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

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

Centenary of the Versailles Peace Treaty

25 June 2019
  • First World War
  • treaty of versailles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photo of the publication Kristallnacht
Jolinke Golbach


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Jolinke Golbach

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

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

Photo of the publication Candle Manifestation of 1988
Peter Jašek

Candle Manifestation of 1988

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

The day communism began to fall in Slovakia.

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


It began in exile

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

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

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


Preparations for the demo

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

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

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

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

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


Victory of Truth

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

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

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

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


Precursor to the Velvet Revolution

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

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

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

Article by Peter Jašek

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

Photo of the publication The Prague Spring
Cătălina Vrabie

The Prague Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Cătălina Vrabie

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

Photo of the publication Visegrad Cooperation
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

Photo of the publication Warsaw Pact invades Czechoslovakia
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.

Photo of the publication Remediating violence: Second World War memory on Wikipedia
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.

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Photo of the publication From the memory of violence to the violence of memory
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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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

Photo of the publication Is there a specific Eastern European perspective on violence in the 20th century?
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.

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Photo of the publication Violence in Western Europe in the 20th century
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

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

Photo of the publication Teaching the Armenian genocide: A comparative analysis of national history curriculums and textbooks in Turkey, Armenia and France
Oyku Gurpınar

Teaching the Armenian genocide: A comparative analysis of national history curriculums and textbooks in Turkey, Armenia and France

14 Feburary 2018
  • genocide of Armenians
  • historical education
  • textbooks
  • Aghed


In an attempt to explore the different historiographical and pedagogical approaches to the Armenian Genocide, from denial to recognition, from contextualization to historicism, from nationalism to human rights, this paper focuses on the national history curriculums of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France). These three countries were selected in order to demonstrate the variety of historiographies according to the different socio-political and ideological contexts. In this sense, there exist two levels of comparison: i) the general approach towards history education, along with human rights education, framing the national history curriculum, the publications and instructions of the Ministry of Education determining its implementation; ii) peculiarities concerning the case of the Armenian Genocide (1915–16), involving the given historical context, its ideological position and interpretation, and its dis/connection to the claimed stance. By this comparative analysis, the paper aims to revisit the problems of the divergence concerning the education of history, particularly in the case of crimes against humanity.


The link between the nation-states and the education of history has been one of the much-discussed issues. From nationalist ideologies to political expediencies, from the consolidation of national identity to the formation of ideal citizens, from grand historical narratives to pedagogies of moralvalues, the nation-states are often criticized for controlling and influencing the education of history in line with their interests. Within this frame of reference, the instruction of contested and sensitive historical events represents one of the essential controversies, revealing the political intentions behind educational practices. In an attempt to comparatively analyse the different approaches to the Armenian Genocide, this paper explores the different historical narratives, contextualizations and political stances of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France), through their national history curriculums, as well as their history teaching plans and exemplary history textbooks. For this purpose, the paper consists of three sections. First, a brief overview of the curriculums of each country is presented regarding their development and transformation, along with the intentions affecting their regulation and implementation. Second, the position of the Armenian Genocide within the national curriculums and history teaching plans is illustrated, accompanied by the political stances of each country towards the issue. Last but not least, the way the Armenian Genocide is taught in history textbooks is comparatively analysed in relation to their explanation of the causes and conditions resulting in the decision of deportation and its implementation, as well as the consequences and long-term effects that can be traced up to the present.

History education and the curriculum

The curriculum is the core of education: it consists of guidelines responding to questions such as ‘what should be taught, to whom, under what circumstances, how, and with what end in mind’ (Null 2011, 5). Curriculum is what signifies i) aims and objectives of education, ii) subjects, iii) their distribution at different levels of education, iv) educational materials and their content, v) teaching methods. In this regard, school curriculums are of the utmost importance in the formation of ‘ideal’ citizens, their apprehension of certain moral values, civic rights and duties, fundamental knowledge and, naturally, the history of their nation.1

History first appeared in the national curriculums in the 19th century when public education systems were more or less established in many countries – almost at the same time that history became a modern academic discipline. This early inception within the educational system also showed the significance of history in terms of the formation of future citizens (Carretero and Bermudez 2012, 634). Concerning the role of history in relation to the construction of national identity, there are three different approaches: the ‘romantic’ promotes social cohesion, the ‘empirical’ stresses the transmissionof historical knowledge, and the ‘civic’ concentrates on the development of civic competence (Carretero, Asensio and Rodríguez-Moneo 2012, 4). To give an individual a sense of belonging to a nation and to promote his or her self-identification as a citizen of that nation and the awareness of the responsibilities it enforces, historical knowledge and a consciousness of a common past plays an essential part.

As it is the curriculum-makers who determine which subjects should be emphasized and which should be excluded or ignored, how to represent historical events, people, facts and in which context, the curriculum is also a reflection of what constructs the national unity of a particular ‘present’ (Brehm 2014, 319). The national curriculum consolidates a uniform identity administered to all students and leads to the quest of establishing a single ‘grand narrative’ that would eliminate alternative narratives and compel the teaching of a precise interpretation of the past (Ahonen 2001, 190). However, since the circumstances that define the national unity tend to change given the politics of a certain time, so does the curriculum. Therefore, the history curriculum is one of the most unstable components of education, continuously altered depending on the transformations that occur in the socio- cultural and historical-political conditions of a specific country (Brauch 2017, 597). Consequently, a comparison of national history curriculums in Turkey, Armenia and France requires taking into account the country-specific circumstances and their transformation over time.

Approaches to national histories: comparing curriculums

To start with, in Turkey, the national history curriculum has undergone several major reforms that are mostly invoked by three political stances: nationalism, Islamism and a democratic initiative. Nationalism, as the first and foremost, contains ideological shifts and escalations that are marked by the socio-political context of the era. The 1930s witnessed the establishment of nationalist ideology of Kemalism, which introduced a series of reforms to depart from the Ottoman legacy, in particular its religious character, in order to embrace Western values, based on six founding principles of the Turkish Republic: populism, secularism, revolutionism, nationalism, republicanism and statism (Zürcher 2005, 181). In this period, as an extension of the efforts to demolish the claims of other nations over national territory, the ‘Turkish History Thesis’ claimed the roots of the Turkish nation were deeply established in Anatolia, where its early civilizations and inhabitants were originally Turk (Akpınar et al. 2017, 14). By the 1960s, as the first militarycoup in the history of the Republic took place, the nationalist tone of its history education was principally influenced by a political attempt to balance Islam and modernization, that is, the emerging ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’, and the main objective of national education was identified as a means of forming ‘self-sacrificing and virtuous citizens who are loyal to their family, nation, country, Turkish revolutions and ideals’ (Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 858). After the 1980 coup, the ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’ became the dominant ideology in educational practices. As a result, the life and principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic, were integrated into the curriculum, along with religion – that is, Sunnite Islam – becoming a compulsory subject in order to educate moral values; it reflected an attempt to reconcile Kemalism with Islam, by stripping it of its traditional connotations, particularly that of secularism (Nohl 2008, 36).

From this perspective, it can be argued that the second political stance, that of Islamism, eroded the emphasis on secularity that had been perceived as one of the pillars of national education in Turkey. Hence, the Islamization of education constitutes one of the central disputes that can be traced back to the 1950s, a period marked by the emergence of Imam Hatip schools that specialized in religious education and the training of imams (Kafadar 2002, 354). This political stance is particularly enhanced by the many educational reforms in the 2000s, initiated by the governments formed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the conservative political party that has been in power since 2002. Aside from the consolidation of many existing religious aspects of the national curriculum and the introduction of new elective courses, such as Kur’an-ı Kerim [Qur’an], Hz. Muhammed’in Hayatı [Prophet Muhammad’s Life] and Temel Dinî Bilgiler [Fundamentals of Religion], these reforms also seek to establish an Islamized approach to citizen formation (Kaya 2015, 58). One significant example would be the association of moral values with religious content, explaining ‘tolerance’ with ‘Muhammad’s “tolerant attitude” towards the Christians of Yemen’ or ‘human rights’ with the ‘farewell sermon [khutba] of the prophet’, followed by the argument that human rights are integral to and guaranteed by Islam (Türkmen 2009, 391, 395).

Though currently replaced by an Islamized context, the introduction of global citizenship and the education of universal values was actually an extension of Turkey’s drive for membership to the European Union (EU), and therefore the educational reforms at the beginning of 2000s prescribed a transformation of the overall system to adhere to EU standards. Thedemocratic initiative simultaneously has marked this period and has been mirrored in education as well. As the long-ignored minorities of Turkey – Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alevis, etc., as well as oppressed groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals (LGBTIs) – have started to voice their demands for equality and recognition, elective courses in several local languages have been introduced, textbooks have been partially cleared of discriminatory statements, and subjects concerning human rights and democracy have been added to the curriculum (Çayır 2014, 2–5; Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 860–61). Despite these developments, a certain Islamized version of the Kemalist nationalism still persists, and thus, the curriculums and the textbooks ‘still portray Turkey as a country that is homogenous, monolingual, and mono-religious’ (Çayır 2014, 115).

For Armenia, the conditions leading to the educational reforms can be categorized not in the sense of the chronological transformations in political stances, but rather in terms of extending existing approaches towards educational policy: that is, of constructing a post-Soviet national identity through creating a sense of citizenship, aligning with international educational standards and the educating the diasporic communities. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Republic of Armenia, the reforms bore a twofold objective in shaping the curriculum: to remove Soviet ideology from education and to redefine what it meant to be Armenian. However, this did not necessarily mean that the legacy of Soviet Armenian education was excluded from the history education of the newly independent Republic. On the contrary, though ‘stripped of communist internationalism and saturated with nationalism’, the historical narrative more or less remained similar: ‘starting with ethno-genesis, followed by the struggle for national liberation and culminating, this time, in independent nationhood’, instead of the development of class consciousness directed towards communism as it was during the Soviet period (Akpınar 2017, 43).

It is also important to stress that, as asserted by the historian Ronald Suny, Armenian nationalist thinking has had a complex evolution that can be dated back to the late 18th century. It persisted even during the Soviet period, when Armenian historians successfully fought against the denationalization of their history. The nationalist tone of the historical narrative was contextualized and consolidated by using repetitive themes such as the antiquity of the Armenian people, the continuous occupation of its indigenous ‘homeland’ and the perpetual struggle for survival and freedom despite betrayals, invasionsand being abandoned by the Great Powers (Suny 2001, 885–87). Nevertheless, the attempt to construct a post-Soviet Armenian identity and the desired rupture from Armenia’s Soviet past required concrete strategies, which were founded in the transition to Western/European educational standards that would introduce the concept of global citizenship. The hopes of gaining acceptance to European Union, along with guidance and support of multiple international organizations, extensively influenced the educational reforms of the post-Soviet transition process by including democratic values such as tolerance, human rights and openness into the national curriculum (Terzian 2010, 166). Nonetheless, these global and national contexts surrounding the educational system have resulted in the development of a dual policy: the primordial myths of Armenian History, such as the Armenian Church, coexist with concepts of tolerance and civic practice (Terzian 2010, 169).

One final link that also intersects the global and national dimensions in the Armenian context would be the diaspora. Since the Armenian Genocide caused the Armenian people to be dispersed to all over the world, maintaining Armenian heritage has been a primary concern for both the diasporic institutions (political organizations, churches, schools, etc.) as well as the newly founded independent Armenian state. On an emotional level, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian diaspora has hoped to reunite with the homeland, and support its transition to an independent nation-state. Nonetheless, the Armenian governments’ policies towards the diaspora, the disagreements on national priorities and the definition of the nation itself have complicated the situation and raised concerns (Ishkanian 2005, 138–39). Instead, at the beginning of the 2000s, the notion of nation was redefined in terms that exceeded the political and territorial frontiers of the state, and accordingly, merged the diaspora and the state into one nation: national unity was re-established as Armenia became a trans-nation (Barseghyan 2007, 294). This was also echoed in the educational reforms with regards to the ‘preservation of national identity’; as described in the State Programme for Education of 2011–15: ‘the educational system of the Republic of Armenia is bound to support the activities of educational centres of the Armenian Diaspora [...] thereby creating conditions for uniting the globally dispersed Armenian potential’ (Government of Armenia 2011, 16), and as suggested by the Ministry of Education and Science, history textbooks in several foreign languages were produced for the Sunday schools of the diaspora, in order to ensure that the national identity could be preserved through Armenian education (Movsissyan 2016, 3).

In France, where the national education is arguably excessively centralized (Baqués 2006, 105; Egéa-Kuehne 2003, 329), the educational system contains a tension caused by two polarized points of view: on the one end, there is the 19th-century heritage of a national identity and republican values, on the other, there is European identity and citizenship. In the course of the 19th century, France was one of the ‘historical nations’ whose history was documented in archives, causing a ‘revolution’ in historiography whereby writing history depended on archival documents. Thus, at the beginning, it was their history that was written and taught (Wallerstein 2004, 5). Education, deemed ‘secular, compulsory, and free’ was an essential part of the French Republican tradition, with a national curriculum enforced on every future citizen, no matter what their social class or where they lived.

As one of the national priorities, education had – and is still argued to have – a critical role in transmitting both historical knowledge and a sense of being French (Corbett 1996, 5). From this perspective, from the 19th century onwards, the teaching of history has been a tool for political socialization, creating French citizens by inculcating them with the republican values of democracy, freedom and equality, but at the same time imposing respect for the established order and their glorious ancestors (Lantheaume 2003, 125). As of the beginning of the 21st century, the French curriculum still put a great emphasis on national identity, and social cohesion is perceived as loyalty to essential principles of the Republic, especially that of human rights, highlighting the intolerance of racism and discrimination (Osler and Starkey 2001, 287–301). Be that as it may, since the 1980s, the reforms to the French curriculum have increasingly encouraged a sense of European identity (Baqués 2006, 106). With the institutional formation of the European Union in the last decades of the 20th century, the tendency to Europeanize the educational systems and develop the European dimension in education has resulted in a reevaluation of European history throughout the century with the aim of emerging a European consciousness. Yet, this approach has not necessarily lead to the abandonment of a nationalist perspective; instead, in the case of France, it has meant a reinterpretation of national identity as an open concept compatible with European identity. Hence, as Europe became the focus of French national education, the curriculum reforms then cultivated a sense of dual citizenship, that of both national and European (Legris 2010, 139–43).

What is striking in three of the cases is the compliance to a trend that appeared in the second half of the 20th century, whereby internationaleducational standards were adopted and a global citizenship perspective developed.2 However, as illustrated in this section, in spite of the reforms enacted in order to meet with these criteria, a certain inclination to uphold the national values and national identity as the fundamental basis of citizen formation still persists in Turkey and Armenia, as well as in France, which results in a duality of national and global policies towards educational systems.

The Armenian Genocide in the educational frame:
a brief comparison of history textbooks

One of the important outcomes of the evolution in educational systems in the second half of the 20th century can be pinpointed to the appearance of the history of the present, relying upon a disciplinary knowledge of the contemporary world, most particularly that relating to memory. Since the Second World War there has been an immense rise in human rights issues triggering memory activism, fuelled by the duty to remember and to ensure that a crime against humanity, such as the Shoah, would ‘never again’ be possible. From the 1970s, despite the enduring nationalist element in educational policies, human rights education became a principal theme, along with the memories of victims (Meyer, Bromley and Ramirez 2010, 113). Even though, from a neutral point of view, teaching the Armenian Genocide would fit into this picture, the curriculums and textbooks of each country imply that it remains much more problematic and does not easily fit into the political agendas of Turkey, Armenia and France.

In terms of curriculum design, both Turkey and Armenia have official decrees on the Armenian Genocide. In the case of Turkey, as an extension of the struggle against the ‘alleged genocides’, on 14 June 2002 the Board of Education and Instruction ordered different grades at primary and secondary schools to be taught about all the issues concerning the claims of the Armenians, along with those of the Greeks and the Assyrians, through the terms set out by the Ministry of National Education in decrees 272–73 (Ministry of National Education 2002). The teaching plans for the history courses for the tenth grade (that is, at the age of fifteen) show that the issue is taught thematically, including but not limited to, the treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Ottoman Empire, Armenian revolts and atrocities, the role and intentions of the Great Powers in these revolts, the necessity of the decision to expel Armenians, intentions behind the terrorist acts of Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the definition of the concept of genocide and its comparison with Armenianclaims (Ministry of National Education 2011, I–VI). The history textbooks, produced or approved by the Ministry, present the issue exactly as it has been regulated by these decrees, as a subject of ‘the Ottoman Empire in the First World War’, under the subchapter ‘the Caucasian Front’, hence providing a detailed picture of the ‘Turkish thesis’3 (Tüysüz 2017, 201–8).

In the case of Armenia, with the order N925 A/C, approved by the Ministry of Education and Science on 9 July 2013, the optional course entitled ‘History of the Armenian Question’ was regulated for eleventh grade (that is, at the age of sixteen) as an introductory course on the subject. As explained in the appendix of the order, the aim of this course is to teach the Armenian Question, that is, ‘the national liberation struggle of the Armenian people for the sake of restoring the national statehood in its historical homeland and creating a free, independent, and united Armenia’, which also includes the Armenian Genocide as a subject (Ministry of Education and Science 2013, 3). According to the standards and teaching plans of history in secondary education, the Armenian Genocide is taught in the eleventh grade as a part of the compulsory Armenian History courses. The teaching plan traces the Armenian Genocide chronologically: starting with the mass murders in Western Armenia at the end of 19th century, escalating to the Young Turks’ policy in line with the Hamidian programme of the destruction of Armenians, and reaching to a total act of genocide in 1915, during the First World War. The themes also include the role of the Great Powers, the trial and punishment of those responsible, the Armenian’s ‘heroic’ self-defence and the process of recognition of the Armenian Genocide (Ministry of Education and Science Centre for Educational Programmes 2008, 17–18). This approach is evident in the history textbooks of the eleventh grade, particularly under the chapter ‘Armenia and the Armenian People during the Years of the First World War’ (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 246–68).

In the case of France, a law that recognized the Armenian Genocide was enacted in 2001, therefore increasing its visibility in history education (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 12). The French curriculum does not contain any direct reference to the Genocide, except from one phrase appearing in the History/ Geography programme for the third class of the fourth cycle (corresponding to ninth grade in a twelve-year education system, that is, at the age of fourteen) concerning the First World War during which ‘combatants and civilians suffer extreme violence, as witnessed particularly by the genocide of the Armenians in 1915’ (Ministry of National Education 2015, 315).

The history textbooks of this grade dedicate two pages to the Armenian Genocide under the title ‘Europe, a Major Front of Total Wars (1914–1945)’, within the context of ‘the brutalization of society’ during the First World War (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).

The secondary-education history textbooks of all three countries that cover the First World War discuss the Armenian Genocide to some extent, yet with a different narration of the historical events. Within the framework of this paper, in order to provide an accessible comparison, the different ways of teaching the Armenian Genocide is primarily discussed through the previously cited history textbooks.4

Escalation of events

An important subject preceding the Genocide narration is Armenian–Ottoman relations. To be precise, before the chapters concerning the First World War, history textbooks of both Turkey and Armenia briefly examine the situation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, yet with different interpretations. The Turkish history textbook explains that, during the empire, the Armenians had flourished in every possible way – economically, socially, culturally, if not politically – thanks to the Ottoman policies towards non-Muslim minorities, particularly emphasizing the ‘harmony’ of Armenian–Ottoman relations, treating the Armenians as loyal subjects [millet-i sadıka] (Tüysüz 2017, 72–73). Whereas the Armenian history textbook does not accept any possibility of coexistence, instead reviewing Armenian–Ottoman relations in terms of discrimination, oppression and the occupation of Western Armenia, while showing the Ottoman efforts as attempts to deceive Armenians. Describing the Ottoman Empire as ‘backward’, the narration accentuates the necessity of a liberation movement, with a certain stress on the destiny awaiting the Armenians (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 182–205). In the French history textbook, there is no reference to the conditions of the Armenians, with only one phrase expressing that they were living as a minority in the Eastern parts of the empire (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Regarding the Armenian involvement in warfare, the central subject consists of Armenian political movements and their actions during the First World War. Both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks confirm that the Armenians of the Caucasus sided with the Russians. In the Armenian case, participation is presented as a ‘voluntary movement’, whereby the supportof Russian military forces would bring about the liberation of Western Armenia. Though there existed different political positions amongst Armenians towards the war and the voluntary movement,5 the comprehensive interpretation of the textbook suggests that the movement stands as a triumphant part of the history of the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 250–53). From the perspective of the Turkish textbook, the Armenian actions are depicted as ‘separatist revolts’ against the Ottoman Empire, aided by the Entente Powers with the aim of expelling the Ottomans from the war. Therefore the Armenians, who were ‘backstabbing’ the Ottoman army, are accused of becoming one of the reasons for the empire’s failure on the Caucasian Front (Tüysüz 2017, 201). The French history textbook, once again, does not mention the Armenian involvement in the war, however, but it does remark on the military defeats of Ottomans and the tensions within the governance of the empire as the reasons for genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Decision, implementation and consequences

The narration of the genocidal process can be compared from this sequence of events: the decision of deportation, the stages of implementation and the consequences. From the perspective of the Turkish history textbook, because of the Armenian revolts and treachery, the Ottoman ruling elite had to take the decision to ‘deport’6 only after every other measure – such as the enactment of martial law or the arrests of separatist Armenians – had failed to provide a satisfactory outcome. Demonstrating the four articles of the deportation law, the decision was justified by only targeting those who had disturbed peace, who has fought with weapons and rebelled against the authorities, and who had conspired or betrayed the country. Moreover, the textbook also criticizes the representation of the deportation in Western media, followed by a long explanation about the measures adopted for the protection of the deportees (Tüysüz 2017, 203–4). The French history textbook chooses to show the decision to deport with a communiqué of Talaat Pasha, then minister of the interior, ordering the deportation of Armenians with the exception of the sick and the disabled, and the arrest of those who disobeyed. The communiqué presented also cites the prohibition of Armenians to sell their property and real estate, as their exile is only temporary7 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian history textbook recounts a more politicized picture of the Genocide, concentrating principally on the Young Turk policies towards Armenians. According to this perspective, the political aspect of the Genocide was a consequence of Sultan AbdülhamidII’s plan, devised long before the war,8 to build a new homeland for the Turks that territorially involved Western Armenia. The economic factor at play was the confiscation of Armenian wealth and property in order to provide capital for the state (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 255–56).

Concerning the stages of implementation, all three history textbooks demonstrate a certain timeframe for the beginning, development and conclusion of the event. In the Turkish textbook, the precautions against Armenian uprisings start in April 1915 with the arrests of those involved, intensify with the enactment and exercise of the deportation law and conclude in October 1915, when the state decided to suspend the deportations, convinced that the objective had been achieved (Tüysüz 2017, 203–5). The French textbook, with a small timeline and a map illustrating the acts of violence against Armenians, presents the start of the Genocide with the arrests of Armenians in April 1915, followed by two waves of deportations, the first between May and July 1915 and the second between the end of 1915 and the summer of 19169 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian textbook also acknowledges the commencement of the process with the arrests of the Armenian leaders, however on a different date, October 1914. Following the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War, able Armenian men were first recruited into the Ottoman army to be ultimately eliminated, and then the Armenians on the Caucasian Front were massacred. By April 1915, the arrested Armenians had been hung, signifying the beginning of massacres in every region. The Armenian response to the planned massacres was self-defence, which extended the genocidal process until the end of 1916 (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 258–9).

