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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

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

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.


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Sawaniewska-Mochowa, Zofia and Zielińska, Anna (2007) Dziedzictwo kultury szlacheckiej na byłych Kresach północno-wschodniej Rzeczypospolitej: ginąca część kultury europejskiej [Legacy of Noble Culture in the Former Eastern Borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: a Disappearing Part of European Culture] Warsaw: Slavic Publishing Center - Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Torkarczuk, Olga (2017) Flights. Translated into English by Jennifer Croft. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Traba, Robert (2009) Przeszłość w teraźniejszości. Polskie spory o historię na początku XXI wieku [The Past in the Present: Polish Historical Debates at the Beginning of the 21st Century], Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie.

Wells, Chloe (2016) Eating Karelia: the Geography, History, and Memory of Karelian Pies, Carelica, 2016 (2), 72–82.

Welzer, Harald, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall (2002) Opa War Kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus Und Holocaust Im Familiengedächtnis. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch.

Wimmer, Andreas and Glick Schiller, Nina (2002) Methodological Nationalism and Beyond. Nation-state Building, Migration and the Social Sciences, Global Networks, 2, 301-334.

Wylegała, Anna (2015) The Absent ‘Others’: A Comparative Study of Memories of Displacement in Poland and Ukraine, Memory Studies 8 (4) 1-17.

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.

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

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

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/

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Fruzsina Czeglédi

Visegrad Cooperation

21 August 2018
  • Lech Wałęsa
  • 1991
  • Visegrád Group
  • end of the 20th century

The V4 countries, the Visegrad Group or Visegrad Four – these terms appear quite often when Central-European politics are discussed. But what is the story behind them?

The Visegrad Four, also known as the V4 group, consist of four Central European countries: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The name "Visegrad" comes from the middle ages and constitutes a reference to a cooperation between the Bohemian King John of Luxembourg, Casimir III of Poland, and the Hungarian King Charles I of Anjou. In 1335 the three monarchs met for a two-month congress in order to address common threats and issues being faced by the region at that time. The summit took place in Visegrad, the royal seat of Charles I of Hungary, located on a top of a hill (hence the name Visegrad – Slavic for "high castle"). The Congress of Visegrad is considered to be the starting point for the political and economic cooperation between the countries in the region. Its outcome comprised of various financial and trade agreements, peace treaties, and even a marriage contract between Bohemian and Polish dynasties, Luxembourgs and Piasts. The collaboration in the middle ages determined relations between the states until the end of the 14th century.

The idea of common regional goals resulting from a similar regional history proved to be even more durable, however, as it resurfaced again at the end of the 20th century. As the communist regimes collapsed, it was obvious that a new political and economic order was underway. But what role would the Central and East European countries play in the new Europe? To some politicians, similar heritages of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland predisposed them to partner up and to create a common, stronger standpoint from which the negotiations with other European countries could be carried out. As Vaclav Havel, the President of Czechoslovakia commented: "Can we agree that we do not wish to place obstacles in each other's way, or even envy each other, but on the contrary, that we want to assist each other?".

The official recommendation to renew the Visegrad cooperation was given by József Antall, the Hungarian Prime Minister, in Paris in 1990. The Visegrad Declaration was signed on 15 February 1991 by Vaclav Havel, József Antall, and Lech Wałęsa, the President of Poland. The agreement was built upon political guidelines such as: construction of democratic systems, elimination of totalitarian legal remnants, implementation of the rule of law, creation of liberal economies and fulfilling the requirements for joining the European Union.

After the initial emphasis on the political issues, the focus had then shifted more onto cultural and educational matters. The Bratislava-based International Visegrad Fund – so far the only institutionalized form of V4 cooperation – was created in 2000 for the purpose of supporting cultural, research and educational projects, as well as of intensifying contacts between Visegrad societies. The V4 countries organise as well several platforms where representatives of the member countries and also non-V4 participants can discuss issues ranging from history to information technologies or current political developments, such as Think Visegrad (V4 Think-Thank Platform), Think BDPST conference and numerous projects supported by IVF, including the 2017 editions of the In Between? project.

By Fruzsina Czeglédi

Jolinke Golbach

Warsaw Pact invades Czechoslovakia

15 April 2018
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Czechoslovak Republic
  • Warsaw Pact

On the night of 20 upon 21 August 1968, tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. A coalition of troops under the leadership of the Soviet Union invaded the country under the pretence of 'fraternal assistance'. In reality, the intervention had the objective to put an end to the Prague Spring and to regain the control over the Czechoslovak society.

Year 1968 for many European countries constituted a turning point marked by ideological and political unrest. This was also the case for Czechoslovakia, where its newly-elected general secretary Alexander Dubček introduced the 'Action Plan', initiating a period of political liberalisation (later to be known as the Prague Spring). His reformist policies focused on the construction of 'socialism with a human face', leading to the allocation of more freedoms and fuelling a more critical public debate.

The other Warsaw Pact member states1 observed these developments with great anxiety. The leaders of Poland, the German Democratic Republic and Bulgaria expressed their concerns about the 'counterrevolutionary forces' in the Czechoslovak society which – as they insisted – wanted to take the socialist party down and would spill over to the rest of the socialist bloc. The internal Czechoslovak affairs were regarded by them as a threat for the whole socialist bloc; active intervention was therefore perceived as justified. Representatives of the Soviet Union and Hungary had a somewhat more moderate stance and were reluctant towards a military operation. They focused more on finding a political solution to reverse the developments in Czechoslovakia. Romania, isolated within the Warsaw Pact due to its independent foreign policy, was the only country whose leader Nicolae Ceaușescu kept supporting Dubček, seeing him as a potential ally within the Warsaw Pact.

In the months leading up to the invasion, Dubček was put under more and more pressure from all sides. While the Czechoslovak people wanted to take the reforms even further, the socialist party of Czechoslovakia became increasingly divided over Dubček's reforms. Moreover, the Warsaw Five (the Warsaw Pact countries with the exception of Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Albania) repeatedly urged Dubček to take back control over the Czechoslovak society.

The situation changed drastically in the beginning of August 1968, after a conference between the Warsaw Five and Czechoslovakia was held in Bratislava. The hardliners within the Czechoslovak socialist party under the leadership of Vasil Biľak seized this opportunity to give a secret letter to the representatives of the Soviet Union. They expressed a conviction that only an external 'fraternal assistance' – in other words military intervention – could safeguard socialism in Czechoslovakia and in the rest of the bloc.

On the night of 20 upon 21 August 1968, 170 000 Soviet troops together with combat units from Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary and a liaison unit from the GDR marched into Czechoslovakia2. The Czechoslovak socialist party had been forewarned right before the invasion. The army was instructed not to resist the incoming troops and Dubček called on the Czechoslovak people to follow the same line. Although no violent resistance occurred, the invasion was met with protest; strikes, petitions, posters, graffiti and mass demonstrations revealed the societal dissatisfaction. The lack of violent resistance did not however prevent casualties. More than 70 Czechoslovak people were killed and hundreds were injured.

While the society opposed the invasion, Dubček was brought to Moscow for negotiations. Soon it became evident that his immediate removal was not an option, as the hardliners within the Czechoslovak party failed to win enough support for such a plan. Ultimately, the negotiations led to the signing of the 'Moscow Protocol' – the first step towards the so-called 'normalization' during which all Prague Spring reforms (except for one3) were reversed and the socialist party regained full control over society. The following year, the reformists within the socialist party were dismissed and eventually, Gustáv Husák took over Dubček's position. The resistance within the Czechoslovak society died out quickly after the military intervention and an apolitical attitude was adopted instead.

On the international level, the relations between Czechoslovakia and the Warsaw Five became heavily disrupted. Moreover, in response to the intervention the Albanian leaders decided to officially withdraw its membership from the Warsaw Pact. In addition, the Brezhnev Doctrine was introduced, which retrospectively justified the invasion of 1968. It approved intervention if forces, both in- and external, threatened socialism. This would be the Soviet foreign policy until the 1980s.

by Jolinke Golbach

Anthony Kemp-Welch, "Eastern Europe: Stalinism to Solidarity", in Melvyn P. Leffler & Odd Arne Westad (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Volume II Crisis and Détente, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Laura Cashman, "Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History", Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 60, no. 10, 2008, p.1645–1658.
Laurien Crump, The Warsaw Pact Reconsidered: International Relations in Eastern Europe, 1955-1969, Routledge, 2015.
Mark Kramer, "The Prague Spring and the Soviet Invasion in Historical Perspective", in Günter Bischof, Stefan Karner & Peter Ruggenthaler (eds.), The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Lexington Books, 2010.





1 The Warsaw Pact was established in 1955 as the counterpart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Member states included Albania (until 1968), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. Albania withheld its support for the Pact in 1961 and was therefore excluded ever since. The Pact was dissolved in 1991.

2 Despite the Soviet leadership over the invasion and their big contribution to the troops, the invasion was not exclusively Soviet. Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Poland also contributed to the operation. However, it was not an official Warsaw Pact invasion, since Romania and Czechoslovakia did not agree nor contribute to the invasion.

3 Czechoslovakia was federalized into two equal republics; the Czech and the Slovak Republic. The policy was the only change of the Prague Spring that survived during the normalization.

Mykola Makhortykh

Remediating violence: Second World War memory on Wikipedia

20 Feburary 2018
  • Second World War
  • commemoration
  • violence
  • Wikipedia
  • Battle of Kyiv 1943


The article examines how memory of past violence is remediated online and how its remediation interacts with contemporary collective traumas in post-socialist countries. For this purpose, it examines how a single episode of the Second World War – the Battle of Kyiv of 1943 – is represented and interacted with on Wikipedia. Using web content analysis, the article traces the evolution of narratives of past violence in different language versions of the encyclopedia and explores how the current conflict in Ukraine affects the refashioning of Second World War memory in digital media.

Remediating violence: Second World War memory on Wikipedia

The impact of remediation – that is, the process of refashioning existing media formats in new media (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 45) – on individual and collective remembrance is one of the trending subjects in the field of memory studies.1 Mass media play a key role in representation of the present and the past alike, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann noted (Luhmann 2000, 102). Instead of being ‘passive and transparent conveyors of information’ (Erll 2008, 3), they set the agenda for current and future acts of remembrance and determine how the past is represented and understood. Consequently, the transition of memories between different media has significant impact on the dynamics of remembrance, which, as memory scholars Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney note, is increasingly dependent on media technologies and circulation of media products (Erll and Rigney 2009, 3).

The growing interest towards remediation of memory has resulted in a number of academic works that examine interactions between digital media and traumatic memories in the post-socialist states.2 The importance of this particular area is related to the disproportionate politicization of culturalremembrance that leads to frequent ‘memory wars’ (Blacker, Etkind and Fedor 2013) among the regional actors as well as the significant impact of digital media on transformation of the local memory landscape (Rutten and Zvereva 2013). Remediation of the traumatic past – in particular, Second World War memory – has also became intertwined with media coverage of the Ukraine crisis, which started in 2013 with anti-government protests in Kyiv that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, followed by the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, often known as the war in Donbass. A number of scholars (Gaufman 2015; Siddi 2017) note extensive use of Second World War memory for explaining and interpreting the crisis on mainstream and digital media. However, until now the impact of current collective traumas, such as the war in Donbass, on the remediation of past violence in the region remains remains a pressing but understudied subject.

The article addresses this shortcoming by examining how a single Second World War episode – the Battle of Kyiv of 1943 – is represented and interacted with on Wikipedia. Not only is this episode an important milestone in the Second World War, it is also a recurring source of historical controversy between Ukraine and Russia. By exploring how traumatic memories of this event are conveyed on Wikipedia, which is both the world’s largest online encyclopedia and one of the most popular websites in the post-socialist space,3 this article strives to trace the evolution of narratives of past violence online and to explore how the current conflict in Ukraine affects the remediation of Second World War memory in the post-socialist countries.

Wikipedia and cultural memory: literature review

Remediation of war memories is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back at least to the middle of the 19th century, when the media coverage of wars and conflicts was increasingly adapted for mass consumption (Keller 2001, 251). The development of information and communication technologies led to the intensification of this process in 1960s and 1970s, when it brought a ‘memory boom’ (Winter 2011) that transformed Second World War memory, in particular Holocaust remembrance. A few decades later, as media scholars Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin argue, the distribution of digital technologies resulted in a new memory boom that radically changed the remembrance of contemporary conflicts (Hoskins and O’Loughlin 2010, 131). Not only did they enable ‘a far greater intensive andextensive connectivity’ between the forms, agents and discourses of memory (Hoskins 2009, 40), but they also opened up new possibilities for memory production and circulation, distinguished by low costs and a potentially high impact (de Cesari and Rigney 2014, 12).

The digital memory boom affected not only recent traumatic memories, but also the ones that have already experienced the process of memorialization in the pre-digital time. A number of studies suggest that the distribution of digital commemorative practices has had a significant impact on the remembrance of conflicts, such as the Second World War.4 The consequences of the remediation of older memories of violence through digital media remain, however, a subject of scholarly debate. The existing works offer contrasting assessments that vary from the formation of more inclusive narratives of conflicts that challenge hegemonic interpretations of the past (Trubina 2010) to the propagation of mutually exclusive interpretations of traumatic historical episodes that ignite disagreements between their adherents (Nikiporets-Takigawa 2013).

