000s. Incidentally, already in 1994 the German political scientist and publicist working in Poland, Klaus Bachmann, described Polish-German relations as ‘kitschy reconciliation’. He argued that, in order to achieve primary political goals, both countries avoided debate on contentious and controversial issues, thus distorting the true picture of mutual relations. In 2002, the first major friction in Polish-German relations occurred on the occasion of the Polish army’s decision to purchase American F-16 fighter jets, rather than French or Swedish aircraft as the Germans had expected. At the same time, Poland and Germany took a completely different stance on the US-Iraq conflict and the Second Gulf War. Poland demonstrably supported Washington’s plans and later even took a large occupation zone in Iraq, while Germany, together with France, Russia and China, refused to participate in this war and support the Americans. This was the first time in history that the Federal Republic of Germany overtly countered its hitherto major ally. Meanwhile, the Poles watched with growing concern Germany’s security policy, which boiled down to a rapid reduction in the size of its army and military expenditure, and the policy of the European Union, which showed a tragic helplessness towards the war in the former Yugoslavia.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin had been president in Russia since 1999, and already the first years of his rule indicated that authoritarianism and imperial tendencies were gradually resurfacing in Russia, which in principle necessarily led Poland to seek a rapprochement with the strongest NATO state, i.e. the United States, as the only real ‘donor’ of security in this part of the world.

The author of this shift in German policy was, as is well known, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in power since 1998. He became an advocate of the notion that a partnership with Russia was of key importance to European security, and of the idea, shared with the French, of creating a ‘European power’ (Europäische Großmacht) as an independent player in world politics: independent and thus contesting the current position of the USA. One effect of Germany’s adoption of this vision of international relations was that it ignored warning signals concerning Russia and - above all - willingly joined in the construction of the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, which runs along the bottom of the Baltic Sea from Russia directly to Germany, thus bypassing all the countries lying between Russia and Germany. With Germany’s help, Russia gained the possibility to use gas blackmail against Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Germany, in turn, obtained large supplies of Russian natural gas at preferential prices. In Berlin, it was imagined that this would soon allow a profitable redistribution of this raw material in many European countries and, in addition, provide the German economy - already the strongest in Europe - with an additional competitive advantage, guaranteeing its position as an economic hegemon in the European Union. Germany has rejected all criticism of this pipeline, and has also torpedoed the idea of a European energy union, whereby the Union would buy gas for all its Member States and distribute it according to jointly accepted criteria.

As we know, Gerhard Schröder lost power in 2005 and, three weeks after leaving office as Chancellor, became Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Russian gas giant Gazprom. He thus discredited himself in the eyes of the public, but the German Government, led from then until last year by Angela Merkel, did not give up its strategic plan, supporting the construction of Nord Stream 2 after Nord Stream 1. Added to this was the plan pushed by Germany for the ecological transformation of the EU economy. This generally noble plan, however, assumed until this summer that natural gas would soon be the only accepted transition fuel in Europe until the ‘universal happiness’ of a carbon-free economy was achieved. Nuclear power was condemned in these plans, and the use of coal as a fuel and fracking of natural gas banned. In this way, the German-Russian gas plans gained even greater economic and strategic importance. It was not until Russia’s unlawful aggression against Ukraine in February this year and the cruel war that continues to this day that it became clear how misguided and dangerous these plans were for Germany itself and for Europe as a whole.

In the early 2000s, unexpectedly for the Poles, there was a tendency in Germany to highlight the German victims of the Second World War. This included the victims of Allied bombing in Germany and, for example, the victims of the Soviet army atrocities that occurred during the conquest of Germany. Most important, however, was the movement for the creation of the Centre against Expulsions, a modern memorial to the territories lost to Poland in eastern Germany, and above all to the hard and often tragic fate of the German population forcibly displaced from there. This was accompanied by demands for compensation to be paid to the displaced Germans and their descendants for property lost to Poland. It should be emphasised here that the forced migration of the German population after the Second World War was no taboo in either Germany or Poland up until that time. A great deal of research was done on the subject, including much conducted jointly by German and Polish historians, many books were published and several films made. However, from the 1960s onwards this subject was rarely present in the German cultural mainstream and it seemed that this aspect of the past was beginning to be treated in Germany as a closed page of history rather than something that could capture the memory and imagination of contemporary Germans.

Incidentally, Poland of the 1980s and 1990s also experienced a similar process of historicisation, symptomatic of which was a regression of interest in the history of the German occupation of Poland and the crimes committed at that time. Thus, the surprise of Polish politicians and public opinion at the change in German remembrance policy was great. In Poland, people began to suspect that - as it was said at the time - the Germans now wanted to rewrite the history of the Second World War. Meanwhile, the existing consensus between Poles and Germans on such elementary questions as who was to blame for the outbreak of war, who pursued a criminal and genocidal policy and towards whom, and who bore responsibility for it and why, was (and is) seen as the most important basis for reconciliation and good relations with Germany. Observing the developments at the time, many Poles thought that this whole mental and political construction would soon collapse. Even the first dangerous political moves were already made: when the German authorities gave preliminary support to the idea of building a Centre against Expulsions and did not distance themselves from demands for compensation for German property lost on Polish territories, the Polish Sejm passed a resolution in 2004 stating (truthfully) that Poland had not yet received reparations for the damage caused in Poland during the Second World War, and that the Parliament was therefore calling on the Polish Government to determine the amount of these losses.

This development, which threatened a serious crisis in mutual relations, alarmed people of goodwill in both countries, who managed to stop it. The German Government declared that it would never support private German demands for compensation against Poland and, moreover, did not allow the establishment of the Centre against Expulsions in the form initially planned. The institution documenting and commemorating the forced migration of Germans from Central and Eastern Europe was opened to the public in Berlin last year under a different name. The permanent exhibition presented there is very factual and objective in its content and does not reflect any accusations against Poland. In Berlin, there are plans to create a Memorial and Meeting Place for Poland, dedicated to the history of the German occupation in Poland.

In Poland, on the other hand, nothing has been done to impede the activities of the countless German-Polish NGOs, partnerships between towns and regions, joint scientific programmes and the like, which have mushroomed since 1989. They all form a highly resilient and durable tissue that cushions most of the negative impacts generated by current politics, eliminating, or at least delaying, their impact on public awareness. Consistent with this picture is the fact that the work on establishing the amount of reparations that Poland could demand from Germany took as long as eighteen years and ended with the publication of the first part of this document literally ten days ago, but it is not certain that the Polish side will ever use these findings to formally demand reparations from Germany. This does not change the fact that the temperature of Polish-German relations has dropped quite markedly after 2000 and both sides have had to abandon many exaggerated expectations of a reconciliation process that probably needs much more time than we expected.


[1] These words are an unambiguous reference to the sentence And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, found in the key prayer said by Christians, informally known as Our Father… .


photo: Andrzej Ślusarczyk - Template:Fundacja "Krzyżowa" dla Porozumienia Europejskiego

Photo of the publication Why should we remember August 23, 1939
Roger Moorhouse

Why should we remember August 23, 1939

23 August 2022
  • communism
  • World War II
  • Stalin
  • nazizm
  • Hitler
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Shortly after midnight, on the night of August 23, 1939, Joseph Stalin drank a toast to Adolf Hitler.  The occasion, of course, was the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact – or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the non-aggression treaty between Moscow and Berlin which gave a green light to Hitler’s aggression against Poland and so paved the way for the outbreak of World War Two in Europe.  It is a date which is seared into the memories of many millions of people in Poland, Finland Romania, and the Baltic States – or those whose origins lie there – yet its significance is still strangely unrecognized in the standard western narrative of the war.  

Our collective ignorance of the subject is surprising.  For many of us, World War Two has a prominence today which seems to grow, rather than diminish, with each passing year.  For some countries, it has passed from history into something like a national religion, as evidenced in the groaning bookshop shelves and repetitive television documentaries.  In history publishing, it has become commonplace for every campaign of the war, every catastrophe and curiosity, to be subjected to endless reinterpretations and re-assessments, resulting very often in competing schools of thought and competing historical volumes. 

Yet, for all that, the Nazi-Soviet Pact still barely features in the Western narrative; passed over often in a single paragraph, dismissed as an outlier, a dubious anomaly, or a footnote to the wider history.  Its significance is routinely reduced to the status of the last diplomatic chess move before the outbreak of war, with no mention made of the baleful Great Power relationship that it spawned.  It is instructive, for example, that few of the recent popular histories of World War Two published in Britain give the pact any significant attention.  It is not considered to warrant a chapter, and usually attracts little more than a paragraph or two and a handful of index references.

When one considers the pact’s obvious significance and magnitude, this is little short of astonishing.  Under its auspices, Hitler and Stalin – the two most infamous dictators of 20th Century Europe – found common cause in destroying Poland and overturning the Versailles order.  Their two regimes, whose later conflict would be the defining clash of World War Two in Europe, divided Central Europe between them and stood, side by side, for almost a third of the conflict’s entire timespan.

Neither was the pact an aberration: a momentary tactical slip. It was followed up by a succession of treaties and agreements, starting with the German-Soviet Border and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939, whereby Poland was divided between them and both sides vowed not to tolerate Polish “agitation” on their territory. Thereafter, across two expansive economic treaties, they traded secrets, blueprints, technology and raw materials, oiling the wheels of each other’s war machines. Stalin was no passive or unwilling neutral in this period, he was Adolf Hitler’s most significant strategic ally.

For all these reasons, the German-Soviet strategic relationship – born on 23 August 1939 – fully deserves to be an integral part of our collective narrative of the war.  But it isn’t.  It is worth speculating for a moment on the myriad reasons for this omission.  To some extent, it can be attributed to the traditional myopia that appears to afflict the Anglophone world with regard to Central Europe; the mentality so neatly expressed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who dismissed Czechoslovakia in 1938, as “a faraway country”, inhabited by “people of whom we know nothing”.  1938 is a long time ago, but to a large extent the sentiment still prevails, in spite of the recent outpouring of support for Ukraine.

In addition, there is also what one might call the “asymmetry of tolerance” in Western political discourse, in which the crimes of communism are more readily wished away or ignored than the crimes of fascism.  The logic underlying this is that the excesses of the left were somehow more noble in inspiration – motivated as they supposedly were by spurious notions of “equality” or “progress” – than the excesses of the right, which were motivated by base concepts of racial supremacy.  This serves, in part, to explain how the so-called Overton Window – the spectrum of acceptable political discourse – has shifted markedly leftward in recent years, and how Lenin and Che Guevara are still considered “edgy” on many university campuses.

There is also the problem of historiography.  The Western narrative of World War Two traditionally struggles to see past the villainy of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich; and the centrality of the Holocaust to that narrative only tends to cement that bias.  German historiography, too, is largely predicated upon the ‘original sin’ of Nazism, relegating all other sinners to the status of, at best, bit-part players.  The villainy of Stalin’s Soviet Union, therefore, remains largely overlooked; minimised and relativised, a footnote to the Western narrative, rather than a headline.

In such circumstances, Soviet and later Russian propaganda – which has sought to minimise and relativise the pact and its consequences – has been largely pushing at an open door.  Nonetheless, the Nazi-Soviet Pact has proved to be something of a touchstone, an obvious embarrassment to the Kremlin, which required more than the usual efforts at obfuscation, diversion and deflection.  The first blast in this offensive came shortly after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941, when Stalin – now desperately courting the Allies – sought to distance himself from the Pact by describing it as a last resort, something forced on an unwilling USSR by circumstances.  It is perhaps testament to the power of Stalin’s “useful idiots” in the West, that – more than eight decades on – this interpretation is still routinely heard. 

In 1948, the Soviet propaganda offensive was ramped up a notch.  In response to the publication of the text of the Secret Protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Pact by the US State Department, Stalin himself penned a counterblast entitled Falsifiers of History which – of course – declared the Secret Protocol to be a capitalist fake, and criticised Western perfidy for failing to halt Hitler in the first place.  He also floated a new interpretation of the Pact, seeking to justify it by painting it as a defensive masterstroke – a delaying of the inevitable rather than a cynical collaboration.

Soviet denial of the Secret Protocol – the most incriminating document from the negotiations surrounding the pact – would prove remarkably durable.  Towards the end of his life, in 1983, Vyacheslav Molotov was asked by a journalist about the existence of the Secret Protocol.  His reply was unequivocal.  The rumours about it were designed to damage the USSR, he said: “There was no Secret Protocol”.  Less than a decade later, in the face of widespread popular protests in the Baltic States, Gorbachev would publish the text of the document – signed by Molotov – from the Soviet archive.

In the years that followed, the brief flowering of Glasnost – or ‘openness’ – under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, would give way to a new culture of secrecy and dogged denials.  Archives, briefly opened to the world’s scholars, would be closed to all but the most loyal and dependable commentators.  The memory of World War Two would in time become one of the cornerstones of Putinism; a cult of maudlin manufactured remembrance that would increasingly take the place of the once promised prosperity and stability.

Under Putin, however, the narrative was not just a retread of the Soviet story of the war; the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for instance, was rebranded as a demonstration of the Kremlin’s strength, and an implicit warning to Russia’s neighbours.  When Moscow published a trove of archival documents relating to the pact, in 2019, the underlying message was clear: the same brutal logic that had motivated the pact – the logic of “spheres of influence” and of the Darwinian right of the strong to dictate to the weak – was once again enjoying currency in the Kremlin.   

In these circumstances – with a disinterested West and a mendacious, revanchist Russia – it is easy to see how any honest assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is very difficult to achieve.  Yet, honestly assess it we must, if for no other reason than for the sake of historical honesty and accuracy.  The Nazi-Soviet Pact is one of the most significant treaties of World War Two.  We forget the link, perhaps, but the pact led directly to the outbreak of war; isolating Poland between its two malevolent neighbours and scuppering the rather desultory efforts of the Western powers to thwart Hitler.

The Great Power relationship that the pact forged is similarly significant. The war that followed carried its malevolent stamp. Poland was invaded and divided between Moscow and Berlin.  Finland, too, was invaded by the Red Army and forced to cede territory. And, with Hitler’s connivance, the independent Baltic states were annexed by Stalin, as was the Romanian province of Bessarabia, their brave, dissenting populations doomed to be deported to the horrors of the gulag.  The Nazi-Soviet Pact is no parochial concern therefore, not a subject of purely local significance.  At a conservative estimate, it directly impacted the lives of some 50 million people.

So, it is clear then, that the Pact is something that needs to be commemorated and needs to be remembered.  In the main, it has fallen to those most directly affected to commemorate it.  In the late 1980s, Baltic and East European refugees from communism in the west established “Black Ribbon Day” – on 23 August – as a focus for anti-Soviet protests.  Soon after, in 1989, the inhabitants of the Baltic States protested against their annexation by the USSR – facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact – by the mass demonstration of the Baltic Way; a 2-million strong human chain that snaked for over 400 miles across the three republics on 23 August.

In 2009, such popular initiatives found an official echo with a resolution, presented to the European Parliament in Brussels, proposing that 23 August should henceforth be recognised as the “European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.”  It was passed with a few votes against from communist MEPs, one of whom described the juxtaposition of the Nazi and Soviet regimes as “indescribably vulgar”.

Russia, naturally, also cried foul, with then-president Dmitry Medvedev establishing in response the “Presidential Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History” – a deliberate echo of Stalin’s earlier attempt to stifle the truth of the pact.  According to the new decree, transgressors could be fined or imprisoned for 5 years for deviating from the new, strictly laudatory line on the Soviet performance in World War Two.  It was all rather reminiscent of the old Soviet joke: “the future is certain, it’s only the past that is unpredictable.”

Now, since 2014, the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS) – an international governmental initiative to promote the study of European 20th-century history – has taken up the challenge of commemorating the Nazi-Soviet Pact through its educational campaign, entitled “Remember: August 23”.  Its initiatives, which range from distributing pin badges to the production of short films to highlight the stories of some of the victims of the totalitarian regimes, are intended to disseminate knowledge, free of falsehood and disinformation, and provoke honest discussion.

Some might imagine that, with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine plunging the European continent once more into war, arguments about the finer points of 20th century history are somehow a luxury that can be ill-afforded.  I would argue the contrary, however.  Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of its neighbour is merely the latest instalment of a bloody continuum; a new offence in a catalogue of crimes – stretching back to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and beyond – which betray the mindset of suspicion, paranoia and naked aggression that has long guided the Kremlin’s world view.  Now is the time for the scales, finally, to fall from our eyes; for us to realise – in bloody technicolour – the true vicious nature of Europe’s neighbour to the east, and to redouble our efforts in studying and disseminating the darkest chapters of its history.  In that endeavour, August 23 can and must play a central, defining role.

Photo of the publication The Wannsee Conference
Roman Żuchowicz

The Wannsee Conference

20 January 2022
  • Holocaust
  • World War II
  • genocide
  • Wannsee Conference
  • Adolf Eichmann
  • Final Solution of the Jewish Question’

On 20 January 1942, several high-ranking dignitaries of the Third Reich met in a villa on Lake Wannsee. During the preceding weeks, the political situation in which the Nazi state found itself had clearly changed. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States. At the same time, the lack of success in the Battle of Moscow meant that the vision of a quick defeat of the Soviet Union had been dispelled. However, they did not gather to hear about the situation on the fronts. The new reality opened up the opportunity for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. The fate of European Jews, who were treated by Hitler as hostages, stopped being a potential bargaining pin preventing Americans to join war. Since it was obvious that the fighting in the East would not end soon, it was decided that the Final Solution should not be postponed until the defeat of Stalin. But what does the term exactly mean? Under this euphemistic term lay a crime unprecedented in the history of mankind: the will to bring about the systematic murder of the Jewish population in Europe.

Almost all copies of the minutes of the Vannsee Conference (the Wannsee Protocol) were destroyed by those in their possession. Consequently, our knowledge about the meeting would have been much poorer, had Robert Kempner not come across the only surviving copy in 1947. This German lawyer and fierce enemy of the Nazis was actively involved in the Nuremberg trials after the war. Kempner immediately noticed the extraordinary importance of the Protocol and thanks to his meticulous approach to the prosecution and a little luck, a shocking document related to a turning point in the history of the Holocaust is known today.

Despite the euphemisms used in the Wannsee Protocol, the picture of the meeting that emerges from the document is horrifying. The conference was opened by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office. He informed the audience that the aim of the meeting was to establish a common line of action regarding the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. At the same time, he stressed his key role in the implementation of the plans. On 31 July 1941, Herman Göring had already authorised him to take all necessary steps to this end. Over the course of six months, ideas concerning the involvement of specific Third Reich administrations changed, as did the aforementioned political situation, which slightly delayed the convening of the conference. In the end, Heydrich spoke to representatives of several ministries, offices and security police. Among those present were Wilhelm Stuckart, Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior, and Roland Freisler representing the Reich Ministry of Justice. The Nazi authorities in the occupied countries were represented by Hans Frank’s deputy, Josef Bühler, Secretary of State in the Government of the General Government and SS-Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange, Commandant of the Security Police and SD in Riga. Heydrich himself was, incidentally, at the same time Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The assembled listened to a summary of the existing policy towards the Jews and its limitations. In place of the forced emigration applied before, the concept of ‘evacuation to the East’ appeared. To illustrate the scale of the issue for the participants, data on the Jewish population in Europe were presented. Adolf Eichmann, Heydrich’s right hand man in the Final Solution, was responsible for compiling the data. After a lengthy enumeration, issues such as the organisation of ghettos for aging Jews and the fate of Jewish veterans who fought on the German side in the First World War were addressed. Later in the conference, Heydrich reminded the audience of who was a Jew under German law and presented a solution to the question of Mischlings (mixed-race people i.e. those with Jewish and non-Jewish ancestors). After a brief discussion, the meeting was closed, and the Chief of the Reich Security Main Office requested that the members of the meeting provide him with appropriate assistance in solving this ‘problem’.