As for the consequences, the Turkish history textbook offers plenty of numbers, as a matter of fact, it almost resembles a balance sheet. According to the textbook, out of 1.3 million Armenians living in Ottoman territory, 413,067 were deported, 400,000 to 500,000 were not, 383,000 deportees reached the final destination, 350,000 to 500,000 voluntarily ‘immigrated’ to the Caucasus, thus estimating a ‘casualty’ of 57,000 Armenians during the overall process (Tüysüz 2017, 205). In the French textbook, for which the main objective seems to be demonstrate the suffering of Armenians, the number of murdered Armenians is estimated between 1.2 and 1.5 million, without any reference to the total number of Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire, nor to the other consequences of the Genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). In the Armenian textbook, the narrativeabout regional massacres and self-defensive actions gives precise numbers. However, the number is eventually rounded up to 1.5 million victims out of 2.5 million, which also signifies the official claim. Furthermore, the textbook examines the consequences of the Genocide in a much broader sense: the destruction of Western Armenian civilization, which is portrayed as a great loss not only for Armenians but also for the whole world; the continuation of economic and cultural genocide, that is, the annihilation of Armenian cultural heritage, a process that continues up to the present day, not only in Turkey but also in Azerbaijan; the emergence of the Armenian diaspora and the destiny of the survivors, including those who were forced to convert to Islam; and the effects of the Genocide on the following generations of the Armenian nation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 259, 262–63).

Table 1. Comparison of the Factual Differences in Textbooks

  Turkey Armenia France
Context within the First World War Caucasian Front Caucasian Front Mass violence and brutalization
Armenian involvement in warfare Armenian separatist revolts Armenian voluntary movement for liberation -
Reasons Failure on the Caucasian Front because of Armenian treachery Confiscation of Armenian properties (economics), Young Turk policies (politics) Military defeats of Ottomans, tensions within the state
Decision Deportation Massacres and Genocide Deportation and Genocide
Stages Arrests of Armenians involved in revolts
end of implementation
Arrests of Armenians
Recruitment of Armenian men
Massacres on the Caucasian Front
Hanging of Armenian leaders
Massacres in every region
Armenian self-defense
Arrests of Armenians
First wave of deportations
Second wave of deportations
Period April 1915 to October 1915 October 1914 to end of 1916 April 1915 to summer 1916
Consequences in numbers 57,000 casualties out of 1.3 million Armenians 1.5 million Armenians victimized out of 2.5 million 1.2 to 1.5 million Armenians murdered


Claims and Genocide definition

The aftermath of the Genocide constitutes an important interruption of the chronological narrative in both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks; rather they continue with different stages of recognition and/or denial, with conflicts lasting up until the present.10 The Turkish textbook jumps to the conclusion of the First World War and the treaties signed in order to establish the present territorial boundaries – a topic that is actually examined elaborately in the succeeding chapter – as means to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Armenian claims over territory, particularly according to the internationally acknowledged Treaty of Lausanne. Moreover, the textbook argues that the Armenians developed their scheme against Turkey as a strategy to protect national consciousness and prevent further the assimilation of Armenians in the diaspora. In this context, a four-stage plan was introduced to enforce the recognition of the Genocide, leading to monetary compensation and territorial restitution. For this purpose, Armenians founded terrorist organizations, such as Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), to attract international attention to the Armenian cause by killing Turkish diplomats and their families. After the independence of Armenia, the conflicts became an issue for the foreign policies of both countries, this time marked by the attempts of the Armenian lobby to influence the international community (Tüysüz 2017, 205–8).

The Armenian textbook pursues another route towards the recognition process. The aftermath of the Genocide is discussed through international reactions towards the issue, including testimonies, publications, journals, reports and condemnations of the massacres by political figures. As the first step to recognition, the textbook notices the trials of Young Turks in 1919 by Turkish court-martials, which sentenced the perpetrators to death for their crimes against Armenians. Yet, the textbook implies, since the perpetrators had already fled the country, the punishment was not carried out by Turkish authorities or the Entente Powers, but by self-sacrificing Armenians with operation ‘Nemesis’, inspired from the Greek mythological goddess of retribution, which sought the assassinations of all those responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Stating that the recognition process has entered a new phase after the Second World War, the textbook affirms the rise of international recognition of the Genocide and the persistence of Turkey’s denial, an aspect that still, after a hundred years, determines political relations between two countries (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 262–67).

Since all three textbooks provide a definition of ‘genocide’, one convenient comparison would be the purpose behind the introduction of the concept. For the Turkish and the Armenian cases, the objective seems quite obvious: the former to denounce the claims of genocide and the latter to proclaim it. The Turkish textbook, citing the definition from the UN Convention, asserts that the deportation did not aim at Armenians per se, rather those who threatened the security on the Caucasian Front, adding the fact that the intention was not their extermination, because if it were the case, then the Ottoman ‘state’ would not have made the effort to deport them, but just would have murdered the Armenians where they were (Tüysüz 2017, 208). In the Armenian textbook, the invention of the concept by Raphael Lemkin (1900–59) is explained by his overview of the Armenian case, and a full legal description of the concept is cited, along with five acts defining an event as genocide. Since the Turks carried out all of the five actions, the textbook declares the legitimacy to address the events as ‘genocide’ in accordance with the UN Convention (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 264–65). For the French textbook, however, the objective remains ambiguous, since the definition appears as an exercise in words, and the self-evaluation questionnaire demands students to count three factors that justify the events to be described as an ‘extermination’ rather than a ‘genocide’11 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).


The comparison of different approaches to teaching the Armenian Genocide clearly shows that history education continues to be exposed to political influence. In the cases of Armenia and Turkey, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide confirms the countries’ political stances towards the issue: Turkey, in denial, attempts to construct an interpretation of the historical events that refutes the claims of genocidal intentions, whereas Armenia interprets the historical significance of the Genocide in their struggle for national independence. That being said, it is important to remember that, within the framework of history education in Armenia, the Genocide holds a fundamental part of the centuries-long battle against foreign occupation and the national struggle for liberation, which persists as the central theme in the national history curriculum (Akpınar et al. 2017, 45). While in the case of Turkey, the historical significance of the Genocide cannot be viewed without considering contemporary conflicts, hence its historical contextualization contains only the elements that affirm the official thesis. Additionally, given the fact that the Turkish stance tends to alter over timedepending on the political state of affairs or the allegations, the historical narrative evolves accordingly.

The French approach towards teaching the Armenian Genocide might appear intriguing in respect to the historical neutrality of the country. However, the French position seems to involve a lot of political, historiographical and pedagogical confusions. It is political because the position tends to fluctuate according to political influence and international diplomatic relations, as demonstrated in the comparisons of the 2012 and 2016 editions of the same history textbook. Historiographical because, as ascertained by Sophie Ferhadjian in her analysis of how to teach the Armenian Genocide, the attempt is to explain the issue without addressing the essential historical context such as the history of the Armenians, the rise of nationalism in the 19th century or the Eastern Question as well as the Armenian Question (2006, 4–5). Pedagogical because, as stated by Falaize and Mériaux, multiple constraints characterize its instruction: the authors of the textbooks do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the issue; the time and place devoted to it within teaching plans are very limited; it lacks documentation to prove it as ‘genocide’, and thus the civic aim of introducing such ‘brutalization’ of society is in vain (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 13). In this regard, including the Armenian Genocide in the French history curriculum does not seem to have any intention other than to illustrate an example of mass violence preceding the Shoah.

Briefly, the comparison of national history curriculums and history textbooks of the aforementioned countries suggest that the teaching of disputable and sensitive historical events still remains problematic. The primary concern appears not to teach about this crime against humanity in order to raise consciousness and responsibility, but to use it either to consolidate national identity as in case of Armenia, or to confirm a political position as in case of Turkey, or to reaffirm republican values with a de-contextualized example of mass violence as is the case of France.


Oyku Gurpınar is a PhD candidate in History and Civilizations at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (French: Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales; EHESS), Paris. Her studies on the Armenian Genocide include themes such as familial memory of the Genocide, transmission of memory between generations, perceptions of the Genocide among Armenian youth, as well as the historiography and pedagogies concerning the Genocide. For this purpose, Gurpınar has participated in three research projects, conducted field studies in Turkey, Armenia, France and Lebanon, published articles and presented papers at international conferences.


1 According to Anderson, nation is an imagined community in the sense that i) its members lack face-to-face interaction with most of the other members, ii) and yet it assumes a horizontal comradeship amongst its subjects, iii) these communities are distinguished from one another depending on the manner they are imagined, iv) thus, the limits of a nation define the boundaries of where one nation ends and another begins (Anderson 2006, 6–7). In this regard, Anderson asserts that nationalism indeed accords with the evolution of educational systems, since schools and universities (re)produce the most preeminent imagination of a national community (Anderson 2006, 71).

2 It is essential to underline the fact that in the context of French education what is perceived to be ‘European’ citizenship corresponds to ‘global’ citizenship in the contexts of Turkey and Armenia. However, in the case of France, since the values of the republic are considered as ‘universal’, this duality is assumed to be complementary instead of conflictual. Nevertheless, this does not absolve French education from its nationalist tendencies, especially regarding the colonial past and confrontation with it (Lantheaume 2003, 138).

3 According to Gürpınar, the ‘Turkish Thesis’ on the Armenian Genocide constitutes a complex combination of three distinct approaches: a right-wing version, a left-wing version and a centrist version. Diverging in their justification of Ottoman response to Armenian militancy, the three versions also follow a concurrent path in the development of the official thesis. The right-wing version contextualizes the issue in terms of ethnic conflicts and nationalist movements, accusing Armenians of treachery and savagery, while the left-wing version emphasizes the imperialist hegemony of the era, targeting Armenian separatism through its collaboration with the Great Powers, and thus becoming the servant of imperialism. Finally, the centrist version claims a state-centric argument, denouncing the Armenian revolts as disobedience to state sovereignty (Gürpınar 2016, 221).

4 It is also important, at this point, to point out the fact that each country has a different policy towards textbook production. In Turkey, textbooks are produced either directly by the Ministry of National Education or by private publishers, also the Ministry can set up an independent commission to write a draft or order the purchase of existing textbooks. In any case, the textbooks are subjected to inspection and approval of the Ministry of National Education before being circulated (Akpınar et al. 2017, 19). In France, however, the production of textbooks is highly regulated by a very competitive market whose primary actors are private publishers where the only constraint is to follow the national programmes (Baques 2007, 127). Armenia stands somewhere in between, having both the market-oriented system and the central commission for the selection of textbooks. In this regard, the textbooks are produced by the private publishing houses to be enlisted for the competition held by the Ministry of Education and Science, and the results are declared as the authorized textbooks of the following academic year (Zolyan and Tigran 2008, 17).

5 The textbook dedicates a whole page for the four positions apropos the voluntary movement. According to the textbook, Hunchakians, linking Armenian’s autonomy to victory, openly declared for the Entente Powers, while the Dashnakians advised Armenians to fulfil their military duties to the country of which they are subjects, resulting in a divided position depending on the region; in Western Armenia they called for the maintenance of neutrality, whereas in the Caucasus they supported reunion with Russian troops. Bolshevik Armenians, as a representative of the diasporic opposition, alleged the war as unjust and disclaimed the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 254).

6 The Turkish history textbook addresses the events only as ‘deportation’, in fact the word ‘genocide’ is only used with the adjective ‘alleged’ in front of it.

7 What is most thought‑provoking is the fact that this document, originally found in the Ottoman Archives, is frequently employed by the denialists for the rejection of genocidal intentions, as it implies the ‘return’ of the Armenians. The 2012 edition of the same history textbook prefers to give reference to the testimonies of Henry Morgenthau, which includes a quotation from Talaat Pasha explaining the deportation decision (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42). A discussion concerning the French history textbooks might help explain the reasons for such a transformation. According to an article published on a Franco-Turk website, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide in these history textbooks lacked historical objectivity and trustworthy historical evidence such as archival documents and ignored historiographical developments on the issue, therefore bypassing the Turkish position in a way that would provoke the Turkish diaspora and complicate diplomatic relations (Houssay 2014). 8 Reference to Hamidian massacres as a contextual precedent of the Genocide also appears in other Armenian history textbooks, with a specific emphasis on the ‘Turkish way of resolving issues, and that is through massacres’ (Akpınar et al. 2017, 56).

9 A curious point revealed in the comparison between the Turkish and the French textbooks would be the fact that the date considered as the completion of implementation by the former is viewed as the beginning of a new phase by the latter. Indeed, the Turkish history textbook does not mention at all what has befallen Armenians between the end of 1915 and December 1918, when a law was enacted permitting the return of Armenians (Tüysüz 2017, 205).

10 Once again, the French history textbook reports neither the conflicts, nor the recognition process concerning the Genocide. Be that as it may, the 2012 edition of the same history textbook mentions the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by both the United Nations and France, as well as the denial of Turkey (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42).

11 Another interesting comparison between the 2012 and 2016 editions of the French history textbook would be the approach to the concept concerning the Armenian case. The former redirects the reader to another page for the definition of ‘genocide’, which is to be found in the chapter dedicated to the Shoah, also in the self-evaluation questionnaire the activity is to develop arguments that justify the events in 1915–16 as ‘genocide’ (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42–43, 78).


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Photo of the publication Testing the limits of manipulation: Children as a propaganda tool in Serbian and Croatian media during the Yugoslav Wars (1991-95)
Ivana Polić

Testing the limits of manipulation: Children as a propaganda tool in Serbian and Croatian media during the Yugoslav Wars (1991-95)

14 Feburary 2018
  • nationalism
  • propaganda
  • Yugoslav Wars
  • children
  • ethnic conflict


The violent break-up of Yugoslavia, which began in the early 1990s, was undoubtedly influenced by the war propaganda aimed towards the nationalistic goals of all the sides involved. This article is focused on the analysis and comparison of one specific aspect of propaganda employed by the main pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia, whose conflict marked the beginning of Yugoslavia’s dissolution: that is of the misuse of children as a warmongering instrument. The research examines different ways in which the manipulation of children as victims was used in Croatian and Serbian media and also its consequences, especially the role it played in shaping the actions of the warring parties. While Serbian media focused on the past by emphasizing the genocidal nature of Croats in the Second World War and the need to avenge Serb victims, especially children, Croatian media presented Croatian children as personifications and ambassadors of the ‘newly born’ Croatian collective national body, which was suffering from Serbian aggression. While standard histories of ethnic conflicts, nationalism and post-war transitions focus mainly on adult actors, this project seeks to shed light on the importance of children as both subjects and agents in the conflict-ridden areas of the Balkans, including their centrality to the transition from communism to democracy, to the wars that marked that shift, and to post-communist nation building, which remains contentious and in a state of flux to this day.

As future leaders of the nation, children have undoubtedly been a group of immense importance for political elites as part of the modern nationbuilding process. This was particularly the case in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose statesmen and peoples took pride in the factthat they liberated the country from the Axis through the communist-led, popularly supported Partisan movement in the Second World War. Furthermore, Yugoslavia soon became the only communist state in Europe to break with the Soviet Union and establish itself as neutral. The official socialist Yugoslav line presented the country as an ideal model of multi-ethnicity, with six ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Slavic Muslims and Montenegrins), five official languages (Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Magyar and Albanian) and three official religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam). Therefore, the leaders of the state knew it was important to mobilize young generations for support of specific goals and ideals of the Yugoslav socialist federation and for nurturing interethnic tolerance among its different ethnic and religious groups.

In 1991, however, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a violent ethnic war erupted between Croatia and insurgent Croatian Serbs supported by Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA). It began to tear the country apart. Within a decade, a series of conflicts resulted in seven independent states.1 From the very beginning, the pro-regime media in the countries involved played an essential part in shaping public opinion on the war (Thompson 1994, 1). Even though the communist regime in Yugoslavia was not as restrictive as in Eastern Bloc countries when it came to the notion of media freedom, by the time the dissolution of Yugoslavia had begun, the media in Croatia and Serbia were already firmly controlled by the conservative right-wing political elites who embraced exclusive ethnonational political programmes. One element that made the Yugoslav Wars unique is the fact that they took place on the brink of the 21st century, the age that saw mass media culture thrive in Southeastern Europe. Given the extent of media coverage and ordinary citizens’ access to television, newspapers and radio, viewers could literally follow its day-to-day course, and were exposed to gruesome scenes from the war in a way unseen before in Southeastern Europe. In addition to this, ‘patriotic journalism’ and war propaganda contributed to the state-of-war psychosis in which it was extremely difficult to differentiate between fact and misinformation.

How do we define propaganda? According to Professors of Communications Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, it is ‘the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’ (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 7). They further subclassify propaganda intowhite (acknowledged source, accurate information), grey (source and/or information may or may not be verified) and black (false or conceived source, incorrect information) (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 17–20). These classifications will be of importance for this study when comparing the media in Serbia and Croatia, the two largest and most regionally dominant of the former Yugoslav states, and two of the parties most deeply engaged in ethnic conflict during these wars.

The research proposed here will demonstrate how children were used to justify ethnic warfare and the notion of ethnic exclusivity, one of the most important strategies of nation building in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia. The evidence indicates that both Croatian and Serbian pro-nationalist media overexaggerated the role of children as victims and, through manipulation and misinformation, sought to enhance the overall public sentiment of animosity and rancour towards the ‘other side’. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in such a way differs slightly in its purpose. Serbian media, while mainly resorting to grey and black propaganda, constantly overemphasized the genocidal nature of the Croats and the parallelism with their crimes committed during the Second World War against Serbs and their children. On the other hand, Croatian media used children to a lesser extent through white propaganda, and with a predisposition towards centring on the present; Croatian children were seen as critical and representative of the ‘finally united’ Croatian collective national body (referring to the establishment of the independent nation-state in 1991), which fell victim to Serbian aggression and needed international recognition.

The connection between ideology and childhood indoctrination has recently been receiving more scholarly attention, especially among scholars working on topics concerning the processes of nation building and political culture in the late 19th‑ and 20th-century. However, most of these works deal with Western Europe, the United States, the former Soviet Union and Latin America, places where the nation-building process, when compared to Southeastern Europe at least, seems better established and successful.2 As for Southeastern Europe, and the region of the former Yugoslavia specifically, one notices the predominance of one type of approach that has left us with, at best, only a very incomplete understanding of children’s central place in the cultural, social and political upheaval that marked the region. Recent historiography has produced numerous child-centred studies covering the period of the Yugoslav Wars (1991–95). However, suchworks focus exclusively on the problems of children’s war trauma and the process of rehabilitation.3 The contribution of my project lies precisely in its different approach: instead of looking at the more familiar subject of the after-the-fact personal experiences of children who suffered through the war, I am turning to the new question of how those who had taken control of post-Yugoslav societies in Croatia and Serbia after the collapse of communism used that suffering to manipulate the masses and motivate them to enthusiastically participate in the warfare.

The study revolves around selected themes and concepts crucial to the understanding of the methods and effect of utilizing children as propaganda tools by Serbian and Croatian media. The first one focuses on Serbian media, while also providing an overview of the general situation regarding its tendencies of communicating information to the Serbian public from 1991 to 1995. The second section is equally structured, but it offers an insight into the problem from the Croatian media’s perspective. Finally, the two sides are compared, with a special emphasis on similarities and differences when it comes to the intentions and techniques behind the employment of such propaganda and its consequences on the relationship between the two countries and their position within the European community.

War for the sake of Serb children

The Yugoslav Wars, marked by the worst atrocities and war crimes seen in Europe since the Second World War, were initiated by Serbia and its ultraradical nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević, who took over the Serbian Communist Party in 1987. With the enormous military power of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Milošević proclaimed himself to be the representative of the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia (Thompson 1994, 51). The aim was to reunite all ethnic Serbs in one state, and this inevitably included the ‘liberation’ of large territories of Croatia and Bosnia where Serbs represented the majority or the significant minority, and also expel non-Serbs in order to annex those territories to ‘historical Serbia’ (Brosse 2003, 14–15). Serbian media contributed to the Yugoslav disintegration more than any other state in the federation; Serbian leadership and the insurgent Serbs in Croatia did not accept the Croatian declaration of independence in June 1991, and the war was to be fought only if the public embraced the idea that it was done to preserve the very existence of all Serbs, and was therefore a justified and divine mission (Thompson 1994, 51).

During the 1990s, Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and newspapers Politika [Politics], Politika express [Political Express] and Večernje novosti [Evening News] became the main organs of pro-regime propaganda in the state. In order to control the media institutions and their managers and staff and eliminate the possibility of any critique of the regime, those in power introduced heavy taxes for printing and the distribution of independent newspapers, and refused to issue broadcasting licences for television and radio channels outside Milošević’s influence. Journalists who refused to practice the official, ‘patriotic’ style of reporting were openly labelled as traitors, and publicly intimidated by death threats and pressure to resign their posts (Thompson 1994; Brosse 2003; Vekarić 2011).

One aspect of propaganda to which the media in Serbia undoubtedly introduced a new dimension during the war in Croatia (and later Bosnia) was the manipulation and (re)invention of myths related to Serbian people’s history and national identity. The most prominent were those connected to the genocidal crimes committed against the Serbs by the extremist groups of Croats during the Second World War, as well as the defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Therefore, the resurrected Serbian identity was endangered by the ‘other’ identities that had suppressed it in the past: Croatian, Bosnian (refers to Muslims, in relation to Turks) and Albanian (given the demands of Albanians for autonomy in Kosovo). The public was constantly reminded about those bloody episodes, which resulted in the collective spread of animosity and prejudices towards the denominated ‘others’, and the children’s role was crucial in accomplishing this goal.

Starting from 1990, Serbian media were filled with reports about exhumations and reburials of Serb victims killed in Croatia and Bosnia by the members of the Croatian Ustasha (Ustaša) movement in the Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War.4 For instance, in August 1991, RTS broadcast a lengthy report concerning the exhumation of the Serb ‘martyrs’ from a mass grave discovered in Prebilovci, a small village in the south of Herzegovina. According to the report, those victims were ruthlessly executed by the Ustashas, and the viewers could see their remains being transferred to coffins and buried properly. A separate part of the report consists of a landscape that shows a pile of very small, children’s skulls, which are then zoomed in on so as to leave the viewers no room for doubt about to whom they belonged. Dramatic music accompanying the video clip contributes to the heavy atmosphere, while the speech ofDobrica Ćosić, one of the most prominent Serb intellectuals at the time, reminded viewers of the ‘unbearable burden of the tragedy of the Serbian people’ (RTS 1991).

Establishing parallels between the Croatian political leadership in the 1990s and that of the pro-fascist Croatian state, led by Ante Pavelić in collaboration with Adolf Hitler in the Second World War, was one of the widely used strategies of intimidating the Serbian ethnic community and ‘inducing’ the desired attitude and sentiment towards the ‘enemies’. Croats began to be collectively called ‘Ustashas’ in the Serbian media, and what needed to become ingrained in people’s minds is the fact that history repeats itself and that the genocidal nature of the Croats was about to be manifested again by reiterating all those monstrous actions from the past. More importantly, the message of the above-mentioned television report was supposed to convince the Serbs that even their offspring would not be spared by the Croats’ newly awakened thirst for blood (Denich 1994).

In this context, it was the Serb children who emerged as symbols of the collective Serbian trauma and represent the ‘Holy Crusade’ for the Serbian ‘Promised Land’. Extremely morbid accounts of alleged atrocities against them were perpetually served to the public in Serbia, and were not restricted to reports on commemorations and reburials only. For instance, the regional newspaper Otadžbina [Homeland], published within the territory of the Republic of Serbian Krajina,5 contained a separate section entitled ‘Genocide Against Serbs (1941–45)’. On 13 May 1995, the poem ‘The Memory of Little Milena’ by Mirko Rakić appeared on the page of this section. It laments the death of a Serbian girl who was ‘impaled by the Ustasha cutthroats’. A picture of a baby girl is added to the text to make the readers’ reaction even more emotionally driven. Numerous similar testimonies of Serb children’s sufferings under the Ustasha regime found their place on television or in the press, and very explicit and suggestive language like the one in Rakić’s poem helped in creating specific symbolic narratives that glorified the sacrifice and the collective woes of the Serb peoples. The goal of such messages was to mobilize as many volunteers as possible for the war cause, and the personal motivation for many of the recruits joining Serbian troops frequently had to do with their children’s well-being and the fear they might suffer the same fate as Serb children forty-five years earlier (RTS 1991).6 ‘Liberation’ was at the centre of the political vocabulary of Serbian leaders, who knew how to play the role of liberators. They wouldvisit schools and orphanages in Croatia and promise to protect Serb children from the rampaging Croats, and their speeches would be broadcast and closely analysed.7 Therefore, even though burying past crimes was part of maintaining interethnic harmony in the multiethnic Yugoslav federation, as socialist Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Serbian and Croatian nationalist movements based on ethnic exclusivity returned these episodes to their centre-stage position (Denich 1994; Pavlaković 2013).