Wikipedia is one of the digital platforms, the impact of which on collective remembrance is widely recognized both in post-socialist countries and worldwide. Christian Pentzold, a German communication scholar, argues that production of Wikipedia articles can be viewed as process of the ‘discursive construction of the past’, which involves a transition from communicative memory that is debated on the encyclopedia’s discussion pages to cultural memory that takes the form of encyclopedia’s articles (Pentzold 2009, 264). A number of studies argue that the platform can be viewed as a transnational space that facilitates the production of a fundamentally pluralistic historical knowledge (Hardy 2007), or as a digital forum that sustains consensus-building vis-à-vis contentious pasts (Dounaevsky 2013). Yet others theorize the site as an online platform that enforces hegemonic memory narratives (Luyt 2011) or a mnemonic battleground on which different views of the past clash (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).

The interactions between Wikipedia and Second World War memory in the post-socialist space has attracted significant scholarly attention in the recent years;5 however, the existing assessments of the encyclopedia’s impact on war remembrance in the area paint different pictures. Helene Dounaevsky, a communication scholar, argues that Wikipedia facilitates creation of ‘a special type of historical knowledge’ which is characterized by uncertaintyand polyphonism that challenge hegemonic interpretations of the Second World War (Dounaevsky 2013). By contrast, an interdisciplinary team of researchers demonstrates in their study of Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in 1940s and 1950s, that different versions of the encyclopedia tend to transmit local narratives of Second World War (Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014), thus promoting a ‘linguistic point of view’ of the past (Massa and Scrinzi 2013). The current study attempts to investigate further the platform’s impact on the complex memory landscape of the region and examine how its interaction with Second World War memory is affected by the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Battle of Kyiv: historical background

In autumn 1943, Soviet troops approached Kyiv, the former capital of Soviet Ukraine, which was seized by the Germans two years earlier. At the end of September, Soviet units managed to capture a number of bridgeheads on the German-controlled right bank of the River Dnieper; the largest of those were the Lyutezh and Bukrin bridgeheads. In the weeks that followed, the Red Army made several attempts to seize the city; however, none of them were successful, due to the heavy losses sustained while crossing the River Dnieper and the difficult terrain on the right bank. Soviet losses were particularly high at the Bukrin bridgehead, originally envisioned as a primary bridgehead for capturing Kyiv.

The unsuccessful October operations led the Soviet High Command to relocate Soviet forces to the Lyutezh bridgehead, from where a massive offensive was staged on 3 November. This operation was preceded by another attack from the Bukrin bridgehead on 1–2 November; according to the Ukrainian historian Victor Korol, this distracting manoeuvre resulted in huge losses among Soviet ranks (Korol 2003). The rapid advancement of the Soviet troops from the Lyutezh bridgehead, however, proved to be unexpected for the German command and on the morning of 6 November – the anniversary of the October Revolution and the most important state holiday in the Soviet Union – Soviet forces recaptured the Ukrainian capital.

The successful actions of the Red Army during the Battle of Kyiv had a profound impact on the course of the war. The capture of Kyiv led to the destabilization of the German front and a rapid Soviet advance in 1944; furthermore, it had great ideological significance, and was used to the fullest by Soviet propaganda (Shulzhenko and Tykhonenko 2013). The propaganda, however, omitted the high losses suffered by the Red Army, estimations of which vary from 133,000 (Gorelov and Grutsyk 2013) to 270,000 (Levitas 2012) dead and wounded. Today, however, a number of Ukrainian scholars argue that the high death toll was a consequence of the Soviet High Command’s intent to liberate Kyiv for the anniversary date of the October Revolution (Korol 2005, 22), which spurred the massive mobilization of Ukrainian men who were often sent to battle unprepared and – according to a few testimonies – insufficiently armed (Koval 1999, 95–96).

After the end of the war, the Battle of Kyiv quickly became an integral part of the Great Patriotic War myth, which would later be instrumental in the creation of a common public identity in the Soviet Union. During the Khrushchev period, 6 November became an official holiday – the Day of the Liberation of Kyiv – and the actions of the Red Army were unequivocally praised in Soviet historiography (Hrynevych 2005). A number of monuments commemorating the battle appeared in Kyiv in the post-war period; however, the majority of them were dedicated to the Soviet High Command, whereas the sacrifices of rank-and-file soldiers remained largely ignored. While in the late 1970s a few monuments dedicated to ordinary soldiers appeared in the Ukrainian capital, these monuments usually commemorated soldiers who were fighting at the Lyutezh bridgehead; in contrast, the Bukrin bridgehead, where the bloodiest clashes took place, remained forgotten (Makhortykh 2014).

While in Ukraine the annual Soviet-style celebration of the liberation of Kyiv continued after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a number of Ukrainian scholars (Ginda 2010; Korol 2003; Koval 1999) started questioning existing interpretations of the event. The revision of the Soviet narrative made it possible to integrate those traumatic memories that had been left out of the glorious story of the liberation into the public discourse of the Second World War; yet, a number of scholars note that the rewriting of history in Ukraine led to the formation of new myths, which emphasized the martyrdom of the Ukrainian people (Jilge 2008; Portnov and Portnova 2010). In the case of the Battle of Kyiv, this shift toward ‘competing victimhood’ (Jilge 2008) resulted in the deglorification of the event and the propagation of a view of the battle as a Soviet crime against the Ukrainian people (Korol 2005) or even an instance of genocide (Ginda 2010).

These radical revisions of the existing narrative of the glorious liberation turned the Battle of Kyiv into one of the problematic issues inUkrainian–Russian memory relations. Despite significant challenges to the Great Patriotic War narrative in early 1990s, the cultural memory of Second World War in Russia experienced significantly fewer changes than in Ukraine. The revival of the Soviet war narrative in Russia in the beginning of the 2000s further contributed to the rise of memory wars between the two countries, especially concerning the question of Soviet war crimes. This memory warfare was not limited to academic historiographies and, instead, became increasingly present in political debates in Ukraine and Russia; these debates became more intense during the Ukraine crisis, when the Battle of Kyiv was referenced as a predecessor of the Russian aggression against Ukraine (Fed’ko 2017; Lebid’ 2017).

Sections, edits, and posts: methodology

In order to investigate how Wikipedia is used for remediating past violence, I examined articles that deal with the capture of Kyiv in Ukrainian (‘Bytva za Kyiv (1943)’), Russian (‘Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’), Polish (‘Bitwa o Kijów (1943)’) and English (‘Battle of Kiev (1943)’) versions of Wikipedia. The former three versions are the largest Eastern European versions of the encyclopedia (‘List of Wikipedias’) and are of particular relevance for the process of remediation of the past in the region (Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014; Makhortykh 2017). The reason the English version is included is that it relates to its unique position as a global memory platform that hosts the most diverse community of editors (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).

For the implementation of my analysis, I used versions of all the articles as retrieved on 1 December 2017: I started by comparing the ways both historical episodes are framed in different language versions of Wikipedia. Similarly to earlier studies (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012; Božović, Bošković and Trifunović 2014; Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014), I conducted a web content analysis of selected components of the Wikipedia articles: titles, tables of content, images and categories. These components are not only concise enough to be easily compared, but they also provide a brief summary of the article’s content (titles and images), clarify the structure of the article’s narrative (table of contents) and reveal the article’s position in the larger Wikipedia structure (categories).

Having compared how the Battle of Kyiv is represented in Wikipedia, I then explored how the encyclopedia’s users interact with those patterns. While many of earlier studies (Ferron and Massa, 2011; Keegan, Gergle and Contractor 2011) rely mostly on passive forms of user interaction (that is, viewings), I focused on active forms of interaction, such as edits and comments on the articles’ ‘Talk’ pages, that have higher interpretative value (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012; Luyt 2015). Based on these data, I compared the dynamics of interactions with the articles in different language versions in order to examine how contemporary collective traumas – such as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – influence interactions with Second World War memory in post-socialist countries.

Battle of Kyiv on Wikipedia: findings


Titles. All Wikipedia articles have a title that describes the main subject of that article and distinguishes one article from another (‘Wikipedia: Article Titles’). It would seem reasonable to assume that different language versions of Wikipedia would use the same name for articles on the same subject: however, as also in an earlier studies of the memory of the Srebrenica massacre in Wikipedia (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012) and the Second World War in Ukraine (Makhortykh 2017), a comparison of the respective titles for the Battle of Kyiv articles – translated into English – pointed to the existence of certain variations, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The titles of articles in different language versions of Wikipedia

Version English Polish Russian Ukrainian
Title Battle of Kiev (1943) Battle for Kyiv (1943) Kyiv offensive operation Battle for Kyiv (1943)

Three out of four articles used the title ‘Battle of/for Kyiv’, the informal name for the Kyiv offensive operation that took place between 3 and 13 November 1943. The official name – ‘Kyiv offensive operation’ – was used for the Russian version of the article, whereas in the other three languages the informal name was preferred, with the additional indicator of ‘1943’ used to distinguish it from the article about the Battle of Kyiv of 1941. While these distinctions were not as significant as in other cases – such as, the capture of Lviv by Germans in 1941 (Makhortykh 2017) – the presence of disagreements on such a basic level can be the first indicator of the differences in the representation of the Battle of Kyiv between the various language versions.

Table of contents. The tables of contents in Wikipedia consist of article headings that clarify and organize that article’s content better (‘Wikipedia: Writing Better Articles’). Each heading points to a particular topic that is discussed in the article: therefore, the table of contents can be used as a source of semantic information, which, as media scholars Richard Rogers and Emina Sendijarevic note, can be particularly useful for investigating differences in representation of the same event across different versions of the encyclopedia (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).

A comparison of the tables of contents from the Battle of Kyiv articles showed that the Ukrainian and Russian versions had a similar structure, consisting of three parts: an introduction/background to the battle, how it played out and the battle’s aftermath. The English and Polish articles, instead, elaborated on the course of the battle by dividing it into several stages – for example, the preparatory stage, the capture of Kyiv and the Rauss counterattacks – and assigned independent sections for each of these stages. Unlike the former two articles, the structure of the English/Polish articles implied that the seizure of Kyiv consisted of several stages, and that Soviet troops encountered heavy resistance from the Germans. These differences can be explained both by the variations in the articles’ scope (with the Russian/Ukrainian articles being focused exclusively on the Kyiv offensive operation) and the focus on successful Soviet operations in the Russian/Ukrainian versions that ignored the subsequent Soviet defeats in the course of the German counterattacks.

However, despite similarities in structuring the narrative, the Russian/Ukrainian and English/Polish versions often allotted different meanings to the same sections. For instance, the section about the battle’s course in the Ukrainian article mentioned several unsuccessful Soviet attacks from the Bukrin bridgehead, whereas the Russian Wikipedia ignored them by focusing on the successful actions at the Lutezh bridgehead. The focus on the glorious aspects of the battle in the Russian article was supplemented with a detailed discussion of the losses incurred by the German side. Such a discussion was absent from the Ukrainian article; in contrast, it alone noted that German forces burned down parts of Kyiv before their retreat, describing how Soviet troops captured the ‘almost empty and burning city’ (‘Bytva za Kyiv (1943)’).

The discrepancy between the narratives of military victory and human suffering was also traced in the case of the English and Polish articles. The ‘Soviet preparations’ section in the English article briefly mentioned ‘serious trouble’ (‘Battle of Kiev (1943)’) encountered by the Red Army at the Bukrin bridgehead before switching to the successful operations at the Lutezh bridgehead. Similarly, despite mentioning the successful German counterattacks, the English article emphasized the glorious achievements of the Soviet side in the Battle of Kyiv. In contrast, the Polish article dedicated significant attention to the failed operations of the Red Army at the Bukrin bridgehead and mentioned the high death toll among the Soviet soldiers. This feature connects the Polish article with the Ukrainian one: both dedicated significant attention to the price of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kyiv.

Images. In her work on visual images and 9/11, Kari Anden-Papadopoulus, a communication scholar from Sweden, notes that the pictorial turn in today’s culture increasingly affects the way traumatic memories are represented (Anden-Papadopoulus 2003, 101). The articles on the Battle of Kyiv were also accompanied by a selection of images, even while these images were not numerous and presented little variety. The largest number of images – eight – was found in the Polish article, whereas the Ukrainian and English articles included three images each and the Russian article included only two images. Some of these images were recurrent across several articles: for instance, the photo of victorious Soviet soldiers marching across ruined Khreschatyk was used in all versions except the Ukrainian one. Other common images included an image of Soviet troops before the battle (the Ukrainian and Polish articles) and German tanks preparing for the counterattack (the English and Polish articles).

