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Photo of the publication Holocaust Memory and the Logic of Comparison
Heidemarie Uhl

Holocaust Memory and the Logic of Comparison

19 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Nazism
  • Shoah
  • Place of remembrance
  • 20th century history
  • Germany
  • European memory
  • Places of Memory


The positioning of the Holocaust in post-war European memory was set by two strategies: suppression, externalization and the projection of blame on Germany in countries occupied by Nazi Germany and collaborating regimes and of a comparison with other crimes in the form of totalitarianism or fascist theory as a transnational-European argument in the era of the Cold War. Recognition of the Holocaust as a singular ‘break with civilization’ that took hold at the end of the 20th century in Europe and in Western societies presupposed the incomparability of the Nazi murder of Jews. With the enlargement of the European Union (EU) in 2004, which included former Eastern Bloc countries, came the challenge of integrating communist crimes in a common European memory – this entailed the renewed discussion of the issue of comparability.



At the start of the new millennium, Europe seemed united by a common memory. The historical and political myths of post-war Europe lost their binding force in the 1980s. This was a phase of intensive redefinition of national views of history, which were intensively redefined and gained additional momentum with the end of the Cold War and the epochal year of 1989. In the memory wars of the late 20th century, the Holocaust also became a central historical reference point at the national and – with the intensification of EU integration – at the European level. ‘Already the catastrophe in Europe is a starting point for cross-border solidarity,’ stated sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider in 2001 in their highly noted publication Erinnerung im globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust [Recollection in the global age: the Holocaust] that is based on the hope for a universal human rights morality no longer bound to a ‘we’ community of a nation: ‘Memories of the Holocaust allow the formation of supra-national cultures of memory at the start of the third millennium, which, in turn, are the basis for a global human rights policy’ (Levy and Sznaider 2007, 11). A key event for universalization of the Holocaust was the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust with the adoption of the Stockholm Declaration in January 2000 (Eckel and Moisel, 9 f.; Radonić and Uhl 2016, 10 f.).

This European remembrance consensus, however, would soon face new challenges. With the accession of eight countries of the former Eastern Bloc to the European Union in 2004, the question of the relationship between the crimes of National Socialism and communism appeared on the agenda EU-European policy on history and remembrance culture. The Gulag memory 1 of post-communist European countries now competed with the Holocaust memory and the issue of the relationship between these competing memories has since dominated debates on European memory. Thus, the assumed singularity of the Holocaust was called into question. Several years after the political codification of the Holocaust as a singular crime against humanity in the Stockholm Declaration, a discussion on comparison was back on the agenda.

The historical comparison, as a central category of historical academic insight, 2 had, however, lost its innocence in relation to the Holocaust. Each comparative effort reactivated the post-war defensive tradition by equating it with other state crimes. The intentions of comparison in Germany and Austria lay in a relativity of its ‘own crimes’ by pointing to its ‘own suffering’, which had been inflicted on ‘us’. During the Cold War, expulsion and bombing were arguments that entitled the Federal Republic of Germany to its own victim status (Kettenacker 2003).

Now, under the new aegis of integration, the question of a comparison with the communist dictatorship experience in a common European memory was revived. The result of the struggle for recognition of the Holocaust as a European place of memory and the prevailing belief in the late 20th century that the murder of the Jews was a singular historical crime had to be legitimized and justified anew after 2004 given its equation with the crimes of communism. This challenge marks current debates about the universalization and relativization of the Holocaust.


Stockholm 2000: codification of the Holocaust as a singular ‘break with civilization’

From 26 to 28 January 2000, around 600 delegates from forty-six countries, including more than twenty heads of state, gathered at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, one of the first high-level international conferences of the new millennium. The symbolic date of the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp had only been assigned as a memorial day several years earlier (Kroh 2008, 111 f., 128 f.). 3 The Holocaust as a singular historical event and reference point for a European and potentially global culture of memory was first recognized at a senior political level at this conference. In the Stockholm Declaration, a final document based on the model of UN World Conferences, this commitment was not only morally, but also politically codified:

The Holocaust (Shoah) rocked civilization to its foundations. The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will for all time be of universal significance. [...] The extent of the Holocaust planned and executed by the Nazis must remain forever enshrined in our collective memory. [...] Since mankind is still marked by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight these evils. [...] It is entirely appropriate that this first major international conference of the new millennium declare its commitment to plant the seeds of a better future in the soil of a bitter past. 4

The International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF, renamed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] in 2012) that was founded during one of the precursor meetings of the Stockholm conference in 1998 was to be the body to apply these principles. One of the entry criteria for the thirty-one member states is a commitment to the Stockholm Declaration and the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Day. 5


The road to Stockholm: the end of the great narratives of modernity and memory wars at the end of the 20th century

The Stockholm Declaration is a result of a social and cultural transformation process in the 1980s that ties two strands of development: recognition of the Holocaust as a singular ‘break with civilization’ – this term was coined in 1988 by historian Dan Diner (Diner 1988) – and memory as a leitmotif of the late 20th century. French historian Pierre Nora, one of the pioneers of the memory boom, spoke at the Vienna conference ‘Memory of the Century’ in March 2001 of a ‘global conjuncture of memory’. 6 The ‘era of remembrance’ is supported by a ‘movement’ that is ‘so general, so profound, so powerful’ that it entails a fundamental change in the collective consciousness. 7

The factors for this profound social and cultural change are manifold. Paramount is the loss of key categories and thought patterns that had previously determined the self-understanding of modern societies: the ‘dwindling meaningful strength of the nation’, 8 ‘the end of grand narratives’ about rise and progress, 9 and depletion of a vision of the future. Optimistic expectations of progress focused on the future in the post-war decades. Now, the ‘utopian energies’ of modernity were beginning to erode (Habermas 1985, 141–63), the ideological guiding differences that dominated the political imagination since the 19th century and structured areas of social conflict began to fade. The end of the Cold War and of the competition between the two totalitarian systems – Nazism and communism – with their clear bogeymen accelerated the perception of a new era. ‘Since the 1980s, it seems that the focus has shifted from present futures to present pasts,’ stated literary scholar Andreas Huyssen, who spoke of a cultural and social change requiring explanation:

One of the most surprising cultural and political phenomena in recent years has been the emergence of memory as a key concern in Western societies, a turning toward the past that stands in strong contrast to the privileging of the future so characteristic of earlier decades of 20th century modernity (Huyssen 2000, 21).

In the post-modern, post-utopian, neo-liberal and globalizing world, the past has been a resource for meaning and the search for identity. The need for commemoration could no longer be fulfilled by the traditional narrative of a glorious and heroic history of the nation in a post-ideological and post-national era.

The official narratives of time before 1945, on which the historical identity of European countries based itself since the end of the Second World War, were in exactly this tradition. The national self-presentations also varied according to their different involvement in the Nazi regime. They are seen as variants of a reasoning pattern that historian Tony Judt – in the hot phase of historical-political debate in 1992 – called post-war Europe political myths.

He characterized them as follows: after 1945, the official historical narrative about the recent past in practically all European countries, even communist (naturally with the exception of West Germany), was marked by an exclusion of historical guilt that remained fairly stable until the 1980s. The intent was to present their ‘own people’ as an innocent victim of cruel suppression by a hostile external aggressor, to honour heroic national resistance and to hide issues of collaboration. With a retrospective construction of a society that was not involved in Nazism, these narratives fulfilled the function after 1945, which should not be underestimated, of overcoming civil war situations during the Second World War and of integrating societies deeply divided politically during Nazi rule (Judt 1993, 87–120). However, this was only possible by concealing the involvement of parts of their own society in the conduct of the regime and in Nazi crimes.

The thesis of Austria as the ‘first victim’ of Nazism was only one, albeit probably the weakest legitimate variation in the range of European postwar myths, because Austria after it was annexed to Nazi Germany (the socalled ‘Anschluss’) in March 1938 was not an occupied country, but a genuine component of the German Reich. 1011 Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination policy only played a minor role in the heroic master narrative of post-war myths. The question of guilt and responsibility was projected onto Germany, or the Federal Republic, while the murder of Jews was not brought to the fore. The memory of the victims of ‘racial’ persecution was particular, mostly confined to Jewish communities. They launched the first initiatives for memorials, which, compared to the monumental projects for memorials to national resistance, hardly received any public attention. In Vienna, a simple plaque donated by the Jewish community was mounted in 1946 in the vestibule of a synagogue on a side street of the first district – the only synagogue that was not destroyed in the November pogrom. It commemorated the ‘Jewish men, women and children who lost their lives in the fateful years 1938–1945’ (Uhl 2016, 3–4).

The status of victim found no recognition in the narratives of the struggle for freedom against Nazism in post-1945 Europe. Jewish survivors were even admonished for not actively taking part in the ‘anti-fascist struggle’. This was the proclamation of the Austrian Concentration Camp Association on the tenth anniversary of the liberation in 1955 under the motto: ‘to be human – is to be anti-fascist’. According to a post in Der neue Mahnruf, the journal of the Communist Party, close to the association: ‘The vast majority of victims were not active political opponents of fascism. How many of the millions of people murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz were there, who probably regretted their tragic error in the last agonising minutes of life [...]?’ 12

Numerous studies have focused in recent years on the question of how the Holocaust returned from the periphery of historical perception – as a sideshow of the Second World War and as a part of the history of Nazi Germany – to the centre of a global memory. The murder of Jews did not play a primary role at the Nuremberg trials of German war crimes and crimes against humanity. Milestones of a change in perspective were the Eichmann trial in 1961 13 and the West German Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in the 1960s. 14 Awareness of the meaning of the Holocaust increased only gradually, 15 as shown by the reception of historian Raul Hilberg’s pioneering book The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). After completing the manuscript, it took six years until a small publisher in the United States agreed in 1961 to publish the study. In 1967, the Rowohlt editor Fritz J. Raddatz refused a German edition because of an already ‘heavy burden from non-fiction [...]’ (Aly 2006).

An actual turning point was the broadcasting of the NBC miniseries ‘Holocaust’ in the United States in 1978 and in the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria in 1979. The first transnational popular key cultural event 16 was followed by intensive reporting – the news magazines Der Spiegel (Germany) and Profil (Austria) each issued a sequence of three cover stories. Previously distanced terms like ‘final solution’ for the murder of Jews now received a name in which a new emotional dimension resonated. The overwhelming response to the ‘Holocaust’ in Germany and Austria demonstrated new memory needs that obviously could not be fulfilled by the heroic pathos of post-war myths. ‘Holocaust’ led to empathy for the fate of the victims to a royal moral imperative: the obligation to remember the victims (Margalit 2004). The paradigm shift from a heroic to a victim narrative would prevail in the 1980s. 17 Attention shifted from the now perceived formulaic rhetorical representations of patriotic or ideological anti-fascist motivated resistance to the harrowing testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Central historiographical and literary works were only now appreciated as important. Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, a complete history of the Holocaust, was published in a German translation in 1982 by the small publishing house Olle & Wolter and in 1990 as a Fischer paperback (Hilberg 2008). Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, published in Budapest in 1975 after an initial rejection, only found recognition in a new edition in 1985 and appeared in German translation in 1990.

The fall of the Iron Curtain ended the threat of the communist Eastern Bloc, the source of evil during the Cold War, and the fear of a nuclear Third World War. These thoughts dominated the collective imagination of the West into the 1980s, as shown in the film The Day After (1983) in which an incident in Berlin triggers a nuclear war with catastrophic consequences. The elimination of competition of the two totalitarian systems and, therefore, the ultimate ‘other’ that threatened Western democracies, and at the same time defined it, left a vacancy. Against this background developed the ‘incredible phenomenon’ that the Shoah ‘became a symbol of evil in [...] Western civilization in the last two decades of the 20th century’ (Bauer 2001, 10). A key stimulus for the re-evaluation of the Holocaust as a singular crime against humanity was generated by the founding of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, which was initiated by President Carter in 1978. 18

At the start of the 21st century, the Holocaust gained broad recognition as ‘negative remembrance’ (François 2006, 295) with European and global relevance. This new understanding falls within the term ‘Auschwitz’s break with civilization’ expressed as follows: the Holocaust is not only a landmark of German and European history, but is also the deepest cut in the history of modernity, as it symbolizes the radical other in human and civil rights, the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia-based values . In 2005, Tony Judt assessed the importance of this historical foundation for contemporary Europe. ‘Recognition of the Holocaust has become a European entry ticket’, 19

and the European project was built ‘from the crematoria of Auschwitz’ (Judt 1993, 934).

This paradigm shift is, as historians Jan Eckel and Claudia Moisel stress, ‘as astonishing as in need of explanation’. The ‘profound change of the traditional relationship with the past’ 20 was not triggered by a political turning point, but rather it was a simultaneous generational phenomenon that ensued in countries with such a different relationship to the murder of the Jews as the ‘perpetrator societies’ of Germany and Austria, the ‘victim country’ Israel and the ‘liberator’ USA. In addition to the previously mentioned global phenomena, other explanatory factors worthy of mention are the end of the Cold War and East–West confrontation and system competition, along with the loss of the belief in progress and a better future. In Germany and Austria, it can be assumed the question of involvement in crimes of the Nazi regime could take a new form with the ageing and demise of the affected generation, especially those who actively took part in the crimes. As the new generation were not directly influenced by National Socialism, this augured well for change. 21

The radical nature and pace of the break with those official narratives and political myths that determined historical thought in these two countries since 1945 is nevertheless remarkable. In 1983, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power on 30 January 1933, the conservative historian Herrmann Lübbe defended the silence – the ‘asymmetrical discretion’ – regarding the Nazi disposition of the ‘majority of the people’ as a ‘socio-psychological and politically necessary medium for transformation of the post-war population to citizenry of the Federal Republic of Germany’ (Schildt 2013). Two years later, during the commemoration of the end of the war, German President Richard von Weizsäcker designated 8 May as a day of liberation, a statement that until then belonged in the semantics of the antifascist GDR version of history. Von Weizsäcker thus adopted a normative change in perspective. The view of 1945 no longer defined as a day of defeat seen whenever possible by Lübbe’s ‘majority of the population’ (Kirsch 1999).

In 1986 historian Ernst Nolte triggered a so-called historians’ dispute in his assertion that the ‘class murder’ of the Bolsheviks was the logical and actual precursor of the ‘racial genocide of the Nazis’, that the ‘Gulag Archipelago preceded Auschwitz’ (Nolte 1986). Renowned intellectuals and historians rejected this comparison as an unacceptable trivialization of Nazi extermination policy as well as not being a category for comparison overall (Herbert 2003). The thesis of the singularity of the Holocaust gained significant traction in the historians’ dispute (Steinbach 2012, 18f.). At the same time, the category of comparison came under general suspicion, because as a rule the underlying intention was relativization, offsetting one category of suffering against another, and the associated trivialization. The ‘prohibition on comparison’ (Herbert 2003, 104) represented a caesura: in the post-war decades, the comparative offsetting of ‘German suffering’ – the expulsion of the so-called ‘ethnic Germans’ from Eastern Europe – against ‘German guilt’ for murdering the Jews had virtually become a state doctrine in the German Federal Republic (Beer 2005, 369–401, Hammerstein 2016, 76–77).

Meanwhile a calmness still reigned in Austria on the 40th anniversary of the war’s end in 1985 and the idea of Austria as the ‘first victim’ that had nothing to do with Nazism continued to be the official line on history. A year later, the debate over the wartime past of former UN Secretary General and presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim shattered the victim thesis of that narrative with which the Second Republic in 1945 successfully unleashed itself from its Nazi past. The struggle of the generation of memory against the ‘historical lie’ of being the ‘first victim’ of National Socialism ended with the election of Kurt Waldheim to the presidency. Austria’s image in the international press was now that of a Nazi country with a strong right-wing populist Freedom Party under Jörg Haider (elected in Innsbruck in 1986 as party chairman). This eventually led to official renunciation of the claim to victimhood. In 1991 Chancellor Franz Vranitzky conceded Austrian responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism; it was deemed appropriate in view of the negotiations for EU membership (Uhl 2011, Lehnguth 2013).

In France, historian Henry Rousso’s analysis of the ‘Vichy syndrome’ (the absence of a critical confrontation with the collaborative Vichy government regime, 1940–44), in 1987 raised the question of responsibility of the French collaborationist government in the deportation of Jews (Rousso 1987). 22 In the last decade of the 20th century, virtually all West European countries that had been under Nazi German occupation dealt with collaboration and participation in crimes of the Nazi regime and, in particular, the Holocaust. 23 After the fall of the communist regimes, corresponding discussions also began in Eastern Europe. Probably the most probing debate in a post-communist country occurred in Poland, triggered by the book Neighbors. The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Polan, by Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross in 2001. The murdering of the Jewish population of Jedwabne by fellow Polish citizens was an act attributed to the German occupiers before this book was published. However, Gross’s book confronted the image of the pure ‘victim nation’ in history, revealing the presence of widespread anti-Semitism in Poland and the Poles complicity in the Holocaust (see Polonsky and Michlic 2004).