The case that best illustrates the extent and consequences of Serbian black propaganda unravelled in the Croatian city of Vukovar in November 1991, when Croatian forces surrendered and the YPA and other Serbian paramilitary units established control over the city. On 20 November the international news agency Reuters released information that the massacred bodies of forty-one Serbian children between five and seven years of age had been found in an elementary school basement. The news came from a Serbian freelance photographer Goran Mikić, allegedly a witness to the crime. The case became the focal point of the RTS evening news on that same day. Invited as the guest speaker, Mikić claimed he had seen the dead children’s bodies, but brought no additional evidence (Brosse 2003, 7–8). Consequently, a special forensic team consisting of medical experts from Belgrade was sent to Vukovar to look for evidence. They ransacked houses, schools, basement shelters and kindergartens, but found no traces of dead children (Baljak and Hedl 2006).

A public retraction from the YPA and Reuters was made on 21 November in the RTS evening news programme in which, ironically, war analysts discussed the connection of the murders of children in Vukovar with those by the Ustashas in the Second World War, forcing the presenter to apologise to the viewers. Serbia’s ‘most credible’ paper Politika also published the rebuttal on 23 November, but merely as a succinct statement in the back of the issue (Brosse 2003, 8).

Although the story was quickly retracted, the timing of its release and its widespread coverage in the Serbian media inevitably played a part in subsequent retaliations against Croats. The Ovčara massacre, considered one of the worst atrocities in Europe after the Second World War, is especially relevant in this context. Between 20 and 21 November, at a dairy farm in Ovčara near Vukovar, more than 260 people (mostly war prisoners and patients and staff from the Vukovar hospital) were executed by membersof the Serb militia (Nazor 2011; Ingrao and Emmert 2012). Renaud de la Brosse, an expert on political communication, considers this a case of not only black but also unlawful propaganda that violates human rights and international law for political purposes (Brosse 2003, 11–12). Also, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acknowledged the testimony of Vesna Bosanac, the head of the Vukovar hospital, who believed that the news about the children massacre was deliberately released to justify the Ovčara crime and subsequent retaliations (Bosanac 1998).

Unverified information involving children was also often disseminated by personalities who enjoyed a high reputation among the Serbian public. In the second half of 1991, RTS broadcast a speech of the Serbian bishop Filaret, who appears behind a table on which lies a small skull, and acquaints the viewers with ‘one more instance of the Ustashas’ ruthlessness’.

“The Ustashas came to a Serbian village near Kukuruzari and captured a small [Serbian boy] Ilija and forced his mother to watch his throat being cut ... The mother ran after them and begged for her dead child, but they refused, and instead carried him away and burned him. This skull is all that’s left ...“
(Lalić 1999)

It was no secret that bishop Filaret was a passionate supporter of Milošević’s political programme. He was not only actively engaged in helping Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but he also assisted Serbian military and paramilitary troops (Ognjević 2004). Despite the fact that the authenticity of this story was never acknowledged, he, himself, was supposed to represent a ‘credible’ and ‘sacred’ mouthpiece of the Serbian nation. Involving children provoked strong emotional reactions and dehumanized the foe as much as possible.

Media lynching and extortion were one of the most frequently employed strategies of patriotic journalists in Serbia and including crimes against children guaranteed their ‘success’. One of the most notorious such cases concerned Davor Markobašić, a Croatian guardsman who was accused by the Serbian press of butchering Serb children in Vukovar and making necklaces out of their fingers, although there was no evidence except for hearsay (Vekarić 2011, 193–202). His name and address were published in the press, and his wife was killed on an Ovčara farm by gunshots to the stomach and vagina; she was pregnant, and was murdered because of the rumoursthat stigmatized her husband as a slaughterer and rapist of Serb children (Došen 1998). There are numerous other examples of openly denouncing individuals for purportedly committing crimes against children. In his book, Deputy War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia Bruno Vekarić mentions the testimony of one of the prisoners in the Serbian internment camp: Begejci. On his internment, Serbian soldiers removed a knife from his pocket that they considered was the weapon with which he supposedly killed five or more Serb children who were later said to be found in his bathtub. He was labelled a murderer of children (Vučenić 2003, cited in Vekarić 2011, 223).

Cases like this indicate the psychological influence of child-centred propaganda on the minds and actions of those directly engaged in warfare and treatment of the enemy. Even though in most cases it was not possible to confirm the credibility of the information in any way, the manner in which these messages were conveyed had a tremendous impact on the Serbian public, especially troops on the Croatian fronts, and it served the purpose of favouring Milošević regime’s warmongering agenda.

‘My father is a Croatian Guardsman’

In May of 1990 the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), a new conservative right-wing party led by Franjo Tuđman, won the elections in the Socialist Republic of Croatia (at the time still part of Yugoslavia) with a surprisingly large number of votes. It based its programme on ‘the right of the Croatian people for self-determination and state sovereignty’ (Nova Hrvatska 1990, 9–11, cited in Denich 1994, 377). More importantly, the new Croatian nationalism excluded Serbs as one of the ‘constituent nations’ of Croatia (which was the case during the Titoist regime) and changed its status to that of a ‘minority’. Although the Croatian constitution from 1990 granted national minorities the right to assert their nationality and linguistic and cultural autonomy, the coexistence of Serbs and Croats was looked on as abnormal. Also, the extreme Serbian nationalism that resonated with the large number of Serbs in Croatia only intensified Croatian nationalist impulses that had been suppressed for a long time (Denich, 1994, 377–83).

Croatian nationalism, just like Serbian, had its roots and ‘justifications’ in myth and history. The new government’s rhetoric rested on the narrative that Croatia had been oppressed under foreign monarchs for too many centuries, and that Croatian people almost always were forced to sacrifice their identity and faith. The definition of war was very straightforward: Croatiahad at last achieved independence and had to defend its national body and protect its territory and freedom against the aggressor (Thompson 1994).

Up until 1990, Croatian media were known for their objectivity and multiperspectivity, which is not surprising given the country’s different regional identities. When the CDU came to power, however, it seized the monopoly over the main television and press headquarters. Croatian National Television (CRT) and newspapers Večernji list [Evening Courier] and Vjesnik [Herald] became the most important CDU mouthpieces. ‘Patriotic journalism’ in Croatia actually mirrored that of Serbia: loyal CDU people (all of them being Croats) ascended to the chief positions of the state apparatus as well as the main pro-regime media headquarters. Journalists who criticized the new government (and the majority of Serb journalists) were intimidated or instantly replaced with those ready to go along the ‘patriotic’ line, and independent or private media were continuously sabotaged and forced to stop their broadcasting or distribution (Thompson 1994; Kurspahić 2003, Malović and Selnow 2001).

In the eyes of the CDU leaders, children occupied a very important role in the process of nation building. Unlike Serbian media that used children, first and foremost, to remind the public about crimes from the past, children in Croatian propaganda assumed a very present role. They personified the victimhood of the national corpus suffering from Serbian aggression and also acted as ambassadors and future leaders of the new country on the European political map that sought recognition from Europe and the world. To begin with, children represented one of the crucial ‘pillars’ of the CDU’s political campaign. Apart from being victims in need of protection, they also symbolized the future or, better yet, young citizenry who deserved to grow up in an independent Croatia, one which would not ‘suffer for Yugoslav and Serbian interests’. As the generation of vital importance for nation building, they appeared in political campaign speeches, videos, concerts and posters, while President Franjo Tuđman acted as the nation’s ‘fatherly figure’ and protector. One of the electoral campaign posters from 1990 shows the president carrying two little girls in his arms, while the message says ‘The Safe Future of Croatia’.8 In another interesting pre-election video from 1992, Tuđman explains to a young boy that, throughout his life, he was punished for his political views (referring to his imprisonment for advocating Croatian autonomy and independence from Yugoslavia and, more importantly, against Serbian expansionism). The young boy answers by acknowledging the role of the president in the achievement of a free and independent Croatia and stating that he knows they [Croats] need to liberate the country from the occupier, and that his dad is also contributing by fighting on the front (Globus 1992, 18, 39, cited in Senjković 2002, 140–41). Hence, he represents both the newly established state and its future endangered by the occupiers.

Indeed, by the end of 1991, when nearly one-third of Croatian territory was occupied by the rebel Serbs and YPA, victimhood and suffering became the central themes of Croatia’s political vocabulary. As quintessential war victims, children fit this concept well, and their hardships were ‘usable’ for two purposes: openly denouncing the enemy and appealing to the international community to recognize Croatian independence and its ‘suffering body’. The media, when it came to children, relied on visual imagery much more than the written word. Countless reports centred on the hazards Croatian children had to confront in the war zones, and newspapers were filled with images of youngsters hiding in shelters or saying goodbye to their fathers heading to the fronts, ready to put their lives on the line for their sons and daughters’ well‑being. As with Serbian media, texts of this kind frequently referred to those responsible for children’s tragedies and trauma and, in doing so, journalists continually overgeneralized and exaggerated. For example, on 12 May 1991 the newspaper Vjesnik published an article by Marijan Vogrinec who in his political commentary wondered:

“How to understand that today, on the verge of the 21st century, in the country we thought was a homeland of civilized people, Croatian mothers ... do not let their children go to school, because they ... might get hurt ... or kidnapped and held hostage by horrifying beardos?” (Vjesnik 4)

The derogatory term at the end refers to the members of Serbian paramilitary units called Chetniks, notorious for having long beards, and who, as in this case, were literally portrayed as monsters. Some of the other common terms used to denominate the other side were, for instance, ‘Serbs’, ‘Chetniks’, ‘monsters’, ‘bands of savages’, ‘Yugo-communists’, ‘non-humans’ and ‘pure evil’. This was especially effective during the interviews of refugee children on national television during the second half of 1991, when reporters asked the children who they thought caused their hardships. The collective stigmatization of the enemy was present in both Serbian and Croatian media.

The period between 1991 and 1995 was also marked by the production of numerous patriotic song collections, performed by many prominent artists and perpetually broadcast on national television and radio. Children were one of the most frequent ‘elements’ of such songs, and their mention or appearance incited viewers’ emotions and maternal instincts. One of the most famous war songs was ‘Hrvatine’ [Croats] by Đuka Čaić. In the music video, one of the song lines, ‘Čuvaj oče majčicu, ognjište i sestricu’ [Father, protect mother, home and little sister], is depicted by the scene of a mother and child hidden in a shelter, and then a Croatian soldier carrying a baby in his lap (saving its life). However, ‘Hrvatine’ never reached the popularity of ‘Stop the War in Croatia’ by Tomislav Ivčić, a singer actively engaged in supporting the CDU Party, whose anti-war song became a symbol of Croatia’s victimhood worldwide. Accompanied by a children’s choir, he is asking Europe (in English) to ‘stop the war in the name of children’, but also to ‘let Croatia be one of Europe’s stars’. If we look at children in this context, besides appealing to Europe to act in the name of the younger generation, they also take on the responsibility of ambassadors of their young, newborn country, and therefore assume an active participatory role rather than only being passive victims. This need to demonstrate the Europeanness of Croatia was one of the crucial goals of the political elites in the early 1990s, and the international audience could hardly be left indifferent to the plight of Croatian children.

To accomplish the desired effect, exhibitions like those of children’s drawings (usually depicting YPA tanks and fighter aircraft with red stars destroying homes with Croatian flags or other national symbols, and crying parents and children) were staged not only in Croatian museums but, more importantly, abroad, in countries like Germany, Switzerland or Austria.9 Since these were often organized and/or financed by the Croatian Ministry of Education and other state institutions, reports of such events as well as charity and humanitarian concerts for children funded from abroad were reviewed in the press and shown on television. Furthermore, these drawings were also printed on postcards or food boxes intended for Croatian guardsmen on the fronts, where they were received with great enthusiasm (Šigir 1993, 46–47; Senjković 2002, 35, 45–46). Croatian war posters included images of inconsolable mothers and children in exile, and the message on them was very clear-cut: the aggressor was ‘Serbia and the Yugo-communist army’ (Reljanović 2010).

One of the most conspicuous posters (Figure 1) shows a small boy fully dressed in dark green Croatian military uniform and wearing a headband decorated with the Croatian coat of arms (chessboard emblem); he is standing with his right arm raised while his fingers form the internationally recognized V for victory sign (Reljanović 2010, 244–245). The message reads: ‘I moj tata je hrvatski vojnik’ [My father is a Croatian Guardsman too]. The concept behind this poster resembles that of the famous British war poster from the First World War: ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ by Savile Lumley.

Although the poster designers claimed they were ‘not produced as a result of a programme within the scope of a powerful and organized propaganda machine’ (Reljanović 2012, 19), its primary purpose was to contribute to enhancing war mobilization. Interestingly, connecting children to Croatian national symbols, such as a coat of arms, flags or military uniforms and insignia worn by Croatian fighters (see boy on poster), was a very popular tendency in the pro-regime press and television, particularly in communicating with an audience beyond the state itself. By portraying a child who, again, stands for the universal war victim as well as a young citizen and patriot aware of his country’s struggle for freedom, it managed to bridge the two dimensions that Croatian political elites needed to do to promote the Croatian cause, both locally and internationally.


This study has shown that the use of children as an instrument of war propaganda represented one of the main strategies of the ‘most productive’ pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia during their conflict between 1991 and 1995. Both incorporated children into the victim-centred war propaganda; their nationalist political leaders claimed the right of their states to victory by reiterating notions of victimhood, defence and protection, ingrained in different mythological and historical explanations and justifications.

A dominant view of Serbian history that emerged after 1986 was that of a ‘heroic, long-suffering nation, struggling for centuries against invaders and annihilation’; this specifically referred to the Ottoman Turks and the massive extermination of Serbs by members of the Croatian Ustasha movement in the Second World War. Therefore, engagement in the war against secessionist Croatia became a chance for Serbian revenge. On the otherhand, Croatian nationalism was very much fuelled by the contemporary expansionist ‘Greater Serbian threat’ posed by Milošević, even though it was also rooted in the ‘long-time oppression by foreign rulers’. The aim of the propaganda was to convince the public that Croatia must be defended from Serbian aggression and, more importantly, aided by the European powers who would recognize its independence. Hence, while Serbia and its parastate the Republic of Serbian Krajina found itself isolated in the attempt to create Greater Serbia, Croatia turned to Europe, claiming its right to become a fully fledged member of the European Union (UE).

Both Serbian and Croatian media exaggerated and overgeneralized children’s victimhood to gain the sympathies of the public by depicting the children’s vulnerability and helplessness. In-depth analysis highlights the three common ‘functions’ of children in both cases. First, children’s suffering was an effective instigator of war mobilization. Secondly, both propaganda systems used children as an embodiment of the nation and its peoples’ ‘sacrifice for the long-awaited freedom and reaffirmation’. Lastly, even though children do personify the future of a particular nation (if we look at this idea from the perspective of a natural course of the life cycle), this notion was constantly overstated in the midst of the war atmosphere to the point that its real meaning became distorted by the propaganda. The three aspects mentioned are by no means a novelty in the history of modern war propaganda; since the First and, notably, the Second World War, children have played a vital part in the mass propaganda machinery. Nevertheless, the priority was mostly given to their role as soldiers or members of massive children’s organizations such as Hitler Youth or Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth). This was not the case in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia, the leaders of which created their own nationalist agendas within the turbulent fall of communism and new European geopolitical reality.

When it comes to methods of dissemination through visual, audio and printed media, such as videos, photographs, war posters, war songs and newspaper articles, Serbian propaganda involving children was notorious for its unscrupulousness. It consisted of techniques such as extortion, medialynching, spreading false information, the falsification of sources and/ or a general lack of credible sources. Many of the cases described can therefore be considered unlawful and/or a combination of grey and black propaganda. Croatian child-focused propaganda was not as transparent as Serbian, but rather subtly infiltrated into white propaganda machineryorganized to maintain the status of the ‘victim of aggression’ that ‘pays the price for its independence’. Croatian media relied more on visual images than the written word, and connected children in contexts related to their inextricable connection to national Croatian political and military symbols. Consequently, their role as ambassadors of the newly independent state was much more active than that of Serbian children, who were treated exclusively as passive victims.

The consequences of such well-elaborated and widespread child-centred propaganda were no less fatal for Serbian and Croatian societies than the war itself. The psychological element at the core of this mechanism of propaganda led many to embrace the concept of war as existential and interethnic. The often exaggerated victimization of children no doubt intensified during the war. It remains a burning issue to this day; one of the barriers that still prevents the normalization of relations between Croatia and Serbia has to do with education and textbooks, and the way in which the two sides interpret this conflict and who the victims are. Ultimately, it all has to do with educating the younger generations and future leaders of these nations.

Finally, the development of their national identities in the 1990s, and especially the role of children in it, helps us better understand the current positions of Croatia and Serbia in the contemporary European order, with the former being the newest member of the European Union, and the latter, because of its isolation, finding itself wavering between an EU–NATO partnership and its traditional ally, Russia. This project is also significant to the understanding of the workings of ethnicity and nationalism in Europe as a whole, where recent events, such as those in Ukraine or the European reactions to the refugee crisis, have shown us that ethnonational exclusivities, once thought to be disappearing in the face of the European Union, are only becoming more important with the rise of an ethnonational right wing. Finally, the project has a global significance, as it explores the potential of media and new communication technologies for both using and indoctrinating children in the service of nationalism, patriotism, chauvinism and other regime-driven political purposes.



Ivana Polić is a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of California, San Diego, where she also works as a teaching assistant for the Makingof the Modern World programme. She is interested in the modern history of Southeastern Europe, with particular emphasis on post-1945 history of Yugoslavia and its successor states. Her research focuses on topics such as popular culture, the interrelationship between gender and politics and the history of childhood. Her dissertation project deals with the importance of children and childhood in the process of nation building in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia.



1 The term Yugoslav Wars refers to a series of conflicts: Ten-Day War in Slovenia (May-June 1991), Croatian War of Independence (1991–95), Bosnian (1992–95), Croat- Bosniak (1992–94), and Serbia-Kosovo (1998–99) conflict.

2 See Katriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890–1991 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Anna Saunders, Honecker’s Children: Youth and Patriotism in Eastern Germany, 1979–2002 (New York: Manchester University Press, 2007); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (London: Cornell University Press, 2008).

3 See Joseph Kerrigan and William Novick, eds., Healing the Heart of Croatia (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998); Vjekoslav Šaravanja, 10,000 djece bez roditelja u Domovinskom ratu [10,000 Parentless Children of the Homeland War] (Slavonski Brod: Obiteljski centar župe Duha Svetoga, 2001); Neven Šikić, Miomir Žužul and Ivan Fattorini, eds, Stradanja djece u domovinskom ratu [Suffering of children in the homeland war] (Jastrebarsko, Zagreb: Naklada Slap and Klinika za dječje bolesti Zagreb, 1994).

4 The term Ustasha (Ustaša) refers to the members of the pro-Fascist organization active before and during WWII in Croatia, which supported the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (1941–45) as a Nazi satellite state (encompassed Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of Serbia and modern day Croatia). As part of creating ethnically pure Croatia, hundreds of thousands of people were executed or expelled, particulary Serbs, Jews and Roma.

5 The Republic of Serbian Krajina existed from 1991 to 1995 as a Serbian state within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of Croatia, but it was never recognized internationally.

6 See, for instance, interviews by RTS from August 1991.

7 See, for example, issues of Politika between 1991 and 1992.

8 Available at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb.

9 See, for instance, Djeca u ratu i poslije rata: izložba dječjih likovnih radova [Children during and after the war: exhibition of children’s art works] (Osijek: Galerija likovnih umjetnosti, 1992); Ich Habe Angst: Ausstellung der Zeichnungen der Kroatischen kinder [I am afraid: exhibition of Croatian children’s drawings] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Papir, boje, kist i rat: izložba likovnih iskaza hrvatske djece o Domovinskom ratu [Paper, colours, brush and war: exhibition of Croatian children’s artistic expressions about the homeland war] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Sanjam o miru / I Dream of Peace (Zagreb: UNICEF and Croatian School Museum, 1992/93).

10 Square brackets in the reference list and endnotes contain author’s translations of titles originally written in other languages, mostly Croatian or Serbian.


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

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Photo of the publication Control through fear - The enemy at the gates: The case of Albania
Afrim Krasniqi

Control through fear - The enemy at the gates: The case of Albania

13 Feburary 2018
  • totalitarianism
  • Albania
  • Hoxha
  • communist regime
  • persecution
  • control through fear


One of the main features of the communist regime in Albania (1944–90) was the rule through intimidation and the psychosis of the ‘enemy at the gates’. More than two generations grew up and lived under such psychosis. Over the years they took such a situation for granted, by making it an essential part of their language, lifestyle, thought and vision for the future. The system of collective intimidation, ‘the enemy at the gates’ turned into a system of the rule of law. It was anchored in laws and punishments used against any critical form of resistance to the regime. In such society happiness, sovereignty, survival and success were only considered possible in a closed, isolated system guarded by vigilantes who monitored and rejected of any kind of external influence. This paper analyses the evolution of the concept of the ‘enemy’ and the system of establishing a feeling of permanent fear emanating from the top (systemic authorities) towards the bottom (citizens), through official political discourse. It looks at how these notions ‘succeeded’ and how they influenced the political formation of society. It discusses the dynamics of the creation of a collective consciousness based on the primacy of survival.


A large part of Albania’s modern political history (1945–90) unfolded under the heavy shadow of one-party rule, marked by the uncontested control of a sole leader over the party. Albanian politics of that period showed markedly totalitarian traits, shaped by the syndrome of perpetual anxiety over perceived internal and external threats. The regime built up a system capable of using violence and triggering fear, able to eradicate potential threats identified among suspect groups and individuals.

The relationship between state and citizen was built on a widely shared understanding of the state as an all-powerful entity, ultimately embodied in the dictator and his inner circle. It was able to claim and ultimately wield total control over society as a whole and on individual citizens who had no role to play in decision-making and a sacred duty to accept orders, guidance and instructions. The fear-instilling system was functional and effective. It was anchored in the constitution through severe limitations on civil rights, through complementary legislation on surveillance, through state propaganda and through a far-reaching control over an individual’s private life, family, community, workplace, career advancement and religious beliefs.

As Arendt wrote, ‘totalitarian ideologies aim to transform human nature itself, since the human condition of plurality is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of the realization of an ideologically consistent universe [...] since tyranny destroys the public realm of politics and is therefore anti-political by definition’ (Arendt 2002). Nevertheless, the state of ‘isolation’ and ‘impotence’ experienced by the individual in tyrannical forms of government springs from the destruction of the public realm of politics whereas the mobilization of the ‘overwhelming, combined power of all others against its own’ does not eliminate entirely a minimum of human contact in the non-political spheres of social intercourse and private life. Thus, if the fearguided actions of the subject of tyrannical rule are bereft of the capacity to establish relations of power between individuals acting and speaking together in a public realm of politics, the ‘isolation’ of the political subject does not entail the destruction of his social and private relations. Therefore, in all nontotalitarian forms of government, the body politic is in constant motion within set boundaries of a stable political order, although tyranny destroys the public space of political action (Ngjela, 2003, 21).