In a meeting lasting barely an hour and a half, the fate of millions of people was sealed. But was the Wannsee Conference such a breakthrough? The German crimes against the Jews did not begin on 20 January 1942. However, it could be said that it was only from this date that ‘command genocide’ on an unprecedented scale began. The previous policy of forced emigration (practiced since the 1930s against German Jews) proved to be insufficient. In the political situation at the time, emigration to neutral countries was already on hold. In view of the size of the Jewish population in the territories occupied by the Third Reich, this solution could hardly have been considered feasible. Also unrealistic ware the ideas such as sending Jews to Madagascar. The only areas where they could be ‘evacuated’ were those captured by the Nazis in the east. Also, the policy of confining and slowly starving Jews in ghettos did not seem optimal. Starvation and labour were time-consuming. The racially obsessed Nazis also feared that by eliminating weaker individuals they would select the most resilient who could potentially revive the Jewish nation. The Wehrmacht’s war machine was followed by Einsatzgruppen units (full name ‘Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD’), which were to eliminate ideological and racial enemies in the rear of the army. However, the mass execution of civilians also had its drawbacks. It consumed time and valuable ammunition, and was a serious mental burden for most of the executioners. The Germans had been testing gas chambers for a long time. And it was this mean of mass executions that proved, with all other methods, to be the most desirable solution for the Nazis. They were faster, more efficient and allowed killing without direct contact between executioner and victims.

The Protocol of the Wannsee Conference contain a shocking sentence: ‘Europe is to be combed through from West to East in the course of the practical implementation of the Final Solution’. According to the list drawn up by Eichmann, and included on page six of the Protocol, the expected victims were to be more than eleven million. One cannot help but notice, however, that some of his calculations are rather peculiar. The list was divided into countries and territories A (basically under the direct control of the Reich) and B (allies, neutral countries, but also those with whom Germany was at war). Especially with regard to the latter, the somewhat naive approach and wishful thinking is glaring. It seems that Eichmann assumed that in the future it will be possible to ‘evacuate’ all of the European Jews, which would had been only possible with the final triumph of the Third Reich.

In compiling his list, Eichmann had at his disposal various data, not always reliable or up-to-date. For example, only two hundred people belonging to the Jewish community were attributed to Italian-occupied Albania, although the country had been a refuge for thousands of Jewish expats since the 1930s. These and other details somewhat contradict the notion of meticulous, bureaucratic precision of the Holocaust plans. Estonia stands out in particular on the list, being described as Judenfrei (i.e. free of Jews). The country’s pre-war Jewish population was not one of the most numerous, and the various repressions or displacements that befell this minority after the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union further depleted it. The intensified activities of the German occupying forces and their Estonian collaborators meant that as early as January 1942, the country could be proclaimed (although exaggeratedly) as the country in which the Jewish question had been finally resolved. Anyhow, only individual people survived the war.

The sixth page of the aforementioned Protocol has become one of the symbolic illustrations of the Holocaust because it shows like no other document the pan-European scale and the unprecedented nature of the Nazis’ murderous plan. In 2022, on the 80th anniversary of the infamous conference, the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (enrs.eu) and the Wannsee Conference House (ghwk.de) with the support of an international group of historians, have created an interactive website with infographics describing the history and contents of the sixth page of the Protocol. The infographics is available here: www.ghwk.de/statisticsandcatastrophe.

The aim of the project, called ‘Statistics and Catastrophe. Questioning Eichmann’s Numbers’, is to critically analyse the list, the statistics presented by Eichmann, and to show what tragedy is hidden in this bureaucratic document. The biographies of the victims are also an important part of the infographic – it is the victims of the Holocaust that we first and foremost need to remember about on the 80th anniversary of the Conference. Only a week later, on 27 January, there is another symbolic anniversary: the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which is commemorated as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

transl. Mikołaj Sekrecki

Photo of the publication The Katyn Massacre
Wojciech Materski

The Katyn Massacre

03 April 2020
  • Katyn
  • zbrodnia katyńska
  • katyn massacre

On the seventeenth day of the Polish-German war in September 1939, as Poland was mounting stiff resistance against the invading German troops, it was attacked from the rear by the Red Army. This was a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on 23 August 1939 under which the Republic of Poland was to be partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets captured a large number of Polish prisoners of war (POWs), estimated at 240,000, including some 10,000 officers.(1) They were put at the disposal of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in flagrant violation of the laws and customs of armed conflicts whereby the lives and health of enemy combatants were the sole responsibility of the government and military command of the state that held them captive.

The situation presented the Soviets with an enormous organisational problem of what to do with such a mass of people in the absence of the most rudimentary conditions to house them (lodging, food). It was decided that some of the prisoners – mainly privates from the seized eastern Polish provinces referred to by the Soviet authorities as Western Belarus and Western Ukraine – would be released, 25,000 of their number being kept as forced labour. Over 42,000 privates from the areas that had not been annexed by the USSR were handed over to the Germans. As regards officers, policemen and some civilians, they were isolated in three special NKVD camps in Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk. Of the three, the Ostashkov camp, where policemen were sent, was the biggest, numbering about 6,000 prisoners. Around 4,500 prisoners were held in Kozelsk and some 4,000 in Starobelsk.(2)

Conditions in the camps where rough. Prisoners were housed in extremely crowded rooms most of which were utterly unfit to be inhabited. Food was in drastically short supply and healthcare usually provided by fellow inmates who were doctors. Soldiers and policemen interned in September had to weather the harsh winter of 1939/1940 in their summer uniforms. POWs were put under constant surveillance, interrogated about their ‘hostile activities against the working classes in Poland of the masters’ and subjected to intensive ideological indoctrination in a primitive communist fashion. These efforts yielded very poor results as we can learn from internal NKVD reports.

The fate of the thousands of Polish POWs as well as those Polish citizens – some of whom were also military men – imprisoned in ‘Western Belarus’ and ‘Western Ukraine’ was debated during high-level meetings in Moscow. At the request of Beria, on 5 March 1940, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), the highest decision-making body in the Soviet party-state, agreed to murder ‘14,700 people held captive in prisoner-of-war camps: former Polish officers, civil servants, landowners, policemen, intelligence agents, gendarmes, settlers and prison guards’ and ‘11,000 people held in prisons in the western provinces of Ukraine and Belarus: members of various counter-revolutionary organisations, former landowners, factory owners, former Polish officers, civil servants and fugitives.’(3) The 11,000 prisoners mentioned in Beria’s request and then later in the decision taken by the Political Bureau turned out to be overestimated. Eventually, the Katyn Massacre, which involved several locations beside the Katyn Forest, probably claimed the lives of 21,857 people, including 7,305 prison inmates. The genocidal decree of the Political Bureau followed the logic of other mass crimes perpetrated by the communist system, such as the ‘Polish operation’ of the NKVD in 1937-1938 when at least 110,000 Polish Soviet citizens were murdered.(4)

A special body of the NKVD – the Special Council (Osoboje Sowieszczanije) – was set up to manage the organisation of the genocide and ensure that, in spite of its enormous scale, it remained hidden from the public both home and abroad. Groups of henchmen, who were professional executioners, were recruited to murder captive soldiers and prisoners in facilities that belonged to the Regional Branches of the NKVD and other places prepared for that purpose.

The Special Council divided soldiers and prisoners into batches of about 100 people, drawing up what is known in historiography as ‘death lists’. It was on the basis of those lists that camp commanders would hand over a batch of POWs to NKVD Convoy Troops to be transported to internal prisons of designated Regional Branches of the NKVD accompanied by an order for the prison commanders to murder all the people on the list. As Russia has not yet released all supporting documents, we may only surmise that a similar procedure was followed in the case of prison inmates whose death transports were part of the same schedule as those of POWs.

POWs from Starobelsk were murdered in the Regional Branch of the NKVD in Kharkov and buried in mass graves in the ‘park zone’ outside the city. Those from Ostashkov were murdered in Kalinin (previously, and today, known as Tver) and buried in nearby Mednoye. POWs from Kozelsk were murdered over death pits in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.

So far, it has not been possible to establish the location of the murder and burial sites of over 7,300 prisoners. Those from the still missing Belarusian list most probably lie buried in Kurapaty near Minsk whilst those from the already declassified Ukrainian list are buried in different locations of which we only know Bykivnia near Kiev (currently a district of the city).

The murder was kept secret until the spring of 1943. On 13 April, Radio Berlin broadcast a message announcing the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk with the bodies of murdered Polish officers. Moscow immediately accused Germany of the crime.

Soviet efforts to blame the Katyn Massacre on the Germans were scuppered during the Nuremberg Trials. Nonetheless, what is known as ‘Katyn denial’ persisted for dozens of years to come and any attempts to challenge it were met with knee-jerk diplomatic protests from the USSR. Such was the case with the report drafted by the US Congress Select Committee chaired by Senator Ray Madden, official publications devoted to the subject or the first monuments commemorating the victims.

In Poland, even though the communist government spread lies about the perpetration of the crime for decades, the truth about the massacre was common knowledge among members of the general public. This was evident during the first wave of Solidarity protests when the topic came to the fore in the form of openly organised lectures and artistic events, samizdat publications, many small objects commemorating the massacre (e.g. badges, key fobs, pins), clandestine postage stamps or the Katyn Cross at the Powązki Military Cemetery. Despite the limited scope of samizdat publishing, the theme of the Katyn Massacre entered Polish culture, becoming a source of inspiration for writers and poets (e.g. Zbigniew Herbert, Włodzimierz Odojewski).

The introduction of martial law did little to stop popular calls to disclose the true nature of the Katyn Massacre. The government of the Polish People’s Republic was finally forced to bow to the pressure and initiate a dialogue with the Soviets about the ‘blank spots’ in this history of the two countries. However, it was only in the late 1980s, when perestroika and glastnost were launched, that the string of Katyn lies could be broken at long last. The final step was taken in April 1990 as the Soviets officially acknowledged that the crime of genocide against Polish POWs and prison inmates was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.(5)

Even though the responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was officially admitted, the fact has been virtually absent first in the Soviet and then Russian memory politics. The reason is that it does not fit in the myth of the great victory in the Second World War and the self-sacrificing struggle to save the world from fascism – just like Hitler and Stalin’s collusion in 1939, mass deportations, the enslavement of the Baltic states or the huge scale of marauding in the Red Army in 1944–1945. The tendency is well-illustrated by a judgement of Russia’s Supreme Military Prosecution Office declaring the Katyn Massacre a common crime falling under the statute of limitations.

In other countries, however, knowledge about Katyn is more or less common, in large measure thanks to the declassification of documents kept in British and American archives, but above all the widely distributed film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda and the growing number of monuments commemorating the victims of the genocide.

1. S. Ciesielski, W. Materski, A. Paczkowski, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw 2002, p. 7.

2.For information about the life in the camps and their criminal liquidation supported by extensive documents, see Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 1: Jeńcy nie wypowiedzianej wojny, Warsaw 1995; Vol. 2: Zagłada, Warsaw 1998.

3.Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 1, doc. 217, p. 476.

4. For extensive information about the topic, see: T. Sommer, Operacja antypolska NKWD. Geneza i przebieg ludobójstwa popełnionego na Polakach w Związku Sowieckim, Warsaw 2014.

5. Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 4: Echa Katynia, Warsaw 2006, doc. 123, p. 506.

Photo of the publication Spanish controversies related to memory
Maria Josepa Cusidó

Spanish controversies related to memory

29 January 2020
  • democracy
  • Spain
  • La Transición

“Good morning democracy”– read the headlines of Spanish newspapers on 7 December 1978[1], as the country ratified a democratic constitution in a referendum the day before, after 40 years of dictatorial rule. Three weeks later, King Juan Carlos I approved the document, making Spain a constitutional monarchy. This marked the culmination of La Transición, the Spanish transition to democracy. But while the changes of the legislative framework might have been concluded, the process of coming to terms with the country’s turbulent past continues up to this day.

La Transición started with the death of the dictator Francisco Franco on 20 November 1975 and the accession of King Juan Carlos I – the grandson of Spain’s most recent monarch – who was designated by Franco as his official successor. The king supported a peaceful transition to democracy within the legal framework of Francoism. All the following political reforms were managed from the inside, by the King as well as other politicians such as Adolfo Suárez González, a former Francoist minister and later the leader of the Union of the Democratic Centre party (Unión de Centro Democrático – UCD) who served as a prime minister first appointed by the monarch and then elected in the general elections.

The political reforms did not abolish the Francoist regime with a break and completely new beginning, but rather gradually transformed relevant institutions and legislations to achieve a democratic system. The changes included introduction of universal suffrage and a two chamber parliamentary system, legalization of political parties and trade unions, as well as the repeal of the Francoist Public Order Court, which used to deal with political crimes.

La Transición was a complex process that was constantly threatened by extremism of the far-right, the far-left and the Nationalist groups. A total of 591 people were killed as a result of political violence between 1975 and 1983[2]. Another proof of how tense the political situation was is the failed military coup of 23 February 1981, when the inauguration of a newly elected government was interrupted and the deputies were held captive for 18 hours.

Taking these circumstances into account, La Transición is rightly portrayed as an extraordinary achievement by the Spanish society. However, one aspect of the democratization process remains a contentious matter – the so-called Pact of Forgetting (Pacto del olvido), an agreement of the Spanish parties from across the political spectrum to avoid dealing with any settlement for past wrongs of the Francoism era. Hence, the Amnesty Law which was promulgated by the Spanish Parliament in 1977. The legislation guaranteed freedom to political prisoners and allowed Spaniards on exile to return to the country, but at the same time assured impunity for those who committed crimes during the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship[3].

The law is still in force and has been used several times to evade investigations or attempts to prosecute those who violated human rights before 1975[4]. Although it has been harshly criticized not only by many Spanish civic and remembrance organizations, but also by the United Nations[5] and Amnesty International[6], either its repeal or any amendments have always been blocked by the extensive majority of the Spanish Parliament[7].

In order to give an alternative to this “forced forgetting”, the Historical Memory Program was passed by the Spanish Parliament under the government of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE) in 2007. The legislation was supposed to provide, among others, recognition of the victims of violence on both sides; condemnation of the dictatorship; prohibition of political events at the Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los caídos – mausoleum where Franco used to be buried); removal of the Francoist symbols from the public sphere; state support in tracing, identification and exhumation of the victims of the repression; improvement of economic compensation and pensions for the victims of the Civil War and Franco regime, as well as grants aimed at the recovery of collective memory and moral recognition of the victims[8].

One of the main goals of the program was to support the exhumation of at least 114 000 victims buried in approx. 2000 Spanish mass graves[9]. However, the budget for the implementation of the legislation was reduced to the point of its suppression under the government of the conservative Popular Party (Partido Popular – PP) in 2013[10]. This constrained the exhumation works to the ones carried out by civil organisations such as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica – ARMH).

Year 2019, however, did witness what may become a turning point in Spanish historical politics. Nearly four and a half decades after Franco was laid to rest in a monumental mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, his body was exhumed and moved to a family cemetery. This came after a heated public debate and months of appeals and legal proceedings, following the decision to rebury the dictator’s remains which was passed by the Parliament in September 2018[11].

The Valley of the Fallen, located about 60km from Madrid, consists of a group of different buildings such as an abbey, a choir school, a hostelry and the cemetery, all of which were built during the dictatorship in order to honour “the Fallen” – the Nationalists who “fell for God and for Spain” (one of the most popular mottos during Francoism). However, after the site had been built it turned out that the families of most Nationalists did not want to have the bodies of their relatives moved there. Relatively few agreed. Instead, to fill the mausoleum up, remains of Republicans were unearthed from mass graves and reburied without their relatives’ knowledge nor consent. This means that for 44 years, Franco lied next to those killed on his order or under his rule. To make matters even more controversial, there is still no information in situ neither about the Civil War nor the dictatorship. Thus, the site can still be interpreted as a place that commemorates and honours the Franco regime – as was its intended purpose – instead of being presented as a multifaceted memory site.

For a long time, reflective remembrance in Spain to some politicians and parts of the society constituted a “nonsense”, as one should not “open wounds from the past”[12]. But 40 years after the La Transición, with a mature democracy in place, the Spanish society seems to start to rethink the choices that have been taken when it comes to memory and reconciliation.

Author: Maria Josepa Cusidó



[1] BBC home: 1978: Spain set to vote for democracy. URL:news.bbc.com

[2] Torrús, Alejandro: La Transición, un cuento de hadas con 591 muertos. Público, 2013. URL:publico.es

[3] RTVE /EFE: La Ley de Amnistía cumple 40 años sin acallar a quienes piden que se derogue o modifique. Radio televisión Española/ Agencia EFE, 2017. URL:rtve.es

[4] Público: La Fiscalía pide suspender las declaraciones de los 19 franquistas apelando otra vez a la ley de Amnistía. Público, 2016.

[5] Reuters: U.N. tells Spain to revoke Franco-era amnesty law. Reuters Agency, 2013. URL: reuters.com

[6] Amnistía International: Ley de Amnistía 1977: Una excusa que dura 40 años, 2017. URL: es.amnesty.org

[7] La Vanguardia/ Europa Press: PP, PSOE y Cs rechazan reformar la ley de Amnistía y dicen que su cambio no serviría para juzgar a franquistas. La Vanguardia/ Europa Press Agency, 2018. URL: lavanguardia.com

[8] Spanish Government Official Site: Memoria histórica. URL: memoriahistorica.gob.es

[9] Spanish Government Official Site: Mapa de fosas. URL:memoriahistorica.gob.es

[10] Baquero, Juan Miguel: Rajoy repite con la Memoria Histórica: cero euros y olvido a las víctimas del franquismo. Eldiario.es, 2018. URL:eldiario.es

[11] Taladrid, Stephania: Franco’s body is exhumed, as Spain struggles to confront the past. Newyorker.com, 2019. URL: newyorker.com

[12] El País/ Agencias: Rajoy: "Abrir heridas del pasado no conduce a nada". El País/ Agencias, 2008. ULR: elpais.com

Photo of the publication The Causes and Circumstances of the Outbreak of the Second World War
Jan Rydel

The Causes and Circumstances of the Outbreak of the Second World War

07 January 2020
  • Ribbentrop and Molotov pact
  • Stalin
  • Second World War
  • Hitler
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
  • Soviet Union

The order set by the Treaty of Versailles that shaped interwar Europe and sanctioned the appearance of myriad independent states in East-Central Europe had a number of weaknesses, the key one being the absence of two large continental powers Germany and Russia while it was being decided. As regards the former, the public in the countries of the Entente affected by population losses and destruction as well as exhausted by a war of several years was so much reluctant towards Germany that it was plain impossible to treat it as a partner during the Paris peace conference. At the time of the event, Russia was experiencing a hard-thought civil war between Bolsheviks and representatives of the ancien regime, whose resolution was nowhere to be seen, and as a result – despite attempts at mediation – it proved futile to determine which party to the conflict should represent the country. Given the terms of peace dictated to Germany and isolation to surround victorious Soviet Russia, both powers rejected the Versailles system and sought its revision. That general attitude brought them closer and in 1922 they concluded an accord in Rapallo that formed the basis for their friendly political relations, intensive economic and military cooperation in the area of technology and the arms industry, as well as training.

In 1925, Germany signed treaties in Locarno with France, Belgium, Great Britain and Italy that guaranteed its western border as laid down in the Treaty of Versailles. However, it refused to sign a similar treaty with Poland and Czechoslovakia, which caused much concern in those countries, both because of the unambiguous though indirect threat issued by Germany and the stance taken by France, which by accepting that and not some other arrangement put into question its own loyalty towards Poland and Czechoslovakia. After Locarno, thanks to support of France and Great Britain, Germany joined the League of Nations and even received the status of a permanent member of its Council, the equivalent of today’s UN Security Council. That meant that Germany’s isolation was over and the country had become a member of the international community in its own right. Symbolic of those changes was the Nobel Peace Prize received by the German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann. As the new German policy caused concern in Moscow as regards future cooperation, the partnership between Germany and the Soviet Union was reinforced by a friendship accord concluded in Berlin in 1926 and extended in 1931.

At the turn of the 1920s and the 1930s, the Soviet Union took steps in order to ensure the country’s full participation in international relations and was an active and constructive participant in negotiations on the international Kellog-Briand Pact assuming renunciation of war as a tool of international policy (Treaty for Renunciation of War). Before that pact entered into force in February 1929, the ‘Litvinov Protocol’ was signed in Moscow where the USSR and its western neighbours, including Poland, decided that the provisions of the Kellog-Briand Pact would come into force even before its formal ratification. The Protocol paved the way towards intensification of Polish-Soviet relations, which resulted in the signing of a non-aggression pact between Poland and the USSR on 25 July 1932. It was a highly precise document which foresaw that the parties to it were also to treat as aggression: any act of violence that affects the integrity and inviolability of the territory or political independence of the other Contracting Party, even if such actions are not accompanied by a declaration of war and its all possible manifestations.