Change of perspective in the 1980s: from exclusion to inclusion of the Holocaust in European memory

Debates about the ‘repressed’ took place within a national framework. The discussion was based on critical analysis of each nation’s ‘own’ history under Nazism and its subsequent exclusion from historical genealogy after 1945. However, a prerequisite for a change of perspective was a reframing of the past: post-war political myths focused on the nation – at the constitutional level the claim of ‘rape’ and occupation by the National Socialist German Reich as the aggressor is still valid, even in the case of the ‘Anschluss’ of Austria in March 1938 (see Botz 1989). However, when the views are centred not on the nation, but on society, a completely different picture emerges: only through participation or at least acquiescence of large parts of the population could Nazi persecution policies be carried out. This was a new issue because in post-war decades the lessons from history in the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria mainly related to the causes of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 or 1938, and not on social involvement in the Nazi regime when in power. Accordingly, the question of guilt focused on which political forces resisted or, on the contrary, did little to resist the ‘seizure of power’ in 1933 or the ‘Anschluss’ in 1938. Until the break caused by the Waldheim debate in 1986, the conflict over the Austrian past dealt with the question of which of the two major political camps – the Social Democrats or Social Christians or their successors, the Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) – bore greater guilt for annexing the state in March 1938. The period of Nazi rule in Austria from 1938 to 1945 was not disputed, however, since these years were not viewed as Austrian, but rather as part of the history of the National Socialist German Reich.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the situation was not fundamentally different, despite the assumption of responsibility for Nazi crimes and incipient prosecution of Nazi criminals in the Ulm Einsatzgruppen trials of 1959. Critical perspectives on the Nazi past focused on the failure of political and social elites and democratic parties to prevent the rise of the Nazi party. The question of who brought Hitler to power and in which ideological camps and classes belonged the supporters and voters of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP) was controversially discussed (Falter 1991). At the fore of the guilt debates, as in Austria, was the time before the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship. After the ‘seizure of power’ by a dictatorial regime operating with terror and violence, democratic parties were eliminated and incapacitated. The crimes of the Nazi regime were attributed to a small elite, which had suppressed ‘its own people’ by terror.

The ‘discovery’ of public involvement in the Holocaust and the intellectual confusion relating to the suppression of this entanglement after 1945 was a European generational experience, whereby the Federal Republic of Germany from the mid-1980s has assumed a pioneering role in the ‘processing’ of a ‘displaced’ past. Increasing interest in local and regional history, as well as in oral history and everyday life now has also yielded specific knowledge on the execution of Nazi crimes locally. Not only victims, but also the perpetrators have been named and in rare cases they have even be held accountable for their actions.

At the same time the Holocaust won a universal relevance no longer limited to the ‘perpetrator nation’, as expressed in Dan Diner’s term ‘break with civilization’. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues similarly, but in a different light: the Holocaust was not a relapse into barbarism, but a result of the ambivalence of modernity (Bauman 1992). The two positions produce an immediate relevance because the Holocaust was planned and carried out in those social structures that also exist in the current social order. Destruction is considered the most radical counter-model to liberal democratic values but remains a possibility of all modern societies. The moral imperative of the Stockholm Declaration must be understood against this background: the Holocaust is an unprecedented event of universal significance that ‘rocked civilization to its foundations’. Thus, mitigation of the moral and ethical meaning of the Holocaust would require a fundamental change in Western civilization.

The formation of the generation of memory in Europe took place against the background of a disturbing transnational experience of irritation: how could it be that an event now regarded as the most profound negative turning point in the history of civilization only several years ago – that is, even during the course of its own educational socialization – occupied only a marginal place in the historical narrative. Also how could it be that the actual execution of this unparalleled crime was locally concealed and hushed up? The social energies of the generation of memory were now primarily directed at a rectified and dignified commemoration of ‘forgotten’ groups of victims – Jews, Gypsies, victims of euthanasia, homosexuals, deserters – and the visibility of places of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes.

In the last two decades, a new topography of Holocaust remembrance has arisen: memorials, commemorative plaques and ‘stumbling blocks’ in public spaces, memorial museums and documentation centres, as well as memorials at historic sites. The former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau has increasingly become a supranational memorial site. Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation for the first time assumed the nature of a European, if not global, event through the participation of numerous heads of state and live transmission by many European broadcasters. In November 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution marking 27 January as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 24 On 27 January 2005, the EU Parliament voted this date to be the Holocaust Remembrance Day. 25


Post-2004 Europe: a new division in European memory

The idea of a teleological passage from national memory repositories to a universal ‘cosmopolitan’ humankind memory as a basis for a global human rights morality, as so euphorically described by sociologists Levy and Sznaider in 2001, soon had to be revised. The former Latvian Foreign Minister and Commissioner-designate Sandra Kalniete initated a new dissonance in the remembrance space of Europe in her much-noted speech at the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair in 2004. Kalniete affirmed a shared memory of the new post-1989 Europe, but placed the singularity of the Holocaust into question:

After the Second World War, Europe was cut by the Iron Curtain into two halves, which not only enslaved the people of Eastern Europe, but also erased the history of the entire history of the continent. Europe had just freed itself from the scourge of Nazism; and after the bloodshed of the war it was totally understandable that only a few people had the strength to look the bitter truth in the eye – in particular, the fact that terror continued in one-half of Europe, where behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet regime committed further genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe and even its own people.

The ‘history of the victors of the Second World War’ dominated for fifty years. ‘Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain did researchers have access to archived documents and personal stories of the victims. These confirm that the two totalitarian systems – Nazism and communism – were equally criminal.’ 26 Kalnietes’s rhetoric already contained the main arguments of a historical policy that was represented by deputies from post-communist countries in the European Union: 1) an explicit equation of the crimes of Nazism and communism, 2) a reactivation of the concept of totalitarianism, a term of struggle during the Cold War. 27 This was also a politically charged counter-argument in Western Europe against the Marxist-oriented theory of fascism of the generation of 1968: while the theory of totalitarianism equated the two totalitarian systems, National Socialism and communism, the fascism theory posited a close nexus between National Socialism (and other fascisms) and capitalism; and 3) the charge of ‘genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe’ that Kalniete addressed in a highly influential semantic context.

The term genocide was only politically relevant again in the 1980s as a key concept in the debate on comparability of the Holocaust and other state crimes, on the one hand, and in stressing ethnic or national victim status, on the other (Pohl 2016). The meaning of the term lies in the logic that it elicits: clearly, mostly ethnically defined victims and collectives of perpetrators face each other in a genocide. The genocide of the Armenians and, above all, the Holocaust as genocide as such constitute paradigmatic historical case studies. ‘Genocide’ therefore implies a completely innocent collective of victims that is defenceless against the genocide of the culprit. Thus, a new viable formula was found for those arguments that already served as a basis for the strategy of excluding social responsibility in the political myths of post-war Europe. This had now been vehemently adopted by post-communist states for themselves: their own people as the innocent victim of the occupying Soviet Union, a brutal aggressor from the ‘outside’.

The battle for European remembrance in the EU was reopened with Kalnietes’s speech in the year of the accession of eight post-communist states – memory now became a cultural guiding difference in the new Europe. The different cultural patterns of the Gulag and Holocaust memory – so termed by Stefan Troebst for the competing positions of European remembrance (Troebst 2005) – reproduced the boundaries between East and West, which should have been overcome by the project of a common European memory. Political scientist Ljiljana Radonić shows how equating the two totalitarian regimes is implemented in concrete terms in the exhibition practices of the post-socialist memorial museums, as exemplified in the museums dealing with the Nazi occupation in the Baltic countries and the House of Terror in Budapest: ‘What begins as an equation of the two regimes ends as an abridged description of the Nazi period, with the intention to present the communist era as all the worse for the comparison.’ In Poland, after the victory at the polls of the right-wing conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), work on the Museum of the Second World War was halted only few months before its scheduled opening, because it was deemed ‘too international in its orientation and too self-critical’ (Radonić 2016). The head of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, stated:

We shall defend Polish interests, the Polish truth. We will change the concept of the World War Museum so that the exhibition reflects the Polish standpoint. The education of young Poles must not be grounded on a feeling of shame, such as is the case today. Rather, it must be anchored in a sense of dignity and pride. 28

In the post-communist societies of Europe, public or official memory oriented itself naturally towards those forms of identity formation through the externalization of dark sides of the past. These – similarly to Tony Judt’s term of ‘post-war myths’ – can be described as the political myths of post-communism: the notion of one’s own society as an innocent victim of communism presented as imposed foreign rule, the issue of blame projected on ‘others’, that is the Soviet Union. The involvement of one’s own society in communist rule is negated. The Iron Curtain has been history since 1989, but it has remained as a dividing line in the sense of history and the morality of the history of post-2004 Europe.

After the ‘Eastern enlargement’ of the EU, the question of dealing with the experience of dual dictatorship was now on the agenda of EU-European politics of history. The European Parliament or Council of Europe became the stage for the ‘Memory Wars in the “New Europe”’ (Stone 2012). Efforts to effect post-communist history policy at a European level succeeded in the establishment of a second pan-European remembrance day. On 2 April 2009, the European Parliament agreed by a majority on a resolution made by centre-right oriented deputies to declare 23 August as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The resolution ‘on European conscience and totalitarianism’ was adopted with 553 votes in favour, 44 votes against and 33 abstentions. 29 The decision was preceded by a process manifested in June 2008 with an international conference in Prague on ‘European Conscience and Communism’. The conference culminated in the Prague Declaration, which called for ‘recognition of Communism as an integral and horrific part of Europe’s common history’. The seventeen-point programme starts with the postulate of equating of the crimes of Nazism and communism under the name of totalitarianism. The goal is:

reaching an all-European understanding that both the Nazi and communist totalitarian regimes each to be judged by their own terrible merits [sic] to be destructive in their policies of systematically applying extreme forms of terror, suppressing all civic and human liberties, starting aggressive wars and, as an inseparable part of their ideologies, exterminating and deporting whole nations and groups of population; and that as such they should be considered to be the main disasters, which blighted the 20th century. 30

The Prague Declaration proposed, among other things, the founding of ‘an Institute of European Memory and Conscience’, the establishment of a ‘pan-European museum / memorial for victims of all totalitarian regimes’, a conference ‘on the crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes with the participation of representatives of governments, parliamentarians, academics, experts and NGOs’, further integration in ‘European history textbooks so children can learn and be warned about communism and its crimes in the same way as they have been taught to assess Nazi crimes’. 31

Equation of communism and Nazism was to be primarily recognized through the establishment of a European Day of Remembrance analogous to the Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January. Point 9 is required: ‘the establishment of 23 August, the date of the signing the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a day of remembrance of the victims of Nazi and communist totalitarian regimes in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on 27 January.’ 32

According to German literary scholar Albrecht Koschorke’s draft political narrative theory, the recognition of victim status, as in a civil war situation, is not primarily dependent on experience itself, but on the nature of its explanation. This can also apply to the recognition of past victim status: anyone who tells his story ‘wrong’, that is ‘falsely’ defining himself as a victim, can be cut off from the symbolic resources of memory cultural recognition (Koschorke 2009). The Prague Declaration can be read in so far as an attempt through the appropriation of narratives and cultural forms of the (Western) European Holocaust memory to legitimize the totalitarianism assumption of post-communist politics of history – it is obvious that the Stockholm Declaration here serves as a model. The crimes of the Nazis, however, are not mentioned in any of the paragraphs of the Prague Declaration and there is no explicit mention of the Holocaust. The goal is rather to ascribe the same criminal character of the Nazi regime to communist dictatorships. Above all, the moral value that is part of the memory of the Holocaust is missing. The breakdown of civilization in Auschwitz renders human and civil rights a universal moral orientation for the present and future (Alexander 2009). The legacy of the Holocaust experience is seen in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. 33

The European Parliament’s justification for the establishment of a European remembrance day for the victims of totalitarianism states is this: ‘Europe will only be united if it is able to arrive at a common view of its history, to recognize communism, Nazism and fascism as a “common legacy” and to hold an “honest and profound debate” on all totalitarian crimes of the past century.’ 34 The conservative Polish daily Rzeczpospolita welcomed the initiative for a new European day of remembrance as a success in the political confrontation not only with ‘Moscow’ but also with the European left:

In this case the aim is to underscore the true role of the Soviet Union, which was initially an ally of Nazi Germany, in the division of Europe and only changed to the other side in the ensuing battle over the spoils of war. The myth portraying the Soviet Union as victor over the Third Reich not only served Moscow well in its domestic policy. It was also used for many years to justify the Soviet Union and the Communist parties receiving special treatment in Western Europe. Honouring the victims of Stalinism along with Hitler’s victims will represent a fundamental condemnation of Stalinist Communism. For the majority of Europe’s Left – even today – this is an act that is barely acceptable. 35

This comment refers to political-ideological connotations and interests that often relate to the memory of the victims of communism. In viewing current historical-political conflicts in post-communist societies attempts have been made at a revisionist rewriting of history in Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia (Luthar 2013; Wölfl 2016; Radonić 2013). It is clear that the memory of the victims of communism is accompanied by delegitimizing the anti-fascist resistance and in many cases rehabilitating the partisans and collaborators with Nazism.

The stated aim of the history policy related to the remembrance date of 23 August is to view communism and Nazism as ‘equally criminal’. This argument is directed at a ‘shared’ and harmonized view of European history that integrates experiences on both sides of the Iron Curtain (Leggewie and Meier 2012). 36 However, the strategy of placing Nazism and communism under the umbrella term of totalitarianism seems hardly suitable. Redeployment of the totalitarianism concept from the arsenal of the system competition of the Cold War has neither academic nor social resonance. The culture of remembrance for the Holocaust is characterized by ‘negative remembrance’ (Koselleck 2002), an internalization of responsibility of one’s own society. This approach specifically presupposed the overcoming of the functionalization of comparison between the two systems for the purpose of equating and thus relativizing them. The theory of totalitarianism determined Western European political history during the Cold War and its goal was the historical-political struggle against communism through its equation with Nazism. A countermodel was developed with the theory of fascism that rendered fascism a continuity of capitalist-bourgeois social forms. The political instrumentalization of historical comparison in both concepts, however, had not only served as a weapon against political or ideological opponents in foreign and domestic politics, but also concealed the dark sides one’s own history’s past.

The Holocaust and Gulag remembrance dates of 27 January and 23 August, therefore, relate not only to different historical reference points, but also reflect different opinions about what the opposing memories should serve in a society. European Holocaust remembrance combines a negative commemoration that inquires about the participation of a nation’s own society in a guilty past and on this basis sets moral and ethical standards in the present (Barkan 2001; Olick 2007). Gulag remembrance as is currently manifested, in turn, has those functions underlying the construction of European ‘post-war myths’ after 1945: the presentation of one’s own society as a victim of foreign powers and the ‘externalization’ of one’s nation’s own involvement in a regime and its crimes.

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) brought the question of the comparison between National Socialist and Stalinist dictatorship to centre stage in the debate in the United States. A central role is played in the controversies surrounding Bloodlands with questions of comparison and equation, the externalization of guilt and the construction of national and ethnic victims’ narratives. The book by the Yale historian received an ambivalent reception: euphoric reviews speaking of a magisterial work that sets new benchmarks contrast with critical voices.

Here I mention three positions put forward by renowned historians. First, the historian of Eastern Europe Stefan Troebst found the justification for the geographical construction of the ‘pathos formula Bloodlands’ hardly convincing, falling very short of the mark of Stalinist crimes. Moreover, the claim made that the work is based on totally new research findings and archival sources is inappropriate given the current state of international research on this region (Troebst 2011). Secondly, historian Omer Bartov (‘The book presents no new evidence’) also refers to that, and his main criticism is that Snyder fails to take into proper account the ‘complexity and ambiguity’ in the period of Soviet and German occupations from 1939 to 1944. Rather, the occupied populations are described ‘largely as victims’. Violence within and between the ethnic groups, collaboration, denunciation and the involvement of the local population in local massacres of the Jews are seen in the context of earlier Soviet crimes or are largely blanked out. No mention is even made of the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, which has become the iconic location of the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbours since the publication of Neighbors by Jan T. Gross in 2001. Instead, Poland and Ukraine appear rather as victims of this ‘titanic clash between two brutal regimes’. Finally, ‘Soviet and Nazi occupation, Wehrmacht and Red Army’ are equated as ‘similarly criminal for similar reasons’ (Bartov 2011, 427–28). Dan Diner’s main point of criticism targets the equating of the Holocaust and Stalinist crimes as the leitmotif of Bloodlands. Diner points to the fundamental difference: Poland and Ukraine fell victim to both occupation regimes, but were not threatened by collective extermination. ‘By contrast, for the Jews death was the rule [...], survival was the exception’ (Diner 2012, 131).

Towards overcoming of division in European memory?

The question of how to overcome this division in shared memory has led to different considerations and concepts. Cultural studies scholar Aleida Assmann sees the way to a common European culture of remembrance in a ‘dialogical commemoration’ that avoids victim competition, political instrumentalization and exclusion from guilt (Assmann 2007). Political scientist Claus Leggewie seeks to view the asymmetry of European memory in seven concentric circles with Auschwitz as the first memory circle and the ‘anchor and vanishing point of a supranational and transnational memory’ (Leggewie 2011, 15). The ‘competition and hierarchy between [...] Holocaust memory and Gulag memory’, however, persists even in this model (Leggewie 2011, 24).

Does the problem of shared European memory lie in the ‘perception blockade’ of the West (Leggewie 2011, 26), which fails to recognize the importance of the Gulag experience for Europe, or is unable to integrate it meaningfully? For sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider it is, above all, a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ that allowed the Holocaust to be a ‘moral leitmotif ’ and ‘global reference point of remembrance’ (Levy and Sznaider 2001, 149–150). Or, is the centrality of the Holocaust in the event itself, which defies comparison?