No other state in the socialist bloc was able to conceive and apply such extreme measures as in Albania, and none was as effective in eliminating dissidence, in prohibiting religion in the Constitution, and in ultimately cutting itself off from both East and West. Two generations were born and lived under this psychotic regime. As the years went by, the nature of the regime was taken for granted. Its existence and functioning was internalized. It became part of the way people lived, spoke and thought about the past, present and future.

The ‘enemy at the gates’ system of collective control through fear evolved into a method of ruling through pervasive violence that was sanctioned inlegal acts and practical measures targeting each and every form of possible and actual dissidence against the regime. Under such a system, the quest for personal happiness was overridden by the need for survival: a personal life was only possible inside a closed shell that refused to be influenced by the outside world. The fall of the regime in 1990 and the establishment of the multi-party system were understood as a departure from the regime of fear, where people could meet and speak openly.

The old concept of ‘the enemy’, as mostly associated with Western Democracy, was then superseded by the concept of ally, friend, partner and unconditional supporter of the Euro-Atlantic integration process.

‘The enemy’ as a constitutional principle and as a basis of legitimacy

Communist Albania’s prevailing concept of ‘the enemy’ was related first and foremost with the relationship between the individual and the Party1 and with the connection between the individual, state and society. The only official Albanian dictionary of that time (dictionary of today’s standard Albanian [FGJSH], 1980, 53)) describes the entry ‘enemy’ as ‘the person who stands against the interests of the class, party, motherland and socialism, by fighting and acting against them’.2

This definition is to be also found in previous academic and official papers and documents, in the official media, in public discourse and in the notes and documents of the Political Bureau, Albania’s Communist Party’s highest decision-making body from 1948 to 1990. The Communist Party’s sources mention several types of ‘enemies’, among the most notable we can list are ‘the enemy of the party’, ‘the enemy of the people’, ‘the class enemy’, ‘enemy of the people’s rule’. Marking individuals as ultimate enemies, should they engage in activities marked as harmful to ‘the interest of the [working] class and of the party’, is indicative of the core philosophy that sustained Albania’s communist system.

Under charges of ‘hostile activity’, implying acts or opinions and perceptions opposed to the Party, the communist regime executed 5,157 citizens; 9,052 more citizens died in prison; 17,990 citizens underwent prolonged imprisonment sentences; and 30,383 citizens were exiled in conditions similar to labour camps, bringing the total number of people subjected to political persecution to 65,582. With an effective population of just 1.1 million inhabitants, this resulted in 5.9 per cent of the population or 10.2 per cent ofcitizens over eighteen years of age being subjected to political persecution. Officially Albania had twenty-three political prisons and forty-eight labour camps for political detainees.

The ascent to power of the communists in Albania was later exemplified in the Constitution of 1945. It was consolidated in the Constitutions of 1950 and 1976, and supported by several pieces of secondary legislation. According to the political programme of Albania’s Communist Party of 1948, and to the Constitution of the Republic of Albania of 1950:

“in the present historical era, the Communist Party (of Albania) mobilizes and guides the working class, the peasants, and all of the country’s workmen, in their struggle against the remainders of the fascism, feudalism, bourgeoisie and reactionaries, to uphold the country’s independence and territorial integrity, to advance democracy and the people’s rule, to rebuild and to industrialize the country, to build up its electrical power grid, to develop the state sector and the cooperatives to raise the economic, cultural and technical level of knowledge of the working class and of the whole population (Labour Party of Albania [LPA] 1950)“.

The Statute of the Communist Party stated the following basic criterion with regard to its members: ‘to protect the party and its unity from the attacks of internal and external foes’ (LPA 1948, 520).

This definition creates a relationship of interdependence between the concept of the struggle against the ‘internal enemies’, including the ‘bourgeois’ identified as the urban middle and upper class, the ‘remainders of feudalism’ consisting of the landed gentry, ‘the reactionaries’ implying religious communities in general and Roman Catholics in particular, and ‘the remainders of fascism’, consisting of the individuals and the families of those directly or indirectly involved with the state administration under the German and Italian occupation in the period 1939–44.

The total war waged against the above categories, which back in 1948 represented the most educated strata of Albanian society, was justified with the struggle ‘to preserve national independence and territorial integrity’ and ‘rebuild the country’. Further to punishing or disciplining critics of theregime, the party would argue that it had ‘eliminated’ enemies of Albania’s independence and progress. This alibi seemed to work well during Albania’s post-Second World War state of exception that saw the final establishment and consolidation of communist rule further to the total eradication and suppression of any effective threat to the new regime. After that, it seemed to have been accepted without any reservation, as all dissenting voices were already effectively suppressed.

The concept of the enemy as a hallmark of ‘class struggle’, in the sense of boundless class warfare waged against all those holding differing opinions, was sanctioned in the Constitution with the following wording (Constitution ... 1976): ‘The Socialist Republic of Albania is a country ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the expression of the interests of all workers’; ‘the leading ideology being Marxism–Leninism’; ‘poised to continuously advance the revolution, the class struggle, towards the final victory of socialism over capitalism, and towards the ultimate establishment of and communism.’

Article 55 of the Constitution prohibits the establishment ‘of any organization of fascist, anti-democratic, religious or anti-socialist nature. Fascist activity, any type of anti-democratic and religious propaganda, and the instigation of racial and national hatred shall be prohibited.’

The Constitution and the Criminal Code entailed over seventy articles sanctioning the death penalty over several criminal offenses (Repishti 2017). Offences such as ‘activity directed against the party’, ‘emigration from the country’, ‘economic sabotage’, ‘religious practices’ and the establishment of organizations outside the Labour (Communist) Party were subject to harsh sanctions, further detailed in secondary legislation and in other specific measures, such as the unifying decision of 1968 to suppress the Ministry of Justice. The decision remained in force until spring 1990, leaving Albania without a Ministry of Justice for twenty-two years.

The execution of these extreme political and ideological decisions was entrusted to an extended network of informers built around the secret police, also known as Sigurimi – State Security. The State Security as approved by the Political Bureau (Decision no. 30 1954) aimed to create a system of total surveillance of Albania’s citizens, including low profile enemies of the Party, for the purpose of protecting the leader and the party ‘from internal and external enemies’.

The surveillance was carried out by the departments of the Ministry of Interior in conjunction with ‘voluntary cooperation groups’, consisting of party loyalists and members of its auxiliary organizations. The structure had a vertical line of command and a horizontal extension, covering all inhabited areas and production facilities. It controlled all mailing services, all correspondence between citizens, especially the correspondence of families with convicted and exiled members. Over one third of the Albanian citizens were covered by personal surveillance files.

‘The enemy’ as a mechanism of persecution and control

The concept of social class, entailing a regime ‘of workmen and countrymen’ in charge of ruling over the rest of the social classes is found in different forms in the Soviet models and in the ideologies of other socialist countries all over the Eastern Bloc. In Albania the class concept was at the very foundation of the country’s legal framework and at the heart of public discourse. It was the source of all legal and administrative acts. The classification of citizens into two large categories – party loyalists and enemies – marked the line of division between a totalitarian regime and the alternatives to it. The singularity of Albania’s communist regime has been widely debated, also with regard to the question whether ‘class struggle’ was ‘properly’ borrowed as a system of reference from the October Revolution, or whether it was mostly adapted to the social reality where the Albanian communists had to operate.

The critical thesis maintains that ‘class struggle’ was ‘misused as an alibi for paying lip service to the totalitarian structure’, therefore ‘the destructive war waged against the individual in Albania was wrongly referred to as class struggle ... the very definition of class struggle is an expression coming from a totalitarian mind set ... there was no class struggle in Albania, rather a war of all against all’ (Klosi 1993, 57).

As discussed by Lefort, ‘the attack against the enemies of the people was launched in the manner of a disease prevention campaign: the integrity of the body depends on the elimination of the parasites feasting upon it’ (Lefort 1994, 115). The communist regime came into being precisely through the quest for the total elimination of all potential resistance. In 1944 and 1945 Albania’s communists undertook extreme measures (arrests, executions and long sentences of imprisonment of twenty to a hundred years) against all individuals with a potential to provide political representation. Theyindiscriminately attacked high-profile political opponents, minor political associations, influential local religious leaders and the whole of the liberal elite of their time. In 1945 the communists embarked upon a far-reaching ‘agrarian reform’ that wiped out the well-to-do farmers, and created a loyal social group of peasants entitled to the use of land, totally dependent on the decisions taken by the regime. In 1948 Albania passed a law on the forced expropriation of all cattle stock (Law no. 598 1948). That law paved the way to the establishment of farming cooperatives. Those who resisted its implementation, or those found to have hidden the cattle subject to expropriation, were considered as ‘saboteurs and reactionaries’, liable to be sentenced to up to ten years’ imprisonment.

The same approach was followed with the law on the confiscation of agricultural products, with the adoption of the system of extraordinary taxation for retail traders and with the decision to confiscate monetary values saved outside financial institutions. The professed goal of the regime was ‘to crush the resistance of political opponents, to expropriate the upper class ... to safeguard the victories of the revolution’ (Omari 1977, 119). A decision of the Political Bureau identified eighteen cases that qualified an individual as ‘a hostile kulak’, liable to be put under surveillance, have their possessions confiscated and be deprived of freedom.

The description of ‘kulaks’ includes the following: ‘he/she has a nice house and extensive property’, ‘he is very active in the bazaar’, ‘he used to lend money at interest’, ‘he was connected to the regime of [King] Zog’, ‘he is opposed to the modernization of agriculture’, ‘he acted as if he were the most important and the most intelligent man in the village’, ‘he is a doublecrosser’, ‘he has family connections with rich families’, ‘he opposes womens’ participation in social life’. The same methods of classification applied to other types of enemies: religious enemies, enemies in the fields of arts and culture, enemies in the fields of sport, economy, army and so on.

The branding as an enemy affected all leaders of religious communities, urban elites, important landowners in northern Albania, and those individuals with connections in Western Europe. This ecletic mix of individuals fell into the category of ‘enemy of the people’. This category was periodically expanded to include persons holding public functions, subsequently denounced as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘collaborationists’, especially if they failed to achieve the objectives set by the central planning committee. When theworks to drain the Maliq swamp failed to be completed in 1946 within the given deadline, the communist regime arranged a ten-day trial that served to execute all the technical experts of the project, including a pregnant woman. They were accused of ‘sabotage’ and of being ‘US and British spies’. Over seventy former students of the Harry Fultz College in Albania met tragic deaths, imprisonment and confinement.

A unique case is given by the arrest, trial, sentencing and execution within the timeframe of only seventy-two hours of twenty-two well-known intellectuals in February 1951, accused of ‘hostile acts’ and ‘involvement with foreign espionage’. The review of their files in 1991 showed that the Political Bureau had decided to set an example, and to this end, it brought together and evaluated a list consisting of 170 intellectuals from different locations. At the end of the meeting, the Bureau set apart twenty-two people to be killed, and the decision was passed to the secret service, the Prosecutor’s Office and to the state police for immediate execution. Such acts of terror were meant to establish and perpetuate a climate of fear, in which every single individual would sense that his life and his survival were out of his control.

The politically motivated attack against the concept of the independence of the individual was only the first ring in a long chain of measures geared towards conditioning him, his family, friends and colleagues. If a person were to be sentenced on political charges, he would automatically relinquish his rights of citizenship including the right to vote. His family would be included in the list of those to be possibly sent to exile, in conditions very similar to the Soviet Gulags or to the Nazi labour camps. Their property could be seized at any time. The very fact of being a family member, a friend or a relative of a person found to be an enemy of the people would automatically make them guilty.

The courts decided which individual was guilty, while the decision to send his family into exile was taken by a select committee of the Ministry of Interior. Often no prior consultations with those affected were deemed necessary.

The concept of wholesale persecution and collective punishment was adequately anchored in the legal framework of that time. The legal practice of sending persons into exile started in 1949 with the first decree issued against the families of political opponents (Decree no. 649, 1949, art. 3). In 1979 the law on exile was supplemented with additional elements, laid outin a decree of the Presidium of the People’s Assembly (Decree no. 5912, 1979). More concretely: ‘The punishment by exile as an administrative measure can be given against Albanian citizens, foreign citizens and stateless persons of more than 14 years of age, have the capacity to act and are dangerous to the social order of the Republic of Albania ... exiling may be also applied against the relatives of the persons who have escaped abroad’. The law further established that ‘relatives’ are the ‘spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters, and other persons living together with the person or who were under his custody’.

‘The enemy’ as an alibi for personal power

The justification for committing crimes ‘for public interest’ and ‘in the name of the people’ was widely in line with the regime’s Bolshevik model, which taught that ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be considered as similar to a terrorist formation. The Bolsheviks considered themselves as chosen by God to bring about peace, development and equality in a world dominated by crime, therefore crime was to be fought by crime, yet crime was to be perpetrated only for a higher purpose’ (Ngjela 2011, 193). In line with these teachings, dictator Enver Hoxha was keen on acting resolutely against ‘the enemy’.

He ordered the imprisonment and execution of seventeen high-level politicians and maximum sentences against seventy important statesmen, founders of Albanian independence in 1912, former prime ministers, ministers and intellectuals, including the spouse of his own sister, Bahri Omari. The execution of Hoxha’s brother-in-law was not linked to any specific accusation or crime. It is to be rather understood as an attempt to show to everybody that the same standard applied to everyone, including the close relatives of the high party officials, who dared to criticize the dictator.

In the period 1944–48 Albania entered into a preferential relationship with Yugoslavia. As a result of this, hundreds of individuals, including high party officials, critical of the political control wielded by the Yugoslavs, were prosecuted and found guilty as internal enemies. From 1948 to 1961 upon severing its links to Yugoslavia, Albania aligned itself to the USSR. The rule remained the same: whoever was found to be a critic of the Soviets was sentenced to from four to seven years of imprisonment. After the interruption of the relationship with the USSR, and further to Albania’s alignment with Communist China (1966–75), the rule was applied once again: whoever wasfound to be critical of China was to be punished, those who were considered to be pro-Russian or trained in Moscow were prosecuted and punished.

After the interruption of the relations with China (after 1975), those who made a career during Albania’s Chinese alignment had to pay a high price. Some ministers were executed, including the ministers of defence, economy and industry. The highest profile case was related to the forced suicide of the communist Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu in 1981. He was declared as an enemy of the state after his death. The engagement of Shehu’s son with a girl from a family with a ‘bad political biography’ was used by the communist regime to ‘prove’ that Prime Minister Shehu had passed over to the enemy camp. Further to Shehu’s suicide and to the execution of several ministers, including the minister of interior and the minister of health, their families were arrested or exiled, and some of the close relatives, including the wife of the former prime minister were executed, on charges related to ‘treason’ against the party and the people. Each of the waves of massive retribution relied on the same official justification: the need to punish the enemies of the people, spies and traitors.

The punishments were followed by hefty propaganda campaigns aimed at proving the treason of those punished and at providing information on their alleged efforts ‘to overthrow the rule of the people and to eliminate the highest leaders of the state’ (Pipa 2010, 98). A wealth of archived documents and research studies of this period seems to prove the thesis that there was no actual involvement of Albanian politicians or political groupings with foreign governments. Their punishment mostly came as a result of the dictator’s fear of possible contacts between his high officials with important allied states (Yugoslavia, USSR, China etc.) that might threaten his leadership. It is clear that the war against such ‘enemies’ was instrumentalized by the dictator, always looking for ways to ensure his personal and unilateral grip on power. This also explains the system of fluid alliances and Albania’s subsequent self-isolation from both the East and the West, and the escalation of the periodic campaigns of ‘class struggle’ against ‘the enemy’.

This thesis is corroborated by the increased number of sentences after the early fifties, a period in which virtually no actual ‘enemies’ were left. Precisely in this timeframe, a new wave of punishments against all types of perceived enemies (informers, rival political formations, intellectuals critical of the regimes, dissidents, agents coming from outside Albania) was launched.

According to the official figures, from 1949 to 1953, 2,611 people escaped from Albania, or 0.3 per cent of the total population (Xhafer 2013, 187). After 1954, when Albania was able to almost fully seal its borders, it started to send growing numbers of its ‘enemies’ to exile inside its territory. In the period 1954 to 1957, the average number of families sent to exile was 300 to 500. After the break in relations with the USSR, in the period 1954 to 1957, the number of families sent to exile increased considerably, reaching 1,200 to 1,300 families per year. The same situation repeated itself after the break with China in the seventies.

Control through fear in Albania

When Dictator Hoxha died in April 1985, his obituary noted that under his leadership ‘Albania was safe’, implying that his death might turn Albania into an unsafe place. Far from being an intentionally made hint, this deliberation was closely related to a mentality created in the course of many years, according to which Albania was permanently being threatened by an impending invasion by its foes. The key slogans from this isolationist period were: ‘We build socialism with a pickaxe in the one hand and with a gun in the other’, ‘We dance on the face of danger’, ‘The enemy holds us at gunpoint, but we aim at him with a cannon’. In his memoirs, author Agim Mero mentions that in the mid-sixties, after the break with the Soviet Union, Albania’s communist regime started to bring into circulation slogans such as: ‘We will pour molten lead into the mouths of those who dare rise up against us’, or ‘We will eat grass rather than surrender’ (Mero 1997, 65). Both slogans seem to confirm the ‘enemy at the gates’ thesis, as they appeal to the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle against the enemy.

During the second half of the seventies, the Albanian communist regime built over 700,000 bunkers, as an extreme measure of protection against ‘the enemy’. The construction of the concrete pillboxes was treated as a matter of absolute priority. The pressure on the technicians and on the engineers was extreme. Quality was ‘an absolute requirement, and that was ensured to the detriment of other projects’ (Mero 1997, 129). The coastline was viewed as a potential landing area for enemy forces. Special bunkers were constructed along the whole of it. The dictator stopped all major infrastructural projects, because highways might eventually be used as airstrips for invading US armies.

In addition to fortifying its defences against its external foes, Albania waged an internal war against its religious institutions. The Labour Party was proudof its ‘systematic struggle against religion, which is a reactionary ideology and opium for the people’.3 It boasted that under its leadership, ‘people rose up in towns and in the countryside, asking for the final removal of all churches, mosques and all holy places’. The religious structures were forced to relinquish their functions, and most of the religious buildings were converted into ‘Cultural Centres’. The madness of extreme isolation was in parallel with the establishment of a system of permanent vigilance, to which all citizens were called to contribute. The former secretary of the Communist Youth in the mid-seventies, and later himself a victim of the purges made by the system, Agim Mero noted that ‘under the slogan “one citizen – one soldier” all eligible Albanians had to toil in permanent military drills. Women had to perform military drills with wooden rifles and to train in hand-to-hand combat’ (Mero 1997, 129).

All students, workers and intellectuals had to perform obligatory biannual military drills. Most of the academic staff were sent to work for periods ranging from one to three years in the agriculture or industry sector, so as to strengthen their revolutionary ties with the peasants and the working class. Albania refused to have contact with most Western democracies. Albania’s football teams refused to play against certain Western teams, and had to pay the penalties imposed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

The system of control through fear was as brutal as it was effective. The regime undertook some steps to ease its controls in 1990. It passed legislation that changed the sanctions in force against migration from the death penalty to prison terms from three to seven years. Nonetheless, thirty-three citizens, mostly young, were killed at the border by army units and state security service. In some cases the bodies of those killed at the border were paraded across city centres so as to strike terror and fear into the population, especially among those hoping to leave the country. The relatives of the victims were not allowed to organize their burials, and their friends were prosecuted.

The system was both forthright and pervasive. Mero writes: ‘the regime was a huge and intricate machine, structured in parallel state and party structures ... a small leadership is at the top, but around and below there were many smaller pyramids of power extending down to the smallest village. Theyreached out from the ministries down to the most minuscule production units, from the army’s chief of staff down to the women’s military unit of the neighbourhood, from the central committee of the party down to the kindergartens which had their own children’s units. Guidance and instructions were passed down from the very top to the lowest structure; everybody was held accountable for their implementation’ (Mero 1997, 127). Children in the kindergartens were frequently asked what their parents talked about at home. Potentially sensitive information was passed to the security service for further investigation that could lead to arrests and imprisonments.

The security service applied similar methods in primary and high schools. For a period stretching over forty-six years, university studies were considered a political prerogative and were not linked to the talents and capacities of the applicants. No students were admitted from the families marked by the regime with ‘bad biography’. Weekly ‘political updates’ were held in all state institutions, factories, universities, schools and farms. Voluntary surveillance groups were established everywhere, in addition to combat teams, to be activated in case of invasion. All correspondence, especially all letters addressed to relatives living abroad were screened by the security services. The mail could go through only after a special clearance was issued by a special office. The lack of means of communication (personal computers, private or public phones, private cars, etc.) prevented citizens from accessing information from the outside world. That made official propaganda the only access point for the information coming in from outside the Albanian communist bubble.

At present post-communist Albania can only draw on a limited number of studies of the communist period, and even less so regarding the system of control through fear of that time. Presiding over a small country with a tiny population, highly incriminated by long years of collusion with the communist regime, Albania’s elite choose to adopt a conciliatory approach best described by its new slogan: ‘everyone suffered – everyone was guilty.’ This served to ease the tensions between the victims and their persecutors. There exist highly diverging views regarding the nature of the communist regimes around the world, and to the concepts laid out by Arendt and Huntington in this regard. It can be maintained that the definition of the key feature of a personal dictatorship as ‘the system that locates the source of power in the vicinity to the leader and to those having his trust and support’ is well suitedfor Albania (Huntington 2011, 72). Nonetheless, most researchers describe the Albanian system as an advanced model of totalitarian rule, by arguing that the key to totalitarianism is to be found in fear rather than in brute force’ (Danaj 2012). The Albanian version of 20th-century totalitarianism is best seen as a violent political regime of a single political party incapable and unwilling to accept any form of organized opposition and/or dissent, whereby the state controls the totality of societal space.

Old tyrannies only succeeded in destroying the political and organizational capacities of their opponents; they were not able to seek and destroy the networks of personal and private relationships. They did not invalidate the ‘personal self ’, in the sense of the personality of each individual, which is exactly what happened under the totalitarian experience. Arendt’s description is evocative of another rendering of the Albanian model of totalitarianism, under which the party fully identified with the state ‘as a demon that numbed the minds and souls of the people, by convincing them that it would never leave. It stretched over everything, took control of the remote corners of private lives, through surveillance and pressure, through tension and fear that reached out to everyone’ (Ngjela 2013, 21).

‘The enemy’ as an obstacle to reform

Albania was the only European country that refused to sign the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 because of its constant guard against the Western and Eastern ‘enemy’. Back in 1948 Albania had refused to publish the UN Human Rights Charter of 1948 for its citizens. Not until 1991 did Albania became a member of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), sign the Helsinki Final Act and publish the UN Human Rights Charter.

As the continent’s only atheist and anti-religious country, Albania adopted a system of propaganda that denigrated each and every element, symbol and memory of religious association. A very striking example is the treatment Albania reserved for Mother Teresa. Albanians inside Albania only learned about her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 in the late 1980s. She was considered persona non grata by the regime because she belonged to a Christian denomination, wore religious dress and was supported by governments on unfriendly terms with the Albanian communist regime. At the close of the 1980s Albania’s political agenda remained the same, despite the initiation of several Euro-Atlantic processes aimed at changing the economies and politics of the countries of the Eastern Bloc. The endeavours of someWestern European countries to re-establish relations with Albania were met by an opaque wall of hostility of communist officials, who argued that the country’s constitution prohibited political and economic relations with the enemy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall amplified the pressure felt by the Tirana government. Nonetheless it continued not to confront the inevitability of the change to come. Its best alibi continued as before: ‘the external enemy’, the danger to which Albania would be exposed if it were to open itself, even partially, to the wider world. The regime held Albania to be ‘the world’s only truly free country, independent of US imperialism and Soviet socialimperialism, free from the Treaty of Warsaw and free from NATO ... so we should continue to be watchful so as to retain and protect our victories’ (Alia 2010). The regime considered any demand for political pluralism as a hostile act. It described pluralism as a threat to the state and to its identity, since ‘Albania’s independence and freedom are perpetually threatened. Hence, the difference of opinion and opinions directed against those of the Labour Party threaten the future of the motherland, its very freedom and independence’ (Alia 2010, 364).