At the time of the Polish-Soviet rapprochement, Europe was experiencing growing tensions related to the successes of Adolf Hitler’s party heading for power in the German Reich. It was particularly strong in Polish-German relations, which is why Polish diplomats discreetly probed the French ally on several occasions, trying to establish how strong France’s response would be in the case of an armed conflict with Germany. The last such probe took place after Germany’s leaving the League of Nations on 14 October 1933. As all the attempts rendered negative results, the value of the alliance with France seen from the Polish perspective was significantly reduced. In the circumstances, the Polish envoy in Berlin Józef Lipski asked Adolf Hitler whether Germany took into consideration compensating Poland for its decreased sense of security as the former had left the League of Nations. That opened the way for the signing, on 26 January 1933 after intensive and secret negotiations, of a Declaration between Poland and Germany on non-application of violence. The European public was much surprised by the document since the Polish-German antagonism was considered insurmountable. Consequently, it was suspected that apart from the publicly known text of the declaration some secret convent was made under which Poland was joining the German side, which was not true, and – what is more – the declaration did contain a statement that its signing did not have any impact whatsoever on the legality of previous treaties and commitments made by the parties to it. To appease the Soviets, who also had concerns as to the true meaning of the Polish-German declaration, Poland concluded an agreement with them already in 1934 concerning the extension of the non-aggression pact until as late as 1945.

At that time, Polish politicians became convinced that the alliance with France – given its passive and submissive stance – might not continue to be the only pillar of the Polish security policy. Also, Poland had never harboured any illusions as to the ability of the League of Nations to ensure peace in Europe. Similarly sceptical was Poland’s attitude to the French-promoted attempts to set up a collective security system in East-Central Europe with an instrumental participation of the USSR, their obvious and direct result being ceding hegemony in this part of the continent to the Soviets. For that reason Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s de facto political leader, championed the notion that Warsaw needed to keep an even distance between Berlin and Moscow, as exemplified by somewhat symmetrical agreements concluded in 1932 and 1934, respectively. Soon to pass away, Piłsudski was at the same time issuing the warning that such a balance around Poland would not last for more than four years.

Thanks to the signing of the declaration, the relations between Poland and Germany improved very soon. Germany ended a customs war with Poland dating back to the time of the Weimar Republic and both sides adopted a milder attitude as regards their respective national minorities as well as softened virulent press propaganda. Some contacts were also established in the field of culture and high-level visits became relatively frequent. The initiative concerning closer ties came mostly from Germany, hoping to win Poland as an ally against the USSR. Yet it was a wrong calculation. Germany did not recognise the border with Poland, which for the latter was a sine qua non condition for any possible further rapprochement. No open or secret Polish-German political or military alliance took place. Poland – despite incentives – did not join the Anti-Comintern Pact, a loose grouping of countries allied with the Third Reich. Poland did not plan making any territorial gains in cooperation with Germany. The circle of Piłsudski’s supporters in power in Poland (known as the Sanation) did not support national socialism, and there were hardly any supporters of that movement among members of the opposition. Last but not least, there were also no cooperation between Poland and Germany as regards discrimination of Jews.

At first, the course of events in Europe confirmed that Piłsudski’s predictions were correct. In March 1935, Germany announced that it would not respect the arms restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. That step did not meet with any de facto response from France while Great Britain concluded a naval pact with Germany that sanctioned a considerable extension of the German navy. A year later, on 7 March 1936, German troops entered the Rhineland in a blatant violation of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. In the circumstances, Poland ensured France yet again of its readiness to meet its obligations stemming from their alliance in case of a conflict with Germany. However, neither France nor any of western countries, or the League of Nations, did anything more than issue purely verbal protests. Still, after long negotiations, on 6 September 1936 France granted Poland a large loan for modernisation of its armed forces, a proof that, although weakened, the Polish-French Alliance continued to be in force.

In May 1935, France and the USSR as well as Czechoslovakia and the USSR entered into bilateral agreements on mutual assistance in case of a German invasion. The Soviet-Czechoslovak accord was to become operational only under the condition that France offer military support to Czechoslovakia first (casus foederis). Looking good on paper, the agreements in question were de facto dead politically, inter alia because no serious attempt was made to agree with Poland how the Soviet Union sharing no border with Germany or Czechoslovakia was supposed to render military assistance to its new partners.

Poland’s political standing began to change radically when in 1938 Germany triggered the implementation of its expansive agenda and annexed Austria (12–13 March 1938), took control of Klaipeda at the expense of Lithuania (23 March 1938) and, in particular, partitioned Czechoslovakia. During a conference in Munich (29–30 September 1938), Czechoslovakia, although the most loyal ally of France, was pressed by its allies and agreed to cede to Germany a vast borderland known as the Sudetenland important in economic and strategic terms. Although no party to the conflict or participant of the Munich conference, Poland nevertheless forced crisis-ridden Czechoslovakia to cede Zaolzie (lands beyond the Olza River) to it. The contentious area populated mostly by Poles had been stealthily attacked and seized by Czechoslovak troops in 1920 when the Bolshevik army was poised for attack near Warsaw. Even if the taking control of Zaolzie by Polish troops on 2 October 1938 was much justified and the entire operation did not result from any arrangements with Germany, the impression it made in Europe was that Poland collaborated with Hitler.

On 24 October 1938, the Polish envoy in Berlin Józef Lipski received a list of demands from the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop intended as the basis for a new general arrangement of mutual relations between both countries. The German demands included the incorporation of the Free City of Gdańsk to the German Reich, the construction of an extraterritorial motorway and a railway link between East Prussia and the rest of the Reich, Poland’s joining the Anti-Comintern Pact as well as permanent political consultations between Poland and Germany. The objective behind the demands, extraordinarily moderate according to the Germans, was to force Poland to decide whether it supported Germany or not. Polish diplomats were greatly surprised by the German demands. For its part, Germany was astonished by Poland’s veiled and then unambiguous refusal to accept them as its conclusion was that such a step would turn the country into a German fiefdom while the Polish Government treated Poland’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as inalienable. When interned in Romania in 1940, the Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck did not mince words about the consequences of Poland’s hypothetical agreement: We would have conquered Russia together with Germany and then we would have been grazing cows for Hitler in the Ural.1 The resolution of that stage of the Polish-German dispute came as a result of the German seizure of territorially reduced Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, with the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia established in Czechia and Slovakia becoming an independent state ‘under the care of the German Reich’. That move meant a violation of the relatively fresh Munich agreement as well as a crude exposure of the British and French appeasement policy, which both powers could not stomach any more. Responding, Great Britain decided to give Poland assurances on 31 March 1939, the basis for the British-Polish alliance. Conditioning its own policy towards Germany on Great Britain at that time, France also renewed its alliance with Poland. In response, on 28 April Adolf Hitler renounced the non-aggression pact with Poland as well as the naval accord with Great Britain. On 5 May 1939, Józef Beck delivered his great speech at the Sejm rejecting the German demands. It was clear that Poland and Germany were on a collision course now.

The events in Europe were closely followed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet diplomats. They were aware of their comfortable position as they could choose which side of the escalating conflict to support and which one would assure them more benefits. Since April, talks had been going on in Moscow with representatives of Great Britain and France yet no progress was being made as both countries treated them mainly as a kind of demonstration targeting Germany. In actual fact, Stalin had already decided to change the paradigm of the Soviet foreign policy, i.e. initiate cooperation with Hitler. The obstacle was the Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov, a son and brother of rabbis from Białystok born as Meir Wallach, distinguishing himself as a staunch enemy of Nazism and a passionate champion of bringing the USSR closer to western democracies. Already on 15 April 1939 during a sitting of the Politburo of the Bolshevik Party, Stalin rejected Litvinov arguments for an alliance with Great Britain and France. On 3 May 1939, Litvinov was formally dismissed and a purge took place among Soviet diplomats of Jewish origin. Litvinov was now replaced by Stalin’s blind follower, the cynical chair of the Council of People’s Commissars (equivalent of a Prime Minister) Vyacheslav Molotov. Talks went full steam ahead in the last days of July 1939. First, an extensive economic agreement was negotiated, providing for, inter alia, large supplies of Soviet raw materials to Germany. Following that success, the parties agreed to enter into political talks. Joachim von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, and in the night from 23 to 24 August he negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Soviet partners. A more important and sensational part of the agreement was laid down in a secret protocol. It provided for a division of East-Central Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, the sphere of influence of the latter including Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia in Romania. As regards Poland, the Soviet Union additionally committed to invade it and occupy its eastern part up to the line marked by the rivers Narew, Vistula and San.

Thanks to the conscious action of an opposition-minded diplomat from the German embassy in Moscow, the content of the secret protocol was transmitted without delay to US, Italian and French diplomats. The British also had incomplete knowledge about it and it was they that passed on a veiled warning to the Polish ambassador Edward Raczyński who sent it to Warsaw. Unfortunately, Polish authorities at that time had an entirely false image of the Soviets and their politics. Polish intelligence in the USSR ‘got blind’ as a result of the ‘great purges’ of 1937–1938, and minister Beck was most probably surrounded by Soviet agents of influence. As a result, he was not aware of the Kremlin’s changed course towards Germany and he also thought that after Stalin’s great purges the Soviet Union and the Red Army were seriously weakened and de facto unable to launch any large-scale operations. Consequently, he failed to grasp how precarious Poland’s position had become. His optimism was reinforced by the signing of a military alliance with Great Britain on 25 August 1939.

Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. On 3 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, which meant that one objective of the Polish foreign policy had been reached, that of not reducing the Polish-German war to a local conflict. Now, in compliance with the military agreements in force, the fighting Poles expected the allies to launch full-scale military operations within 15–16 days. Unfortunately, the allied commands concluded already on 4 September that they would not be able to effectively help Poland and that they would limit themselves to military demonstrations against Germany, focusing on preparations for future military action. That decision was finally confirmed by a conference of French and British Prime Ministers accompanied by highest-ranking commanders taking place in Abbeville on 12 September 1939. Those arrangements were not transmitted to Poland as that could have broken its spirit of resistance. It is known now, however, that the arrangements made in Abbeville were known to Soviet intelligence in no time at all. In that way, the Soviets were assured that the campaign mounted by Poland was doomed and they could safely hit the country from the east. In the morning of 17 September 1939, the Polish ambassador in Moscow Wacław Grzybowski was summoned to appear at the Foreign Affairs Commissariat where a note was read out to him saying that as the Polish state had ceased to exist, the non-aggression pact was not valid anymore and the Soviet army was entering Polish territory in order to protect the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. The Soviet note was based on a blatant lie as at the time of the Soviet invasion still around a half of Poland’s territory, including important administrative centres, was not occupied by the Germans and the Polish Government and chief command were present in Poland preparing the defence of the south-eastern part of the country (known as the Romanian Bridgehead). Despite Soviet assurances that the USSR was not involved in a war with Poland, bloody fights were taking place along the entire border, in some locations lasting until the first days of October 1939. The ‘Polesie’ Operational Group led by Gen. Franciszek Kleeberg fighting with Germans and Soviets capitulated on 6 October 1939. The German-Soviet brotherhood in arms was symbolically sealed by a joint victory parade in Brest-Litovsk received by Generals Heinz Guderian and Semyon Krivoshein. It took place as early as 22 September 1939.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Stalin-Hitler Pact, paved the way for the latter’s attack on Poland, as it gave him certainty that no real help from the outside would reach Polish territory in the decisive weeks of the campaign. Further, the pact guaranteed Hitler that, not threatened from the east, he would be able to de facto conquer or control the entire continental Europe, install his occupation regimes throughout it and execute the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. Managed from Moscow, the Comintern ordered communist parties across the world to stop anti-fascist propaganda and change entirely the course towards Germany, now together with the Soviet Union making a ‘camp of global peace’. The Polish state authorities – both when still in the country and later when in accordance with the Polish constitution they began to operate in exile, still enjoying full international recognition – on numerous occasions confirmed a state of war with the Soviet Union. However, they did not make a formal proclamation of a state of war with that state as its allies France and Great Britain remained neutral towards the USSR. Finland’s case was different as on 30 November 1939 it – a part of the Soviet sphere of influence specified in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – was attacked by the USSR and duly protested at the League of Nations, which after considering the complaint on 14 December 1939 stripped the USSR of its membership as an aggressor and called on its member states to aid Finland. In summary, it can be concluded that despite preliminary losses and obstacles, Germany and the Soviet Union in the interwar period became respected members of the international community in their own right yet as totalitarian regimes they betrayed that status by unleashing the most dreadful of wars inflicted on the human race to date.

JAN RYDEL is a historian and his research areas are Central and Eastern Europe and Polish-German relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is the author of ‘Politics of History in Federal Republic of Germany. Legacy – Ideas – Practice’ (2011) and ‘Polish Occupation of North Western Germany. 1945–1948. An Unknown Chapter in Polish- German Relations’ (2000, German edition 2003). Until 2010 he was a researcher and a professor at Jagiellonian University and is currently a professor at the Pedagogical University of Cracow.


1. Cited after Marek Kornat, ‘Idee i podstawy polityki zagranicznej II Rzeczypospolitej’, in: Marek Kornat, Wojciech Materski, Między pokojem a wojną. Szkice o dyplomacji polskiej, Warsaw 2015, p. 30

Photo of the publication History of Constructing Local Identity: the Case of Skalica (Slovak Town)
Petra Chovancová

History of Constructing Local Identity: the Case of Skalica (Slovak Town)

03 January 2020
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Czechoslovak Republic
  • Identities
  • oral history
  • borderland
  • history from below
  • Skalica


The paper is a contribution on cultural identity, particularly in terms of local and border identity. The author presents and describes the Slovak town of Skalica situated in West Slovakia close to the Czech border. The text is based on oral history interviews with four citizens of Skalica, conducted in the context of the European Network and Remembrance’s project In Between? in July 2019. The author is interested in the ‘history from below’ capturing local and border identity among Skalica’s inhabitants. The text explores some features of the process of constructing the identity connected to a specific place.


In this paper, I am concerned with cultural identity, and more specifically local identity in a small Slovak town named Skalica.

The notion of local history and its connection with constructing local identity is part of contemporary academic discussions as well as public discourse. I would like to present the history of a small Slovak town Skalica and its cultural identity through its strong local identity formed by its vicinity to the Czech border. Introducing the history of this town from two aspects of history research (history from below and history recorded in official documents) could describe unique features of this border area. The ’history from below‘ section was completed by conducting oral history research in the summer of 2018 as part of the In between? project of the ENRS. Oral history is a suitable method for mapping people’s local identities in different geographical, social and political settings.

’History from below‘ recorded with Skalica inhabitants and compared with official documents, historical sources and other texts would provide the basis of the prospect to see how local identity was shaped by history, myths and self-image of inhabitants of Skalica. Watching that town over history makes us see it in the context of a borderland. The border has been always present during its existence; sometimes a real political frontier between two states or kingdoms, and sometimes just as an imaginary line between two nations. It is precisely this change from an imaginary to real political border that is present in the short-time collective memory of the people of Skalica. The town played a key role during the establishment of the so-called first Czechoslovakia in 1918. Several significant individuals had links with this town, for example Dr Pavol Blaho who was representing the idea of Czechoslovakia as well as the architect Dušan S. Jurkovič who designed several buildings in Skalica. And it was also the town where the first Slovak government settled for two weeks in 1918.

These crucial political changes of the early 20th century turned out to be very important for the local identity of the inhabitants of Skalica, especially in the context of later political changes at the end of the 20th century when the Czechoslovak Republic split into two separate states. In my paper, I would like to further analyse how this direction of the historical process has generated and influenced local identity. Building on this direction of analysis, I would like to add some observations on how local identity is presented in everyday life of the people of Skalica.

1. Skalica (Slovak town)

In this chapter, I am going to introduce Skalica, a town in West Slovakia close to the Czech border.

From the geographical point of view, Skalica is located in West Slovakia. On the western side of the town flows the River Moravia, which is part of the border with the Czech Republic (the region of Moravia). In the area of Skalica, the lowland of Záhorie unites the foothills of the Small Carpathians.

According to the last update of the statistical data on the website of Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, Skalica has 15,485 inhabitants in 2019. (egov.skalica.sk, 2019)

1.1 Short history of Skalica (a small Slovak town)

Speaking of identity inevitably links the direction of thinking to history, history of a country, history of a region. In the context of links with territory, some historians, anthropologists, ethnologists or other experts in the humanities believe that it is not national identity that we mainly care about. More important seems the identity related to one’s region, town or village where individuals live and feel connected. How do we feel about the closest area which shapes our relationship with different spheres of our life? One of the important aspects is the history of one’s region, town or village.

In this chapter, I would like to briefly introduce some key points in the history of Skalica.

According to archaeological discoveries Skalica, as part of the region Záhorie, was populated 3,500 years ago. The area’s development was conditioned by the flow of the River Moravia. The territory on the left bank of the river became known as the Amber Road. The Amber Road was an ancient route used for transferring amber from the costs of the North and Baltic Seas. This could be seen as a sign of importance of this area since prehistoric times. As regards its Slavic population, it presumably settled in this territory between the sixth and eighth century.

In the history of each town or village, of great importance is the date of the first written source concerning the settlement. The first reliable written reference to Skalica dates back to 1217. The source was a document signed by the Hungarian King Andrew II.

Moving on in the history of the area brings us to the importance of the fact that Skalica become a free royal town. The founding documents of the privileges are from 1372 and were signed in the town of Trnava. Throughout the centuries, the town of Skalica got different privileges such as the right to hold a market twice a week, the right to exercise judicial authority and the exemption for the inhabitants of Skalica from paying toll for goods throughout the kingdom. The inhabitants of Skalica were always proud and protective regarding their town privileges. They were prepared to protect their rights from being taken by squires, royal offices or the archbishop.

Skalica had also its important times during the nineteenth and then the early twentieth century. The years 1848 and 1849 are well known for the revolutionary developments in several nations of the Habsburg monarchy. One of the nations concerned were the Slovaks. The majority of Skalica inhabitants had Slovak nationality yet until 1848 they spoke mostly Hungarian. The Hungarian government discouraged people to use the Slovak language directly – with several statutory regulations – or indirectly by different bans; for example, it was difficult to publish Slovak newspapers or books. For the inhabitants of Skalica it was important to get the opportunity to speak publicly and officially in the Slovak language and this became reality in 1848 and 1849.

Coming closer to its contemporary history, Skalica lived through maybe the most important times ever. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century Skalica became known thanks to a number of its outstanding citizens. In this context, one can mention Dr Pavol Blaho and Dr Ľudovít Okánik. Both of them improved the cultural and social life of Slovaks living in Skalica. With the help of other active intellectuals from Skalica and the region Záhorie, a Catholic association called Catholic Circle (Katolícky kruh) was established. It organised amateur theatre performances and lectures as well as participated in founding other practice-oriented associations such as a food association or a credit union. Dr Blaho was also active in politics and he was elected an MP to the Hungarian Parliament in 1905.

The most important part of the history comes in 1918, again linked to Dr.Pavol Blaho and Dr Ľudovít Okánik. Both of them jointly with the town of Skalica played a crucial role in establishing the new Czechoslovak Republic1. It was declared on 28 October 1918. The so-called Temporary Government representing Slovakia2 came to Skalica on 6 November 1918. The head of the Government was Vavro Šrobár, a close friend of Pavol Blaho. They used to know each other since the time of national activism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.3 The Temporary Government had its seat in the flat of Pavol Blaho for ten days after which the Government resigned. During those days Pavol Blaho was Minister of the Interior.

In the context of the historical, local and border identity, it is important to mention the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. After the political change in 19894, Czechoslovakia became a democratic republic of two nations of the Czechs and the Slovaks. In 1990 and 1992, Slovak nationalism was an increasing problem used by the leading politicians on both sides. Politicians on both sides were unable to find a mutually acceptable agreement of the coexistence of the Czech and the Slovaks in a common state. Two of them, Prime Minister Václav Klaus (on the Czech side) and PM Vladimír Mečiar (on the Slovak side) prepared, after a short period of negotiations, the separation of these two nations as individual states.

1.2 Skalica nowadays

The last year of 2018 was very important not only for Slovakia and the Czech Republic but for Skalica as well. For the town of Skalica, it was the year of remembering and celebrating the short period of Skalica as Slovakia’s capital when the First Czechoslovak Republic was being established in November 1918. Several celebrations took place on a local stage. There was also a plan for a special event, a summit of the Slovak and the Czech governments.

