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Andrzej Włusek

Soviet invasion of Poland 1939

21 August 2018
  • Stalin
  • Second World War
  • 1939
  • Hitler
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

On 17 September 1939, about 1 million troops of the Belarusian and Ukrainian Fronts of the Red Army crossed the eastern borders of Poland, thus violating the non-aggression pact of 1939. The Soviet invasion of Poland began.

On 25 July 1932, Poland and the USSR concluded a non-aggression pact in Moscow, which was meant to last until 1945. Since then, Polish foreign strategy was to lead a policy of balance, therefore not to make alliances with any of the two big powers: neither Germany, nor the USSR. The Polish foreign minister, Józef Beck, did not believe that Joseph Stalin would get politically closer to Adolf Hitler. One of his closest associates said that Beck believed that the dispute between Germany and the Soviet Union would last forever. In that situation, the Hitler-Stalin agreement of 1939 was almost completely unexpected, with the Soviet aggression of 17 September 1939 taking the Polish authorities, military and members of society by surprise. This was of such a scale that many people and soldiers were under the illusion that the Red Army was coming to their aid.

Soviet propaganda played a significant role in creating such an illusion, and it was even the more effective because the Soviet aggression occurred during a period of already significant fatigue and despair resulting from the German offensive.

The invaders continued to repeat that they came to help, and cries "Beat the Germans" were heard everywhere. The propaganda fulfilled its purpose to such an extent that in some places the Soviets were greeted with flowers and cries of joy. During the same period, Molotov summoned the Polish ambassador in Moscow and told him that "as the Republic of Poland had ceased to exist" measures had been taken to protect the residents of western Belarus and Ukraine.

In this situation, the general staff decided not to fight and instead to negotiate with the Soviets in order to reach Hungary and Romania. However, some units such as the troops of the Border Protection Corps, continued to fight. The directive was intended to minimise the number of soldiers being taken as prisoners and thus to create the possibility of remobilizing them outside the country.

Unfortunately, these attempts were largely unsuccessful. General Władyslaw Anders, commanding the Nowogrodzka Cavalry Brigade as they fought Soviet troops near the village of Władypol, on 27 September began a march towards the Hungarian border. A group of Border Protection Corp troops from the Polesie area, commanded by General Wilhelm Orlik-Rückemann, fought dozens of skirmishes and two major battles. At Szack it crushed the 52nd Rifle Division of the Red Army, and then disbanded following the battle of Wytyczno on 1 October.

Following the Soviet aggression, according to various sources between 200,000 and 250,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner; however, the number that had been killed is unknown. The Red Army suffered about 10 thousand soldiers killed, wounded or missing. This was the beginning of one of the darkest scenarios in Polish history. In September 1939, Polish prisoners began to be murdered in an action that intensified later and culminated in that most terrible of crimes in Katyn forest. The extent of the war crimes committed by the Soviets on Polish officers is estimated at over 8,000 people. There were also mass deportations of Poles, and in the years 1940-1941 about one million people were deported to Russia as part of the genocidal deportations of the Polish population.

In Brest on 22 September, Kombrig Semyon Kriwoszein and the German General Heinz Guderian watched a joint parade of German and Soviet armoured units. On 28 September, following the capture of Warsaw, Hitler and Stalin believed the campaign in Poland to be over. Both countries reached a common border, although this had to be revised due to the fact that Germany took more Polish territories than defined in the secret agreement. For this purpose, a special treaty on borders and friendship was signed, known as the second Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which the Soviet Union agreed to give Germany the eastern part of Mazovia and the Lublin province in exchange for Germany agreeing that Lithuania would be in the Soviet sphere of influence. Thus the partition of Poland was sealed as a division of spheres of influence in the Baltic countries.

By Andrzej Włusek



Jerzy Łojek: Agresja 17 września 1939 [Aggression of 17 September 1939]. Warsaw 1990

Karol Liszewski: Wojna Polsko-Sowiecka 1939 [Polish-Soviet War 1939]. London 1988

Norman Davies: God's Playground. A history of Poland. Kraków 1993


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Daria Czarnecka

August Agreements in Poland

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • August Agreements

As a result of a veritable wave of strikes which swept across the whole of Poland in August 1980, the communist authorities took the decision to begin negotiations with the opposition. Those talks resulted in the conclusion of four agreements, which came to be known as the August agreements.

The first one was signed on 30 August 1980 at 8:00 in Szczecin. Marian Jurczyk (President of Szczecin Inter-Factory Strike Committee [Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy w Szczecinie, MKS Szczecin]), Kazimierz Fischbein (Vice-President of MKS), Marian Juszczuk (MKS Szczecin), Kazimierz Barcikowski (vice-president), Andrzej Żabiński (Deputy Member of the Political Office and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party [KC PZPR]), and Janusz Brych (1st Secretary of the Voivodeship Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party [KW PZPR] in Szczecin) signed the protocol regarding the conclusions and proposals of the Szczecin Inter-Plant Strike Committee for the Governmental Committee. Forcing the authorities to make guarantees regarding economic and social matters was a huge success for the protesters. They were granted, inter alia, the right to receive full remuneration for the period that they were on strike and it was guaranteed that they would not be punished for taking part in the strike. The communist authorities did leave a backdoor here for themselves, enabling them to circumvent that provision: it was stipulated that any "political crimes committed" would be punished. Additionally, permission to erect a plaque by 17 December 1980 commemorating the victims who perished in December 1970 in Gdańsk was granted, and people dismissed from work in the 1970s for their participation in opposition activities were allowed to return to their jobs (every such instance was to be considered separately by the management and trade unions). By 1 November 1983, family allowance was to be made equal to those paid within the Polish Army and Civic Militia. Wages were to be increased for everyone by one classification level and the lowest old age pensions and disability pensions were also to be raised. The government announced that the time people needed to wait to be assigned an apartment would be shortened to five years. A modified version of the Shipyard Employee Charter [Karta Stoczniowca] was also introduced.

However, the communist authorities did not consent to the creation of free and independent trade unions. The phrases used in the arrangement did not even take the possibility of such associations being organised into account. Provisions regarding limiting censorship were also vague and the only promise made in terms of the relations between state and church concerned greater access to the media.

The second agreement was concluded on 31 August 1980 at the Gdańsk Shipyard. The document was signed by Lech Wałęsa (President of MKS Gdańsk), Andrzej Kołodziej (Vice-President of MKS Gdańsk), Bogdan Lis (Vice-President of MKS Gdańsk), and members of MKS Gdańsk: Lech Bądkowski, Wojciech Gruszewski, Andrzej Gwiazda, Stefan Izdebski, Jerzy Kwiecik, Zdzisław Kobyliński, Henryka Krzywonos, Stefan Lewandowski, Alina Pieńkowska, Józef Przybylski, Jerzy Sikorski, Lech Sobieszek, Tadeusz Stanny, Anna Walentynowicz, and Florian Wiśniewski, in the OHS room of Lenin Shipyard; representatives of the government were: Mieczysław Jagielski (Vice-President), Zbigniew Zieliński (Member of KC PZPR secretariat), Tadeusz Fiszbach (President of the Voivodeship National Council in Gdańsk [Wojewódzka Rada Narodowa w Gdańsku]), and Jerzy Kołodziejski (Voivode of Gdańsk).

It should be noted that the Gdańsk agreement was formulated in a clearer manner and was consistent with more political proposals than the one signed in Szczecin. It contained a provision regarding the creation of new, independent, and self-governing trade unions based on a founders' committee from MKS Gdańsk. Those were to be recorded outside of the register of the Central Council of Trade Unions [Centralna Rada Związków Zawodowych] and were to be granted the right to give opinions on key social and economic decisions, including the division of national income. The provision regarding refraining from prosecuting those who took part in the strike contained no additional terms and conditions. The government undertook to prepare a draft Censorship Act within 3 months and guaranteed that the Sunday Holy Mass would be radio broadcast.

Employees dismissed from work after the strikes in 1970 and 1976 were to be re-employed automatically after submitting a relevant application.

Court decisions made with regard to political cases were to be reviewed and strict observance of civic rights was to be introduced.

In exchange for all this, the newly created trade unions were not to become political parties and were to adhere closely to the rules stipulated in the Constitution of the Polish Peoples’ Republic.

On 3 September 1980, the third agreement was concluded, ending the strike at the “Manifest Lipcowy" hard coal mine in Jastrzębie Zdrój. On behalf of MKS, the protocol was signed by: Jarosław Sienkiewicz (president), Stefan Pałka and Tadeusz Jedynak (vice-presidents), Jan Jarliński, Piotr Musiał, Andrzej Winczewski, Marian Kosiński, Roman Kempiński, Mieczysław Sawicki, Kazimierz Stolarski, Ryszard Kuś, Wacław Kołodyński, Władysław Kołduński, Grzegorz Stawski; on behalf of the government: Aleksander Kopeć (vice-president), Andrzej Żabiński (Deputy Member of the Political Office and secretary of KC PZPR), Włodzimierz Lejczak (Minister of Mining), Wiesław Kiczan (Secretary of KW PZPR in Katowice), Mieczysław Glanowski (Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Mining), Zdzisław Gorczyca (1st Deputy of the Voivod of Katowice), and Jerzy Nawrocki (Chancellor of the Silesian University of Technology). The document confirmed the Gdańsk agreement and, additionally, abolished the continuous three-shift system of work used in mining. The authorities also undertook to present a resolution to the Sejm lowering the eligibility age for old age pension for miners. An important agreement was the introduction on 1 January 1981 of free Saturdays and Sundays, although the wording of the relevant provision lacked clarity and resulted in a number of conflicts at the beginning of 1981. As far as social and life-related matters are concerned, recording pneumoconioses as occupational diseases was also important.

The last of the August agreements was concluded on 11 September 1980 at the “Katowice” foundry in Dąbrowa Górnicza. It confirmed the agreements preceding it. Those documents not only improved the social and life-related situation of Poles – they also contributed to changing their mentality for good. A wall of social solidarity was erected around the people on strike and the new trade unions, thus heralding the commencement of a political transformation.

By Daria Czarnecka


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Anita Świątkowska

Outbreak of Second World War - 1 September 1939

21 August 2018
  • Second World War
  • 1939

1 September 1939 is one of the most tragic dates in all of our history. That date is recorded in history books as the beginning of a hell on earth that men created for their fellow men. Mass executions, concentration camps, exterminations of people – a vast ocean of blood, pain, and tears.

“Destroying Poland is our priority. Our goal is not to reach any specific point, we need to destroy the vital force behind the country. Even if there is to be a war in the West, the destruction of Poland is to be the first objective we set for ourselves. This decision needs to be taken at once in view of the season of the year. I will state some cause underlying the outbreak of the war for propaganda purposes. Whether it is credible or not is of no concern to us. The winner is never asked if what he said was the truth or a lie. As far as starting and fighting a war is concerned, there is no law – victory is the decisive factor. Be brutal and be without mercy.” These were the words of Adolf Hitler at a council of commanders on the day preceding the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which Poland was to be divided between the Third Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Then, without declaring war, the army of the Third Reich entered the territory of Poland.

On the first day of September, on that fateful morning / German enemies attacked Poland without any warning (…) [Dnia pierwszego września roku pamiętnego/ wróg napadł na Polskę z kraju niemieckiego (…)]. These are the words of a song dating back to the period of the German occupation. It was a favourite of street performers and it describes what happened on that day of September 1939 perfectly well.
Military activities started at dawn on 1 September 1939, the decisive assault of the German army commencing at 4:45 a.m. However, the surviving memoirs, diaries, and military reports indicate that the invasion of Poland was preceded by numerous German airstrikes targeting Polish cities. This was described by, among others, Władysław Pobóg-Malinowski, Stefan Rowecki, and Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski, the then Prime Minister, the latter mentioning an aerial attack on Ostrów Wielkopolski and Poznań at 4:15 a.m. Then, around 4:40 a.m., pilots from the 1st division of the 76th Immelman dive bomber regiment attacked Wieluń. This attack continued, with short interruptions, until 1 p.m. Civilian facilities were the main targets, and this attack was unreasonable in military terms as there were no army units in Wieluń and the strategic significance of the city was scant. This was an attack against helpless civilians and it was meant to spread panic among them. This act was made even more atrocious by the fact that a hospital was also bombed, in spite of the Red Cross symbol plainly visible on its roof.

After that, at 4:45 a.m., the Schleswig-Holstein battleship opened fire at Westerplatte. The commander of Westerplatte, a Polish Military Transit Depot, was Major Henryk Sucharski, with Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski serving as his deputy. The defenders of Westerplatte bravely fought against the German forces for seven days (they were expected to resist for no more a dozen or so hours) and the "Westerplatte still fights" message, broadcast on Polish radio, helped to boost the morale of Polish troops.

The defence of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk is another example of a heroic struggle against the invaders directly related to 1 September 1939. On that morning, the German forces attacked the postal building using artillery and machine guns, expecting to take it quickly by surprise. However, their assault was driven back by the employees with the use of machine guns and grenades, forcing the attackers to bring artillery and armoured vehicles to the building. The assailants then tried to enter the post office through a hole in the wall of an adjacent building. When this assault also failed, the building housing the post office was set on fire. Having successfully defended themselves for 14 hours, the brave defenders were eventually forced to give up.

At the beginning of the war with Poland, the Germans had 1 850 000 soldiers, 11 000 artillery pieces, 2 800 tanks, and 2 000 aircraft. Poland had half of that number of soldiers (950 000), less than half that number of artillery (4 800), a quarter the number of tanks (700), and a fifth the number of aircraft (400). The advantage the Germans had along the main lines of attack was even greater than that.

Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor of the Reich, delivered a speech to the German parliament at 10:00 a.m. on 1 September 1939. He justified the attack on Poland with alleged provocations on the part of Poles. He presented the assault as a punitive expedition, aiming to punish the wilful extravagancies of Poles against the German minority in Poland and the Reich itself, undertaken by a grand nation which would not stand being spat in the face. Hitler presented limited objectives only, striving to convince countries of the West that they should remain calm and refrain from intervening. Meanwhile, the Poles continued their forlorn defence, hoping that their allies would aid them soon, while the Polish government asked countries allied with Poland to fulfil their obligations and begin armed opposition against the invader.

The Germans planned to make their invasion of Poland a “lightning war” – they wanted to rapidly break through Polish defences, then to surround and destroy all major Polish armed forces. German troops were to carry out a concentric attack from Silesia, Eastern Prussia, and Western Pomerania, heading towards Warsaw. In their plans, the Germans assumed that their troops should reach the Narew, the Vistula, and the San rivers within a week, and that the Polish army would have been destroyed by then. Poland's military situation was made even worse by the length of the border with Germany – measuring around 1 600 kilometres after the Third Reich took over Moravia and entered Slovakia. This allowed Germany to attack Poland from the west, north, and south.

Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz was very much taken aback by the outbreak of the war. He, like the Polish authorities, was convinced that it would be possible to avoid an armed conflict with the Third Reich thanks to a military decision aimed at clearly demonstrating Polish intentions.

On 1 September 1939, Ignacy Mościcki, the President of Poland, made an address to the people of Poland in which he urged them to defend the freedom and independence of their country, to stand united, and to concentrate around the commander-in-chief and the army. In addition, Mościcki decreed that Śmigły-Rydz was to succeed him in the event that the country had no president before peace was made.

In his address to Polish soldiers, Marshal Śmigły-Rydz wrote that it was time to carry out their soldierly duties and that the existence and future of Poland were at stake. He added that, regardless of the duration of the conflict in which Poland was forced to take part, and regardless of the losses, Poland and its allies, Great Britain and France, would emerge victorious in the end. The latter two countries, as it turned out, failed to provide Poland with their support.

By Anita Świątkowska


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Daria Czarnecka

The Slovak National Uprising

21 August 2018
  • Slovak Uprising
  • 1944

The Slovak National Uprising (Slovak: Slovenské národné povstanie, abbreviated SNP) broke out on 29 August 1944 in Banská Bystrica. It was organised by Slovak resistance movement in order to stop the German occupion of Slovak territory and to overthrow the collaborationist government of Jozef Tiso.

Due to the Red Army offensive and the German troops entering the territory of Slovakia with the aim of disarming the Slovak Army, the following order was issued at 8 p.m. on 29 August, 1944, at the initiative of the Slovak National Council: Začnite s vysťahovaním (proceed with the expulsion). This was Lieutenant Colonel Ján Golian, Chief of the Ground Staff of the Slovak Army and commander of the underground Military Centre in Slovakia, giving the prearranged signal to begin the anti-Nazi uprising.

Golian, who advanced to the rank of general on 5 September, 1944, became the military commander of the uprising. He held the position until 6 October, 1944, when he was replaced by Major General Rudolf Viest, who had slipped into the country from London via the USSR. Supreme authority belonged to the Slovak National Council, which from September 1944 was headed by Professor Vavro Šrobár and Karol Šmidke. They served as co-chairs of the Slovak National Council. Banská Bystrica, seized on 30 August, 1944, was chosen to be the capital city, and it was here that the political and military headquarters were established.

The insurgents fought mainly in the eastern part of the country as well as in mountainous areas. The uprising failed to spread to the whole of Slovakia and Bratislava, with the area of hostilities being restricted to an area of approximately 20,000 km2 1.7 million people. The insurgents did not manage to join forces with the Red Army and the Czechoslovak Army Corps, which were halted at Dukla Pass. An additional factor weakening the strength of the insurgent forces was the fact that the Germans managed to disarm the core of the Slovak Army - two infantry divisions that were, according to the plan created by the insurgent leadership, intended to secure Dukla Pass, a key location necessary to establish a connection with the Soviet forces.

The Slovak forces consisted of 18,000 soldiers from partisan units and the Slovak Army, which had reached a strength of 46,000 after mobilization and which led to the creation of the 1st Czechoslovak Army. The Uprising also gained support from the USSR - the 2nd Czechoslovak Independent Airborne Brigade was deployed in the territory occupied by the insurgents, weapons were dropped by parachute, and a Czechoslovak air regiment was sent to an airport controlled by the rebel forces. The insurgents were armed with 46,000 rifles, 4,000 submachine guns, 2,700 machine guns, 200 cannons and mortars, 24 tanks, 4 assault guns, 3 improvised armoured trains, and an air regiment (34 aircraft). It is estimated that about a quarter of the soldiers were unarmed.

These poorly armed guerrilla units faced German forces consisting of about 48,000 soldiers: two Volksgrenadier divisions, the 14th and 18th Waffen-SS divisions, the 36th “Dirlewanger” Grenadier Division of the SS supported by the Slovak Hlinka Guard, the SS Jagdgruppe 232 Slowakei, as well as the Abehrgruppe 218. The disproportionate advantage in weaponry and training allowed the German troops to take Banská Bystrica on 27 October, 1944. It was here, on 30 October, 1944, that the collaborationist president Rev. Jozef Tiso celebrated a Mass in thanksgiving for the suppression of the uprising.

The last meeting of the Slovak National Council and the 1st Czechoslovak Army Staff was held in late October. It was decided that the army would transition to guerrilla warfare, and regular combat ultimately ceased on 1 November, 1944. The commanders of the uprising, the generals Golian and Viest, were taken into captivity and their subsequent fate remains unknown although there are many theories concerning the circumstances of their deaths. The majority of the Slovak Army was either captured or scattered.

The new partisan command moved into the area of the Low Tatra Mountains. In early November 1944 the headquarters of the General Staff of the insurgent forces were established at the mouth of Lomnistá Valley. The living conditions, in the face of the approaching winter, were extremely severe. German reprisals and guerrilla warfare continued until the liberation of the Slovakian territory by the Red Army and the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps.

Aside from the Slovaks, the participants of the uprising represented 27 nationalities, including 3000 Czechs, 800 Hungarians, and 250 Poles. 1,720 insurgents were killed, 3,600 wounded, 10,000 captured in regular combat, and up to 12,000 killed or recorded as missing in the course of the guerrilla warfare. The Germans suppressed the uprising at a cost of 4,200 deaths, 5,000 wounded, and 300 captured.

By Daria Czarnecka


Jašek Peter, Kinčok Branislav, Lacko Martin, Slovenskí Generáli 1939-1945, Prague 2013.

Kościelak Lech, Historia Słowacji, Wrocław 2010.

Slovenské národné povstanie 1944 súčsť európskej antifašistickej rezistencie v rokoch druhej svetovej vojny, ed. Peknik Miroslav, Bratislava 2009.

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Daria Czarnecka

Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • 1968
  • Prague Spring
  • Warsaw Pact

The liberalisation process of Czechoslovakia commenced on 5th January, 1968, when Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovakia Communist Party. Dubček was an advocate of profound social, economic and political changes – this led to the Prague Spring. However, this “socialism with a human face” soon became a threat to the ruling party.

The opposition was becoming bolder and bolder in its demands and a manifesto entitled Two Thousand Words, authored by Ludvik Vaculik, who was encouraged to write it by employees of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and signed by many prominent people from the worlds of culture and politics, was also of no little significance. In the document, disquiet with conservative communist members remaining in the party was expressed, as well as an urge for even more sweeping reforms involving active participation of the general public. Czechoslovak communists, obviously, found this distressing. Moscow also began expressing its concerns about the stability of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia more vigorously.

During a meeting of leaders of the Warsaw Pact in Dresden in March 1968, the situation was openly referred to as the “Czechoslovak counter-revolution.” The Prague Spring was spoken of in the worst terms by Walter Ulbricht and Władysław Gomułka. The latter, himself faced with student strikes, zealously voiced the concurrence of his political opinions with those of Moscow. Subsequent meetings of the “Warsaw Five” (without representatives of Czechoslovakia present) took place in May and June 1968. It was then decided that military exercises, codenamed “Szumawa,” would take place within the territory of Czechoslovakia from 18th June to 2nd July to exert pressure on the leaders of the country. Those became a prelude to the largest military operation in Europe since the end of WWII.

After operation “Szumawa” was over, the transfer of the 24th Guards Motor Rifle Division (24 Gwardyjska Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych) from the region of Lviv commenced and the division was then to be deployed in the Cieszyn, Bielsko-Biała, and Pszczyna region. The armies of Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Hungary, and Bulgaria, all gathered near the Czechoslovakia border, commenced "Cloudy Summer '68" (“Pochmurne lato 68”), a military operation which was then smoothly transformed into Operation Danube. Iwan Jakubowski, a Soviet marshal, was in charge of the entire operation, his command centre located in Legnica.
Initially, the intervening forces consisted of 250,000 soldiers and 4,200 tanks but the total number of soldiers and tanks involved in the operation eventually increased to 450,000 and 6,500 respectively. There was a Polish military contingent there as well, consisting of 24,000 officers and soldiers, 647 tanks, 566 transporters, 191 cannons and mortars, 84 anti-tank guns, 96 anti-aircraft guns, 4,798 cars, and 36 helicopters. Such great involvement of Polish forces made this the largest post-war operation of the Polish People's Army until December 1970.