In a meeting held with Albanian intellectuals only four months prior to the change of the political regime, the communist leader Ramiz Alia reiterated that Albania was ‘a special case’, compared to other Eastern Europe countries. He precluded the request for the introduction of changes in the system, by maintaining this to be a demand stemming from the enemies of Albania.


Control through fear, resulting in systematically applied pressure made up of continuous threats stood at the very foundation of communist regime in Albania. Two generations of Albanians were the helpless victims of an arbitrary despotic system that considered human life as state property. The system of control through fear managed to eradicate all potential for internal resistance. Through total self-isolation it avoided any possible external influences. Differently from the rest of the Eastern European countries, especially from the East German system of ‘the exchange of prisoners for hard currency’, or the Polish model of religious faith and Solidarity, the Albanian model constitutes the most extreme model of isolation and state violence.

Class struggle, a war against God, the fight against external influences and isolation from the possible permanent dangers coming from Western, and then later Eastern, enemies triggered a psychosis for survival among Albanians, exposed to the permanent struggle against the ‘enemy at the gates’. This study refers to the constitution, the legal framework of Albania’s communist era and to the most typical traits of the political decision-making of the regime to argue that the concept of the enemy was instrumentalized to legitimize a highly personalized type of one-man, one-party rule, highly hostile to the very idea of openness towards the outside world.

The ‘enemy at the gates’ and the ‘enemy inside us’ were prime instruments of psychological terror – they were primary mechanisms of control and also the means for providing alibies to eliminate all potential criticism towards the party and its leading clique. These concepts dominated political discourse and guided the deliberations of official propaganda. They were the primary source of reference for the slogans crafted for wide public dissemination and instrumental in distorting the people’s collective historical memory. When Albanians parted ways with communism, they also parted ways with the system of control through fear.



Professor Afrim Krasniqi is an academic researcher at the Albanian Institute of History, professor of political science at the University of Tirana and executive director of the Albanian Institute for Political Studies in Tirana. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Tirana. He was political adviser to two Albanian presidents, and is a columnist for some important Albanian media. He has published twelve books about political parties, history, civil society, elections and democracy in Albania and in the countries of South Eastern Europe (SEE).



1 The Labour Party of Albania was, as enshrined in the Constitution, ‘the only leading force for the state and society’ from 1944 to 1990.

2 Academy of Sciences of the Socialist Peoples’ Republic of Albania (2014). Dictionary of Contemporary Albanian Language, Tirana, Albania.

3 Joint Declaration of the Central Committee of the People’s Labour Party and of the Council of Ministers of the Peoples’ Republic of Albania, 29 April 1967.



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Kaba, Hamit and Ethem Ceku (2017) Shqiperia dhe Kosova ne arkivat ruse [Albania and Kosovo in Russian archives]. Tirana: Instituti i Historisë [Institute of History].

Kadare, Ismail (1991) Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin [From one December to another]. Paris: Fayard.

Klosi, Ardian (1993) Quo vadis, Shqiperi? [Where are you going, Albania?]. Tirana: Botime Albania.

Krasniqi, Afrim (2006) Partite politike ne Shqiperi [Political parties in Albania]. Tirana: UFO Press.
— (2009) Sistemet politike ne Shqiperi [Political systems in Albania]. Tirana: UFO Press.

Lefort, Claude (1994) Demokracia dhe Totalitarizmi [Democracy and totalitarianism]. Peja: Dukagjini.

Mero, Agim (1997) Vitet e endrrave te vrava [Years of dreams I killed]. Tirana: Agolli.

Ngjela, Spartak (2013) Përkulja dhe Rënia e Tiranisë Shqiptare, 1957–2010 [Decline and fall of Albania’s tyranny, 1957–2010]. Tirana: UET Press.

Omari, Luan (1977) Revolucioni Popullor ne Shqiperi dhe ceshtje e pushtetit [The People’s Revolution in Albania and distribution of power]. Tirana: ISHPJ.

Pipa, Arshi (2010) Stalinizmi shqiptar: aspekte ideopolitike [Albanian Stalinism: ideopolitical aspects]. Tirana: Princi.

Pllumbi, Zef (2006) Rrno per me tregue [Excuse me]. Tirana: Botues ‘55’.

Sadiku, Xhafer (2013) Genocidi mbi kulaket ne Shqiperine komuniste 19481990 [Genocide over kulaks in communist Albania 1948–1990]. Tirana: ISKK.

Vickers, Miranda (2008) The Albanians: A modern history. Tirana: Bota shqiptare [The Albanian world] (1st edn 1995). London–New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.

Xhafa, Luan (2000) ‘Albania’, in Libri i zi i komunizmit, kapitulli ‘shqiperi’ [The black book of communism]. Tirana: Besa.


Danaj, Koco

(2012) ‘Çfarë ishte diktatura në Shqipëri?’ [What was dictatorship in Albania like?], Gazeta Shekulli [Shekulli newspaper], 2 August.

Repishti, Sami (2017) ‘Shprehja ‘armik i popullit’ si histori dhe paralajmërim’ [Branding ‘the people’s enemy’ as a history and as a warning], Panorama, 16 March.


Decision no. 30 (1954) Operational Guidelines for the Internal Affairs Institutions, Decision no. 30, Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Peoples’ Labour Party.

Decree no. 649 (1949) Decree no. 649, dated 10 January 1949 ‘On the establishment of a special investigative committee’, Official Gazette, no. 55, 29 July 1949.

Decree no. 5912 (1979) Presidium of the Peoples’ Assembly, decree 5912. Dictionary ... (1980) Academy of Sciences of the Socialist Republic of Albania. Dictionary of Contemporary Albanian Language. Tirana.

Constitution of the Republic of Albania (1976) Kushtetuta e Republikës Popullore Socialiste të Shqipërisë [Constitution of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania] Botimi ‘8 nëntori’ [Publication, 8 November]. Tirana, 1976

Law no. 598 (1948) ‘Mbi shtetëzimin e tufave të mëdha të bagëtive’, 11 May, Gazeta Zyrtare, vol. 66. 25 June.

Labour Party of Albania (LPA) (1948) Statute of the Labour Party of Albania. Key documents of the Labour Party of Albania, vol. 2, 18 November 1948.

LPA (1950) Programme of the Labour Party of Albania. First Congress of the Communist Party of Albania. Tirana.

LPA (1967) Deklarata e KQ të PPSH dhe Këshillit të Ministrave më, 29 April.

Platform ... (1954) Platforma e Punës Operative të Organeve të Punëve të Brendshme [Operational labour platform of internal affairs bodies], Vendim, vol. 30, 8 February 1954, Byroja Politike e Komitetit Qëndror të PPSH.


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

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Photo of the publication The trauma of enforced disappearance as a topic in Central European fiction after 1989
Petra James

The trauma of 'enforced disappearance' as a topic in Central European fiction after 1989

13 Feburary 2018
  • Short Story
  • Novels
  • enforced disappearance
  • trauma studies


The article analyses various literary representations of one of the common features of 20th-century dictatorships and totalitarian political regimes: the ‘enforced disappearance’. The study focuses on several Central European novels and short stories (German, Czech, Slovak and Polish) published after 1989. The methodological framework adopted here is that of cultural memory and trauma studies that have lately received systematic scholarly interest in Central Europe (Kratochvil 2015; Lysak 2015). The study draws on the works of Paul Ricoeur (French), Michel de Certeau (French), Jacques Derrida (French), Berber Bevernage (Belgian), Alexander Etkind (Russian) and Stef Craps (Belgian), especially on the way they define and interpret trauma and the ‘work of mourning’. The mechanisms of the ‘work of mourning’ function also on a collective level and are one of the ways of dealing with a traumatic past.

Literature has played an important role in the debates on the legacy of communist dictatorships in post-communist Central Europe since 1989, and historical topics have flourished in Central European literatures. We propose to interpret them as specific ways of coming to terms with the legacy of the traumatic past of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially the long-term collective trauma caused by Nazi and communist dictatorships.

We want to address the concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ [places of memory], its limits and dangers as it is discussed (among others) by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) in his major contribution to this theoretical debate La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; Englishtrans. 2004). Furthermore, we will pay attention to the recurring patterns that keep appearing in contemporary Central European literatures. Indeed, in our previous research, we discovered recurrent patterns and structures that allow us to read many of these texts as commemorative rituals and the ‘work of mourning’ (we draw on the Freudian terminology here) for traumatic elements of the 20th century in Central Europe. The work of Paul Ricoeur inspires us to transpose the Freudian model of trauma and mourning (used in the psychoanalysis of an individual) onto the processes put in motion in national and other communities. As our topic focuses on the connection between literary representations of history and psychoanalysis, we should mention the crucial research of the French thinker Michel de Certeau (1925–86). He was directly addressing the link between literature, historiography and psychoanalysis in several of his studies, especially L’Écriture de l’Histoire [The Writing of History] (1975) and Histoire et psychanalyse [History and Psychoananlysis] (1987). We will also call on the works of the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and his concept of the ‘spectral’, ‘haunting’ past and the works of scholars that Derrida’s work inspired in their reflections on historical trauma and literature: those of Berber Bevernage, Stef Craps and Alexander Etkind.

We will focus on concrete examples of such texts, dealing with the traumatic aspects of 20th-century Central Europe, especially with the topic of enforced disappearance. More specifically on novels dealing with the memory of the German presence in Central Europe and post-Second World War expulsions. This topic keeps coming back as an almost obsessive theme in German, Polish and especially Czech post-1989 literature. A link to psychological trauma seems evident with this reoccurring theme.

The authors we will pay special attention to in our interpretations will be W. G. Sebald, Paweł Huelle, Pavel Vilikovský, Jiří Kratochvil, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa. All these authors and their works have received constant attention from literary theoreticians and the public. They have been awarded important literary prizes and have been taking part in the public debate on historical and social issues in their respective countries. Some of the books have been adapted for theatre or cinema. Each novel offers a critical evaluation of an individual’s encounter with dictatorship, of the massive expulsions of populations after the Second World War (especially that of the Germans from Central Europe) or of the Holocaust, topical issues and challenging topics linked to thecollective memory of today’s European society1 and even more so in postcommunist countries.

Enforced disappearance

‘Enforced disappearance’ has become an official term in international law. The United Nations (UN) established a committee on enforced disappearances that issued an official text entitled ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and enforced from December 2010.2 Enforced disappearance is considered a crime and, in certain circumstances, defined in international law as a crime against humanity. The convention stipulates, among other things, ‘the right of any victim to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person, and the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information to this end’.3 It is this need and right to ‘know the truth’ and ‘seek, receive and impart information’ about the disappeared that is at the core of the literary works considered in the present article. As Berber Bevernage explains, the notion of the right to seek the truth was pioneered in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with cases on enforced disappearance. Furthermore, it was included in two reports by UN special rapporteurs Louis Joinet and Diane Orentlicher.4 The right to know, Joinet explains:

"is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related persons to know what happened, a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a ‘duty to remember’, which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved" (Bevernage 2018).5

The enforced disappearance causes trauma to the survivors; trauma that is both personal and collective. As stated by editors of a recent collective monograph on trauma studies, the theory and concept of trauma is still evolving (Bond, Craps, Vermeulen, 2017). Indeed, trauma officially gained the status of a disease in the Western world in 1980, when it was rape, military combat, earthquake, aeroplane crash or torture. Later, various long-termstress factors were added, such as witnessing or learning of one’s family or friends being exposed to serious danger (Bond, Craps and Vermeulen, 2017).

There are several aspects that justify the interpretation of the literary texts within the methodological framework of trauma studies. The plots of the texts are constructed around an absence that implicitly points to a traumatic disappearance. The disappearance further infers a missing, disappeared body (with clear hints of its previous maltreatment or torture). The disappearance might concern an individual or a whole group. The topic of enforced disappearance can even serve as metonymy of a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime. The disappeared groups represented in the texts of our corpus might be Jews (systematically exterminated during the Second World War as one of the consequences of totalitarian fascist ideology), the bourgeois middle classes (as an integral part of the Soviet application of the Marxist theory of the class struggle in the Soviet Union and in countries of the Eastern Bloc), or the Germans expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. All these motifs and topics can be found in the studied texts. Thanks to the crucial work of Paul Ricoeur L’Histoire, la mémoire, l’oubli (Ricoeur 2000), we can apply the Freudian model of trauma and mourning on the mourning mechanisms of groups and communities. Indeed, the texts are constructed as mourning rituals, revealing the mourning processes described by Freud and Ricoeur. Furthermore, the contributions of Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012), Alexander Etkind (Etkind 2013) and Stef Craps (Craps 2013) help us to see the specificities of trauma as they are expressed in the literary texts of contemporary Central European authors.

Literary texts as ‘places of memory’?

We would like to reflect on the problematic aspects, dangers and limits of the concept of ‘places of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) introduced in the 1980s by the French historian Pierre Nora. The concept is indeed closely related to our topic. Nora directed a large research project published in three volumes between 1984 and 1992 under the same title, Lieux de mémoire [Places of Memory]. His ambition was nothing less than describing the basic elements that, in his opinion, constitute French national identity.

The present paper is inspired, among others, by the methodology and theoretical concepts of Paul Ricoeur as he developed it in his book La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; English translation 2004)]. Our starting point is Ricoeur’s commentary on the work of Pierre Nora andon the concept of ‘places of memory’. Ricoeur pinpoints the major dangers and limits of Nora’s concept and shows that Nora himself changes his way of perceiving the ‘places of memory’ and that, during the preparation of the successive volumes, Nora already realizes the potential abuse of his concept:

"Nora himself complains of a similar assimilation of the theme of the ‘places of memory’ by ‘commemorative bulimia (that) has all but consumed all efforts to control it’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 609)".6

"The destiny of these Lieux de mémoire has been a strange one. The work was intended, by virtue of its conception, method, and even title, to be a counter-commemorative type of history, but commemoration has overtaken it ... What was forged as a tool for maintaining critical distance became the instrument of commemoration par excellence" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1404).7

The concept of ‘places of memory’ has been very successful and has been widely used in Central and Eastern European Studies after 1989. It has been applied also in studies dedicated to contemporary literature of this region (see for example Smorag-Goldberg and Tomaszewski 2013). Nevertheless, one needs to keep in mind that the concept of ‘places of memory’ can be used as a tool for commemorative needs for various interest groups that do not aim at historical objectivity. The notion of the problematic aspects of memory was also one of the major motivations for Ricoeur’s work as he himself admits in the introduction:

"Public preoccupation: I continue to be troubled by the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere, to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and abuses of memory – and of forgetting. The idea of a policy of the just allotment of memory is in this respect one of the avowed civic themes" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 51).

In countries that have been undergoing essential geopolitical changes, as is the case for Central European post-communist countries, the question of public memory and commemorations is an important one. Indeed, the commemorative strategies are an integral part of the identity-creating process. The fragile national identity of the new geopolitical units is also projected on the way society deals with its memory. As Ricoeur notes, the fragility of identity opens possibilities for the manipulation of memory (Ricoeur 2000, 579). This is the reason why this study focuses more on the aspects of trauma expressed in literary texts than on the way they deal with memory and commemoration.

Trauma, the work of mourning and the haunting past

In our analysis, we use the parallel that Paul Ricoeur draws between the work of mourning (‘le travail de deuil’) as it is described by Freud and used in psychoanalysis and the work of memory (‘le travail de souvenir’) and of forgetting in the collective memory of communities and societies, especially in connection to traumatic collective memory:

"It is the bipolar constitution of personal and community identity that, ultimately justifies extending the Freudian analysis of mourning to the traumatism of collective identity. We can speak not only in an analogical sense but in terms of a direct analysis of collective traumatisms, of wounds to collective memory. The notion of the lost object finds a direct application in the ‘losses’ that affect the power, territory, and populations that constitute the substance of a state. Mourning behaviours, from the expression of affliction to complete reconciliation with the lost object, are directly illustrated by the great funeral celebrations around which an entire people is assembled. In this way, we can say that such mourning behaviours constitute a privileged example of the intersecting relations between private and public expression. It is in this way that our concept of a sick historical memory finds justification a posteriori in this bipolar structure of mourning behaviours" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1214).8

The traumatic collective memory and traumatic ‘losses’ mentioned by Ricoeur correspond to losses put forward in numerous novels by Central European authors after 1989. The burden of history, its taboos and deformations constitute central preoccupations of the literary texts that we analyse. However, the Freudian ‘complete reconciliation with the lost object’ that Ricoeur refers to does not seem to happen in these texts, which maintain the haunting presence of the lost object.9 Indeed, the recent contributionsto the classical works of trauma studies (we mean works by Cathy Caruth, Marianne Hirsch or Dominick LaCapra) address the limits of the Freudian model (we mean Western, modernist concept of mourning) according to which a successful work of mourning is when the mourning person totally reconciles themselves with their loss. Historian Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012) and literary theoretician Stef Craps (Craps 2013) both draw on Jacques Derrida and his Specters of Marx (1993, English translation 1994) while addressing the limits of the Freudian model of mourning.10 Indeed, Derrida proposes against Freud’s model of a concept of ‘demi-deuil’ (semi-mourning).11 Both Craps and Bevernage bring evidence from Western and non-Western examples of mourning (be it personal or that of a community) that do not correspond in their practice to the Freudian ideal model of the final and utter ‘dismissal’ of the lost/grieved object. Instead, the traumatized individuals and communities maintain a certain way of contact and spectral presence of the grieved object, person or past. It goes with the observations of Derrida in Specters of Marx who claims that the possibility of a just future (when we talk about traumatic pasts of communities or nations) depends on our readiness ‘to learn to live with ghosts’ and ‘thinking the possibility of the spectre’. Berber Bevernage, inspired by Derrida, uses the term ‘haunting past’ in order to describe the reality of people and communities dealing with historical trauma. Instead of being able to draw a thick line over a traumatic past, the communities are faced with the necessity of coming to terms with a ‘haunting past’, which maintains its presence in the everyday lives of its members.12 Bevernage’s book pleas for a different approach to history. Inspired by Michel de Certeau and his L’Écriture de l’Histoire [Writing history] and in accord with current tendencies in historiography, Bevernage questions certain concepts of modern historiography. Many theoreticians have dealt with the link between artistic creation, historiography and the work of mourning:

"a close relationship exists between the writing of history and the work of mourning. Dominick LaCapra, for example, analyzes post-holocaust historiography by using the psychoanalytical concepts of ‘working through’ and ‘acting out’, and he has proposed that the German Historikerstreit should be interpreted as a form of collective mourning. Jörn Rüsen argues that in relation to the traumatic character of the experiences of the last century, the writing of history can be conceived as a ‘procedure of mourning’. [...] I agree with LaCapra, Rüsen, and Domanska that a closerelationship exists between mourning and historiography, and I think that these authors are right when they argue that a lot can be learned about the writing of history by analyzing it from the perspective of the practice of mourning or the discourse on death" (Bevernage 2012, 147, Kindle loc. 3595).

It is in this sense that we adhere to Bevernage’s comment:

"one can analytically distinguish between at least two profoundly different concepts of mourning and death that relate to different notions of historicity: namely, a modern (mostly Western) concept of mourning and a non-modern (but not necessarily non-Western) concept of mourning. The most important difference between the relatively young modernist theory of mourning and the much older and much more widespread non-modern concept of mourning, I will argue, can be found in different ways in which they relate the notions of ‘loss’ and ‘absence’" (Bevernage 2012, 148, Kindle loc. 3614).

This seems to be the recurrent pattern of the representation of history in the chosen corpus. The texts are full of ghosts and spectres of the past. The characters are incapable of drawing a thick line over the past that maintains a haunting presence and interferes with the lives of the characters.

The expulsion of Germans: whose trauma is that?

In the case of ‘German memory’, we suggest drawing again on the parallel made by Paul Ricoeur between the process of personal and collective ‘work of mourning’. The events linked directly or indirectly to the expulsion of Germans from Central Europe after 1945 and the loss of German cultural heritage can be viewed from this perspective: the loss that must be worked through during the process of mourning. The obsessive reoccurrence of the topic of German memory in post-1989 Polish (see Huelle, Chwin, Tokarczuk), German (see Reinhard Jirgl or Uwe Johnson) and especially Czech literature (Jiří Kratochvil, Jáchym Topol, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa) seems to prove the importance and extent of this collective trauma. It is important to note that contemporary Central European writers focus almost exclusively on the topic of expulsions and not on numerous other aspects of the long history of the Germans’ presence in the culture, politics and economics of Central Europe. Interestingly enough, this omission is mirrored in the works of Czech historians. Those who focus their research on Czech-German relationships, work mostly on the post- Second World War period and the topics related to the expulsions. It is, of course, connected to the fact that Central and Eastern European historiography has undergone important changes since 1989 primarily thanks to the opening of numerous important archives that were inaccessible before 1989. It is nevertheless interesting to note that the highly relevant and significant period of Czech-German tension and armed clashes between 1918 and 1923 when many German-speaking inhabitants of the Sudeten region contested (sometimes armed) their inclusion in post-First World War Czechoslovakia.

It is surprising to discover that the Germans represented in Czech contemporary novels are mostly depicted as positive characters or as (innocent) victims described in a way that inspires compassion. This approach, whereby the honouring of a certain memory causes the amnesia of other memories, leads inevitably to certain distortions. As Václav Maidl states in his study, if we look at the literary representations of German-speaking characters and the German environment over the last 200 years, their image in Czech literature is mostly negative (Maidl 1998). For Kateřina Tučková especially, her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch has a performative function. It is her ‘duty of memory’ and ‘duty of commemoration’ that she claims to honour in the prologue because she has the impression that the political representatives do not do fulfill these duties sufficiently well. We can thus legitimately ask the question whether both historians and the writers do not take part in a process of consciously creating a new Czech post-1989 ‘European’ identity, forming what Berber Bevernage designates as ‘reconciliation historiography’ or ‘shared history’:

"Bridging can happen negatively through levelling attempts to expose myths of conflicting parties or it can happen through the construction of so-called positive histories which stress common traditions, shared values and cultural exchanges in the past. Bridging reconciliation historiographies are also often referred to as shared histories. Yet, the term ‘shared history’ is often used more broadly among scholars and practitioners focusing on reconciliation and can refer to at least three potential aspects of reconciliation historiographies: it can refer to shared methodological procedures or shared authorship, to a focus on shared events, values or actions in the past, orto the construction of a single ‘common’ narrative which claims evenhandedly to represent the different perspectives of conflicting parties" (Bevernage 2018).

These questions, however, need more space and thought than is possible within the scope of this study. But we can certainly argue that texts of contemporary Central European writers reveal much more of the circumstances of the time of the writing of the novels than about the actual historical subjects they try to present and assess.

If we apply Ricoeur’s adaptation of Freud’s psychoanalysis to the collective wounded memory, Ricoeur justifies this methodological transfer (as we have already stated) by the fact that Freud himself alluded to ‘situations that go far beyond the psychoanalytic scene, in terms of both the work of remembering and the work of mourning’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203). Furthermore, ‘all of the situations referred to in the psychoanalytical treatment have to do with the other, not only the other of the “familial novel”, but by the psychosocial other and the other, as it were, of the historical situation’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203).