One important aspect of everyday life is the unique dialect of the people of Skalica. The name of the dialect is ’Skalica town language‘ and the people born and living in Skalica use it regularly. Even the local newspaper invites contributors who can write articles in this dialect.5

2. Identity: local and border identity

The way we perceive ourselves, identity can only be understood in relation to culture, the culture in which we were born, or in which we live our lives. Identity is one of the key notions to which not only social researchers refer but which is also discussed on social media and in everyday life from different points of view.

Definitions of the notion of identity vary from the perspectives of researchers and thinkers. One of the perspectives of describing identity in the social context is to cover it by the key notion of cultural identity. “One thing that inter/cultural communication scholars do agree on is that the term cultural identity has been employed as an umbrella construct to encompass, or subsume, related group identities such as nationality, race, ethnicity, age, sex and gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, regional identity, ethnolinguistic identity, political affiliation, and (dis)ability. Also, cultural identities are inherently relational, and shape and are shaped by communication choices, behaviours, and negotiations, particularly within intercultural interactions.” (Chen, Yea-Wen, Lin, Hengjun 2016)

In this paper, I am particularly interested in local and borderland identity which in this case (the town of Skalica) are intertwined.

“One way in which identity is connected to a particular place is by a feeling that you belong to that place. It´s a place in which you feel comfortable or at home, because part of how you define yourself is symbolized by certain qualities of that place. The geographer Relph, for example, has even gone so far as to claim that ʻto be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have to know your place ʼ.” (Identity: Gender, Race, Etnicity and Sexuality 2015, 127)6

Different places are not neutral for people, especially for local people or people who are not strangers in different areas. It could be seen in different stages form international to local.7 Places could be and often are filled with some content and significance (for certain people). A place, a landscape, a territory is not neutral, there are often some symbols, monuments and memorials connected to the memory of the people, the memory of the place, and we can call them ’places of memory ‘8. A connection between identity and places could be seen as also including border issues. “(…) ʻborder phenomenonʼ is significant not only in the context of state borders but also in the case of many socially and culturally meaningful spaces, from the human body to local and regional administrative units, from the turfs of gangs to no-go areas and red-line zones.” (Paasi 2016, 483) The concepts of borders and topics of border studies present different attitudes. In the context of my paper, it is also useful to mention relational thinking and the cultural border.

The subject of border or boundaries is a key concept of different social disciplines. “It has been associated with research on cognition, social and collective identity, commensuration, census categories, cultural capital, cultural membership, racial and ethnic group positioning, hegemonic masculinity, professional jurisdictions, scientific controversies, group rights, immigration, and contentious politics, to mention only some of the most visible examples.” (Lamont, Michele, Molnár, Virág 2002, 167) As mentioned in the Willey Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography, borderland studies (established and enhanced in the 1990s and the early 21st century) are recently linked to identity. (Paasi 2016, 483)

Relational thinking accentuates the situation in which a border is established. This way of interpretation works with boundaries as a social construct where ’all borderings of space are based on human choice and motivations and, thus, emphasise power relations.’ (Paasi 2016, 482)9

In the research part, I present parts of interviews where we can see the way some of Skalica’s inhabitants construct their identity intertwined with the place where they live.

3. Research: The ENRS’s In Between? project

During the summer of 2018, the In Between?10 project was delivered in the town of Skalica. The initiative is one of the projects carried out by the European Network and Remembrance (ENRS)11. For one week (13 July until 19 July 2019), six students and three project coordinators conducted interviews with nine interviewees. Seven of the research participants were born or live in the town of Skalica. The intention was that the interviews be conducted by the students and the topics of the interviews focused mostly on the life and contemporary history of Skalica, the region linked to the history of the Slovak/Czechoslovak Republic.

The interviews were based on the oral history method, which provided a suitable background for obtaining life stories and ‘history from below‘ information and views. A single interview was conducted with each person from the selected group. The age of the interviewees varied, there were individuals of the working age, some were retired. As regards gender, three of them were women, the others (6) men.12

3.1 Topic of interviews

The project In Between? is mostly about people who live on any kind of border. The meaning and reality could range from political and historical frontiers through regional, to borders between administrative units.

The interviews and the list of the questions were prepared by a group of cooperating students. As a preparatory part of the project, all of them heard a lecture about Czechoslovak (Czech and Slovak) history. The questions asked were rooted in Czech and Slovak history, especially the key affairs of the last hundred years, i.e. the establishing of the common republic, the coup d‘état of 1948, the Prague spring’ (1967-1968), the period of ’Normalisation’ in the 1970s and the 1980s, followed by the fall of socialism in 1989 and finally the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. All respondents were asked about these historic events/breakthroughs in Slovak history and all of them answered these questions. All the interviews were held in a friendly atmosphere13 and the average duration of each interview was about 40-50 minutes. The dynamics of the interviews varied.

3.1.1 Chosen interviewees

For closer analysis of local identity related to Skalica, I have chosen the following narrators:
• J.H. 70 years old, female
• A.D. 78 years old, male
• M.S. 77 years old, male
• P.M. 54 years old, male

I have decided to work with these four interviews because of some common characteristics. Among them, three belonged to the same generation. They were born during or after the Second World War. As the interviews were structured along the linear flow of important historical moments of Czecho/Slovakia, and they lived through most of them, I was interested if their view of life would be similar. The last interviewee is approximately one generation younger than the others. It was interesting to see his experiences and point of view.14

In this paper, I concentrate on two topics revealed in the interviews and related to the main topic – identity. There are two sub-chapters. The first one refers to the affiliation of the narrators to their hometown, the other one is about the reflection on living on the border and a connection with the Czech nation.

3.2 Identity of the inhabitants of Skalica in the interviews

During the interviews and afterwards when analysing what had been said, I took note of a single main topic mentioned by all the participants. It was a strong affiliation with the hometown (Skalica). All the interviewees mentioned or spoke about patriotism, feelings for the place they were born, in different ways but always positive.

The narrator J.H. (70 years old): “I have been living in Skalica since I was born. My ancestors also used to live here. So, I feel being a local patriot.”15 Later, she continued: “very good. Skalica is the best place to live. That’s it.”16 It sounds quite opposite to the later description of the difficult life of her family ancestors who were affected by the change of the democratic system of post-war Czechoslovakia into an oppressive regime in socialist Czechoslovakia. This female narrator is interested in history. She explained to us the mentality of Skalica residents through a myth which is still popular among the people. The key point of this legend is often used to explain the uniqueness of Skalica inhabitants. To put it short: the town of Skalica used to have capital law which was used for executing the people of Skalica and its surroundings. Once a thief was brought there to be decapitated by the executioner of Skalica. But the mayor gave him some money and told him that he should go to be executed somewhere else. ’We have gallows just for us and our kids.’17 From this statement derives a shortened variation: ’For us and for our kids.’18 This slogan could be seen as an important building block for local identity.

Another narrator spoke about his feelings for Skalica in terms of never leaving this town, although he had several opportunities to do so. A.D. (78 years old). He was asked if he could imagine living somewhere else and his answer was: “I had several opportunities, but no way. And where? I told you I was born in Bratislava, but it’s my mum’s’ fault, not mine.”19 (said jokingly – P.Ch.) Later he spoke about his trip to Great Britain during communist rule in Czechoslovakia.20 He explains how he refused to stay abroad, not only because he had a three-year-old daughter but also because he could not imagine leaving his home forever. Later, he returned to the topic of Skalica as the best place for living for him. “Here in Skalica, I feel good. Sometimes it is worse and other times… but it depends on the fact how you arrange it. I would like to …. Moreover, I already have a cemetery plot.’21 Afterwards, he sums up: ’So I have my place (cemetery plot - added by P.Ch.). So, I have to die here.”22

The final narrator P.M. (54 years old) spoke about his family roots connected to Skalica and the region: “Yes, the parents of my mum and also my father’s parents came from Skalica. The ancestors on the mother’s side, when we did some genealogical research, they could be traced back to the 18th century. But on the father’s side we have the roots in South Moravia too.”23 This interviewee did not speak about his relationship to the town of Skalica but according to his narration about being interested in the roots of his family he seemed satisfied with his findings. As he continues talking about his childhood in Skalica, the description is very idealistic. P.M. (54 years old):

“So, I have beautiful (memories of childhood in Skalica – P.Ch.). That’s probably typical for each family. So, we had a big family. During summer holidays, we always met with our big family, with cousins, so we played theatre together, because we were from such a family interested in theatre and amateur theatre-playing. So, since childhood we had worked in the vineyard, Grandfather was a farmer. Basically, every day we had to hoe or collect fruits and so on. Afterwards we had fun, we played theatre for all the people in the street, for the whole district, the one in the town, a small town, …”24

For all the narrators Skalica is very important as a place where they were born and/or they have lived their lives. In all interviews, we can find a strong relationship with the town and also a sense of being proud to have his/her roots here in the town. In anthropology and other social sciences, one of the main features for constructing identity is the distinction between ’we and the others‘. Thus, we can see the process of building their self-integration at the level of local identity, which for them is based on the history and distinctiveness of their town. All of them knew the history of the town and were aware that Skalica had played important role in establishing the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. All of them mention their slogan ’Just for us and for our kids.’25 They all were proud of their unique dialect. Some of them even supposed that it is not that easy to become a member of the Skalica community.

3.3 ’Border‘ and Czechoslovakian identity in the interviews

What makes Skalica people feel special is not only their sense of being something special from the historical point of view but also the vicinity of the border with the Czech Republic. The latter frames the memory about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. All of the narrators were asked to reflect on the situation or their reaction when Czechoslovakia split in two. J.H. (70 years old) answers the question about the situation after the Czechoslovakia’s dissolution: “It was really harmful to us. Not just for my family, but here. Here in Skalica it was taken very hard. Here in Skalica, Mečiar26 was not really supported. …. You know Sudoměřice (a small village on the Czech side – P.Ch.) is three kilometres far away. We used to go for a trip there, to have lemonade, we would walk there and take a beer, we rode our bikes. …. And now you cross the border and the customs officer asks you ʻWhat are you carrying?ʼ So what I am carrying, nothing …..And what kind of people were there on the border, it was disgusting. They sent here such ʻGerman shepherdsʼ which had been on the western border before. There were such boys, not really clever. I don’t want to hurt them, they had their orders, but it was desperate, desperate. And I can tell you, I used to travel for shopping to Hodonín (a small town close to Czech side of the border – P.Ch.) every week. Since the Federative Republic dissolved I have never been there.…. You know, we felt at home in Czechoslovakia, so it was bad for us.”27

M.S. (77 years old) puts it very simply: ... “And the same as regards Czech or Czechoslovak relations. I feel proud that I can live on the border.”28

A.D., a 78 years-old narrator answers the question about the split: “I will tell you something. Someone who lives in Banská Bystrica (a town in Central Slovakia - P.Ch.) had a completely different experience than we have had. Because we had friends and girlfriends there. We went fishing there; we went there to take a bath. So, it was difficult for us, but we got used to it. And we have come back now.” (he means – back together because of both countries the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic are part of the European Union now. – P.Ch.)29

Just as the other narrators, M.S. (77-year-old) also speaks about living on the border close to the Czech Republic. He started:

“Oh, I have been thinking that you came exactly to ask this question, or for my collaboration. (The question was about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia -P.Ch.) I don’t know how it was 100 years ago but I can imagine that the life of ordinary people flows without the interest of what’s going on ʻup thereʼ (in the meaning – official politics – P.Ch.) And people help one another, they get to know one another and it was the same hundred or two hundred years ago. The River Moravia flows here, on one side Slovak people live, on the other side Moravians, what a big difference could there be? Not a big one. The people got to know one other, they got married. My brother’s wife was from the nearby village of Sudoměřice. There were lot of such mixed marriages.”30 The narrator finishes his reflection: “So with this (the contact between the two sides– P.Ch.) we took the dissolution very badly.”31

Then he continues seeing the problem in a broader perspective:

“I thought, if the state had fifteen million citizens, which means five million Slovaks and ten million Czechs; we would be stronger against Germany or Hungary. Even the state would be a more serious and powerful partner. And this hasn’t happened. But you know how it works in politics, it is all about fighting for power. I didn’t believe, I was an idealist, naive in the beginning (M.S. speaks about his carrier in local politics – P.Ch.). I thought that being fair is the right way, but in the politics it doesn’t work like this. For example, what happened in 1992 (the arrangement of the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Republic – P.Ch.), there was no referendum, without any serious decision our common Republic was divided in two. And we had a gathering on the square here in Skalica and I had no idea what I should tell the people. Slovaks were proud that we have our Slovak state but I had the feeling inside that everything could finish in a different way.”32

The narrator P.M. (54-year-old) had a similar reaction to the question about the Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993. P.M.:

“I don’t know about the others, but we weren’t prepared. On the one hand, the border is about two kilometres away from Skalica and it was normal here that a wife was from the Moravian side or the opposite side of her husband (was from the Moravian side – P.Ch.) and they moved here to Skalica. Or citizens from Skalica moved to the Moravian side. So, we were affected by the change, it is natural this way. And it changed all of a sudden and without a referendum as we know it from history, but we were not happy about it. But I think we are not affected by the change, I mean that the relations are still alive. It is good that the border is not there, I mean that it’s not functioning any more. There used to be a custom service, but then life returned to normal. But we were not very happy about it; I suppose the vast majority of Skalica inhabitants.”33

We can see from the answers concerning the Czechoslovakian dissolution that it was neither expected nor welcome in Skalica. We can understand it in the context of common Czechoslovak history, which is appreciated and taken as part of important national and local history.


The subject of identity is a relevant and significant topic for different social sciences nowadays. Furthermore, the definition of this notion varies depending on the perspective taken. In this text, I have used local and border identity as integral parts of the umbrella notion of cultural identity.

I was trying to find some of the features which together build specific local and boundary identity in the location chosen. The place at which I took a closer look is the Slovak town of Skalica situated close to the Czech border. For analysis, I used oral history interviews conducted during the ENRS’s In Between? project. One of the aims of the project is acquainting young people, university students from different European countries, with a specific area in Europe, for which any kind of border is significant. The border in Skalica has always been there. The border was there in the Middle Ages (between the Czech and the Hungarian kingdoms, later between two parts of the Austrian/Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). Lately, that border became very important during the establishment of Czechoslovakia and then later again at the time of its dissolution. While conducting interviews with inhabitants of Skalica, we found that the border was an important part of constructing the local identity of the chosen narrators. According to the interviewees, the boundary is an important part of history particularly contemporary. Being part of Czechoslovakia was important for the narrators. All of them felt disappointed by its dissolution.

All the narrators also mentioned how important being part of Skalica was for them. Skalica meant something special for them. Maybe to put it more precisely, they felt unique to be inhabitants of Skalica.

There are several directions in which further analysis could go. There are interesting questions about collective memory in constructing local identity in Skalica and also other topics not mentioned in this paper which are part of the Skalica identity in the interviews.

Being part of the In Between? project brought me an interesting opportunity to familiarise myself with the subject of local and border identity through the specific example of the town Skalica. Getting to know and analyse local and borderland identity could be helpful for understanding deeper geographical, social and cultural movements in different parts of the world. It could help discover different narratives about ’national‘ topics and see variability on personal, local, social and cultural levels.

PETRA CHOVANCOVÁ, PhD works as an assistant for education and research at the Department of Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Arts at Comenius University in Bratislava. She has completed her PhD programme at the Department of Cultural Theory at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. Her focus in the humanities and research field are oral history, social and cultural anthropology, history of the Slovak cultural identity, cultural geography and gender studies.



1. Czechoslovakia was one of the newly established states after the end of the Great War in 1918. It was one of the successors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

2. The so-called temporary government in Skalica was a tool of the central government in Prague and completely subordinate to it. The jurisdiction was limited for the region of Záhorie.

3. They were editors and publishers of the magazine called Hlas (The Voice), which was a platform for the presentation of the Czechoslovak cultural and national connection.

4. The so-called Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution“of 1989 was a non-violent transition of power in the state.

5. The chapter about history of Skalica is based on two publications:
Bokesová, Buchta, Irša, Janšák, Kraskovská, Šátek, Pichlerová, Spiesz, Fundárek, Gajdoš, Jurkovič,Viestová, Fleišíková (1992) Skalica. Skalica: Mestský úrad Skalica, ISBN 80-900978-1-2.
Ján Buchta, Ján Sloboda, Zora Viestová (1968) Skalica, V minulosti a dnes. [Skalica in the past and present times]. Bratislava: Obzor, 1968. 65-069-68.

6. It is a quotation from Gillian Rose used in this book.

7. To understand it in specific contexts, it is useful to provide some examples. As an interesting and meaningful place in the international context, we could use the coast of Normandy, which could be linked to the fights during the Second World War.

8. Referring to the common notion of Lieux de Memoire popularised by the French historian Pierre Norra.

9. Based on: Wood, D.(1992) The Power of Maps. London: Routledge.

10. “In Between? is an educational project which began in April 2016. The participants are given an opportunity to conduct oral history research in European borderlands. Gaining theoretical knowledge and interdisciplinary and practical skills, they collect audio and video recordings of individual historical narrations and scans of private photographs in order to share them with museums and historical archives.” (https://www.enrs.eu/inbetween 2019)

11. “At the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, we foster dialogue on 20th-century European history. We do this by organising a wide range of projects, from exhibitions and publications to workshops, study visits and conferences. Our aim is, guided by the spirit of mutual trust, to support the development of a common European culture of remembrance.” (https://www.enrs.eu/en/about-us 2019)

12. The interviewees were recommended by local personalities and approved by the local coordinator. Rather than conduct representative research, the aim of the In Between? project is to teach the participants of the research project how to make oral history interviews and gain knowledge of the local history of the chosen borderland area. In the following editions of the project, it might be interesting to make interviews with more heterogenous group of Skalica inhabitants.

13. There was one exception. The interview went on in a good atmosphere, but the narrator refused to sign the consent of using the recording for further academic, archival and other purposes.

14. There are three/four other interviewees whom I am not analysing in this paper. They have specific features, different from those presented here. Two of them were not settled in Skalica, nor were they born there. One of the participants has moved to Skalica lately and it would be interesting to make a reflection of his viewpoint on the Skalica identity. The last interview participant stressed a minority topic, which is also an interesting aspect not mentioned in the other interviews.

15. J.H.: „Žijem v Skalici od narodenia. Aj moji predkovia tu žili. Takže sa cítim byť lokál patriotom.‘

16. J.H. „Veľmi dobre. Skalica je ideálne miesto pre život. To jako.“

17. ”My máme šibenicu enem pro nás a pro naše deti.“

18.”Enem pro nás a pro naše deti“.

19. A,D.:"Já jsme měl možnosti, ale né ani bohoví. Né a kde? Šak to. Já sice povídam, narodil jsem se v Bratislave, ale za to může mama, né já.“

20. It took place in 1966 according to his narrative and it was a visit of a folk ensemble, which he was part of.

21. A.D: Tady ve Skalici je mi dobře. Někedy horší, někedy ale, to jak si to člověk zarídí. A tu bych aj… Já už mám dokonca aj místo kúpené.“

22. A.D.: “No a takže už místo mám. Takže já už tady musím umřít.“

23. P.M.: “Áno, aj maminy rodičia, aj otcovi rodičia boli zo skalice a po matkinej strane je to hlboko do 18.storočia, čo sme si robili ge.. tieto no genealogické výskumy, ale po otcovej strane mám aj z Moravy z južnej také korene takže.“

24. P.M.: ”Tak ja mám nádherné (spomienky na detstvo v Skalici – P.Ch.). To asi má každý v akej rodine býval. Tak my, my sme mali veľkú rodinu. Vždy sme sa cez prázdniny schádzali s veľkou rodinou bratrancami, takže hrávali sme divadlá, keďže sme boli z takej, rodiny takej divadelníckej, ochotníckej. Takže od malička, buď sme pracovali vo vinohrade, lebo starý otec bol maloroľník. A vlastne každý deň tam bolo treba niečo buď zbierať alebo okopávať alebo podobne alebo potom sme sa bavili tak, že sme sa hrali divadlá pre celú ulicu, pre celý náš región ten v meste, v malom meste,...“

25. “Enem pro nás a pro naše deti.”