Following the plans prepared for the invasion, the troops of the Warsaw Pact were divided as follows:

• Army Group North, commanded by Iwan Pawłowski (with the command centre in Legnica) was to enter Czechoslovakia from the territory of the German Democratic Republic and Poland, taking over the northern and western part of the country, paying particular attention to occupying the Karlovy Vary-Plzeň-České Budějovice triangle. The North Group consisted of the 1st and 11th Soviet Guards Tank Division (1 Gwardyjska Armia Pancerna and 11 Gwardyjska Armia Pancerna) and the Second Polish Army (2 Armia Wojska Polskiego) – created on the basis of the Silesian Military District and commanded by Florian Siwicki, brigadier general.

• Army Group South, commanded by Konstantin Prowałow, colonel general (command centre in Mátyásföld near Budapest), was to enter Czechoslovakia from Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, and Transcarpathian Ukraine, aiming to occupy Slovakia and southern and central Bohemia, including Prague. This force included the 20th and 38th Soviet Guards Army (20 Armia Gwardyjska and 38 Armia Gwardyjska), attacking from GDR, and 36th Soviet Air Army (36 Armia Lotnicza) and 8th Hungarian Motor Rifle Division (8 Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych).

The intervention was also supported by Soviet airborne forces, i.e. 7th and 103rd Guards Airborne Divisions (7 Gwardyjska Dywizja Powietrznodesantowa and 103 Gwardyjska Dywizja Powietrznodesantowa). Their tasks included the taking-over of Prague and Brno. Interestingly, certain troops of the National People's Army of GDR which were supposed to take part in the Operation and enter Czechoslovakia, i.e. 7th Dresden Panzer Division (7 Dywizja Pancerna z Drezna) and 11th Halle Motor Rifle Division (11 Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych z Halle) did not actually take part in July 1968, despite having been mobilised for it. There were only a few German officers and a group of soldiers from the 2nd Communication Troop (2 Pułk Łączności) at the command centre of the Warsaw Pact military forces.

On the night of 20th/21st August, 1968, intervention forces entered Czechoslovakia. An unsigned letter published by the Soviet press was used as a pretext for the operation. In the letter, Czechoslovak leaders asked USSR for help, also in the form of a military intervention. The letter was at first considered a fake but a copy of it received by Václav Havel in the 1990s was signed by representatives of the Stalinist faction of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Armed operations in Bohemia and Slovakia raised numerous voices of protest, the most dramatic and tragic of them being the self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec, a former soldier of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium (Stadion Dziesięciolecia) during a national harvest festival (dożynki ogólnokrajowe).

Operation Danube was a success in political and military terms. Despite social opposition and manifestations, the voice of the Prague Spring was silenced. Additionally, a contingent of Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia. The invasion resulted in 500 casualties among the Czechs and Slovaks and around 400,000 people emigrated from the country in two subsequent waves. As for military losses sustained by the Warsaw Pact: 12 soldiers were killed and 25 were wounded. Non-combat losses: 90 people killed or subsequently deceased and 62 people wounded or injured.

Daria Czarnecka


Polska a Praska Wiosna: udział Wojska Polskiego w interwencji zbrojnej w Czechosłowacji w 1968 roku. Pajórek L. Warszawa 1998.
Wokół Praskiej Wiosny. Kamiński Ł., ed. Warszawa 2004.
Praska Wiosna. Kwapis R. Toruń 2004.



This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl. Polish version available at: http://historykon.pl/inwazja-ukladu-warszawskiego-na-czechoslowacje/

Daria Czarnecka

The Warsaw Uprising – 1 August 1944

21 August 2018
  • Second World War
  • Warsaw Uprising
  • 1944

On August 1, 1944, the underground army in Warsaw was comprised of 36,500 mobilised Home Army soldiers - including about 32,500 in Warsaw and about 4,000 in suburban areas.

The beginning of “Operation Bagration” on 22 June 1944 in the territory of Belarus resulted in the quick defeat of the German Army Group “Centre”. In the summer of 1944, the 1st Belorussian Front was located near Warsaw. Based on the military situation, the Commander of the Home Army (AK) made the preliminary decision to call for an uprising in Warsaw. The operation was to be aimed militarily at the Germans and politically at the Soviet Union.

Despite conflicting opinions among the ranks, the General Headquarters made the final decision on 31 July 1944 to begin fighting in the capital by setting the “W-hour” for 5.00 p.m. on 1 August 1944. This strategic decision was affected by the threat of Warsaw being turned into a fortress, temporary abandonment of the city by the occupying civil authorities, and the call for active combat against the German forces broadcast on the evening of 29 July 1944 by Radio Moscow in the Polish language. It was also reported that the Red Army troops had liberated some locations near Warsaw: Radość, Miłosna, Okuniew, Wołomin and Radzymin.

On August 1, 1944, the underground army in Warsaw was comprised of 36,500 mobilised Home Army soldiers - including about 32,500 in Warsaw and about 4,000 in suburban areas. The reason for such low numbers was hasty mobilisation. It should also be noted that the levels of training among the AK soldiers varied widely in quality. Troops experienced in fighting the Germans, like Kedyw and other branches of the AK District, had the highest combat value.

In the first days of the Uprising, the insurgent attacks designated as part of the offensive actions were clearly a failure. Important sites that fell into the hands of Polish forces were the Prudential building, the power plant in Powiśle, German warehouses in Stawki, the court building in Leszno, the Town Hall at Theatre Square, the detention centre on Daniłowiczowska St., the Military Geographical Institute building on Jerusalem Avenue, the office of the Municipial Transport Company on Świętokrzyska St., Czechoslovak Legation on Koszykowa St., several school buildings converted into barracks as well as the railway building in Praga. Assaults on the airfield of Okęcie, railway stations and bridges were not successful. In the days following the Uprising, Wola and Ochota became the first districts to be lost, assaulted by the brigade of General Oskar Dirlewanger that was comprised of criminals and poachers and assisted by the police forces of SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth. The SS units together with the Ukrainian RONA led by Kamiński massacred civilians in the Wola district. Ochota was also not spared.

From 12 August 1944, the insurgents held the following isolated districts: Stare Miasto, Śródmieście, Czerniaków, Mokotów and Powiśle. Despite some scattered successes such as capturing the PAST building, the Uprising was actually being finished off. The situation was also influenced by the fact that the Red Army stopped its offensive operations, the Allied planes with supplies for Warsaw could not land in the zone controlled by the Soviets, and the airdrops were inaccurate. The heroism of the insurgents could neither withstand the overwhelming enemy forces nor endure shortages of supplies, especially of weapons.

In the face of the tragedy that befell fighting units and civilians, the Commander of the Home Army began mediation with the Germans. As a result of the capitulation order signed on the night of 2 October 1944, the Uprising finally came to an end. Some troops were taken into captivity (in accordance with the decisions of the Home Army they were granted veterans rights), but many soldiers integrated with the civilian population and left the city. About 10,000 Home Army soldiers were killed, in addition to 6,000 who went missing and 20,000 injured. About 15,000 Home Army soldiers were captured by the Germans. The number of casualties among the civilian population remains unknown. It is estimated that 150,000 to 200,000 civilians died during the Uprising. According to the testimony of von dem Bach-Zelewski, the German losses in Warsaw were as follows: 10,000 killed, 7,000 missing and 9,000 wounded - 26,000 soldiers in total. However, those figures are disputed by many historians. As far as material losses are concerned, the authors of the “Report of War Losses in Warsaw”, prepared in 2004, estimated the entire material losses incurred by the city and its citizens during World War II at 18.2 billion pre-war zlotys (according to the value of zloty in August 1939), i.e. USD 45.3 billion (current value).

by Daria Czarnecka

Władysław Bartoszewski, Dni walczącej stolicy [Days of the Fighting Capital] Kronika powstania warszawskiego [Chronicle of the Warsaw Uprising], Warsaw 2008.
Jan M. Ciechanowski, Powstanie Warszawskie [The Warsaw Uprising]. Zarys podłoża politycznego i dyplomatycznego [An Outline of the Political and Diplomatic Ground ], Pułtusk-Warszawa 2009.
Marek Getter, Straty ludzkie i materialne w Powstaniu Warszawskim [Casualties and Material Losses in the Warsaw Uprising], “Biuletyn IPN”. 8-9 (43-44), August – September 2004.
Raport o stratach wojennych Warszawy [Report of War Losses in Warsaw]. Warsaw, November 2004.

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Daria Czarnecka

Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact - 1 July 1991

21 August 2018
  • 1991
  • fall of communism
  • Eastern Bloc
  • Warsaw Pact
  • Treaty of Friendship

The Warsaw Pact, formally the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, was signed in Warsaw on 14 May 1955 and was meant to be a political-military alliance of countries belonging to the Eastern Bloc under the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Its legal and international legitimacy was to be the Bucharest Declaration, and the very creation of the Pact was to be a response to the so called progressive militarization of West Germany and its integration into the structure of NATO. The formal principles of the Warsaw Pact were outlined in 1955 by Nikita Krushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Pact entered into force after the presentation of the ratification documents to the Government of the Polish People's Republic by the last of the contracting parties, namely the People's Republic of Albania – this took place on 4 June 1955. The Parliament of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) ratified the Pact with the Resolution of 19 May 1955. Interestingly, it was not consistent with the Constitution of the PRL, which stated in art. 25.1.7: "The Council of the State [...] ratifies and terminates international agreements". The Warsaw Pact was intended to last for 30 years. Its validity for a subsequent 20 years was extended on 26 April 1985.

Although described as the Warsaw Pact, the organization’s headquarters were located in Moscow. This resulted in the subordination of member states’ army staff to the 10th Management of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR, which then served as Staff of the United Armed Forces. The Supreme Commander was the Marshal of the Soviet Union, who was also the First Deputy Minister of Defense of the USSR. Apart from the USSR and PRL, the following countries were members of the Pact: the People's Republic of Albania (which suspended its membership in 1960, and finally left the Pact on 12 September 1968), the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the German Democratic Republic (which existed within the military structures from 1956, and left the Pact on 25 September 1990), the Romanian People's Republic, and the Hungarian People's Republic. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia never joined the Alliance.

The military doctrine of the Warsaw Pact was purely defensive in theory. It was to be a counterweight to, and a shield against, the “imperialist threat" from NATO, in particular the United States. Until 1965, the doctrine of the Warsaw Pact was dominated by Soviet tactics providing for massive nuclear missile attacks in conjunction with rapid occupation of territory in order to prevent the enemy from warfare. The Warsaw Pact Command allowed for the possibility of advance nuclear attacks in the event of an imminent threat of attack on the territory of any of its member states.

Strategic objectives changed in the years 1966-1980. The possibility was accepted that there could be a gradual development of acts of war, starting from conventional operations, through to the limited use of nuclear weapons and the large-scale use of weapons of mass destruction. The use of nuclear weapons would only occur if they were first used by NATO troops. Consequently, there were provisions for a strategic attack on enemy territory, breaking resistance and capturing economically important areas.

Another change in the doctrine occurred in the 80's, when the concept of maintaining constant readiness to conduct various activities was developed. The Warsaw Pact army had to be ready to conduct a world war (with or without the use of nuclear weapons), and to conduct a number of local conflicts with the use of conventional weapons. Finally, the possibility of the implementation of pre-emptive nuclear attacks was excluded. However, the possibility of conducting wide-ranging defense activities was accepted.

The Warsaw Pact structures included: the Political Advisory Committee, the Committee of the Ministers of Defense, the Technical Committee, the United Command of the Armed Forces, and the United Armed Forces. The Political Advisory Committee consisted of prime ministers, foreign ministers, defense ministers and leaders of the communist parties of the signatory countries of the Agreement. Their task was to develop a set of consolidated views on issues related to the common strategy against political-military threats. The Committee of Ministers of Defense had to work out joint military procedures, training systems, exercises and military manoeuvres. The Technical Committee dealt with the modernization of weapons and equipment of the Pact forces.

The United Armed Forces consisted of quotas issued by individual countries belonging to the Warsaw Pact. The size of these quotas was fixed every five years in bilateral agreements between the Soviet Union and the Pact states. On the Polish side, there were: the 1st General Military Army and 2nd General Military Army, numbering five divisions each (these constituted the first army operations group and were used during the "Danube" Operation), the 4th General Military Army (three divisions), two reserve divisions and the 3rd Aviation Army. In total, there were 15 army divisions, including five armored divisions, which constituted the Polish Front.

During the existence of the Warsaw Pact, only one military operation, the "Danube" Operation, was executed. The military intervention known as the Prague Spring was carried out on 21 August 1968 as part of that operation. This was the fulfillment of Brezhnev doctrine. Interestingly, it was not carried out by all countries of the Pact - Romania refused to participate in the operation. 750,000 soldiers, 6,300 tanks and 800 aircraft took part in the intervention, and it is thought that about 200 people were killed.

At the end of the 80s, mirroring changes in the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact began to change. At a summit in Bucharest in 1989, it was decided that Brezhnev doctrine would be abandoned. A year later, the Member States agreed that USSR Army troops stationed on their territories should leave. An agreement to cease military cooperation within the Warsaw Pact was signed in Budapest on 25 February 1991. The political structures of the Warsaw Pact were dissolved in Prague on 1 July 1991. This was tantamount to the final dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

By Daria Czarnecka



Jerzy Kajetanowicz,Polskie wojska operacyjne w systemie bezpieczeństwa państwa w latach 1955-1975, Zeszyty Naukowe Akademii Obrony Narodowej 2008 No. 2 (Polish Army operation troops in the state security system in the years 1955-1975, Scientific Papers of the National Defense University 2008, No. 2 );

Jerzy Kajetanowicz,Polskie wojska operacyjne w Układzie Warszawskim, (Polish Army operation troops in the Warsaw Pact) Poligon 2011 No. 5.

Jerzy Kajetanowicz,Wojsko Polskie w Układzie Warszawskim 1955-1990, (The Polish Army in the Warsaw Pact 1955-1990) resources of the general military forum "Bezpieczeństwo", http://www.serwis-militarny.net/opinie/

Ryszard Kałużny,Układ Warszawski 1955-1991, Zeszyty Naukowe Wyższej Szkoły Oficerskiej Wojsk Lądowych 2008, No. 1 (The Warsaw Pact 1955-1991, Scientific Papers of the Higher Military Academy of Land Forces 2008, No. 1);

Leszek Pajórek,Polska a "Praska Wiosna", (Poland and The Prague Spring) Egros Publishing House, Warszawa 1998, p. 65;

Leszek Pietrzak,„Myśmy was wyzwolili a wy przedstawiacie nam jakieś rachunki". Krótka historia Układu Warszawskiego, ("We liberated you, and you are presenting us with the bills." A brief history of the Warsaw Pact )http://wpolityce.pl/polityka/113516-mysmy-was-wyzwolili-a-wy-przedstawiacie-nam-jakies-rachunki-krotka-historia-ukladu-warszawskiego

Journal of Laws of 1955, No. 30, item 182 and 183

Protokół sporządzony w Pradze dnia 1 lipca 1991 r. o utracie mocy Układu o przyjaźni, współpracy i pomocy wzajemnej(Dz.U. 1993 nr 61 poz. 289) Protocol drawn up in Prague on 1 July 1991 on the termination of the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (Journal of Laws of 1993, No. 61, item 289)

Oświadczenie Rządowe z dnia 25 maja 1993 r. w sprawie wejścia w życie Protokołu sporządzonego w Pradze dnia 1 lipca 1991 r.(Dz.U. 1993 nr 61 poz. 290) Government Statement of 25 May 1993 on the entry into force of the Protocol signed in Prague on 1 July 1991 (Journal of Laws of 1993, No. 61, item 290)

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Andrzej Włusek

The Poznań Uprising of June 1956

21 August 2018
  • 1956
  • communism
  • Poznan Uprising

The system of "people's democracy" imposed by the communists introduced central authority. One consequence of this was the 6-year plan, which had unfavorable consequences for Wielkopolska. After its completion, the standard of living in Wielkopolska was lower than the average level nationwide. Working conditions worsened - there were shortages in food supply, non-food convenience products and access to accommodation. The citizens of Poznań held traditional values ​​and could not ignore their "socialist reality" –this gave birth to a sense of dissatisfaction and led to protests.

The tipping point came on 27 June, with the Government’s decision to renege on promises to increase wages, return wrongly accrued payroll tax, and change the piecework payroll system that was based on inflated standards – they blamed this about-turn on the deteriorating condition of state finances. It did not take long for the effects of that decision to be seen. The next day, at 6:30 a.m., the crew of the Józef Stalin Plant (formerly the Hipolit Cegielski Plant) in Poznań decided to announce a strike and take to the streets. Alongside workers from other plants, they prepared banners with economic demands ("We demand bread", "We're hungry"), and the crowd moved towards the castle in the center of the city,  where the city’s National Council (MRN) had its headquarters.

Gradually, the demonstration, initially of an economic nature, began to escalate into a political uprising - independence, religious, anti-Communist and anti-government slogans were raised. At around 9:00 a.m., the crowd of about a hundred thousand people gathered near the buildings of the MRN and the Regional Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (KW PZPR), demanding that representatives of the authorities come out to the striking crowd. Despite attempts by the local authorities to encourage people to disperse, the protesters stayed on the spot and the slogans transmitted from a radio transmission car, which had been taken over by the strikers, became even more aggressive. They called for the overthrow of the system and for the prisons to be stormed. At around 10 a.m., a group of people broke into the government buildings and the buildings of the Citizens Militia police, where it is likely they got hold of weapons.

Spurred on by rumors about the arrest of workers, the crowd moved to Młyńska street to take the prison located there. Despite the military enforcements sent by the command of the 10th Regiment of Internal Security (KBW), the building was invaded by the demonstrators. All the prisoners were freed and the crowd got hold of more firearms. The crowd, now further encouraged, and armed, decided to occupy the building of the Provincial Office for Public Security. It was then that the shooting started. The head of the office, Lieutenant Colonel Feliks Dwojak, obtained permission to use weapons against the crowd, who were attempting to storm the building. Gunshots were fired between the security officers and a group of about 200 armed demonstrators – this lasted until the afternoon.  As a result of this fight, many people were injured. The 13 year old Roman Strzałkowski, who became a symbol of this "Black Thursday", died.

The authorities decided to introduce cadet divisions with armored vehicles to secure the key buildings. These soldiers, who did not have permission to use weapons, became an easy target for the protesters – they pelted them with bottles of petrol and commandeered two tanks. At this point, at about 1p.m., the government forces were given permission to use weapons. As a result, at about 5p.m they managed to secure the building of the Provincial Office for Public Security.

The wave of unrest spread throughout the city. Plundering of buildings, government and also private, began. Several MO police stations were plundered and disarmed. Railway stations were taken over.

In Warsaw, nobody knew what to do next. Only once reports arrived from Poznań, was a delegation with Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz sent. A substantial number of soldiers were also dispatched. At 4p.m., two armored divisions and two infantry divisions - more than 10,000 soldiers - began to enter Poznań.
The suppression of the uprising, which lasted until 30 June, was commanded by Army General and Deputy Defense Minister Stanisław Popławski.

It is thought that 73 people died in the fighting. Hundreds of participants were injured and about 700 people were arrested. Five soldiers from the Polish Army, one soldier from the KBW (Regiment of Internal Security), three officers from the UB (Security Office) and one police officer were also killed.  

The Poznań Uprising of June 1956 was the first mass occurrence of the workers rising up against the communist authorities in Poland. The events in Poznań, as well as demonstrating the strength of people's power, also announced the collapse of the idea of ​​Stalinism in Poland. For most sober-minded party activists the necessity for rapid change became evident.

By Andrzej Włusek


Jerzy Eisler, Polskie miesiące czyli Kryzys(y) w PRL, Warszawa :  IPN - KŚZpNP, 2008

Edmund Makowski, Poznański czerwiec 1956 : pierwszy bunt społeczeństwa w PRL, Poznań :  Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2001

Andrzej Leon Sowa, Historia polityczna Polski 1944-1991, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2011

Ryszard Kaczmarek, Historia Polski 1914-1989, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2010 



This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl. Polish version of the text is available at http://historykon.pl/poznanski-czerwiec-1956-roku/


Andrzej Włusek

June 1953 - workers' strike in East-Germany

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • East Germany
  • GDR
  • SED

Much has been said about the protests and demonstrations of 1956 in Poland and Hungary. But it wasn’t only in these countries that upheavals took place. Three years earlier, on 17 June 1953, a workers’ uprising broke out in the German Democratic Republic. About a million people across 700 towns took part. This date is very important for the history of freedom in Germany.


On 7 October 1949, in response to the changes in the situation in Germany, Moscow declared the sovereignty of the German Democratic Republic, which had been established in the areas of the Soviet occupation zone. Full power was given to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), and in 1950 Walter Ulbricht became the General Secretary of the SED.

In the first half of 1953, the total centralization of power in the hands of the SED, repression by the security apparatus, and errors in planning, contributed to an increase in dissatisfaction. The increase in technical standards for workers, which in fact resulted in a reduction of real wages, was a particularly acute problem. Moscow was aware of the situation.

It was recognized that the policy of the "accelerated construction of socialism", implemented in the GDR since 1952, was flawed, and the SED was advised to take measures to curb the pace of reforms and improvements. On 9 June, under pressure from Moscow, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the SED adopted a resolution on the "New Course", which concluded that there were mistakes in pushing the "construction of socialism" in relation to peasants, artisans and the intelligentsia. However, the increase in technical standards for workers was not abandoned. These decisions did not satisfy the workers. A publication of 16 June 1953 poured fuel onto the fire. The Tribune – the press organ of the regime trade unions – printed the following: “a dangerous and reactionary theory and practice harming the effective fight to raise work productivity, which proclaims that the increase in standards will entail a reduction in earnings has emerged… [This hostile notion of a reduction in earnings] must be smashed."

It did not take long for the effects of these incompetent words to be seen. On the same day, angry construction workers from the construction site on the Stalinallee architectural complex in Berlin abandoned work and moved towards the offices of trade unions in a spontaneous march. Along the way, they were joined by other construction workers. However, when they reached their destination, it turned out that the office was closed. They therefore headed towards the nearby building of the Council of Ministers. The crowd began to shout for Ulbricht or Grotewohl to appear. It took a few hours for the minister of industry to come out to the protesting crowd and assure the people that the resolution had been withdrawn. This calmed the protesters, who slowly began to disperse.
Soon, trucks with loudspeakers proclaiming the words of the latest resolution began to drive through the streets of Berlin. It was worded in such a way that it did not clearly point to the fact that the increased technical standards had been withdrawn. The demonstrators began to gather again. They managed to take control of one of the vehicles that had been driving around the city and called upon everybody to join a general strike.