This argument is made by historian Yehuda Bauer. Its equation with the crimes of communism ‘not only trivializes and relativizes the genocide of the Jews perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but is also a mendacious revision of recent world history’ (Bauer 2016). This criticism is aimed against the use of the term ‘genocide’ for Stalinist crimes. Bauer can rely on the findings of the Latvian Historical Commission: ‘In any case, it was brutal oppression, but genocide it most certainly was not.’ Both regimes were totalitarian, but nevertheless somewhat different. ‘The greater threat to all of humanity was Nazi Germany, and it was the Soviet Army that liberated Eastern Europe. [It] was the central force that defeated Nazi Germany, and thus saved Europe and the world from the Nazi nightmare.’ Bauer summed up:

One certainly should remember the victims of the Soviet regime and there is every justification for designating special memorials and events to do so. But, to put the two regimes at the same level and commemorating different crimes on the same occasion is totally unacceptable (Bauer 2016).

In 2000 historian Charles M. Maier raised the question of why the memory of the Holocaust and Stalinist crimes has a different ‘political half-life’. Why has ‘the Holocaust become so central to the memory of the century’, why did ‘the Gulag Archipelago not have as deep an internal effect?’ (Maier 2001/2). Maier cites several arguments: the Nazi regime extended its reign of terror until the fall, while communist states have decades of a ‘post-totalitarian phase’ of normalization. A further difference is that racist Nazi terror was specifically directed at a clearly defined group of victims, whereas Stalinist terror was random, unpredictable for the individual and often lacked any apparent reason. The real ‘reason that the memory of Nazism and genocide may not cool,’ however, is the question of ‘complicity.’ ‘The Nazi past and other past genocides pose the question to each person of how he would have acted.’ This ‘almost universal question’ does not let the memory of Nazism cool, but still puts us ‘existentially to the test.’ This challenge does not distance over time away from the event itself, quite the contrary: ‘shame grows over time.’ The first generation was under moral pressure of justification toward those who resisted or went into exile. The ‘awareness of complicity, of coperpetration’ unfolded only in the generations of children and grandchildren.

At the beginning of the 21st century stood the vision of a memory overarching borders in the era of a post-national globalization – Europe today, as in the past, is shaped by the struggle over memory. The front lines of that struggle do not run only between Western and ‘post-communist’ Europe, but also between the two different stances in dealing with the legacy of National Socialism and communism, Holocaust and Gulag. On one side, the understanding of memory and remembrance as a critical project, one that seeks to deal with and confront the entanglements of one’s own society in totalitarian rule; on the other, the continuation of the narratives of the national myths of the hero and victim. To that extent, memory in the post-ideological era that has supplanted the ‘age of extremes’ 37 and the bipolar world of the Cold War becomes the seismograph of moral-ethical positionings: ‘A society becomes visible in its cultural heritage: to itself and for others. What past [...] it allows to become visible there says something about what that society is and what it wishes to become’ (Assmann 1988, 16).



Heidemarie Uhl

Heidemarie Uhl, born in 1956, is a senior researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and lecturer at the University of Vienna and the University of Graz. She was a guest professor at Strasbourg University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Andrássy University Budapest and Stanford University. Uhl is a member of the Austrian Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a member of the scientific board of the Haus der Geschichte Österreich (vice chairperson) and the Militärhistorische Denkmalkommission at the Austrian Ministry of Defence (vice chairperson). She is currently directing a project on the reconceptualization of the Austrian Hero’s Monument.




1 Troebst 2005, 381–400; Uhl 2009, 59–72.

2 Kaelble 1999.

3 On the Holocaust Memorial Day, see Schmid 2008, 178.

4 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. Accessed 13 December 2016: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/de/about-us-stockholm-declaration/ erkl%C3%A4rung-des-stockholmer-internationalen-forums-%C3%BCber-den-holocaust. In the Stockholm Declaration, government representatives undertake, among others, to call for Holocaust education in schools and to establish Holocaust remembrance days in their countries.

5 Kroh 2008, 75 f., 214 f. Accessed 13 December 2016: https://www.holocaustremembrance. com/member-countries

6 ‘It is as if there was a flood of memories throughout the world and in general a close tie was made between the past and the feeling of membership, collective consciousness and individual feeling, memory and identity.’ Nora 2001/2, 18.

7 Ibid., 23.

8 Levy and Sznaider 2001, 225.

9 Lyotard 1979.

10 M. Rainer Lepsius notes Austria – as well as the GDR – as successor states to the German Reich. Lepsius 1989, 247–64.

11 See Lagrou 1999; see articles on the national configurations of European memory in Flacke 2004; also, Knigge and Frei 2002; Sapper and Weichsel 2008.

12 The New Reminder, February 1955, cited in Bailer, Perz and Uhl 2008. Accessed 13 December 2016: doew.at

13 See Lipstadt 2011; Gross 2012, 186–191.

14 See Gross and Renz 2013; Pendas 2006 [German: 2013].

15 Fritz, Kovács and Rásky 2016; Bankier and Dan Michman 2008.

16 Classen 2004. Accessed 13 December 2016: http://www.zeitgeschichte-online. de/thema/die-fernsehserie-holocaust

17 For the latest critique of victim orientation and related thoughts, see Assmann 2013; Snyder 2014/15), 131–56.

18 See Linenthal 1995; Rosenfeld 2015 (English: 2011), 53–92; for a critical view, see Novick 2001 (English: 1999), 278–84.

19 Judt 1993, 934.

20 Nora (2001/2), 18

21 See for Germany: Frei 2008, 71–86; on the connection with research on contemporary history and generational experience as exemplified in Austria see Mattl and Uhl 2003.

22 See also, Burrin 2005.

23 On the transformations in national European memory culture in regard to the paradigm shift at the end of the 20th century, see Bauerkämper 2012 (included here are Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Norway, Denmark, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland); Flacke 2004; see also Knigge and Frei 2002 (Israel and the US are also taken into account here); Sapper and Weichsel 2008; Troebst 2010; for West Europe, see Lagrou 1999.

24 Accessed 15 December 2016: http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance

25 Accessed 15 December 2016: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc. do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P6-TA-2005–0018+0+DOC+XML+V0//DE dated 27.01.2015

26 Sandra Kalniete, ‘Altes Europa, Neues Europa’. Speech at the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair, 24 March 2004. Accessed 13 December 2016: https://phinau.de/jfarchiv/ archiv04/154yy21.htm (dated 2.4.2004); http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/literatur/ eklat-bei-buchmesse-eroeffnung-das-hoere-ich-mir-nicht-an-a-292272.html (dated 24 March 2004).

27 Rabinbach 2009; Leggewie 2006.

28 Florian Kellermann, ‘Polens Regierung schreibt Geschichte. Museen vor Neuausrichtung’, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 18 April 2016. http:goo.gl/jN0Ixz

29 Pressemitteilung. 23. August zum Gedenktag für Opfer totalitärer und autoritärer Regime machen (Press report. Make August 23rd a memorial day for the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes). Accessed 14 December 2016: http://www.europarl.europa. eu/news/expert/infopress_page/019–53246–091–04–14–902–20090401IPR53245– 01–04–2009–2009-false/default_de.htm (dated 2 April 2009)

30 http://www.ustrcr.cz/data/pdf/konference/sbornik-svedomi-en.pdf (dated 3 June 2008), 159–160.

31 Ibid., 160.

32 Ibid.

33 This commitment is central to the Stockholm Declaration. Since mankind is increasingly affected by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and hostility to foreigners, the public community has enormous responsibility in combatting this evil. Accessed 13 December 2016: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/de/about-us-stockholm-declaration/ erkl%C3%A4rung-des-stockholmer-internationalen-forums-%C3%BCber-den-holocaust

34 Accessed 13 December 2016: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc. do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P6-TA-2009–0213+0+DOC+XML+V0//DE

35 Eurotopics press review, ‘A European day of remembrance’, Rzeczpospolita, 23 September 2008. Accessed 14 December 2016: http://archiv.eurotopics.net/en/home/presseschau/ archiv/results/archiv_article/ARTICLE36282-A-European-day-of-remembrance

36 Aline Sierp represents the opposite view that indeed discussion of different positions at the EU level creates a common transnational communications room. Sierp 2014.

37 Hobsbawm 1994 [German: 1995].

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Photo of the publication Holocaust Memorials in Central and Eastern Europe: Communist Legacies, Transnational Influences and National Developments
Marek Kucia

Holocaust Memorials in Central and Eastern Europe: Communist Legacies, Transnational Influences and National Developments

19 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • communism
  • Shoah
  • Jews
  • Memory
  • Place of remembrance
  • Second World War
  • Places of Memory


The article analyses selected Holocaust memorials in several Central and East European countries. Using the approaches of historical and visual sociology, it identifies processes and agents that shaped the present-day memorials during communism and after. These were: commemoration by Jews; memorialization, marginalization, suppression and the obliteration of Jewish victimhood by the communist authorities; making minor or substantial changes to the existing monuments after communism and developing them; and creating new Holocaust memorials both public and private, and by domestic and foreign agents. The article concludes that the Holocaust memorials in the region are primarily a result of legacies of communist times. They were also shaped by transnational influences. By and large they are national developments.



Memorials – monuments, plaques and other commemorative objects – belong to the most tangible manifestations of collective memory as understood by Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs [1925] 1992) and other scholars of social and cultural memory studies (Erll and Nünning 2008; Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi and Levy 2011). The memorials are also the epitomes of remembrance or, to use the words of one of the most prominent memory studies scholars, the visible ‘products of mnemonic practices’ (Olick 2008). While mostly official and public, some are unofficial and private. Therefore, the study of memorials best reveals the characteristics and development of collective memory and public remembrance of a given event by various social groups. This article will account for the main findings of a study of memorials to the Holocaust, that is, the persecution and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators during the Second World War. The study concerned major Holocaust memorials in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It was carried out as a part of and a follow-up to a larger research project entitled ‘The Europeanization of Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe’ funded by the European Union, and in the context of the COST action ‘In Search of Transnational Memory in Europe’. 1 The study was conducted from the perspective of historical and visual sociology. The author of this article carried out the study between 2013 and 2016, including extensive fieldwork – an on-site exploration and a written and photographic documentation of the selected Holocaust memorials, museums, and sites in selected countries of Central and Eastern Europe – in 2014–15. The main objective of the study was to account for the processes and agents that shaped the present-day Holocaust memorials in the region. This article will discuss some of the objects covered by the study that best illustrate the patterns discovered. They belong to or are the most important Holocaust memorials in their countries. All empirical evidence given in the article comes from the author’s field research carried out in the spring and summer of 2014, unless otherwise indicated.

The region, countries and objects discussed in this article were chosen for three reasons. First, the Holocaust has had a special historical significance for Central and Eastern Europe. It is there that the murder of Jews largely took place. The vast majority of Holocaust victims were the Jews of Central and East European countries. Some states of the region and some people engaged in the Holocaust as accomplices or perpetrators. As a result of the Holocaust, Central and East European countries lost nearly all their Jewish populations. Coping with the Holocaust has been a major challenge for the people and states in the region. Secondly, the collective memory and commemoration of the Holocaust have been increasingly important for the countries and people in the region as they have for other countries and people, and, indeed, all humanity. These processes were accounted for in the social sciences theories capturing various aspects of transnational Holocaust memory and in the works of historians. Jeffrey C. Alexander (2002) showed that the Holocaust has come to be recognized globally as the epitome of the universal evil. Thus Holocaust memory has become universalized and globalized. Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider (2002) indicated that following the development of national memories of the Holocaust in such countries as (West) Germany, Israel and the USA from the 1950s to the 1980s, Holocaust memory also became cosmopolitan in the 1990s and 2000s. The cosmopolitanization of Holocaust memory involved its universalization, de-territorialization, de-contextualization and mediatization. Authors such as Larissa Allwork (2015) and Marek Kucia (2016) highlighted the role of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the European Union (EU), and other international organizations for the internationalization and Europeanization of Holocaust memory. Kucia (2016) also analysed the impact of these processes on Central and East European countries. Authors in the volume edited by Jean-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic (2013) and others (e.g. Steinlauf 1997; Sniegon 2014) discussed the development of Holocaust memory in the counties of the region, particularly on the demise of communism. The third reason for studying Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe was that this is an under-researched topic. There were publications covering the most important Holocaust memorials, particularly ones in the region (e.g. Cole 2003; Kopówka 2002; Marcuse 2010; Milton and Nowinski 1991; Toronyi 2013; Young 1989, 1993, 1994). Holocaust memorials were also addressed in the broader studies of Holocaust memory or Holocaust sites, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. authors in Himka and Michlic 2013; Huener 2003; Kucia 2005; Wóycicka 2013). Several institutions have catalogued Holocaust memorials online (e.g. Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2016; Topography of Terror Foundation, 2016). There does not, however, exist a publication that would comparatively and diachronically analyse the Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe during and after communism. This article will attempt to fill this gap.

The perspective that the article will take will be regional rather than national. The analysis of selected memorials in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe will aim at identifying patterns of Holocaust remembrance common to various countries of the region where the Holocaust happened, instead of comparing memorials in order to find differences in Holocaust (non-)remembrance among the various nations. Thus on studying national developments in Holocaust memorials, the article will try to show their transnational aspects. The article will look at Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe rather than across Europe or the wider (Western) world. The main reason for that will be to demonstrate the legacies of communism upon Holocaust remembrance in the area where the Holocaust largely took place.

The article will proceed as follows. First, it will discuss the processes of Holocaust (non-remembrance) at the communist times, analysing cases of the present-day memorials and memorial sites of the Holocaust. Secondly, the article will highlight the processes and examples of transformations of the commemorative objects from the communist times after 1989–91 and the development of new ones ever since. In both periods, mnemonic agents will be identified. In the conclusions, the article will assess the role of various processes and agents for shaping the present-day Holocaust memorials and will discuss the relevance of some theories of transnational Holocaust memory in accounting for the memorials.


Holocaust (non-)remembrance during communism

Literature on Holocaust memorials (e.g. Milton and Nowinski 1991; Young 1989, 1993, 1994; Marcuse 2010) and that on Holocaust memory (e.g. Himka and Michlic 2013; Huener 2003; Steinlauf 1997) dealt with icons of Holocaust memorials located in Central and Eastern Europe that were created during communism, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, the memorial in Treblinka or the International Monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the same time, this literature conveys the view that there was little, hardly any or no remembrance of the Holocaust in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule. This section will explore and attempt to both challenge and corroborate this view by identifying and discussing various processes and cases of Holocaust memorialization, marginalization, suppression and obliteration in those countries between the end of the war there in 1944–45 and the demise of communism in 1989–91.

Chronologically and analytically, the first process that took place throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the early years after the war consisted of attempts at commemorating the murdered Jews by Jewish survivors, the returning families and friends of the victims and the Jewish communities or organizations. Some of these attempts were spontaneous and unofficial. Others were organized and involved obtaining permission from the local authorities to create memorials. Many of the attempts were successful. Examples of successful memorialization included objects commemorating the mass graves of Jews on the sites of killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (death squads and local auxiliaries) in Nazi-invaded Soviet Union, such as those in the Rumbula Forest near Riga in 1941, monuments of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Jewish monument in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, and a cemetery of the victims of the Budapest Ghetto.

The objects commemorating the victims of mass killings buried in the mass graves in Rumbula and other sites in the then Belarussian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics included memorial signs, piles of stones, wooden tablets and Stars of David (Young 1994). Most of these early memorials no longer exist. Many were torn down by the local authorities. Others decayed after the Jews who installed them and were looking after them had emigrated. However, photographs of many of these ‘unofficial memorials’ may be seen in literature (e.g. in Young 1994, 27–28) and in some exhibitions. For example, the early attempts at commemorating the Rumbula killings are documented in the exhibition ‘Rumbula: Anatomy of a crime, 1941’ in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.

Two monuments of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 are the most remarkable examples of the early Holocaust memorials that last until today. They are located on a large square established on the ruins of the ghetto in the centre of the capital of Poland. The process to erect the monuments was initiated by the surviving and returning Polish Jews. The monuments were commissioned by the main Jewish organization in early post-war Poland – the Central Committee of Polish Jews [Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce], which was granted permission by the authorities. The first of the two monuments is little known. It was unveiled in 1946 to mark the third anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising. It is a modest tablet on a pedestal, created by the architect Leon Suzin. On the tablet is an inscription in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew. The powerful inscription reads: ‘19 April 1946 / To those who fell / in the unprecedentedly / heroic struggle / for the dignity and freedom / of the Jewish people, / for a free Poland, / for the liberation of man / The Polish Jews’ [Tym, którzy polegli / w bezprzykładnie / bohaterskiej walce / o godność i wolność / narodu żydowskiego, / o wolną Polskę, / o wyzwolenie człowieka / Żydzi polscy]. Thus, the text defines the commemorated event by giving its starting date. Those commemorated are conceived as the fallen, fighters and heroes. The text also defines the causes of their fight referring to lofty universalist, Jewish national and Polish patriotic values. Lastly, those who commemorate are signed – ‘The Polish Jews’.