26. One of the politicians who prepared the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on the Slovak side.

27. J.H.: “Viete čo, to bolo veľmi bolestivé pre nás. Nemyslím, len moju rodinu, ale tuto. Skalica to prežívala veľmi, veľmi ťažko. V Skalici nemal Mečiar nejakú podporu. V Skalici... Viete, že Sudoměřice máte 3 kilometre. Tam sme chodili na malinovky, tam sme chodili, neviem na pivo, na bicykloch. A teraz pôjdete cez hranice a colník sa Vás pýta: „A čo veziete?“ No, čo veziem, nič neveziem. .... Aj čo tam nasadili na tie hranice vtedy, to bola taká, to bolo hnusné. Oni nasadili na tie hranice takých tých vlčiakov, čo boli na západnej hranici. Takých tých chlapcov, také vygumované mozgy. Nechcem im blížiť, alebo či to mali rozkázané, ale to bolo, to bolo žalostné, to bolo žalostné. A ja vám poviem, že jak som každý týždeň chodila do Hodonína, to je tu kúsok na nákup. Od rozdelenia federácie som tam nebola. ...Viete že proste, my sme sa cítili byť doma v tom Československu, to bolo, bolo to pre nás zle.“

28. M.S.: “A to isté aj tieto medzi české alebo československé vzťahy. Ja to považujem za česť, že môžem žiť na týchto hraniciach.“

29. A.D.: “Nó, já Vám neco povím, ten kdo žije v Banské Bystrici, to prežíval, úplne ináč ja my. Protože my sme tam měli kamarádov, frajírky. Chodili sme tam na ryby, chodili sme sa tam kúpať. Takže my sme to niesli dosť ťažko, ale zvykli sme si. A vrátili sme sa zpátky.“ (myslí tý, že oba štáty sú v súčasnosti v EÚ – P.Ch.)

30. M.S.: “No, pre túto otázku, ktorú ste povedali som vlastne čakal, že ste prišli, iba pre ňu alebo pre spoluprácu. No tým, že sme na hraniciach, tak já neviem, čo bolo pred 100 rokmi, ale viem si to domyslieť, že ten život obyčajných ľudí plynie bez toho, čo sa deje hore. A ľudia si navzájom pomáhajú, spoznávajú sa, to bolo iste aj pred tými stomi aj dvesto rokmi, keď tu tečie rieka Morava na jednom brehu žijú Slováci a na druhom Moraváci, jaký veľký rozdiel môže byť, nebol veľký. Ľudia sa navzájom spoznávali, vydávali, ženili. Môj brat mal manželku to sa z tej vedľajšej dediny Sudoměřice. Takých manželstiev zmiešaných bolo veľa.“

31. M.S.: “Tak potom sa Vám to rozdelenie nesie veľmi ťažko.“

32. M.S.:“A ja som si myslel, aj keby ten štát keby bol 15 miliónový, teda 5 Slovákov a 10 Čechov, by sme boli silnejší voči aj Nemecku aj Maďarsku aj taký ten serióznejší alebo silnejší partner a to sa nestalo. No ale viete jak to je v tej politike, vždy to je boj o moc. Ja som tomu neveril, ja som bol idealista zo začiatku a naivný, že s poctivosťou najďalej zájdeš a v politike to celkom neplatí a to sa udialo aj v tom 92, kde bez referenda, bez nejakého veľkého rozhodnutia alebo teda závažného rozhodnutia treba parlamentov sa rozdelila republika. No tak nás to bolelo a bolo stretnutie na námestí a verte mi, že nevedel som, že čo tým ľuďom mám ani povedať, že Slováci sme sa bili do pŕs, že my máme samostatný Slovenský štát a ja som vo vnútri cítil jak, že to mohlo byť aj inak“

33. P.M.: “No, neviem akože ostatní, ale my sme moc na to neboli dobre pripravení, lebo jednak tá hranica je odtiaľto dva kilometre tuším, zo Skalice a bolo tu bežné, že manželstvá boli z Moravy manželka alebo naopak manžel bol a prišli sem bývať alebo Skaličania išli bývať na Moravu a tak. Takže nás sa to trochu dotklo takže nie je to až také prirodzené. A prišlo k tomu vlastne dosť náhle a bez nejakého referenda, však to vieme z dejín a neboli sme tým nejak nadšení. Ale myslím, že nás to nejak až tak nepoznačilo, teda tie vzťahy furt tu držíme. Je dobre že teda, že tam nie je tá hranica ne..nefunguje. Chvíľu to bolo také, že tam boli colníci a kontrolovali a potom to sa to zmenilo k normálnemu životu. Ale neboli sme tým nejaký nadšený teda. As, asi väčšina Skaličanov.


Bokesová, Buchta, Irša, Janšák, Kraskovská, Šátek, Pichlerová, Spiesz, Fundárek, Gajdoš,Jurkovič,Viestová, Fleišíková (1992) Skalica. Skalica: Mestký úrad Skalica, ISBN 80-900978-1-2.

egov.skalica.sk (2019) https://egov.skalica.sk/Default.aspx?NavigationState=880:0:. [Online] 10. 10 2019. [Dátum: 10. 10 2019.]

www.enrs.eu/en/about-us (2019) https://www.enrs.eu/en/about-us. [Online] 20. January 2019. [Date: 19. January 2019.]

www.enrs.eu/inbetween (2019) https://www.enrs.eu/inbetween. [Online] 20. January 2019. [Date: 19. January 2019.]

Chen, Yea-Wen, Lin, Hengjun (2016) Cultural identities. Oxford Researcher Encyclopedia of Communication. [Online] 07 July 2016. [Cited: 18 January 2019.]

Identity: Gender, Race, Etnicity and Sexuality. [book auth.] Murphy, Alexander B., De Blij, H.J., Fouberg, Erin H. (2015) Human Geography. USA : John Wiley& Sons, Inc.

Buchta, Ján, Sloboda, Ján, Viestová, Zora (1968) Skalica. V minulosti a dnes. [Skalica. In the past and present times] Bratislava: Obzor, 1968. 65-069-68.

Paasi, Anssi (2016) Borders and Border-crossings. [book auth.] Schein, H. Richard, Winders, Jamie, Nuala C. Johnson (eds.) The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography. UK : John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Letz, Róbert, Vašš, Martin, Roguľová, Jaroslava, Podolec, Ondrej (2013) Slováci pri budovaní základov Československej republiky. Pramene k dejinám Slovenska a Slovákov XXII a. Bratislava : Literárne informačné centrum, 2013. ISBN 978-80-8119-072-8.

Taylor, Paul (1997) Ivestigating Culture and Identity. London : Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN 0-00-329091-3.

Lamont, Michele, Molnár, Virág (2002) The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciencies. 28, Annual Review of Sociology, s. 167-195.

www.skalica.sk (2018) File [Online] 1. 8. 2018.

Interviews with:
J.H. 70 years old, female, interview conducted on 14 July 2018, Skalica
A.D. 78 years old, male, interview conducted on 17 July 2018, Skalica
M.S. 77 years old, male, interview conducted on 18 July 2018, Skalica
P.M. 54 years old, male, interview conducted on 17 July 2018, Skalica

This article has been published as a part of the seventh edition of the Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of borderlands.

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

Photo of the publication Post-Memories of Cartographic Violence: the Cases of Karelia and Kresy
Chloe Wells and Małgorzata Łukianow

Post-Memories of Cartographic Violence: the Cases of Karelia and Kresy

18 December 2019
  • Poland
  • borderland
  • Finland
  • Kresy
  • Karelia

I’ve spent my life travelling into my own body, into my own amputated limb. I’ve prepared the most accurate maps. I have dismantled the thing under investigation per the best methodology, breaking it down into prime factors. […] Today I can ask myself the question: What have I been looking for? - OLGA TOKARCZUK, FLIGHTS

This article examines how the remembrance of two ‘lost territories’ created by a post-war border change and forced resettlements, Kresy (a former Polish territory) and Karelia (a former Finnish territory), are framed within the contexts of nostalgia and banal nationalism, and based on post-memories. We examine the similarities between data from two countries and two separate research projects to show that certain nationalist narratives surrounding ‘lost’ or ‘amputated’ territories, which are considered unique to a given country, are in fact present in different parts of Europe.

Our aim is to push forward and expand understandings of history and memory in border areas by comparing two geographically separate ‘lost’ borderland territories, which nevertheless, as we argue, have striking similarities in the way they are remembered in the nation states which ceded them to the Soviet Union (USSR) after World War Two (WWII). Employing a comparative perspective offers valuable new insights into the transnational phenomenon of the lost and longed-for place and adds to understandings of national identity, territorial belonging, and how societies remember. We trace common perspectives and mechanisms of remembering territories which were annexed by the USSR after WWII, including the issues of forced border change and forced migrations and resettlements.

We examine, not all possible aspects of the broad notions of Karelia and Kresy, but strong points of comparison (of which we find many) between the two cases. They might serve as points of departure for further studies, combining the same or other cases. Our interview data were collected as part of two separate research projects, which utilised different methodologies. The data were compared for the purposes of this paper after data collection for our two PhD research projects had been completed. In both research projects we conducted interviews with young people, which were transcribed and qualitatively analysed using thematic content analysis (Finland) (see Braun and Clark 2006) and via a method inspired by the work of Welzer, Moller and Tschugnall (2002) (Poland). The data from Finland comprise 38 focus group interviews in eleven different cities across Finland, with a total of 325 upper secondary school students born between 1998-2001, some of whom had grandparents, great-grandparents, or other relatives who were resettled from Karelia. As around 10% of Finland’s wartime population was resettled, it is not unusual for someone to have a relative from ceded Karelia and to have a familial connection to the area. The data from Poland comprise 30 individual interviews with people born after 1989, who are part of a case study into family memory and either grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the resettled. Today, around 15% of Poles declare they have ancestors from Kresy (CBOS 2012).

The focus group interviews in Finland were conducted in 2017. During the interviews participants were asked the following questions: “What do you know about Karelia?”, “What comes to mind if you hear the word ’Karelia’?”, “Where is Karelia?”. Anonymous written summaries and feedback forms which participants wrote and completed at the end of their interviews were also included in the analysis. The interviews in Poland were conducted during fieldwork in 2018 and 2019. The most important questions put to the informants (although the interview had also a free form, similar to narrative interviews) concerned broadly understood ideas related to Kresy and what role it played in their family history. Is Kresy the mythical place that Grandma talked about? Or has the informant personally visited and experienced Kresy?

Though Karelia is a transnational region spanning the Finnish-Russian border, ‘Karelia’ in the context of this paper refers to the area which became part of the USSR, and is now part of Russia, due to the Finnish-Russia border being moved westwards after WWII (see Fig. 1). This is the usual Finnish understanding of the term ‘Karelia’ (Browning and Joenniemi 2014, 2). Post-WWII Karelia was on the Soviet side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ whilst Finland remained on the other side. Around 407,000 Finns (about 10% of the country’s wartime population) left ceded Karelia and resettled in Finland (Savolainen, 2017, 170). The area called Kresy (Borderlands) refers to a transnational territory that after WWII was divided into three countries: Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, each of them being a Soviet Republic within the USSR (see Fig.1). The name Kresy is derived from the territory’s peripheral location in relation to more central parts of Poland, especially when referring to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the post-1918 borders of the Second Polish Republic. After the post-WWII border shift, ‘Kresy’ refers specifically to the territory annexed by the USSR and left behind the Curzon line, which today demarcates the eastern border of Poland. Around two million people were resettled from Kresy to various regions of Poland in its post-war shape.

The loss of Karelia and Kresy caused ‘territorial phantom pains’, the nation-state equivalent to the pain caused by a lost limb (Billé 2014), and national trauma due to the fact that these both territories were conceptualised as central to national identity (for Karelia, see e.g. Laine and van der Velde 2017, especially 67; for Kresy, see Kolbuszewski 1995). The common understanding many pre-war Finns and Poles had of the ‘natural’ shape of their nation state included the territories of Karelia and Kresy and the idea that Karelia should ‘rightfully’ be part of Finland, and Kresy part of Poland has persisted in some circles and has been expressed in the media and other narratives despite the fact that these territories have now been severed from their respective national ‘bodies’ for more than 70 years (Laine and van der Velde 2017, especially 69-71; Paasi 2016, 25; Głowacka-Grajper 2015, 164-182; Traba 2009, 290). Though Karelia and Kresy are no longer part of the Finnish and Polish nation states, “on an emotional level, they remain ‘attached’ to the national body” (Billé 2016, 18). The ,territorial phantom pains, caused by these lost territories may prompt “nostalgic moods manifested in cultural life and sometimes poured into powerful social movements. These movements proclaim irredentist slogans – reunion with the state, whose part this territory was in the past, or a restoration of previous borders” (Kolosov 2015, 37).

The memory scholar Jeffrey Olick has recently written (2018, 207) about the problematic memory of state-led non-legitimate violence that “violated rules and norms, integrity bodily and moral” and, we might add, cartographic. The memory of the cartographic violence done to the national ‘bodies’ of Finland and Poland by the USSR via the re-drawing of borderlines and the ceding of territories is one which now lives on via post-memory. Post-memory describes the way those who did not actually experience an event can still ‘remember’ it via “imaginative investment, projection and creation” (Hirsch 2008, 107). Post-memories take the form of stories and images of past events which can approximate memory in their affective force, expressed by the generations who come after (ibid 106,109). Francesca Cappelletto writes (2003) that it is not necessary to witness an event to attach certain emotions to it. What links both witnesses and others – for example younger generations – to past events is a shared emotional meaningfulness. This article examines whether today’s young people in Finland and Poland, who are several familial generations removed from those who experienced the loss of Karelia and Kresy, still feel an attachment to their countries’ former territories.

Apart from post-memories, it is the feeling of nostalgia that enables us to better understand how the imaginaries of lost territories are processed and preserved within national frames. Nostalgia is a painful longing for home, a home that may no longer exist or perhaps never existed (Boym 2001, xiii). Nostalgia allows descendants of those who actually lived in Kresy and Karelia before the war to preserve a particular understanding of what those areas were. Both Kresy and Karelia are imagined within a nostalgic frame as places which were ‘natural’ and ’timeless’, which preserved the ‘old ways' and traditions: “the joyful Karelian culture (...) boasts a thousand years of history. Karelians have always lived on the frontier, and have managed to maintain a sound faith in life and strong bond with their culture that was born in the heart of age-old forests, hills and great waters” (Karjalan Liitto ry 2019). The myth of Kresy as ’sacred‘ had already developed in the 15th century (Beavois 1994, 94). The image of people from Kresy is comprised of people living the ‘natural way’, being direct and polite, cherishing the traditional values of patriotism (Saniewska-Mochowa and Zielińska 2007, 168-172). Popularised images of the main urban centres of Karelia and Kresy (Viipuri and Lwów) and of rural Karelian and Kresy landscapes added to this nostalgic construct before and especially after WWII (see Figs 2, 3, 4, and 5)

The framing of these areas as ‘eternal’ parts of the(ir) nation states is of interest as the ’bodies’ of Finland and Poland which included Karelia and Kresy were actually short-lived. The shape of the sovereign nation state that is memorialised and that still ‘hurts’ due to the territorial amputatation only existed between the First and Second World Wars. Poland regained its independence in 1918 after having being partitioned in the 18th century. Finland declared independence from the dying Russian Empire in December 1917 and its borders were ratified in 1920.

It is important to ask, why the notions of Kresy as inherently Polish and Karelia as inherently Finnish persist. The idea of preserving the Polishness of, and Polish rule over, Kresy, appears to have been transmitted across many generations, until the present time. And perhaps in this case Polishness does not always mean material development but cultural dominance. This discourse claims that as the dominant cultural trait of Kresy ’Polishness’ , has to be preserved, cherished and given deserved attention. There are institutions, such as the Polish National Heritage Institute whose aim is to preserve the Polish heritage of Kresy, such as its buildings and cemeteries, and also to preserve and publicise the personal memories resettled Poles have of the area (Bernat 2016). In Finland, the Finnish Karelian League aims at preserving Finnish Karelian culture (Karjalan Liitto ry 2019). There are also organisations and individuals who campaign for Karelia to be returned to Finland. For such campaigners “Karelia belongs to Finland”; they are “utopian idealists, who deliberately use the past to further their political objectives” (Fingerroos 2012, 501).

When comparing the post-memories of Karelia and Kresy, we seek to avoid methodological nationalism, where social science imaginaries are territorialised and limited to the boundaries of a nation state (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002, 308). Transborder and transnational phenomena are thus obscured or invisible because the narrative is confined within state borders (ibid). This appears to be precisely the case in common narratives of post-WWII migrations and border shifts. Whilst these are sometimes analysed from the perspectives of neighbouring nations (see e.g. Halicka and Mykietów 2011), studies encompassing wider perspectives are still scarce. This paper adopts this wider perspective by comparing two geographically separate cases, which are, however, often framed in the same way as unique, national traumas for the nation states involved.

The similarities between the Finnish and Polish cases appear most visible when comparing empirical data collected independently in two different research projects. We understand Karelia and Kresy as (phantom) territories key to national territorial understandings in Finland and Poland which were ‘severed’ from their respective national ‘bodies’ by post-WWII borderlines. We want to know how young people in Finland and Poland today feel about these ‘lost limb’ territories. Here, we link our theoretical framework with our results from focus group interviews with young people in Finland who discussed Karelia and interviews with young people in Poland about Kresy.

In Finland, it was found that memories of Karelia have been transmitted down the generations via both narratives within Karelian evacuee families and via national media narratives. For some participants Karelia had personal significance and they appreciated discussing it in the focus group: ”the Karelia area is [...] a strong part of my identity and it was nice to hear more about it and that it also interested others [in the group] so much.” When discussing Karelia, the participants often responded from within a Finnish national framework: “[Karelia] was a big part of Finland and it was lost in the war and during the war many people came from there, here to Finland.” They also showed an awareness of Karelia’s historical importance for the Finnish nation: “Karelia had been, like, a really important area for Finland for the whole of Finnish and Swedish history and there’s a lot of our, like, ancient history there.” They understood Karelia as a territory which “has been for quite a long time this, like a debated area on the border of Finland and the Soviet Union slash Russia.”

What becomes important for young people in Poland, who at some point in their lives learn about their Kresy ancestry, is the sense of belonging and sharing a common past. This creates a common memory regime for a wider group. Family storytelling, with the use of the internet and other media, is supplemented with other content, enriching the knowledge people have already received at home about the past and modifying the narrative:

For me, Kresy is this most beautiful part of Poland [our emphasis]. For me, for my ancestors. There, it was necessary to testify each day that you belonged to some national group, that there were some common values, that we wanted to live in our own country, because if our country, our army was missing, we were slaves at best, and most often victims of genocide.

The importance of family storytelling for people expatriated from Kresy began after WWII when the memory of the resettlement was suppressed and the only way to preserve the family history was through personal memories. The role of witnesses is particularly important in the process of developing the narrative about Kresy (Jakimowicz 2014) and also when depicting the opposition of the Polish people and Others (Wylegała 2015, 3-4). For example, one of the most interesting cases of storytelling about Kresy is a situation where a family member supplemented their professional knowledge of history with that of a witness:

It began with how my mother taught history at a secondary school and gave private lessons. And whole classes came to our home, talking above all with Grandma. And Grandma went to this large room, she had a chair, and they talked about the war, about Kresy and Siberia.

However, taking on this emotional attitude has several more reasons than just direct memory transmission. Kresy is sometimes referred to as part of Poland, with Polishness as its dominant cultural trait and what is important when analysing post-memories of Kresy is what is defined as ’ours’: our cities, our past, our lands, our people. Although Eastern Borderlands comprised vast lands from the Baltic Sea to Galicia, the area that is most often referred to is the city of Lviv (Lwów in Polish). Additionally, Lviv is also the place that is most often pointed out as lost and being inherently Polish even though Poles accounted for about 65% of all its inhabitants.

In Finland, participants often used the national ‘we’ of Finland to describe the loss of Karelia; they include themselves in the group who suffered the loss, despite being born generations later. A clue is given as to why: one participant said she heard the slogan ‘Return Karelia’ from her father, which is being handed down and so might further a sense of continued Finnish ‘ownership’ of Karelia. Though interviewees repeated the slogan ‘Return Karelia’, often as an immediate response to being asked what the word ‘Karelia’ made them think of, they generally did not express a strong desire to actually ‘return’ to the ceded territory, or to have it ‘returned’ to Finland. The majority of the young people who participated in the focus groups, seem not to have inherited a strong personal sense of loss or grief over Karelia: this indicates a ‘faulty’ or incomplete transmission of the memory of Karelia across generational borders.