On 17 June, the protest began to gain momentum. Most of the workers did not resume their work and instead marched off towards government buildings. The mood was rebellious, propaganda posters and government notice boards were destroyed along the way.
The news of the protests spread rapidly throughout the country, creating a nationwide rebellion. The situation began to get out of control. While, initially, the demands were of an economic nature, soon political and national demands, and those for freedom, gradually began to predominate. The authorities did not know what to do and seemed paralyzed by the situation.

The crowd broke into the headquarters of the Stasi, demolishing it and setting it on fire. The government buildings were captured and looted. Kiosks that promoted the regime's newspapers were set on fire. Several prisons were captured. Several alleged secret agents were caught, some were abused and a few were even killed. The movement was spontaneous and had no leaders. All its actions were uncoordinated. Despite this, the government failed to act.

Seeing that the situation was growing out of control, Moscow ordered an uncompromising suppression of the riots by Soviet troops stationed in the GDR. Tanks appeared on the streets of Berlin and other cities.

Russian soldiers used live ammunition. About 20 protesters were shot, though generally the soldiers shot only at the pavement, and not directly at people. However, this was still a dangerous tactic that caused many casualties. Some historians argue that up to 300 people died. On the side of the regime, three SED officers and 40 Soviet soldiers were killed, most of them shot for refusing to fire at people.

In the days that followed, the GDR authorities regained control over the state. The regime realized that it had no support among the people and Ulbricht began repressing the population. The movement of 17 June was officially blamed on the activities of U.S. agents.

The Berlin uprising ended in total disaster and strengthened Ulbricht's position. He capitalized on the situation and got rid of his main rivals in the party. However, Moscow’s perception of the GDR had changed definitively. The USSR ceased seeing the GDR as a source of cheap, or even free products, and as a country that paid it huge reparations in cash or in kind. To maintain that form of relationship after the uprising threatened the GDR with economic collapse.

From the beginning of 1954, the Soviet Union stopped collecting compensation. This allowed East German society to breathe out a sigh of relief. In addition, Moscow granted the GDR a loan in Western currencies, which enabled the purchase of urgently needed raw materials and goods from the West.

The uprising of 17 June was the first serious instance of an act of the people against the communist regime in the Eastern bloc. Only three years later, the Poles and Hungarians followed this example.

Andrzej Włusek


Jerzy Serczyk, Podzielone Niemcy, Adam Marszałek Publishing House, Toruń 1993
Erhard Cziomer, Zarys historii Niemiec powojennych 1945-1995, PWN Publishing House, Warszawa-Kraków 1997
Władysław Czapliński, Adam Galos, Wacław Korta, Historia Niemiec, Ossolineum Publishing House, Wrocław 2010

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl. Polish version of this article is available on http://historykon.pl/czerwiec-1953-niemieckie-powstanie-robotnicze/


Daria Czarnecka

First transport to Auschwitz Concentration Camp

21 August 2018
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Second World War
  • memory of the Holocaust
  • Auschwitz Concentration Camp

An idea of establishing a concentration camp in Auschwitz arose in late 1939 in the Office of the SS and Police headquarters in Wroclaw (der Höhere SS-und Polizeiführer Südost), which was headed by SS Gruppenführer (SS-Group Leader) Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.


Military barracks were thought to be the best place to set up the camp, as prisoners could be housed in them immediately. The chosen barracks were outside the compact built-up area of Auschwitz, which lay in the Zasole district, in the fork of the Vistula and the Sola rivers. This location would both enable the possible expansion of the camp (if necessary in the future) and ensure the isolation of prisoners, and their whereabouts, from the outside world. A convenient rail link between Auschwitz, Silesia, the General Government, Czechoslovakia and Austria was another advantage. This would ensure the swift transport of the prisoners without any significant logistical problems. In addition, the railway line did not need any reconstruction, which reduced the cost of setting up the camp.

Following an audit, SS Oberführer (SS-Senior Leader) Glücks confirmed the barracks in the Zasole district as the location of the camp, on the condition some sanitary facilities were replenished and some changes were made to its construction. Having fulfilled these conditions and settled negotiations with the Wehrmacht (the area was formally held by the army) a quarantine camp (das Quarantänelager) was intended to operate there immediately.
Finally, on 8th April 1940, Air Force General Halm agreed to lease the Auschwitz barracks to the SS and to conclude an agreement on their transfer to SS jurisdiction.

As the result of a second inspection of Auschwitz on 18th April 1940, headed by SS SS Hauptsturmführer (Chief Assault Leader) Rudolf Höss, on 27th April Himmler gave the order to establish the concentration camp in the former artillery barracks.) Höss, formerly Schutzhaftlagerführer (Protective Custody Camp Leader) in KL Sachsenhausen, was nominated as the first commander of the camp.

According to a Reichsführer SS order, the existing complex of buildings would be transformed into the camp as soon as possible. The camp was mainly constructed by prisoners brought from KL Dachau as so-called ‘external commandos’ (Aussenkommando), as well as Jews and civilian workers. They did the initial work, such as building a fence around the camp, and also renovation and construction work. Gradually the so-called ‘zone of interests’ (Interessengebiet) expanded. People living in this area were sent to work in Germany or were displaced. Most houses and outbuildings were demolished within the zone. The aim of the establishment of the Interessengebiet was to prevent prisoners from both establishing contact with the Polish civilians and from escaping.

The first prisoners in KL Auschwitz were German criminals brought from KL Sachsenhausen by Rapportführer (Report Leader) Gerhard Palitzsch. They were given numbers, from 1 to 30, and were designated ‘prisoner functionaries’ whose role would be to supervise the rest of the prisoners.

On 14th June 1940, the day recognized as the date of the establishment of the camp, the first transport of 728 prisoners arrived in KL Auschwitz from the prison in Tarnów. The prisoners received prison numbers from 31 to 758. These were mainly young people, so-called ‘Sikorski tourists’, who had been detained while trying to cross the Polish-Slovakian border. This group of ‘tourists’ had been attempting to travel via Hungary or Romania to the Polish Army, which had been reconstituted in France. Those captured by the Border Protection (Grenzschutz) became first prisoners of one of the biggest German nazi death conglomerate. As the area of the camp had not been sufficiently prepared, the group was placed in the former buildings of the tobacco monopoly company. Their time there was intended to be a so-called quarantine period for the newly settled.

On 8th June 2006 The Polish Parliament passed a resolution in which 14th June was established as the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Nazi Concentration Camps. The Parliament undertook the citizens' initiative forced for many years by the Christian Association of Auschwitz Families (Chrześcijańskie Stowarzyszenie Rodzin Oświęcimskich). The association is also the main organizer of events commemorating the first transport to Auschwitz. Every 14th of June, at the ‘Wall of Death’ in the courtyard between blocks 11 and 10 in KL Auschwitz, people lay flowers and former prisoners leave their messages to young people.
The establishment of the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Nazi Concentration Camps is also an attempt to break the stereotype of ‘the Polish camps of death’, as it also shows the multitude of nationalities that experienced the Nazi concentration camps.

Daria Czarnecka


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl.


Małgorzata Korwin-Mikke

The tragedy in Tiananmen Square

21 August 2018
  • communism
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Chinese Communist Party
  • Mao Zedong

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which towers over the huge square, has witnessed many important events of the largest and most populous country in the world.

Tiananmen Square, that is Squareof Heavenly Peace, located in the centre of Beijing, the capital city of China, is the biggest public square in the world (800x300 meters). From the Square through the Gate Supporting Heaven, Chengtianmen in Chinese, we can enter A Forbidden City, that is an Ancient Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Gate and the Square were built in 1417, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty. At first it was in a shape of a typical paifang, that is a traditional element of the Chinese architecture. It was destroyed and rebuilt couple of times, and its current form was shaped during the reign of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century and it was given name of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is famous till today.

From a terrace on the top of the Gate on October,1st 1949 Mao Zedong announced the establishment of People’s Republic of China. During celebrations of public holidays the highest representatives of authorities sit there.

At the end of 1960s the Gate was in a very poor condition. On Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s instruction, in 1969-1970 it was covered with scaffolding and disassembled in secret, and then it was rebuild with traditional techniques and materials.

Since 1949 a huge portrait of Mao Zedong has been hanging above the main entrance of the Gate. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 a portrait of him was temporarily hung instead of the portrait of Mao, whereas after Mao’s death in 1976, in token of mourning a black and white photograph of him was hung instead of the portrait. There were couple of attempts to destroy the portrait – among other things in 1989 it was poured with paint, and in 2007 there was an attempt to set it on fire.

The tradition of hanging portraits and slogans on the Gate dates back to the times earlier than rise of the People’s Republic of China. From 1925 the portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the first President of China, a founder of Kuomintang and an actual leader to death, hung above the entrance of the Gate. Next, the portrait of Chiang Kay-shek (from 1945) hung there, however in the period of the Japanese occupation of Beijing the slogan „Let us build a New Order in the Eastern Asia” was placed under the roof of the Gate.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace towering over the huge Square was a witness of many important events of this biggest and most populous country in the world.

In the times of the Empire it played a role of a connector between the Forbidden City and an outer world. From its top a sculpted phoenix was put on a rope in its beak down, imperial edicts, results of state examination were announced there and military expeditions were bid goodbye. Once a year from the left part of the Gate an imperial official carried out a review of death sentences, which poured in Beijing; in case the death sentence had been approved, it was executed instantaneously. The Emperor himself appeared on the Gate very seldom; when he happened to turn up, he was accompanied by several thousand host.

Until 1911 China, that is the Middle Kingdom, remained the Empire. But throughout the 20th century it struggled with internal fights, and increasingly weak reign of last Emperors of the Qing dynasty could not ensure peace in this country of huge space, where not only the influences of the adjacent countries like Japan and Russia but also of European countries – France and Germany clashed. When in 1908, after the Guangxu Emperor’s death and then the Cixi Empress’s death, a 2-year old Puyi was seated on the throne everything started to fall apart. In 1911 an uprising in Wuchang broke out. This triggered the Chinese revolution. In Nanjing an assembly of representatives of revolutionized provinces proclaimed the People's Republic of China and elected Sun Yat-sen a provisional President. On February 12th, 1912 an edict on dethronement of the Qing dynasty was publicized and the Republic was proclaimed. With different turbulences the Republic survived as long as till 1945.

The following years were no longer kind to China, long-term reign of Mao Zedong, the cultural revolution, the Gang of Four, all of this left its mark on the people, on the Chinese economy as well as on the culture.

In 1950-1952 in China a land reform was performed. Within the frames of the reform 47 million hectares of land was divided among 300 million of peasants, property of Japanese and German Kuomintang’s bureaucracy and of foreign companies was nationalized. The property of the Chinese bourgeoisie was not nationalized. Chinese Communist Party, which governed the country, planned a smooth transition from capitalism to socialism. Within 15-18 years they intended to carry out preliminary industrialization of the country, collectivisation of agriculture and nationalization of industry and trade, but comrade Mao was impatient and wanted to do all of this much more quickly. In 1958 he initiated a policy of accelerated transformations, also known as "the Great Leap Forward”, but both an attempt to obtain substantial increase in production of steel by melting it in small, primitive furnaces and formation of people's communes resulted in rapid deterioration of the economic situation and famine. The government continued to manually steer the huge economy, but it only led to division in the management of Chinese Communist Party. The followers of the reforms focused around Liu Shaoqi, from 1959 a leader of Chinese Communist Party, and Deng Xiaoping, a Secretary General of the Central Committee and Deputy Prime Minister, contrary to the opponents who concentrated around Mao Zedong. In 1966 Mao Zedong`s followers gained vantage, announced "the cultural revolution", and Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were removed from power. The reign in China was taken over by a small group of people focused around Mao Zedong and his nominated deputy marshal Lin Biao. The reign outside a built-up areawas taken over by the army. "The cultural revolution” disorganized the life of the country and caused massive casualties. Military clashes between Chinese and Soviet forces occurred on the Ussuri River in 1969.

After Lin Biao’s death in 1971 Prime Minister Zhou Enlai made an attempt to partially resign from the aims of "the cultural revolution", which was supported by Deng Xiaoping, who became a Deputy Prime Minister again in 1973. Their attempts faced objection of a radical faction of the party’s management. After Zhou Enlai’s death in January 1976, Hua Guofeng became Prime Minister. In April 1976 in Tiananmen Square there were first in People’s Republic of China mass people’s manifestation demanding abandonment of a policy of building communism and class struggle, put up by Mao Zedong. Deng Xiaoping was removed from power again.

After Mao Zedong’s death in September 1976 the fight in the management of Chinese Communist Party aggravated. The leaders of the radical fraction, gathered around Jiang Qing, a Mao Zedong`s widow, as well as the whole so-called Gang of Four, were removed. At Chinese Communist Party convention in 1981 people made a critical assessment of Mao Zedong’s achievements they also disproved of "the Great Leap Forward" and "the cultural revolution". Nevertheless, Chinese Communist Party management could not take the liberty of disapproving Mao totally, like it happened in the USSR after Stalin’s death. Except Mao Zedong there was nobody in China whose achievements could be referred to, therefore he remained an important ideological symbol in China. For the Chinese most of all his merits count: unification of the country after the series of civil wars and preventing China from being dependent on The Soviet Union.

In 1977 Deng Xiaoping returned to the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Vice-President of the Central Committee, the followers of departure from „the cultural revolution” gained vantage and most important positions in the country were held by Zhao Ziyang, who was in favour of the reforms, Prime Minister to 1987, and Hu Yaobang a leader and Secretary of the Central Committee ofChinese Communist Party. The cultural revolution was disapproved of, most people repressed at that time were rehabilitated, "opening to the world" was proclaimed and a socialist market economy was initiated. Family farms in the agriculture were restored, a private sector revived, special economic zones were created, and in 1979 investment of foreign capital was allowed in 14 waterside cities of China.

The internal reforms were accompanied by the reforms in foreign policy. As early at the turn of the 60s and the70s the People’s Republic of China started to gradually exit the isolation. In 1971 it took Taiwan’s place in the UN Security Council. In the 70s the contacts with the US revived and in 1979 both countries established diplomatic relations. In the 80s there occurred a normalization of relations with the USSR.

After 14 years the position of Secretary General of Chinese Communist Party was reactivated, this position was held by Hu Yaobang. A year later he was elected a leader of the Central Committee, and after liquidation of this position he was in charge of the party still as Secretary General. Very quickly he gained popularity as a follower of both the reforms and liberalization of social life. In 1986 he proposed separation of the state administration from the party’s administration. However, at the end of 1986 after the protests of students, who demanded democratisation of public life, the party’s management perceived him as the main culprit of the demonstrations. On January 16th, 1987 he was forced to resign from the function of Secretary General of Chinese Communist Party, yet he was allowed to keep a position in the Political Office of the party. Zhao Ziyang took up the position of Secretary General. Nonetheless, the inflation, the increase of costs of living and inhibition of the political reforms aroused the discontent of the society.

On April 15th, 1989 Hu Yaobang died from heart attack which he suffered a couple of days earlier during the session of the Political Office of the Party, in which the education reforms were being discussed. An official obituary presented him as a faithful and dedicated member of the Party, a prominent statesman, a political leader, etc. Despite the fact that at the time of death he was not a member of the supreme authority any more, under pressure from the public the government organized his funeral with all honours and participation of the supreme authorities of the Party. He was praised for restoration of political normality and for support of economic development after the cultural revolution. People demanded his rehabilitation, continuation of the political reforms, democratisation of the public life and cracking down with the increasing corruption. A rally of mourners was organized in the Great Hall of the People, and a line of mourners was 10 miles long. The reaction of the crowd surprised the Chinese leaders.

After the funeral crowds of people did no return home, though. In Square of Heavenly Peace there stayed tens of thousands students, and a couple of thousands of them started a hunger strike. Beijing workers supported them and after a few days the huge Square was occupied by several hundred thousand people. They demanded both further reforms and freedom of speech.

Press opinion pollof May 17th revealed that 75% inhabitants of Beijing supported the strike.

Zhao Ziyang was ready to talk to the protesters, but in the Party’s management circles an option to resolve the matter forcefully won, it was supported by most hardliners. Even Deng Xiaoping, actual leader of China, was in favour of using force. He disapproved of the protests which he found antisocialist, and referring to an example of Poland he stated that concessions led to further concessions. At that time a number of events followed: there was a fraction fight in the Party, public holidays on May 1st and May 4th, and from May 15th to May 18th Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, visited China.

On the following day after Gorbachev had left, Prime Minister, Zhao Ziyang, met the protesters in the Square, but they refused to cease the demonstrations. So, on May 20th the state of emergency was introduced in Beijing, but the attempts to disperse the students made by police and local military units failed. At night from June 3rd to June 4th 1989 a 300 thousands army brought in from the province at the authority`s behest that managed to disperse the participants of the protests with the use of tanks and fire from the machine gun. Most victims were killed in fights in Chang'an Avenue adjacent to Tiananmen Square. After the action had finished a communicate was announced that peaceable soldiers had been attacked by the students.

According to official data 241 people including the soldiers were killed, and 7000 people were injured. The Chinese Red Cross estimates the number of victims as 2600 people, and Human Rights Watch claims that approximately 30 people out of hundreds arrested at that time have still been imprisoned. Some protesters were sentenced to death.

The Chinese government disapproved of the protests as counterrevolutionary riots and banned all discussions about the events or commemorating the events. Due to shortage of information from that time from China, an exact course of events is unknown or unconfirmed, and the number of victims ranges from several hundred to several thousand. Even the participants of these events, who took part in the demonstration in Square of Heavenly Peace, were not able to tell an exact course of action of the protests due to the fact that their scale was so large. The protests did not have any shared leadership either, and different fractions of the Chinese opposition in those days own up to it, but they mainly stay now outside the reach of the Chinese jurisdiction.

In 2011 WikiLeaks revealed American telegrams, which indicated that the massacre actually did not occur in Tiananmen Square, which was also all the time denied by the Chinese, but at the Muxidi bridge, couple of kilometres westward. The assault of the army with the use of live ammunition ensued around 10.30 pm. The crowd gathered at Muxidi tried to escape toward s Tiananmen Square, but was stopped by barricades defending access to the very Square. The protesting people kept control over the Square as long as till the following morning, though.

Contradictory information reached the world, and one of most well-known pictures documenting the students’ protest was a photography taken by Jeff Widener from AP, which presented an unknown man called by the media an Unknown Rebel or a Tank Man, who on June 5th, 1989 barred way to a column of tanks returning from an action against the demonstrators. In 1990 the photographer was nominated to Pulitzer Prize for these shots.

On the next days the government carried out extensive arrests of the demonstrators and their followers, most foreign journalists were expelled and information on the course of events was strictly controlled in the national press, as the demonstrations took also place in several other Chinese cities. The police and security forces were reinforced. Officials who showed even a shadow of fondness towards the protesters were degraded or dismissed. Zhao Ziyang was substituted by Jiang Zemin. The political and economic reforms were withheld for couple of years, although Deng Xiaoping remained an actual leader.

The Chinese government revolted that the international public disapproved of the use of force towards the protesting people and it diminished both the scale of the protests and number of victims. Economic sanctions and arms embargo were imposed on China.

For a long time it was not allowed to carry out any discussions on the events or to commemorate them and attempts to organize either official or unofficial celebrations ended with repressions, and the international public received few mostly contradictory reports.

Yet a thaw within the frames of economic reforms ensued quickly. Even though Deng Xiaoping, their main advocate at the 5th Plenary of the Central Committee ofChinese Communist Party, in November 1989 resigned from all the public functions and retired, he kept a backstage influence on the state affairs. In 1992 he travelled to the south visiting Guangzhou (Canton), Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai. During his journey, in numerous speeches he approved of the conducted reforms and repeatedly exhorted to intensify both the process of marketization of the economy and the reforms. Thanks to the meetings held by Deng, at the 14th session of Chinese Communist Party in October 1992 "hardliners" were removed and new authorities were elected with Jiang Zemin in charge of them. This triggered revival and acceleration of the reforms, which within the following couple of years brought quick economic growth. China became the world`s power and it starts to take the lead away from the United States. There is a growing standard of living, hundreds and thousands of smaller and bigger companies produce millions of necessary and unnecessary goods purchased all over the world. Magnificent modern cities have been erected, thousands kilometres of roads and highways connecting biggest agglomerations called megapolis in which tens of millions of people live have been built, the longest in the world bridge over the sea which is 42 kilometres long has been erected, it connects the port city of Qingdao with an island Huangdao on the Jiaozhou Bay. Furthermore, the Chinese scientists have been lately thinking of constructing a rail link between China and the United States in the tunnel below Bering Strait, over 4 thousand kilometres in total.

A we look at China today – it seems that impossible does not exist for it.

In August 2005 Hu Jintao announced plans of Hu Yaobang’s rehabilitation, and on the 90th anniversary of his birth there were celebrations in Beijing, as well as in the Hunan province, where he had been born, and in the Jiangxi province, where he was buried.

The situation of the Chinese dissidents after 2005 has also been slowly improving. The government quietly pays compensations to the victims` families and at least a few families confirm that. A group „The Tiananmen Mothers” confirmed that before the 22nd anniversary of the events the officials of the Public Safety Office privately discussed the matter of payment of individual compensations. Victims` relatives still demand both public rehabilitation of all the people, claiming responsibility of the Chinese authorities for the events, punishing the people to blame and compensations for the whole group. Reportedly the offer to handle the matter quietly and to pay to individual families of the victims was rejected. „The Tiananmen Mothers” also want to overcome the taboo of silence on the events taking place 25 years ago.

For a long time Chinese intellectuals and dissidents have been calling on to open discussion. Among the latter there is Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was imprisoned for 20 months for participation in the demonstrations, and then he spent three years in a labour camp and house arrest.

Victims of Tiananmen are commemorated in Hong Kong, where for many years tens of thousands of people with lighted candles have been participating in evening vigil in Victoria Park.

In the previous year Xi Jinping took power in China, so the dissidents again hope for another breakthrough in the perception of events of 25 years ago. Chen Xitong, a former mayor of Beijing, who is preparing a book about those events, claims that in Beijing this tragedy could have been avoided.

As I know the Chinese customs, reluctance to reveal the truth both in historical and in present-day times, I think the tragedy which took place in June 1989 in Square of Heavenly Peace will never be completely explained.

Małgorzata Korwin-Mikke


Wikipedia: Protesty na Placu Tian’anmen

The Telegraph: Tiananmen Square protesters: where are they now?