The second of the two lasting early memorials is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Monument, referred to in Poland as the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes [Pomnik Bohaterów Getta]. It was created by the sculptor Nathan Rapoport and the designer of the first monument, architect M. Suzin. The monument was unveiled on 19 April 1948, during an official ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Ever since, the memorial has been the site of official and unofficial, Polish and Jewish anniversary commemorations (Young 1989; Steinlauf 1997), which has become the main Holocaust commemoration in Poland. The monument resembles a wall, with a sculpture at the front and a relief at the rear. The sculpture, entitled ‘The Fight’ [Walka], shows insurgents. The relief represents the march of the Jewish men, women and children to their annihilation. The structure stands on a plinth, with two menorahs either side. A short inscription in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew beneath the sculpture on the front of the monument defines the commemorating and the commemorated: ‘The Jewish people – to its fighters and martyrs’ [Naród żydowski – swym bojownikom i męczennikom].

The Central Committee of Polish Jews also initiated and succeeded in installing the Jewish monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The monument was erected by the ruins of one of the gas chambers and crematoriums in the former Birkenau part of the Auschwitz complex in 1948 (Huener 2003; Kucia 2005; Wóycicka 2013). The memorial, however, does not exist any longer. It was dismantled during the construction of the current International Monument unveiled in 1967.

Although an organization of Polish Jews was successful in installing the Jewish monument at the largest site of the Holocaust, it failed in its attempts to memorialize the main killing site of the Jews of Poland – the death camp of Treblinka. Despite the organization’s efforts, the authorities refused to grant permission for a monument that they believed would be ‘too Jewish’ (Young 1989; Wóycicka 2013).

The cemetery of Holocaust victims from the Budapest Ghetto, located in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex, also referred to as the Great Synagogue, the main synagogue of Hungary, is another significant example of the early Jewish commemorative objects. It is a rare case of an unintended Holocaust memorial. The garden near a synagogue that had been in the ghetto became a burial place for some 2,000 Jews by order of the authorities in the first days after the liberation of the ghetto by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. This was against the Jewish tradition as it was impossible to use the Jewish cemeteries due to warfare. The makeshift graveyard, however, became perpetual; the corpses were never exhumed and transferred from the mass graves in the garden.

Over the years, the cemetery has become a Holocaust memorial site – ‘the most authentic Holocaust memorial in Hungary’ (Toronyi 2013, 1).

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the families of the victims, Jewish activists and organizations developed some of the earliest Holocaust memorials and created new ones. This process – like all aspects of social, political and economic life under communism – was controlled by the communist authorities. Much of this continued and new Jewish memorialization was confined to the Jewish community spaces. For example, in the late 1950s, the Jewish Museum in Prague made the Pinchas Synagogue into a Holocaust memorial by inscribing the names of almost 80,000 Czech Jewish victims onto its walls (Frankl 2013, 176). In Hungary, the cemetery of the Holocaust victims from the Budapest Ghetto in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex became the core of a growing Holocaust memorial site. Over the years, individual Jews and Jewish organizations placed various Holocaust memorial objects in the garden. Until the collapse of communism, these were: a plaque marking the exact spot where the Soviet troops first entered the former Ghetto, plaques and bouquets commemorating the identified victims buried in the mass graves in the garden and individual and group victims of other sites of the Holocaust of the Jews of Hungary, and a ‘memorial wall’ (Toronyi 2013). A white marble plaque with an inscription was affixed onto this memorial wall by the sculptor István Zana. The inscription read: ‘As an eternal reminder of the day forty years ago when the walls surrounding the only Ghetto remaining in Europe were broken down by the Soviet Army, liberators of our homeland. 18 January 1945 – 18 January 1985’ [örök emlékeztetőü l arra a 40 évvel ezelőtti napra, amikor az egyetlen megmaradt európai gettót körülvevő falakat lerombolta a hazánkat felszabadító szovjet hadsereg. 1945. január 18 – 1985. január 18] (Toronyi 2013, 7). Thus, this central memorial object placed in the hidden memorial garden lacked a reference to Jews and their Holocaust, and focused on the Soviet ‘liberators’, which was typical of most of Hungary’s memorials of the Holocaust at that time (Cole 2003).

Alongside the Jewish spaces, Jewish memorialization also took place in more general, freely accessible public spaces. For instance in the Rumbula Forest, in the then Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, the authorities granted permission to the Jewish community of Riga to install a monument that replaced the early commemorative objects. The monument that stands to this day is a simple medium-sized granite stone resembling a Jewish tombstone, with a carved inscription in Latvian, Russian, and Yiddish in the Hebrew script, the Soviet symbol of sickle and hammer and the years 1941–44. The Russian part of the inscription ‘жертвам фашизма’ translates ‘To the victims of fascism’, which is a typical way of universalizing Holocaust victims and referring to the perpetrators in the Soviet bloc at that time. Only the form of the monument and the Hebrew letters of one of the inscriptions evoke the Jewishness of the commemorated. The form and content of the monument exemplify the implicit character of most Holocaust memorials placed in public spaces during communist times. In the middle of the monument, there is a small metal plaque that must have been affixed after the fall of communism as the text on it in Latvian and English states, ‘This monument was erected in 1964 under the Soviet totalitarian regime by activists of the Riga’s Jewish community. It was the only Jewish memorial to the victims of Nazi terror in the territory of the USSR.’ The plaque does not expound that the Jewish activists had to obtain permission from the authorities. It seems then that the implicit Holocaust references and Soviet symbols were a compromise between the two parties. However, explicit Holocaust memorials free from communist elements were also built in communist-ruled Central and Eastern Europe during that era.

The memorial at Treblinka, comprising a monument and a memorial park, is the major of the rare examples of Holocaust memorialization by communist authorities. Located in Poland, on the site of the second largest former death camp (after Auschwitz) that claimed the lives of some 700,000 to 900,000 Jews, the memorial at Treblinka is considered ‘the greatest of all Holocaust memorials’ (Young 1994, 25). It was commissioned by the Polish Ministry of Culture and Arts when various events and sites of Poland’s history were being memorialized, in a period of monumentalization across the communist bloc. The Treblinka Memorial was created by the architect Adam Haupt and the sculptors Franciszek Duszeńko and Franciszek Strynkiewicz between 1959 and 1964. The monument was dedicated by high representatives of the Polish government during a rally attended by 30,000 people in 1964 as a sign of ‘the nation’s martyrdom’ (Young 1993, 188; cf. Rusiniak 2008, 51, 53), which was as an attempt to include the murder of (mostly Polish) Jews into the usually Polish ethnocentric narrative of suffering and death of Poland’s nationals during the Second World War. Since its dedication, the monument and the surrounding memorial park are the major components of the Polish public institution called the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Treblinka [Muzeum Walki i Męczeństwa Treblinka].

The monument and the memorial park in Treblinka are overt about the Holocaust. At the entrance to the memorial park, there are six blocks with inscriptions in different languages – German, French, English, Russian, Yiddish and Polish. The inscriptions explicitly state: ‘More than 800,000 Jews from Poland, USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Belgium, Germany and Greece were here murdered.’ The monument and the surrounding memorial park are full of subtle yet overt Jewish symbolism (Young 1988; Marcuse 2010). The reliefs of the monument contain motifs used on Jewish tombstones, and a menorah. The blocks on which the monument is built bear resemblances to the Wailing Wall (the wall of the Temple of Jerusalem). The monument is surrounded by over 17,000 stones resembling Jewish tombstones, 213 of them bearing names of places in the surrounding districts from which the Jews were deported to the death camp (Kopówka 2002). Eleven stones show the names of the countries of deportation (Belgium, USSR, Yugoslavia, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, Greece and Macedonia). One stone commemorates ‘the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto’ [Męczennikom getta warszawskiego], and another the individuals: ‘Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) and children’. By the monument, there is a stone with the Polish inscription ‘Nigdy więcej’ [Never again] and its translations into Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, French and German. This is a universalist call, and critics could claim that it obliterates the Jewish history and symbolism of Treblinka. They may also claim that the inscription in such a place should be explicit, for example, ‘To the memory of hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered at this site.’ However, given the historical and remembrance context, the universalist call of the inscriptions carved on the stone at the Treblinka monument has a Jewish meaning: it does not only refer to genocide but to the Jewish Holocaust. Overall, the memorial at Treblinka is the prime example of Holocaust memorialization.

Another process regarding Holocaust remembrance that may be identified consists of the marginalization and suppression of remembrance of the Jewish victims through their universalization, nationalization and internationalization in the memorials to the victims of the Second World War sponsored by the communist authorities and created in the 1960s and 1980s.

Universalization referred to the Jews murdered during the Second World War by means of general categories such as ‘humans’ or ‘victims’, without mentioning that the humans or victims were murdered as Jews and because they were considered Jewish. Universalization was also conveyed through the use of such terms as ‘murder’ and ‘genocide’, again without specifying that the murdered were Jewish. It also entailed the usage of the universalist call ‘Never again!’ without any reference to what and, especially, to whom it was meant to never happen again. Universalization also entailed the use of universalist visual representations of human suffering and death while no Jewish symbols were used. The most memorable examples of the universalist suppression or marginalization of the Holocaust included: the ‘urn-monument’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau (1955–66); the International Monument and, particularly, the multilingual inscriptions on the plaques there (1967–90); the monument ‘To the memory of the victims [...]’ on the site of the Bełżec death camp (1963–95); and the abstract monument with a memorial tablet ‘To the heroes of Majdanek [...]’ on the site of the former concentration and death camp unveiled in 1969. Those monuments, no matter how artistic they are, were devoid of any Jewish symbolism. The text of the Auschwitz-Birkenau plaques was the best example of Holocaust suppression through universalization (and, as it proved, it also misrepresented the number of the camp’s victims): ‘Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945.’

Nationalization in regard to the Holocaust comprised the commemoration of Jews not as Jews but as citizens of a given country. This way of suppressing the Holocaust was typical of the Soviet Union. The Soviet symbol of sickle and hammer engraved on the Rumbula monument of 1964 was an example of such nationalization by means of a symbol.

Holocaust internationalization represented Jews as citizens of various countries. This means of suppression was used at the Holocaust sites to which the Jews were deported from various countries of Europe, mainly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The main monument there, unveiled on 19 April 1967, was called the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Brzezinka. Most of the nineteen languages used in the universalizing inscriptions on the monument’s plaques were the main languages of the countries from which the deportees arrived. Most of the flags flown on the monument during commemorations were in the national colours of the deportation states. Some internationalization of the Holocaust also took place in Treblinka where the memorial acclaimed as the greatest Holocaust memorial had (and still has) stones cut with the names of the countries from which the Jews were deported.

Finally, a process relating to the Holocaust that took place in much of Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule was its utter obliteration. It seems that this process was the most widespread at that time. The authorities of the countries of the region did not memorialize the Holocaust in the many sites of camps and ghettos, deportations and executions. They also did not allow the survivors, families and friends of the victims, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations or anyone to commemorate the dead. Thus, there were no or hardly any Holocaust memorials in the public spaces in such countries as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. For many years there were no commemorative objects in such former camps as Bełżec or Sobibór in Poland. Most former ghettos in this country were not commemorated at all, unless streets or squares in the former ghettos were named after the ‘ghetto heroes’, which referred to the Warsaw Ghetto rather than the local ones. The site of the former ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt in Terezin, then Czechoslovakia, was not commemorated. The deportation sites in post-war Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania were (on the whole) not memorialized. In the USSR, once the early memorials on the mass graves at the execution sites had decayed, new ones were not installed in most of these places.

Given the evidence from the study of Holocaust memorials presented above, one may corroborate the view conveyed by literature on Holocaust memorials and Holocaust memory that there was no or hardly any Holocaust remembrance in Eastern Europe during communism. There was little, far too little, Holocaust remembrance in terms of Holocaust memorials given how many sites of persecution and murder of Jews called for commemoration over such a huge area covering so many countries. Although some of those sites, largely the most notorious ones, were commemorated through memorials of various kinds that were usually initiated by the surviving Jews, there was little, far too little, Holocaust memorialization initiated and carried out by the authorities of the nations of the region where the Holocaust largely took place. There was little, far too little, Holocaust remembrance in the sites where not only Jews suffered and died. The state-sponsored memorials too often universalized, nationalized, internationalized or even totally obliterated the Jewish Holocaust. There was no or hardly any Holocaust remembrance in the countries that had been wartime allies of the Third Reich and in some that had been occupied. In post-war Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, Holocaust remembrance was by and large confined to the spaces used by the Jews. There were no overt Holocaust memorials in the public spaces there. Some important Holocaust sites throughout the region did not have any Holocaust memorial. This situation of absence or deficit of Holocaust remembrance changed only in the period on the demise of communism.


Transformations and development of Holocaust memorials after communism

Field research into the existing Holocaust memorials supported by the study of existing literature reveals several processes that unfolded after the communist regimes had been replaced by democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. These were: (a) making minor changes to the existing memorials; (b) developing the existing memorial sites; (c) removing the old commemorative objects and replacing them with the new ones; (d) supplementing the existing memorials; and (e) creating new Holocaust memorials.

The first process whereby minor changes were made concerns only a few, but important pre-existing memorials where substantial transformations either were not necessary (e.g. Treblinka) or were not considered as such (e.g. Majdanek). In Treblinka, no change was made to the monument and a few minor additions to the memorial park can be noticed. These include a stone for Macedonia added in 2008 to the pre-existing stones with the names of deportation countries; almost a hundred stones with the names of deportation sites outside post-war Poland were added in 1998 (Kopówka 2002) along with the Hebrew inscription ‘! אל דוע ’ on the Nigdy więcej [Never again] stone. More has happened in the area adjacent to the memorial. The museum is now housed in a refurbished and extended building. A new exhibition can be viewed there. A keystone was set for an educational centre. In Majdanek, the impressive abstract monument with the memorial tablet that universalized the victims still stands at the centre of the memorial museum of the former camp. However, new signs and inscriptions first placed in the early 1990s and the open-air exhibition arranged in the early 2000s adequately represent the history of the camp, including the murder of Jews there.

The second process consisted in developing the existing Holocaust memorial sites by creating new, additional memorials. This process concerned, inter alia, the three sites discussed above – the area around the monuments to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Budapest garden in the Dohány Street Synagogue complex and the memorial site in the Rumbula Forest by Riga. In Warsaw, the square where the two monuments sponsored by the Polish Jews have stood since 1946 and 1948, became a peculiar memorial park with objects placed by (ethnic) Poles rather than (Polish) Jews commemorating not the Holocaust, but people, organizations and events related to it and which were important from a (non-Jewish) Polish perspective. The objects are: (a) the Tree of Common Memory of Poles and Jews planted in 1988; (b) stones marking the Memorial Route of Jewish Martyrdom and Struggle placed from 1988 to 1997; (c) an obelisk commemorating ‘Żegota’ – the Polish underground organization that rescued Jews – unveiled in 1995; (d) a monument to the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt unveiled in 2000 commemorating his famous Warsaw Genuflection [Kniefall von Warschau, in German] in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in 1970: (e) a statue to Jan Karski – a Polish underground officer who first brought the news of the Holocaust to the Allies – unveiled in 2013; and (f) the sign ‘Irena Sendlerowa Avenue’ commemorating a Polish nurse who rescued approximately 2,500 Jewish children from the ghetto. The symbolic meaning of the square, once a part of the ghetto, with so many objects from a Polish perspective is somehow balanced by the spectacular building of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in 2013.

In Budapest, the Hungarian Jewish community continued developing the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue complex as a Holocaust memorial site. The most remarkable monument was dedicated in 1990 – a weeping willow tree made of steel whose leaves are engraved with the names of Holocaust victims. It is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs by Imre Varga, commonly called the ‘Emanuel Memorial’, which is a reference to its major donor (Toronyi 2013, 11). At the foot of the monument, there is a red marble stone with a golden inscription in Hungarian ‘emlékezzünk’ [remember]. In 2008, another remarkable object was installed in the garden – a large glass window designed in 2004 by Claire Szilard for the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest, but never used there (ibid.). In 2012, the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park [Emlékpark] was established, with a tablet and a plaque commemorating the Swedish diplomat, who rescued thousands of Budapest Jews, and other Righteous among the Nations.

In the Rumbula Forest, the memorial installed by the Jewish community of Riga in 1964 became just one of many commemorative objects that created an exceptional memorial park. The objects, as the inscriptions indicate, were sponsored by various public and private, domestic and foreign agents. The access road to the memorial site is marked by a striking structure of steel and stones funded by a survivor. The memorial is to ‘thousands of Jews’ driven to death from the Riga Ghetto, including the named members of the family of the funder. At the entrance to the memorial park, there are two pairs of memorial stones. The first names the site in Latvian, Hebrew, English and German in a universalizing way as a ‘Memorial to the victims of Nazi terror’. The stone also tells us about the reconstruction of the site in 2002 and lists public and private donors from Latvia, Israel, the USA and Germany. Another stone standing next it is ‘in memory of the Jewish victims’. This memorial was unveiled by the presidents of Latvia and Israel in 2005. Two further stones give information about the history of the site. Further up a road, obelisks and a menorah surrounded by smaller stones with names of the victims marks the place of executions. The Jewish memorial from the Soviet era stands by the stones.