The link between personal work of mourning and collective sick memory is alluded to in the very title of one of the analysed novels – Jakuba Katalpa’s novel The Germans: Geography of Loss (2012). The process of personal mourning for the loss of a mother of one of the central characters (Klara, the mother, left for Germany after the Second World War and left her baby behind in Czechoslovakia) stands here for the collective mourning for the expulsed German minority (or maybe more for the act of expulsion?). Katalpa’s novel can thus be seen as a literary transposition of a commemorative mourning ritual. Klara, the main character, of Katalpa’s novel, comes closest to the idea of a ‘pure’ German among all the Czech contemporary novels that deal with the topic of expulsions. She is born in Germany to a wealthy family and hardly questions Germany’s political orientation under Hitler. She is a teacher and refuses to intervene for one of her Jewish students when she asks for help. After a series of personal tragedies (the death of her fiancé among others), she decides to accept a placement as a teacher in the Sudeten region. She works with German-speaking children but is seen as a stranger by the local Sudeten Germans. She becomes pregnant and is welcomed at the end of the war by the family of one of her Czech friends in Prague. She gives birth to a boy and finally decides, under circumstancesthat are never totally explained in the novel, to leave the baby behind when she has to depart form Czechoslovakia as a German. The boy, Kurt, is then adopted by the family that welcomed Klara and the fact of his adoption is revealed to him by his foster mother when he becomes an adult and father of three children himself. The boy is the father of the narrator of the novel. After her father’s death, she decides to find out the truth about her real grandmother and she meets Klara’s two daughters in Germany. She even meets Klara, an old woman in an old people’s home. Klara has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot help the narrator with her quest for the ‘truth’.

Jiří Kratochvil draws a link between personal psychological trauma and a collective one in most of his novels. The metaphor of schizophrenia that structures his first novel Medvědí román (Bear’s Novel, 1985, 1990) covers both a mental breakdown of one of the central characters and a schizophrenic psychological split of people living under communist dictatorship. His novel Slib (The Pledge, 2009), which features as one of its themes the expulsion of Germans from Brno, has a subtitle: The Requiem for the 1950s. The topic of expulsions in Kratochvil’s novels is always closely connected to the questioning of the legacy of communism.

One of the dangers of obsessive insistence on the topic of expulsions as the central moment of German memory in Central Europe is the distortion of history by the feeling of the ‘duty to remember’ or ‘duty of commemoration (memory)’ as we have already stated. Ricoeur talks about the ‘devoir de mémoire’ (duty of memory) and going back to Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’, he evokes the potential ‘abuse of commemoration’ (Ricoeur 2000, 528).

We therefore argue that the representation of the expulsion of Germans always closely reflects the communist dictatorship in Central Europe.13 Indeed, in all analysed texts, the authors choose to present history from (or even before) the Second World War until very recent times (often up until now). In relation to the expulsion of Germans and dealing with Germans, 1945 is often interpreted like a first step in the establishment of communist rule in Central Europe (this is most strongly present in Kratochvil’s writings). The trauma of the communist past is being projected onto the topic of the expulsions of Germans. Paradoxically, the texts focus more on the Czech collective historical trauma than on the suffering of the Germans. The vision of history thus seems to fall into a narrow frame of a national trauma that it finds difficult to overcome. We conclude this part by statingthat even in the case of literary representations of German memory and especially of the expulsions, the process of mourning at work in the novels is not so much about the loss of the German community but about the long-term legacy of communism in Central Europe.

The trauma of the enforced disappearance and the figure of absence

Common to the analysed works is the use of a subjective and individual perspective to represent the enforced disappearance. In Central Europe, under both Nazi and communist regimes people were made to ‘disappear’, often leaving their families without news as to their fate. The enforced disappearance is often represented by an absence. There is an absent body, an absent person, whose loss is being mourned. Austerlitz’s trauma in Sebald’s novel (Sebald 2001) of the same name stems from the disappearance and the absence of his parents and from the lack of any precise information concerning their death. Austerlitz is a Jewish child born in Prague and sent to safety by his parents thanks to one of the trains heading from Prague to England during the Second World War. In the course of his investigation in the 1990s, he finds out that his Czech-Jewish mother was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and very probably died in a killing facility in Poland. This was most likely the fate of his father too, who went to France and was sent from Paris to one of the concentration camps in the south of France where he disappears without trace. Nevertheless, Austerlitz learns nothing certain about their fate nor can he find the place of their burial. The whole book thus seems to be constructed around this traumatic loss and absence.

In Huelle’s novella Mercedes Benz (2001), the two dictatorships (fascist and communist) and their treatment of people are juxtaposed, making the parallels between the use of enforced disappearance by both dictatorships deliberate and evident. The whole family of the central character, the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein, meets a ‘terrible end’, ‘in a mass death-pit near Buczyna’ (Huelle 2001, 101). The Jewish brothers Baczewski, whose ‘vodka and liqueur factory’ is ‘bombed by the Luftwaffe’ (Huelle 2001, 95), die from ‘no less cruel death’, ‘in the Donbas mineshafts’ (Huelle 2001, 101) in 1940 after having been deported by the Soviets. Their deaths are thus emblematic of the end of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe during the Second World War and the way Jews have been targeted both by the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships (topics difficult to address in Polish fiction or historiography before 1989). As we will see, it is their disappearance that is interpreted as a major force behind the creation of Mercedes Benz.14

In Pavel Vilikovský’s novel The Autobiography of Evil (2009) the major character of the first part of the text, Jan Karsten, after being kidnapped by the Czechoslovak secret police during his tentative escape to Austria, decides to commit suicide when he realizes that he has adopted the same behaviour as his tormentors. He kidnaps a girl whom he believes to be the daughter of one of the agents (which she is not) and holds her prisoner. Finally, he decides to let her go. Nevertheless, his decision to stick to his humanity leads to his suicide as he does not see any other outcome of the situation he finds himself in. His body is disposed of and his family is never informed about his final fate. The disappearance and absence of his father shapes the life of his son, the central character in the second part of the novel. At the end of Vilikovský’s novel, Igor talks about the book he plans to write. Writing about the mysterious disappearance of an unknown woman dating back to the 1970s might be seen as compensating for the impossibility of discovering the truth about the disappearance of his own father. It is at the same time an act of mourning over the absent body and the missing story of his disappeared father.

In Kratochvil’s novel The Pledge (2009), the beloved sister of architect Modráček dies after being interrogated by the Czechoslovak secret police in the early 1950s. Having not been allowed to see the body of his dead sister, he does not believe that she committed suicide as the police claim. He vows to avenge his sister’s death and to punish the policeman, Láska, whom he believes to be responsible for his sister’s death. Modráček captures Láska and holds him prisoner in his underground prison alongside more and more people who could endanger his secret and destroy his plan for vengeance. At the end of the book, Láska’s daughter appears and talks about the mysterious and never-explained disappearance of her father that haunted her and her mother their whole lives. The book is thus conceived by the author as a requiem for the victims of the Stalinist era of 1950s Czechoslovakia, represented in Kratochvil’s text by his mother (herself a victim of the communist persecution to whom the book is dedicated and who appears as a minor character in the novel), Modráček’s sister, and the policeman Láska, unjustly imprisoned and punished.

The motif of traumatic disappearance also appears in the novels that deal with German memory. In Kratochvil’s novel Uprostřed nocí zpěv [In the midst of the night a song] (1989), the Germans are represented intriguingly by a couple of lesbian women who are ostracized by everyone – their Czechneighbours as well as the other Germans; they finally die during the expulsion process and their absence haunts the memory of one of the main characters of the novel, Petr, for the rest of his life.

In her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Snirch (2010), Kateřina Tučková tells the life story of Gerta Snirch, a girl from Brno, born to a mixed Czech- German family.15 After the war, she is included in the ‘death march’ of Brno Germans destined for expulsion. Gerta finally avoids the expulsion and comes back to her hometown. Her life seems to be returning to normal as she attempts to rebuild her life with her teenage love who had become a committed communist in the meantime. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show-trial with the communist leader Rudolf Stránský and his collaborators in 1952. It is this traumatic disappearance that seems to shape Gerta’s life most profoundly. Each text is characterized by the absence of bodies; the people simply disappear, making the process of mourning, if not impossible, at least extremely difficult.

‘State-sponsored violence’ and the tortured bodies

The trauma of those left behind is magnified by unverifiable images of torture. Enforced disappearance can hardly be dissociated from political violence and torture. It is the ‘state-imposed violence’ that Berber Bevernage uses as part of the title of his book. Michel de Certeau wrote a decidedly relevant text on the subject ‘Corps torturés, paroles capturés’ [Tortured bodies, captured speech] included in the volume Histoire et psychoanalyse (1987). He claims that violence is systemic in the imposition of social order, especially in dictatorships: ‘Totalitarian violence needs credibility and, scientifically, it strives to produce the ersatz with living bodies’ (Certeau 1986).16

The frequent use of metonymy in the studied texts might be connected to the theme of torture, as Alexander Etkind remarked in his book Warped Mourning when he spoke about prevailing features of post-1989 Russian literature: ‘In this process, the metonymical poetics of magical historicism emulate the “piecemeal” logic of torture, which also manipulates parts of the body with the aim of changing the whole truth, integrity, and history’ (Etkind 2013, Kindle loc. 4329).

This might be also the reason why the main characters in novels dealing with the memory of expulsion of the Germans are subjected to horrible violence. Female Germans are often subjected to rape, physical torture and abuse. As if this violence suffered by individual examples of Germans was to stand in for the suffering and violence inflicted on the expelled German community.

The haunting past and rituals of mourning

How is the absence of the disappeared personified in the texts? Very often old photographs are used as a link to the missing era, person or community. Sebald and Huelle even incorporate black-and-white photos directly into their books, Huelle using authentic photographs from his family’s archive. When in 1992 Austerlitz finds his former nanny in Prague, she shows him two photographs from before 1939 (the time of Austerlitz’s early childhood), possibly depicting Austerlitz’s parents. While looking at the photos, Austerlitz affirms that it seems as if the pictures had their own memory and were remembering the dead and those who survived (Sebald 2001, 266). When Austerlitz tries to find some traces of his parents in the archives in Prague, he also watches one of the films made in Teresienstadt. Austerlitz describes the music that accompanies the film as a funeral march coming from the ‘subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths’ (Sebald 2001, 356). This description is a direct reference to the underworld of the dead and the phantoms of classical antiquity. In the archives, Austerlitz also finds a photo of a woman who might be his mother but he says that she looks rather like a phantom.17 Sebald’s writing illustrates perfectly Derrida’s semimourning and Derrida-inspired Bevernage’s term ‘haunting past’.

Indeed, photography has a close link to memory, trauma, death and forgetting18 – it also shows the limits and failings of photography to bring back the disappeared. Especially in Sebald’s work, the figures in the photos look rather like ghosts (Lachmann talks about phantasma and simulacrum, Derrida about spectres and revenants) and the found pictures problematize rather than facilitate the process of mourning (Sebald 2001, 117).19 As Carolin Duttlinger puts it:

"it is the latency and the transience of the photographic image, rather than its permanence and stability, which serve as a model for the process of memory, as the image of neither photography nor memory can be grasped or arrested, and are hence both prone to disappearance. Photography is thus figured as a model not for the permanence of memory but for the phenomenon of forgetting" (Duttlinger 2004, 158).

Whereas Sebald stresses in his use of photography the haunting character of the past, Vilikovský and Huelle are more affirmative about the charm of old photographs and their capacity to perpetuate objective memory. Igor, the protagonist of Vilikovský’s novel, contemplates the significance of the photography and what impresses him most is the lasting trace of a human life that photography saves even after the death of the portrayed person (Vilikovský 2009, 147). In Huelle’s Mercedes Benz, when the narrator’s grandfather, Karol, understands that Poland is subject to the double invasion of Hitler’s Germany and of the Soviet Union, he reacts in a surprising way – on his return from the eastern part of Poland invaded by the Russians, he starts to sort out family photographs:

"When he got home at last, instead of reporting for work at the now German factory, he spent days on looking through old photographs, putting his archive in order, writing the missing dates and names of people and places on their cardboard backing. As he unrolled it again, this particular reel of time already felt like something very different from a catalogue of ordinary memories; it felt as if those moments captured in the past by the cold shutter of his Leica now made up a completely new volume that he’d never intended to create, consisting of chance moments, twists and turns of light, bits and pieces of matter and voices that stopped sounding long ago; it was like a suddenly open, secret gate, revealing a previously unknown vista to the astonished passer-by, a wonderful spectacle of phantoms of time and space, swirling like golden pillars of dust in a dark old granary" (Huelle 2005, 96).

Photography functions in Huelle’s work as witness to history. At the same time it also works as means of transmitting cultural memory. The fact that Karol buys his rolls of film and photographic paper from the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein is particularly important. Karol pays the last visit to Chaskiel just after having sorted out the family photographs. On this occasion, the Germans have already closed down Chaskiel’s shop and Karol learns that Chaskiel’s family was sent to the ghetto. On leaving, Chaskiel gives the last rolls of film to Karol to show him his gratitude. With the means of capturing images (the rolls of film), he also transmits to Karol the duty to remember. Indeed, the memories from the past in Huelle’s book come back to life through photos that accompany the book (alongside theposter of Chaskiel’s shop, making the link between history and literature explicit). Writing is then an act of invocation of phantoms from the past through a kind of funeral ritual (Huelle 2001, 145). The commemorative aspect of Huelle’s text is thus evident.

The patterns of mourning that transpire from these texts have a clearly cathartic function – writing becomes a funeral ritual and at the same time a commemorative act (with all the dangers Ricoeur warns against). The Jewish photographer Chaskiel of Huelle’s story cannot share the story of the life and death of the Polish Jewish community, but with the remaining films delegates the task to Karol who transmits the duty of remembering and the transmission of cultural memory to his grandson (the author of Mercedes Benz). The text of Mercedes Benz is evidence of the fulfilled pledge to the narrator’s grandfather. And we can assume that it is the collection of photos sorted by Karol before his stay in the concentration camp and later transmitted to the narrator that serves as the starting point to the text of Mercedes Benz: ‘when I got home and sat at the table, I spread out the small set of photographs from Chaskiel Bronstein’s company envelope, and the first sentence rolled out all by itself ’ (Huelle 2001, 154). The texts thus have the cathartic and ‘memorial’ function assigned to literature by Renate Lachmann:

"At the beginning of memoria as art stands the effort to transform the work of mourning into a technique. The finding of images heals what has been destroyed: The art of memoria restores shape to the mutilated victims and makes them recognizable by establishing their place in life. Preserving cultural memory involves something like an apparatus for remembering by duplication, by the representation of the absent through the image (phantasma or simulacrum), by the objectification of memory (as power and ability, as a space of consciousness, or as thesaurus), and by the prevention of forgetting through the retrieval of images (the constant recuperation of lost meaning)" (Lachmann 2008, 302).

Writing as therapy to historical and personal trauma is present also in Denemarková’s book. The main character, Gita Lauschmann, dies in the middle of the process of writing her memoirs that would say and explain ‘everything’. Her last thoughts are ‘not yet’: ‘But indeed, I am not ready yet, noteven close to ready, I do not feel like dying yet, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, I am not properly dressed, I haven’t said everything yet ...’20

Time has run out for Gita and prevented her from finishing her story. In Denemarková’s book the trauma of the past maintains its haunting presence and the wish to know the truth and to arrive at a total reconciliation with the loss is not totally fulfilled (as it is implied in models of trauma and mourning commented by Bevernage and Craps).

The narrator of Katalpa’s The Germans chooses to overcome the trauma and the depression that haunted the life of her father (and the whole family) after the revelations concerning his biological mother. If we go back to Ricoeur’s comparison of the individual work of mourning in psychoanalysis, Kurt, the father, chooses the sadness of acedia (lack of care), whereas his daughter goes through the work of mourning towards life (through the work of sublimation), very much in the sense of the short epilogue that Ricoeur adds at the end of his book:

"Under history, memory and forgetting.
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.
Incompletion" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 7535).21

Indeed, her success at the work of mourning is due to her acceptance of the incompletion of this reconciliation and thus of the work of mourning: ‘I turn the envelope in my fingers. It came from Germany, so it is clear that it constitutes another piece of our investigation, information as useless as the previous one. What should interest us now does not lie in the past.’22

The narrator receives a letter from Germany that could give her some new information. But instead of opening it and going back to the past and the wounded, sick memory (as Ricoeur calls it), she chooses life and goes out to join her little daughter who is playing in the garden, accepting the incompletion of her quest for the truth.


All the interpreted texts have a common topic: the enforced disappearance (of an individual or that of a whole community). As we have shown, these literary works also share descriptions of historical trauma and themechanisms of the work of mourning. ‘The haunting past’ maintains its disturbing presence and does not allow the Freudian-ideal final reconciliation with the lost object or past. The successful work of mourning seems to depend rather on the capacity to accept its incompletion and to learn to live with the spectres of the past (as suggested by De Certeau, Ricoeur, Derrida, Bevernage, Craps and Etkind).

As we have disclosed, the texts only partly become ‘lieux de mémoire’, places of remembrance of the dictatorships of Central Europe and its victims. Indeed, the authors put topics that have been taboo for decades into the public realm through artistic representation. These texts are rather literary transpositions and representations of historical traumas and their possible mourning mechanisms. Indeed, we have shown the tricky limits of Pierre Nora’s concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ as it is discussed by Paul Ricoeur. Indeed, the reserve expressed by Nora himself and shared by Ricoeur of memory being consumed and dissolved in commemoration seems to be justified in relation to these interpreted texts. By its nature, literature can be used as a tool for subjective depictions of history and contemporary writers are taking part in debates on highly sensitive political and social issues (such as the Holocaust and massive expulsions). It seems that (often unintentionally) the writers might put themselves in the service of various ‘memory activists’. In extreme cases, far from giving ‘objective’ descriptions of national history, they are not only not participating in the noble cause of the struggle against politically imposed amnesia of the communist past but might be taking part in promoting other, new political causes. The mourning in these texts could often bring back memories and reveal a point of view of a specific social group that particularly suffered under communist rule in Central Europe – for example, that of the bourgeois elites of the interwar period (the texts of Huelle and Kratochvil are the best representations of this perspective). This topic is certainly worth further analysis and examination.

The analysed literary texts show clearly common ways of expressing collective mourning. They reveal a more general pattern of dealing with the collective past, especially a traumatic one. However, this mourning is far from objective and expresses clear subjective bias. It is even more evident in the literary texts dealing with the memory of the German past. Indeed, even if the texts might be considered to a certain extent as ‘places of memory’ (as problematic as this concept might be), they are not so much places of memory as expressions of personal and historical traumas of the20th century in Central Europe. As writers have focused almost exclusively on the issue of post-Second World War expulsions from the long-standing history of the German presence in Central Europe, we feel entitled to ask whether we are not dealing here with the mourning process for the cleansed national memory? The novels dedicated to the memory of the German past would thus be less about the mourning of the loss of the cultural legacy of the lost German community and more about a way of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorships of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially that of communism.



Petra James obtained her PhD in Comparative Literature and Slavic Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris in 2009. Since 2011 she has been chair of Czech Literature and Language and director of Centre d’Etudes Tcheques [Centre of Czech Studies] at Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium [Free University of Brussels]. Her book Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composer un monde blessant a coups de ciseaux et de gommes arabiques’ [Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composing a wounding world with scissors and glue’] was published by Les Classiques Garnier in Paris in 2012. Her main research areas are the comparative history of the avant-garde and cultural memory topics in Central European fiction. The special issue of the Belgian magazine Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire entitled ‘How to Tell the Story?’ edited by Petra James on the relationship between history and fiction and will appear shortly.



1 Claus Leggewie, ‘Seven Circles of European Memory’, Eurozine, 20 December 2010.

2 ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’. Accessed 10 December 2017: www.ohchr.org.

3 Ibid.

4 The right to truth was eventually included in a resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005: ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.’ Accessed 8 February 2018: www.ohchr.org.

5 ‘Question of the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations (civil and political)’ (final report prepared by Louis Joinet pursuant to Sub-Commission decision 1996/19) [26 June 1997]. Accessed 6 January 2017: documents-dds-ny.un.org.

6 Ricoeur 2000, 528.

7 Ricoeur 2000, 523.

8 Ricoeur 2000, 95.

9 Ricoeur intuitively senses that the Freudian model is not absolutely satisfactory. He writes further: ‘as for reconciliation with the loss itself, this will forever remain an unfinished task’ (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1365). It is also interesting to note that the final epilogue (in form of a short poem) of the book finishes with the word ‘l’inachevement’ (incompletion).

10 Derrida’s work is today considered as one of those marking the so-called ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s (see especially Peeren and Del Pilar Blanco 2013 and Peeren 2014 and Del Pilar Blanco 2014).

11 “I claimed, moreover, that the spectral figure of the desaparecido and the idea of wandering ancestral spirits have to be interpreted as reflections of particular conceptions of historicity.” (Bevernage 2012, 148; Chapter ‘History and the Work of Mourning’, Kindle loc. 3607.)

12 Bevernage is basing his conclusion on field research in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina. See also the works by Esther Peeren on spectrality and the scholarship produced after the ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s.

13 To give one example, the main character of Tučková’s novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch, finally escapes expulsion and comes back to her hometown Brno. Life seems to be returning to normal and she is about to reconstruct her life with her teenage love, who has become an important member of the communist party. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show trial with the communist leader Rudolf Slánský and his collaborators in 1952.

14 The research on the parallels between Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism were taboo in Soviet historiography before 1989 but some writers, such as Grossmann (Life and Fate), have addressed this question (see Etkind 2013, Kindle, chapter ‘Soviet hauntology’). Central European writers address this topic in their writings and it is clearly visible in the texts by Kratochvil and Huelle.

15 According to Tučková the character is based on a real person and the story is inspired by the personal diary of this woman that the author was able to access.

16 De Certeau 2016, 343.

17 See also Jan Ceuppens, ‘Seeing Things: Spectres and Angels in W. G. Sebald’s Prose Fiction’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 190–202 (Edinburgh, 2004, 2006), and Anne Fuchs, ‘Die Unerlösheit der Geschichte: Der Film als Fantom’ [History impossible to solve: Film as Phantom], in Die Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte: Zur Poetik der Erinnerung [To the Poetics of Remembering], in W. G. Sebald’s Prosa, 62–67.

18 See also the famous texts on photography by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag.

19 From the vast bibliography on the use of photography by Sebald, see in particular Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Traumatic Photographs: Remembrance and the Technical Media in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 155–71, and Alexandra Tischel, ‘Aus der Dunkelkammer der Geschichte. Zum Zusammenhang von Photographie und Erinnerung in W. G. Sebalds Austerliz’, in Michael Niehaus, Claudia Öhlschläger (eds), W. G. Sebald, Politische Archaologie und melancholische Bastelei [W. G. Sebald. Political Archaeology and melancholic DIY] (Berlin, 2006), 31–45.

20 Denemarková 2009, 230.

21 Ricoeur 2000, 257.

22 Katalpa 2012, 416.


Bevernage, Berber (2012) History, Memory and State-Sponsored Violence. New York: Routledge, Kindle.
— (2018) ‘Narrating pasts for peace? A critical analysis of some recent initiatives of historical reconciliation through “historical dialogue” and “shared history”’, in The Ethos of History, ed. Stefan Helgesson and Jayne Svennungsson, Berghahn Books (in press).

Bond, Lucy, Stef Craps and Pieter Vermeulen, eds (2017) Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies. New York: Berghahn Books.

Certeau, Michel de (2016) L’Ecriture de l’histoire (1st edn 1975). Paris: Gallimard.
— (2016, 3rd edn) Histoire et psychanalyse (1st French edn 1987, 1st American edn 1986). Paris: Gallimard.