The Telegraph: Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim

Wikipedia EN: Hu Yaobang

Wikipedia PL: Deng Xiaoping

Wikipedia: Historia Chin

Picture gallery:


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl. Polish version of this article is available here

Łukasz Nowok

Treaty of Trianon

21 August 2018
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • Treaty of Trianon
  • peace agreement

The story which lead to the the Treaty of Trianon started on June 28th, 1914 in Bosnian Sarajevo, which administratively belonged to the Austrian Empire.

On this day the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, a heir to the imperial and royal throne, was assassinated. The assassination resulted in the outbreak of World War I, in which two powerful blocs clashed: the Entente and Central Powers. Among the latter the units of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was one of two main parts of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, played a significant military role.

The war

Having achieved some success in the first year of the war, the Austro-Hungarian units were stopped at L’viv foregrounds by the outnumbering them Russian army. However, as early as in May 1915 the Hungarian units succeeded in holding back Italians in the battle ofCaporetto. Eventually, using the support of Kaiser Wilhelm`s army, the Hungarians took up all territory of Romania and part of Serbia. A problem of the Imperial and Royal army was the battle on three fronts which led to bleeding out of the army, increasing aggravation of social mood and decrease of soldiers` morale. In addition to all of that,generaltiredness of the Monarchy nations with the war and provision of supplies to the army only worsened the situation of the fighters. Additionally to all the problems of the fighting Empire there also came the independence movements once again awakened in particular parts of the Monarchy.

The disintegration of the Empire

On November 3rd, 1918, after four years of bloody battles, on behalf of all the Monarchy the Imperial Staff signed a cease-fire with representatives of the Entente. At that time Members of Parliament, who represented particular nations belonging to the Monarchy, had already been submitting declarations on disconnection from Vienna and Budapest. The following days brought proclamations of new states built on the ruins of the Imperial–Royal Empire. As early as on October 31st the royal government in Budapest announced its disconnection from Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on October 14th, the government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna had agreed to conditional capitulation proposed by President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson; the capitulation was to be signed together with capitulations of other Central Powers.

Nonetheless, that did not solve the problems of the Kingdom of Hungary, which yet before signing the cease-fire had announced the disconnection from the Viennese government. Despite the fact that the Kingdom was not to blame for declaring war, in the future peace treaty it would be treated most severely of all the defeated. In Hungary, after disconnection from the Empire, local communists provoked both an outbreak of revolution and appointment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which was the following of the model of Russia. The Allies determining a new order in Europe would not have either enemies or, all the more, communists in the Hungarian capital. With reference to the decision made by the victorious states two large operations destined to get rid of the communists from Hungary were simultaneously performed. In the first operation joint forces of the Czech Republic, Serbia, France and Romania carried out an offensive which pushed the communists to Budapest. The second action was a formation of a national army out of the Hungarian soldiers serving under the Imperial-Royal army. The last commander of Austro-Hungarian Navy and, at the same time, aide-de-camp of Emperor Franz Joseph, admiral Miklos Horthy was put in charge of the army. On November 16th, 1919 admiral Horthy entered the capital city of the Kingdom of Hungary on a white horse, at the head of the National Army. This officially put an end to the existence of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.


A government formed by Horthy faced a difficult task. On the one hand it was supposed to ensure safety and continuity of the Kingdom of Hungary, on the other hand however it was to tackle the peace treaty prepared by the winners. As early as on March, 1st 1920 National Assembly of the Kingdom of Hungary, composed mainly of the monarchists, found admiral Miklos Horthy worthy to receive the title of regent and to entrust him with all competences due to king. 131 out of 141 Members of Parliament and Senators assembled in the Parliament supported this decision. At this point a delegation to Paris to conduct peace talks was sent from the kingdom without a king. An ardent nationalist, count Albert Apponyi was in charge of it.

On June 4th 1920, in Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles the peace treaty, which officially put an end to Great War, was presented to the Hungarian delegation. From the Kingdom’s side count Apponyi was to sign it. Nonetheless, as soon as he had read the text of the treaty, he ostentatiously left the palace, thus implying that signing it was a disgracing activity. Eventually, under pressure from the Entete states representatives, at 4.32 pm the treaty was signed by a Hungarian ambassador in Paris and Minister of Health (both were members of the Kingdom’s delegation). Having signed the treaty both politicians withdrew from public life.

Not only did the treaty force the Hungarians to pay for war reparations, but it also unfairly punished them for the outbreak of war. According to the provisions the Kingdom of Hungary was supposed to waive nearly seventy per cent of its territory. Thereby only 93 thousand square kilometres out of previous 325 thousand stayed with Budapest. In addition, the number of people decreased from 21 million inhabitants to 8 million and almost 5 million Hungarians stayed outside the imposed borders. According to the treaty the Kingdom was cut by Transylvania, Slovakia, Croatia, Banat, Bačka, Trans-Carpathian Ruthenia and Burgenland. Only in Burgenland, however, in the face of a danger of people's uprising a plebiscite was carried out, by virtue of which Sopron and its surroundings came back to Hungary. Furthermore, the winners demanded from the Hungarians limitation of the army to 35 thousand soldiers and abolition of common military service. It was also forbidden to have aviation and navy, but the latter would be impossible after depriving the Hungarians of access to the sea. The amount of the existing armament factories was also limited, the Hungarians circumvent this ban, though. They significantly increased the production in the mills left to them, thanks to which as early as in mid-July they were able to send over one hundred million missiles destined for use in war with Bolsheviks to the Republic of Poland. Another provision of the treaty, which was meant to prevent Hungarians from striving for possible military development, was a ban on construction of multiple-trackrailway lines.

On June 4th, 1920 the nation plunged into mourning. Bells rung in churches, funeral services were held, newspapers appeared with black edges resembling obituaries, on that day all offices, schools and shops were closed, at 4.30 pm all public transport stopped for five minutes, flags were lowered at half-mast as a sign of mourning. The flags stayed in this position as late as till 1938, when in cooperation with The Third Reich a revision of the disgraceful treaty was performed for the first time.

The times of Horthy

Both regent Horthy governing the Kingdom, and all nation did not reconcile with the conditions imposed by the Allies. A French Minister, Georges Clemencau, assured a possibility to revise the treaty according to both an ethnographic criterion and a status of the League of Nations. The first revision took place as late as in 1938, though, when after closer connection of the Kingdom with the Third Reich within the frames of Viennese arbitrationHungary obtained the border with the Republic of Poland at the cost ofCzechoslovakia, and two years later after the second arbitration they received the northern Transylvania at the cost of Romania. After World War II within the frames of the Treaty of Paris signed in 1947 Hungary lost its territorial acquisition again.

Until now the Treaty of Trianon has been treated as a symbol of national treason. For couple of years, on June 4th at 4.32 pm bells of all churches in Budapest have rung in token of mourning.

Łukasz Nowok

Daria Czarnecka

First partially free elections in the Soviet bloc – Poland 1989

21 August 2018
  • 1989
  • Solidarity
  • fall of communism
  • Eastern Bloc
  • elections

Situation in Poland in the late 1980s.

The aggravated economic situation both in the USSR and in the states of the so-called Eastern bloc in the mid-1980s caused a wave of social unrest. In 1986 the Polish authorities tried to mitigate the situation with such actions as the announcement of an amnesty for most political prisoners. The authorities also turned a blind eye to activity of the officially illegal Tymczasowa Rada NSZZ ‘Solidarność’ (Provisional Council of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’). In1987 a so-called second stage of economic reform was propagated, though this did not protect society from price increases.

February 1st, 1988 saw the highest price increases in 6 years. This move induced strikes. On April 25th, strikes began in the city of Bydgoszcz, and other cities joined in one by one. At the beginning the strikers demanded that prices were lowered, but later they began to demand the legalization of ‘Solidarność’ (‘Solidarity’) and the reinstatement of workers dismissed for opposition activity. The strikes came as a surprise both to the communist authorities and to the opposition. The next wave of strikes broke out on August 15th in the Silesian coal mines. This prompted the government and the opposition to start talks. Their negotiations resulted in the organisation of the Round Table Talks, which lasted from February 6th to April 5th, 1989.

Preparations for the elections

As a result of the Round Table Talks, a number of decisions were taken that aimed at a gradual change of the political system and led to the first partially free elections since 1945. Among other points, the following was agreed upon: a change in electoral law; the establishment of the office of the President of the Polish People’s Republic; the abolition of the State’s Council and the creation of the Senate of the Polish People’s Republic.

The elections went down in history as ‘contractual elections’, or elections for the contract Sejm (Polish Parliament). The Round Table agreement specified that 65% of seats in the Sejm should be granted to candidates from the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR) and its allies, the Zjednoczone Stronnictwo Ludowe(United Peasant Party), Stronnictwo Demokratyczne (Democratic Party) as well as to Christian pro-government parties. Only non-party candidates could compete for the other seats. The elections to the Senate were to be completely free.

The elections to the Sejm of the Polish People’s Republic were to be general, equal, direct and confidential. Members of Parliament were to be elected from electoral registers in constituencies and from a national electoral register. A constituency covered the area of a voivodeship (or its part) and, depending on the number of inhabitants, it was to have from two to five members of Parliament. At least one seat from each constituency was to be given to a non-party candidate. Delivering a valid vote required the crossing out of names on an electoral card, with names voted for left un-crossed. Crossing out all names on the card also guaranteed the validity of a vote. The criteria for election to parliament were the receipt of  both the largest amount of votes and more than 50% of valid votes in a particular constituency. In cases where the second, 50%, requirement was not fulfilled, a second round of elections bewteen the candidates with the highest number of votes was to be held.

The electoral law concerning the Senate of the Polish People’s Republic was similar to the one for the Parliament. 100 senators were to be chosen in 49 constituencies corresponding to the areas of voivodeships. Providing a valid vote required the crossing out of names on an electoral card and leaving the chosen candidates un-crossed. Similarly to the elections for the Parliament, crossing out all names on the card also rendered a vote valid. The procedure for the selection of senators was the same as that for the selection of Members of Parliament.

Electoral campaign

Both political forces had a very serious attitude towards the elections. Both Komitet Obywatelski ‘Solidarność’ (the ‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee) and the communists wanted to win everything that could be won. The opposition’s strategy wascarefully thought-out and based on union activists and members of catholic intelligentsia dispersed in constituencies. Setting up regional units of Komitet Obywatelski ‘Solidarność’ (the ‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee) resulted in the formation of a social grassroots movement which supported ‘Solidarność’ (‘Solidarity’). The electoral campaign was very straightforward: the ‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee wanted to give the impression of a uniform and stable force, free from internal friction. The myth of ‘the Wałęsa team’ was created – and an important tactic here was the presentation of photographs of each of the candidates with Lech Wałęsa. The intention of this was to show the voters who was ‘one of them’ and who was ‘a stranger’. The next move, which was supposed to prevent a division of the electorate, was to present precisely the same number of opposition candidates as there were seats to hold. This gave ‘Solidarność’ an advantage over the divided Polish United Workers’ Party. ‘Solidarność’ organised electoral meetings attended by artists and actors. The meetings offered the participants not only political agitation, but also entertainment. Special ‘instructions’ on how to return valid votes were prepared and distributed, as most voters were accustomed to the practice of ‘voting with no crossing out’ and putting unmarked slips straight into ballot-boxes.

One problem for the campaign of the ‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee was the fact that it had limited access to mass media. The communists gave the opposition the right to only one one-hour long programme on the radio and to one half-hour long programme on TV. However, the programmes were either censored or their broadcast was suspended. Contrary to their intention, this acted more to the communist’s detriment than to the opposition’s. Newspapers played an important role for the opposition: ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, created during the campaign, became the most powerful national journal and pushed pro-regime newspapers onto the defensive.

The ‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee was not the only organisation competing in the elections - small oppositionist parties such as ‘Solidarność Walcząca’ (‘Fighting Solidarity’),Unia Polityki Realnej (Real Politics Union), Konfederacja Polski Niepodległej (Confederation for Independent Poland) and Polska Partia Socjalistyczna-Rewolucja Demokratyczna (Polish Socialist Party – Democratic Revolution) also fought for seats. These parties had not participated in the Round Table Talks, so they did not receive any access to mass media. This resulted in their marginalization.

The electoral campaign ofthe Polish United Workers’ Party worked out very poorly compared to the carefully thought-out actions of the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee. Their main focus was on the individual campaigns of particular candidates, as opposed to ‘the Wałęsa team’ campaign. The Party repeated the old pattern of party rallies in which lecturers monotonously read political clichés from sheets of paper written in a typical communist newspeak. Questions to the candidates were not permitted. The few exceptions here were the campaigns of Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Mieczysław Wilczeks, which were more dynamic and prepared in the ‘western style’.  

The communists tried to discredit the opposition through actions organized by Służba Bezpieczeństwa (the Security Service): posters were torn down, there was attempted intimidation of  opposition candidates, slanderous posters were hung - and these actions were blamed on the Komitet Obywatelski ‘Solidarność’ (the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee). At the order of Janusz Reykowski, chief of the campaign for the Polish United Workers’ Party, the propaganda was intensified in the final week before the elections.

Elections and results

The elections were held on June 4th, 1989. They were not as successful as expected. The turnout of 62,7% was disappointing, as it meant that 10 million Poles out of the 27 million authorized to vote did not go to the ballot-boxes. This resulted from the progressive social apathy and lack of belief that the elections could make any difference. Nevertheless, in terms of the results, the opposition enjoyed total success. Out of 161 seats in Parliament, the opposition held 160 in the first round, and only one candidate went to a second round. In the first round of voting for the senate, 92 candidates of the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee took seats and the remaining 8 went to a second round of elections. The total failure of the Polish United Workers’ Party was also due to the fact that members of the army and militia, andalso those in circles staffed by the party,voted for the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee. On both sides of the political barricade the result of the elections caused the same concern. Everyone was afraid of potential social unrest, or even interference from Moscow. Therefore the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee and the Polish United Workers’ Party decided to change the electoral law in order to make it possible for the Party members to be elected. This resulted in a decrease in trust of voters towardsthe‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee, especially among those who expected quick and effective changes in Poland.

In the second round of elections ‘Solidarność’ gained the remaining seats in Parliament, thus receiving 100% of all possible seats. In the Senate they took 99 out of 100 seats. Interestingly, the only candidate from the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee not to gain a seat in the Senate, Piotr Baumgart, was the only candidate not to use a photograph of himself and Lech Wałęsa in his campaign. The turnout in the second round of elections was around 25% - this was caused by a loss of interest in the further contest in the face of the success of the‘Solidarity’ Citizens’ Committee.

As a result of the contractual elections, the opposition gained a significant influence on the Polish government. Despite the election (by one vote) of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former communist leader, as President of the Polish People’s Republic, the opposition established the government, with Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the Prime Minister. The social trust in the government was significant, which gave the government the ability to conduct such difficult reforms as the Balcerowicz scheme.

By Daria Czarnecka


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl


The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

21 August 2018
  • Hungarian Revolution
  • 1956
  • Hungary

23 October marks the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, one of the key moments in 20th-century Hungarian history.

Like other countries in Central Europe, Hungary fell within the Soviet sphere of influence after the Second World War. In accordance with Moscow’s wishes and with the assistance of Soviet occupation forces, democratic institutions were abolished and replaced by a totalitarian dictatorship under general secretary Mátyás Rákosi.

The first acts of resistance in the Soviet bloc were the protests in East Germany in 1953, followed three years later by strikes and street protests in Poznań in June 1956. After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, Hungarian students were emboldened by the perceived thaw, and on 23 October organised a demonstration at the statue of Józef Bem in Budapest, in support of the striking Polish workers and the reforms of Władysław Gomułka. The demonstrators also demanded the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary, the return of a multi-party system, fresh elections, freedom of speech and of the press, and the removal of the statue of Stalin in Budapest. The crowd of demonstrators swelled in number and headed towards parliament to hear a speech given by Imre Nagy, Mátyás Rákosi's opponent. The demonstrators cut out the communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, and this flag with a hole became the symbol of the revolution.

After Nagy’s speech, a crowd of several thousand gathered at the Radio Budapest building, calling for their demands to be broadcast. The state security services then began shooting into the crowd of unarmed civilians, and an armed conflict erupted. The same day demonstrators toppled the statue of Stalin in Budapest, and the conflict soon spread to other Hungarian cities. The next day Soviet tanks appeared on the streets of Budapest, although at several points in the capital, the revolutionaries managed to halt their advance. Snipers from the security forces continued to shoot at demonstrators from rooftops along Kossuth square near the parliament building and from the Communist Party headquarters on Köztársaság square, but after several days the revolution had succeeded. Soviet military divisions withdrew from Budapest, the Hungarian government introduced a multi-party system, commenced preparations to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, announced an amnesty for political prisoners, and declared Hungary’s neutrality.

However, it was only several days before the Soviet army invaded, crushing the revolution in early November after a series of vicious street battles in Budapest. Imre Nagy and the leaders of the revolution were lured into a trap and arrested, and as a result of the invasion over two thousand lost their lives, more than ten thousand were wounded and around 150,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. As an act of revenge, several hundred revolutionaries were executed by the Soviets, and mass arrests continued for months afterwards. Public discussion about the revolution was suppressed until the fall of communism, and only in 1989 did the process of rehabilitating victims began.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution demonstrated Moscow’s resolve to retain its hold over Central Europe. At the same time the revolution was a milestone in the campaign to topple Soviet power, since along with the Prague Spring in 1968 and Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, it led to the end of communism in Europe.

23 October has been a national holiday in Hungary since 1989, and ceremonies are held throughout the country on this date to pay homage to the heroes of the struggle for freedom in 1956.


Volhynian massacre

21 August 2018
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Second World War
  • remembrance
  • Volhynian massacre

In 2013 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Volhynian massacre - anti-Polish genocidal ethnic cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists. The Volhynian massacre was one of the topics of a seminar Common Memory - fragments of presentations by Grzegorz Motyka, Piotr Tyma and Andriy Portnov below.

The massacres took place within Poland's borders as of the outbreak of WWII, and not only in Volhynia, but also in other areas with a mixed Polish-Ukrainian population, especially the Lvov, Tarnopol, and Stanisławów voivodeships (that is, in Eastern Galicia), as well as in some voivodeships bordering on Volhynia.

The time frame of these massacres was 1943−1945. The perpetrators were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists−Bandera faction (OUN-B) and its military wing, called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Their documents show that the planned extermination of the Polish population was called an “anti-Polish operation.” (http://www.volhyniamassacre.eu/). The 11 July, 1943, is regarded as the bloodiest day of the massacres,with many reports of UPA units marching from village to village, killing Polish civilians.

On 17 June 2013, the History Meeting House was the venue for the international seminar Common Memory dedicated to the Polish, Ukrainian and German perspective of dramatic events from the 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe. The event was organised by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the History Meeting House. Presented below are fragments of the panel entitled SECOND WORLD WAR – HISTORICAL REMEMBRANCE OF GERMANS, POLES AND UKRAINIANS, which placed a spotlight on the memory of the Wołyń massacre.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka (Jagiellonian University)

I will try to explain what the Second World War meant for Poles and Ukrainians and highlight some elements of remembrance of the wartime period. In reference to the overview of the conference, I would also like to discuss the problem of the Wołyń massacre.

First of all, the Second World War is an essential fragment of the national collective memory for both Poles and Ukrainians, for its historical events have shaped the current borders of both countries. Both nations have a sense that their wartime history demonstrates special significance and that they have suffered extraordinary injustice. Moreover, both countries attach major weight to their contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany – as we know, Poles cultivate the memory of the operations of Polish intelligence units, while Ukraine stresses that Ukrainians were the largest nationality group after Russians in the Red Army.

Differences begin to surface when we discuss resistance movement operations and the public attitude to war. An important element of the Polish memory is the Polish fight against two totalitarian regimes – Poland’s enemies included both Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union, spawning the cult of the Accursed Soldiers, which has been growing in recent years. From the Ukrainian perspective, the problem seems to be even more complex. Eastern parts of Ukraine continue to cherish the vivid memory of Soviet guerrillas fighting against Germans, while Western Ukraine demonstrates a sometimes apologetic attitude to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which continued its ruthless campaign against the communists after the war. Ukraine is now witnessing a fierce discussion; its main talking points include: should the country grant veteran rights to former UIA troops and did they actually fight the  Germans? To be frank, most controversies are stirred by the post-war operations of the UIA and its attitude to the communist system.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight another important issue, often confused in Poland and probably in Ukraine. Ukrainians who condemn UIA operations should not be confused with people who share the Polish view on the Wołyń massacre. Individuals who believe that the UIA was a group of fascist criminals may be also convinced that the Wołyń massacre is a chapter of history that should not be discussed.

The ethnic cleansing known as the Wołyń massacre continued from 9 February 1943 until 18 May 1945. The operation masterminded by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army took approximately 100,000 Polish lives. Polish historians agree that it was a methodical campaign demonstrating characteristic features of genocide. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest crimes against Polish people during the Second World War. Therefore, and this point has been raised by Dr Kazimierz Krajewski, it is the last crime not to be embraced by history textbooks. To identify the reasons for such omission, we should answer the following question: how can one factually and unemotionally describe the event as it unfolded? Contrary to Katyń, Auschwitz or the Warsaw Uprising, where it is easy to pinpoint the crime and the guilt of the aggressors, the Wołyń massacre saw citizens of the same country slaughtering each other. Another factor which makes penning a fair textbook description even more difficult is the fact that Ukrainians actually suffered major injustice in the Second Polish Republic.

And this is the essence of the current discussions being held by Polish historians. It is true that studies on the Wołyń massacre have only been conducted for twenty years, yet there is a consensus that a fundamental set of facts has been sufficiently defined to address the narrative of this event. The situation is different in Ukraine – the evaluation of the Wołyń massacre in  public debate is ambiguous. Some Ukrainian historians fail to negate the organised character of the campaign and merely discuss the legal qualification of acts committed by the UIA. A more common notion of the Wołyń massacre depicts it as a people’s rebellion which evolved into a Polish-Ukrainian war, with both sides of the conflict committing similar crimes. A historical Ukrainian website defines the Wołyń tragedy as ‘mutual ethnic cleansing.’ At the same time, many recent publications argue, often in a very ahistorical way, that the crime was not a methodical operation.

Undoubtedly, attempts at describing the Wołyń massacre as a certain type of social revolution in Ukraine reflect the struggle to maintain the ethos of the UIA as a heroic guerrilla movement. Obviously, this phenomenon casts a shadow on Polish-Ukrainian relations as it leaves little room for history and fully embraces mythology. Having collected key data, Poland is now witnessing the beginning of the ‘textbook process’, while in Ukraine, with minor exceptions, we are seeing attempts to expand the accountability for the Wołyń massacre, an act of desperation considering the records we have accumulated which dispel all doubts.