The use of individual images followed the patterns of representation mentioned in the earlier section on the articles’ table of contents. In addition to the image of victorious Soviet soldiers, the Russian article showed an image of the Soviet military reward that was introduced to mark the capture of the Ukrainian capital; the central position of this image promoted the interpretation of the event as a Soviet triumph and put the main emphasis on the glorious aspects of the battle. A similar stance was observed in the English article, which used the image of Soviet military plans for the article’s opening; together with the images of Soviet soldiers in postbattle Kyiv and German tanks in Zhytomyr, it emphasized the military aspects of the Battle of Kyiv and promoted its interpretation in line with the Soviet narrative.

By contrast, the Ukrainian and Polish articles featured the image of Soviet troops preparing for the Battle of Kyiv. The black-and-white photo showed Soviet soldiers building rafts to cross the River Dnieper; a wooden sign displaying the words ‘Daesh’ Kiev!’ [For Kyiv!] in the background provided the context for the image. Unlike the visuals used in the other two versions, this image showed exhausted-looking men, photographed in the midst of combat preparations, thus instilling a sense of uncertainty in the reader and directing attention to the less glorious aspects of the Battle of Kyiv. This purpose was further advanced with images of a post-war memorial and a mass Soviet grave at the Bukrin bridgehead that promoted the interpretation of the battle as a episode of collective suffering. The Polish article did not include images of Soviet graves; instead, in addition to the above mentioned image of combat preparations, it showed a selection of images made during the battle, including the ones of Soviet soldiers crossing the Dnieper. Such a broad selection of images not only made the Polish article more informative, but also expanded its focus beyond the Soviet victory-centred narrative of the Russian and English articles.

Categories. According to Wikipedia’s own definition, ‘[t]he central goal of the category system is to provide navigational links to all Wikipedia pages in a hierarchy of categories which readers ... can browse and quickly find sets of pages on topics that are defined by those characteristics’ (‘Wikipedia: Categorization’). Wikipedia categories allow for the grouping of existing articles into thematic sets, on the basis of the essential characteristics of their subjects; consequently, categories constitute an important source of lexical and semantic information in Wikipedia (Zesch, Gurevych and Mühlhäuser 2007) that can provide a perspective on the differences pertaining to a particular event across various language versions.

I have grouped the existing categories into two sets, based on their semantics, as shown in Table 2. The first set – temporal indicators – includes categories related to the chronological attribution of the event, whereas the second set – thematic indicators – includes categories related to the actual description of the event. This division allows us to differentiate between categories that are of lesser importance for subject exploration (based on the assumption that the use of time categories only marginally affects representations of the Second World War) and more semantically relevant, thematic categories, that are of particular interest for the current analysis.

Table 2. Categories in Wikipedia articles

  English Polish Russian Ukrainian
Temporal indicators Conflicts in 1943, 1943 in the Soviet Union, 1943 in Ukraine, 20th century in Kiev, November 1943 events, December 1943 events Battles in 1943 Year 1943 in USSR, November 1943, Conflicts of 1943 Conflicts of 1943, October 1943, November 1943, 3 November, 6 November, 13 November
Thematic indicators Battles and operations of the Soviet-German War, Battles of the Second World War involving Germany, Battles involving the Soviet Union, Battles and operations of the Second World War involving Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia-Soviet Union relations, Military history of Kiev, Ludvík Svoboda Eastern Front (Second World War), Operations of the Red Army during the Second World War, History of Kyiv, Battles of the Second World War Kyiv operation (1943), Great Patriotic War operations, Battles in Ukraine, Kyiv in the years of the Great Patriotic War Eastern European theatre of the Second World War, Battle for the river Dnieper, Operations and battles of Soviet-German war, Battles for Kyiv, Battles in Ukraine, Battles in USSR, German battles, Soviet battles

The examination of thematic categories points to certain differences between language versions. The Russian article was the only one to use the ‘Great Patriotic War’ category in classifying the article: this subjective definition, which is steeped in Soviet war mythology, was much less neutral than the ‘Soviet–German War’ or ‘Second World War’ categories used in other articles. By contrast, the other articles used less biased and more informative categories. The English version was particularly extensive in its selection of categories and attempted to give due recognition to all the parties involved in the battle: besides the Red Army and the Germans, which were mentioned in the other articles, it added Czechoslovakia, by referring to Ludvík Svoboda’s brigade, which participated in the battle on the Soviet side.

Together with the analysis of other elements of Wikipedia articles, the study of categories indicated a number of differences between the variouslanguage versions. The differences were particularly pronounced in the case of the Russian and Ukrainian articles: the former presented the Battle of Kyiv in line with the glorious Soviet narrative, whereas the latter put greater emphasis on the suffering of Soviet soldiers during the battle. The English and Polish articles with their more pronounced encyclopedic stance were located in-between these two poles with the English version aligning itself with the Soviet victory narrative and the Polish one being closer to the revisionist Ukrainian version. While the existence of such divergent views of the past is well recognized in public memories of post-socialist states, their transfer to digital space questions the validity of claims about the positive transformation of conflicted memories into more inclusive discourses of the past through digital media (Trubina 2010; Dounaevsky 2013).


General dynamics.

As mentioned earlier, edits and discussion posts are the major indicators of user activity in Wikipedia. Editing is the most basic feature of Wikipedia, and, arguably, the most important one. The term covers a wide range of user activities: from correcting mistakes to making useful additions and improving articles in numerous other ways (‘Wikipedia: Tutorial/Editing’). Similarly to edits, discussion posts are usually produced by editors, who communicate with each other through ‘Talk’ pages. The ‘Talk’ pages are intended to facilitate communication among editors who want to discuss certain changes to an article. Large amounts of posts can serve as an indicator of controversies related to the article in question – in particular, disagreement among editors on references or on the neutrality of other editors (‘Wikipedia: A Researcher’s Guide to Discussion Pages’).

As Table 3 demonstrates, different versions of Wikipedia showed different dynamics relating to user interaction. In contrast to the Wikipedia articles about recent traumatic events such as mass protests (Ferron and Massa 2011) or terrorist attacks (Pentzold 2009), the articles about the Battle of Kyiv indicated a limited amount of active participation on the part of users. The English article included the largest number of edits and discussion posts, followed by the Russian one. The Ukrainian and Polish articles were the least edited and had the fewest comments; a discussion page was actually absent for the Ukrainian article.

Table 3. Numerical summaries of user interactions with Wikipedia articles

  English Polish Russian Ukrainian
Edits 311 73 108 78
Posts 33 1 7 0

One possible explanation for these distinctions between representation of more recent (for example, the Arab Spring) and less recent (for example, the Second World War) traumatic memories on Wikipedia is the lack of realtime memorialization in the latter cases. Unlike memories of recent events, which are converted into Wikipedia articles ‘within minutes’ (‘Wikipedia: About’) of their occurrence, Second World War memories do not appear spontaneously, but are documented according to existing sources. In the case of the Battle of Kyiv, the transition between communicative and cultural memory has already taken place; this, however, does not mean that various online communities will interpret it in the same way. The lack of discussion and minimal amount of edits in the Ukrainian Wikipedia may be taken as an indicator of a consensus on this particular episode of the past, originating from a greater familiarity with the history of the Second World War in Ukraine. The opposite situation can be found in the English Wikipedia, where users are less familiar – and less burdened – with that particular past and, therefore, feel freer to explore and discuss it.

Figure 1.Temporal dynamics of edits of Wikipedia articles – see picture on the right

The examination of temporal dynamics of editing activity points out a number of similarities between the Wikipedia articles on the battle. As Figure 1 demonstrates, the process of editing for all versions was the most intensive in the period of two to three years following the creation of the respective article. After this time, the user activity tends to drop; the occasional peaks of activity were usually related to the event’s anniversaries. Examples of such peaks include 2013, when the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Kyiv was celebrated in Ukraine and Russia, and 2015, when the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was commemorated. Both events attracted significant attention of mainstream media in post-socialist countries, in particular Russia; by contrast, the lesser attention towards these events in Anglophone mainstream media can explain the lack of significant changes in user interaction patterns in the English article.

The dynamics of editing also shows the impact of the contemporary traumas on the remediation of Second World War memory on Wikipedia. The beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 marked the decrease in editing activity in all versions; such an effect can be explained by the switch of user attention towards the ongoing conflict that overshadowed earlier traumatic memories (in particular, its ‘hot’ phase in summer 2014). In the following years, the scope of editing activity approached the pre-2014 level; however, the majority of edits made in this period were the minor ones. The only exception was observed in the Ukrainian article, when in 2016 an attempt was made to add a detailed description of the battle’s background, including additional information about the Soviet losses at the Bukrin bridgehead. These observations indicate that the Wikipedia narratives of Second World War largely remained stable throughout the Ukraine crisis and that the influx of contemporary collective traumas could have a conserving effect on them.

Verbal interactions. The ‘Talk’ pages in Wikipedia offer ‘the ability to discuss articles and other issues with other Wikipedians’ (‘Wikipedia: Tutorial/Talk Pages’); consequently, the use of these pages often facilitates communication among editors who want to discuss changes to specific articles. As already noted in the earlier section, the amount of verbal interactions in relation to the Battle of Kyiv was not found to be significant. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the majority of verbal interactions occurred before the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2013: the Russian article on Kyiv was mostactively discussed in November 2013, but a few weeks before the outbreak of the crisis, in relation to the seventieth anniversary of the seizure of city by the Red Army.

The analysis of the ‘Talk’ pages indicated a number of differences in the narrative strategies employed in the different Wikipedia versions in dealing with historical controversies. In the case of the Russian and English articles, these controversies mostly relate to counting the fatalities on both the Soviet and German sides. In the Russian article, a number of editors expressed dissatisfaction with the article’s tally of fallen Soviet soldiers, which they considered too high. For instance, an anonymous editor who called himself Andrey left the following comment on 3 December 2012: ‘So, that means the Germans lost 389 soldiers in the Battle for Kyiv? It is just nonsense, sorry. As always, we heighten our losses and decrease theirs ... How did they lose then?’ (‘Obsuzhdenie: Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’). Similarly, another user, D2306, criticized in a post from 3 July 2013, the use of German sources for estimating casualties on the German side: ‘There are some smartasses who found a website with ten-day casualty reports for Wermachts and now think that is it, so they cite those reports everywhere as an ironclad fact. They do not care to compare their theories with actual facts’ (‘Obsuzhdenie: Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’).

This kind of emotional response to the Russian article was contrasted with the more reserved reactions in the English article. While there, too, the question of fatalities, as well as of the decisiveness of the battle, ignited discussions, these were approached differently. For instance, the user Counterstrike69 initiated a discussion on the matter by posting the following question on 8 March 2007: ‘Any ideas on the casualties on both side?’ (‘Talk: Battle of Kiev [1943]’). Such a formulation contrasted with more subjective statements by editors of the Russian version, who were less interested in the number of casualties per se than why the encyclopedia presented Soviet fatalities as greater than those from the German side. Similarly, the discussion of the decisiveness of the battle initiated by the user Kurt opened with a call for ‘civilized discussion’ able to clarify whether or not the Battle of Kyiv should be referenced as a decisive combat operation (‘Talk: Battle of Kiev [1943]’).

These differences in the way the same episode was approached in various Wikipedia versions had immediate consequences for the interactions betweeneditors. In the Russian article, the majority of comments left on the ‘Talk’ page were strong statements leaving little space for discussion; consequently, instead of dialogue, the Russian ‘Talk’ page mostly hosted a collection of isolated monologues. Under these circumstances, the idea of a collaborative production of the past seems dubious; instead, the content of the article itself seemed to be more dependent on the decisions of a few editors who were not particularly interested in debating their views on the event with others. By contrast, the English ‘Talk’ page actually hosted some discussions that included attempts to accommodate different points of view and reach a degree of consensus in relation to the traumatic past.


My observations suggest that the evolution of narratives of past violence in different language versions of Wikipedia are largely driven by existing cultural constructs – first and foremost, by the specific national memories of wars and conflicts. The presence of profound differences in the ways the Second World War is remembered in post-socialist states, in particular Ukraine and Russia, translates into rather divergent representations of the Battle of Kyiv. The Russian Wikipedia, for instance, promotes an interpretation that is steeped in the narrative of the Great Patriotic War; by contrast, the Ukrainian and, to a certain extent the Polish versions, rely on more revisionist trends in war historiography. These differences permeate Wikipedia narratives on different levels, varying from visual images deployed in the articles to descriptive categories that bring different parts of the encyclopedia into an interconnected whole; together, these elements promote images of the past that indicate significant differences in the ways the Second World War is remembered.

The patterns of interaction with the Wikipedia articles point to the complex interplay between public remembrance and digital media in post-socialist countries. The rise of interest in Second World War narratives on Wikipedia, coinciding with the anniversaries of the respective historical episodes, can be viewed as evidence that today the line between offline and online developments is increasingly blurred. Similarly, the post-2014 changes in the interaction with Second World War memory on Wikipedia can be explained by the impact of the ongoing Ukraine crisis as Wikipedia users’ attention turned from memories of past violence to the ongoing collective traumas. Under these conditions, the Wikipedia narratives of the Battle of Kyiv demonstrated a degree of stability that contrasted withrecurrent instrumentalization of Second World War memories in mainstream media in the course of the Ukraine crisis; the latter observation suggests that online memory cultures can be less volatile and susceptible to change than might have been expected from ever-changing digital environments.