The third process concerning many key Holocaust sites in Central and Eastern Europe consisted in removing the old commemorative objects that suppressed Holocaust memory and replacing them with new ones that are explicit about the murder of the Jews. These changes were made at such sites as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec and Sobibór. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the tablets with multilingual inscriptions universalizing the Jewish and other victims that were unveiled with the International Monument in the former Birkenau part of the camp complex in 1967 were removed in 1990 and replaced with new ones in 1994 (Kucia 2005, 30). The changes were made by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum after its International Council had agreed the text. The new text remains universalist in its calling, but, at the same time, clearly referring to the Jews: ‘For ever let this place be / a cry of despair / and a warning to humanity, / where the Nazis murdered / about one and a half / million / men, women, and children, / mainly Jews / from various countries / of Europe / Auschwitz-Birkenau / 1940–45’. In Bełżec, the old monument of 1963 was dismantled in the mid 1990s. Between 2002 and 2004 a new impressive memorial and a museum were constructed through a joint project between the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee. In Sobibór, the multilingual plaques were replaced in 1993 by the newly established museum of the site. The commemorative objects from 1964 to 1965 – an obelisk, a monument and a memorial mound, all without a reference to Jews – still stand on the grounds of the former death camp. However, there are plans to build a new museum and to re-arrange the area of the former camp.

The fourth process consisted in supplementing the existing memorials and memorial sites with the commemorative objects overtly referring to the Jews and their Holocaust. This process concerned the sites where the murder of both Jews and non-Jews took place and where the remembrance of the former was either suppressed or utterly obliterated. Examples included Paneriai (Ponary) in Vilnius and the Ninth Fort in Kaunas – two of the most notorious sites of the victimhood of Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and others in Lithuania. At present, the execution site in the Paneriai Forest is a memorial cemetery with memorials to various groups and individuals erected at various times. The memorials were sponsored by different domestic and foreign agents. Among the memorials, there is a Jewish monument from 1991, with an additional plaque ‘in memory of the Jewish victims’ unveiled by the presidents of Lithuania and Israel in 2005. In Kaunas, the Soviet-time monument is surrounded by a lot of memorial tablets, many of them to different groups of Jews placed by various public and private agents, mostly foreign. Other examples include the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic and the Museum of Slovak National Uprising in Banská Bystrica in Slovakia. In Terezín, a large Star of David was erected in 1995 in the National Cemetery established in 1945 for the victims of the Gestapo prison in the Small Fortress, the Theresienstadt Ghetto and the Litoměřice concentration camp (Frankl 2013, 176). Later, the Museum of the Ghetto was opened; its provisional exhibition was replaced by a modern and permanent one in 2000 (ibid.). In Banská Bystrica, at the entrance to the monumental museum building of 1969, among various memorials from different periods, there is a memorial stone with the inscriptions in Slovak ‘Obietiam / Holocaustu / na Slovensku / 1939–1945’/ [to the victims of the Holocaust in Slovakia] and in Hebrew ‘ רוכז ’ [remember]. The reopening of the Pinchas Memorial Synagogue in Prague in 1996 may also be included in this category. This synagogue, which had been transformed into a memorial by the Jewish Museum in the 1950s, remained closed for renovation, which, in turn, was boycotted by the communist authorities (Frankl 2013, 177).

Lastly, there was a process of creating Holocaust memorials at the hundreds of sites where there had been none. These memorials were sponsored by a variety of agents: domestic and foreign, central and local, public and private, collective and individual. In many cases, different agents cooperated with each other. The most significant examples of the new Holocaust memorials are government-sponsored or co-sponsored memorials in the public spaces of Bratislava, Bucharest and Budapest – the capitals of the countries that were allies of Nazi Germany during the war. In Bratislava, the memorial by Peter Žalman and Lucia Žalmanová comprises a sculpture with the motif of a Star of David. On the plinth, there are inscriptions ‘Remember!’ in Slovak [Pamätaj!] and Hebrew [ רוכז ]. Unfortunately, who and what should be remembered is not explained. The memorial, unveiled in 1996, is as implicit about the Jews and their Holocaust as many monuments from communist times. In Budapest, a moving Holocaust memorial was erected in 2005. It is the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ by Can Togay and Guyla Pauer. Tablets with inscriptions in Hungarian, English and Hebrew explain that it is ‘To the memory of the victims / shot into the Danube / by Arrow Cross militiamen / in 1944–45.’ Who the victims were, however, is not specified, which is surprising given that the perpetrators are. The Bucharest memorial by Peter Jacobi unveiled in 2009 is the most explicit of the three. The main plaque with inscriptions in Romanian, English and Hebrew reads: ‘Government of Romania / Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Romania [...]’ A large information panel next to it gives an overview of the main facts regarding the persecution and murder of Jews (and Roma) by ‘the Romanian state’. Other smaller panels explain the history and meaning of the artefacts and the symbols comprising the memorial. The large and smaller information panels, however, were only placed in response to severe criticism following the unveiling of the monument.



The current appearance of Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe is primarily a result of the processes that unfolded under communism – the Jewish commemoration, rare state memorialization and frequent marginalization, suppression or utter obliteration of the Jewish victims of the Second World War. It is these processes that produced such lasting legacies from communist times: modest and more significant Jewish memorials; huge state-sponsored monuments to the Holocaust and other atrocities; organizations dealing with remembrance; ill-judged monuments that later called for dismantling and empty spaces that required proper commemoration. The agents of Holocaust (non-)remembrance were mostly domestic at that time. The work of Jewish individuals and organizations gave way to that of the communist authorities and their agencies, whose became increasingly predominant.

The processes that have transformed the existing memorials and developed new ones since the fall of communism have an important but on the whole a secondary role for what Holocaust memorials in Central and Eastern Europe look like now. In some countries and at certain sites, however, their role has been paramount.

The agents of transformation and development of Holocaust memorials after communism were many and varied. There were numerous foreign, transnational agents such as Jewish diaspora organizations and private Jewish foundations, particularly from such countries as the USA and France. There were the State of Israel and its agencies. There were German and American governmental, non-governmental and private agents. There were international organizations such as the IHRA and its member state delegations. There were domestic agents: government ministries and agencies that ultimately took decisions regarding the memorials, regional and municipal authorities, public and non-governmental organizations dealing with Holocaust memory and Jewish heritage and Jewish communities and organizations. Lastly, there were individuals in or from Central and East European countries, including survivors.

Much of the agency in the transformations and development of Holocaust memorials after communism may be explained through the transnational influences of the universalization/globalization, cosmopolitanization, internationalization and Europeanization of Holocaust memory, as understood by Alexander (2002), Levy and Sznaider (2002), Allwork (2015) and Kucia (2016), respectively. The changes in Central and East European Holocaust memorials, however, also show limitations of the transnational theories. The universalist idea of ‘the Holocaust as the ultimate evil’ that highlights the Jewish dimension of a war crime helped overcome the universalization, internationalization and nationalization of the Jewish victims characteristic of many Central and East European war memorials from communist times. At the same time, some new Holocaust memorials referred to the commemorated Jews in universalist terms only as if the old universalization was superseded by the new one of the same kind. The cosmopolitan ideas of a universal, de-territorialized, de-contextualized, and media-conveyed Holocaust memory prompted much of foreign and a fair amount of domestic memorialization agency. However, the transformed, developed or newly created memorials were particular, territorial, contextual and tangible. The EU, the IHRA and other international organizations produced norms regarding Holocaust remembrance that the Central and East European countries incorporated into their practices. Ultimately, however, Holocaust remembrance days were instituted by particular nations and observed in their countries at their Holocaust memorials on country-specific dates. Thus, although the Holocaust memorials in present-day Central and Eastern Europe combine old communist legacies and new transnational influences, they are on the whole national developments.



The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under REA grant agreement no. [PIEFGA- 2012–330424]. The writing of the article has been supported by the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies of the University of Rochester.

The author thanks the participants of the International Workshop ‘Remembrance of the Holocaust and Nazi Crimes in Post-1989 Europe: Reflecting on Competition and Conflict in European Memory’ held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna in December 2014, the International Summer Academy held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim in August 2015 and July 2016 and the conference of the COST Action 1203 ‘In Search of Transcultural Memory in Europe’ (ISTME) on ‘Locating and Dis-Locating Memory’ held at the University College Dublin in September 2016 as well as the anonymous reviewers of Remembrance and Solidarity for insightful comments on the earlier versions of this paper.



Marek Kucia

Marek Kucia is associate professor at the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. In the academic year 2013–14 he was also Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre for European Studies of Lund University. In the spring term of 2015–16, he was visiting professor at the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies of the University of Rochester. He studied in Kraków and Oxford. He holds a MA in Political Science and a MA, PhD and venia legendi [Habilitation] in Sociology. He serves as chairman of the Council of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim.



1 COST is the longest-running European framework supporting transnational cooperation among researchers, engineers and scholars across Europe.

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Photo of the publication Gerhard Richter: ‘Post-remembering’ the Holocaust in German Contemporary Art
Kris Belden-Adams

Gerhard Richter: ‘Post-remembering’ the Holocaust in German Contemporary Art

19 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Germany
  • Gerhard Richter
  • photography
  • contemporary art
  • photopaintings


Dresden-born artist Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) was aged between nine and thirteen years old during the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it had a formative and conflicting influence on Richter. His black-and-white ‘photopaintings’ from 1965 raise questions about the role of photography as a means of remembering, forgetting, recontextualizing and expressing the traumatic acts committed to – and by – his own family members, even, on each other. This paper studies exemplary ‘photopaintings’ as a manifestation of Richter’s expression of a German ‘postmemory’ condition. In sum, this is a story about remembering, forgetting and denial – and photography as an agent exploring those phenomena.


Comparative literature professor Marianne Hirsch coined the term ‘postmemory’ to describe the relationship that the generation that came ‘after’ the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Second World War experienced following those traumatic events. She argues that this group’s memories are comprised of the stories and images they remember, combined with the behaviours they witnessed in others during their youth. That is to say, their memories are second-hand inheritances of stories about an event that largely occurred before their adult consciousness.

One such member of the ‘postmemory’ generation, Dresden-born painter Gerhard Richter was aged between nine and thirteen years old during the Holocaust and the Second World War. Both had a profound and conflicting influence on his family. Less than one week after Richter’s thirteenth birthday, British and American planes dropped more than 500,000 bombs on Dresden, killing more than 25,000 people and putting Richter’s immediate family in danger. 1 Richter was a junior member of the Hitler Youth. Two of his uncles served in the German army and were killed during the war. Richter’s father was an official Nazi Party supporter, served in the war and survived. He was forever scarred by the experience – which included being captured and kept as a prisoner-of-war by American soldiers. The Nazis, in their campaign to eliminate all citizens with mental illnesses, exterminated Richter’s schizophrenic Aunt Marianne. Moreover, recent research has implicated Richter’s father-in-law (through his first wife) in the death of Aunt Marianne.

In black-and-white ‘photopaintings’ from 1965 – such as Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne and Mr Heyde – Richter addresses his personal ‘postmemory’ of the impact of the Second World War on his family and himself. While photographs are often regarded as surrogate witnesses to events, family snapshots are springboards for second-hand narratives that change over time, from context to context, and from viewer to viewer. Vernacular photographs are ‘social’ objects. They prompt the sharing of family folklore while inherently challenging the status of the photograph as an objective document. Thus, one finds only conditional truth in a family photograph. (Roland Barthes famously ceded this in the influential book Camera Lucida, but only after an unfruitful search for something vital and essential about his recently deceased mother in a photograph of her as a child.)

Richter’s use of family photography as the basis for this body of paintings also raises questions about the purpose of remembering events and associations that one would rather see fade from memory. In July 2015, Richter announced that he had ‘disowned’ this period of his painting career. He purposefully excluded all of these artworks from the comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his life’s work, claiming that he did not like the style in which he rendered his subjects (Neuendorf 2015). This essay argues that Richter had other reasons for wishing to forget these paintings. His family’s role in perpetrating and falling victim to the Holocaust are evoked by the subjects of his paintings during this phase.

In addition, Richter’s photopaintings prompt viewers to think about photography’s adequacy to represent the Holocaust or war, or facilitate any real understanding of it. This paper will take a closer look at those issues, through a study of exemplary photopaintings as a manifestation of Richter’s expression of a German postmemory condition.

Post-remembering Uncle Rudi/strong>

Rudolf Shönfelder was more than an uncle to Richter. He was a role model. Art historian Robert Storr noted that ‘[Uncle Rudi] is not a monster but the average, ordinarily enthusiastic soldier. On the other hand, he was the apple of Richter’s mother’s eye.’ Storr quotes the artist: ‘[Uncle Rudi] was handsome, charming, tough, elegant, a playboy, [and] he was so proud of his uniform.’ As a boy, Richter was impressed by Shönfelder, who was a paragon of masculine virtues (Storr 2003, 57–58).

To make this photopainting of his Uncle Rudi, Richter selected a family snapshot of Shönfelder smiling and wearing a full National Socialist uniform. The figure was centered in the canvas, echoing the conventions of vernacular family snapshots. As the photograph was enlarged from about 10 cm in height to fill nearly a metre-tall canvas, Richter added details where they had previously not existed in the photograph. These images once conveyed what Barthes has called a ‘that-which-was’ (or, a photographic naturalism), enhanced by Richter’s additions. While the paint was still wet, Richter smeared those carefully painted details with a horizontal drag of a homemade squeegee, challenging the previously realistic painting’s ability to make indexical reference to his Uncle Rudi. He pulls paint, and the details it conveys, from the canvas. He marks, and obliterates. He ‘cleans’ – or tries to ‘clean’ – the image from the canvas, using a process he calls ‘mechanical sweeping’.

What remains on the canvas is what we see here: a blurred image of Richter’s uncle that still ‘reads’ with the familiarity of a snapshot. But this image is no longer intimate in size, nor in its function as a publically shared artwork. Horizontal smudges of streaked oil paint attempt to wipe away the proud, young Uncle Rudi, along with his innocence and folklore-ish glorification by Richter’s family members. This is entirely appropriate. Rudi’s memory would forever be ruined by his Nazi affiliation. Uncle Rudi thus is, to Germans, an immediately recognizable, but after the war, a seldom-discussed typology: ‘The Nazi among us.’ Moreover, he revealed, in Richter’s hindsight view, the enduring presence of the Second World War and the Holocaust in everyday life.

As Richter acts against social norms to ‘out’ ‘the Nazi in his family’ to the masses, the artist also refers affectionately to Shönfelder as ‘Uncle Rudi’. While ‘Rudi’ is a term of familiarity and endearment, it is also a diminutive, belittling form of Rudolf. Schönfelder’s image lacks clarity, perhaps as a metaphor to the struggle of reconciling Rudi, the heroic pre-war family myth, with Rudi ‘the Nazi’. Uncle Rudi is given no family name. Thus, he is simultaneously disavowed as a relative, yet shared with all of us – as ‘The Nazi in All of Our Families’. Thus, Uncle Rudi is a specific historical person from Richter’s family whom the artist embraces and rejects, simultaneously. 2 When asked about the fate of his uncle by Storr, Richter said, ‘He was young and very stupid, and then he went to war and was killed during the first days’ (Storr 2003, 57–58). Thus, the proud, charming young man who represented a role model for Richter is quickly deflated and defeated at the Normandy landings in 1944, as a member of ‘a generation that willingly participated in its own destruction, and the destruction of millions it tried to dominate’ (Storr 2003, 57–58).

But Rudolf Shönfelder was hardly alone. Schönfelder’s brother Alfred – and Richter’s father, Horst – all served in the German army during the Second World War. Horst Richter was a teacher, and was a member of the National Socialist Party. Although, ‘as Gerhard remembers it, his father never bought into its ideology. In fact Richter does not recollect that anyone in either of his parents’ families was an avid supporter of Nazism. Like so many other German families at the time, the Richters and Schönfelders were apolitical,’ according to the curator Dietmar Elger (Elger 2009, 5). 3 (This characterization of Horst Richter’s political passion, it should be mentioned, contradicts Richter’s earlier statements.) Richter’s father returned from war and was never able to find his footing again. As a former Nazi soldier, Horst Richter was not allowed to return to his school-teaching post, nor did he ever fully reintegrate back into his family (Storr 2003, 32). 4 According to the artist, his father ‘shared most fathers’ fate at the time [...] nobody wanted them’ (Storr 2003, 32).

Richter, who became accustomed to his father’s absence, recalls being an active member of the Hitler Youth, and found a means for expressing his restless preadolescent aggression through it: ‘I was very impressed by the idea of soldiers, of militarism, maybe [by] Hitler, that was impressive’ (Storr 2002, 19). Richter’s statements in other interviews convey a different story, or memory, of being a member of the group, which, he recalled, ‘was too tough for me. I don’t like fighting games, I wasn’t very sporty.’ Richter also explains: ‘When you are twelve you’re too little to understand all that ideological hocus-pocus, but even though this might sound funny now, I always knew I was something better than they were’ (Storr 2003, 25). According to Elger, Richter claimed he ‘managed to avoid most of the odious paramilitary field exercises and tent camps thanks to his mother, who willingly filled out and signed his absence forms, claiming illness’ (Elger 2009, 5).

But when the war came to his back yard (during the Russian occupation), he curiously welcomed the soldiers. While military trenches were being dug behind his house, squadrons of American planes dropped propaganda leaflets from above, and Russian MiGs flew low overhead hunting for German army trucks. Richter recalled, ‘There were weapons and cannons and guns and cigarettes; it was fantastic’ (Storr 2003, 10). When the campaign ended, he and his friends found discarded weapons and held target practice in the woods (Elger 2009, 6). Richter recalled: ‘That was the most exciting time of my life, and I think of it fondly’ (Elger 2009, 5).