Piotr Tyma (the Association of Ukrainians in Poland)

I would like to present a perspective slightly different from the dominant ‘Poles-Ukrainians’ perspective which focuses on the historical remembrance of Polish citizens of Ukrainian nationality, or Ukrainians who live in the borderland between Poland and Ukraine. I will try to describe the perception of the image mentioned by Dr Grzegorz Motyka as seen by this community.

Long before the anniversary of the Wołyń massacre, our community initiated a discussion whose leitmotif was how to address the artificial periodisation, which was, by the way, introduced by the title of Dr Motyka’s book From the Wołyń Massacre to Operation Vistula (Od rzezi wołyńskiej do akcji „Wisła”), and to what extent those two events brought together reflect Polish-Ukrainian issues, especially in the context of the borderland population. In my presentation, I will capitalise not only on my own experiences but also studies published in Ukraine to prove that they fail to embrace the memory of Ukrainians from Polish borderlands despite its immense impact on the remembrance of citizens of modern Ukraine.

Recently, a novel about the life of a resident of Carpathian Ruthenia has been published in Zakarpattia. There is one scene in the book when Carpathian Sich POWs are being marched by Hungarians who have just seized the region. One of the soldiers asks his commander, a former Ukrainian Galician Army soldier: ‘What is going to happen to us? Will the Hungarians put us in front of a firing squad?’ The Commander calmly responds: ‘Not Hungarians … but they are handing us over to Poles.’ Published in the 1990s, records of the 2nd Division of the General Staff prove that these were not isolated cases or events steeped in literary confabulation. The documents I have mentioned describe the sabotage operation Crowbar whose objective was two-fold: on one hand, to destabilise Czechoslovakia and on the other, to undermine the Ukrainian influence in Zakarpattia and stifle attempts to establish the Ukrainian state. In my view, operations of Polish sabotage units in Zakarpattia and Zaolzie were no different from German sabotage operations on the eve of the Second World War (the Gleiwizt incident).

The second aspect which is present in both Ukrainian narratives and Polish remembrance, but is never analysed in the context of the root causes of the conflict, is the fact that after the collapse of the Ukrainian state in Zakarpattia, troops of the Border Protection Corps executed Galician volunteers joining the ranks of the Carpathian Sich on the newly established Polish-Hungarian border. Recent exhumations in the Verecke Pass have revealed the bodies of five hundred people shot in a single site. I have mentioned it because these developments give rise to a whole new narrative, which has also been stressed by Prof. Wolfgang Templin; a narrative which sees the source of the conflict in the events of 1928 and early 1939, and not in those of 1 September 1939.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka mentioned the mythologisation of the Ukrainian underground movement. I have an impression that a similar approach has been recently adopted in Poland in relation to the interwar period. In an article recently published on an Internet portal, Dr Lucyna Kulińska declares that the Polish state actually introduced a policy towards Ukrainians as late as in 1938. Everyone who studies the history of this period realises what sort of acts were committed by Polish troops as part of efforts to reinforce Polishness in the eastern territories of the pre-war state. It also seems to me that these elements should be objectively and factually analysed as part of reflections on the Second World War, not in the context of the Ukrainian quest for justification, but in reference to all drivers of the conflict.

I would also like to address the Ukrainian discussion about Wołyń. I have the impression that the Polish perception of its discourse is simplified. Representatives of the current government coalition are determined to put the spotlight on Polish victims – a vital element of the discussion among other numerous issues related to the complicated historical remembrance of the Ukrainians. Giving in to a certain mindset, Poles project their notions into the Ukrainian discussion which is far more diversified.

For the sake of a common discussion, we should agree that the Second World War brought suffering to a number of different communities, not only in terms of the number of victims, but also losses in material culture and the extinction of traditions. Our dialogue will always be imperfect if we fail to adopt this assumption – not only because the Ukrainian party is evading responsibility for the Wołyń massacre, but also because its Polish counterpart continues to see certain issues as taboo.

Dr Andriy Portnov (Humboldt University / Historians.in.ua)

My presentation is intentionally provocative, as I believe that contrary to diplomatic language, the language of provocation gives everyone a better insight into the essence of the problem.

There is no fundamental consensus in Ukraine on the interpretation of the Second World War, which is often overlooked in Poland. What we are dealing with is an enormous fragmentation of the memory about it, whereas the dominant discourse does not focus on the Bandera-led Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but the Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War. Shards of this memory form two-way relations, which sometimes compete or reinforce each other. There is the memory of the UIA, the memory of the Red Army, the memory of occupation (not only the German one). Narratives which are neglected in this context include the distinctive memory of the Crimean Tatars, with additional problems posed by the memory of Jews. Finally, we have the Polish theme, subordinated to other elements in the current debate, often mentioned in the wider context of the UIA and the anti-Soviet resistance movement.

Nevertheless, the two dominant narratives include the post-Soviet (or neo-Soviet) and the nationalistic one. In this context, both parties claim their rights to interpretation of the Wołyń massacre. The nationalists see it as a roadblock hindering the development of the national narrative and thwarting the prospects for dissociation from the Soviet tradition. In the neo-Soviet discourse, the theme of the UIA and the Ukrainian underground movement boils down to Wołyń and certain anti-Jewish campaigns, which distorts the social context of the theme. I am also convinced that there is no understanding in Poland for this aspect of the Ukrainian debate.

It also seems to me that the discussion about the Wołyń massacre is now only a Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. Everyone in Poland has heard about it, while few people in Ukraine are aware of the Wołyń massacre. This topic has never been discussed in countries such as Germany, France or Israel. I am convinced that it would be beneficial to have our discussion expanded and publicised on the international scene. We ought to set the Wołyń massacre in the broader context of the war in Europe, pre-war developments and erstwhile ideologies.

To describe the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian debate, I will use the metaphor of the discussion of Ivan Vyshenskyi with Piotr Skarga. Both of them may have apt remarks, yet they are using a different language. We can clearly see it on our website where the text written by the Polish historian, who apparently uses the same terms, is set in a wholy different context that the reply of the Ukrainian historian. It is not a way to conduct a bona fide dialogue as it only reinforces certain stereotypes and political threads.

Finally, I would like to present several ideas concerning the discussion dedicated to the Wołyń massacre – they may appear to be trifling and obvious, yet they are often not articulated directly in various publications and debates. First of all, the criminal nature of the anti-Polish campaign in Wołyń does not mean that the Second Polish Republic had no problems with its nationality policy. Secondly, the contextualisation of the Wołyń massacre is not a denial of this crime, although, obviously individuals who negate the slaughter try to guise their efforts as contextualisation. Thirdly, analysing the discussion itself, we should ask ourselves: are we seeking adequate analytical tools or political gains? Fourthly, the history of the UIA should not be reduced to the Wołyń massacre – just like this chapter of history should never be excluded from the annals.

Stefan Troebst

„1945” mint az európai emlékezés helye?

21 August 2018
  • Kelet-Közép-Európa
  • emlékezés helye
  • Európa
  • rok 1945
  • németek
  • Jalta
  • Oskar Halecki

Walter Benjamin híres diktuma szerint „történelmet írni […]” nem jelent mást, mint „évszámoknak arcot adni”[1]. Az évszámok nemcsak technikailag nyújtanak segítséget az értelmezésben, hanem erőteljesen absztrakt kulminálódási pontokat, átalakulásokat és töréseket is kifejeznek, és ezzel az emlékezés Pierre Nora által metaforikus értelemben meghatározott helyeinek minőségét öltik magukra. Dan Diner lipcsei történész ugyanakkor a közelmúltban arra hívta fel a figyelmet, hogy egy olyan évszám, mint 1945, egyidejűleg több, egymástól teljesen különböző, sőt egymással ellentétes lieu de mémoire-t is jelképezhet. 1945. május 8. jelentését Diner a „Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif” kulcsszavakkal írta körül, amelyek a nyugati szövetséges, a szovjet és a nem-európai perspektívát világítják meg[2].

„Reims” és „Karlshorst” természetesen Németországnak az amerikai és a szovjet főhadiszálláson celebrált feltétel nélküli megadását jelöli, míg „Sétif” egy olyan gyarmati bűntettre utal, amely során francia biztonsági erők több tízezer muzulmánt mészároltak le ugyanezen a napon.

Amit Diner az „1945. május 8-i emlékezeti ikonra” és a hozzá kapcsolódó, többszörös – nyugati, keleti és gyarmati – jelentésre nézvést a fenti példán szemléltetett, „1945”-re mint az emlékezés átfogó helyére még inkább igaz. Az 1945 nyarán Hiroshimára és Nagaszakira ledobott atombomba, valamint Japán kapitulációja például az ázsiai jelentéskomponenst szimbolizálja. Nemzeti konnotációjuk miatt az emlékezés ilyen helyei konfliktusok tárgyát és okát képezhetik a különböző nemzeti emlékezőközösségek között. Ez viszont azt jelenti, hogy „1945” talán nem is alkalmas arra, hogy egy eljövendő, páneurópai emlékezési kultúra alapjául szolgáljon. Ezt az alábbi tíz, „1945” eltérő összeurópai és nemzeti jelentésszintjét, az egyezéseket és a konfliktusokat körülíró tételben látjuk bizonyítottnak.

I. „1945” kétségkívül központi lieu de mémoire, a ma élő európaiak emlékezetének talán legfontosabb helye. Ennek ellenére, ahogy már említettük, megítélésében igen vitatott, hiszen Európa egyes részein teljesen eltérően értelmezik. Richard von Weizsäcker német köztársasági elnök 1985-ben, a második világháború végének 40. évfordulója alkalmából elhangzott beszédében a következőket mondta: „Győzelem vagy vereség, felszabadulás a jognélküliség és az idegen uralom alól, vagy átmenet egy új függőségbe, felosztás, új szövetségek, az erőviszonyok jelentős eltolódása – 1945. május 8-a olyan dátum, amelynek történelmi jelentősége meghatározó Európában”.[3]

II. „1945” eltérő értelmezéseinek feltérképezéséhez nagyban segítségünkre lehet Oskar Halecki felosztása, aki kultúr- és vallástörténeti szempontok alapján három nagyobb történelmi régiót különít el Európa területén: „Nyugat-Európát”, „Közép-Európát” és „Kelet-Európát” (további tagolásban „Közép-Európa” tovább bontható „Nyugat-Közép-Európára” és „Kelet-Közép-Európára”)[4]. Halecki hosszú távú, makrotörténelmi perspektívája ellenére ez a felosztás nem véletlen, hiszen közelebbről vizsgálva történettudományi munkásságának e része a második világháború és a kezdődő hidegháború közvetlen produktuma.

III. Az 1945-re való emlékezésben mind a mai napig meghatározó a szövetségesek, vagyis a Hitler-ellenes koalíció nézőpontja, miszerint „1945” kapcsán a lieu de mémoire „Európa felszabadítását”, „a fasizmus feletti győzelmet”, sőt a „demokrácia diadalát” jelenti. Ez az értelmezés dominál a Halecki-féle „Nyugat-Európában”, főleg Nagy-Británniában és Franciaországban (ideértve az USA-t is), csakúgy mint „Kelet-Európában”, vagyis a FÁK területén, mindenekelőtt Oroszországban.

IV. Halecki „Nyugat-Közép-Európájában”, vagyis Németországban és Ausztriában „1945” mint az emlékezés helye ambivalens képet mutat: egyrészt egy gyilkos diktatúra végét jelöli, másrészt viszont sokáig a „vereség”, az „összeomlás”, sőt a „katasztrófa”, a „megszállás”, a „győztesek igazságszolgáltatása” és a „felosztás” fogalmakkal, Németország keleti részében pedig egy új diktatúra kezdetével társult. „Május 8-a nekünk, németeknek nem ünnepnap” – mondta Richard von Weizsäcker fent említett beszédében, ám így folytatta: „és mégis […]: május 8-a a felszabadulás napja volt”.[5]

V. A Halecki-féle „Kelet-Közép-Európában”, elsősorban Lengyelországban és a három balti államban „1945” egyértelműen negatív jelentésű, mivel szinte teljesen azonos egy másik emlékhellyel, „Jaltával”. „Jalta” az angol és amerikai szövetségeseknek arra az árulására utal, amellyel ezen országokat Sztálinnak kiszolgáltatták, valamint az átmenetre az egyik diktatórikus, idegen megszálló rendszerből a másikba.

VI. 1989 korszakalkotó éve megteremtette a lehetőséget „1945” emlékezeti pluralitására, amely a politika terén heves emlékezeti konfliktusokhoz vezetett. Ez elsősorban a „Kelet-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa” közötti éles ellentétben nyilvánul meg. A balti és lengyel nézőpont szerint „1945” az egyik idegen, a nemzetiszocialista uralomból a másikba, vagyis a szovjetbe való átmenetet jelenti. Az oroszországi értelmezés viszont a „hitleri fasizmus szétveréséről”, valamint „Európa népeinek felszabadításáról” beszél, közéjük értve az észteket, litvánokat, letteket és lengyeleket is.

VII. „Kelet-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa” megkeseredett emlékezési konfliktusaival szemben szinte teljesen eltűnt az ellentét a világháború egykori ellenfelei között. Ez a szövetségesek „Nyugat-Európája” és a nemzetiszocialista „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” konszenzuális értelmezésére, miszerint „1945” a nácitlanítás, a demokratizálódás és a gazdasági csoda kezdetét jelöli, ugyanúgy érvényes, mint „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa”, vagyis az újraegyesített Németország, Ausztria és a posztszocialista társadalmak közötti egyetértésre a nemzetiszocialista támadó háború bűnös jellegét és a német megszálló és megsemmisítő politika kriminális voltát illetően.

VIII. „1945” emlékezete hasonlóképpen nagyrészt egybevág manapság „Nyugat-Közép-” és „Kelet-Közép-Európában”, vagyis egyrészt Németország és Ausztria, másrészt Lengyelország és a Cseh Köztársaság között, bár az „elüldözés” fogalma mint emlékezési hely részben felülírja „1945” emlékezési helyét, és ezzel gyengíti a „közép-európai” emlékezeti konszenzust. A „kelet-közép-európai” post hoc, vagyis propter hoc-érvelés „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” társadalmainak egyes részeiben azzal a nézettel találja szemben magát, miszerint nem létezett ilyesfajta kauzalitás. Ennek megfelelően a németek „elüldözését” sui generis, és nem a nemzetiszocialista, erőszakos kitelepítésekkel és etnikai tisztogatásokkal járó megszálló politika következményeként értelmezik.

IX. „1945” és az „elüldözés” mint emlékezési helyek egymáshoz való viszonyánál is több konfliktust rejt „1945” és a „holokauszt” kapcsolata. „Kelet-Közép-Európában” az összeurópai „holokauszt”-emlékezetet a saját „Jalta”-értelmezés konkurenciájaként, nem kívánatos figyelmeztetésként, sőt rejtett antiszemitizmus vádként fogják fel. A „holokausztot” a posztszovjet „Kelet-Európában” is valami idegen, eredendően német, a saját nemzeti és birodalmi történelemtől független jelenségként értelmezik.

X. A „holokauszt” és „1945” emlékezési helyeinek „nyugat-európai” és „nyugat-közép-európai” perspektívából való szoros összekapcsolása, valamint ennek összeurópai vonatkozású, normalizáló igénye más okból is ellenállásba ütközik „Kelet-Közép-Európában” és „Kelet-Európa” egyes részein. Mivel a szovjet diktatúra ezen országok emlékezési kultúrájában a nemzetiszocialistával egy szinten található, a nyugati holokauszt-emlékezettel egy azzal egyenrangúnak ítélt, keleti gulág-emlékezetet állítanak szembe. Ezt Németországban és az USA-ban heves tiltakozások és antiszemita vádak követték, anélkül, hogy „1945” ambivalens megítéléseinek magvát közelebbről megvizsgálták volna.

„1945” negatív észak-afrikai jelentését illetően Dan Diner kétségbe vonta, „hogy 1945. május 8. jelképének, mint nyugati indíttatású, pozitív alapítóeseménynek, háborítatlan lesz-e a jövője”[6]. Ugyanez igaz a „keleti indíttatású”, pozitív alapítóeseményként értelmezett 1945. május 8-ára is (illetve a szovjet használat szerint május 9-ére) a már említett kelet-közép-európai „Jalta”-ellentézis miatt. Csakúgy, mint ahogy „Sétif” Európán kívül megkérdőjelezi „1945”-öt mint európai emlékezeti ikont, „Jalta” is ezt teszi, csak éppen Európán belül. Ebből fakad a bevezetőben közölt gyanú, miszerint az ellentétek nyílt megvitatása, amely 1989 által „1945” emlékezési helyét illetően lehetővé vált, nemhogy folytatódni, de élesedni fog. A háború végére és a háború utáni új rend megteremtésére manapság túl ellentétes és részben túl traumatikus az emlékezet ahhoz, hogy „1945” egy európai emlékezési kultúra alapjául szolgálhatna.


Stefan Troebst professzor - A Közép-Kelet Európa Humán Történeti és Irodalmi Központjának (GWZO) igazgatója és a Lipcsei Egyetem Közép-Európai Kulturális Stúdiójának professzora. Számos alapítvány tagja és elnöke. Az Európai Emlékezet és Szolidaritás Hálózat Tudományos Tanácsának tagja.


[1]Walter Benjamin: Das Passagen-Werk. Rolf Tiedemann (Hg.). Bd. 1. Frankfurt am Main, 1983. 595. o.

[2]Dan Diner: Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif: Die multiple Bedeutung des 8. Mai 1945. In: Frei, Norbert (Hg.): Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts? Göttingen, 2007. 190-195. o.

[3]Richard von Weizsäcker: Der 8. Mai 1945. Ansprache bei einer Gedenkstunde im Plenarsaal des Deutschen Bundestages am 8. Mai 1985 (A beszéd teljes szövege megtalálható a http://www.bundespraesident.de honlapon.)

[4]Oskar Halecki: The Limits and Divisions of European History. London, New York, NY, 1950. (németül: Europa. Grenzen und Gliederungen seiner Geschichte. Darmstadt, 1957.; Reprint 1963.)

[5]Richard von Weizsäcker: Der 8. Mai 1945. (vö. fent)

[6]Dan Diner: Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif. 194. (vö. fent)

Stefan Troebst

„1945“ als europäischer Erinnerungsort?

21 August 2018
  • Európa
  • rok 1945
  • Deutsche
  • Erinnerungsort
  • Gedächtnis
  • Ostmitteleuropa
  • Jalta
  • Oskar Halecki

Walter Benjamins berühmtem Diktum zufolge heißt „Geschichte schreiben […], Jahreszahlen ihre Physiognomie geben“1. Daten dieser Art sind dabei nicht nur mnemotechnische Interpretationshilfen, sondern stellen vor allem hochabstrakte Zuspitzungen, Umwälzungen und Brüche dar. Insofern können sie also durchaus die Qualität dessen gewinnen, was Pierre Nora als Erinnerungsort im metaphorischen Sinne definiert hat.

Der Leipziger Historiker Dan Diner hat indes unlängst darauf hingewiesen, dass eine Jahreszahl wie „1945“ für ganz unterschiedliche, ja gegensätzliche lieux de mémoire stehen kann, und hat die multiple Bedeutung des 8. Mai 1945 anhand der drei Chiffren „Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif“ aus westalliierter, sowjetischer und außereuropäischer Perspektive exemplifiziert2.

„Reims“ und „Karlshorst“ stehen dabei natürlich für die beiden Zeremonien der bedingungslosen Kapitulation Deutschlands in den Hauptquartieren der US-amerikanischen bzw. sowjetischen Streitkräfte, wohingegen „Sétif“ ein Kolonialverbrechen am selben Tag meint, ein Massaker an mehreren zehntausend Muslimen durch französische Sicherheitskräfte in Algerien.

Was Diner auf die „Gedächtnisikone 8. Mai 1945“ und ihre multiple westliche, östliche und koloniale Bedeutung zugespitzt hat, gilt für den übergreifenden Erinnerungsort „1945“ in noch größerem Umfang. Die Atombomben auf Hiroshima und Nagasaki sowie die Kapitulation Japans im Sommer 1945 etwa stehen für dessen asiatische Komponente. Erinnerungsorte der genannten Art sind national konnotiert – mit der Folge, dass sie Gegenstand, gar Auslöser von Konflikten zwischen nationalen Erinnerungskollektiven werden können. Dies aber bedeutet, dass „1945“ möglicherweise nicht als Fundament einer künftigen paneuropäischen Erinnerungskultur taugt. Warum dem so ist, soll im Folgenden mittels zehn Thesen zu den verschiedenen gesamteuropäischen und nationalen Bedeutungs-, Konsens- und Konfliktebenen des Erinnerungsortes „1945“ belegt werden.

I. „1945“ ist unzweifelhaft ein zentraler europäischer lieu de mémoire, wenn nicht gar der Erinnerungsort der heute lebenden Europäer. Er ist dabei, wie gesagt, höchst umstritten, da er in den verschiedenen Teilen Europas gänzlich unterschiedlich interpretiert wird. Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker hat 1985 in seiner bekannten Rede zum 40. Jahrestag des Kriegsendes festgehalten: „Sieg oder Niederlage, Befreiung von Unrecht und Fremdherrschaft oder Übertragung zu neuer Abhängigkeit, Teilung, neue Bündnisse, gewaltige Machtverschiebungen – der 8. Mai 1945 ist ein Datum von entscheidender historischer Bedeutung in Europa“3.

II. Als überaus hilfreich bei der Kartierung der divergierenden Interpretation von „1945“ erweist sich Oskar Haleckis nach kultur- und religionsgeschichtlichen Kriterien vorgenommene Einteilung Europas in drei große Geschichtsregionen – „Westeuropa“, „Mitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“ (bei weiterer Untergliederung Mitteleuropas in „Westmitteleuropa“ und „Ostmitteleuropa“)4. Dies ist ungeachtet Haleckis makrohistorischer Langzeitperspektive insofern kein Zufall, als sich dieser Teil seines geschichtswissenschaftlichen Œuvres bei näherer Betrachtung als unmittelbares Produkt von Zweitem Weltkrieg und beginnendem Kalten Krieg herausstellt.

III. Noch immer prägend für die Erinnerung an 1945 ist die „alliierte“ bzw. transatlantische Komponente, also diejenige der Mächte der Anti-Hitler-Koalition, derzufolge der lieu de mémoire „1945“ für eine „Befreiung Europas“, für den „Sieg über den Hitlerfaschismus“, gar für den „Triumph der Demokratie“ steht. Diese Interpretation ist dominierend im Haleckischen „Westeuropa“, also vor allem in Großbritannien und Frankreich (einschließlich der USA), wie in „Osteuropa“, das heißt im GUS-Bereich, hier primär in der post-sowjetischen Russländischen Föderation.