Mykola Makhortykh is a researcher at the Department of Slavic Languages and Cultures at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. His work is focused on Second World War memory in Ukraine and how it is affected by the processes of de-Sovietization, nationalization and digitization that the country is currently undergoing. In his recent research, he has also explored the use of social media in the context of the crisis in Ukraine and the role of cultural memory in representing and interpreting the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.



1 See, for instance, works by Erll and Rigney 2009a; Erll 2011; Garde-Hansen, Hoskins and Reading 2009; Garde-Hansen 2011; and Neiger, Meyers and Zandberg 2011.

2 See, for example, works by Rutten, Fedor and Zvereva 2013, Trubina 2010, Bernstein 2016, Makhortykh 2017.

3 According to the Alexa data, Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in Ukraine (‘Top Sites in Ukraine’), eighth most popular website in Poland (‘Top Sites in Poland’), and tenth most popular website in Russia (‘Top Sites in Russia’).

4 Examples include works by Trubina 2010, Nikiporets-Takigawa 2013, Bernstein 2016 and Makhortykh 2017a. 5 See, for instance, works by Dounaevsky 2013, Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014 and Makhortykh 2017.


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

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

Jeffrey K. Olick

From the memory of violence to the violence of memory

18 Feburary 2018
  • Memory
  • commemoration
  • violence
  • theoretical approach

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

While the topic of memory is multifarious, covering many issues of identity, belonging, pride and sorrow, the relationship between memory and violence clearly has a special significance. As a scholar of memory, of course, I am fascinated with the complexities of memory in its many forms and many referents. This is thus a welcome opportunity to think more, and perhaps more directly, about the other side of the equation. This invitation, then, has led me to think about the phenomenon – or more accurately phenomena – of violence in a more systematic and general fashion than memory scholars are sometimes inclined to do, just as it has perhaps led specialists on violence to think more about the complexities of memory than they might otherwise do.

If we are going to talk about a particular kind of remembrance – namely the remembrance of violence – we need to be clear exactly what it is we are talking about when we identify such an objective as a special one for remembrance. Like memory, however, violence is an exceptionally difficult concept to define in a robust way (so too is memory, which I will come back to later). Violence has at least two generic senses: the first refers to the very act, which is an exertion of power of force directed at an object. To be sure, we can exert violence over nature: we can blast through rock to build a tunnel, we can knock down a tree to clear a path (in the process destroying life, which gives a hint of what is essential), and it is not inappropriate to talk about the violence of nature or of our violence towards nature. But what we are primarily talking about in the context of the memory-violence nexus is the exertion of force – coercive, damaging, destructive – by one person or group of people over another person or group. We should note that violence in the human realm – in contrast to the natural – only sometimes involves a physical dimension, such as bodily injury, brutality or even death. Violence can also be a single act, a repeated act, a condition or a pervasive order in a society.

We must remember at the beginning, moreover, that not every act of violence is illegitimate. No one would dispute, for instance, that some violence is sometimes necessary: if you want to build a house, you have to clear a place, sometimes with explosive force. Even more, reasonable people would not dispute, though they might be frightened by the fact, that we need some form of policing to secure our social and physical security. Or the fact that when a terrorist attacks, the police come running and take him or her down by any means necessary. One may have concerns about the political context, but in the moment when one person or group is committing violence against another, we legitimately look to others to protect us from that violence, which they do with further – this time hopefully justified – violence. So not all violence is illegitimate or unjustified (all scepticism about ‘just war’ notwithstanding). A world without violence is not, in the words of the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, the best of all possible worlds. In reference to Sigmund Freud’s ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ – an enduringly relevant text for an understanding of violence, of memory and of the relations between them – to wish for a world free of violence is to wish for a world that is bland, inhuman, narcotized, an existence of what would in fact be an order without meaning. We recall as well – as Professor Wieviorka already mentioned in his lecture on the first day of this symposium – the sociologist Max Weber’s famous definition of states as those agencies that have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. So, again, not all violence is illegitimate. What qualities then, other than just the act, are we referring to when we are discussing violence?

The second sense of violence is not just the generic sense of violence as force – legitimate or illegitimate. Rather, the specific meaning that I think is at issue when we talk about violence in relation to memory – as I have been charged to do here – is violence that is the expression of an etymologically related term, namely violation. Not all violence involves violation. When you go to the doctor and have to have surgery, there is clearly violence involved – the cutting into flesh – but because its goal is to help you and presumably you consent to it, such an act is not a violation, though you may in fact feel it that way. In contrast, it seems to me, the violence that is at issue in our contemporary moral and political – and indeed memory – culture is that of power that violates or transgresses norms, particularly norms of human inviolability, our sense of order, of appropriateness and of integrity, physical and moral. Here it is important to note that while Weber may have pointed out that states may have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that is not exactly the same thing as a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. We know that much of what states have done to each other and to their peoples and to other peoples was not legitimate violence, even if, with the power of their armies and their control of the streets they had a monopoly on its use. This is because their violence has violated rules and norms, integrity bodily and moral. And these kinds of violence/violation create particular problems for memory.

Yet another issue to raise about violence in framing the question of the relationship between violence and memory is that, like everything else, violence has a historical development. Recently, for instance, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, based to some extent on the ideas of the sociologist Norbert Elias, has argued that despite the horrors of illegitimate violence in the 20th century – effected particularly through our extraordinary means of inflicting it on mass scale – the absolute amount of violence in the world today has in fact been in steady decline. Whether or not one believes Pinker’s data or Elias’s argument about the so-called ‘civilizing process’, one thing is clear: our expectation of violence and our tolerance for it, at least in public discourse, has indeed decreased (though of course this decrease is not universal or evenly distributed). This too – the unexpectedness of violence/violation – contributes to its mnemonic challenges.

Just as an illustration – not in a manner that is going to prove anything to a rigorous social scientist – we might consider some ‘data’ from Google Ngram. If one is to search the frequency of the term ‘violence’ in the titles of English language books from 1800 to the present, precisely at the time when there was the most shocking violence being perpetrated on a mass scale, we find that there was a substantial dip in the number of mentions of violence, bottoming out in about 1917. The frequency then remains relatively steady up until about 1950, when uses of and references to the concept of violence only then return to the level of mentions in the early 1800s. Of course, one of the things that has changed in this time is what exactly we meant by violence at the beginning of the 1800s and what we mean by it in the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, this is an indication of the changing presence of a discourse about violence, though of course we must recall that the term and its meanings do not strictly coincide and thus that frequency is a limited indicator. Whether or not this index of uses of the term violence indicates a change in the amount of violence, then, it at very least indicates something about the change in the way we think about (and remember) it.

Indeed, it is not the absolute amount of violence in the 20th century that has caused the move from what has been called a culture of monuments to a culture of memorials, from one of heroes to one of victims, to one of national identity to one of human rights. Rather, it is our moral universe that has changed, and it is this change that is indicated in the changing frequency – and indeed nature – of references to violence. This is not, however, to discount the very real changes that have taken place in the forms and contents of the violent practices that have taken place in the contemporary world, for indeed there are new kinds of violence and new conditions for knowing about them. So, for instance, the new violence of the 20th century is not the violence of nature or even the violence of God against man – an earthquake, a catastrophe, a fire – but that of man against man. But it is a different kind of violence of man against man. It is not a raiding tribe, an act of vengeance or personal expiation, nor violence toward some end or for some purpose. Rather, it is mass violence, though it is important to remember that even mass violence – which depends on mass society – is itself a diverse and multifaceted phenomenon.

One of the most interesting features of contemporary violence is not merely its mass nature, however, nor is it merely our preoccupation with it in our changed (by violence) moral culture. What we have seen in the late 19th and early 20th century, rather, is the emergence of new forms of violence that are only enabled by changed conditions, namely the rise of mass society, but also of industrialization. We use today quite glibly the term trauma in many contexts. And if you were to ask many history students or ordinary people – not that history students are not ordinary people – what trauma means and where did it come from, they might make reference to the concept of post‑traumatic stress disorder that arose in the context of the Vietnam War. And if one were to ask historians, they would likely make reference to an earlier period, namely the First World War and the concept of shell shock or war neurosis. But in fact the historiography of trauma shows clearly that the concept emerged in an earlier period, namely the 1860s to the 1880s. What was happening in those years that gave rise to our contemporary concept of trauma? One of the things that happened was a great epidemiological expansion in the experience of trauma. I do not mean that modern people suffer more or are more miserable than people before the modern industrial era. What I mean is that the ways in which we suffer have changed with mechanization.

In a marvellous book on the railway journey, the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes the radical novelty of the experience of riding in a railway car. If you ride a horse or even a stagecoach, you are still in a direct connection to biological power – the power of the horse. You experience the passage through space, the bumps of the road, the curves, in a humanly comprehensible fashion. Once you experience the speed of the railway journey, you are taken into a radically new realm. One of the things that happened with the advent of railway journeys – although with railway journeys being only one example of industrial experience – is the rise and spread of accidents. To be sure, one could always fall off a horse or have a stagecoach crash. But there was a categorical difference between the experience of being injured through bio-power and being injured through an industrial mechanism, one that created existential ruptures. This is to some extent what the philosopher Martin Heidegger was addressing in his distinction between the windmill and the power plant: the former is still comprehensible to ordinary people, while the latter is beyond the comprehension of most of us. And these new experiences required new concepts for understanding. This is the birthplace of the modern sense of trauma.

While war neurosis was not new in the 19th century, its scale and severity were. And this is why the philosopher Walter Benjamin, for instance, diagnosed the experience of the First World War as a civilizational rupture. In his famous essay on the ‘Storyteller’, Benjamin wrote, ‘Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.’ So what has happened with the advent of industrial warfare, marked most clearly by the First World War, although it has been tied up with industrialization more broadly, is the loss of a direct human experience, a sense of measure, a sense of control. If you recall your US Civil War movies, you will remember the plan of battle, in which two armies stand in lines facing each other, affix bayonets and then walk towards each other until they meet. In US Westerns, the cliché is ‘don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes’. The First World War was categorically different. There the average soldier grovelled in trenches, and the biggest threat was insidious: a gas one could not see and whose effects one could not fathom. In order to protect himself, the soldier donned a mask that turned him into an extra-terrestrial monster, the likes of which medieval theology could not begin to understand.

Despite the importance of the First World War – and industrialization more broadly – in our experience of violence and in our ability to understand it, the Shoah was the second blow in the death on a human scale. The Shoah introduced us to what philosopher and survivor Emanuel Levinas so poignantly described in his work as ‘useless suffering’. What is Levinas getting at with this concept as an interpretive frame for the Holocaust? He is saying that the ‘events’ are in fact not ultimately interpretable or comprehensible. The framework in which Levinas addresses this is in fact a much older one – tracing back all the way to Leibniz, who I have already mentioned: namely that of theodicy. Theodicy is the explanation of evil and suffering. What meaning can we give to our miseries? In the period after Leibniz published his treatise on theodicy in 1710, Europe experienced a major crisis in the earthquake that hit Lisbon in the middle of the 18th century. How could you explain, how could you defend God, or any notion of his benevolence, when fires consumed children, innocents, civilians? This was not a phenomenon of war, but a ‘natural’ event that seemed to have no purpose. This moral crisis begun in the middle of the 18th century received exceptional clarity by the middle of the 20th century, when Levinas posed it again, but in contrast to Leibniz, saw no possible answer to it. This is because the conditions for making meaning had changed along with the new forms of suffering that demanded such meaning.

The question of theodicy, of course, is one that underwrites the entire history of Western moral thinking, from the Book of Job onwards. Job, who was made to suffer for no good reason, never lost his faith. When he demanded an answer, it was one that has resonated throughout the ages: Job was not entitled to, or capable of understanding, an explanation. And so Job’s only recourse was to live in resignation. But Job’s suffering was an individual, personal suffering (or at least was portrayed this way, despite the destruction of his family that caused him to suffer), while the suffering of the 20th century was a categorical suffering on a mass scale, and thus not one to which resignation is a judicious approach. One cannot simply say human beings are mortal, we experience illness and pain, and this is a part of life. There is no existential scale that can contain the knowledge of what happened in Auschwitz.

Here too it is important always to historicize. The question of theodicy, our ability to come up with explanations that make sense of the suffering we have experienced or witnessed, has itself changed dramatically over time. This goes back, again, to Max Weber, in whose work we also see a discussion of theodicy. For Weber, it was a matter of how poor people might ‘come to terms’ with their misery. Weber’s answer was that they create salvationist religions; they believe that their suffering in this world will be redeemed in the next, the Christian idea that the meek shall inherit the earth. What Weber points out in his discussion of theodicy, however, is that the ability, the conditions for us, to come up with a satisfactory explanation, have in fact diminished in modernity. If your house fell down and your family was killed by an earthquake in the middle ages, we would have said, like Job, that we must have done something wrong – not prayed hard enough, etc. God must be angry with me. But with the rise of science, we understand how plate tectonics work and we theorize stochastic processes, statistical randomness, etc. We understand that there may not be any true meaning, which is to say purpose, that can be ascribed to something like an earthquake. It hits where it hits, when it hits.