Richter thus grapples with his own memories and shifting viewpoints. As art historian Benjamin Buchloh has suggested, Richter’s work offers an ‘analogue to postwar Germany’s own conflicted relation to its past (which it must both disavow and work through)’ (Buchloh 1996, 62). With this body of work, Richter addresses the collision of photographic facticity, family folklore and his boyhood memories, which were augmented by hand-medown stories and shaped by history. The photopaintings address conflicts within that family, too.

In one of Richter’s family photographs, a teenaged version of Richter’s Aunt Marianne hovers above the artist, who was less than a year old at the time the picture was taken. Marianne was, in family lore, the antithesis of Rudi and her sister, Richter’s mother. She was committed to a mental institution from the age of eighteen, and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Richter recalls that: ‘Whenever I behaved badly I was told “You will become like crazy Marianne”’ (Harding 2006).

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Hitler backdated the T4 euthanasia programme authorizations to call for the systematic mass murder of the mentally ill. They were declared ‘unworthy of life’ and of contributing to German culture and the gene pool. Mental-institution patients were forcibly sterilized and starved, and then given an intentionally fatal drug overdose at the state institute Großschweidnitz. By the end of the war in 1945, at least 3,272 patients, including Richter’s Aunt Marianne, had been murdered here. At the time when Richter painted this picture of Aunt Marianne, he knew her fate had been terrible, but claimed that he did not know all the details.

In 1959 police apprehended Werner Heyde, the man who created the ‘strategic euthanasia programme’ and killed about 100,000 people – including those at Großschweidnitz (Schreiber 2005, 245). In the ochre-tinted photopainting Mr Heyde, Richter provides a portrait of Marianne’s executioner, who was working under Hitler’s mandate. Heyde pioneered the gassing techniques employed in the ‘Final Solution’. After the war, he continued to practise medicine under a false name until he was exposed. Heyde committed suicide five days before his trial (Storr 2003, 58).

When interviewed in 2002 about the painting Mr Heyde, Richter claimed that it was intended to speak to the paranoia inspired by discovering that one’s neighbours – seemingly ordinary people – helped perpetrate the Holocaust. He stated: ‘Who would ever have guessed? Who can we trust among us?’ (Leight 2002). In a different interview, Richter mentioned that he saw no conscious connection between Heyde’s programme and his aunt’s death: ‘It did not exist. There are no conscious connections within me at all. [He chuckles] But I am certain that I knew of it because I read it somewhere’ (Leight 2002).

In 2006 journalist Jürgen Schreiber revealed a startling revelation: that Richter’s first father-in-law, Heinrich Eufinger, a prominent physician of the Third Reich, had been assigned to the clinic where Marianne was institutionalized and killed. Eufinger was responsible for the sterilization and euthanasia of the mentally ill. Richter and former wife Ema claimed to have known nothing of his involvement until it was made public in 2006 (Elger 2009, 131). Although Marianne’s death occurred before Richter met and married Ema, it seems quite unlikely that they never swapped family stories and discovered that her father worked at Großschweidnitz – the same hospital to which his aunt was committed and executed.

Richter’s photopaintings Uncle Rudi, Aunt Marianne and Mr Heyde thus close the gaps between personal experience and public reality, between a traumatic family past and a present predicated on selective memory. These paintings testify to German society’s repression, reticence and denial. Richter attempts to reconstruct its remembrance and family histories from within the social and geopolitical world in which the atrocity was committed (Buchloh 1999, 127). However, as Richter denies these paintings’ existence and excludes them from documentation projects related to his life’s work, he attempts to erase these figures – and his family’s first-hand involvement in the First World War and the Holocaust – once more. As time passes, the sources connecting him to his family’s conflicting stories of war, mass murder and atrocity have passed, too.

Robert Braun has suggested that memory transforms into history, losing its connection to the personal stories of its perpetrators and victims – which eventually are forgotten. Histories thus become less ‘real’ and more ‘abstract’. Memories of the atrocities of the Second World War thus may become part of a general cultural history, rather than an individualized actual Richterfamily- specific story (Braun 1994, 176). Richter’s denial of this phase of work is a conscious effort to let these intensely personal family stories become less ‘real’ (as they are not attached to actual family figures), and more ‘abstract’. Ultimately, perhaps, they can fade completely – along with the guilt experienced by the Richter family.



Kris Belden-Adams

Kris Belden-Adams is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Mississippi (USA) and specializes in modern/contemporary art, and the history of photography. She received her PhD from the City University of New York – Graduate Center in 2010. In addition to researching Gerhard Richter’s ‘photopaintings’, she studies social-media photography. Dr Belden-Adams’s recent scholarship also examines the intersections of sewage and photography in the decades following the medium’s birth. Her work has been published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inPhotographies; Afterimage; Southern Studies; The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society and Cabinet.




1 The attack on Dresden, was about 60 miles away from Waltersdorf, where Richter then lived. However, Richter’s aunt and grandmother were then living in Dresden and survived the bombing. Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003), 3.

2 Philipp Alexander Ostrowicz 2005–6, n.p.

3 Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 5. This differs from other accounts, such as Storr’s. See n.1.

4 Storr also cites Stefan Aust, The Bader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon (London: The Bodley Head, 1985), 58.

List of References

Aust, Stefan (1985) The Bader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon. London: The Bodley Head.

Braun, Robert (1944) ‘The Holocaust and Problems of Historical Representation’, History and Theory, vol. 33, no. 2 (May), 172–97.

Buchloh, Benjamin (1996) ‘Divided Memory and Post-Traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning’, October, vol. 75 (Winter), 60–82.

— (1999) ‘Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: The Anomic Archive’, October, vol. 88 (Spring), 117–45.

Elger, Dietmar (2009) Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harding, Luke (2006) ‘Dismay as German Painting is Sold Abroad’, Guardian, 22 June. Accessed 23 September 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jun/23/arts.germany

Leight, Michele (2002) ‘Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting’, City Review, February. Accessed 23 September 2016, http://www.thecityreview.com/richter.html

Neuendorf, Henri (2015) ‘Collectors Alarmed as Gerhard Richter Disowns Early Works from West German Period’, Artnet, 21 July. Accessed 23 September 2016: https://news. artnet.com/people/gerhard-richter-omits-art-from-catalogue-318665

Ostrowicz, Philipp Alexander (2005–6) ‘The Blurring of the Image: Some Notes about Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi’, Parapluie: Electronic Cultural Criticism – Art & Literature, vol. 22 (Winter). Accessed 23 September 2016: http://parapluie.de/archiv/zeugenschaft/richter/

Schreiber, Jurgen (2005) Ein Maler aus Deutschland: Gerhard Richter, Das Drama einer Familie. Munich and Zürich: Pendo.

Storr, Robert (2002) Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 19.

— (2003) Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting. New York: Museum of Modern Art.


This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.

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Photo of the publication From Absence to Loss: Holocaust Commemoration in Present-day Poland
Marta Duch-Dyngosz

From Absence to Loss: Holocaust Commemoration in Present-day Poland

19 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Poland
  • Shoah
  • Second World
  • Jews
  • Memory
  • Place of remembrance


In this article I argue that remembrance of the Jews and the Holocaust in Poland was subject to a conspiracy of silence in the local space of former Jewish communities and villages for many decades after the war. I am interested in whether and under what social conditions commemorating local Jewish communities in present-day Poland leads to coming to terms with painful memories and, by contrast, when it results in distorting such memories. I refer to the findings of qualitative research of case studies conducted in three towns: Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów.


The subject of my studies is commemorating Jewish communities in the local space of present-day Poland. It includes a wide variety of initiatives, from Jewish culture festivals and the restoration of former synagogues to monographs about Jewish inhabitants. Different types of memory actor – town residents, descendants of local Jews, representatives of Jewish communities – living in Poland initiate, become involved in or refer to these mnemonic practices (Olick 2008). In this article I analyse whether and under what social conditions commemoration can begin the process of confronting difficult memory of the Holocaust and its consequences, and when doing so it becomes impossible.

The dynamics of the memory of the Holocaust in Poland is determined by two facts. First, that the tragic events took place in German-occupied Poland, as evidenced by the siting of death camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, which now function as places of memory. Secondly, it is estimated that almost 90 per cent of the three million Polish Jews, who comprised some 10 per cent of Poland’s pre-war population, were murdered in the Holocaust (Stankowski and Weiser 2011, 15). This catastrophe became associated with the territory of the Polish state by its material testimony on Polish land in the form of mass graves and memorial sites, as well as by the relics of former Jewish communities established over many centuries, such as synagogues, cemeteries, houses and items of everyday use (Kapralski 2015).

The various consequences of the Holocaust are important in determining the form that memory takes. Beginning with the demographics, entire Jewish communities, which accounted for more than half the local population in some smaller towns, ceased to exist. As a result, primarily in small towns, there was no one who could preserve any heritage that survived the war, foster remembrance of the murdered population and address or negotiate how their memory could be passed on to non-Jewish citizens after the war. The social and economic consequences of the Holocaust also need to be considered. Some among the non-Jewish population, primarily those from the lower middle class, enjoyed material benefits when, in various ways during and after the war, they took possession of the property that used to belong to local Jews (Grabowski and Libionka 2014) and occupied the now vacant social position in the social structure (Leder 2014).

From the perspective of the space where the Holocaust took place, its consequences for the identity of post-war Polish society and relations among and between various groups are extremely important. As a result of the wartime events and the emigration of Jews that followed, the two communities were separated from each other. Non-Jewish Poles were close to the events, but in Polish discourse this was described as being ‘a witness’, which is not a neutral term and does not reflect the many diverse attitudes among this population that could be observed during and after the war. In my studies I refer to Raul Hilberg’s (1992) triad: ‘perpetrators, victims, bystanders’. These categories are not clear-cut as, among others, they fail to reflect the complexity of attitudes and any changes that occurred in some individuals, and can give the impression that any given group is uniform in its attitude.

This is why I use the categories as a starting point only in order to define each one in more detail in any context. I am interested in the group of non- Jewish Poles whose position I describe as ‘bystanders’, for ‘bystanding’ (cf. Gross 2014) is the term that in Polish evokes the visibility of the Holocaust. Bystanding allowed for a variety of attitudes: active hostility, reluctant or sympathetic passivity, indifference or offering assistance (Kłoskowska1988). Different types of assistance can be distinguished, including freely given assistance and assistance at a price (Datner 1968). The heritage of difficult memory, the one that is shameful and requires that national identity be revised, includes post-war hostility towards survivors returning to their former homes, many of whom were murdered (Cichopek-Gajraj 2014, 77). The most tragic manifestation of this was the Kielce pogrom, which underlined that the Jewish minority was not welcome in post-war Poland, an otherwise almost entirely homogenous country ethnically (Gross 2008; Tokarska-Bakir 2013). Summing up, the nature of the Holocaust, including the less explored social aspects of the atrocity, such as direct, individual or mass executions carried out by the Germans and their sympathizers (Confino 2012, 127–8), involved local communities, something has not been accounted for or discussed until now and yet forms part of the memory of individual locations.

Apart from a brief post-war period when a group of intellectuals took up the subject of the Holocaust and the consequences of the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Poles (Michlic 2005), various aspects of these issues have been the subject of collective forgetting (Connerton 2008) and silence (Vinitzky- Seroussi and Tegger 2010) for a long time. There are several reasons for this. They include the nationalistic character of communism in Poland (Zaremba 2005), manifested in its policy of seeing Poland as a ‘nation of victims and heroes’ (see Huener 2004), in its sense of ethnicity and its suppression of any data that refuted it. What should be considered, however, is the marginalization of the Jewish community in the late 1940s by the communist elites, the shrinking of the population as a result of emigration, and self-censorship and concealing one’s Jewish identity in many cases. But the most important issue was the resistance of a large part of society, who treated commemoration of the Holocaust as an extrinsic or inconvenient memory.

The dynamics of the memory of the tragedy of the Jews under communism was investigated, among others, by Michael Steinlauf (1997). What I emphasize though is the many levels within the memory of the Holocaust – first, those created by various group narratives, both the dominant and the minority group; and secondly, the relationship between official and unofficial vernacular memory. The latter is of interest to me in terms of the local space where the subject of Jews and what happened to them both during and after the war, including the hostile attitudes of the members of one’s own group, was raised in conversations, predominantly using anti-Semitic clichés and stereotypes, within the family, in exchanges with other residents, and sometimes in newspapers and journals. To a large extent, the vernacular memory was preserved thanks to the synagogues and cemeteries that survived, and both immovable and movable property which functioned as a perpetual link with the past, and was often the source of concern because of the possibility of property restitution, contributing to the framework of the aversion towards Jews (Stola 2007). From the perspective of official memory, a conspiracy of silence developed around the problematic aspects (Zerubavel 2006; and in the context of Polish–Jewish relations, see Tokarska-Bakir 2011). This category characterizes adequately memory in the local space where most inhabitants were aware of what had happened but their knowledge did not extend beyond the group and, what is more, was not dwelt on. The local memory of the place was characterized by ‘repetition-memory’ (Ricoeur 2007), which is confirmed by persistently high levels of anti-Semitism (Kucia 2015). There was no social space in which their memory could be challenged by alternative accounts of the past.

Today, in many places in Poland, various memory actors include the history and culture of local Jews in the official narrative of the past of a given place, but express an alternative attitude to the recognition of the Jewish memory. The phenomenon of commemoration, as I call it, which has recently come more to the fore in Polish towns, should be seen in the context of memory democratization (Ziółkowski 2001). In this process, which intensified after the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989, marginalized memory was revealed and voiced in debates about the shameful inheritance of ‘standing by’ during the Holocaust (Forecki 2013). Discussions about the Jedwabne pogrom, which introduced the Holocaust into Polish discourse on focusing attention on specific places and the attitudes of a local community, as well as the consequences of those tragic events, should be seen as symbolizing coming to terms with difficult memory (Melchior and Michlic 2013). What I am interested in is whether and in what way the initiatives related to local Jewish history and culture include or lead to reflection on the attitudes of bystanders and their consequences.

In this article I focus on whether and under what conditions commemorations in local Polish milieus make it possible to begin the process of facing up to difficult memory and, by contrast, when the opposite happens and circumstances from the past are repeated and reinforced, for example the widespread image of a Jew as a threatening Other (Michlic 2006). I allude here to Adorno (1986), LaCapra (2001) and Ricoeur (2004) on working through difficult memory. What these authors have in common is a warning against defining this as a linear process, heading towards the point when its end can be declared. They all emphasize that, sometimes, matters that seem to be resolved become subject to the conflict of memory again. What they agree on as a general rule is striving to relate the past in the most accurate way possible, without brushing aside inconvenient and shameful facts for one’s own group, becomes possible when the social space that opens up allows the memory of others to be expressed. The potential of the memory of the Holocaust in a given place is demonstrated, among others, by how its consequences are represented. If this is done through ‘absence’ (LaCapra 2001), a reference to abstract and ahistorical categories, the phenomenon comes closer to an ‘abuse of memory’, but if it is done through the ‘loss’ (LaCapra 2001) of concrete historical objects, such as people, places or events, there is then a great chance that the process of working through difficult memory can begin.

These considerations will be explored in more detail in the analysis of the phenomenon of commemoration. I will approach mnemonic practices concerning memory of the Jewish heritage from the perspective of the possibility of shaping the social space where various versions of memory may meet (see Lehrer 2014), while paying close attention to the situations when these practices lead to memory conflict (see Kapralski 2000). This is interpreted within the framework of the sociological theory of collective memory (Halbwachs 1992). I take the position that memory is not something we have but something we do (Olick 2008, 159), and I treat mnemonic practices and products as expressions of collective remembrance, which can include a reminiscence, representation, denial, apology and stories, rituals, monuments and historical studies (Olick 2008, 158). I propose that the duality of memory should be considered with reference to Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration – the duality of memory is expressed in the mnemonic practices and products initiated or taken up by memory actors with reference to the object of memory (for example, a past event, community or an element of cultural heritage). In this way participants employ all the resources and rules at hand, which are both the means and results of actions reproducing and shaping memory structures. In this article I focus on the mnemonic practices and products and characteristics of the memory actors involved.



My material in this essay was assembled for my sociological research on three case studies determined by mnemonic practices and products related to the history and culture of the Jewish communities that lived in Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów before the Holocaust. I selected these three towns because of certain features they had in common: during Poland’s partition they were part of Western Galicia; under German Occupation they were all in General Government territory, a district of Kraków; and they did not experience Soviet occupation in 1939–41. Today, Bobowa and Dąbrowa Tarnowska are in the province of Małopolskie, while Rymanów is in the province of Podkarpackie, in southern Poland. What is important is that in all three locations the local synagogues have been restored in the past decade, having been left in ruins in Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów, or in the case of Bobowa used as a workshop by the vocational school there until the late 1990s. The three synagogues now have different ownership status. The one in Dąbrowa Tarnowska belongs to the municipality, in Bobowa it is owned by the Jewish Religious Community of Kraków, while the owner of the Rymanów synagogue is Rabbi Abraham Reich, leader of the Congregation Menachem Zion Yotzei Russia of Brooklyn, New York. The synagogues in Bobowa and Rymanów perform religious services and are primarily used by the Hasidic Jews who come to visit the graves of the famous tzadikim (spiritual leaders) buried in the Jewish cemeteries there (Bartosz 2015). Finally, initiatives commemorating Jewish communities have been organized in all three locations for several years now.