Both in the case of Poland and Finland, participants expressed the notion that people did not talk about Kresy and Karelia. Some participants in Finland felt that more acknowledgement of Karelia’s significance was needed, as expressed by the idea that it is “talked about too little” or the opinion that “It was interesting to hear about Karelia because it’s rare to meet people who talk about it.” Among the Polish interviewees, Kresy seems both close and distant. It is distant in terms of geography but also close because it forms the backbone of family histories. What is important when looking at personal memories is that the issue of Kresy was neither a subject of the pre-1989 Polish historical policy (because of the above-mentioned political reasons) nor after 1989. Because of this, even after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the persistent idea of a ‘treasure chest of memories’ has remained. This is the most important aspect of both memories and post-memories of Kresy – the sense of oppression, the need to pass on the story and the feeling of underappreciation. Many think that not enough is written and spoken about Kresy and in one of the interviews, a man, aged 26, who is deeply involved in events commemorating the fate of people resettled from former Polish Eastern Borderlands, points out: “If this truth [about post-war resettlements] was present in public life, then perhaps we would not have been needed in this area. But it still does not exist and if it was not put into prison in the 1990s, it does not mean that the truth in public life was already present.”

Participants in Finland associated ‘Karelia’ with certain foods, which they regularly come across in daily life: “When I hear [the word] ’Karelia’, I think of all Karelian food [...] Like Karelian pies, we have them at school today actually,... and stews”, beer and pop songs. Such seemingly banal references made by participants to Karelia as a presence in their everyday lives should not be rejected or ignored because these can be one of the main ways the participants come across the idea of ‘Karelia’ and start to understand its significance (or not) for them and for the wider culture in which they grow up. (see Wells 2016 for more on Karelian food and banal nationalism).

The need to reveal the truth, to bring it to light, is omnipresent in the interviews with young people from Poland, who are aware of their family history. However, it would be an oversimplification to say that all families whose ancestors came from Kresy are well aware of their family history. Very often during joint family interviews, many cases were mentioned for the first time and it is important to explain why. The memory of a traumatic event, perhaps to the disappointment of a scholar working on family memory, is not easily passed on as more often than not it means re-enacting difficult aspects from the past. This leads in many ways to a transmission that is distorted: its simplified, violent elements are erased and the general image of the past comprises harmonious multiculturalism, ‘good old days‘ and happy times. Perhaps therefore the stories that the older generations told the interviewees are consciously perceived as nostalgic and sentimental: “These years of youth were very important to them and they were idealised. Presented sensationally. There was an anger that they had to be here [in the place they were resettled to], not there, so I heard it many times. Kresy, this may make me curious too, and I would definitely like to go there.”

Karelia did not seem to have significance for the participants in Finland as a ‘paradise lost’. The participants did not idealise pre-war Karelia and one even criticised such narratives commenting that in stories he had heard about Karelia, “it’s always like it’s much better than Finland and greener and more beautiful.” The participants did however talk about-present day Karelia in a rather negative way, which is the other side of the coin of the idealised pre-war image: “Nowadays it’s quite a poor area” , “It’s dead like Siberia”, “Karelia hasn’t kept developing. If it were part of Finland, well then it certainly would have developed”, “it got into a bad condition because it wasn’t part of Finland anymore.” For these participants, Karelia is an area with negative associations, sometimes linked to the fact it is no longer part of Finland.

Participants in Finland sometimes expressed nationalist ideas repeating the slogan ‘Return Karelia’. When asked where he had heard the slogan, one participant responded “Well it’s a kind of a nationalist thing, it belongs to the Finns’ culture.” Another participant then added “Isn’t [‘Return Karelia'] in some kind of song?...‘Won Karelia Back’ or something like that”, showing how encounters with this nationalist, revanchist slogan can come via banal forms, such as Finnish pop songs (the song is by JVG feat. Freeman, 2012). Banal associations could become more serious during focus group discussions. For example, one participant began by linking ‘Karjala’ brand beer to the idea of returning Karelia by saying “Return Karelia one bottle at a time.” She said she had heard the slogan from her father. The same participant later commented more seriously that “Karelia was Finnish areas, but then we lost it” [our emphasis]. The word ‘Karelia’ refers to and prompts some deeper associations and reactions linked to the lost territory.

For those Polish participants who refer to the lost Atlantis of pre-war Lviv, it is obvious that this place ‘should belong to Poland’, however in many cases this is couched in words that indicate that it is not proper to formulate such claims. Despite the fact that it is an event from the past that brings regrets and bitterness for the loss, as much as the outlived past can be emotional, there is no way to return. Still, ‘Lviv is ours’ in terms of how the respondents describe their images and perception of what the city looks like (only very few of them have been there). The fact that after 1945 the city belonged first to the Soviet Union and now is part of Ukraine is not able to erase the deep roots of Polish culture. And the loss still resonates: expressing the loss is another factor creating a common space and a common memory regime for generations.

A sense of having suffered a loss by ceding Karelia also seems to still resonate over 70 years later: asked to write down the most important things their group had talked about at the end of the session one participant wrote “the loss of Karelia, which is still a bitter issue for Finns” and another “It was important to note that Vyborg and Karelia are still connected with a lot of memories and also longing.” Participants are aware that these feelings exist with relation to ‘lost Karelia’. Linking the loss of Karelia to a specific concept of national identity one participant wrote “It’s part of Finnishness to yearn to get back those areas lost in the war.” One participant explained to me, an outsider foreign researcher, that “many Finns think [Karelia] should belong to Finland [...] we would like to have it back but we probably never will.” Speaking on behalf of an imagined national ’we’, this participant expresses the idea that Karelia ‘should be’ part of Finland, but that its ‘return’ is not a realistic hope.

In Finland, the nostalgic longing present in evacuees’ narratives seems not to have been passed on to the third generation via post-memory. Today’s young people in Finland do, however, express post-memories of Karelia via imagining themselves as part of the ‘we’ who experienced the loss of Karelia: “we lost it”, “we had to give it away to the Russians.” The narrative about Karelia circulating in Finnish discourses of a ‘paradise lost’ can prompt certain emotions such as loss, and nationalist fervour but it is not a given that individuals or groups will have a specific emotional response to Karelia’s loss, as this research work with young people in Finland demonstrates. The respondents did associate ‘Karelia’ with the slogan ‘Return Karelia’ but that slogan they associated with beer and pop songs rather than with emotions of grief, or pain. Previous research has concluded that, overall, in Finnish media discourses, “the rough edges of the Karelian scar are slowly healing and fading in people’s memory” (Laine and van der Velde, 2017) and this is backed by the finding that participants did not usually perceive Karelia as an area or idea which prompted ‘territorial phantom pains’ for them.

An important question to ask using our both data sets is when, and how, does a painful family memory become a memory of cartographic violence done to a nation, a nationally felt ‘territorial phantom pain’? There are two key elements here: the institutionalisation of memories of Kresy and Karelia and the sentimentalisation of these memories, which enlarges the role of the respective Finnish and Polish national cultures appearing both in family narratives and public discourses. Another important finding was that the memories of lost territories were ‘preserved in amber’. Often the image of both Karelia and Kresy is related to old, traditional ways and nature, which remains untouched by humans (usually of a different nationality). This leads us back to the idea of inherent Polishness and Finnishness, rooted deeply in the imaginaries of the past.

As we might expect, much as the notion of tradition remains within society, money follows. Today in Poland, we can also see certain deeply processed post-memories exploited commercially. For example, many products are branded kresowy (an adjective that comes from the word Kresy). One can find many properties, restaurants and guest houses which have kresowy in their name, as well as meat products, sweets, music festivals and contests (Ministerstwo Rolnictwa i Rozwoju Wsi 2018). Though traditions are preserved via an official governmental list of traditional foods, the everyday implementation appears to be quite different. In commercial use, kresowy products are quite often not traditional in terms of their recipes but only in terms of their branding. An excellent example of such is kresowy jaffa cakes (see Fig. 6).

The concept of ‘banal nationalism’, the way nationalism is routinely ‘flagged and present within nation states on a daily basis (Billig 1995) is useful when looking at meanings ascribed to both Karelia and Kresy. Aside from being imagined as Finland’s lost territory, ‘Karelia’ is also associated with certain traditional foods in Finland, such as the Karelian pie (see Wells 2016); there is a beer brand named ‘Karjala’ (Karelia) (see Fig. 7) as well as Finnish pop songs about ‘getting Karelia back’. (JVG feat. Freeman 2012; Portion Boys 2017). These seemingly ‘banal’ associations mean that ‘Karelia’ is constantly present in Finland’s everyday life and may prompt deeper nationalist responses by being reminders of Karelia the ‘lost territory’. ‘Karelia’ is a case where there may be (potentially) ‘hot’ nationalism mixed with ’banal’. In Poland, many products are branded kresowy because of associations between ‘Kresy’ and ideas of ‘natural’ products and traditional ways of life. Banal nationalism becomes particularly visible here when kresowy becomes a consumer choice (see Fig. 6).

Post-memories of both Kresy and Karelia are present amongst the young people we interviewed. It was found during the research work with young people in Finland that they expressed a range of meanings associated with Karelia, from banal and everyday, showing ‘Karelia’ is present in their lives, to more explicitly nationalist ideas such as repeating the slogan ‘Return Karelia’. Post-1989 generations in Poland imagine a Kresy of sentimentalised landscapes and the idea of an Arcadia disrupted by war, and sometimes express, in relation to Kresy, deep patriotism deriving from a perceived need to protect Polish statehood. The uncontested ‘Polishness’ of the area results in the presence of a nationalist dimension to nostalgic longing for Kresy.

Our findings show that both Karelia and Kresy are framed from national perspectives: Karelia is framed by young people from the Finnish perspective; the area as it is now is judged against an idealised version of ‘how it was’ when it was part of Finland. Some authors working on the memory of Kresy claim that attitudes expressed concerning Polish cultural dominance over the area have a post-colonial edge. This (post) colonialist way of thinking about Kresy is mostly visible in claims for the supremacy of Polish culture over others and diminishing or ignoring the role of other nationalities and minorities in the development of the area.

With both Kresy and Karelia, what is felt to have been lost is not only the territory itself, understood in quantitative terms, but also cultural heritage and meaningful places such as homes and communities. The loss of the latter makes it harder to overcome the loss of the former, and hence both Kresy and Karelia are often still referred to as if they continued to be part of Poland and Finland, respectively – if not territorially, then culturally or spiritually. In the post-Soviet era public calls for a revision of borders and return of the territories of Kresy and Karelia are no longer such a risk.

It is perhaps not surprising that memories of territorial losses are usually preserved within a national context. Shared memories become cornerstones for identification with a shared past and contribute to the commitment towards a shared future. Memories of a shared past can form the foundations for ‘grand solidarities’ and ethnic nationalism. When a memory of territorial loss is framed within a national context, however, this obscures the wider perspective of post-war resettlements. In both cases, we noted tendencies to depict and memorialise a territorial loss as unique for the nation involved, as being a singular phenomenon.

By comparing two different data sets, we have showed that the framing of post-memories of lost territories is, in fact, more universal and that it is possible to conceptualise the process further. We have found that, even though post-memories of their lost territories formed in two societies developing in very different geopolitical contexts on either side of the Iron Curtain, the sense of longing and belonging is the same. This might be a point of departure for further comparative studies focused on the post-war period.

CHLOE WELLS is a grant funded doctoral researcher in the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies at the University of Eastern Finland. Her PhD research combines concepts from Human Geography, Border Studies and Memory Studies to examine the transgenerational transmission of the memory of a borderland city. Her research focuses on what meanings and memories young people in Finland attach to Vyborg, Russia which before the Second World War was Viipuri, Finland.

MAŁGORZATA ŁUKIANOW is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her research interests include the memory of the post-WWII period, Polish-German and Polish-Ukrainian relations and historical policy. Her PhD research comprises generational transmission of memory, field theory and the relations between personal and public memory narratives.
Małgorzata Łukianow’s work is funded by a Polish National Science Centre grant titled “Formation of social memory in post-migration communities” (UMO-2016/23/N/HS3/03183).


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Other media:
JVG feat. Freeman (2012) Karjala takaisin. Monsp Records Oy.
Portion Boys (2017) Karjala takas. Saumaa Records.
Unpublished, in the authors’ possession:
Focus group session transcripts
Interview transcripts

This article has been published as a part of the seventh edition of the Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of borderlands.

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Photo of the publication 17 November. From anti-Nazi protests to International Students Day
Ewelina Szpak

17 November. From anti-Nazi protests to International Students' Day

15 November 2019
  • World War II
  • Second World War
  • Velvet Revolution
  • International Students' Day

On 17 November 1939, the Germans targeted Czech students in response to anti-Nazi demonstrations which were held in Prague. The turbulent events not only inspired the creation of International Students’ Day, but are also inextricably linked to the beginning of the Velvet Revolution 50 years later.


The German occupation of Czechoslovakia started even before the beginning of the Second World War. As a result of the Munich Agreement – a failed attempt by Great Britain, France and Italy at appeasing expansionist intentions of Adolf Hitler and Nazi authorities – the northern, southern, and western parts of the country, known as Sudetenland, were ceased to Third Reich in autumn 1938. Few months later, on 15 March 1939 Hitler’s army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia which, while nominally autonomous, was under Third Reich’s control1. The move followed the creation of the First Slovak Republic, a client state of Nazi Germany, founded one day before in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia.

During the first months of the Protectorate, the Czech public turned to passive resistance. Small acts expressing discontent over the loss of independence were observed. Many chose cultural venues to express their patriotic feelings. Performances of national compositions such as Bedřich Smetana’s “Má vlast” (in English: My fatherland)2 inspired spontaneous singing of the national anthem3. The increasing displays of national sentiments eventually drew the ire of Nazi officials who soon prohibited singing patriotic songs in public space.

Regardless of official bans new acts of resistance occurred. One of them took place at the first anniversary of the Munich Agreement on 30 September 1939 when boycott of all public transportation in Prague was organized. Everyone except the uninformed Germans went on foot for the entire day4. According to historian Mary Heimann, this grass-root social initiative was accompanied by flurry of leaflets and handbills suggesting more ways to protest peacefully against the German rule. Some flyers also encouraged to take part in a mass demonstration in Wenceslas Square that was to be held on the most emotive date in the political calendar, Czechoslovak Independence Day on 28 October5.

The evening before the demonstration the most popular sites of significance to the Czechoslovak history such as graves and monuments were decorated with flowers. Despite diplomat Jan Masaryk's6 pleas in BBC radio broadcast to "the nation" that no risks shall be taken, hundreds of Prague citizens turned out in the Square for peaceful protest. As demonstration was growing in size, protesters became bolder and started to express their patriotic feelings openly, singing the national anthem – in both Czech and Slovak – shouting anti-German slogans and demanding the return of the free Republic. Some groups of students vandalized German storefronts. The Nazis responded violently. German civilian police started to fire to the crowds at random. In result, 15 people were wounded and Václav Sedláček, 22-year old worker was killed. Second victim of the brutal repressions was Jan Opletal, popular medical student who died of injuries few days later.

Opetal’s funeral on November 15 gathered around 3,000 students. At the beginning, the procession, closely monitored by the security police, was peaceful. The situation grew tense as some smaller groups of students started to sing the hymn and patriotic songs and chant provocative slogans. The driver of the car of the Secretary of State Karl Herman Frank was beaten up. The incident maddened Frank who - as some historians suggest - insisted on treating Czechs with firmer hand.

In response to the events, on the night of 16 November 1939 Gestapo raided student dormitories in Prague and Brno arresting hundreds of students and taking many others from their homes. It is estimated that over 1,200 students were deported to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp7. At dawn the next day, German shot nine alleged ringleaders of the demonstrations. Among them were eight students: Jaroslav Klíma, Jan Weinert, Josef Adamec, Jan Černý, Marek Frauwirth, Bedřich Koula, Václav Šafránek, František Skorkovský, as well as Professor Josef Matoušek. All Czech universities and institutes were closed; initially for three years, eventually till the end of the war – a move affecting nearly 20,000 students and university teachers. On 18 November, the Protectorate president Emil Hácha appealed not to engage in “senseless” and irresponsible resistance to the occupying German powers anymore, “lest Czechoslovakia face the same destruction as Poland”8.

November student protests were to be the last major Czech demonstration against the Protectorate government, but their victims and the determination in resistance against the Nazis were not to be forgotten. Two years later members of the Czechoslovak Army troops residing in England, including some of the former Prague students who managed to flee from the Protectorate, convinced student organizations of fourteen nations (including Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Greece and Poland) to honour Prague students and commemorate the tragic events by establishing 17 November the annual International Students’ Day. Many universities in Britain even interrupted their classes that year to read the proclamation and therefore to pay homage to the executed Czech students.

After the war, 17 November became a national holiday in Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War, the communist regime used the International Students’ Day for its own propaganda purposes but since the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, the commemorations of 17 November were only formulaic. Yet, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Nazi atrocities in 1989 turned out to be exceptional. On 17 November, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a 15,000-strong student crowd assembled at the Albertov Campus of Charles University in Prague, expressing their criticism and discontent towards the hated regime, demanding democratization and reforms. Josef Šárka, a participant of the Jan Opletal’s funeral fifty years earlier, expressed his support by addressing the crowds at the university campus: “I am glad you are fighting for the same thing as we fought for back then.”9 The students continued their demonstration, marching towards Wenceslas Square while singing the national anthem. They were then ambushed and beaten up by riot police. The police action triggered few days of protests that turned out to be the spark which ignited the Velvet Revolution, leading to the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Nowadays, 17 November is still a state holiday in Czechia and Slovakia although it is officially known and celebrated as the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy. It commemorates both the anti-Nazi protests and the 1989 events.

The International Students’ Day is still observed on 17 November.



1. Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia. The state that failed, Yale University Press 2009, p. 169.

2. “Má vlast” (My fatherland in Czech) is a set of six symphonic poems composed between 1874 and 1879 by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Each piece refers to Bohemian heritage, landscape, history or legends.

3. William Mahoney, The history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Greenwood 2011, p. 173.

4. Peter Demetz, „Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War, New York 2008, p. 89.

5. Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia. The state that.., p. 250.

6. Jan Masaryk was a prominent Czechoslovak diplomat and politician; son of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Since 1925 he had been an ambassador to UK, but resigned in protest against the occupation of Sudetenland. When a Czechoslovak government-in-exile was formed in Britain in 1940, he became the Foreign Minister. He remained in his post after the end of the war – even after the Czech coup of February 1948 in which the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control over the government of Czechoslovakia. Soon after the coup, on 10 March 1948, he was found dead, probably murdered on behest of the communist authorities.

7. Peter Demetz,. „Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45…., p. 136.

8. Brian Kennedy, The 17th of November: Remembering Jan Opletal, Martyr of an occupied nation, Radio Prague International Broadcast [Archive 17-11-2005].

9. Derek Sayer, Prague at the End of History, „New Perspectives” Vol. 27, No. 2/2019, p. 150.



Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia. The state that failed, Yale University Press 2009

Jerzy Tomaszewski, Czechy i Słowacja, Warsaw 2006

Brian Kennedy, The 17th of November: Remembering Jan Opletal, Martyr of an occupied nation, Radio Prague International Broadcast [Archive 17-11-2005] link https://www.radio.cz/en/section/panorama/the-17th-of-november-remembering-jan-opletal-martyr-of-an-occupied-nation [retrieved 10.11.2019]

William M. Mahoney, The history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Greenwood 2011

Derek Sayer, Prague at the End of History, „New Perspectives” Vol. 27, No. 2/2019, pp. 149-160

Peter Demetz, „Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War, New York 2008

Photo of the publication What happened to the Berlin Wall?
Stefanie Knossalla

What happened to the Berlin Wall?

07 November 2019
  • 1989
  • fall of communism
  • Berlin Wall
  • Berlin

As historical remains, the approx. 3,60m high and 2,6-tons heavy elements of the Berlin Wall are exceptionally linked to the city of Berlin. However, only a few hundred metres out of the 160 kilometre-long barrier still can be found in the German capital. Its longest coherent and preserved section counts as little as 212m. Thus, a question stands: what happened to the rest of the Wall?

It was in the middle of the night of 13 August, 1961 when the lights went out at the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin. Under the cover of darkness, construction works began on what eventually become a system of walls, fences, barbed wire, guard towers, unused land – a complex which was later to be known as the Berlin Wall or simply ‘The Wall’, as Germans referred to it. The impenetrable barrier divided the city into two parts, becoming a visible sign of the rising tensions between the Western and Eastern Blocs. During the 28 years of its existence, the wall between East and West Berlin cost the lives of at least 136 people who died during their attempts to escape from GDR.