One of the things we try to do, and we have seen this in the late 20th century, is that we try to hold each other accountable, even for natural disasters. So when an earthquake hit Aquila, Italy in 2009, the Italian government put the seismologists on trial, and indeed convicted them for not providing adequate warning to the population. Following the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2005, we blamed overdevelopment, incompetent governance and failure to respond adequately to climate change. While it is also true that Jean-Jacques Rousseau disputed the naturalness of the destruction in Lisbon in 1755 – pointing out that it was not nature that dictated building flimsy dwellings on hillsides or dense clusters of wooden structures that would burn so quickly – the general trend has been towards the increasing difficulty of coming up with satisfactory explanations of how our suffering is meaningful.

So what does this have to do with the topic in hand? It seems to me that the link connecting violence to memory is to recognize that memory is a form of theodicy. That is, memory, particularly the act of commemoration, is a way of ascribing meaning to what has happened in history, to suffering, a way to redeem suffering in some fashion or other. Here I am moved, however, by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur who, in his discussion of Levinas and of the problem of theodicy, argues that every theodicy is an exercise in bad faith. That is, every time we offer an explanation for suffering that enables us to see how it happened and fix the problems in the name of ‘never again’, we are retrospectively assigning meaning. (This can include a scientific explanation about the facts that led to an atrocious outcome, for instance, an explanation that might refer to human psychology or bureaucratic organization or administrative complexity and the perfect storm of conditions and events that led to Auschwitz.) But not everything, or not everything completely, can be explained in this manner. To try to do so is to risk ‘bad faith’, move from explaining something to explaining away, or making it seem necessary in the service of some larger or longer end.

In the lecture we heard a few days ago by Professor Wieviorka, we learned that violence has a complex social geometry to it. So too does memory. When we analyse violence, we need to be careful that we specify the geometry of perpetration and victimhood. Are the perpetrators acting as individuals or as members of groups? Who are the victims? What is the power relationship between the perpetrators and victims? Are they symmetrical or asymmetrical? Do they remain in contention or does one side triumph over the other? To what extent? One of the conditions of post-war Germany, for instance, was that the Holocaust was in fact largely successful – not merely in eliminating the lives of six million people, but in removing Jewish life from German culture and society. When we use the term violence, moreover, we need to be careful not to overgeneralize a variety of different phenomena into one category. Violence can be once, it can be a condition, it can be enduring, repeated or none of these. It can be reciprocal, can have meaning or can be devoid of meaning.

In the same way, we can analyse the complexities of memory. In the emerging field of memory studies, there is a great discussion about the relationship between individual memory and collective memory. Does collective memory exist, or is it merely a metaphor? Memory can be unitary – that is, there can be a single agreed set of memories in a group that one must share or at least know in order to be a member of the group. More often, however, memory is contested and fragmented; there may be hegemonic memory, official memory, top-down memory or bottom-up memory. Memory also takes on different emotional and epistemological registers. Memory can be historical, documentarian, expressive, an effort to seek redemption, etc. One of the features of memory that we do not see clearly enough when we are analysing violence is the profound temporality of memory, the fact that memory is not just an act in the present, nor a direct reference to the past, but a reference to the past in the present that is nonetheless conditioned by its place in the history of such commemoration. In other words, one cannot predict memory from the past or from the present. Memory is the result of an ongoing discourse of remembrance, where each version of the past follows, and in part responds to, those that preceded it; just as often, each subsequent version of the past is a commentary on, as well as departure from (and effort to transform), those earlier versions.

Since this is a conference on European remembrance, it is with great hesitation that I make reference to an American example to demonstrate this temporality of memory, though the United States has already been a significant part of the discussion at this meeting so far. In particular, there was reference to the origins of the idea of the concentration camp in Cuba (this statement itself being an effort to transform a version of the past – namely one in which the Nazis invented the concentration camp – just as the statement I am making now is an effort to transform this revised memory). In fact, concentration camps were not invented by the Spanish in Cuba; nor were they – as was a central claim by the right during the German historians’ dispute of the mid-1980s – an imitation of Stalin’s Gulags. No, the invention of the concentration camp lies squarely in the history of the United States. The first such installations in modern form were early ‘reservations’ for Native Americans. Another important reference in the history – though less so in the memory – of concentration camps was the prisoner of war camps maintained with particular brutality during the US Civil War. One of the most notorious such examples was Andersonville Prison, in which an estimated 15,000 Union soldiers died. Indeed, the prosecution of the camp’s commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was one of the first modern examples of a war-crimes trial. Making things even more complex, however, subsequent revelations (after Wirz’s execution) revealed some merit to Wirz’s defense claims that he had tried to alleviate suffering. Wirz thus became something of a symbol for the legatees of the Confederacy, who erected a memorial to him in 1909. Memory clearly has its ups and downs, its proponents, entrepreneurs, revisionists and rejectionists.

This story is particularly interesting to me here because it has long seemed to me that there has been a sort of American exceptionalism when it comes to the study of memory as well as to the power of memory politics. A good example of this is that conferences like the present one, sponsored by a prominent and successful NGO, does not really have – or has not really had – its equivalent in the United States. However, it does seem as if this American exceptionalism is coming to an end – and not least in part because of the influence of European memory politics as a model, and of the spread of the politics of regret as a principle of legitimation here in Europe. Indeed, this has been taking place in just the last year, when the United States has experienced a wave of commemorative debates and politics. While there have been numerous tributaries from every direction, these were brought together into a mighty river of discourse with the murderous attack of a white supremacist on an African-American church in South Carolina in June 2015. Only following this event – which took place after decades of criticism of officially sanctioned Confederate symbolism – did the governor of South Carolina unilaterally – though with substantial support from across the spectrum – act to stop flying the Confederate flag from the dome of the Statehouse.

Since then, there has been a great deal of new introspection – or at least more widespread introspection – about the shameful and problematic presence of the American past. To be sure, much of this introspection has taken place at the top of the intellectual food chain, and resistance to such thinking was not an insignificant part of the cultural background that has brought us a radical populist presidency (if that is indeed what it is). For instance, Georgetown University ‘discovered’ that its present financial security was built on the sale of more than one hundred slaves that the university – itself associated with the Catholic Church – owned. In the present context (begun before the South Carolina massacre), the university has undertaken – quite honorably, in my view – efforts to expiate this crime, including setting up a memory institute. A similar discussion took place recently at Yale University, where several buildings and institutions at the university made historical references in honour of individuals that many have come to understand – at least by contemporary standards – were perhaps not so honourable (in the literal sense) after all. For instance, one of the undergraduate colleges at Yale was named for John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States who made his fortune in the slave trade. For decades, Calhoun Hall was the proud undergraduate residence and association for many of the United States’s present elite. The discussion began around the question of whether the title of the head of Calhoun College – and indeed of all of the undergraduate colleges at Yale – should continue to be ‘Master’, with its evocation of the era of slavery. It was fairly readily agreed that the ‘Master’ would henceforth be called ‘Head’. Yet the question of the name of Calhoun College itself proved, at least at first, to be more difficult, with a presumption against ‘changing the past’. It took a further year to overcome alumni resistance to changing the name itself.

In just the past several weeks [note, this lecture was delivered in June 2017, before the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia], indeed, we have seen a wave of municipal authorities around the Southern United States tearing down monuments to the Confederacy. What is fascinating about these moves, first of all, is that they are happening at all, but second of all who is agreeing and disagreeing with them, and with what arguments. Indeed, in many conversations I have had at my own and other universities, including with colleagues in history departments, a lot of people have asserted that tearing down such monuments and markers would be tantamount to changing history in the name of a sanitized, politically correct memory. Markers of the Confederacy, in such an argument, are tantamount to changing the history of the Confederacy itself. What they are missing (and, again, what has been highlighted since the Charlottesville riots) is, again, the complex temporality of such history and memory. What the defenders of ‘not changing history’ neglect to ask is who built these markers and for what reasons. The monument to Robert E. Lee, which was the occasion for the riots in Charlottesville [again, these events took place after this lecture was first delivered, though the debate was already underway in early summer], was not a remnant of the war itself but was a mnemonic act undertaken by particular people in a particular place at a particular time – and for a particular purpose. Monuments like the Charlottesville Lee statue were built decades after the end of the Civil War for the purpose of expressing a white supremacist ideology.

So even though the violence being commemorated happened in the past, before the monuments were built, that violence lives on in and through the monuments marking it, which were indeed intended to perpetuate the real violence of the war with the symbolic violence of memory. We need to recognize, in other words, that memory itself can be a form of violence. When you erect or maintain a statue in a city or town centre that symbolizes the historical oppression of a group of people, and the descendants of that group of people have to walk by it every day and the dominant powers say they do not want to change the past, we are failing to recognize the ways in which versions of the past represented in monuments – versions of memory – give meaning to the original act of suffering and serve to perpetuate it. Ending the violence thus requires responding to these later acts of commemoration.

Where does this all leave us? As time is short, here, then, are some general prescriptions for the analysis of violence, memory and the relationships between them: we must take care, based on our analysis of the complexities of violence and memory, not to wash out the differences between different kinds of violence in one overarching culture of remembrance, one that often faces the choice between ‘never forget’ and its apparent opposite: ‘forgive and forget’. There are different kinds of violence, different kinds of remembrance for them and different conditions for reconciliation and meaning about different kinds of harms through a monolithic principle of remembrance. It matters whether the suffering was individual or collective, whether the perpetration was individual or collective, as well as whether the memory is individual or collective, and who is doing it for what purposes. As the discussion of theodicy showed, it matters whether the event being commemorated was a ‘natural’ event or man-made, the result of legitimate or illegitimate power, necessary and purposeful or ‘useless’. Each of these requires its own form of commemoration, and we must not overgeneralize the imperative to never forget all situations and all actors, regardless of their positions within these matrices of violence and memory and their relations to them.

The legitimacy of memory is to be found not by settling on any particular contents of memory, but on following a set of procedures, as well as resisting others, that require us to take into account the variety of different subjective and objective points of view. We must enter into constructive – and sometimes critical – dialogue with those perspectives, including those of both perpetrator and victim, as well as their descendants. In other words, we need to understand and differentiate the legitimate and illegitimate concerns of the defenders of the monuments as well as the legitimate and illegitimate concerns of those who feel oppressed by them. But understanding all points of view is not the same thing as accepting them. People’s views of the past may be authentic and even well motivated, though they may also be disingenuous and mean. But all of these possibilities are part of the analysis. At the end of the day, however, the monuments of violence that deny or celebrate, rather than merely recall, its motivations must go. Remembrance, like any act, is subject to principles not merely of authenticity or desire, but of power and politics. The culture of remembrance does not mean accepting every authentic sentiment about the past.

A further corollary of these principles, however, is that we must avoid self-righteousness and to put our own victimhood and suffering in a wider perspective. While I am not a Christian, in this I am moved by the parable of the log and the speck from Matthew: ‘Why do you look at the speck of sand in your brother’s eye yet pay no attention to the log in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3). Perhaps we can adapt this even when we are the victims of tremendous suffering, not to retreat into a commemorative narcissism. Instead, our remembrance should be directed toward healing the wounds of our violent past: in the Jewish vocabulary ‘tikkun olam’, to heal the world. We do so by recognizing and recalling the pain of others, not merely of ourselves. We must give up, in other words, the strong prioritization of our own personal suffering and the suffering of our own people. This is how we prevent the flame of suffering from setting the world on fire yet again. The memory of violence must not be matched by the violence of memory.



Jeffrey K. Olick is Wiliam R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and History at the University of Virginia and chair of the Sociology Department Chair. He received a BA with High Honours from Swarthmore College (1986) and an MA, MPhil and PhD in Sociology from Yale (1993). Current projects include a six-volume Cultural History of Memory and developing the outlines of ‘tragic sociology’, an approach with origins in Nietzsche’s writings on suffering and Weber’s sociological approach to theodicy. He works with students on collective memory, sociological theory, symbolic politics, and history and theory of ideas and meanings, among other topics. His work has been translated into Spanish, German, Polish, Farsi, Turkish, Estonian, Hungarian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.



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Levinas, Emmanuel (2001) ‘Useless Suffering’, in The Problem of Evil: A Reader, ed. Mark Larrimore, 371–80 (1st edn 1982). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Pinker, Steven (2012) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. New York, NY: Penguin.

Ricoeur, Paul (1974) The Conflict of Interpretations, ed. Don Ihde. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang (1987) The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

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

Andrzej Nowak

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

18 Feburary 2018
  • Eastern Europe
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • violence
  • Western Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



Arnason, Johann P. and Natalie Doyle, eds (2010) Domains and Divisions of European History. Liverpool.