Craps, Stef (2013) Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma out of Bounds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Kindle.

Denemarkova, Radka (2009) Penize od Hitlera: Letni mozaika (Money from Hitler: Summer Mosaics). Brno: Host.

Del Pilar Blanco, Maria and Peeren, Esther eds (2013) The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Del Pilar Blanco, Maria (2014) Ghost Watching American Modernity. New York: Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1994) Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York, London: Routledge (first published in French in 1993)

Etkind, Alexander (2013) Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Kindle.

Huelle, Paweł (2001) Mercedes Benz: Z listow do Hrabala. Kraków: Znak.
— (2005) Mercedes-Benz: from Letters to Hrabal. English trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Serpent’s Tail.

James, Petra (2013) ‘Chasseurs de fantômes. Agrandissements sebaldiens de la prose tcheque, slovaque et polonaise’ [Ghost-Spotters. Sebaldien close-ups from Czech, Slovak and Polish literature], in Memoire(s) des lieux dans la prose centre-europeenne apres 1989 [Places of memory (memories) in Central European prose after 1989], ed. Małgorzata Smorag-Goldberg and Marek Tomaszewski: Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2013, 293–305.
— (2014) ‘Contemporary Literary Texts of Central European Authors as Lieux de mémoire’ Central Europe, vol. 12, no. 1, 62–68. Accessed 20 March 2016: www.maneyonline.com

James, Petra, ed. (2018) Special issue ‘How to tell the Story?’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire [Belgian Review for Philology and History].

Maidl, Vaclav (1998) ‘Obraz německy mluvících postav a německého prostředí v české literatuře 19. a 20. století’ [The image of German-speaking characters and German milieu in the Czech literature of the 19th and 20th Century], in Obraz Němců, Rakouska a Německa v česke společnosti 19. a 20. Stoleti [The image of Germans, Austria and Germany in the Czech society of the 19th and 20th century], ed. Jan Křen and Eva Broklová. Prague: Karolinum.

Kratochvil, Alexander, ed. (2015) Paměť a trauma pohledem humanitnich věd (Memory and Trauma in the Perspective of Human Sciences). Prague: Akropolis, 2015.

Lachmann, Renate (2008) ‘Mnemonic and Intertextual Aspects of Literature’, in Cultural Memory Studies: an International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter GMbH, 301–10.

Lysak, Tomasz, ed. (2015) Antologia studiow nad traumą. Cracow: Universitas.

Peeren, Esther (2014) The Spectral Metaphor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ricoeur, Paul (2000) La memoire, l’histoire, l’oubli. Paris: Seuil.
— (2004) Memory, History, Forgetting, English trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Blamey. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
— (2009) Kindle edition of English trans. – see above.

Sebald, Winfried Georg (2001) Austerlitz. English trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2001.
— (2008, 4th edn) Austerlitz (1st edn 2001). Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Smorag-Goldberg, Małgorzata and Marek Tomaszewski, eds (2013) Memoire(s) des lieux dans la prose centre-europeenne apres 1989 [Places of memory (memories) in Central European Prose after 1989]. Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc.

Tučkova, Kateřina (2010)Vyhnani Gerty Schnirch [The expulsion of Gerta Snirch]. Brno: Host.

Vilikovsky, Pavel (2009) Vlastný životopis zla [The autobiography of evil]. Bratislava: Kalligram.


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

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Photo of the publication James Connollys bloodstained vest: Mediating death and violence in commemorative exhibtions
Siobhan Doyle

James Connolly's bloodstained vest: Mediating death and violence in commemorative exhibtions

11 Feburary 2018
  • Museum
  • commemoration
  • Easter Rising
  • James Connolly


The actions surrounding the display of images and artefacts in museums – collection, conservation, research and exhibition – are bound up with how the past is presented and remembered. These conditions and decisions relating to exhibitions are largely invisible to viewers who are confronted with the apparent completeness of an exhibition display. By conducting a historical and visual analysis of the bloodstained vest of political leader James Connolly, this article uncovers how this artefact has become a relic of historical violence due to the way in which particular aspects of its configuration, form and trajectory have been manipulated in order to elicit powerful emotional responses from the exhibition’s viewers.

... I have done nothing but see in the National Museum of Ireland the rusty red spot of blood, rather dirty, on the shirt that was once worn on the hero who is dearest to me of them all ... (MacLean 1971, 270–71)

Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘National Museum of Ireland’, written in 1971, contemplates the display of the bloodstained shirt of political leader James Connolly that he wore during the 1916 Rising. The shirt has been on display in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in several exhibitions and has been subject to considerable attention and research.1 Another bloodstaineditem of Connolly’s clothing – his vest – is part of the NMI collection and was displayed publicly for the first time in 2016 as part of their centenary commemorative exhibition. Connolly’s vest, which is soiled with a bloodstain on the back of the left arm, marks the location of one of the wounds he received during this 20th century conflict.

As discussed by Mary M. Brooks, ‘garments that protected, shaped and presented the body in life can become surrogate bodies in the museum, evoking and memorialising the absent wearer’ (Brooks 2017, 20). The way in which the vest is carefully laid out in the exhibition display, creates a feeling that the vest has been untouched since Connolly last wore it and heightens its symbolic potency. This symbolism is created by the way the garment is folded in half with the arms crossed at the front. Positioning the folded arms in this way resembles the positioning of the arms of a deceased body and congeals the transfiguration of Connolly from a citizen, who took up arms with a view to achieving independence, into a martyr who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Brooks also contends how careful judgements when exhibiting garments is essential as artefacts must be comprehensible as dress in order to carry the meaning selected for a specific display context, whether as a work of art, a design statement or, in this case, as a representation of its previous wearer (Brooks 2017, 22). The positioning of the vest in the display case differs from other pieces of clothing in the exhibition. Rather than putting the vest on a life‑size mannequin at eye level like all of the other forms of clothing within the exhibition, the vest has been folded and placed in a glass counter-top display case. This has been done for two reasons; firstly, in order to explicitly expose the bloodstain; and secondly, to evoke the absence of the deceased body it represents.

This article centres on James Connolly’s bloodstained vest – a valuable material artefact of the 1916 Rising, which was loaned to the NMI by his family in 1941. With its display in the ‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ exhibition, this biographic relic has become symbolic as a tangible link to the death of a principal figure in Ireland’s political history. By examining this artefact through the institutional processes of acquisition, preservation and exhibition, this article demonstrates how ordinary objects can foster particular historical understandings when they are authenticated and mediated within the museum environment. Using grounding principles of visualculture, museology and material culture to undertake a visual analysis of this artefact and its display, I direct attention to the visual processes employed when representing death in exhibitions and raise questions about the ways in which exhibition displays can perpetuate particular aspects of violent events.

James Connolly and the 1916 Rising

The 1916 Easter Rising is regarded as ‘the most controversial event in modern Irish history’ (McGarry 2010, 8). The conflict lasted for six days during which militant Republicans sought to seize political power from Britain, and declared – though unsuccessfully in the short term – an independent state (Brück and Godson, 2015, 1). At the time, the public perception of the Rising was hostile due to the unpredictability and chaotic nature of the rebellion from the outset.2 As noted by David Fitzpatrick, the determination of the leaders to stage a rebellion marked by honour and chivalry was inevitably sullied by cases of brutal or cowardly conduct, callousness towards civilians, and looting; but the leaders emerged after the surrender with impressive dignity to meet their fate (Fitzpatrick 2016, 82–83).

James Connolly (1868–1916), socialist and revolutionary leader, is a significant figure in the story of the Rising and in the history of modern Ireland. Connolly was instrumental in establishing the Citizen Army in 1913 and during the Rising he commanded military operations. As Commandant General of the Republic’s forces, he fought in the city centre where the majority of the battles took place until surrendering on 29 April. Connolly received several injuries during the six days of fighting with the most severe shattering his left ankle. He was court-martialled and was the last one of the fifteen leaders to be executed by firing squad. He was shot dead in Kilmainham Gaol on 12 May 1916 and was survived by his wife and six children.

The execution of the leaders of the Rising without trial caused widespread public consternation, encouraged sympathy and swayed public opinion in favour of the rebel forces. Darragh Gannon contends that the beatification of the dead of 1916 persisted through the publishing of obituary biographies of those who had been killed as a result of the Rising, along with photographs of the widows and children left behind that evoked natural sympathy (Gannon 2016, 218). Jack Elliott also notes how in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, there was a proliferation of images of the executed leaders that circulated widely in newspapers and on pieces of mass-produced ephemera. These visual and material representations of the executed leadersplayed a particular role in shaping sympathetic and intelligible narratives of the conflict and created a familiarity with the appearance of the leaders (Elliott 2015, 91–95).

In a time when the visualization of the conflict was limited to newspapers and material artefacts, tangible entities became extremely significant in ‘the construction of both personal and official histories’ (Brück and Godson, 2015, 1). In April 1917, a three-day gift sale compromising of relics of the Rising and souvenirs of other Irish rebellions was held in support of Republican relief organizations. Many of the items auctioned that day eventually made their way into the MMI’s Easter Week Collection, such as leader Éammon Ceannt’s imitation ancient Irish costume worn when playing the Irish warpipes before Pope Pius X in 1908. Connolly’s wife Lillie donated a pair of his gloves to the auction but their whereabouts today is not known. Material and artefacts within the Easter Week Collection associated with Connolly are mainly ephemeral, consisting of leaflets promoting his lectures, communicative documents used during the Rising and handwritten postcards and letters. Given the limited nature of his material legacy, the NMI are immensely restricted in how they represent Connolly through artefacts.

National Museum of Ireland (NMI)

The NMI has a long history of hosting exhibitions commemorating the 1916 Rising with its first in 1932. In the years following the inaugural exhibition, the NMI collected materials and objects bound together only by their association with the Rising and established what is known as the ‘Easter Week Collection’ – the first thematic collection in the institution. The NMI still stands apart as the pioneer in hosting 1916 exhibitions and its collection built around this pivotal event in Irish history set the stage for the preservation and presentation of the material culture of Ireland.

The ‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ exhibition that opened in March 2016 is the NMI’s eighth exhibition on the subject and has been the centrepiece of the NMI’s centenary programme. Housed in the Riding School at the Department of Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks in Dublin, this exhibition has been described as revealing ‘the physicalities of life in Ireland before, during and after the events of Easter Week in the form of three hundred objects, articles and images’ (Gannon, 2016, xvi). Artefacts, which have visible traces of use because of the conflict, have been mobilized by curators throughout the exhibition in order to accentuate thedistress and physicalities of war. Many of these artefacts are everyday materials, which have become extraordinary because of their association with this significant event in Ireland’s political history and illustrate how ordinary lives and actions collided during the conflict. Artefacts such as a crucifix hit by a stray bullet, a sign from the front of the burnt-out General Post Office (GPO) and James Connolly’s bloodstained vest are examples of ordinary objects whose storytelling ability is enhanced because they have visible evidence of the physicalities of violence.

Many of the exhibited objects have never been on public display before while others, such as the flags that flew over the rebel garrisons around Dublin city, were specially conserved for this display. Through the combined effect of the objects, words and imagery of the period, visitors follow the stories of those caught up in the events of that momentous week – civilians, combatants and survivors alike.

The exhibition is laid out in a series of ten zones: introduction, the proclamation of the Irish Republic and early 20th-century Ireland; establishing the rebel garrisons and the British countermoves; surrender and the scenes of destruction; courts martial and execution; widows and orphans; deportation and imprisonment; commemorating the Rising through the last 100 years; Art Ó Murnaghan’s national memorial; the legacy of 1916 and a resource room. The narrative ordering of the exhibition content presents episodes of the conflict semi-chronologically meaning that visitors get a general sense of the chronology of events, but this arrangement also allows visitors to make their own narrative connections between the different zones. For example, in the centre of ‘Zone 3: Establishing Rebel Garrisons and the British Countermoves’, there is a large glass case displaying the Irish Republic flag that flew from the GPO during the Rising. The flag was captured by British soldiers after the surrender, kept as a war trophy and entered the Royal Collection of King George V of England.3 A large-format digital photograph of British soldiers with the captured flag immediately after the Rising features prominently on a display panel in ‘Zone 4: Surrender and the Scenes of Destruction’. The displays do not refer to one another, encouraging viewers to connect both artefact and image autonomously.

Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners are catered for using object displays, text panels, graphics, interactive touch screens, soundscapes, audio recordings and short film. Speakers in the main exhibition area play a looped audiosoundtrack, which contains noises of a street scene overwhelmed by explosions and guns. The overall mood of the soundtrack creates a sensory environment, which summons feelings of chaos and provides context for the exhibition. This soundscape is most prominent in ‘Zone 3: Establishing Rebel Garrisons and the British Countermoves’ but is phased out gradually so that ‘Zone 5: Courts Martial and Execution’ achieves a reverential mood for viewers to reflect silently and ‘empathise with the executed leaders’ (Heise and Tandem Design 2015). This is an intentional curatorial strategy implemented in order to promote intimacy and contemplation in this section of the exhibition.

‘Zone 5: Courts Martial and Execution‘

As discussed by Jane Tynan, ‘notions of tragic heroism dominate the memory of the Rising’ – a narrative which also emerges in the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition (Tynan 2015, 32). This section of the exhibition details the last moments of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising individually, by describing their last meetings with families and displaying artefacts, which were in their possession before they met their death by firing squad in the yard in Kilmainham Gaol. A generous graphic area introduces the executions, interprets the reaction of the public and the swing in public opinion that followed. The curators and exhibition designers have positioned this section in a particular way so that it is possible for visitors to bypass the display of last letters and objects if they choose. This positioning represents the exhibition makers’ consciousness of the sensitive nature of the death-related content on public display. The possible bypassing of this section is not made explicit on display panels or in a disclaimer, so that visitors can come to their own decisions on how to deal with the complex nature of displaying artefacts closely associated with death and more specifically, execution.

The central feature of this section is a long bespoke display case, where each execution is treated separately with its own grouping of objects. The ‘last objects’ are housed within the case, with the associated last letter and death certificate viewable within a drawer positioned directly underneath the case. Visitors can listen to dramatized readings of each of the last letters on a bank of listening pods that helps them to ‘decipher the letters of the often difficult to read handwriting and understand the emotions behind the words’ (Heise and Tandem Design, 2015). The objects belonging to the leaders include a button from Michael Hanrahan’s uniform, which he gave to his sisters during their last visit to him, rosary beads given by Joseph Plunkettto firing squad member Sergeant W. Hand before his execution and a silver cigarette case inscribed by John MacBride during Easter Week. The object that materially represents Connolly in this section is his bloodstained vest. As Albano has outlined, by displaying such artefacts as biographical material evidence, not only is something about the objects themselves revealed, but information about those who acted on them is also uncovered (Albano 2007, 17). The aim of this display strategy is to produce a human connection between the exhibited artefacts and the viewer.

James Scott asserts how the perception of objects can be influenced heavily by what surrounds them in displays (Scott 2015, 500). The difference between Connolly’s vest and the other objects on display within the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition is that the majority of artefacts representing the other leaders were gifted to visitors before they met their death, indicating a conscious effort to leave a material legacy of their last moments. This gifting of artefacts by the leaders before their executions is an example of what Guy Beiner refers to as ‘prememory’ – ‘the anticipations and expectations of those who are committed to predetermine how history will be remembered’ (Beiner 2016, 34). Unlike the other leaders who bequeathed material artefacts to trusted individuals during their final visits from family and final moments with others in Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly did not intentionally leave a ‘prememory’ personal possession.4 The bloodstained vest was among Connolly’s possessions, which were returned to his family after his death along with his watch and wallet.5 Perhaps if Connolly had bequeathed his watch or wallet during the final visit with his wife and daughter, curators of the exhibition may have selected those objects to represent his last moments instead of a piece of clothing that he possibly last wore two weeks prior to his execution. The watch and wallet were not donated to the museum by the Connolly family, but were instead kept as private relics of his last possessions. In fact, the vest and undershirt are the only material artefacts in the NMI collection that were donated by Connolly’s family and which can be tangibly associated with his execution.6

That said Connolly’s execution was different to that of the other leaders due to the severity of the injuries he had sustained during Easter Week. Upon arrival at Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly was removed from the ambulance in a stretcher and unlike the other leaders who were positioned on wooden boxes pending the gunshots from the firing squad, Connolly was strapped to a chair where he sat in an extended position with his head falling backwards.7It is unlikely that Connolly wore this vest during his execution as it was stated by witnesses that he was wearing only his pyjamas prior to execution and had lost a lot of blood after the shots were fired, meaning that the bloodstains on the vest do not correspond with the details of his death.8 However, the display of the vest in relation to the other last objects on display and the selective information in the accompanying display label suggest that the curators may, in fact, intend visitors to assume it was worn by Connolly during his execution. While many of the other artefacts describe how they were distinctly used or gifted during the leaders’ final moments with their loved ones, the information accompanying Connolly’s vest makes no reference to the visit but instead focuses on the injuries he received during Easter Week and how the vest was deposited in the National Museum.

Display texts in museums can provide a basic starting point for directing viewers towards the politics of exhibition – the unseen features of artefacts such as their creation, acquisition and historical background. Considering that many of the other leaders’ biographies detail their final moments prior to execution and display material evidence of those moments, the avoidance of this description in Connolly’s case may represent a conscious curatorial strategy, which is implemented in order to heighten the emotional strength of the vest. Examining such aspects of display outlines the importance of considering the invisibility of the construction of exhibition displays and exposes the extent to which museums control visitors’ engagement with the past. Focusing on the institutional acquisition of the vest after Connolly’s death can be seen as a selective manipulation of certain attributes of the artefact in order to correspond with other artefacts on display and to validate the NMI’s role in displaying this contested personal possession, despite the original owner’s unwillingness to engage in material acts of ‘prememory’.

Historical configuration of the vest

On Thursday, 27 April 1916, surrounded by burning buildings and a hail of gunfire and artillery shelling, James Connolly led 30 volunteers out into a street to erect a barricade at the rear of the GPO, which was the insurgent’s headquarters for the duration of the Rising. A few minutes later, Connolly returned to the building and asked the medical orderly, Jim Ryan, if he could speak to him somewhere in private. Behind a screen, Connolly took off his coat and revealed a flesh wound in his arm where he had just been shot. After having the wound dressed, he told Ryan: ‘Not a word about this to anyone’ and returned outside to the fighting (Nevin 2005, 654).

This sequence of events uncovers three aspects that affect the display of the vest in the museum environment. Firstly, the witness accounts of Connolly’s injury correspond with the configuration of the bloodstain, authenticating the description presented by the NMI in the exhibition display. Secondly, it reveals reluctance on the part of Connolly for his injuries to become common knowledge and demonstrates how the eventual trajectory of personal artefacts often goes beyond the control of their owners.9 Finally, they reveal how an everyday artefact can be transformed into a tangible link and a symbolic representation of a first-hand experience of a violent conflict in Irish history.

After his execution, Connolly’s daughter Nora recalled going to Dublin Castle to retrieve some of his personal items:

We went to the Castle after that, to claim his watch, his wallet, or anything they might have belonging to Daddy. We thought there might be a chance of getting his uniform; but we did not. We only got his underclothes; and they were marked with his blood, where he had been hit by a sniper. I have given them to the Museum also.10

Nora’s wish to retrieve her father’s uniform accentuates the emotional weight that is attached to personal items of clothing, particularly in the absence of their wearer. Nora loaned the bloodstained vest and undershirt to the Easter Week Collection in 1941, where they remain in the care of the NMI. The transfer of these items from a private collection to a national collection in a public institution shows an awareness, on the part of the Connolly family, of the significance and potential value of such soiled artefacts.

As outlined by Annie E. Coombes, the way an object is used, how it is moved around and its very survival is an indication of value and meaning (Coombes 1988, 89). The display label states that ‘The vest, along with the shirt he wore over it, was returned to his family after execution and his daughter Nora, kept it until she deposited in the National Museum.’ This selective information gives viewers an insight into the actions surrounding the collection and acquisition of this artefact; and offers an understanding of the range of actions that take place in order for an object to become part of a museum collection and subsequent display. There is limited information available in the NMI archives on the vest and undershirt aside from the dates of donation and a request some years later from Connolly’s other daughterIna to view the items.11 The preservation of the vest by the wearer’s family and the NMI memorializes and authenticates Connolly’s presence in the violent battles of the 1916 Rising.

Form and style of the vest

Eastop and Brooks have outlined the importance of leaving stained textiles untouched as the stains often ‘contain’ considerable historical and cultural evidence (Eastop and Brooks 1996, 688). It is a specific event in Irish history – the 1916 Rising: Connolly being shot for the first time – which caused its eventual configuration and the reason why this artefact was collected as a historic relic, loaned to the museum, conserved and now on display to the public. Like many other soiled historical artefacts, the form and style of this artefact is configured by an unintentional event – that is, the vest only looks the way it does by accident (residue of blood from a flesh wound after a stray bullet hit Connolly). Furthermore, the vest was not intended by its user to be made visible as presumably it would have been worn underneath his uniform and as already mentioned, the wearer hoped to keep his injury secret. Instead, it was the subsequent custodians of the vest – Connolly’s family – who deliberately collected and donated his bloodstained underclothes as evidence of the experience and conditions of the 1916 Rising. As the vest has remained in the care of the NMI since it was loaned in 1941, it is their institutional practices of collection, conservation and curation that now control the cultural visibility of the vest after Connolly’s death.

As discussed by Jane Tynan, the peculiar dynamics of the Rising demanded an equivocal attitude to uniform (Tynan 2015, 31). The rebel leaders for example, wore uniforms that were dark green in colour and distinct from the other Volunteer uniforms. However not all of the insurgents were noted for their elegant appearance. Due to financial hardship, lack of military experience and the chaotic unfolding of events, the majority of participants in the fighting had a casual and unmilitary appearance (Tynan 2015, 29).

Connolly was described as wearing ‘a green Volunteer uniform with rings on his arm, and a wide-awake hat’ (Nevin 2005, 665). His daughter Ina elicited the delight she felt the first time seeing her father in his green Volunteer uniform: ‘How splendid he looked! How pleased I was to see him in the uniform of Ireland’s green! Wouldn’t mother be proud of him if she could get one glace of him?’12

Connolly’s ‘splendid’ appearance was not maintained in the aftermath of the conflict as he was brought to Kilmainham Gaol to meet his death wearing ‘his pyjamas only’.13 His material legacy in the ‘Proclaiming a Republic’ exhibition is reflective of the unheroic image chosen to represent the Rising, which as Tynan has asserted ‘features what appears to be a working class man wearing civilian clothes’ (Tynan 2015, 33).14 This vest has agency as material culture as it communicates either the physical body or presence of its owner and signifies his personal identity through its traces of use, general wear and tear and personal style. The proximity to the body it represents is intensified by the presence of a visible bodily residue, which is exposed by the particular positioning of the vest in the display case.


The actions surrounding the display of images and objects in museums – collection, conservation, research and exhibition – are bound up with howthe past is presented and remembered. These conditions and decisions of exhibition display are largely invisible to viewers who are confronted with the apparent completeness of an exhibition display.

Conducting a historical and visual analysis of this bloodstained vest has uncovered how particular aspects of this artefact have been manipulated in order to be appropriate alongside other artefacts within the exhibition. Other than representing his clothing and reinforcing the casual heroism of the Rising, Connolly’s vest was not crucial to the theme of the ‘Courts Martial and Execution’ section of the exhibition. Instead its significance lies in the particular positioning of the artefact in the display case in order to make the bloodstain fully visible. This mode of display intentionally gives the vest a heightened sense of tangible connection to the violence of the Rising in an attempt to elicit powerful emotional responses from the exhibition’s viewers.