Everything changed in the second half of 1989. The pro-democratic developments in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc such as the Round Table Talks and the following first semi-free elections in Poland, as well as the increasing stream of refugees leaving East Germany via the now opened Hungarian-Austrian border, put the German socialist government under immense pressure. A way to defuse the growing social unrest had to be found. On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, a member of the Socialist Unity Party acting as its unofficial spokesman, announced the new loosened travel regulations during an evening press conference. The event was live broadcasted on radio and TV.

As a result, thousands and thousands of East Germans streamed to the border crossings, pressuring the border troops to immediately implement new directives. The border guards at Bornholmer Straße were first to succumb. The rest, as they say, is history. Pictures and videos of the fall of the Berlin Wall spread around the world: East and West Berliners celebrating on top of the Wall, helping each other reach the other side of the former impervious border, sharing and swinging hammers and chisels to destroy the substance that has separated them beforehand.

Berlin Wall: should it stay or should it go?

At first, tearing down the ‘Wall of Shame’ was considered an act of liberation from the monumental symbol of oppression and the painful segregation imposed by the communist government. The proactive demolition of the Wall by the population and its following official removal organised by the state were based on the consensus that the detested concrete structure in the middle of Berlin needs to be gone as quickly as possible.

Simultaneously, Berliners and visitors to the newly reunited city started to rather vigorously hack out chunks of the Wall in order to acquire a piece of “historical testimony”1. These so-called ‘wall-peckers’ came for diverse reasons. Among them were people hunting for souvenirs, professional merchants who started to sell little bits of the structure within hours after the opening of the border, and those who personally experienced its fall. By taking a piece of the Wall, they obtained a tangible, materialised memory of the revolution that just took place.

However, as the Berlin Wall was vanishing before everyone’s eyes, the Berlin State Office responsible for its dismantling realised the need for preserving at least some of its parts as the city’s heritage. The strategic decision to put some segments of the barrier under protection was announced on 2 October 1990, exactly one day before German reunification. The resolution was met with criticism: the predominant mood among the public opinion of the time was to get rid of the remnants of divided Germany entirely, once and for all. Only over a decade later, in 2006, the city senate decided to pass a “master plan to preserve the memory of the Berlin Wall”, which led to the opening of the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre at the Bernauer Straße three years later. The site, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Berlin Wall, is now the only place where one can see the sequence of the fortifications preserved in their original state.

Interestingly, letting some remnants of the former border stay did not cause as much controversy – as long as their appearance, and thus: meaning, was first completely changed. The East Side Gallery – a 1,3km long rear wall complex facing former East Berlin converted into an open-air showcase of over 100 artworks – was first opened on 28 September 1990. Having secured an official commission from the GDR Council of Ministers, 118 artists from 21 different countries created murals on the Wall’s still standing segments in which they interpreted its fall2. Their paintings reflected on the oppressiveness of GDR as well as other authoritarian and totalitarian countries around the world, while praising the ideals of democracy and liberty. Applying colourful pieces of art where it used to be prohibited constituted in itself the best proof of the regained freedom. The grey solemn border wall was re-appropriated and its meaning transformed and domesticated, so as to suit the surrounding urban fabric – similarly to what used to be done to the Western side of the Wall, which before 1989 was often covered in colourful graffiti, tags and political slogans, standing in stark contrast to its Eastern solemn counterpart.

A piece of the Berlin Wall to go, please

Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s and up to this day international institutions have been acquiring their own components of the Wall in order to exhibit them as symbols of either the Cold War or its end in 1989 – or both. From Russia to Hawaii, from the Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal to the Peace Park of Uijeongbu 30km south of the North- and South Korean border, to Hungary, Romania and Stocznia Gdańska in Poland, countless of the historical slabs are traceable worldwide. Although there is no exact registry available of where to find the original segments of the Berlin Wall, it is obvious that the monument has been detached from its historical environment and thus re-contextualized as a portable relic.

Nowadays, it is surprisingly easy to get your very own piece of the Berlin Wall. On numerous online websites, at stalls near historical sites, even in official souvenir shops across the city, people can buy (allegedly) original fragments of the wall that separated Berlin into two parts. Whereas there is a range of sizes and prices – some companies even sell entire slabs of the Wall for a four-digit fee – each piece goes with a certificate confirming its authenticity. However, no institution has the authority to issue such documents. As most of the officially demolished segments of the Wall were afterwards shredded and used for road construction, it is safe to assume that a considerable amount of these souvenirs is fake.

Berlin Wall: global lieu de mémoire

30 years after its fall, the meanings given to the Berlin Wall seem to be full of contradictions. On one hand, its tearing down has gotten equated with the peaceful revolution in Germany – or even the whole former Eastern Bloc. Its significance often gets universalized to such an extent that it begins to overshadow other equally important political transformations of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and sometimes is even treated as a symbol of freedom and liberation in general. On the other, the Berlin Wall continues to stand for oppression and illiberal living conditions in GDR, as well as other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

As cultural studies scholar Frederick Baker argues, the Wall has been changed into “a ‘collective symbol’, an easily identifiable, emotionally charged, physical embodiment of the political system which made it – both symbol of tyranny and symbol of liberation from tyranny.”3 This significant double meaning, acting here as two sides of the same coin, is often being conveyed onto remaining pieces of the Wall – be it real or fake ones. Hence their captivating symbolic strength and popularity, which allowed them not only to become renowned Berlin memorial sites, but also to be distributed beyond regional borders as private souvenirs or historical artefacts, being put on display across the world.

Written by Stefanie Knossalla; edited by Jagna Jaworowska

1. The phrase used by art and architecture historian Axel Klausmeier (Klausmeier 2009: 97).
2. Six years ago, investors of luxury apartments started to remove segments of the East Side Gallery in order to have enough space for a construction site. This triggered international protests carried out under the slogan: “Rescue the National Monument East Side Gallery! No luxury housing on the former ‘death strip’.” Although demonstrators managed to temporarily stop the investors’ plan, parts of the gallery had been already gone. As the attack on the murals seemed to repeat in the beginning of 2018, powerful demonstrations finally led to an agreement: the property around the Wall’s section in question has been handed over to the Berlin Wall Foundation. The NGO is responsible for the further preservation of the historical site.
3. Baker 1993: 725


Baker, Frederick. ‘The Berlin Wall: production and preservation and consumption of a 20th century monument’. Antiquity Publications 67, 1993. 709-733

Huet, Donatien. Interaktive Karte – Wohin ist die Berliner Mauer verschwunden? 29. Oktober 2014. Accessed on 20.09.2019: https://info.arte.tv/de/interaktive-karte-wohin-ist-die-berliner-mauer-verschwunden

Klausmeier, Axel. ‘Interpretation as a means of preservation policy or: Whose heritage is the Berlin Wall?’ In: Forbes, Neil; Page, Robin; Pérez, Guillermo (eds.): Europe’s Deadly Century Perspectives on 20th century conflict heritage, Swindon, 2009. 97-105

Klinge, Sebastian. 1989 und wir: Geschichtspolitik und Erinnerungskultur nach dem Mauerfall. Bielefeld, 2015

Nooke, Maria. ‘Vom Mauerbau zum Mauerfall – Kurze Geschichte der Teilung‘. In: Kaminsky, Anna (ed.): Die Berliner Mauer in der Welt, Berlin, 2009. 8-23

Schmidt, Leo. ‘Symbol und Denkmal. Die Karriere der Berliner Mauer nach ihrem Fall‘. Tagungsbeitrag: Der Mauerbau 1961. Kalter Krieg, Deutsche Teilung, Berlin. 16-18. Juni 2011

BERLIN WALL FOUNDATION 2019. East Side Gallery. Accessed on 25.09.2019: https://www.eastsidegalleryberlin.de/en/

BERLIN WALL MEMORIAL. Accessed on 25.09.2019: https://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/

Photo of the publication Bombing of Wieluń. Polish Guernica
Antoni Zakrzewski

Bombing of Wieluń. Polish Guernica

30 August 2019
  • Poland
  • World War II
  • Second World War

In the early hours of Friday morning, 1 September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig – Holstein fired first bullets at the Polish garrison located at the Westerplatte peninsula. The attack and the following Polish fierce resistance constituted what is now considered to be the first battle of the Second World War. But other acts of war unrolled almost simultaneously also in other parts of Poland – including the “Polish Guernica” or the air raid on Wieluń, the first attack of the Second World War involving civilian casualties.

In the interwar period, the Polish town of Wieluń lied about 20 km from the border with the Third Reich and was inhabited by around 16 000 people, including a sizable Jewish minority. With its brewery, two mills, bakery, power plant, brickyard, sawmills and sugar factory at the outskirts of the city, Wieluń had neither industrial nor strategically relevant investments. It resembled many other Polish rural municipalities relying on agriculture, craft and trade.

The peaceful existence of the town was brutally interrupted during the early hours of 1 September 1939. “I was woken up by the roar of sirens and the roar of planes. I didn't know what it was. I sat on the bed and asked my mother what is [going on]. My mother said: You know, baby, it's probably a test, but you better dress up1 – recalls Zofia Burchacińska who in 1939 was 11 years old and remains one of the last living eyewitnesses of the bombing. Her account can be seen in the documentary Wieluń. 13 cegieł [Wieluń. 13 bricks], along with that of Eugeniusz Kołodziejczyk, 12 years old at the time, who remembers calling: Dad, Dad! I can see the planes! Dad, Dad, bombs are falling while drawing lines on the sky. “[That’s when] the roar started. Hell had begun”2.

One of the first bombs was dropped on the hospital visibly marked with a Red Cross sign. The raid lasted from the early morning until 2 pm. During that time 70% of the city was destroyed, including the synagogue, church and innumerable residential buildings. Between 700 to 2000 civilians were killed – the first civilian casualties of the Second World War (the exact number is unknown due to difficulties with identification).

The precise time of the bombing remains a topic of discussion. According to the accounts of the town’s inhabitants and of the Polish border guards, the first bombs fell at 4:40 am – five minutes before the first shots on Westerplatte. This would make the attack on Wieluń the beginning of the Second World War. The Luftwaffe documents and several other testimonies, however, indicate 5:40 am as the time when the air raid started. Some historians attribute this discrepancy to a summer time-difference between Poland and Germany (whose occurrence in itself is also being debated); others point to possible mistakes in witness accounts.

The rationale for choosing Wieluń for the attack is also an assumption for speculation. Since almost no strategically important sites were located within the town, some researches claim that the air ride was supposed to constitute a safe “real life test” for the Luftwaffe new dive bombers. Others note that the German army might have wanted to destroy the town’s train station and the nearby railroad tracks situated relatively close to the German-Polish border. Nevertheless, due to the sheer magnitude of the attack, many suspect that the main goal of the bombing might have been psychological – to create chaos and panic among the civilians and to diminish morale within the Polish Army.

Despite the aforementioned debates, Wieluń remains the first assault involving civilian casualties of the Second World War, and many see it as a symbol of Polish suffering during the war. As such, it is being compared to Guernica – a town destroyed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, no less but by the same Luftwaffe forces under the command of the field marshal Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen.


1. Polish original: Rano obudził mnie ryk syren i ryk samolotów. Nie wiedziałam co to jest. Usiadłam na łóżku i spytałam mama co to. Mama powiedziała wiesz dziecko to chyba próby alarm ale lepiej się ubierz; at 10 min 50 sec: Wieluń. 13 cegieł, dir. Sławomir Górski, 2009

2. Polish original: Tata Tata, widzę samoloty, Tata tata bomby lecą. Zrobił się huk, zrobiło się piekło; at 14 min 58 sec: Wieluń. 13 cegieł, dir. Sławomir Górski, 2009



Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluń. Dzieje miasta 1793-1945, part II, Łódź-Wieluń, 2008

Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluńska hekatomba. Początek wojny totalnej, Wieluń 2014

Wieluń był pierwszy. Bombardowania lotnicze miast regionu łódzkiego we wrześniu 1939 r., ed. Janusz Wróbel, Łódź 2009

Wieluń. 13 cegieł, dir. Sławomir Górski, 2009

Photo of the publication „Destroyed by politics.” Story of a man, of love and dignity
Zuzanna Dobrzańska

„Destroyed by politics.” Story of a man, of love and dignity

10 July 2019
  • communism
  • In Between?
  • Albania

So I have been destroyed by politics… By nothing else, just the politics that was so bad that we needed to pay for it. […] We had been living so well. And after ’65, everything changed. All the mistakes of our government, it was us who had to pay for them, because they framed us as agents and spies and the reason they had failed to prosper1- recalls Vasilaq Orgocka, now a 86-years old Albanian gentleman who spent 19 years in communist prison simply for having a foreign wife.

But let’s start from the beginning. I met Vasilaq in Shkodra, during a study visit carried out as a part of the “In Between?” project. As one of my colleagues had already known him, I was familiar with some parts of his story even before we had the opportunity to talk and so was anxious to learn more. At first glance, Vasilaq might resemble any other Albanian senior citizen: grey hair, matching elegant suit and a wooden cane on which he relied for support. But there is one thing which distinguishes him from his other peers: to my an my colleague’s surprise, Vasilaq spoke fluent Polish – a language rather uncommon if not exotic in Albania, especially for somebody with no Polish roots.

Asked how he learned the language, he recalled how he studied geology at the Warsaw University of Technology in the early 1950s. At that time, a fellowship in Poland – one of Albania’s communist allies – constituted a reward for the most talented students. But his stay in Warsaw was not all study nor fun and games. Poland’s capital was among the cities which had been most ruined by the Second World War. “It was horrific after the war; whole Warsaw was destroyed. On Saturdays and Sundays, we walked around the buildings, working, rebuilding and being paid for that. But so much was destroyed! […] For instance, I worked on and cleaned up all of these leftovers from reconstructing the area where [shopping center] Smyk is located nowadays. I was not the only one, though. Everybody worked.”2 Later, when I had a chance to research the topic further, I would learn that it was actually mainly thanks to Albanian newcomers that the percentage of foreign students almost doubled in Poland in 1952 and that the Warsaw technical colleges were the most popular target Polish universities among the Albanian freshmen.3 But in that moment, I was just amazed that I had crossed half the continent to meet this gracious elderly gentleman who, so it happened, contributed to rebuilding Warsaw, my hometown.

And this was just the beginning of the many unexpected twists and turns in his life. In 1955, Vasilaq met his future wife, a Polish girl named Barbara, at one of the dance parties. She used to work at a laboratory in Southern Poland, but when Vasilaq returned to Albania in 1956, she decided to follow him, even though he had not asked her to do that. They got married and had two children together. He worked at a local mine, while she was employed at the beer factory nearby. Everything seemed to be going well.

But their life took a completely different turn after Enver Hoxha, the Albanian authoritarian head of state, decided to break ties with the Soviet Union in 1961. Suddenly, every foreign connection an Albanian citizen might have had become suspicious. Family and professional relations came under scrutiny; almost everything could serve as a pretext for prosecution – including having a foreign spouse. Many non-Albanian wives were put under surveillance. In best case scenario, they were allowed to get a divorce and forced to come back to their home country. If they were not so lucky or lacked influential friends who could protect them, they were interned or sentenced to prison4. The same applied to their husbands. In Vasilaq’s and Barbara’s case, Sigurimi officers (officers of the Albanian State Security) came to search their home and found a couple of golden coins hidden away as a precaution against difficult times. They used it as a pretence to accuse the wife of being a spy and dub Vasilaq the enemy’s aide and a traitor of his own country.

As a result, the couple got separated and imprisoned in different locations; their teenage children were entrusted to the care of the grandparents. Barbara was sentenced to 25 years in prison. After over three years of incarceration and torture, she was hospitalized and sent back to Poland, where she continued to suffer from physical and mental illnesses. She never fully recovered. Vasilaq first received the death penalty, which afterwards got commuted to imprisonment. He was hold in Spaç Prison, one of the most brutal political prisons of the Hoxha regime, for 17 years. He was beaten and tortured on a regular basis. When I asked him how he managed to maintain his Polish language skills even in such dire circumstances, he looked at me calmly and replied as if it was something to be expected: Every single day out there, I thought only in Polish.5

After being set free, what Vasilaq wanted most was to reunite with Barbara as soon as possible. He arranged a visit to Poland, only to discover that his wife barely recognized him anymore due to her mental illness. Sometimes she knew who he was, at other times she would accuse him of plotting against her government. She was too afraid to come back to Albania, and Vasilaq eventually decided against relocating to Poland. They lived separately till the end of her life. Their children moved to Warsaw to take care of their mother and eventually decided to settle down there. Vasilaq continues to regularly visit Poland to see his grandchildren, who, as he says, are already Polish. Barbara died in 2014.

For me personally, the interview with Vasilaq turned out to be an unexpected lesson of kindness, mercy and – maybe most importantly – strength. During our whole talk, whatever the topic at hand may be, Vasilaq managed to sustain a surprisingly pleasant or even lighthearted atmosphere, while never falling into banality or cliché. There was a feeling of sublime reverie, which remained in stark contrast with the actual facts being discussed. Asked whether he blamed anyone for the persecution, Vasilaq placidly replied he did not. He seemed to have reconciled himself to the past. Only temporary pauses and moments of silence in his monologue suggest this was not an easy thing for him to achieve.


The article has been created as an outcome of the In Between? study visit to the Prespa Lakes border region in 2017. To learn more about the project, visit its site:

>> More about the In Between? project


List of References

1 Vasilaq Orgocka interview, Szkoder (Albania), source: interview 23.09.2017

2 Vasilaq Orgocka interview, Szkoder (Albania), source: interview 23.09.2017

3 „Dzieje Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego po 1945 roku.”, Monumenta Universitatis Varsoviensis, 1816-2016, e-Monumenta_WUW 2016., source: www.wuw.pl/data/include/cms/monumenta-ebook/pdf/Dzieje-Uniwersytetu-Warszawskiego-po-1945.pdf access:19.01.2019

4 Interview with Małgorzata Rejmer, the author of book: “Mud sweeter than honey”, source: www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/8038-pytalam-o-najprostsze-rzeczy.html access: 19.01.2019

5 Vasilaq Orgocka interview, Szkoder (Albania), source: interview 23.09.2017

Photo of the publication Centenary of the Versailles Peace Treaty
Bartosz Dziewanowski-Stefańczyk

Centenary of the Versailles Peace Treaty

25 June 2019
  • First World War
  • treaty of versailles

On 28 June 1919, a German delegation entered the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles to sign what was to be known as the Versailles Treaty – the peace agreement ending the state of war between defeated Germany and the victorious Allied Powers. However, before they could enter the room, the German representatives had to pass a group of five French veterans with drastically disfigured faces seen as living proof of German guilt. The scene perfectly epitomised the common sentiments underlying the shape of the Versailles Treaty, a peace agreement to a large extent forgotten, even though its outcome affects Europe to this day and remains highly controversial.

The Versailles Treaty setting the conditions of Germany’s defeat was the first of several peace agreements signed as a result of the Paris Peace Conference, which took place from 18 January 1919 to 21 January 1920. The aim of proceedings was to officially end the First World War and create a new order in Europe. It was to prevent any future armed conflicts, draw new borders and settle reparations at the expense of the defeated Central Powers. The talks were led by the Council of Four (briefly preceded by the Council of Ten), which included US President Woodrow Wilson, French Prime Minister George Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, representatives of the most prominent countries among the victorious Allied Powers. The Council was also supported by 52 expert commissions. Those who lost, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, were not invited to the table and were expected to simply comply with the given conditions first formally articulated in the Versailles Treaty.

One of the most difficult issues influencing the Paris Peace Conference was, paradoxically, not how to reach a compromise between victors and losers, but among the victors themselves. The French, who had their north-eastern territories ravaged by war and lost one quarter of men age 18-27, set out to punish Germany. The British, on the other hand, feared French domination and were in favour of maintaining a balance of power on the continent, also due to economic reasons. Meanwhile, President Wilson sought to establish the upcoming European order on self-determination of nations and sought to ensure the new world order by creating an inter-governmental organisation known as the League of Nations.