Bocharov, Vladimir V. (2001) ‘Antropologia nasilia’ [Anthropology of violence], in Antropologiia Nasilia, ed. Vladimir V. Bocharov and Valerii A. Tishkov. St Petersburg, 497–532.

Halecki, Oskar (1950) The Limits and Divisions of European History. New York, NY.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki (2007) The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. New Haven, CT, and London.

Leggewie, Claus (2011) ‘Seven Circles of European Memory’, in Cultural Memories. The Geographical Point of View, ed. Peter Meusburger et al. Dordrecht-Heidelberg, 123–24.

Lenin, Vladimir (2010) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. London.

Martin, Terry (2001) The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1932–1939. Ithaca, NY.

Marx, Anthony W. (2003) Faith in Nation. Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism. Oxford, 199.

Naimark, Norman (2010) Stalin’s Genocides. Princeton, NJ, 92.

Nowak, Andrzej (2009) ‘Intelligentsias in the Structure of the Empire. The Assimilative Function of the Central Counter-elite’, in Silent Intelligentsia. A Study of Civilizational Oppression, ed. Jan Kieniewicz. Warsaw, 59–82.
— (2015) Political Correctness and Memories Constructed for ‘Eastern Europe’, in Memory and Change in Europe – Eastern Perspectives, ed. Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak. New York, NY, and Oxford, 38–56.

Pipes, Richard (1990) The Russian Revolution. New York, NY, 791.

Snyder, Timothy (2010) Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY.

Troebst, Stefan (2003) ‘Intermarium and Wedding to the Sea: Politics of history and mental mapping in East Central Europe’, European Review of History/Revue europeenne d’histoire, no. 10, 2003, 293–321.

Wolff, Larry (1994) Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, CA.

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

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

Arnold Suppan

Violence in Western Europe in the 20th century

15 Feburary 2018
  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • violence
  • Western Europe
  • warfare

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

Europe is still suffering from consequences of the First and Second World Wars, which almost resulted in Europe destroying itself. Both wars, the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ of the 20th century, resulted in many millions of killed or heavily wounded soldiers and many millions of widows and orphans. There were almost sixteen million deaths during the First World War and at least sixty million deaths during the Second World War. This included genocides against the Jews, Armenians, Poles, Roma and Sinti as well as Chechens- Ingush and Crimean Tatars. There were more than thirty-five million expellees and refugees (Germans, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Slovaks, Magyars, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Italians). Economies and societies were destroyed and we still feel the consequences of this destruction up until the present day. On the one hand, after both wars the ‘victors’ made mistaken and illjudged political, economic and social decisions that undermined peaceful developments, particularly in Eastern Europe. On the other, both wars created remembrances that still strongly divide many European nations.1

In the First World War Germany lost 4 per cent of its inhabitants; Russia (without the civil war) 3 per cent; France 5 per cent; Britain 3 per cent; and Italy 4 per cent; but Serbia suffered the death of almost 15 per cent; Romania 5 per cent; and the new Republic of Austria 4 per cent. The war left three million widows, as many as ten million orphans and millions of grieving parents, brothers, sisters, lovers and friends. The names of the dead were listed on tens of thousands of monuments built throughout Europe after the war. In the 1920s and 1930s, Europeans remembered the war in ceremonies that emphasized sacrifice, grief and mourning. A number of remarkable novels and memoirs began to appear about ten years after the armistice (Sheehan 2008, 100–104).

The demographic disaster of the Second World War was even worse, literally the most disastrous in modern history. Rough estimates of military losses and civilian deaths arising from wartime policies, including the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other war-related causes, particularly aerial warfare, expulsions and forced resettlements, gave a different picture. Germany (of 1937) lost more than 10 per cent of its inhabitants, the Soviet Union 15 per cent, Poland even 20 per cent, Yugoslavia 7 per cent, Austria (of 1937) 5.5 per cent. In comparison, Italy suffered ‘only’ 2 per cent, France 1 per cent, Britain even less. In the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ almost six million Jews were murdered, half of them in the Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland, with more than a million by SS-Einsatzgruppen in the western parts of the Soviet Union (Winter 1995, 289–92; Tomasevich 2001; Gilbert 1995, 364–71).

In comparison, Western Europe suffered more in the First World War than in the Second World War, Eastern Europe far more in the Second World War. No doubt, the Germans fought differently in the East and in the West, and Germany’s enemies did so too. From 1939, Eastern and Southeastern Europe were involved in a total war, and in 1944–45 Central Europe was too. In the First World War all the complex military machines had transformed civilians into soldiers. Citizen soldiers had to fight not through fear but through devotion to their country and commitment to their comrades. For many soldiers the battlefields in Western, Eastern and Southeastern Europe provided the first glimpses of a world beyond their village. Winston Churchill realized very early that ‘this is no ordinary war, but a struggle between nations for life and death’ (Sheehan 2008, 12–20, 55, 60, 73).

Between 1914 and 1918, neither side respected the Fourth Hague International Convention of 1907. However, as the Allied armies hardly ever succeeded in penetrating German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian or Ottoman territory (not before late 1917), foreign occupation, collaboration, resistance, repression and retribution mainly occurred in territories that the Central Powers occupied in Belgium, northeastern France, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Italy and Russia. German troops started executing alleged francs-tireurs (snipers) in Belgium and France; Austro-Hungarians hanged thousands of Serbians and Ukrainian civilians, among them Orthodox priests, suspected of spying for the enemy. Politically, the shootings and lootings benefited mainly the Allies, whose media spread the news of atrocities committed by the ‘Huns’ (Germans) and their allies. The issue of collaboration with the enemy was less of a public concern during the First World War, at least in Western Europe, than it would become during the Second World War. In the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk government and the army high command suspected the Armenians of siding with the invading Russian enemy and organized the expulsion and massacre of perhaps a million Armenian fellow citizens, including women and children. This was the first true genocide in the 20th century (Naimark 2001, 17–42).

Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was divided along many fault lines – between victors and losers, liberalism and radical nationalism, militarism and pacifism, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and communism, right and left, ‘but the most important was between those who rejected and those who embraced political violence at home and abroad’. Major components of the comprehensive crisis continued: (1) an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism; (2) bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism; (3) acute class conflict – now provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution; and (4) a protracted crisis of capitalism that culminated in the Great Depression. No doubt, nationalist conflicts and ethnic-racial tensions, greatly intensified by the Paris peace treaties played a much greater role in Eastern than in Western Europe. The alternative model of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ with the elimination of the capitalist class and a redistribution of land provoked elements of the right to combine extreme nationalism with virulent anti-Bolshevism and to establish authoritarian governments. Often nationalist hatred singled out Jews as special scapegoats for resentment and social misery. At the beginning of the 1930s, in many European countries the men who became presidents or prime ministers had fought in the trenches in the First World War and were more familiar with everyday violence than their predecessors. Violence was central particularly for fascism, National Socialism and communism (Steiner 2011, 167–80; Baberowski and Doering-Manteuffel 2006, 59–79).

Between 1939 and 1945, Europe under Nazi leadership experienced armed conflict, foreign occupation, aerial bombardments, persecution, shooting of hostages, concentration and death camps, as well as ferocious civil and ethnic wars. In many places from the North Cape of Norway to the Island of Crete and from the French port of Brest to the highest peaks of the Caucasus, German soldiers, SS and policemen were numerous enough to rule the land but not plentiful enough to control every town, village and forest. As a consequence, national governments, local authorities, native populations and diverse interest groups, as well as many individuals, were eager, for a myriad of reasons, to accommodate or collaborate with the ruling Germans or to resist them. Only one major group was not able to choose between collaboration or resistance: that is, the Jews. Genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ on a gigantic scale were an intrinsic part of the meaning of the war to the German leadership and to its subordinates in the military, police and bureaucracy who sought to implement racial policy (Mazower 2008, 259–93; Deák 2015, 1–13).

Although France, Belgium and the Netherlands had enough manpower and possessed immense colonial empires and could have created well-trained and well-equipped armies, they broke down within weeks of the German onslaught from May to June 1940. They had drawn the wrong lessons from the First World War ignoring changes brought about by tanks and aeroplanes, and were caught in a defeatist attitude against Nazi Germany. The leaders of the French army were, in the historian Marc Bloch’s words, ‘incapable of thinking in terms of a new war’. However, the occupying German troops treated Dutchmen, Belgians, Frenchmen, as well as the Danes and the Norwegians, more gently than they did the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Belarusians, the Ukrainians and the Russians. There existed some clear reasons: Hitler had no interest in colonizing the West and the North of Europe; the German war industry needed – and generally received – the willing cooperation of the western and northern Europeans; last but not least, the willingness of the local population and its leaders to cooperate corresponded with the German occupation policy of accepting the race of the inhabitants. The German Nazis were especially keen on seeing the Norwegians as ‘Nordic Aryans’, and therefore admirably suited for interbreeding as well as for participation in the Great Germanic Empire (Deák 2015, 41–47; Sheehan 2008, 122).

After the capitulation of France, the northern and western parts of France and Belgium were ruled as occupied zones by the German military administration. The new French government, settling in the resort town of Vichy in the unoccupied zone, declared that moral decline spread by godless Marxists, liberals, Freemasons and especially the Jews had undermined France. Marshal Philippe Pétain proclaimed after his handshake with Hitler in October 1940: ‘I enter, today, into the way of collaboration.’ Aside from everyday business transactions with the German occupier, such as selling food or transporting them, contacts between the French and the Germans were mostly on the level of a relationship between a man and a woman. With more than two million French soldiers in captivity, German soldiers sometimes took their places in women’s lives; however, similar relationships occurred between German women and French prisoners of war (POWs) in Germany. The Vichy regime also took anti-Jewish measures in advance of German requests. Thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and the East were pushed back across the German border. Then, in 1941 and 1942, the French police arrested and deported many thousands of Jews, many of whom were born in France, to the death camps of Germany (Deák 2015, 50–58).

While in Norway the local authorities and the population were in general uninterested in saving the lives of most of the country’s 1,700 Jewish citizens, in collaborationist Denmark the government and the population – as well as the local German occupation forces – succeeded in protecting the lives of nearly all of their 8,000 Jewish inhabitants. As Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled from the Netherlands to England, the Austrian lawyer Arthur Seyss-Inquart ran the country as Reichskommissar from his seat at Clingendael near The Hague. Among other things, the Germans found in the governmental offices accurate statistics on the country’s Jews, and Dutch exactness and reliability also infected the Jewish Council. Therefore, the Nazis deported 106,000 Dutch Jews, with only 20,000 remaining. The total value of Dutch goods exported to Germany amounted to about 8.5 billion guilders, at the time US $3 billion, of which almost two-thirds was for military goods (Deák 2015, 48–50; Mazower 2008, 271, 397).

Resistance involved illegal activity, illegal not only in the eyes of the German or other occupation forces but also according to international conventions and the laws of one’s country. To fight the occupier, the resisters needed to seize arms from military garrisons. In western and northern European countries – unlike Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Greece – only a small segment of the population participated in the resistance; armed clashes were infrequent and people generally obeyed the rules set up by the country’s German-controlled national government. Nonetheless, resistance groups set up underground newspapers, as in the case of perhaps the most famous resistance group in France, Combat. The group published a sophisticated yet popular clandestine newspaper of the same name, edited by Albert Camus. Although the Combat group never numbered more than a few hundred activists, their newspaper’s print run increased from 10,000 in late 1941 to 250,000 in 1944. Listening to BBC broadcasts was considereda grave crime; but millions of Europeans – even Germans and Austrians – were able to hear its programmes (Dear and Foot 1995, 115–16).

Among the most controversial yet most effective resistance weapons of the Second World War was the legendary Special Operations Executive (SOE), called into being in 1940 by Prime Minister Churchill and his Minister of Economics, whose goal was ‘to set Europe ablaze’. The SOE trained and sent agents to practically every European country with the aim of gathering intelligence, engaging in sabotage and setting up secret radio stations for transmitting information to Britain. Over the course of the war, the SOE employed or directly controlled some 13,000 people and supplied another one million with money, food and weapons. Interestingly, there was no equivalent organization on the German side. However, thousands of Europeans were executed for having helped the SOE men and women, and, in turn, hundreds of SOE agents died because of their own or their superiors’ negligence. Famously, the SOE employed many younger women, who could circulate more easily than men of military age. But when the secret radio operators in the Netherlands were caught by the German intelligence service, and then ‘turned around’ to work for the Germans; flight after flight of SOE agents, who were parachuted into the Netherlands, would first be followed and then arrested, tortured and either killed or also ‘turned around’ to work for the Germans (Dear and Foot 1995, 115–16).

SS-Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon from November 1942 to August 1944. In this period he tortured and murdered members of the French Resistance, such as Jean Moulin, the secret delegate of General Charles de Gaulle in France. The circumstances of Moulin’s arrest and death have remained controversial and have typically led to endless speculations, especially with regard to the name of the traitor. Though wanted as a war criminal, Barbie was employed by the US Counter Intelligence Corps in February 1947, which protected him from the French and then helped him reach Bolivia. He was extradited to France in 1983, found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. In 1990, the aged Barbie pointed a finger at Raymond Aubrac, another famous resister, and his wife Lucie, the no-less-famous resistance heroine (Dear and Foot 1995, 113; Deák 2015, 121–23).