Siobhan Doyle is a PhD scholar at the Dublin School of Creative Arts in the Dublin Institute of Technology and received the Dean of the College of Arts & Tourism scholarship award in March 2016. Siobhan’s research project investigates representations of death in commemorative exhibitions in national cultural institutions and the challenges facing museums when commemorating historical conflict. Other research interests include the historiography of visual and material culture and dark tourism. Siobhan has a written a chapter ‘Funerary Traditions and Commemorative Practices in Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum’ in Grave Matters: Death and Dying in Dublin 1650–2000 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, June 2016).



1 The shirt has been on display in the ‘Soldiers and Chiefs’ exhibition at the NMI since 2006 and was featured in the History of Ireland in 100 Objects initiative which began as a column in The Irish Times by Fintan O’ Toole and culminated in an illustrated book, website and series of stamps. This collection of one hundred objects was selected to illustrate Ireland’s history and in doing so, directed readers to where each object was on public display.

2 The Rising was originally scheduled to take place on Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916 but Eoin MacNeill issued a cancellation of ‘manoeuvres’ which led to the non-participation of many potential rebels. The countermand was only partly successful and caused confusion, especially outside Dublin. Consequently there was no Rising in Cork or Limerick. The dissidents delayed their plans by 24 hours and launched the Rising on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916.

3 The flag was returned by the British state to the Taoiseach Sean Lemass as gesture of reconciliation in 1966. Lemass formally presented the flag to the NMI in the hope thatit would be ‘preserved as one of the important relics of that important event of Irish history and as a source of inspiration to all who come to this museum’. (‘Exhibition Tells Story of the Rising: Post Office Flag on View’, Irish Times, 13 April 1966, 11.)

4 Connolly gave a copy of his Court Martial statement to his daughter Nora during the final family visit the night before his execution, which is on display in the pull-out drawer underneath the glass display case.

5 Bureau of Military History (1949): Witness Statement of Nora Connolly-O’Brien (WS286). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

6 The items were originally on loan to the NMI from 30 April 1941 and include a portrait of James Connolly and a shirt and vest worn by James Connolly when he was wounded during Easter Week 1916. Both are stained with his blood. The loan register lists the lender as Nora Connolly O’Brien (daughter of James Connolly), 39 The Rise, Glasnevin, Dublin. NMI Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034. Accessed 3 November 2017.

7 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of Peter Paul Gilligan (WS170). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

8 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). drive.google.com. Accessed 16 January 2017.

9 Despite returning to duty immediately after receiving the wound on his arm dressed, Connolly received a much more severe injury to his ankle shortly afterwards that immobilized him for the remainder of the conflict, and up until his execution two weeks later.

10 Bureau of Military History (1949): Witness Statement of Nora Connolly O’ Brien (WS286). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

11 NMI Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034 (9). Accessed 3 November 2017.

12 Bureau of Military History (1954): Witness Statement of Ina Connolly Heron (WS0919) www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 6 November 2017.

13 Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie. Accessed 16 November 2017.

14 Tynan, Jane (2015) ‘The Unmilitary Appearance of the 1916 Rebels’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson and Joanna Bruck. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.


Published Sources:

Albano, Caterina (2007) ‘Displaying Lives: The Narratives of Objects in Biographical Exhibitions’. Museum and Society, 5, no. 1. 15–28.

Beiner, Guy (2016) ‘Making Sense of Memory: Coming to Terms with Conceptualisations of Historical Remembrance’, in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politicsof Memory in Ireland, ed. Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry, 25–36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brooks, Mary M.(2017) ‘Reflecting Absence and Presence: Displaying Dress of Known Individuals’, in Refashioning and Redress: Conserving and Displaying Dress, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, 19–32. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Bruck, Joanna and Lisa Godson (2015) ‘Approaching the Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising: An Introduction’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson & Joanna Brück, 1–11. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Coombes, Annie E. (1988) ‘Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities’. Oxford Art Journal, 11, no. 2. 260–72.

Eastop, Dinah D. and Brooks, Mary M.(1996) ‘To Clean or Not to Clean: The Value of Soils and Creases’, in Preprints of the 11th Triennial Meeting of the ICOM–CC, Edinburgh, ed. Janet Birdgland, 687–91. London: James & James.

Elliott, Jack (2015) ‘“After I am Hanged my Portrait will be Interesting but not Before”: Ephemera and the Construction of Personal Responses to the Easter Rising’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed. Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück, 91–8. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

‘Exhibition Tells Story of the Rising: Post Office Flag on View’ (1966) Irish Times, 13 April, 11. Accessed 29 January 2018: 0-search.proquest.com

Fitzpatrick, David (2016) ‘Instant History: 1912, 1916, 1918’, in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, ed. Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry, 77–98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gannon, Darragh (2016) Proclaiming a Republic: Ireland, 1916 and the National Collection. Kildare: Irish Academic Press.

Godson, Lisa and Joanna Bruck, eds (2015) Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

MacLean, Sorley (2011) ‘National Museum of Ireland’, in Sorley MacLean: Collected Poems, ed. Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock, 270–71. Edinburgh: Polygon.

McGarry, Fearghal (2010) The Rising: Ireland, Easter 1916. New York, Oxford University Press.

Nevin, Donal (2005) James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.

Scott, James (2015) ‘Objects and the Representations of War in Military Museums’, Museum and Society, 13, no. 4. 489–502.

Tynan, Jane (2015) ‘The Unmilitary Appearance of the 1916 Rebels’, in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the 1916 Rising, ed.Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück, 25–33. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Primary Sources:

Bureau of Military History (1949) Witness Statement of Nora Connolly O’ Brien (WS286). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Bureau of Military History (1954) Witness Statement of Ina Connolly Heron (WS0919). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of 2nd Lieutenant R. C. Barton (WS0979). Accessed 16 November 2017: drive.google.com

Bureau of Military History: Witness Statement of Peter Paul Gilligan (WS170). Accessed 6 November 2017: www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Heise, Sandra and Tandem Design (2015) ‘National Museum of Ireland: Easter Week Remembered Concept Design (Issue 1)’, 26 June 2015. National Museum of Ireland Archives: AI/16/111. Accessed 18 September 2017.

National Library of Ireland (1917) Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund: Catalogue of Gift Sale to be Held in Aid of above at the Mansion House, Dublin on Friday and Saturday, 20 and 21 April 1917: MS. 35,262/27(1). Accessed 22 November 2017.

National Museum of Ireland Archives: NMIAS.AI.EWL.0097.003.00034 (9). Accessed 3 November 2017.


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

Photo of the publication Sound in the Silence project: Teaching method
Weronika Kann

Sound in the Silence project: Teaching method

03 September 2017
  • education

The twentieth-century history of Europe was marked by two world wars and two totalitarianisms, national socialism and communism. To pursue their objectives, these two systems - despite their ideological differences - were making use of similar means, i.e. violence and terror, incarnated as concentration and forced labour camps. (…) Apart from being a unique kind of cemeteries, museums set up on the grounds of former death and concentration camps have also become monuments to the past, commemorating victims to regimes. It was there that a new area of educational activity, unknown before, was born in a natural way: memorial site pedagogy.
Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012[1]

1. Introduction

Sound in the Silence is an international interdisciplinary educational project delivered by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS) in cooperation with the cultural centre MOTTE from Hamburg. Its main goal is to make adolescents attending upper secondary schools familiar with some difficult aspects of Europe’s past in a way that matches their emotional sensitivity. Guided by artists and educators, the participants visit memorial sites where they explore selected events from the history of totalitarianisms in East-Central Europe. Then, referring to their own emotions and experience, they process the newly acquired knowledge during art workshops of several days. Their work finds its culmination in a public performance which combines various genres of art: dance, theatre, music and stage setting. Emotions and feelings related to visits at memorial sites – particularly those marked with violence and pain, giving rise to emotions sometimes hard to express in words – become thus externalised in an artistic message.

2. Teaching method

The place where young learners come into contact with history for the first time, the school does not always offer conditions conducive to understanding the past. Sound in the Silence is intended to fill that gap, facilitating international, interdisciplinary cooperation between schools and external experts and artists representing various disciplines. Offering young people an opportunity to directly experience memorial sites and interact with others who have different experiences, the projects stimulates sensitivity, curiosity and tolerance. Learning in an international environment, coupled with integration and dialogue of youth from different countries and marked by twentieth-century history in different ways, will help them better understand the past and broaden their horizons.

The educational process proposed by the project includes two parts: one based on learning and history and one based on arts. During the first part, the young participants are guided around a selected memorial site, a concentration or forced labour camp. They learn about its history as well individual fates of its inmates, which facilitates stepping in their shoes and thus a more in-depth understanding of the past[2]. Then the participants attend an interactive lecture and discussion staged by scientific coordinators. The lecture aims at presenting a broader historical context as well as systematising and consolidating their existing knowledge (accounting for school syllabus differences in individual countries); the discussion, in turn, provides a space for asking questions, exploration and comprehension.

The other part is art workshops of around a week, during which the final performance is prepared as a team effort. They are delivered by means of an exposing teaching method intended to activate the student’s whole personality, both intellect and emotions. The method consists in simulating situations and role-play using words, gestures, movement and sometimes props[3]. The point is not theatre, however, as the final performance is not based on a ready-made text but is an open structure where new content, actions and interpretations can be inserted. Consequently, playing a specific role requires personal engagement on the part of the student. The method allows for the emotional experience of specific problems, looking for one’s own solutions as well as making choices. It also accelerates the students’ emotional, intellectual and social growing up. It additionally teaches them understanding themselves and others at the level of feelings and emotions.

3. Project measures

Project work begins long before going to the memorial site and comprises the following stages:

3.1. Project site selection: project coordinators select a site as the axis of a given edition of the project. They also select and describe a leitmotif, closely linked to the history of the site, which helps define activities to be performed more precisely. Then materials for the students and teachers are prepared, with the subjects contained therein to be explored more in-depth and supplemented with new aspects during the historical workshop. The coordinators remain in close cooperation with the institution or museum in charge of a given memorial site.

3.2. Recruitment: it targets teachers and schools, lasts two months and is executed by means of online applications. Each year, students and teachers participating in the project are recruited by a selection team comprising ENRS and MOTTE staff. Four upper secondary schools from EU member states may select seven students and a teacher to spend eight days at a selected memorial site. The following aspects are subject to evaluation during the recruitment process: motivation (the selection team will assess the convergence between the project objectives and the teacher’s interests, expectations and personal development plans); project recruitment modalities (the way in which the teacher/school selects seven young project participants as well as the teacher’s approach to the project’s interdisciplinary nature); experience in the delivery of interdisciplinary projects (outside the school syllabus) and the knowledge of English (with the teachers and students obliged to declare it to be at least at the B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages standard of the Council of Europe).
The project assumes that the teacher and the students he/she selects take part in all activities planned by the organisers, with the teachers not involved in work during individual workshops and playing mainly the roles of guardians and aides.

3.3. A trip to the memorial site: the formula – that of a momentary break from daily duties and routines – facilitates the creation of a safe space for discussion, becoming familiar with different point of views and consciously working out new perspectives. As a result, visits at memorial sites serve not just to help improve one’s knowledge of history but also as a starting point for juxtaposing various opinions in a way accessible to adolescents.

3.4. Visiting the memorial site and an educational workshop: the basic objective of the substantive workshop is to make the participants familiar as to the location where the project is delivered as well as discuss selected topics from the history of totalitarianisms in East-Central Europe. The knowledge acquired in the early days of the visit will also help the participants better prepare their final performance.

3.5. Groupwork with artists: one of the project objectives is to develop new outside-the-box ways to deal with history, based, on the one hand, on the participants’ individual involvement and dialogue, and openness on the other. Hence the idea for combining visits at memorial sites with art workshops as well inviting youth, artists, experts in memory and educators from different countries and with different experience and knowledge of history to work together. The work is executed in several workshop groups, each led by a different artist. During the first workshop day, after each leader has presented their approach, the students select the genre of art that suits them best.

3.6. Final performance: the last day and a half of the project serves to combine the ideas of all groups into a coherent whole and rehearse the final performance which is then presented to the public. Emotions and feelings related to visits at memorial sites – particularly those marked with violence and pain, giving rise to emotions sometimes hard to express in words – become externalised in an artistic message.

4. Learning through arts

The combination of two apparently contradictory domains as learning and arts may be seen, encourages young people to come into contact with history and points a way towards expressing one’s views personally and critically. Using one’s intellect, emotions, imagination and senses for learning purposes facilitates looking at the past from various angles and perspectives of many parties to the very same conflict. The formula of Sound in the Silence offers both students and teachers alike the possibility to move away from traditional history teaching routines giving a voice to witnesses to past events. The project has been conceived of as basic ground preparation work, aimed at counteracting exclusion, preventing nationalist attitudes, sensitising the participants to challenges faced by the modern world as well as promoting such terms a empathy, tolerance or dialogue.

The project focuses on individualised and multidimensional experience of the past. During the workshops, the students are encouraged to critically analyse the history presented. Dates and facts are contextualised with the experiences and feelings of those who lived past events coming to the fore. This is the point of visiting memorial sites, reading witnesses’ accounts or watching feature films and documentaries. Additionally, each student is given an opportunity to select a workshop related to the type of art most suited to their sensitivity. The artists are mentors, showing various ways to interpret historical events by means of arts. They are also there to help the participants work through and understand the most difficult topics, for which there is often no time available at school. Such an interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach to complex history facilitates reflection made more in-depth by one’s own emotions and understanding of both the past and presence. Use of forms and means to which contemporary youth can relate helps them find the importance of historical events for the modern-day world. As a participant of the previous edition put it: “I have never felt so connected to history before and would never have by just looking at a picture”[4].

Facing the history of the project site in emotional terms requires ensuring a common, safe space for dialogue for participants of various ages, characters and maturity levels. Thanks to re-defining certain educational methods, Sound in the Silence is a good solution for students who find it difficult to understand the timeless universality of historical messages. The artistic techniques applied as well as direct contact with memorial sites make the process of knowledge acquisition and analysis more accessible. They also facilitate personal engagement on the part of the participants and showing links between the past and their present-day lives.

One of the key challenges as regards the delivery of Sound in the Silence is transmission of expert historical knowledge to persons of various nationalities in a language other than their native one. The coordinators communicate with the adolescent participants in English, which may hamper the understanding of specialist historical terms. Should comprehension problems appear, the participants should contact the project coordinators or their guardians.

An additional difficulty as regards working with adolescents from various countries is varied levels of knowledge of the history of the site and region visited as well as differences in their knowledge of twentieth-century European history. That is why cooperation begins long before the project implementation stage. The coordinators meet representatives of the schools or hold consultations with them over Skype. They offer them materials prepared for the young participants serving to minimise such discrepancies. From the very start, the project is consulted with school teachers, head teachers as well as artistic and substantive coordinators. The point is to define the goals and objectives of the project precisely and communicate them to all the interested parties so that misunderstandings and tensions could be avoided.

Each edition of the project is assessed by all the persons involved in it: artists, teachers and students and then subject to detailed evaluation by a team from the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. The conclusions are used while planning is being done for successive editions of the project.

5. Summary

The idea behind Sound in the Silence is multi-track historical education delivered both at memorial sites and art workshops as well as integration and exchange of experiences between peers from various countries. Sound in the Silence makes us aware that new forms of historical education make it possible to combine individual engagement with exploring the past together. One’s own experience and sensitivity as well as understanding of views characteristic of individual countries allow for changing one’s own personal perspective and mutual contact regardless of where the participants hail from. Learning history through arts and expressing it through emotions makes it easier for adolescents to understand history and the world around them.

6. Organisers

6.1. European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
The European Network Remembrance and Solidarity is an international initiative established pursuant to the Declaration of 2 February 2005 by ministers of culture (or their equivalents) from four countries: Poland, Germany, Slovakia and Hungary. Back then, they acknowledged the need to hold a dialogue about twentieth-century history as well as engage in joint research, documentation and dissemination of most recent European history marked by wars and totalitarian dictatorships. In 2009, the intention to establish the ENRS expressed in the Declaration was repeated in letters of intent signed by the ministers of culture of Germany, Poland and Hungary. In May 2014, an annex was added to the Declaration as another country, Romania, joined the Network. The ENRS was set up as an entity active in the area of remembrance policy, an ambitious attempt at shaping international discourse about the history and memory of Europeans. An important factor that defines the nature of the initiative is the fact that there are constantly differences to be faced present at several levels of cooperation:
• level of the substance the Network deals with: various historical narratives specific to each member country;
• level of structure: various organisational or institutional solutions specific to the remembrance policy systems in the member countries;
• level of culture: different ways and experiences related to commemoration, different means of communication or interpretation of specific phenomena.

The current members of the Network are Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, while representatives of also Austria, the Czech Republic and Latvia serve on its advisory assemblies. Since the establishment of the ENRS Secretariat, i.e. 2005, the Network has delivered around 100 initiatives varied in terms of nature, theme and scope. Some of them have become flagship ENRS projects and are delivered in successive editions now.

6.2. Cultural Centre MOTTE
Established in 1976, MOTTE is a municipal centre of culture in Altona, a formerly working class district of Hamburg. From the very beginning, its main objective has been supporting its local, ethnically diverse, community through cultural education, promotion of media knowledge as well as development of vocational and social competences. The dynamics of the centre’s operation is based on cooperation with diverse institutions, i.e. schools, cultural centres, libraries as well as culture animators, journalists or artists.

Projects delivered by MOTTE target almost all age and social groups. Apart from a crèche and community centre for youngest children, the organisation offers many free programmes for adolescents aged 12 and above. Its activities cover such fields as remedial classes and advice in vocational development planning, games and cuisine workshops, or workshops for girls or persons with disabilities. Initiatives are also offered supporting schoolchildren in improving their vocational competencies in cooperation with local schools. Children aged 6-12 can benefit from a project at the intersection of black light theatre, musical play and film, where the participants learn to create their own radio broadcasts and develop their creativity. MOTTE is also planning to soon expand its operations and offer projects focusing on senior citizens.

Text has been written based on relevant literature on the subject:

Auschwitz i Holokaust : dylematy i wyzwania polskiej edukacji, edited by: Piotr Trojański, Oświęcim: Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2008, s. 397.
Michael Gray, Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for Ages 11–18, Routledge, New York, 2015
Grunewald, D., A., (2003). The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place, Educational Researcher 4 (32), s. 3-12.
Grzegorz Żuk, Edukacja w miejscach pamięci – od reliktu do refleksji, [in:] Pamięć jako kategoria rzeczywistości kulturowej, red. Jan Adamowski i Marta Wójcicka, Lublin 2012
James Woodcock, History, music and law: commemorative cross-curricularity, https://www.holocausteducation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Teaching-History-2013.pdf, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Knapp, C., L., Woodhouse, J., L., Place – Based Curriculum and Instruction: Outdoor and Environmental Education Approaches, http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-3/place.htm, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012, http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.desklight-1efca15a-a273-4533-aaa4-d482a723326b/c/11.pdf (accessed on 5 May 2017)
N.H. Weber, H.-F. Rathenow, Pedagogika miejsc pamięci – próba bilansu, „Kwartalnik Pedagogiczny” 1996, nr 2, s. 3–36; I. Scheurich, NS-Gedenkstätten als Orte kritischer historisch-politischer Bildung, w: B. Th imm, G. Kößler, S. Ulrich (Hrsg.), Verunsichernde Orte. Selbstverständnis und Weiterbildung in der Gedenkstättenpädagogik, Frankfurt a. M. 2010, s. 38–44.
Victoria Nesfield, Keeping Holocaust education relevant in a changing landscape: seventy years on, University of Leeds, UK, 2015.
Theodor W. Adorno, Education After Auschwitz, http://paep.ca/doc/CIYL%20-%20Theodor%20Adorno%20-%20Education%20after%20Auschwitz.pdf, (accessed on 5 May 2017)
Wincenty Okoń, Wprowadzenie do dydaktyki ogólnej, Warsaw, 1998
Wizyty edukacyjne w Państwowym Muzeum na Majdanku Poradnik dla nauczycieli, edited by: Tomasz Kranz, Lublin, 2012


1 Luiza Kończyk, Pedagogika (miejsc) pamięci, 2012, http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.desklight-1efca15a-a273-4533-aaa4-d482a723326b/c/11.pdf (accessed on 5 May 2017)

2 Grzegorz Żuk, Edukacja w miejscach pamięci – od reliktu do refleksji, [in:] Pamięć jako kategoria rzeczywistości kulturowej, red. Jan Adamowski i Marta Wójcicka, Lublin 2012, p. 237–244

3 Wincenty Okoń, Wprowadzenie do dydaktyki ogólnej, Warsaw, 1998

4 Mereike Fischer

Photo of the publication The story behind the picture

The story behind the picture

24 August 2017
  • Memory
  • 20th century history
  • borders

The "In Between?" project is about stories and history, but it is also about pictures. During each study visit, the participants scan archival documents, take hunderds of photos, and record video images in order to capture the wider context of the accounts which are shared with them. In order to emphasize this dimension of the project, each event organised in connection to the "In Between?" has a separate visual identification based on one of the pictures collected by the participants.

This time, for the seminar in Berlin in 2017, it is a photograph from the archives of Ms. Maria Gavra from the Hungarian-Romanian borderland. Here is its story:

"Regarding the picture, I can only give you an approximate date on which it was taken, but I can describe the historical context in more detail.

Firstly, the characters: on the right, with a lighter coloured hat, is my maternal grandfather, with my grandmother besides him. My grandfather's name was Radosav Mircu - born in 1907, in Bătania, to a Serbian father and a Romanian mother, having moved to Romania after the border changes - and my grandmother's: Radosav Maria - maiden name Păștean, born in Curtici, in 1910, into a Romanian family. Next to them there are their friends, Lungu Ivan - half Serbian, half Romanian - and his Romanian wife, Lungu Valeria, born in Pecica.

The picture was taken in Turnu, a village [in Romania] close to the border with Hungary, approximately one or two years after the end of the Second World War. Those were still rough times, with many shortages. Almost all the people who lived in the village were poor. The situation was the same across the border, in Hungary, but there they were lacking in salt, which one could find in Romania. However, it couldn't be transported legally across the border, so my grandfather, together with his friend Ivan, decided to start to sell salt on the black market.

There was a connection in this regard, as my grandfather, who was born and spent his childhood in Bătania (Battonya in Hungarian), knew enough people in that village, especially since he had an uncle there, Soldan Traian, with whom he had very close relations. In 1907, the year when my grandfather was born, the village Bătania (Battonya), in which many Romanians and Serbs lived, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the border changes at the end of the First World War, my grandfather moved to the neighbouring village, Turnu, which had become by then a part of Romania. While there are only 6 kilometres between Bătania and Turnu, they have been separated by the border ever since.

Smuggling was very difficult, not only due to the risk of being caught, but also because carrying the salt on one's back was physically very demanding. They had to cross the border during the night, through the fields, not on the road, and when it rained, they could barely take their feet out of the mud. In the beginning, they were joined by a brother of my grandfather, also from Turnu, but he gave up quickly when he realised how difficult it was. Even I have memories from my childhood of my uncle telling the family: "I stopped going, I didn't do anything to deserve being put through this!"

At some point, my grandfather and his friend Ivan were caught and taken to the soldiers' picket of Turnu, and then they were taken back to Arad, to prison, for a short period of time (I can't tell you exactly for how long).

This picture was taken when the two of them came back from prison and were not sure what the future held in store for them. Many times peasants would take pictures of themselves in critical moments of their lives like disease, prison, when they didn't know if they would make it."

- from an account of Ms. Maria Gavra, born in 1957 in Turnu, currently teaching Romanian Language and Culture at University of Szeged.

Collected by: Anna Alexandrov, Laura Boglárka Bóka, Ana-Maria Despoiu, Šarūnas Rinkevičius, Diana Takácsova, Gabriel Vivas
Translation: Cătălina Vrabie