IV. In Haleckis „Westmitteleuropa“, also in Deutschland und Österreich, weist der Erinnerungsort „1945“ ambivalenten Charakter auf: Er steht für das Ende einer mörderischen Diktatur, aber zugleich lange Zeit auch für „Niederlage“, „Zusammenbruch“, gar „Katastrophe“, für „Besatzung“, „Siegerjustiz“ und „Teilung“, im Ostteil Deutschlands überdies für den Beginn einer neuerlichen Diktatur. „Der 8. Mai ist für uns Deutsche kein Tag zum Feiern“, so Richard von Weizsäcker in seiner besagten Rede zum 8. Mai 1985, „[u]nd dennoch […] gilt: Der 8. Mai war ein Tag der Befreiung“5.

V. Im Haleckischen „Ostmitteleuropa“, hier vor allem in Polen und in den drei baltischen Staaten, ist die Chiffre „1945“ eindeutig negativ besetzt, da nahezu identisch mit einem anderen Erinnerungsort, nämlich mit „Jalta“. „Jalta“ steht dabei für den Verrat durch die eigenen anglo-amerikanischen Verbündeten mittels Auslieferung an Stalin und für den lückenlosen Übergang von einem diktatorischen und fremdethnischen Besatzungsregime zu einem anderen.

VI. Die durch das Epochenjahr 1989 möglich gewordene Erinnerungspluralität von „1945“ hat im politischen Raum die Form heftiger Gedächtniskonflikte angenommen. Dies gilt primär für den diesbezüglichen schroffen Gegensatz zwischen „Ostmitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“. Aus baltisch-polnischer Sicht steht „1945“ für den Übergang von der einen, nationalsozialistischen Fremdherrschaft zur nächsten, nämlich der sowjetischen, in russländischer Perspektive hingegen für die „Zerschlagung des Hitlerfaschismus“ und die „Befreiung der Völker Europas“ – einschließlich der Esten, Letten, Litauer und Polen.

VII. In einer gegenläufigen Entwicklung zu den erbitterten erinnerungskulturellen Konflikten zwischen „Ostmittel-“ und „Osteuropa“ ist der Gegensatz zwischen den ehemaligen Weltkriegsgegnern nahezu geschwunden. Dies gilt sowohl für die mittlerweile konsensuale Interpretation von „1945“ zwischen dem „Westeuropa“ der Alliierten und dem nationalsozialistischen „Westmitteleuropa“ – als Beginn von Entnazifizierung, Demokratisierung und Wirtschaftswunder – als auch für die interpretatorische Übereinstimmung zwischen „Westmitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“, also zwischen dem wiedervereinigten Deutschland samt Österreich und den postsowjetischen Gesellschaften, bezüglich des verbrecherischen Charakters des nationalsozialistischen Angriffskriegs und der kriminellen deutschen Besatzungs- und Vernichtungspolitik.

VIII. Gleichfalls weitgehend konsensual ist mittlerweile die Erinnerung an „1945“ in „Westmittel-“ und „Ostmitteleuropa“, also zwischen Deutschland und Österreich auf der einen und Polen und der Tschechischen Republik auf der anderen Seite. Allerdings wird der Erinnerungsort „1945“ von demjenigen der „Vertreibung“ partiell überlagert und damit der „mitteleuropäische“ Erinnerungskonsens geschwächt. Der „ostmitteleuropäischen“ Post hoc, ergo propter hoc-Argumentation steht in Teilen der Gesellschaften „Westmitteleuropas“ die Ansicht gegenüber, eine solche Kausalität sei nicht gegeben. Entsprechend wird die „Vertreibung“ der Deutschen als Verbrechen sui generis, nicht als Konsequenz nationalsozialistischer Besatzungspolitik samt ihrer Komponenten Zwangsumsiedlung und Ausrottung gedeutet.

IX. Noch konfliktträchtiger als das Verhältnis der beiden lieux de mémoire „1945“ und „Vertreibung“ ist dasjenige von „1945“ und „Holocaust“: In „Ostmitteleuropa“ wird das Postulat einer gesamteuropäischen Holocaust-Erinnerung als unmittelbare Konkurrenz zur eigenen „Jalta“-Interpretation, als unerwünschte Ermahnung, gar als unterschwelliger Antisemitismusvorwurf aufgefasst. Und auch im postsowjetischen „Osteuropa“ gilt „Holocaust“ als fremdes, da genuin deutsches, entsprechend mit den eigenen National- und Imperialgeschichten unverbundenes Erinnerungsphänomen.

X. Die aus „westeuropäischer“ wie „westmitteleuropäischer“ Perspektive enge Verknüpfung der Erinnerungsorte „Holocaust“ und „1945“ samt gesamteuropäisch-normierendem Anspruch stößt in „Ostmitteleuropa“ sowie partiell in „Osteuropa“ aber auch noch aus einem anderen Grund auf Widerspruch: Die sowjetkommunistische Diktatur wird hier erinnerungskulturell mit der nationalsozialistischen auf eine hierarchische Stufe gestellt, entsprechend dem westlichen Holocaust-Gedächtnis eine als gleichwertig apostrophierte östliche GULag-Erinnerung entgegengesetzt. Dies wiederum hat etwa in Deutschland und den USA heftigen Protest samt Antisemitismusvorwürfen ausgelöst, ohne dass die Kernfrage nach den Ambivalenzen des Erinnerungsorts „1945“ thematisiert würde.

Mit Bezug auf die negative nordafrikanische Prägung des Erinnerungsorts „1945“ hat Dan Diner es als zweifelhaft eingestuft, „ob dem Signum des 8. Mai 1945 als positives Gründungsereignis westlicher Prägung eine unbehelligte Zukunft beschert sein wird“6. Dasselbe gilt für den 8. (bzw. gemäß sowjetischem Brauch 9.) Mai 1945 als positives Gründungsereignis „östlicher Prägung“ aufgrund der genannten ostmitteleuropäischen „Jalta“-Antithese. So wie „Sétif“ die europäische Gedenkikone „1945“ in außereuropäischer Perspektive in Frage stellt, so tut dies „Jalta“ aus einer binneneuropäischen Sicht. Daher die eingangs geäußerte Vermutung, dass die durch das Epochenjahr 1989 möglich gewordene offene Austragung der Kontroversen um den zentralen europäischen Erinnerungsort „1945“ nicht nur weiterhin anhalten, sondern an Schärfe zunehmen wird. Die Erinnerung an das Kriegsende und an die Errichtung der Nachkriegsordnung ist derzeit bei weitem zu gegensätzlich – und auch partiell zu traumatisch –, um als Fundament einer europäischen Erinnerungskultur dienen zu können.

1 Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk. Hrsg. v. Rolf Tiedemann. Bd. 1, Frankfurt/M. 1983, S. 595.

Deanna Wooley

“We Have Something to Celebrate!”: Forging a Community of Memory for the “Velvet Revolution”

21 August 2018
  • 1989
  • freedom express
  • Czech Republic
  • Czechia
  • remembrance
  • Velvet Revolution

This study investigates the trop of ambivalence in the historical memory of the “Velvet Revolution” and its legacy in the Czech Republic. As a way of “thinking about the past”, ambivalence emerged after 1989 as a mnemonic attitude through which citizens defined their relationship to the current democratic state, as well as to its foundation moment. Rather than assume that ambivalence indicates the absence of memory, however, this article examines how groups have positively appropriated the trope in constructing new traditions of remembering, in which the “Velvet Revolution’s” meaning and legacy remains unresolved and therefore a site of continuous engagement with the past.

On The Trail of Memory: In Search of the Legacy of 1989

The twentieth anniversary of state socialism’s demise offered scholars of East European memory politics what had been, in the 1990s at least, a rare opportunity: to observe the commemorative habits and rituals of the reclusive anamnesis annus mirabilis - otherwise known as the historical memory of the “year of miracles”, 1989. While a felicitous metaphor, the annus mirabilis perhaps doomed this symbolic moment to a permanent identity crisis. If past experience shapes the present contours of our historical understanding, then the memory of 1989 appears locked in a state of perpetual shadow, haunted by the intuition of a glorious past that it is neither able nor, in some cases, willing to overcome. As far as foundation myths go, ambivalence appears to have become part of the legacy of 1989.

That ambivalence has become a familiar trope, and that this attitude is often viewed with concern, can be seen in this interview with noted British historian Timothy Garton Ash for RFE/RL in Prague. Addressing the eventfulness of 1989, Ash noted that while the basic “facts” of those years are more are less known, we are still unable to synthesize them into a universal meaning and message, and this has implications beyond academia: “...the memory of 1989 is divided, ambivalent, and weak. It's divided between East and West. It's ambivalent even in Central and Eastern European countries, you see that here. And it's quite weak among the young generation. And if you don't know where you're coming from and what it was like before, you've got a problem.” (Ash, 2009)

The following analysis explores the coupling of the trope of “ambivalence” with the diagnosis of “problem” in constructing meaning out of history. It focuses on the “memory community” (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994) of young people who actively participated in 1989 and students who came of age afterwards. “Memory communities” are bound together by personal experience and common understandings of history. Transmission of historical meanings from one generation to the next can indicate moments where first-hand experience coalesces into a durable framework for representing and remembering that past to those without first-hand knowledge of the event. In this case, Czech and Slovak[1] university students played a crucial role in catalyzing the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia after November 17, 1989, when police brutality galvanized them to organize a nationwide student strike. The feeling of ownership towards the revolution’s legacy was particularly strong in student circles afterwards. Therefore, students and young people provide an ideal case study for investigating how ambivalence works not just to constrain, but also to enable possibilities for remembering.

The purpose of this article is not describe how specific historical narratives articulate, represent or challenge particular aspects of the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution”, nor will the analysis provide an comprehensive overview of public opinion on the various interpretations of history in the Czech public sphere.[2] Instead, the present study proposes to investigate the trope of ambivalence as a mnemonic attitude, focusing on memory practices that some Czechs have determined appropriate for the commemoration of the end of state socialism in their country. Rather than concentrating on the content of the “Velvet Revolution’s” narrative, therefore, the article looks at the forms under which Czechs feel its story can be (re)told and its legacy can be authentically appropriated. Starting with the twentieth anniversary, the article traces moments of engagement with the legacy of 1989 back to the revolutionary months themselves, in order to illuminate one facet of the culture of commemorating 1989: the construction of ambivalent distance in order to authentically engage the past.

In other words, could the persistent fears about a deficient memory of 1989 be in fact an appropriate way of engaging the past? As James Young asked regarding German preoccupation with commemorating the fascist era, “it may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution.” (Young, 1993, 21) While this comparison at first may seem suspect – how can we say that the glorious overthrow of communism compares with the shameful history of fascism? – I argue that, although for different reasons, in both cases the construction of meaningfulness was complicated by succeeding events. In the case of the legacy of 1989, I argue that ambivalence stems not only from disillusionment with the post-communist present, but also from the politicization of the past under communism, which had problematized the naïve construction of “foundation myths” of brave new beginnings and heroic origins. This impacted the possibilities for meaningful engagement with the past in the 1990s, and some of the tropes emerging at this time, in particular ambivalence, appeared in the succeeding decade as common themes for articulating the legacy of 1989.

My discussion draws upon Henri Vogt’s concept of societal ambivalence, which he observed as a partly generational phenomenon for coping with the collapse of communism. (Vogt, 2006, 103-139) Ambivalence can be broadly understood as the situation where two mutually incompatible states or ideas are equally desirable and thus held in a state of tension, without collapsing or assimilating one into the other. Unlike psychological ambivalence, which is located in individual pathology, Vogt’s notion of societal ambivalence highlights the co-existence of different times, spaces, and norms during periods of rapid social transition. It is precisely the notion of perpetual tension and the awareness of distance (between experience and reality, between the ideal and its realization) that opens up new windows of understanding how individuals in particular memory communities ascribe meaning and purpose to remembering the events of 1989.

How can we separate out this discursive construction of the narrative of ambivalence from the actual work of social remembering? It is necessary to note that the moments of ambivalence discussed here do not paint a total picture of the commemorative practices of the “Velvet Revolution”, or even of the main anniversary commemorating the events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia, November 17. Rather, they are moments in which memory acted as a “changeable script”, not recreating the past as a whole but providing a flexible template through which individuals and groups could engage historical memory. (Sturken, 1992, 17) If the trope of ambivalence was being realized in the actual commemoration and remembering, how did it get there, and more importantly how is this narrative embedded within an evolving “tradition” of commemoration whereby the memory of “1989” as event is being transmitted through time?

We Have Something To Celebrate!: Commemorating 1989’s Twentieth Birthday

Foundation myths recount a political community’s beginning: as the key stories by which a state or nation explains its origins to itself, these narratives of mythic collective birth allow individuals to inscribe their own pasts into the “official” memory of the current government. (See Gillis, 1994; Bucur and Wingfield, 2001) Of course, different groups often offer competing interpretations of the past, and determining which stories are told often results in contestation, not just over the past’s meaning, but whether its legacy is being properly realized in the present. In the Czech Republic, November 17 is the “official” anniversary commemorating the “Velvet Revolution” (in 2000 it became an official state holiday, the “Day of the Fight for Freedom and Democracy”).[3] In response to the perceived lack of official enthusiasm over the twentieth anniversary, however, civic organizations mobilized (continuing a trend started at the tenth anniversary, discussed below) to make sure that the date was appropriately remembered. At Prague’s Charles University, a group of students organized the group Inventura demokracie (Democracy Inventory) to not only celebrate “with fireworks” but to critically reflect on the day as a living symbol of freedom and democracy to which everyone must contribute.[4] Their founding manifesto begins with the following declaration:

“Our democracy is celebrating its twentieth birthday. For some time massive street celebrations have been prepared – and they will probably take place as usual: on the podiums will sparkle the pop starts of the past forty years, the politicians will thank themselves for how well they navigated the (jagged) rocks of emerging democracy, and the majority of the nation will extend their weekend and disappear somewhere.

As long as it remains this way, there will be a missed chance for this November anniversary. The twenty year jubilee is simultaneously an excellent opportunity: not only for the usual look back, but for a straightforward inventory of our democracy.

Our democracy has existed twenty years. Even after twenty years, we continuously make excuses, saying that we are [still] somehow at the beginning, that our democracy is still not yet mature. In this way we explain lots of abuses, almost everything. Only that the slow development is not the main problem. Our democracy in fact may not ever develop or strengthen. The events of the past year are but a sign of the decline. It is high time to take care of our democracy.” (Inventura demokracie, 2009)

To that end, the students organized not only commemorative events but also political events, organizing debates over topics such as “coming to terms with the communist past”, governmental transparency and education, including arranging meetings with local politicians to discuss public issues. Their anniversary program culminated with a second petition, “Give us a present for our twentieth birthday”, in which they called upon Czech politicians to redress four major legislative deficiencies. Although the petition’s demands ultimately went unsatisfied, Inventura demokracie continues to operate as a student lobby group on governmental issues.[5]

Another group established out of anxiety over the anniversary was Opona (Curtain), an independent civic organization created by Czech artists with the sole purpose of publicly commemorating the anniversary. According to one organizer, the idea emerged when they realized that no official program was being prepared for the twentieth anniversary, and they were afraid that public apathy would leave the day neglected. The centrality of legitimating the anniversary’s value to their commemorative program appears directly in the name: “20 years after the Iron Curtain Fell - We Have Something to Celebrate!”- in order to show that Czechs took to the streets for ideals, not just for refrigerators[6]. The celebration included symbolically toppling a wall in front of the National Theater. (Ceska Televize, 2009; Opona, 2009)

A speech by Opona co-founder Marek Vocel stated that Czechs do have something to celebrate, despite the many suggestions to the contrary. Rejecting the idea that a deficient present democracy negated the value of the past, Vocel argued that the freedom they had gained twenty years before was not, as they had “naively” believed, the same thing as happiness, and he called upon his fellow citizens to proactively overcome their disillusionment with politics and participate in strengthening democracy: “Today we can’t expect another revolution. We don’t want one, we have the regime that we longed for (po kterem jsme touzili). From many different mouths we hear the truthful saying that we have the kind of democracy we deserve. Let’s all of us go now each in their own personal way and with a sense of responsibly collectively create our society in such a way that we feel the least ashamed of it.” (Vocel, 2009)

Groups such as Inventura demokracie and Opona were only among the most visible of the private civic organizations that took it upon themselves to orchestrate the twentieth anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”. While tens of thousands of Czechs took to the streets in unofficial commemorations, the Czech state came under fire by reporters for “forgetting” to plan its own birthday celebration. (Stat zapomnel na oslavy, 2009) The Czech government was the only state in the former Eastern Bloc not to host any major official commemoration on its own in 2009, with the government limiting itself to a few state-centered events. In the article “The state has forgotten to commemorate November 17th”, an official from the Office of the President denied that a lack of “grandiose” celebrations implied official disengagement. Explaining the Czech state’s minimal participation, which differed greatly from the lavish spectacle put on by the Germans at the Berlin Wall, he said, “Our tradition is different. It’s more civilized, kmornejsi (intimate, closed-quarters) and can also be more immediate.” (Stat zapomnel na oslavy, 2009) Both former president Vaclav Havel and then-president Vaclav Klaus explained their aversion to pompous ceremonies was a matter of preference: they wanted to be “among the people.” Local authorities had varying degrees of input into celebrations, but even here the “tradition” of state deference to public initiatives emerges: for example, the Prague municipal government declined to organize its own events, and instead provided the funding for the dozens of private initiatives who independently organized the conferences, concerts, demonstrations, street theater, and other events around the capital.

According to President Klaus, he preferred to commemorate the day “among the people and with the people”. Considering Klaus’ reception at the main monument to the “Velvet Revolution”- a plaque commemorating the site where state police brutally dispersed a student-led demonstration on November 17, 1989 - located on National Street (the Narodni trida monument), one questions the wisdom of this “intimate and immediate” tradition for Czech politicians. As he lit candles at the monument the crowds reacted some with heckling and abuse, including “Klaus isn’t our president” and flying the European Union flag (Klaus was infamous for his antagonism to the regional organization). Police had to step in to calm down the situation. (Stat zapomnel oslavy, 2009) Klaus, however, reacted to the verbal sparring with equanimity: “I expected worse”, he said. Stating later that this was “natural” in democracies, he concluded that the anniversary was “a great success” in that “people can shout at the President or the Mayor without Police attacking them. It is a victory that not everyone appreciates.” (Mach, 2010)

A final moment of ambivalence in the representation of the “Velvet Revolution” in 2009 concerned the construction of a new memorial by Czech artist Jiri David, who worked with mobile service provider Vodafone to collect over 85,000 keys in October and November 2009 from Czech citizens (in exchange for free texting services). Jingling keys had symbolized the merry revolution on the streets, as demonstrators had used them to signal to the communists “it was time to go home”. Unveiled in March 2010, David had constructed the “key sculpture” (klicova socha) out of the thousands of donated keys, fastening them to iron mesh shape that vertically spelled out the word “revoluce” (with the “R” letter the largest, slowly dwindling down to a small letter “E”). According to the website (and the authors’ own viewing of the sculpture), the letters of the word “revolution” are constructed from different fonts, each of which represents a particular style of writing from a communist-era item or commodity (for example the R was shaped in the style of newspapers like Rude parvo, the E from communist-era toilet paper; etc. (www.klicovasocha.cz) Describing his reasons for making the statue, David connects the statue’s shape to “ambivalence” and the dwindling hopes for the revolution: “The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) represents a personal polemic on development within the Czech Republic in the last 20 years. Of course, it’s neither a celebratory monument nor simply a critical piece. The sculpture expresses the ambivalence I feel when I look at present-day society and politics...” (Ptacek, 2010) Whether expressly and aesthetically articulated (as in David) or as a subtext (Inventura demokracie’s tension with the current regime or Opona’s argument that there is cause for celebration), and in the state’s (apparently willing) aloofness in commemorating a key official holiday, these moments of collective remembrance share a common theme. Namely, they share the self-conscious distancing of collective or social remembering from “official” commemorations or narratives in order to preserve an “authentic” commemorative agenda. This commonality allows us to set aside the question of representation and contestation for the moment and problematize the social construction of memory itself. Not only is the memory of a particular past “constructed”, but it carries a normative value implicit in its social usage: to assert that someone must remember something is to imply that the very act of remembering has value beyond utilitarian recall. The concept of anamnesis was advanced by both Plato and Aristotle to characterize the “effort of memory”, the search for an object that is feared lost, emphasizing the struggle against forgetting rather than the spontaneous act of recall. In explaining Aristotle’s use of the term, Paul Ricouer writes that anamnesis implies intentionality in the act, as well as the possibility of failure. (Ricoeur, 2004, 17-19) This intentionality of memory underpins the legitimizing “why” used by advocates to commemorate: their arguments invoke not just the meaning of that history but its existential significance for those asked to remember - what Gil Eyal calls a “will to memory” (Eyal, 2004) Remembering is stimulated by awareness of a past that can only be known through its being absent from the present. That is at the essence of remembrance and contrasts this action to forgetting - the effort to remember is the conscious struggle against a perceived potential loss of the past - we can only forget what we remember to once have known. (Ricoeur, 2004, 30) The trope of ambivalence is made visible here as part of the overall mnemonic code, not just as a state of remembrance but as the prompt to remembrance itself.

This brings us back to the connection between ambivalence and individual and public memory of the Velvet Revolution. The will to remember demands the appropriate vehicle for remembering. Declaring that 1989 was forgotten or neglected presupposes some standard of measure as to what an appropriate or adequate remembering the “Velvet Revolution” was supposed to do. Advocates for or against commemoration argued their case not just over the meaning of the day itself, but on the basis of the assumed surplus value of remembrance for those who participated (e.g., a closer relationship to democracy). The twentieth anniversary represents a particularly fruitful nexus of narrative and mnemonic practices, because it showcases the encoding of narrative tropes as they are transmitted from the lived experience of the immediate transition to post-communism, to the received experience of life in a post-communist state.