The towns have been used as case studies because of the nature of the past contacts within and between groups, the type of Jewish settlements and the network of relations with the neighbouring villages and other locations that characterized the former shtetls (towns with large Jewish populations before the war; Orla-Bukowska 2004; Teller 2004). The features of these intergroup relations, linked with the nature of the Holocaust, are visible and involve non-Jewish inhabitants. I do not describe the history of each town in detail but I do highlight the facts that establish the framework of these relations. Bobowa, Dąbrowa Tarnowska and Rymanów were the towns in which Jewish residents of nearby towns and villages were resettled when the Germans set up ghettos there. The type of ghetto depended on the location and the stage of the war as Jews might be forced to live in a specific part of the town, as in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, or in the houses they occupied before the war, as in Bobowa, but had to take in other displaced Jews (Kraemer 2012). In the small towns, non-Jewish residents were not completely cut off from Jews, some even lived inside the ghetto. The Holocaust, marked by deteriorating living conditions, forced labour, the brutality of the Germans and their supporters and mass executions until the final liquidation of the ghetto, was thus visible. Proximity to the events is confirmed by the accounts of survivors, local records and evidence given by Polish residents made in post-war investigations, and can be found in vernacular memory transmission in the following decades.

Importantly, it should be noted that the layout of these towns has changed little since the war. The buildings and town houses in the market square and the streets leading off it used to belong to Jews, Jewish cemeteries still exist and the synagogues have been restored. This infrastructure is testimony to the Jewish history of these towns.

My aim was to collect the material that represented various mnemonic practices and products that are part of both official and unofficial memory, and in Jewish and local memory, in order to explore the dynamics of the remembrance of Jews and the Holocaust. First, it comprises existing data, such as ethnographic studies, Jewish testimonies (located in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, Yad Vashem and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive), chronicles, journals, photographs, documentaries and their documentation, online sources as well as material objects, such as artefacts, property and monuments. Secondly, I used material obtained in qualitative studies, which included in-depth interviews with sixty-three individuals and five group interviews with the interviewees representing various types of memory actors, including memory leaders (people who initiated practices and were involved in them on a permanent basis), institutional players (for example, mayors, teachers, social activists, priests), local residents (born before and after the war, then school students), descendants of Jews and experts on the Jewish heritage in Poland. In addition, I took part in many commemoration events, such as memorial days, lectures and excursions. Exploratory research was carried out in 2010 in Bobowa. The next research field studies in the three towns were made between 2012 and 2015. The sources thus obtained are used in this article to identify what is subject to silence and the likelihood of overturning the status quo, among other things, due to the presence of memory actors who reflect on the past.


A meeting, nostalgia and concealment

What I consider to be indicators of progress made in facing up to the difficult past are mnemonic practices and products, because of the way they reflect the following areas: Polish–Jewish relations, Jewish history and culture, and the place of the Holocaust in the history of Poland and Polish national identity. Taking these into account, I have identified three memory discourses that differ in terms of their attitude to the Jewish perspective: the critical, the affirmative and the ethno-nationalistic. The critical approach is characterized by recognition of and space for the expression of the Jewish memory. The affirmative approach presents a positive image of one’s own group and leaves no room for any aspects that cast a shadow over the group. What dominates the ethno-nationalistic approach is the point of view of one’s own group while emphasizing distance from the Jewish memory, which is treated as alien. In any specific place these discourses often coexist, but it is possible to identify both which is the dominant one and is the reference point for most practices and trends with regard to change, for example when the minority discourse gains in importance. Progress can also be seen in what memory actors who initiate and participate in the practices under investigation actually do. This includes their motivations, where their knowledge comes from, their ability to reflect on difficult memory, and the various resources that make it possible to change the status quo. I am particularly interested in memory leaders because when they initiate the practices related to the Jewish past of a given place. Depending on the context, they come up against areas that have been subject to collective amnesia and silence. I discerned three such areas: a Jewish presence over many centuries, the Holocaust and its consequences, and the attitudes towards Jews, including the problem of anti-Semitism (this also applies to present times). All are rooted in local space, specific people, events and places. When analysing the commemoration, I explore the diversity, and often coexistence, of contradictory attitudes to the Jewish heritage in one place. For each case, I could see the dominant trend, which is presented using the example of three major mnemonic practices that I consider represent the type of commemoration in each town.

I start with Rymanów, where Days of Remembrance of the Jewish Community of Rymanów have been organized since 2008. This is a local event organized by the Association for Rymanów Encounters and the descendants of former Jewish residents. Some association founders told me they had been inspired by the Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations centre in Sejny and explained that ‘the word “encounters” [is included] to create the opportunity for meetings that will bring these communities closer’, and stressed that ‘we wanted it to focus on the borderland inhabited by Jews, Lemkos [a Ukrainian subgroup] and Poles and all those that lived here in this area’ (interview with author, no. R46). Apart from the initiative focusing on the Lemko culture, in 2013 all other initiatives were related to the Jewish past of Rymanów and from the very start the memory leaders involved were looking for contact with the Jewish survivors and their descendants, developing activities and participating in them together. During the first remembrance days local residents were able to meet survivors who attended with their children and grandchildren. There was also a meeting with the owner of the restored synagogue, Rabbi Reich (access to the synagogue became more difficult later). In the following years, an informal group formed round the remembrance days. Either because they had family ties with Rymanów or due to their interest in Jewish heritage, they would meet at events and develop relations in everyday life. Representatives of the Rymanów memory leaders said that the most important practice was the Remembrance March, which took place on 13 August, the anniversary of the day the Rymanów ghetto was liquidated in 1942. This is representative of commemoration in Rymanów. The participants follow the same route that Jews were forced to take from the town centre to the train station in Wróblik Szlachecki, a few kilometres away, from which they were transported to the death camp in Bełżec. The participants include the descendants of Jews from Rymanów, memory leaders, their families and local residents. This is one example of a practice anchored in space that involves the bodies of the actors who participate in it, making it possible to develop an empathetic relationship with the victims that avoids pathos while being dignified in tone. It is an opportunity to meet and talk with others. Memory becomes located and formed by details. This can be seen in a speech delivered by one of the leaders at the train station in 2008:

At 5 pm they walked out of Rymanów [...] On the way, they were beaten, humiliated and murdered. Here, in this place, a well-known physician from Rymanów, Dr Emanuel Frankel, sacrificed himself. He shouted at the Germans that they would be punished for the suffering of Jews [...] and before they managed to capture him, he took cyanide. Other people were left standing here for three days because the crowded carriages could not set off immediately. They were standing in this very place. People cried, shouted, they had no water or food.

The Rymanów commemoration takes the form of micro-history, looking at the lives of actual families, shopkeepers, daily life in the workshops and homes, events before and during the war, hiding places and the executions. All this was made possible by drawing on different perspectives from a variety of sources of knowledge, experiences and what is stored in memory transmission. What one finds here are non-Jewish memory leaders listening to family stories, collecting documents and photographs, as well as survivors and their families who want to know what happened to their relatives and what is left.

There are many memory leaders in Rymanów, among them descendants of the Rymanów Jews. One woman, a Polish-speaking Israeli citizen, is the daughter of survivors. She has become a Polish citizen and has bought a town house that belonged to her family before the war. During the 2014 celebrations a mezuzah (a piece of parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, and usually contained within decorative casing) was fixed to the doorframe of the ‘Jewish house’, as she calls it. She said in an interview that she thought of this house as a place to commemorate the local residents of Rymanów who died in the Shoah:

My house became my house [...] This is to remember, to understand what happened [...] Sometimes me and my family, and my brother were sitting and thinking how was it. You know all the detail. Because the detail[s] make life. I wanted to know the everyday life, how it was, how did they go to the synagogue, and what happened (R40). 1

Focusing on details leads to conversations about the most difficult subjects, such as when Jews in hiding were betrayed, help was refused or those who were murdered and their property taken after they had found shelter. These are the topics found in the vernacular memory of Rymanów. For some time now, these subjects have been added to the official memory, in a monograph on the Rymanów Jews, in which negative attitudes are described and the perpetrators referred to by their initials, or in Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz’s film There Once Was a War (2013), screened in Rymanów, which acknowledges the conspiracy of silence concerning negative attitudes to Jews. Deep consideration and a critical perspective among some memory leaders, who approach the memory of the nation making space for the Jewish perspective, remain crucial. I included the Rymanów commemoration in the category of meetings. Although the local residents who participate are in a minority and its leaders have to cope with resistance, other affirmative and ethnonationalistic memory discourses as well as various attitudes to community heritage within Jewish communities, the Rymanów commemoration creates a social space that makes it possible for diverse memory perspectives to meet.

I placed commemoration in Bobowa in the nostalgia category because of the dominating signs of its multiculturalism and the idyllic and romantic pre-war world of the shtetl. The town information board features the local synagogue alongside bobbin lace, which Bobowa is famous for; both are seen as symbolic of the town. The Jewish past is part of the town’s image here. The commemoration memory leader in Bobowa is the mayor, who has been head of the local government there for over two decades and represents the town in contacts with its Jewish visitors. The largest group are Hasidic Jews originally from Bobowa who come from all over the world, as this is where a famous Hasidic dynasty has its roots and its founder, the renowned tzadik, Salomon Halberstam, is buried. When in Bobowa, Hasidic Jews worship in the synagogue located close to the market square, which seems to take the place back in time, owing to its small size, the cultural code of Hasidim and its closed character, as well as the metaphysical nature of their relationship with the space of Bobowa. This naturally leads to a nostalgic understanding of the past.

Unlike in Rymanów, which also has ties with a famous Hasidic dynasty, the local government in Bobowa places this romantic and mythical image of pre-war Galicia at the centre of its commemoration. The best example of this is the re-enactment of the famous wedding of Nechama Gold, daughter of Rabbi Ben Cjon Halberstam, in 1931. From Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz’s photographs we know what it looked like. The event, ‘How the tzadik arranged his daughter’s marriage’, was performed during the Bobowa Days with Jewish Culture organized by the local government in June 2013. Over the next years the initiative continued in the form of lectures and concerts. Actors from Tarnów performed in the re-enactment, with school students taking the role Hasidim and an anthropology professor, a religious Jew himself, acting as celebrant of the wedding ceremony. Just as it would have been several decades earlier, thousands of people attended the wedding ceremony, which was held in the town’s streets. One of Nechama Gold’s daughters, the granddaughter of Tzadik Halberstam, was a guest. The mayor observed that ‘It was very emotional and it seems that she also left, one might say, even more joyous – happier that we, here, respect the identity of others, that there is tolerance and there is memory above all and that this has become a permanent event on our agenda’ (interview with author, no. R10).

This a very good illustration of how the Jewish past was included in the local heritage, but the terms are clear – the presence of Jews in Bobowa is shown as a closed chapter of the town’s history, and evidence is presented of the harmonious coexistence of the two communities to confirm a positive image of one’s own group as non-Jewish Poles. Commemoration in Bobowa is an example of what the historian Michael Meng (2011) calls ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’, as it serves the purpose of glossing over the consequences of the problematic and shameful past.

According to the sources, and endorsed by the testimonies of non-Jewish residents, the Holocaust in Bobowa was particularly brutal as the Germans and their sympathizers shot dead a large number of the Jews there in three mass executions at sites a few kilometres outside the town (see Kraemer 2012). After the war, representatives of the Jewish community marked the graves and paid for monuments. These places, however, are not included in the local commemoration although they are present in oral memory transmission. The Holocaust is referenced during official commemorations as marking the end of the history of Jews in Bobowa. This can be seen in an excerpt from the lecture of one of the memory leaders, which was delivered during the Bobowa Days with Jewish Culture in 2013:

In our town, 14 August 1942 changed the Jewish world to such an extent that not a single one of them, the Jews from Bobowa, has returned to live in their birthplace, which for many was the only place they knew, and had been their entire world.

In this vision of the past, evil comes from outside and leaves the community unchanged morally, although Jews have been absent ever since:

Nothing could destroy our neighbourly relations, and for 207 years Jews lived in Bobowa unmolested and were left in peace, ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’. But when ‘the masters of war’ entered the town, the old world collapsed. Nothing was as it used to be. The image of Bobowa from that era lived on only in the pages of our town’s chronicles.

I would emphasize that local memory leaders base their information on local sources that reproduce a stereotyped and one-sided image of the past. They cannot see the need to revise the image by incorporating the Jewish perspective or expert opinion from outside. By excluding the voices, experiences and faces of Jewish residents, confirmation of the positive image of one’s own group becomes the principal purpose of commemoration.

Commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska is best described using the category of concealment. It is dominated by the practices of institutional actors – the mayor and representatives from the town hall – which focus on restoring the monumental synagogue in Dąbrowa, inside which the Centre for the Meeting of Cultures was established in 2012. What I considered to be typical of commemorations in Dąbrowa was a performance based on Roman Brandtstaetter’s play The Day of Wrath staged inside the synagogue in 2013 by the political Not Now Theatre. Members of Not Now explained in the performance programme why they decided to stage it:

Anger arose in response to political correctness which distorts historical truth and also from the start in recognition of the consequences of the increasingly frequent, disgraceful public references overseas to ‘Polish concentration camps’ or ‘anti- Semitism bred in the bone’.

The programme exemplifies the ethno-nationalistic memory discourse with its characteristic features, among them equating the suffering of Poles and Jews, focusing on the martyrdom of the Polish nation as a whole, presenting assisting Jews as a common occurrence and references to Christian rhetoric about Judaism from before the Second Vatican Council.

Examples of the discourse are prominent in the exhibition in the synagogue. This is an excerpt from a description of the German Occupation period:

Only about 150 Jews survived. Most of them were saved by the local population. Despite the most dire consequences that one suffered for offering any kind of help to a Jew or hiding a Jew, some people were not afraid and resolutely offered assistance. Polish priests were also involved and issued fake baptismal certificates to Jews. Many local residents of Dąbrowa Tarnowska paid for this humanitarianism with their own lives. Within just a few weeks in 1942, sixty-two people were shot in Dąbrowa Tarnowska and its vicinity for helping to hide Jews. The world war tested Polish–Jewish relations, relations between neighbours – Jews and Poles. But the attitudes of many residents of Dąbrowa Tarnowska and its vicinity demonstrated that certain rules cannot be broken but rather reinforced the bond between the two cultures that inhabited the same territory over a long period.

In the commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, the experience of ‘standing by’ during the Holocaust leaves the community of non-Jewish residents not so much unchanged, which was the case in Bobowa, but rather confirms their virtues and, it might even be said, asserts that the community is better for it. The facts quoted in the description above, which are often referred to in local publications about the German Occupation, are not confirmed by historical sources, something that Jan Grabowski (2011), among others, endorses. He documented the ‘hunt for the Jews’ in the district of Dąbrowa Tarnowska and gives the names of the Poles who took part in round-ups to capture the Jews hiding in nearby villages and forests after the ghettos had been obliterated. His book was the subject of heated debate among local residents, because it referred to people whose families still lived in the area.

Yet many of my interviewees admitted that these events had taken place and the hunt for the Jews was mentioned in the exhibition, thanks to the intervention of the exhibition’s consultant, but without giving details of who was responsible and how these hunts were undertaken.

In other parts of the exhibition the shameful collective past was masked by data on providing assistance to Jews, which was shown as widespread, while all the facts related to the Jewish community in Dąbrowa Tarnowska were reduced to a single image of a traditional pious man, and the Holocaust period was described in general statements, without any reference to specific people or places. What is more, the Jewish past was counterpoised with the history of the Christian residents of Dąbrowa; for example, alongside the history of the synagogue there was information about the history of local churches. The exhibition also included the debris of an aircraft shot down over Dąbrowa Tarnowska which was on its way to help the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – an image of one’s own group, the Christians, backing the image of resistance and suffering a noble death. After negotiations, some artefacts were included in the exhibition. Among them there was the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, on the eastern wall of a synagogue) from a small prayer meeting house that was in operation until the death of Samuel Roth, a religious Jew who lived in Dąbrowa after the war with his brother and his wife, an exceptional story nationally, which cuts through the abstract narration.

In conclusion, official commemoration in Dąbrowa Tarnowska exemplifies covert silence (Vinitzky-Seroussi and Tegger 2010), when ‘what looks like commemoration may in fact be deliberate forgetting’ (Vinitzky-Seroussi and Tegger 2010, 1,117). Jewish heritage is still undesired and inconvenient: ‘There is quite strong resistance here regarding the response to Jewish culture in Dabrowa. This might be because people are still afraid that potential owners of former Jewish properties might return to the town and many of these properties have been usucapted [ownership legally confirmed by possession]’ (interview with author, no. R25), one memory leader admitted. Despite efforts to conceal the Jewish past, the practices of groups of Jewish youth or representatives of Jewish communities, among others, who come and sometimes pray in the restored synagogue, make it impossible to forget this history. There are some actors initiating memory practices in Dąbrowa Tarnowska who refer to the critical discourse, take a reflective approach to their own group’s past and maintain contact with today’s relatives of the Jews of Dąbrowa Tarnowska. But to date they have not tried to break the local conspiracy of silence and introduce reflection on the uncomfortable collective memory into public space.



The space left after the Holocaust in Poland creates obstacles to reconciliation (see Pearlman, 2013). First, the perpetrators were not Poles, although it was on their territory that these tragic events occurred, as a result of which they have been seen as ‘bystanders’ and consequences related to this have arisen. It should also be remembered that the non-Jewish Poles were also victims of the German Occupation, but their experiences were different from those of the Jewish Poles. Secondly, after the war, the two communities were separated from each other and deprived of daily contact, which is one if the key factors determining the success of reconciliation. Thirdly, the process of working through difficult memory today concerns, by and large, the generations born after the Holocaust.