In Rome there was considerable anti-German resistance activity by three groups: the conservative monarchists (Badoglio), the moderates (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats), and the communists and allied socialists. The first major partisan attack was planned and executed by the communists who had noticed that a German military police company marched through central Rome, specifically down the narrow via Rasella, every day and always at the same time. The military policemen were draftees from the South Tyrol, which was Austrian until 1919 and then Italian between 1919 and 1939, and then forced to be German from 1939. The German military police consisted of two companies, totalling 400 men. On 23 March 1944, the partisans, disguised as sanitation workers, hid a bomb in a rubbish cart that killed thirty-three German military policemen and wounded hundreds when it exploded. All sixteen partisans escaped unharmed, and none were ever caught. Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander-in-chief in Italy, recommended that ten Italians be executed for every German soldier who had died. SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the SS head of security in Rome, got the order to organize the execution. Kappler took prisoners who were under a death sentence, other political prisoners, common criminals, bystanders from the via Rasella, Italian POWs and seventy-eight Jews. The Pope tried to help some individuals selected by the SS for execution, but for every one released another innocent person was arrested. In the end 335 Italians were killed in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome by untrained, unprepared and drunken SS men. The question was raised whether the German action was legal. Hostage taking and hostage shooting as well as reprisals had been recognized as perfectly legal by The Hague Conventions and also, somewhat surprisingly, by one of the US-led Nuremberg Tribunals in 1948. Kappler was sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court in 1948, but in 1977 his wife smuggled the then-terminally ill and very thin Kappler out of jail in a large suitcase. She took him to Germany, where he soon died (Deák 2015, 166–71).

On 10 June 1944, four days after the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Allied landing in Normandy, a company (120 men) of the SS Panzer Division Das Reich passed through the historic province of Limousin, in west-central France, on the way to the front. By then, the division had been subjected to guerilla attacks, including the torture and killing of some forty captured German soldiers in the village of Tulle, not far from Oradour-sur-Glane. For that outrage, the division had already taken revenge by torturing and killing ninety-seven Frenchmen in Tulle. Acting on the rumour that a Waffen-SS officer was being held captive by the French Resistance guerilla fighters, the SS company under Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann entered Oradour and within a few hours killed all 642 inhabitants, including even the youngest of children, mostly by burning them alive. It is still unclear from whom the order to kill originated. The majority of the SS killers at Oradour, including their commander, fell in battle a few weeks later. However, at the Bordeaux Trial in 1953 against some survivors of the SS company, it turned out that fourteen of the twenty-one defendants had once been French citizens; they all claimed in court to have been forcibly drafted into the Waffen-SS. Almost as a whole, people in Alsace-Lorraine bemoaned the tragic fate of the poor boys who had to kill so as not to be killed by their own superiors. Therefore, at the Bordeaux Trial the Alsatians were treated mildly (Deák 2015, 171–73; Dear and Foot 1995, 113).

During the Ardennes Campaign, which involved the 6th Panzer Army commanded by Colonel-General of the Waffen-SS, Sepp Dietrich, the founder of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper carried out, on 17 December 1944, a mass execution of US POWs and local civilians at Baugnez near Malmédy in the east of Belgium. A number of similar incidents followed. There were forty-three American survivors, but eighty-six were killed. After the war, Dietrich and Peiper were incarcerated at Dachau. At the trial the prosecution admitted that confessions had been extracted by threatening execution, false witnesses and mock trials. Peiper and forty-two others were condemned to death; Dietrich was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, both were released after ten years of imprisonment (Dear and Foot 1995, 713).

In 1946 Karl Jaspers discussed the problem in his book of lectures called The Question of German Guilt: ‘What wrongs did the German people commit?’ He established four categories of responsibility: criminal guilt, followed by political, moral and metaphysical guilt. He found the seeds of collective responsibility in the metaphysical category. But Jaspers was willing to talk only about individual culpability. Hannah Arendt’s series of lectures entitled Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, presented at the New School of Social Research in New York three years after Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962, raised questions as to the origins of ‘evil’ and formulated the theory of ‘the banality of harm’. But the deputy prosecuting attorney at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, Gabriel Bach, corrected Arendt: Eichmann had the ‘dreadful inclination’ to destroy the Jews (Humler 2011; Bach 2011, 38–39; Deák 2015, 220). Meanwhile, judicial retribution and political purges were held elsewhere in Europe. The heads of state or prime ministers who were executed after the war included those of Italy, France, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria. The list of non-German Europeans executed for treason, collaboration and war crimes included thousands of generals, police chiefs, city mayors, politicians and journalists. In France intellectuals had played a major role in both resistance and collaboration. Therefore, the debate over French wartime behaviour and the post-war purges has become a veritable national pastime. However, the number of real or alleged collaborators shot, beaten to death or summarily executed reached almost 10,000. In the courts, the prosecutors tended to single out actors, actresses, cabaret singers, writers, poets and philosophers (Deák 2015, 200).

Amazingly, the harshest sentences were pronounced in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Norway more than 90,000 people were tried, nearly 4 per cent of the population; thirty were executed. Similar proportions existed in Denmark, while in the Netherlands 150,000 people were detained under the suspicion of collaboration and treason. About 60,000 of them were subsequently convicted, 152 condemned to death, and 40 were actually executed. Norwegian courts dealt harshly with women who had had sexual relations with German soldiers; worse even, the new laws denied citizenship to their children, which amounted to some thousands. In Belgium 53,000 men and women were convicted of collaboration; officials used the phrase ‘la politique du moindre mal’ (the policy of doing the least harm) to cover the ways in which they tried to accommodate German demands: giving way only when they had to. Although in Italy during the last months of the war, or at the moment of liberation, almost the same number as in France were lynched or shot; the courts were relatively mild (Deák 2015, 204–5).

Europe survived the second Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1948. Not since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century had such a large proportion of the European population suffered so much from the pains of war. Many Europeans had acted badly – not only as politicians, officers and policemen, but also as economists, technicians, doctors, intellectuals, journalists and even priests. Under the conditions of two world wars and their consequences, as well as the strong influence of several ideologies, there was almost no barrier to violence against ‘the other’. Populist nationalism, nationalist and religious hatred and fighting against the imagined class enemy as well as inter-racial fighting led to a European-wide crisis in compassion and humanity. Not only were most Europeans indifferent to the fate of their Jewish, Roma and other sectarian neighbours, but millions actually participated in manhunts or at least profited from the disappearances and deaths of the victims. There were many who risked their lives for the persecuted, especially priests, nuns, doctors and individuals who did not like to fit into ‘normal’ society. But too many accepted the witch hunts in many cities and towns as well as the deportation of Jews, Roma and political opponents to concentration camps by cattle wagons.

In an address to the United Nations on 7 December 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that ‘force and the threat of force [...] should not be instruments of foreign policy’. Although the German ‘Re-Unification’ and the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred peacefully, violence diminished but did not disappear from European public life, as experienced in Northern Ireland, the Basque Province, in Cyprus, in Kosovo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Ukraine. So, the main challenge is continuing: how to run Europe without violence? (Cf. Mueller, Gehler and Suppan 2015).



Arnold Suppan, professor emeritus, was born in 1945 in Carinthia, Austria. He received his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1970 and progressed from assistant to associate and full professor of East European History at the University of Vienna between 1971 and 2011. He has been a visiting professor at Leiden, Fribourg, Stanford and Budapest; head of the Austrian Institute of East and South-East European Studies (1988–2002); head of the Department for East European History at the University of Vienna (2002–8); corresponding (1998) and full member (2003) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS), chairman of the Historical Commission of the AAS (2003–11), secretary general (2009–2011) and vice president of the AAS (2011–13); and an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Suppan has written and edited many books, articles and conference papers. He received the Scientific Award of the University Ljubljana in 1999, the Silver Medal of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University, Prague in 2001, the Austrian Honorary Cross for Science and Art First Class in 2001, Wacław Felczak and Henryk Wereszycki Prize, Krakow in 2014 and the Cardinal Innitzer Honour Prize, Vienna in 2015.



1 Cf. Dear and Foot 1995; Flacke 2005; Sheehan 2008; Wehler 2008; Kershaw 2016; Suppan 2017; Naimark 2017.


Baberowski, Jorg and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel (2006) Ordnung durch Terror. Gewaltexzesse und Vernichtung im nationalsozialistischen und im stalinistischen Imperium [Order by terror. Violent excesses and extermination in the National Socialist and Stalinist empires]. Bonn: Verlag Dietz.

Bach, Gabriel (2011) ‘Wenn jemals einer die Todesstrafe verdient hat, dann Adolf Eichmann’ [If anyone ever deserves the death penalty, then Adolf Eichmann does], in Die Presse, 27 November.

Deak, Istvan, Jan T. Gross and Tony Judt, eds (2000) The Politics of Retribution in Europe. World War II and Its Aftermath. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Deak, Istvan (2015) Europe on Trial. The Story of Collaboration, Resistance, and Retribution During World War II. Boulder, IL: Westview Press.

Dear, I. C.B. and M. R.D. Foot, eds (2001) The Oxford Companion to the Second World War. Oxford–New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Flacke, Monika, ed. (2005), Mythen der Nationen. 1945 – Arena der Erinnerungen [Myths of the nations. 1945 – arena of memories]. 2 vols. Berlin: German Historical Museum.

Gilbert, Martin (1995) ‘Final Solution’, in Dear and Foot, The Oxford Companion, 364–71.

Jaspers, Karl (1947) The Question of German Guilt. New York, NY: Dial Press.

Humler, Konrad (2011) ‘Das Böse schlechthin’ [The ultimate evil], in Neue Zurcher Zeitung [New Zurich Times], 27 July.

Kershaw, Ian (2016) To Hell and Back. Europe, 1914–1949. London: Penguin Books.

Mazower, Mark (2008) Hitler’s Empire. How the Nazis Ruled Europe. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Mueller, Wolfgang, Michael Gehler and Arnold Suppan, eds (2015) The Revolutions of 1989. A Handbook. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften [Austrian Academy of Sciences Press].

Naimark, Norman (2001) Fires of Hatred. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA–London: Harvard University Press.
— (2017) Genocide: A World History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sheehan, James J. (2008) Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe. Boston, MA–New York, NY: Houghton Milton Company.

Steiner, Zara (2011) The Triumph of the Dark. European International History 1933–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Suppan, Arnold (2017, 3rd edn) Hitler–Beneš–Tito. Konflikt, Krieg und Volkermord in Ostmittel – und Sudosteuropa [Conflict, war and genocide in East Central and Southeastern Europe]. 3 vols. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Tomasevich, Jozo (2001) War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wehler, Hans-Ulrich (2008) Vom Beginn des Ersten Weltkriegs bis zur Grundung der beiden deutschen Staaten 1914–1949 [From the beginning of the First World War to the founding of the two German States 1914–1949], vol. 4. Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte [German social history], 5 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck.

Winter Jay M. (2001) ‘Demography of the War’, in Dear and Foot, The Oxford Companion.


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

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

Michel Wieviorka

Theoretical issues of violence: Defining violence and types of violence in the 20th century

15 Feburary 2018
  • 20th century history
  • violence
  • theoretical approach

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

I am a sociologist. I am not an historian. But I consider that social science should be multidisciplinary and that sociologists should not be too distant from history nor historians too far from sociology. We are dealing today with the 20th century, but we cannot begin such a meeting without mentioning what happened in England recently, that is, the terrorist attack in London on 3 June 2017. It is not only the 20th century that has had to deal with violence, terrorism and so on, so I would like to say something about this.

Let me start with the word violence. Although it is one of the main and constant issues in social science, I do not know of any scientific definition that really sums up a concept that we can all accept. Many definitions have been proposed. The same word for violence along with other words that describe many other issues are used in social science and in daily life, the media and politics. When one uses the same vocabulary in two different contexts – the world of social science and the world of daily life – there are always problems and some ambivalence because one never knows exactly what is at stake.

So to be more precise I will not deal with all forms of violence: I will focus mainly on physical violence, when violence clearly aims to modify the physical integrity as well as the intellectual or moral integrity of a person or a group. Sociologists and political scientists are well acquainted with the famous statement by the German sociologist Max Weber about the state having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. However, here I will notdeal with state violence. Nor will I deal with another interesting issue, which is what some social scientists call ‘symbolic violence’. No, I will focus on the physical and the concrete, with an emphasis on political forms of violence.

There are many different ways to analyse violence and we can distinguish three main approaches.

There is an academic and intellectual tradition that considers violence to be a reaction to a situation, as an expression, a modality of a crisis. When, for instance, workers lose their jobs suddenly because a factory is going to close down, they may shoot at car tyres, attack the managers and so on. It is a reaction to a crisis. When peasants say, ‘We do not want to pay’ or ‘We cannot pay more taxes and will become violent’, it is a reaction to a crisis or to a change in their situation. Experts sometimes call this ‘relative deprivation’ as it depends on certain frustrations that may lead to violence.