Therefore the ambivalence that appears in such diverse forums as the sculptor David’s collaboration with Vodafone and the invocation to commemorate by students and artists alike can be seen not just as a societal phenomenon, but as constituting part of the cultural formations of collective memory. That this desire spanned generations and social groups indicates a broad base, and here I argue that in part it is the artifact of the post-communist experience. Sociologists have long described the emergence of ambivalence as a cultural formation of the postcommunist era (see Misztal, 1996; Bauman, 1994; Sztompka, 2010) The ambivalence of post-communist culture has been linked with remembering in particular by anthropologist Svetlana Boym in her discussion of nostalgia in post-communist states. (Boym, 2001) Boym’s discussion of nostalgia describes the “affective community” created by sharing a common fantasy: that of a “home that no longer exists or has never existed.” (Boym, 2001, xiii) Breaking down the idea of nostalgia etymologically, Boym distinguishes between restorative nostalgia, which focuses on the nostos, the home (including national mythologies, nostalgic returns to “Golden Ages” and a desire to escape from the present into a utopian past) and reflective nostalgia, which revels in the algia, the longing and displacement that is necessary to maintain the love affair with a place and time that has no real spatial or temporal coordinates anymore. Reflective nostalgia refuses any eternal truths or “Golden Eras”, and remains stubbornly ambivalent, multi-valenced, looking not backwards but sideways, privileging “unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.” (Boym, 2001, xvi) “Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt”. (Boym, 2001, xviii)

Marek Vocel’s speech for Opona suggests the reflective nostalgia was at work at the twentieth anniversary. The Czechs gathered to affirm that they had something to celebrate acknowledged that they had “the state that we longed for”, the purpose of commemoration was not a return to the past: rather, it was the refusal to put the past to rest, calling for continuous civic participation as necessary to maintain the democracy they wanted, or forestalling the final homecoming indefinitely (or as long as problems with Czech democracy are perceived to exist). While disillusionment with the present certainly fuels ambivalence towards the legacy of 1989[7], this analysis suggests that ambivalence in the commemoration of the events of 1989 has another side, one in which distance has preserved intimacy and critical engagement. Perhaps we have been looking for a restorative memory of 1989 while ignoring the significantly reflective nature of the Czechs’ commemorative practices.

Ambivalence both for and against Monumentality

As with all memory, it is those who create it that shape it, but in order to shape it the activists must draw upon mutually-understood cultural meanings and codes. We proceed along the lines of James Young’s description of “collected memories”, the public manifestation of mutually interpenetrating practices of memory built upon shared, but often divergent, experiences. (Young, 1993, 280) The focus brings into relief the work of memory activists, in the case of 1989 in Czechoslovakia includes especially students, whose collective identification with November 17 and the beginning of the revolution is multi-valenced and intimate. This focus not only narrows the discussion from the unwieldy universal “collective memory”, or public memory, encompassing the entire state structure, entire society, or an entire social group within society - concentrate instead on tracing specific patterns and instances of memory transmission amongst groups with shared perspectives within broader patterns of memory-making. Unlike under state socialism, democratic regimes don’t have one narrative; post-modern, post-national public memory is inherently contested. (Gillis, 1996, 16-20)

There are still frameworks that condition the form and content of memory being passed down, as collective memory is produced through shared reservoirs of cultural meaning that set parameters for when remembering is considered correct and appropriate. Remembering must be considered “authentic”. Collective memory cannot simply appear out of thin air; how we remember is as much part of the labor to faithfully render past experience as what we remember. In order to be considered genuine, collective memories must retain some sense of fidelity to an experience or narrative of the past; and the trope of ambivalence, as is argued here, has emerged in the past two decades as central components to public efforts to authentically come to terms with the end of communism. Here, poetics and performativity help engage the subtle contradictions and interstices of meaning that characterize the historical consciousness of the events of 1989, which in turn shape the contours of the broader symbolic meaning within collected memories. As Iwona Irwin Zarecka explains, the “reality of the past” being reconstructed occurs through the organized effort of memory work designed to “give presence to the previously absent or silenced past.” By self-consciously and intentionally appropriating the tasks of public remembering, memory activists “through explicit editorials and unabashed creations of new symbolic resources… expose the presence of social and political control over memory to the public at large. In that sense, their importance goes beyond the immediate results at hand, as memory projects reclaim more than a past, they reclaim the power to define it.” (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994, 133)

Rather than considering narratives as articulations of the past, the analysis of ambivalence leads us to investigate the politics of appropriate commemoration. “How” to most authentically remember 1989, as will be seen, constituted just as important an issue for Czechs seeking to remember 1989 as “what” should be remembered. Commemorations emphasize the process of constructing the past, not just in relation to present concerns but also to previous cultural understandings of the politics of memory. The level of attention to public remembrance has become a standard barometer for measuring the importance of the revolution in Czech collective memory; among other things it was the paucity of organized remembrance during the 1990s, reaching a low point at the end of the decade when the anniversary was marked by only few routine commemorative acts.

Creating commemorative space for the “Velvet Revolution” was problematic in part because of the communist appropriation and over-politicization of historical memory. State anniversaries and official holidays have traditionally played key roles in mediating between official and vernacular memory; the official calendar creates a temporal landscape of memory which symbolically institutionalizes the state’s visions of the past and shared identity. Official representations of the past transmit the dominant values and shared identity through national memory. However, as Katherine Verdery argues, the Party’s ideological project politicized the connection to the past across the board. The politics of memory under communism thus engaged personal memory in the public sphere through a particularly polarized division of official and unofficial or collective memory. (Verdery, 1999) Rejecting the specific formulation of official/unofficial spheres of remembrance thus opened up space for constructing new “traditions” of public memory that envisioned this relationship along new ideological principles. During the period in which the mnemonic code of the “Velvet Revolution” was formed, the early period of post-communism, the commemorative code of national remembering had been delegitimized, and the monumentality of the communist era was rejected in favor of smaller, privatized commemorations.

Anti-monumentality, in contrast the monumentality of communism, was small, human in scale, and made no attempt to freeze time in space. The monument at Narodni trida was constructed in 1990 as a perfect example of the mnemonic will towards anti-monumentality (protipominkove): built in 1990, the small, unassuming plaque contained just bronze reliefs of the hands (representing the unarmed students on the street who were beaten by police) and the date. As Hojda and Pokorny point out, it was only the “unmelodramatic (nepateticke) and humble manner of commemoration” that allowed the installation of the memorial without any major debate. (Hojda and Pokorny, 1996, 230-231) The human scale of commemorations became an enduring feature of collectively remembering the “Velvet Revolution”.

“The Nation Has Arisen”: Heroic Public Memory during the Revolutionary Events

Creating a “usable past” for 1989 meant navigating not only the experiences but also the previous use of history for the purposes of state legitimacy, and “official” history in the post-communist period found itself at a particular disadvantage vis-a-vis “vernacular” due to highly politicized nature of collective memory under communism. This was not problematic at the first month anniversary, however. The narrative of impending victory and success resonated with popular celebrations, in particular through “happenings”[8]. Young people in particular had used happenings, or impromptu street theater, in the latter half of the 1980s to challenge the regime’s stranglehold on the public sphere, and the practices were integrated into the peaceful uprisings in late 1989. Happenings as memory practices here mirrored the values of the revolution itself, as seen at the first month anniversary. One of the most common banner slogans of the period, “Narod zavel, bude to Havel” (The nation has awoken - it will be Havel) reflected the heroic narrative of a nation rising up to reclaim its destiny that remained the dominant motif of the commemorations. Other happenings were more informal and invoked a number of themes, including Czechoslovak nationalism as well as a public sense of ownership for the revolution. Civic Forum artists at Prague’s Manes galerie hosted the “Drakiada”, setting loose red, white and blue kites on Letna plain “in honor of November 17, which will undoubtedly become one of the nations’ svatky (anniversaries)”. (Vytvarnici, 1989) In Plzen, students unveiled their “message” to the people of Czechoslovakia, flying kites (draci) from the tower of the Church of St. Bartholomew with the national colors and the peaceful message “Be good to one another”. They encircled the town and let off 250 colored balloons that carried the banner “Narod zavel, bude to Havel”. (V nedeli, 1989)

The motif of bringing people out onto the streets manifested itself in several forms, playing in particular on the themes of tolerance and understanding. Perhaps the most obvious example of using the first month anniversary to create a new historical record can be seen in Prague, where students organized a memorial march of their journey from the month before, making their way from Albertov to Narodni trida (National Street) to Wenceslas Square. Participants in remembering the “last straw” that the nation couldn’t take - stopped at Narodni trida where they sang hymns in remembrance of the students hurt there - the end of the procession was a demonstration at Wenceslas Square. (Stepanek, 1989, 1) The procession followed the same track only this time, unlike on November 17, 1989, the demonstrators made it to their desired destination, Wenceslas Square, where the atmosphere was completely different from one month before. On Narodni trida people had already converged and were laying candles and flowers at spots where the demonstrators were beaten.

This unambiguously – and unashamedly - heroic narrative did not outlast the first few post-revolutionary months. The crisis of representation emerged in autumn 1990 through public debates about how to commemorate as well as what to commemorate. Debates over commemoration were embedded in competing interpretations of the revolutionary mandate. But the trope of ambivalence extended beyond discussion of what had actually happened; it also enveloped how to best remember what happened. There was also significant discussion as to the most appropriate way to commemorate the revolution, in particular a distinct ambivalence towards official commemorations by the state’s use the anniversary in order to further the revolution’s goals.

Beyond the “Great November Velvet Revolution”: Ambivalence and Liminality at the First Anniversary

In his study of young people in post-communist states during the 1990s, Henri Vogt found two types of ambivalence that characterized their experiences after communism: post-revolutionary ambivalence, in which the old and the new systems co-existed side by side, and post-modern ambivalence, in which uncertainty became sedimented as a permanent feature of life. (Vogt, 2005, 104-105) For the early commemorations of November 17, the concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit (non-synchronicity), the different paces of change coinciding during the early period of transition.[9] Applying this concept to early commemorations of November 17 unveils interesting parameters to mnemonic practices. The question of ownership here seems to be less who owns the story of the past - the narrative of memory - but who owns the right to remembering? The reaction of the Czech public to the first anniversary of November 17th reflects this ambivalence.

Part of defining the event of 1989 was defining the language within which it would be described; this necessitated a discursive subverting of communist language in which to remember 1989. One of the groups in society best-authorized to bear the revolution’s memory were students. Their collective memory was tied to the events of 1989 through their mobilization especially during November and December 1989, in particular their direct connection to the foundation event of the police crackdown which in the narrative of 1989 acts as the beginning. The desire to safeguard November 17 from being commercialized or tainted by communist commemoration was also implored by those who held no such irony towards it. Take for example this student criticizing normalization-era pop star Michal David’s song “Sametovy listopad”. In addition to commercializing the 1989 events, the student says,

“We have been hearing this poetic adjective - velvet - practically everywhere recently. From the poem the misappropriated word penetrates our ears without us realizing its meaning. It is becoming common, so common that it loses its power. It has lost so much strength that songwriter Michal David, and not a poet, reaches for it as if for an ordinary word. Let’s preserve it. Let’s think of something new, or better yet let’s stop speaking altogether on the great things of the past and begin to think about the great things of the future, so that thanks to our linguistic ability we don’t create out of VRSR a VLSR (Velká listopadová sametová revoluce), Great November Velvet Revolution.” (Matula, 1990, 3)

The communist system’s own revolution had worked to ideologically transform reality by separating the referent from the referred, so that peace meant war, assistance meant invasion - it was part of the ideological reality that had been created during totalitarianism. In addition to naming, a particular commemorative vocabulary associated with the Great October Socialist Revolution (in Czech Velka rijnova socialisticka revoluce, or VRSR) had been disseminated throughout all East European satellite societies through commemorations, education, speeches, etc. The association of November 17 and 1989 with a discredited idea of Bolshevik-style revolution in the grand European tradition - which the Bolsheviks had appropriated and transposed to their Eastern European satellites – was in itself problematic. In other words, to treat the cultural imaginary of “1989” as a foundation event in the traditional sense of the word meant in effect to besmirch it. In order to create a viable collective and public memory of 1989, one that could be commemorated in a separate way from the previous regime, an entirely new vocabulary had to be created, and this would not be an easy task.

These various trends converged at the first anniversary. A number of student groups also came out with calls not to celebrate November 17 in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, culminating the in petition Vyzva ke spoluobcanum III. The Student Parliament announced that it would not celebrate a "Great November Velvet Revolution" and left it up to individual university faculties to arrange their tribute. The petition called upon citizens not to celebrate November 17 because the revolution had been stolen - reform had not gone far or quickly enough and communists remained in prominent positions of power. This was no time to congratulate the nation, it was time for a renewed emphasis on pushing forth the revolution. (Vyroci bez oslav, 1990; Zadne oslavy, 1990; Wooley, 2007)

At the first anniversary, Civic Forum didn’t even release a proclamation for the anniversary of November 17 itself; instead choosing to release a proclamation for the first anniversary of its founding on November 19. Instead of reflecting the clean break with the past argument that had been adopted by others, the proclamation adopts the Havelian line that the line of totalitarianism runs through everyone in explaining why the transformation would be harder than expected. It states that “We don’t want to make a legend out of November. What is important is the spirit that bound us together back then. Let’s not lose it!” (Civic Forum, 1990) Moreover, calls for “apolitical” commemoration were part of November 17th’s mnemonic repertoire from the beginning. After receiving considerable support for their decision not to commemorate the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”, some student leaders relented and decided that the anniversary indeed warranted a commemoration, but one that was specifically "dignified" (důstojný), not “celebrations with flags and fireworks.”. (Martin Mejstrik…, 1990, 7) The students met with government leaders and persuaded them to hold a public ceremony on Wenceslas Square to guarantee that the anniversary would not be "politically abused", in the words of student journalist and leader Pavel Zacek. (Zacek, 1990, 6) According to student leader Martin Mejstrik, who had earlier explained that this symbolic location had picked because one year earlier it had been a place of solidarity and toleration, the first anniversary’s public meeting - or mass demonstration, rather - would counteract the increasingly poisonous atmosphere in the country referred to in the students’ petition “through a collective expression of interest in the radical progress of reform, in the genuine cleansing of society!" (Studenti dekuji, 1990, 7)

It is worth considering exactly what apolitical means in this context, as on November 17, 1990, Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel and American President George Bush presided over the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The several hundred thousand people who had convened at Wenceslas Square that cold Saturday afternoon were treated to a number of challenges to the official narrative. Anarchists delayed the ceremony half an hour by blocking the passage of the presidents to the speakers' podium. These conflicts paint early political challenges to the official appropriation of the Velvet Revolution by Civic Forum, one that the Republicans would continue to exploit in narrative form through various claims to a stolen revolution. In the middle of George Bush's speech, right-wing supporters of Miroslav Sládek's Republican party shouted "Down with the totality of Civic forum!" and "Mr. Bush, do you know that you are supporting the communists? (Neomaleny protest, 1990, 2)

Havel first responds to the trope of public disillusionment with defensive statements such as his response to the Vyzva ke spoluobcanum III, in which he said that despite the widespread feelings of disappointment, most people were ignoring the things that had been done, such as negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops. (Havel, 1990, 4) Havel’s unwillingness to identify with the disappointment with the results of 1989 at the first anniversary can also be seen in his speech to Wenceslas Square that day, when he reinterprets the students’ proclamation as mainly a call for “meditation of each of us. Yes, let’s today think each one of us about ourselves. Let’s try to think calmly about our public life, with a broad view and in the light of our own consciousness. Let’s try each of us to look into ourselves and from a wider, so-called human perspective let’s try to realize, what kind of view our often too provincially numbskull actions have in the eyes of the world!” Onlookers such as Vladimir Schoedlebauer were unimpressed with Havel’s overly abstract language, although he did enjoy the U.S. President’s speech, especially when George Bush left the “Aquarium” that had been built for him to walk amongst the spectators. (Schoedlebauer, 1990, 2)

The first anniversary of 1989 is immersed in the politics of coming to terms with the past, lustration and dealing with communist property and personnel, and securing a viable political and economic program for the future. The question of keeping the anniversary “apolitical” was difficult to uphold. The first year anniversary is also the first major conflict during the commemoration that challenges the interpretation being put forth during the ceremony itself. Although in rhetoric there had been battles between radicals and gradualists, students and Civic Forum, etc. throughout, with the petition, the proclamation that challenged the “official” interpretation being held by the government (which itself was being challenged within the government), it was two groups representing extremes in society - the Republicans and the anarchists, who actively disrupted the ceremony. This pattern of conflict during the revolution would continue throughout the first years of the revolution as a large amount of political turmoil kept the anniversary a symbolic point of protest, but at the first anniversary the unofficial narratives in the anniversary held great sway.

Ambivalence Encoded in the Commemorative Narrative

When discussing early commemorations of November 17, what is striking is not so much the conflicts over interpretations of meaning and content - which do exist - but the consistent effort by many to delay the final interpretation until the time is more ripe. A great deal changes in the contemporary political and social context between the one-month and one-year anniversary in 1989 and 1990, and discourse concerning the public memory of the revolution reflects both these changing immediate priorities as well as a shift in attitude towards its mnemonic function. The problematizing of memory reached a critical point at the first anniversary, which set a standard debate that would occupy commemorations of November 17 throughout the 1990s: how to commemorate the event properly, which included a set of arguments that the anniversary should not be commemorated at all, with the inference that the revolution itself was not finished and thus the time to begin memorializing - or historicizing - the memory had not yet occurred. Arguments for or against commemoration played out in a transforming discursive plane. One main forum in which this played out being newspaper discussions about whether or not to commemorate the anniversary. At this time newspapers were experiencing an enormous upsurge in readership, and the focus on popular attitudes towards the anniversary is notable. One of the most widespread themes was that there was nothing to celebrate.[10] The day November 17 was seen as a time of symbolic reckoning about how far the Czechs had come in the last year, and one of the most widespread tropes in this discussion is disillusionment and disappointment that the promises of the revolution had not been kept. Many times this supposed “disillusionment” is projected onto others and used as an argument for a change in the contemporary situation, as seen below in the response to the student petition. This is a way of commenting on the social condition by projecting one’s own beliefs about the state of the world onto an “other” that is meant to represent the general society. The theme of disillusionment is also posited as the “inevitable” outcome of revolutionary euphoria, as here: “It is almost a year since the domestic communists shook hands across a half a century with the German fascists and had unarmed students beaten. A year which has gone by so quickly, that has been so incredible, that maybe only with the passage of time will we manage to separate out everything correctly, to evaluate and judge. After the November and December euphoria there necessarily had to come disappointment (rozcarovani), dissatisfaction (nespokojenost) with the slowness of change, intolerance and disillusion.” (Sevcik. 1990, 1)

Sevcik’s discussion of the disillusionment with post-communist change highlights the link between post-communist disillusionment and ambivalence towards the legacy of 1989. But the trope of ambivalence emerges in other ways, too, such as Mirka Spacilova’s anecdote about her friend “Josef”, who she states is meant to be an everyman from the street, the tram, a fellow classmate. Josef was born on November 18 and after last year he considers himself lucky to have escaped his father’s fate. Josef Sr. was born on May 1 (International Worker’s Day) and was never was able to come to terms with his own birthday because other people were always reading into it meanings it didn’t have - if he wanted to celebrate in a pub with friends, for example, other pub-goers thought the group was there for May 1, and that they were therefore either true believers or else provocateurs about to subvert the proletariat’s anniversary. Josef Jr. always felt sorry for those born on November 17, and Spacilova understands:

“...the extreme symbolism of the anniversary is embedded in us deeper than it seems. One person says that after a year of the “gentle velvet” there isn’t anything to celebrate - because, as a certain cashier in one Prague beauty salon maintains, “everything’s going to hell again”, because once more people are jumping off of Nuselske bridge - and celebrating from that perspective is a call verging on a miracle of any kind of merrymaking. The other person, on the other hand, falls prey to similarly general and boundary-less opti mism and with that we already have experience, they are offering an all-encompassing enchanted celebration which again doesn’t have the uncelebrated well-known obligatory voluntariness. Both stances remind me dangerously of the ever-present threat of Josef’s unwanted birthday guests.”

Her solution is toast with Josef whenever both he and she - at the exact same moment - are hit with the same burst of emotions, whether skepticism or ecstasy, and in this altered state maybe she’ll come up with a new style for state holidays “with one basic rule: to celebrate one day later.” (Spacilova, 1990, 8)

With this anecdote, Spacilova ascribes her reluctance to embrace the anniversary in the suffocating presence of the state holiday structure itself: there doesn’t seem to be any room for personal experience in the experience of commemoration itself. Through a burst of spontaneous, completely unchecked (but still collective) emotion, she and her friend create a new collectivity that opens up space to redefine the official calendar, if only on a personal level. And the use of birthday as the metaphoric parallel is significant, because it is at once a highly symbolic and personal event, but also the way in which many people experienced the events of November and December 1989. The overwhelming shadow of official memory – even in the post-communist era – alienates Spacilova from public memory, to the point to where she attempts to put temporal distance between her own commemorative gestures and that of the “official” public – by celebrating every state holiday “one day later”. The self-conscious creation of temporal distance illustrates the reflective stance of Spacilova’s engagement with the anniversary: on an individual level, the day-after anniversary seeks to “cherish shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space.” (Boym, 2001, 49) The construction of a parallel calendar of public memory, as an authenticating alternative to the overwhelming presence of official memory (in any form), reflects the awareness of multiple dimensions of time co-existing in tandem, and the navigation between them as the most comfortable spot to practice mnemonics. The “invented tradition” of the day-after anniversary exemplifies (if only virtually, not in reality) the reflective stance towards the legacy of 1989.

Challenging “official” forms of commemoration as a means to create an authentic tradition for also appear in the practices left over from the previous regime. In particular the communist practice of combining sports events with commemorations - thus creating a healthy national history and body- suffered from direct assault. The co-optation of communist forms of commemoration could have different symbolic meanings. There was nothing particularly new about this - memorial marathons, swim meets, academic competitions, and other contests had been held as part of the official (communist) November 17 holiday for a number of years. In Olomouc, the twentieth anniversary of the 17 November Memorial swim tournament - an international event with swimmers from across the Eastern Bloc, was held as per usual, the main contest still being the Jan Opletal trophy for the only difference this year being that it now commemorated International Students Day and the first anniversary of the November Revolution - for which reports said the swimmers’ performance was a dignified commemoration of both. (Memorial 17. listopadu v plavani, 1990) This didn’t seem to engender any major uproar in the community, although it is difficult to tell since the main student newspaper in Olomouc, Pretlak, had by that time stopped publishing.

However, in Prague the planned November 17 marathon, which was specifically designed to commemorate the 1989 events with the starting and ending point at Albertov, retracing the original 1989 student march, was the subject of a number of articles condemning its connection with the anniversary. While the committee planning the November 17 Marathon (Beh 17. Listopadu) worked in coordination with both student movement and Civic Forum leaders, not all in the student community were happy. (Usneseni Rady OF, 1990) One Studentske listy

journalist points out,

"You think that November 17th doesn't have anything in common with [1948's] Victory February? For forty-one years we celebrated February and only now are we learning about its background. Now SOMEONE is preparing this society for the first celebration of November 17, but what do we know about the behind-the-scenes workings of this day? Therefore, even though I have enjoyed sports since childhood, I will avoid the November 17 run. But what if next year it will be a compulsory event?” (Sved, 1990, 8) As part of an effort to keep the first anniversary authentic, Studentske listy journalists and fellow sympathizers decided to sabotage the marathon by acting as human blockades.