For long, the German delegation was not aware of the issues discussed and conclusions reached, thus the final harsh shape of the treaty took it by surprise. Among its many points, the Versailles Treaty assigned full responsibility for the First World War (so-called war guilt) to Germany and its allies. The German army was restricted to 100,000 men and no air force, tanks, armoured cars or submarines were allowed. War reparations were to be fixed later. The sums varied over time. In 1921, liability was finally set at 132 billion gold marks (approx. 470.61 billion current US dollars). Most of the navy and the bulk of merchant shipping was to be delivered to Great Britain. Territorial changes, including, but not limited to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to France, province of Posen/Poznań and a large part of West Prussia to Poland, Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium, signified a loss of roughly 13% of Germany’s territory before 1914. Germany also lost all its colonies.

In Germany, the Versailles Treaty was perceived as a humiliation. German Prime Minister Philipp Scheidemann resigned and parliament managed to approve the treaty only 80 minutes before the deadline after which the start of a new war was to be expected. Even after being accepted by the government, the peace conditions were constantly challenged by various revisionist movements. This was in spite of other defeated countries incurring even worse peace terms. In order to understand the mood within German society, we must remember that Matthias Erzberger, the politician earlier who signed the armistice on 11 November 1918 on behalf of Germany, was murdered for this act by right-wing soldiers. The subsequent success of Adolf Hitler was also to a large extent founded on criticism of the peace treaty. Contradicting the “diktat” of Versailles remained a key provision of German foreign policy in the interwar period. Only the Second World War managed to erase the Versailles Treaty from the German collective memory, but not before the victorious Third Reich made the conquered French army sign the armistice of 1940 in the same train carriage, in which the German delegation had to sign the armistice in 1918. Poland, which benefited from the treaty, rather emphasised its own achievements in regaining its independence. In particular, it was forced to sign the Minority Peace Treaty, a part of the Versailles Treaty, that secured minority rights. In Hungary, on the other hand, the Paris Peace Conference, particularly the Trianon Peace Treaty, are still recalled as a traumatic experience.

Harsh conditions imposed on the losing side in a short-sighted manner were only one of the issues relating to the Versailles Treaty and other peace agreements signed as a result of the Paris Conference that continued to raise controversy. Another was the rule of self-determination that mainly served the victors, while leaving other groups excluded. It is often said that it was precisely due to this dissatisfaction that the Paris Conference did not achieve its aim of preventing future armed conflicts. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that the post-war order was also weakened by hyperinflation and the economic crisis of 1929-1935, as well as the American withdrawal from supporting the League of Nations. These were only some of the problems that arose when all the delegates left Paris.

Another popular view about the Paris Conference and its treaties is that they created nation states, as many Central and Eastern European nations were able to (re)establish their own countries following the break-up of the four pre-war grand empires. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the states that emerged, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, were in fact multinational in character, a matter that is often forgotten. Moreover, although one cannot underestimate the importance of the decisions made in Paris, the new order was to a large extent shaped simultaneously by the respective Central and Eastern European nations through the active use of political and military means. Thus, some of the agreements drafted in the French capital only confirmed already initiated changes, while in other instances the Paris decisions failed to ever be executed. Nevertheless, the victorious nations of East-Central Europe, by sending their envoys, could for the first time in their history, at least to some extent, speak for themselves.

Even with all controversies and collective memories filled with contradictions and omissions, one thing remains certain. The Versailles Treaty and the remainder of the Paris agreements created a new order whose remnants and consequences still shape the Europe of today.


W. Borodziej, ’Wersal, Jałta i Poczdam. Jak problem polsko-niemiecki zmienił historię powszechną’, in: ‘Paralele’, in: Polsko-niemieckie miejsca pamięci, v. 3, H. H. Hahn, R. Traba, cooperation: M. Górny, K. Kończal, Warszawa 2012

R. Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, New York 2016

H. Konrad, ‘Drafting the Peace’, in: ‘The State’, in: The Cambridge History of the First World War, ed. J. Winter, Cambridge 2014

J. Leonhard, Die Büchse der Pandora. Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs, München 2014

A. Sharp, The Versailles Settlement. Peacemaking in Paris, 1919, London 1994

Photo of the publication Kristallnacht
Jolinke Golbach


13 November 2018
  • Jews
  • interwar
  • Kristallnacht
  • 9 November
  • 1938
  • Antisemitism

On the night of 9 November 1938 violence against the Jewish population erupted in many cities throughout the Third Reich.

Businesses and houses were demolished, synagogues were put on fire and Jews were harassed, arrested and physically abused. This night became known as the Kristallnacht – or in English the Night of Broken Glass – after the glass splinters of the numerous broken windows.

The direct inducement for the Kristallnacht was the shooting and following death of Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris. The perpetrator was Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen year old Polish Jew who grew up in Germany and studied in Paris. His family was expelled from Germany to Poland in October 1938, together with about fourteen thousand others. The Polish authorities refused to let the Jews enter, which led to thousands of people getting stuck by the border in bare conditions for weeks. As a protest to the way his family was treated, Grynszpan went to the German embassy on 7 November 1938 where he shot vom Rath.

The expulsion of the Polish Jews was not the first anti-Jewish policy of the Nazis. Several laws aimed at the exclusion of Jews from the German social, cultural and economic life had been introduced since the Nazi's seizure of power in 1933. One of the most outstanding policies was the implementation of the Nuremberg laws of 1935, including the Reich Citizenship Law that determined who was a Jew. As a result, those identified as Jews lost their German citizen's rights. The policies were intended to force Jews to flee the country, yet they also laid the foundations for the anti-Semitic acts of violence which had been occurring in these years in the Third Reich.

The Nazi leadership, however, still sought an opportunity to culminate the aggression and the attack on vom Rath provided them with the necessary pretext for which they had been waiting. The German media, instructed by the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, reported massively on the attack, calling for revenge. In reaction, several riots occurred in the following days. Vom Rath eventually died on 9 November, the same day as the commemoration of the Beer Hall Putsch1 was taking place. Hitler and Goebbels received the news of his death in the midst of the celebrations. Hitler left the festivities without giving his annual address. Instead, Goebbels delivered a speech in which he strongly condemned the 'Jewish' attack and used the opportunity to encourage people to take revenge. He informed the gathered crowd that the Nazi party would not organise any official demonstrations, but assured that if the German people wished to take action, they would not be interrupted by the police.

This 'permission' from Goebbels ignited a pogrom against Jews throughout the Third Reich. The outbreak of violence was portrayed as spontaneous, yet it mostly occurred under the leadership of the Sturmabteilung (SA) which was acting on instructions from the government. On the night of 9 November and during the following day, 267 synagogues were put on fire and Torah scrolls and other ritual objects were destroyed. Jewish houses and over 7.000 businesses were ransacked and demolished, while the Jewish people had to endure harassment, rape and beatings. Approximately 100 Jews died as a result of the attacks. The police and fire departments were instructed to not interfere unless German property or foreign people were endangered. Furthermore, the orders demanded the arrest of 30.000 healthy Jewish men, who would be send to concentration camps. In many places the violence continued until the night of 10 November and in some cases even endured for several days.

During the events, a significant minority did actively participate in the acts of violence, but the greatest part of German society remained bystanders and afterwards condemned the actions of the Kristallnacht. The disapproval, however, often did not come from empathy for the Jewish compatriots, but from the distaste for chaos caused by the pogrom. The German government responded by collectively fining the Jewish population. An amount of one billion Marks had to be paid for reparations of the destructions, while all the insurance money of the Jewish people was confiscated by the state.

The events of the Kristallnacht made it abundantly clear that it was not safe for Jews to stay in Germany, and thus led to an increase in Jewish emigration – something the German government did not object. As a result, some countries decided to heighten their immigrant quotas. The British government, for example, formalized the Kindertransport: Jewish children and teenagers from the Third Reich were given the opportunity to migrate to the United Kingdom. Yet while the international community condemned the Kristallnacht, no real diplomatic repercussions were undertaken.

The events of 1938 constituted the first open pogrom against Jews in the Third Reich – and the last, due to the citizens' disapproval of the public chaos. The Kristallnacht demonstrated, however, that the German society was not opposing extreme measures against Jews per se, which encouraged the Nazi officials to take their policies even further, just in a more discreet manner. The pogrom is therefore generally regarded by scholars as a prelude to the Holocaust.

by Jolinke Golbach

1 Hitler's coup attempt on 8-9 November 1923 is called the Beer Hall Putsch after the starting point in the Bürgerbräu Keller in Munich. The coup failed, but was celebrated in Nazi history.

Bard, Mitchell G., 48 Hours of Kristallnacht. Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust: An Oral History,The Lyons Press, Guilford, 2008.
Benz, Wolfgang, A Concise History of the Third Reich, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.
Bergen, Doris L., War and Genocide. A Concise History of the Holocaust, Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Plymouth, 2009.
Roseman, Mark, "The Holocaust in European History" in Doumanis, Nicholas (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of European History, 1914-1945, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.
Steinweis, Alan E., Kristallnacht 1938, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009.

Photo of the publication Candle Manifestation of 1988
Peter Jašek

Candle Manifestation of 1988

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • 20th century history
  • End of Communism
  • Velvet Revolution
  • 1988
  • Candle Manifestation
  • Soviet Union

The day communism began to fall in Slovakia.

The anniversary of the 25 March 1988 Candle Manifestation is an annual event that resonates deeply with Slovak society as a symbol of Slovak resistance to the communist regime. Its ethos of non-violent protest could be also seen as an important one for the neighbouring countries, especially those behind the Iron Curtain.


It began in exile

A less-known fact is that the idea of organising a manifestation in defence of religious freedoms and human rights arose in the Slovak political exile, precisely within the Slovak World Congress (SWC). This was actually a rather logical consequence of the long-term activities of the Congress, which since its inception in 1970 had not only brought together most of the exiled Slovaks but under the leadership of the chairman Štefan Roman also made considerable efforts to fight the communist regime and Slovaks' right to self-determination.

At the SWC General Assembly in July 1987 in Toronto, Marián Šťastný, a famous ice hockey player, was elected the Congress's vice-chairman. Influenced by reports from Slovakia, especially those concerning the murder of priest Štefan Polák in October 1987, he devised a response that would resonate with the world's public and also constitute an act of defiance against violation of religious freedoms and human rights in Slovakia. The protest was to take the form of manifestations in front of the Czechoslovakian embassies in democratic countries. He selected 25 March as the scheduled event date - it may be a coincidence that this date was also his name day. He also resolved to reach out to people in Slovakia.

Today it is difficult to believe that news of the prepared demonstration in Slovakia had to be smuggled to leading Slovak dissident Ján Čarnogurský by Šťastný's mother-in-law sewn into the lining of her hat and written on chocolate paper.


Preparations for the demo

The normalisation leadership in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1980s was no longer the same regime that sent hundreds to the gallows, further thousands down uranium mines, or which conducted the thorough screening and marginalisation of tens of thousands who didn't believe the August 1968 occupation was really an international aid. Gorbachev's perestroika from 1985 not only changed relations between the superpowers, but also the attitude towards satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Brezhnev's 1968 imposed doctrine of international obligation 'to protect the achievements of socialism' was replaced by Gorbachev with Sinatra's My Way, as the eastern bloc began to crumble.

Although scarcely perceptible from the outside, the Czechoslovakian regime - which had lost foreign support - was shaken internally too: from the end of the 1960s, the aged government leadership slowly and without fanfare faded from the scene. The emerging generation may also had been pushing for Gorbachev's inspirational reconstruction, but they lacked the scope and possibly also abilities. Although they introduced partial reforms which liberalised the regime, they couldn't change its nature. That's why the authorities were still in the position to persecute actual as well as supposed opponents; shots were fired on the border with the West, State Security forces continued to bully and intimidate the opposition, anti-Church atheistic propaganda did not lose momentum, political trials were conducted, and oppression did not weaken.

All this went hand-in-hand with increased dissident activity. With Gorbachev's ascent, Dubček was emboldened, dissidents from the Hungarian minority became more prominent encouraged by the impression of a relaxed situation in Hungary, and previously forbidden names reappeared in artistic circles. Increasing numbers of people - who had previously remained only passive observers - stood up to oppose the regime. The October 1987 edition of the Bratislava/nahlas publication openly criticised living conditions in Bratislava, which indicated that normalisation's 'time without history' was coming to a dramatic end.

Other key signs of gradual change came from religious believers. Crowds numbering tens of thousands packed one Slovak pilgrimage site after another, the number of religious samizdat publications grew, and when at the beginning of 1988 a petition was launched for genuine religious freedom, tens of thousands people signed in their own names.

In was in this atmosphere that Šťastný's message about the prepared demonstrations found fertile ground within the secret church. And like the biblical seed, it yielded abundant crops The words of a leader of the Fatima Community, Rudolf Fibyh 'I have a candle as well as the will' became the catalyst for the secret church's involvement in upcoming events. Opposition activist František Mikloško shouldered the demanding task of convening the demonstration planned for Hviezdoslav Square in Bratislava.


Victory of Truth

From the very first moment that the demonstration was announced, it was clear that a fundamental encounter between citizens and the normalisation regime would take place. The announced programme envisioned a silent manifestation supporting the appointment of bishops for vacant dioceses in Slovakia, and the upholding of complete religious freedom and human rights in Czechoslovakia. Endorsement of these ideas was to be expressed by the lighting of candles. Information about the manifestation was largely circulated by foreign radio stations such as Vatican Radio, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America where Slovak journalist Anton Hlinka worked and promoted the event in the West. Equally important information channels were secret church structures, whose activists constituted a network throughout Slovakia.

On the other hand, the communist authorities - which viewed the manifestation as a political provocation - set out to prevent it from being held, or to minimise the number of protesters via various disruptive measures overseen by a specially convened commission. And sure enough, the regime utilised all the 'weapons' at its disposal: it mobilised party apparatus; propaganda machinery released news articles and television broadcasts to discredit the organisers and denounce the demonstration as 'an abuse of religious feelings' and an event organised by the West's 'bourgeois propaganda centres'; universities gave students holiday, forcing them to travel home from their accommodation, and threatened expulsions; several cultural diversion activities were organised, including an extraordinary television screening of the Western film Angélique.

Various security methods were used for the ruthless suppression of the demonstration: publicly - limiting transport and mobilising emergency units; by the state - summoning and detaining known secret church activists; and practically - with a series of preventive measures, threats and intimidation. Even the municipal authority services prepared street cleaning vehicles, using a pre-Easter deluge as a pretext.

The anticipated encounter landed a crushing victory for the demonstrators, and the regime suffered a moral debacle that profoundly shook its confidence in Slovakia and reputation abroad. Despite the security measures, thousands of people gathered. Their candles were not dimmed by the spring rain on the March evening, nor the incursions by the yellow-white police cars, street cleaning vehicles, or water cannons. The 30-minute manifestation in Bratislava - which the protesters attended despite the security forces' repressive measures - once again revealed the regime's true colours and its inability to solve accumulated social problems in any way other than through repression.


Precursor to the Velvet Revolution

Global public opinion strongly condemned the response of the Czechoslovakian authorities against the believers. From the Slovak perspective, it was very important that the manifestation showed virtually the whole world that there was active resistance against the communist regime in Slovakia - so that at least briefly, the future country became known to the world's people as a separate entity, not only part of Czechoslovakia. The European Parliament referred to the 'Slovak city of Bratislava' in its resolution condemning the attack on the protesters.

The manifestation also showed an effective way in which to fight the normalisation regime. It was the ethos of non-violent resistance, symbolised in this case by lighting candles, reciting Rosary prayers, and singing religious songs, which thanks to their transcendental nature and moral prevalence showed what had seemed impossible - to stand against armed forces of a seemingly omnipotent regime, and in a direct confrontation achieve a moral victory. This was what destroyed the communist authorities' illusion that it could intimidate and discourage people from their hope for a free life. With its non-violent resistance, this manifestation also heralded the 'gentle' nature of the fall of the communist regime and the transition to democracy in 1989. This 'Gandhi' form of protest with religious undertones can also be highlighted as Slovakia's special contribution to the fight against communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

In retrospect, it may seem equally important that the manifestation (similarly as previous petition campaigns) proved that in the environment of Catholic dissent - as the dominant component of anti-communist resistance in Slovakia (like the fertile ground of the exiled Slovaks) - there was resistance to the regime; and that such resistance was founded on democratic principles based on human and civil rights, as well as the fight for religious freedom.

Article by Peter Jašek

The original version of the text was first published at postoj.sk

Photo of the publication The Prague Spring
Cătălina Vrabie

The Prague Spring

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • 1968
  • 20th century history
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Prague Spring
  • Eastern Bloc
  • Soviet Union

In early 1968, Czechoslovakia was witnessing a process of liberalisation under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. As the newly appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party, Dubček tried to establish 'socialism with a human face' by launching a series of far-reaching reforms. This brief period of time became known as the Prague Spring and it ended with the joint military invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and several other Warsaw Pact states.

The opportunity for crucial change in Czechoslovakia came on 5 January 1968, when Slovak Alexander Dubček replaced the hardline Czech communist Antonin Novotný as the First Secretary of the Communist Party. Dubček was aware of the growing popular discontent in the country and acknowledged the necessity for change, albeit with the Communist Party as the main driving force behind these changes. Following Dubček's appointment, demands for reforms increased. Several pressure groups emerged within the Czechoslovak society, encompassing a series of demands, such as the rehabilitation of the previous purge victims, the abolition of censorship, economic decentralisation and the exclusion of the Communist Party from other areas outside of politics.

The first few months under Dubček's leadership did indeed bring about notable changes. Reformers gradually replaced supporters of Novotný in the state apparatus and the leading bodies of the party. Censorship became more relaxed and the national press started to attack the previous government by publishing stories of corruption concerning Novotný and other officials who were close to him.

However, the major turning point came with the launch of the Action Programme in April 1968. This political scheme was underpinned with the Dubček's vision of 'socialism with a human face', a form of socialism through which the gap between the party and society would be narrowed.

Given that the most stringent need was that of an economic reform, the plan called for a minimum intervention of the state in economic affairs. The Soviet model of centrally planned economy proved to be highly damaging for Czechoslovakia, putting a strain on both local and national initiative. Under the new scheme, the role of the government was to be limited to general economic policy and long-term planning. Both industrial enterprises and agricultural cooperatives were provided with greater freedom in finding new markets. Furthermore, full equality in economic relations was to be instituted between Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R.

Another crucial aspect of the Action Programme was the granting of individual rights and liberties. Complete freedom of speech, debate, association, and travel were to be established for the citizens of Czechoslovakia. At the same time, following pressure from the former political prisoners who had been wrongfully prosecuted until 1968, arbitrary arrest was forbidden, and the courts were provided with a greater authority. The Action Programme also put into question the nature of the party's leading role in Czechoslovakia. Whereas the Communist Party was still holding the reins of power in the state, it was proclaimed that the Party should be more responsive to the feelings of the society as a whole. Therefore, according to the Programme, the Party was supposed to win over the population in a genuine way, by encouraging freedom of expression and assembly.
Last but not least, a Czecho-Slovak federation was proclaimed, following complaints voiced by Slovaks that the government was ruling asymmetrically, favouring Czechs. The legislative power in Slovakia was to be held by the Slovak national council and the Slovak council of ministers became the executive authority in Bratislava. Eventually, this came to be the only measure adopted during the Prague Spring that was kept after its suppression.

The changes in Czechoslovakia were anxiously observed by the Soviet Union, but also by the other states of the Eastern bloc. Dubček had repeatedly proclaimed the country's commitment to socialism and to the Warsaw Pact, and had even gone to Moscow immediately after his appointment. But the Soviet leaders were worried that the enthusiasm generated by the reforms would push Dubček in an even more liberal direction, thus endangering the stability of the satellite bloc.

Thus, the Prague Spring was forcefully put to an end on the night of 20/21 August 1968, with the invasion by the military forces of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, including the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. Almost all of the reforms that were established during Dubček's stay in power were eliminated, and Czechoslovakia entered a period of the so-called normalisation, which meant the return to the previous political model.

The Prague Spring is said to have inspired Mikhail Gorbachev with his reform policies of Glasnost and Perestroika. Today, together with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Solidarność movement in Poland in the 1980's, the Prague Spring is considered a key event in the history of the Eastern Bloc, which paved the way for the collapse of communist regimes in Europe.

by Cătălina Vrabie

Calvocoressi, Peter, World Politics since 1945, Pearson Longman, 2008
Crampton, R.J., Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century and After, Routledge, London and New York, 1997
Dowling, Maria, Czechoslovakia, Arnold, London, 2002