The political thinker and sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville was an advocate of such a philosophical or sociological theory. When Tocqueville analysed the French Revolution, he noticed that the majority of the people participating in it were not poor and were far removed from power. However, those in the thick of the situation where large changes were occurring felt a deep sense of crisis. The crisis could be economic, social, political or cultural. In the 1960s and 1970s this kind of approach was very important in the literature of political science but it soon became clear that the concept of relative privation was not that useful.

At this point a second approach became popular. Violence is not a reaction to a crisis caused by a change in a situation and that it is, on the contrary, a tool, a resource, which participators use, in order to achieve certain goals. In this kind of analysis, violence is instrumental. For example, ‘I kill you because I want your money’ is very rational. So some analysts insist on this instrumentality with the idea that violence can be individual, but also – which is much more interesting – by insisting on the collective dimension of this kind of phenomenon. Instrumental violence, for instance, appears when a social movement tries to become a political actor in order to enter a political system. Charles Tilly, the founding father of the so-called ‘resource mobilization theory’, is a well-known name in the fields of history and sociology. He shows how violence is a resource that is mobilized by an individual or a collective of actors in order to achieve certain goals. Therecan be different goals, but in literature you will mainly find analysis that describes political goals.

Let me give you a personal example of this way of dealing with violence. I was living in Washington, DC, in the mid-1980s and I was looking into the way American specialists proposed anti-terrorist measures. Anti-terrorism was big business in Washington, DC, and the people we were working with were proposing many different possibilities and possible hypotheses based on intelligent ideas on what instrumental decisions could be taken by terrorists. They were trying to envisage biological terrorism, chemical terrorism, nuclear terrorism and so on. And then one day terrorists outthought them, getting on planes with business class tickets, wearing very respectable clothes and carrying some small knives and this was September 11th. A very instrumental way of acting, and the experts who were trying to eliminate violence were not able to imagine the way terrorists could define their strategies. I give this example to illustrate the point that these violent perpetrators were partly rational. They were not crazy people. Sometimes you may be able to find some pathology or craziness, but terrorists are more calculating and strategic in their goals than we might expect. So at that stage we have two very different and opposing ways of thinking. On the one hand, violence is reactive and, on the other hand, it is calculating, strategic and instrumental.

The third approach is very different. It considers that violence has something to do with culture and with personality. In order to understand why people act violently, one must know something about their historical background: about the general culture into which they were born, about their family and their childhood. A famous example is given in The Authoritarian Personality, a classic book written by the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who during Nazism left Germany for the United States. Adorno and his colleagues claimed that if you wanted to understand how anti-Semitism could lead to extreme violence, you had to know about the way people were brought up. You had to know about education and you had to know about primary socialization. This is the idea: some cultures, educational systems and family influences prepare some personalities to be more violent than others. And, of course, this idea can be used in order to understand Nazism.

This approach is not that easy to use for analysing violence for a very simple reason. If you deal with young people who were born in the later years of the 19th century and if you want to understand Nazism, anti-Semitism and the extermination of Jews forty or fifty years after that, you have to forget all that happened between the time when these young people were living with their parents, and the moment when they act, half a century later. You jump and you forget history, politics and so many other factors that have changed society in the meantime. Another limit in this kind of approach is that it presumes that everything is more or less decided when people are young, and that people cannot change or avoid becoming violent.

So this kind of cultural approach focusing on personality has limited use. At this stage let me summarize my first remarks on three main classical approaches in social science. Each of them can be useful but each has its limits. It is not necessarily frustration that makes people act, nor is it necessarily a strategic or instrumental way of thinking that makes people act. You cannot say people who commit suicide act in a very rational way, it is more complex than that. And it is not only family, education and so on that make people violent. These are useful explanations but not enough to complete a general analysis of violence.

Now let me be a bit provocative: I would like to compare conflict with violence. Usually when one reads or hears the word conflict, violence springs to mind. Some people speak of ‘armed conflicts’ or ‘violent conflict’ in order to deal with war, civil war or guerilla warfare. The idea of conflict is usually connected with the idea of violence, so that people have come to talk about ‘conflict resolution’. Conflict resolution means bringing violence to an end. So while the idea of conflict is usually connected with the notion of violence, I would like to distinguish, and maybe contrast, these two ideas. In my vocabulary at least, when I say ‘conflict’, I mean a conflictual relationship between actors – a relationship that can at one moment become institutionalized or lead to some negotiation. So if conflict means making way for a relationship where negotiation is possible, where institutionalization is possible, then maybe conflict can counteract violence.

I mean here that I do not think that there is an end to violence when there is no more use of force. There is an end to violence when people say: ‘now we can debate and we can negotiate and we can institutionalize the differences between your point of view and my point of view.’ It is a huge thing, which I will not deal with here. It is true that in many cases you may find conflict and violence at the same time. These are, for instance, situations where actors who could become partners in negotiation use violence instead. But generally speaking, and I will give one or two examples, the more people are able to transform violence into negotiation, institutionalization, debate and conflictualization without violence, the better.

My first example is taken from the history of the working class movement in a number of countries. Let me select the French case. It sometimes started with violence, from the workers and sometimes from the masters of industry or from state opponents. And violence stops when you have a strong movement, able to negotiate. In the French case there was anarchist terrorism at the end of the 19th century; people were killing, planting bombs and so on, in the name of the poor and the excluded. Some time in 1894 or 1895 it stopped exactly when the first main trade union was created – la Confédération générale du travail – when the first Bourses du travail [labour exchanges], places where people could organize trade unions, were created. Why? Because trade unions firmly say that violence is not good, they prefer to exert strong pressure in order to achieve certain goals, such as transforming the conditions of workers. This case is absolutely clear: when the working class movement became strong and was able to negotiate and discuss, there was no more terrorism. I do not say violence stopped, of course, but there was no longer the need for such extremism.

A second historical example demonstrates the opposite: the end of the working class movement. The case of left-wing Italian terrorism appeared when the working class movement was in decline and no longer able to negotiate and transform its demands into debates. At that moment violence intensified and terrorism became more prevalent. I should be more precise but my general idea is that if we want to prevent this kind of violence, we must take into account the possibility, or not, of conflict in a society. When the working class movement was collapsing, more room was made for tensions.

Now I would like to make some remarks about the history of social science during the later years of the 20th century. Generally speaking, in the 1960s and 1970s, social science was dominated by what we could call structuralism: the idea being that what was important were abstract mechanisms – structures that organize collective life – rather than the subjectivity of the people. But in the 1980s and 1990s new ideas – and these are very important for violence – appeared explaining that we have to deal with subjectivity and not only with abstract mechanisms, structures and all this vocabulary. I will quote two world famous authors, both French: historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and sociologist Alain Touraine. Both, starting from very different perspectives, said that we have to take into serious account the notion of subject.

What does this mean? Its meaning is a little bit different for both of these two intellectuals – but they share the belief that the subject more or less has the capacity to act. Being a subject is being able to transform oneself into an actor. A subject is the opposite of an abstract mechanism. These great intellectuals and many others after them introduced the notion of subjectivity to social science, including when dealing with violence. Maybe Foucault’s or Touraine’s subjects are romantic people, wonderful people, who transform themselves into actors. They build their own life, a very wonderful life. But subjectivity does not mean only a wonderful life, subjectivity may lead also to the polar opposite, to the dark side of an individual or collective life. If we introduce the notion of subjectivity in order to analyse violence, we must admit that subjectivity can lead to dark and eventually cruel behaviours and not only to positive romantic forms of action.

The second point is that we must avoid what social scientists called naturalization or essentialization of social behaviours. Subjectivity is not nature, it is not an essence that is better than using the notion of subject. We should be interested in processes of subjectivation – the fact that people are increasingly able to build their own lives – and processes of desubjectivation – the fact that often people who are less and less able to build their own lives are going to be increasingly destructive.

And here begins a fourth approach in the analysis of violence, taking into account the processes through which individuals and groups learn more to be subjects or on the contrary to be anti-subjects, to destroy, to kill and to stand on the dark side of collective life. In some cases there is not such a big gap between subjectivity and action and violence, for instance when people live in neighbourhoods where they become violent because they are not master of their own lives and cannot become actors. But there are other cases where subjectivity is absolutely different. Some people, who I call antisubjects, use violence for pleasure; violence here is connected with nothing more than the pleasure sadistic cruelty can give them.

If we want to analyse violence today we must seriously take into account the idea that in some cases it is caused by the process in which people lose contact with what I call positive subjectivity and increasingly find themselveson the other side to the point where they kill, destroying other people or/ and themselves.

This kind of approach was not so prevalent during the 20th century; it begins to be more influential in social sciences during the later years of the 20th century. The new interest in the notion of subjectivity, for the processes of subjectivity and the appearance of deradicalization, for instance, appeared when it became obvious that in order to fight against radicalization, it was necessary to introduce policies of ‘deradicalization’ that seriously took into account the subjectivity of the individuals. This kind of vocabulary is close to the notion of subject. Radicalization means a new form of subjectivity, and deradicalization is supposed to introduce new elements, new dimensions in the subjectivity of these individuals, in their way of thinking and in their consciousness.

This is possible since during the last thirty or forty years of the 20th century there was an important development: the idea that violence was not only the problem of the state of order, it was not only a problem of a system, it was also the problem of the victims and of those people who suffer from violence. If we want to understand why there is such an emphasis on violence connected with the idea of subjectivity, it is because we are entering an era where victims are recognized, which was not so much the case before.

Victims have recently said, ‘I’ve been destroyed’ or ‘my group has been destroyed’, ‘my culture has been destroyed’, ‘my family has been destroyed’. When this is a discourse that people can hear, that politicians listen to, that the media echoes, then this changes the way people think. During the past forty years, we have come to recognize that victims exist. And as victims exist, we must take into account their subjectivity. And if we consider the subjectivity of the victims, we must also take into account the subjectivity of those people that perpetrate violence. I do not say that they are not responsible, my aim is to understand how people become violent.

This leads me to my conclusion. Entering an era with victims also means a period of ‘memory and remembrance’. Because the family, friends and neighbours of victims want justice and recognition, they want the violence suffered to be recognized. Victims have memories. Memory is not history, as we all know. Memory is what one remembers and what the family remembers, it is not necessarily what one finds in history books. And a problem has appeared: is it possible to pass from memory to history?

It is not so obvious, and in some cases it takes time but is possible. In my country, for instance, there was no room for Jews in the general memory and in school history books for twenty or twenty-five years after the Second World War. But some Jews, some intellectuals, some great historians, Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton for instance, authors of the famous book Vichy France and the Jews (1981), decided to mobilize themselves in order to make memory participate in the public debate and after some years, memory became history. Today you can open any kind of school book on the history of France and it will dwell on the French state during the Second World War, the story of Jews in France and so on, which was not the case before.

In some cases it is more difficult. It may be because different memories conflict with one another. Let me take a French example, the memory in France of the Algerian War. Some people are the sons of members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), while others are sons of Harki, native Algerian Muslims who either decided to fight with the French army or were obliged to fight with the French army. Some people were white French, the so-called Pieds-Noirs, who were obliged to return to France. Others were Jews from Algeria. All these people have different memories that conflict and sometimes they hate each other. So how can you come to a common understanding of the past when so many memories conflict? It is not so easy.

Sometimes the conflict is not within nation-state but at the international level. It is very interesting, for instance, to know that some committees have been proposed during recent years in order to work on a common history for children living in Germany and France, with the aim of publishing a book that would be accepted in both countries, which meant being able to deal with points on which the national narrative in both countries could disagree. It is not always so easy and sometimes memory can be an obstacle to history.

As you can see, I passed from time to time from analysing violence to the idea that we must put an end to violence. For instance, passing from memory to history helps to end violence. I think that the 20th century obliges us – speaking as a social scientist – to analyse violence. Maybe the 21st century will be the century where we build a new field – the end of violence. Let us study how people move from violence and how European Remembrance works. You could be a wonderful actor but you could also be a wonderful object of analysis! Why do you exist now? You did not exist fifty years ago. What does this mean? What does this bring? I think that there will be more and more work in the future with the aim of understanding violence and offer more analysis of how to eliminate it.



Michel Wieviorka is a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences [L’Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales] and the president of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris, France. He was director of the Center for Sociological Analysis and Intervention (CADIS, EHESS–CNRS) between 1993 and 2009. From 2006 to 2010, he was president of the International Association of Sociology (ISA/AIS), and has been a member of the European Research Council (ERC) Scientific Council since 2014. He heads the new SOCIO magazine (with Laetitia Atlani-Duault), which he created in 2013. His research has focused on the notion of conflict, terrorism and violence, racism, anti-Semitism, social movements, democracy and the phenomena of cultural difference. His main books translated into English include The Making of Terrorism (University of Chicago Press, new edn 2004), The Arena of Racism (Sage, 1995),Evil (Polity Press, 2012), The Lure of Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2007) and Violence: A New Approach (Sage, 2009).


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

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