On the day of the run, as several thousand participants geared up to start the course, the runners heard rumors of the planned attempts to block their course and when the mass of people unfortunately jumped the gun, literally, taking off before the official start, in the general chaos they couldn’t be reined back in by security guards. In what became a breathless race to stop the runners, business owner Ceslav Vancura managed to catch up with the lead group about two kilometers into the race and, plunging headlong at the head runner, managed to throw him off course so that he began running back towards the start line. (Beh s studentstkymi prekazkami, 1990, 1,8; Maji jine mineni, 1990, 10)

Reading about the battle over the marathon in Olomouc prompted N. Hanak to contemplate the Czechs’ ambiguity (dvojznacnost, suggesting two features) relationship towards anniversaries. Clearly distinguishing his remarks from the “compulsory commemorations of the past”, he says that freedom isn’t just freedom of possibility but freedom of will and of execution. He attributes it to the occupation of the Czech lands and their heightened sensitivity (precitlivelosti) to commemorations, the “premrsteny cit” (unreasonable/eccentric/hysterical) feeling about symbols and jubilea. It takes just one mocker to ruin the whole celebration. (Hanak, 1990, 2). Hanak specifically refers to the first anniversary’s “November 17 Run” showdown when discussing what he sees as the Czech ambivalence towards commemorations, going on to state:

“The reaction to Saturday’s commemoration, or non-commemoration, is a precise picture of the contradiction in us - on the one hand a resistance against any kind of celebrating, on the other hand indignation towards undignified commemorations. The marathon “a la Rude parvo[11]” upset me as well, understandably, but I have the impression that the attachment of the students to some kind of pieta can in the future end in the same thing. But is it really possible to avoid this? I think not - every commemoration is in time ossified, every symbol fossilized. It is better to fight for the authenticity of action in the future than the memorials of the past. Despite that, if I were to wager as to how to commemorate November 17 next time for real, I would suggest that the time and place of the given action be disseminated again only through whispered by ear and in the mass media it be thoroughly denied for certainty’s sake.”

Hanak’s formula for an appropriate commemoration of 1989 with authenticity, as with Spacilova, achieved authenticity on the personalized, but not privatized, level.[12] Clearly separating out the collective and social memory practices from the national (spreading news of the event by word of mouth, not the official media) is reminiscent of the everyday “countermemory”, the “oral memory transmitted between close friends and family members and spread to the wider society through unofficial networks.” (Boym, 2001, 61) Ambivalence is here encoded into the very traditions of transmitting information: ellipses, absences, half-words and silences all spoke to a common societal collusion against the state. (Boym, 1994) As Istvan Rev makes the point that after the fall of communism, the need to construct new social frameworks of remembering left past experiences in limbo in the 1990s: “Reconstruction [of the past] makes sense only in the framework of a new narrative. In order to compose a new story, elements of the old are restructured, rearranged, refigured, left out, put aside, overlooked, dismembered - forgotten. Forgetting an event, like remembering it, makes sense only contextually.” (Rev, 1995, 9) In an effort to maintain the authenticating dichotomy between public and private, to keep the legacy of 1989 from ossifying (a certainty in the course of time), the only recourse is to build into the very commemorative practices itself an element of destabilizing uncertainty. I suggest that the trope of ambivalence emerged as part of the reconstruction of the social frameworks of memory in the immediate aftermath of the communist system’s collapse, and it has reappeared as an element in later commemorations through the constant need to re-engage with a past feared lost and forgotten.

Tenth Anniversary: Ambivalence Re-Interpreted

During the 1990s, ambivalence towards the “Velvet Revolution” was reflected in the relative paucity of official and social commemorations. Until 1999, commemorations tended to be small, often private affairs – individual politicians laying wreaths at the memorial on Narodni trida, small conferences or exhibits of pictures, sometimes in town halls, and often at universities or theaters where the activists of the revolution reunited. By 1999 the immediate post-communist period has become somewhat normalized. Yet ambivalence and distance towards official commemorations of November 17 remained, in particular through the discussion of post-revolutionary disillusionment (most famously encapsulated in 1997 with Vaclav Havel’s diagnosis of a “blba nalada”, or bad/stupid mood, in Czech society caused by dissatisfaction with post-communist transition). At the tenth anniversary, the same cohort of students who had spearheaded the “Nothing to Celebrate” petition in 1990 joined in to commemorate the tenth anniversary in order to counter public apathy and provide a proper commemoration.

Society ‘89 was created in late 1998 as a planning committee for the tenth anniversary. The group was headed by former student leader Jan Bubeník and his partners Martin and Sona Poduskova decided to plan the tenth anniversary themselves when, as Poduskova said, when they realized that no government or state bodies were planning any major commemorations. (Poduskova, 2005) Setting a trend that would be replicated in the 2000s, civic, non-governmental organizations spearhead the commemorations. This civic organization consisted of an honorary committee including the heads of state (Havel, Klaus, Zeman), top political leaders, and the mayor of Prague along with prominent dissidents and personalities; their organization was affiliated with the EastWest Institute and had as media partners Czech TV and Czech Radio; and they had a special committee for former student leaders to plan the anniversary. (www.spolecnost89.cz) Although this was not formally an “official” anniversary planning committee, it carried the implicit stamp of state or government sponsorship and with it the assumption of upholding the status quo.

Society 89’s concept for the anniversary, as expressed by its leader and in its project proposal, was to be not only a retrospective remembrance of the events of 1989 and the ensuing changes, but also a critical evaluation of the negative and positive results of those events. Bubenik said that the aim of the organizations’ commemorations was to both remind society that things really had changed for the better since 1989. (Wooley, 2007) Above all their focus was on recreating the euphoria of November 1989 and the emotions that brought everyone together to reinvigorate civil society. In an interview with the author, co-founder Sona Poduskova explained that the organizers wanted a “dignified” and “apolitical” commemoration which would not want be used by any groups for political or extremist ends and would include all levels of society. (Poduskova, 2005) Society ’89 aimed to present a unifying interpretation of 1989 and the communist period before it, placing the popular uprisings and public euphoria on the same level as the events at the domestic and international political elite level. It was also aimed at stimulating positive changes in society; not, however, at delegitimizing the government. Society ‘89’s week-long commemoration program consisted of a broad array of themes, including events concerning the former student leaders (the book launch of the oral history One Hundred Student Revolutions (Sto studentskych revoluci)) and Civic Forum (whose ten-year reunion was held on November 19). A conference representing the international sphere included most notably the Ten Years Later conference inaugural panel. On the evening of November 17, the main political leaders from each side of the Cold War conflict commemorated together. Representing the ‘East’ were former Polish opposition activist Lech Wałęsa; his Czech counterpart Václav Havel, who was doubling as President of the Czech Republic; and the former General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. From the ‘West’ came the former US President George Bush, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the former (West) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the widow of the former French president François Mitterand, Danielle Mitterand. Not only did this raise the prestige of the commemoration overall, but it also located Czechoslovakia as a key player in the wider global changes in 1989. (www.spolecnost89.cz; Statnici, kteri pomohli…, 1999, 3) However, there was one more subject of Society ‘89’s commemorations, which was the Czech society of 1989 itself. The events aimed at the general public were the culmination of the commemorative week. In addition to laying flowers and lighting candles at Narodni trida on 17 November, an event open to the public in any case, and a photo exhibit hosted by Mlada fronta Dnes of the society-wide events in 1989, there were several events which specifically were designed to show society to itself. On the one hand they were designed to recreate the euphoria of November and December, as with the Concert for All Decent People on November 20.[13] However, they were also designed to remind Czechs that the communist period should not be nostalgically remembered. This group included both the day of Czech communist television, which also occurred on November 20, and the "open-air museum" on Wenceslas Square, the site of the original protests, was the site of key chains being handed out with "10 let pote" (Ten years later) stamped on them in recognition of the spontaneous key-jangling during the 1989 demonstrations in both Wenceslas Square and Letna field. The public was framed as civil society - it was civil society that Jan Bubenik wished to reinvigorate. The skanzen totality represents an interesting facet of ambivalence. Unlike the twentieth anniversary petition from Inventura demokracie, the skanzen was meant to re-create the communist experience in order to “remind” citizens of how bad it actually was during the previous regime (lest they fall prey to nostalgia for communism, at that moment beginning to emerge in the Czech Republic.) The open-air museum to communism had actually emerged during the “Velvet Revolution” itself (the first proposal, if short-lived, was at Bezpravi near the Orlicke hory) when Czech and Slovak citizens, as in other Eastern European states, began to relocate the statues and paraphernalia of the communist regime to impromptu “museums”, thereby rewriting the communist past by consigning its artifacts to history. The musealization of communism in this instance worked not to isolate but to congregate; the entire bottom portion of Wenceslas Square transformed overnight into its mirror image from the last days of the communist regime, complete with students from local universities acting out the roles of police, merchants, and demonstrators.

Contrary to Society ‘89’s fear of the tenth anniversary slipping past unnoticed, there were many more local and small group commemorations of 1989 documented in media than in previous years. A number of other official and non-official actions remembering November 17 were connected to individuals or private groups. The main commemorative site was Narodni trida, where commemorative activities involving lesser luminaries from the Czech government, including the Senate memorial service, the other political parties laying flowers at the Narodni trida memorial, and the feting of the former world leaders by the Prague Mayor and the Senate Chairwoman. (Pravo, 1999, 2) As part of the ritual of November 17, these commemorations did not necessarily make a statement about the contemporary political situation. However, active contestation of these narratives did occur. During the candle-lighting ceremony the ex-communist boss of Prague Miroslav Stepan showed up at the Narodni tride memorial to the student demonstrations of 1989 with Ludvik Zifcak, the StB (Czechoslovak communist secret police) agent who had acted as the dummy "dead student" during the 1989 revolution, holding a mini-rally for the "obety kapitalismus", the victims of capitalism. (Na narodni znovu horely svicky, 1999, 2; Oslavy svobody…, 1999, 1-2) Even non-communist hecklers showed up to the candle-lighting, flower-laying ceremony attended by Zeman, Klaus, Benesova and Havel to heckle "Milosi, koncime" (Milos [Zeman], we're finished) and "Klaus 1989-1999". (Na Narodni znovu horely svicky, 1999, 1-2; Zklamani a poboureni, 1999, 5). Both of these protests, in different ways, called into question the positive interpretation of 1989.

Unlike these open contestations of the victorious post-communist narrative of democratic change, some young people in 1999 found ways of distancing themselves from the official narrative through happenings. For example group of students from the School of Economics staged a mock Socialist Youth Organization medal-awarding ceremony as a happening. They began with a “lantern procession”(lampionovy pruvod), which was a direct reference to 7 November and the Great October Socialist Revolution commemorations of the communist era. When I asked student organizer Martin Moravec why the students had planned a parody of a communist-era collective event for the commemoration, and what they wished to gain by this, he said that the parody was one of the few ways that they could legitimately commemorate 17 November in the post-communist environment:

“So people in the Czech lands don’t much like doing any kind of official commemorations. Because it reminds them that again someone is saying: Take a flag and go to the procession to commemorate, let’s say 17 November. People here simply don’t like doing that. [...] And so far as 17 November was maybe about students, and about young people, and precisely about, like to fight with the former establishment and with all of those idiocies, so such a thing you can commemorate only with difficulty by organizing some big, formal, organized action, because that would be basically in the exact opposite spirit of 17 November. [...] Therefore when I say that it was like a joke, I mean it in the way that, granted, it was a joke, but at the same time everyone realized very well like what they were making fun of and so on. But that form of making a joke was what made it possible to organize anything at all.” (Moravec 2006)

Moravec’s quotation illustrates a moment of transmission of ambivalent mnemonic codes from one generation (that came of age under communism) to the next (who were too young to fully participate in 1989). Another example the 1989 student march at the fifteenth anniversary in 2004, which juxtaposed a strange amalgam of lived and interpreted experiences, and official and unofficial narratives on Narodni trida. For the fifteenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Student Council at Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty (FF UK) planned a commemorative action entitled “With Apathy Forever?”. (Studentska rada Filozoficke fakulta UK, http://strada.ff.cuni.cz/listopad) Their program included a recreation of the 1989 student march ending with a rally featuring distinguished public intellectuals. Carrying banners reading “1939 - 1989 Nezapominame” (1939 - 1989 We won’t forget) and chanting slogans such as “Don’t be apathetic!”, the students marched along the same route as taken by their predecessors fifteen years previous. There was a moment of tension, however, when the procession arrived at National Street (Narodni trida) and found their way blocked by the anniversary concert sponsored by then-Prague Mayor Pavel Bem, who had placed a large performing stage in the middle of the street. The concert, which was already underway, was briefly interrupted as the marching students shouted for passage through the throngs of spectators which had gathered around the stage.

Although the students were finally allowed through and the tension subsided, the recreation of the march is an important means of transmitting a particular legacy. Five years earlier a similar political began at the tenth anniversary and while it wasn’t organized by the original students from 1989, but by students ten years younger, it was at the end of this march that the petition “Thank You, Now Leave” was read at Prague Castle that sparked the protest movement against the Zeman-Klaus opposition agreement with a narrative of the Velvet Revolution that (politely) rejected the political status quo and the transformation narrative. This petition, which should be understood as an outgrowth of the original first anniversary petition, is less important for its immediate political impact and more important for the fact that 200,000 people had signed it in the space of a few weeks - a signal that the potentials for an alternative reading of the events of 1989 were not only still possible, but politically had mobilizing force. (Wooley, 2007) Moving towards the twentieth anniversary, various groups representing themselves as “society” apart from the state appropriated to themselves to do the memory work that other revolutionary regimes such as the Russians and French eventually took on for themselves. By 2009 the call to remember had become part of the legacy itself, and one that looks to society rather than the state. This attitude is reflected in a petition released by FF UK organizers as part of their “With Apathy Forever?” event. In it, they described their relationship to 1989, ending with these words: “We, the current students, experienced 17 November 1989 only as children, thus we know its atmosphere only from stories. But its legacy is for us current and alive - and we will work so that it is not forgotten.” (Studentska rada Filozoficke fakulty UK, 2004) Student activists and memory workers have redefined the legacy of 1989 from liberation from communism to an active project to maintain democracy.

Apathy, then, need not only be interpreted in the collective memory as the turning away from the past; in student activists the perceived apathetic society can reignite the relevance of the past by keeping at bay the final victory of democracy. Another aspect of a constant anxiety of apathy in society is the need to mobilize to address the problem. This ambivalent interplay of reality and possibility reflects what Vogt calls the “plurality of utopia”, maintaining possibilities as a constitutive part of everyday life (what Vogt calls the “transformative element of human life.” (Vogt, 2005, 77) Rather than constituting democracy itself as a utopian formation, it becomes a project in constant need of perfection.

Conclusion: Ambivalence and the “Velvet Revolutionary” Tradition

We return now to the twentieth anniversary and the invocation to remember as a guiding theme of the commemorations. Post-communist disillusionment has undeniably played a role in inserting the trope of ambivalence into discourse of the collective memory of the “Velvet Revolution” and 1989 in the Czech lands. However, this analysis has argued that the “revolutionary hangover” thesis obscures some of the ways in which post-communist mnemonic practices constructed a memory culture using precisely the medium of ambivalence to infuse memory projects with meaning and purpose. Redirecting attention from content to form alerts us to the way that constant anxiety and debates over “appropriate” commemorations resulted in the invention of new traditions of remembrance such as happenings, as well as civic organizations which emerge specifically to combat the amnesia and apathy with the cry that there is something to celebrate. Without the apathy and political discontent, perhaps these organizations would never have emerged. In that case, of course, the lessons of 1989 being transmitted across the generations might have been different.

The intimate, human, anti-monumental and ambivalent commemorations showcased here represent one facet of the commemorative culture of the “Velvet Revolution.” However, these examples also caution against taking the trope of ambivalence in mnemonic discourse at face value. Looking back to Spacilova’s “brand-spanking new” tradition for “day after” state anniversaries, the motif of intimacy through distance suggests an informative paradigm of social practices of remembering. Although the Czech “traditions” of commemoration at the twentieth anniversary may have not have rivaled Berlin’s grand commemorative spectacle, in the Czech lands the legacy of 1989 seemed to be a living presence, in part embodied by people on the streets, through informal gatherings whose congregation both re-embodied and re-enactment the drama of the street. The remarkably personal and social dimension of “Velvet Revolution” commemoration makes the absence of official spectacle all the more noticeable. Groups displaying this reflectively nostalgic relationship with the memory of 1989 are pragmatic, yet ambivalence towards the present allows them to retain a little utopian hope that the future can be better through their own actions. The 2009 students released a petition called on politicians to “give us a present for our twentieth birthday” itself represents the collective appropriation of the past, echoing the personal/state birthday motif used by Spacilova almost twenty years before. In utilizing the legacy of 1989 to preserve a critical distance from the present, some groups in Czech society found a way to appropriate the state’s holiday on their own terms.

Maybe the day-after anniversary is not such a crazy idea after all; if the “Velvet Revolution” model of peaceful mass mobilization against dictatorships could be exported (with varying degrees of success), why not the “Velvet Revolutionary” tradition of ambivalent commemoration? Although foundation myths can be victorious returns to a collective’s origins, exploring reflective modes of commemoration shows other ways in which Czech citizens engage with their past, where an emotional attachment to historical memory is achieved by perpetually holding the object of desire at arm’s length. Perhaps a glimpse of the reclusive anamnesis annus mirabilis, at least for the first two decades of its life, is best captured not by looking up at the sky for a transcendent mythic story, or down on the ground at the ashes of destroyed revolutionary ideals, but sideways at the unfulfilled potentialities of the present.

[1] I focus on the Czech lands here, as Slovakia’s separate path after 1993 demands a separate treatment specific to that country’s own conditions. However, I am not saying that my analysis of ambivalence only applies to the Czech lands, only that the scope of this article limits itself to that region of the former Czechoslovakia.

[2] For examples of historical work on the memory of the “Velvet Revolution”, see Wooley, 2007; Krapfl, 2008; Suk, 2003; Mechyr,1998; Otahal, 1998. In a recent study based upon public opinion polls on Czech attitudes towards the Velvet Revolution, Lyons and Bernardyova found that, by twentieth anniversary, a “dominant narrative” of the “Velvet Revolution” had emerged, in which a majority of Czechs believed that 1989 was a revolution, it was for political (as opposed to economic) reasons, and over 30% believe it was led by the people; a further one in four believe it was led by dissident elites, while 37% have no opinion. (Lyons and Bernardyova, 2011)

[3] Until 1999 November 17 was the unofficial anniversary of the start of the “Velvet Revolution”, recognized on the calendar as a “vyznamny den”, a significant day, but not a bank holiday. November 17, 1989 witnessed the student demonstration in Prague, whose crackdown precipitated the popular mobilizations against the communist state in Czechoslovakia. This day, until 2000 called the “Day of the Students’ Fight for Freedom and Democracy”, first entered into the calendar back to the institution of November 17 as International Students’ Day in 1941.

[4] Current Information for Inventura demokracie can be found on their website, http://www.inventurademokracie.cz/. Information relating to their activities at the twentieth anniversary, including their anniversary manifesto, can be found at: http://stara.inventurademokracie.cz/studentske-prohlaseni/index.html.

[5] Their most recent (2013) activities include lobbying on the financing of political parties. See http://www.inventurademokracie.cz/nase-temata/.

[6] This statement reflects a deeper division in the legacy of 1989 – whether it was carried out in the name of pragmatically implementing Western-style consumerism, or whether it was for more idealistic political goals such as participatory democracy and national renewal.

[7] Lyons and Bernardyova’s view of post-revolutionary ambivalence, which is held by many, functions closely with themes of “disillusionment” and “disappointment” with the post-communist era, i.e. as the necessary result of a “revolutionary hangover” after the euphoric days of November and December 1989 and the inevitable betrayal of the grand ideals of the revolutionary community.7 Similarly, Keller offers one of the many illustrative examples of this theory, arguing that the state of disillusionment in 2004 (at the fifteenth anniversary) was the result of “unfulfilled aspirations” including the desire for a more accessible consumer society, a return to the pre-1948 political system, and incursions on national sovereignty. See Keller, 2005, 472)

[8] Happenings, or guerrilla street theater. They become a prominent mnemonic practice to commemorate November 17 starting at the tenth anniversary with the “skanzen totality”, although happenings parodied the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, November 7, start occurring as early as 1997.

[9] (Vogt, 2005, 109). Vogt references one of the best-know theorists of non-synchronicity, Claus Offe, whose triple transition (political, economic and societal) conceptualized multiple tracks of change after communism. Additionally, Vogt points to inter-generational discontinuity in terms of how different age groups experienced the transformation.

[10] This sentiment was echoed in a number of other articles in the newspapers. See for example (Ševčík, 1990, 1); (Spacilova, 1990, 7). Additionally, there were a number of opinion polls with both the actors in the revolution and "ordinary people" who had been on Narodni trida. November 17 was seen as a time of bilanz, or of evaluating the past year, and this connected the revolution with the aftermath of the revolution and the problems of transition.

[11] The main newspaper organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

[12] Discussing the first anniversary of November 17 specifically, Andrew Lass brings up a similar point about the movement between individual remembering and the social construction memory, or in his words, from memory to history. He draws upon Hegel’s differentiation between remembering and recollection to pose the question “what makes history thinkable? “ (Lass, 1994, 92) and emphasizes how Czechs in the first months after 1989 made sense of their individual biographies within narratives that were already becoming sedimented, in particular “collective narratives” such as the story of dissidents like Havel or borrowing aesthetic motifs from movies and literature in order to make sense of the events. I suggest that one of the reasons that ambivalence becomes a durable framework for memory, at least for some people at the time, is because it allows for a balance between the violence done to the raw data of memory, or the recollection of lived experience, by remembering, or the rethinking of that experience in understandable terms.

[13] A reprise of the Koncert pro vsechny slusny lide, which was held on December 20, 1989.



Deanna Wooley is a Ph.D. candidate in Eastern European and Cultural History at the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington, USA. Her dissertation explores the cultural history of the “Velvet Revolution” from the perspective of the 1989 Czechoslovak student movement, and she is the author of several articles on the student movement and the collective memory of 1989 in the Czech lands. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and can be reached at deanna.wooley@gmail.com or wooleyd@ipfw.edu or via mail at the IPFW History Department, 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana, 46805-1499.


Article written as a part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.