Therefore, I was interested in the potential that commemoration has to offer in this context, by introducing Jewish history and culture to the official discourse of local space, increasing the recognition of Jewish communities, whose influence on the fate and practices related to the cultural heritage of their ancestors is growing, and visits of the descendants of Jewish residents interested in the past. I have been considering the conditions that enable the creation of a social space where ‘remembering well’ (Sennett 1998, 12) is possible, which is shown in a precise account of what happened during the Holocaust in the context of local space. I begin with a description of the memory actors. I focus above all on their sense of agency (Giddens 1984), which I understand as taking responsibility for the Other (Bauman 2001), and in the belief that by doing something, an actor is able to change the status quo. What is more, actors are aware of the mechanisms controlling the dominating discourses, which is why they may choose the one they prefer (Kaplan 2005) or fashion a new discourse, one that is more appropriate for the local space. The latter is related to the actors’ reflexivity, their ability to monitor their attitudes.

In this way one can overcome the models passed down by culture, such as anti-Semitism, the tradition of martyrdom that is foreign to the experiences of others, and the concept of Polishness related to it. A critical approach is possible thanks to the continual confrontation of one’s convictions from different perspectives or through contact with sources (testimonies, journals and photographs) or contact with Jews (survivors, descendants and Jewish communities living in Poland). The more diverse these voices are, the greater the chance that what is remembered will be true (Sennett 1998). There is a need to build informal relations based on everyday experiences. This makes it possible to involve ordinary people, and not only representatives of elites, in the process of coming to terms with a difficult past (Trimikliniotis 2013). This is the case with the Rymanów commemoration around which an informal group of Poles and Jews has formed who visit one another, help one another and spend their free time together.

The actors representing the non-Jewish perspective must remember that the Jewish memory should be expressed on equal terms, instead of being subordinated to the interests of their own group. This boils down to doing justice ‘through memories, to an other than the self ’ (Ricoeur 2007, 88). From the perspective of non-Jews it is important to acknowledge the asymmetry of this relationship, aware that while examining one’s own conscience one will not get a response from the other side. An important characteristic of memory actors includes what they do to confront the areas subjected to silence and collective forgetting. In order to be successful, individuals’ activities must be transformed into collective activities. This is promoted by large numbers of reflective actors as the more people discuss the subject openly, the more difficult it is to deny the facts.

Various resources available to actors are important. This concerns situations in which the actors are independent of local structures and the status of ‘epistemic authorities’ (Rydgren 2007, 24) as people typically have more faith in the practices in which those who are considered authorities are involved. In small towns, these are often priests. In Rymanów, one of the important memory actors is the parish priest who participates in ecumenical prayers organized during the remembrance days. He encourages people to take part during the masses he celebrates and maintains relations with the Jews who visit Rymanów, including the Hasidim. The more people discuss publicly the issues that so far have been subjected to silence or collective forgetting, the greater the sense of the actors’ agency becomes, which increases the likelihood of sticking to the decision made. At the same time, social pressure to maintain the status quo declines (Zerubavel 2006). It is thus important that actors representing different generations, experiences and memory are involved in commemoration. They will not all be characterized by a high level of reflexivity. I have distinguished the institutional actors whose participation in commemoration impacts local inhabitants’ approval of what they do. They are represented by the local authorities, schools, the Church and the NGOs active at the local level and beyond.

An important factor that influences the form commemoration takes is the absence of some types of actor; for example, the local priests do not take part in Dąbrowa Tarnowska. The participation of institutional actors is also important to ensure that the activities undertaken will be sustained as well as being comprehensive in nature. It is important to involve various institutions as they have to confront problems within their own structures. Practices related to difficult memory should focus on the details: specific events, places and people. Above all, they should include inconvenient and shameful facts from one’s own group past. Thanks to historical details and where the events took place, the fallout of the Holocaust is presented as a loss, which makes it possible to establish an empathetic relationship, while distinguishing between the experiences of the victims and those of the bystanders (LaCapra, 2001). The consequences of the Holocaust must also lead to a consideration of contemporary attitudes, including anti-Semitism. Commemoration that fulfils these requirements may lead to the creation of a public space in which confronting difficult memory becomes possible.

When we turn to the case studies analysed here, in Rymanów an opportunity emerges for practices related to the Jewish heritage. While commemoration in Bobowa and, even more so in Dabrowa Tarnowska, is used to affirm the positive image of one’s own group. The practices related to the culture and history of local Jews make it possible to conceal the areas subjected to collective forgetting and silence, which leads to dissonance between the vernacular memory and what is publicly accepted as true. Despite the fact that commemoration has established a new relationship between local residents and Jewish cultural heritage, the circumstances of the past, such as the image of a Jew as a threatening Other, are repeated.



This study was undertaken in part thanks to a grant from a faculty fund (DS) to develop young scholars and doctoral students in the Faculty of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University in 2011–12 and as part of the ‘Commemorating Pre-War Jewish Communities in Contemporary Poland as a Manifestation of the Cultural Trauma of the Holocaust’ project, 2014–16, financed by the National Science Centre under decision DEC-2013/09/N/HS6/00422.

Translated from Polish into English by Mikołaj Sekrecki



Marta Duch-Dyngosz obtained a MA in Sociology (2007) and European Studies (2009) at the Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities at Jagiellonian University, Kraków. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute of Sociology, Jagiellonian University. She was awarded a Fulbright Junior Advanced Research Award (2012–13) and a research grant funded by National Science Centre in Poland (2014–16). She was appointed editor of the monthly journal Znak in 2011.




1. The interview was conducted in English and is quoted verbatim.


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Photo of the publication Construction of Identity in Romania in Relation to its Past: the Case of the Shoah in History Textbooks in Secondary Education
Maria-Philippa Wieckowski

Construction of Identity in Romania in Relation to its Past: the Case of the Shoah in History Textbooks in Secondary Education

18 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • academic
  • Shoah
  • Jews
  • Romania
  • education

Teaching about the Holocaust and the role of the Romanian state in these events is still a recent happening in Romania: the process has followed a tortuous path, between denial and distortion. In 2004 an official change to school syllabuses and the publication of a report by the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania aimed to improve teaching about the Shoah in Romanian schools. This article aims to determine to what extent the national identity of Romania is built in relation to its past, especially to the Holocaust. The research focuses on four Romanian history textbooks used in the tenth class (ages sixteen to seventeen at secondary school). Our research analyses the discursive strategies used in history textbooks published since 2004. It concentrates on the roles assigned to different actors involved in these events. Who are the victims? Who are those responsible? How are their actions depicted? Are they underplayed or exaggerated?



The process recognizing the Romanian state’s involvement in the events linked to the Shoah began in 2003, when Ion Iliescu, then the President of the Republic of Romania, founded the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. This institute aimed to investigate the facts related to the Holocaust in Romania and subsequently to publish a report on the subject, which was to include recommendations on how to better educate the public on this topic (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005). Teaching about the Shoah had been officially included in the syllabuses since 1998; however, until 2004 the facts were presented in an incomplete and distorted way and anti-Semitism was hardly mentioned (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance 2014). The majority of textbooks followed the earlier, communist line of teaching, which had avoided the subject of the Holocaust (Livezeanu 2002, 936).

Certain authors have shown that revisionist currents existed among the Romanian elite and academic circles (Geissbuhler 2012, 128), and have made a connection between these attitudes and school education (Padeanu 2012). The link existing between education and the construction of identity is crucial, insofar as historians, and by extension history teachers, hold a special place in society, and are often seen as the bearers of historical truth (Anderson 2007, 277). The processes of producing and teaching historical knowledge can then be influenced by the visions of these researchers and teachers, so creating a double hierarchy – production and transmission (Anderson 2007, 286); this double hierarchy is coupled with a lack of critical thought on the part of pupils when receiving content, often encouraged by their teachers (Anderson 2007, 285).

This research belongs to the constructivist approach. Our readings on the themes of memory and historical narrative both place the accent on the changing (Hodgkin and Radstone 2003, 23) and created character of memory and narrative (Gillis 1994, 169), as well as on the central role of memory in the building of historical narratives of identity (Hodgkin and Radstone 2003, 169). Because of this, national identities are ideological constructs taken from the historical processes of nationhood (Billig 1995, 24). By national identity, we understand a way of conceiving of one’s own nation, one’s own group, in a particular way, opposed to that of conceiving of foreigners and elements outside this nation or group (Billig 1995, 61). Henry Tajfel has shown that stereotypes, that is, cultural descriptions pertaining to social groups, are used to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’, and so define the unique character of a group of reference – or, in our case, of the nation (Tajfel et al. 1964, 192). These conceptions of foreign elements are formed historically and socially, passed on to individual members and shared through social channels of influence (Tajfel 1982, 42). And so the notion of identity ought then to be understood as the product, perpetually changing, of a collective action, and not as a fixed and immutable concept (Brubaker 1994, 9).

Romania is no exception to this process of national construction. Starting from the 18th century, the Romanian national identity forged itself insisting on several elements, such as rurality, its Latin roots, the direct link with Dacians, the common origins of Romanian citizens and, as a consequence, the homogeneity of the Romanian nation (Mihailescu 1991, 82; Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 105). This construction proceeded under the union of Greater Romania,1 and in the following years, the element of ethnic purity was added to a centralizing logic (Mihailescu 1991, 106–7). The communist regime reinforced these trends of national union, homogenization and centralization, while institutionalizing Romanian nationalism – via a classification of ethnic citizenship (Brubaker 1998, 286). The latter was used in favour or, on the contrary, against some groups, such as Jews or Roma (Brubaker 1998, 287). Under Nicolae Ceauşescu (1965–89, as ruler of Romania), we can even talk about a ‘State folklorism’ (Thiesse 1999, 282), as the ruler developed the themes of tradition, national unity and the undisputable Dacian origin of Romanians, as well as using a romanticized version of the founding peasantry (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 109). During the communist years in Romania, the nation found itself at the centre of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy (Verdery 1993, 195, 197). Moreover, the Romanian national historiographies stressed the narratives presenting Romanians as being the victims of other nations (Verdery 1993, 195) – a victimization process that prevented collective accountability (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 113).

The fall of the communist regime led to a loss of identity reference points, and opened the way for the use of myths about origins, of the Romanian national memory (Mihailescu 1995, 85), as well as to the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitic trends (Florian 1997, 67). Indeed, the political discourse in post-communist Romania seems to still be focused on the nation and its characteristics (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 111). Nationalist and revisionist discourses have been, and still are, declaimed rather freely, especially those presenting Romania’s leader Ion Antonescu, from 1940 to 1944, as a saviour and a national hero, contrary to what is argued in studies dealing with the Shoah in Romania (Florian 2011, 19). Indeed, in Romania it was portrayed that the Holocaust was only a result of external causes and not inherent to the Romanian state; a concept deeply linked to the nationalistic communism in Romania, whereby all problems had foreign causes (Florian 2011, 19).

In contemporary Romania, the denial of the Holocaust still occupies an important part of public belief (Florian 2011, 20). This denial is visible in mass-media and TV shows (Eskenazy 2011, 10), but also in more subtle ways. For instance, when young producers are denied the funds for projects dealing with the Holocaust in Romania, the refusal comes from well-regarded institutions and organizations – including the Romanian Television (Eskenazy 2011, 11). Generally, it is hard to measure the impact of shows or documentaries about the Shoah on the public (Eskenazy 2011, 12). Historian Victor Eskenazy argues that this constant denial can be attributed to three factors. First, anti-Semitic attitudes are still deeply rooted in Romanian society – historian Andrei Oisteanu published a detailed study of the stereotypes attributed to Jews in Romanian, some of which are still in use today (Oisteanu 2012). Secondly, the enduring refusal of popular intellectuals to take part in debates on television, when it comes to the Shoah; when they do take part however, the trend is to question any proven historical piece of information. Thirdly, the limited access to books on this topic as well as their high cost for the average citizen impede the spread of new information (Eskenazy 2011, 10–12).

As regards history teaching in Romania, several studies have also been carried out linking the teaching of history and identity. Catalina Mihalache and Speranta Nalin have examined the teaching of history in Romania. The former notes that the teaching method encourages pupils to conform to the official historical truths (Mihalache 2012, 1975–77). The latter examines the problems linked to educational reforms and school syllabuses for the teaching of history. She shows what impact the centralization of the educational system can have on the presentation of historical facts in textbooks (Dumitru Nalin 2002, 40–46). Thomas Misco has studied how the Shoah is taught in Romania, as well as the relationship between this teaching and the construction of a Romanian national identity. He highlights the teacher’s freedom when it comes to choosing which textbooks to use, as well as what issues to study. Beyond the optional courses that are solely focused on the Holocaust, Misco argues that it is hard for a history teacher to discuss in detail all the aspects and implications of the Shoah, considering their short time frame (Misco 2008, 6–20).

Training sessions for teachers are held in Romania, by the Ministry of Education (Ziarul de Garda 2014) as well as by the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Elie Wiesel ... 2016). However, figures show that the number of teachers attending such training sessions is low, compared to the total number of history teachers – around 10 per cent (Misco 2007, 4). Moreover, some teachers are still in denial about the Holocaust, which affects the sources they choose and the way they teach. Social scientist Thomas Misco concludes that a tool for measuring pupils’ knowledge of the Holocaust does not yet exist, and that the way in which the contents are taught suffers from the influence of the communist period (Misco 2008, 6–20). However, statements about how to teach about the Holocaust do exist. One of them includes practical aspects – how to create a positive teaching environment, why and how to use direct testimonies, etc. – and theoretical aspects as well – how to define the Holocaust in the first place (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). Yet, this statement is notably a general one and does not go into detail about how the state is addressing its past, in relation to the Shoah.

Given that changes happen over time, we wish to study how the Romanian ‘we’ is built when placed in relationship to its past, and more particularly to the episode of the Shoah. Our research question is defined as follows: ‘How is the Romanian identity of today defined by its relationship to its past, through the specific case of the Shoah?’

We proceed in a deductive fashion, by first setting out our hypotheses before applying them to our case study. On the basis of our first observations, carried out during exploratory readings on the links between the construction of identity and education in the post-communist period, we establish as a first hypothesis that the Shoah is hardly or not mentioned at all in secondary school history textbooks in Romania. Where it is mentioned, our second hypothesis is this: ‘The link to the past presented in Romanian history textbooks shows how present-day Romanian identity is beset by conflict in relation to the episode of the Shoah in Romania.’ This conflict is reflected, on the one hand, by acknowledging and accepting responsibility attached to the Shoah, and, on the other hand, underplaying the Shoah in Romania and the responsibility of Romanian society in these happenings. Thus the way Romanian identity has been constructed can either integrate this episode into its history, or, on the contrary, show a tendency to hide it. Our hypotheses establish from these facts a link between the representation of past events – here, the Shoah – and the construction of the identity of the Romanian nation, which does not appear in the studies and exploratory readings that we had consulted beforehand.



In order to answer our research question, we chose to apply a method inspired by authors who use critical discourse analysis (CDA) approaches – and by Ruth Wodak in particular (Wodak 2001, 63–94). CDA, with its focus on a problem, and in the case of this article, using a discourse-historical approach, allows several elements to be shown, such as the creation, preservation and change of contextual constraints – like dominance, power or ethnocentrism within a discourse (Van Dijk 1985, 5). These discourses are interpreted historically, and placed spatially and temporally. As for the structures of domination, they are justified by the ideologies of the most influential groups (Wodak 2001, 3). In our present case study, we identify these influential groups as the authors of textbooks, who are often teachers within the secondary or higher education system, and therefore keepers of knowledge. We adopt the definition of the discourse established by Ruth Wodak, who explains it in these terms: ‘a complex bundle of simultaneous and sequential interrelated linguistic acts, which manifest themselves within and across the social fields of action as thematically interrelated semiotic, oral or written tokens, very often as “texts” that belong to specific semiotic types, i.e. genres’ (Wodak 2001, 21–22); we include the texts of school textbooks within this definition. We can further state that knowledge and the control of knowledge shape our interpretation of the world (Van Dijk 1993, 258). This justifies our wish to analyse the discourses found in the textbooks, which have as their main purpose the construction of this knowledge and its transmission to pupils.

We apply this method to a corpus of four textbooks of Romanian history for secondary schools (clasa a X-a [tenth year – ages sixteen to seventeen]), published in or after 2004. Three of them are meant for general teaching (Balutoiu 2007; Barnea et al. 2008; Selevet et al. 2008), whereas the fourth (Petrescu 2007) has been specially designed for an optional course on the Holocaust (Ministry of National Education and Scientific Research 2004, 2), and published on the initiative of the Ronald S. Lauder Romanian Foundation (Lauder Reut Educational Complex 2014). In these four textbooks we want to analyse how the Holocaust is represented, concentrating on the discursive strategies used by the authors to present the facts relating to the Shoah in Romania. By discursive strategy we mean what Ruth Wodak defines as ‘a more or less accurate and more or less intentional plan of practices (including discursive practices) adopted to achieve a particular social, political, psychological or linguistic aim’ (Wodak 2001, 73). Specifically, we analyse which decisive events are mentioned or concealed: who is held to be responsible for these events and how their actions are presented – exaggerated or understated; how the victims are presented, and whether they are portrayed as an integral or separate part of the Romanian nation.



While the events studied are the same in each of these textbooks, there are considerable variations as to how they are presented, through the syntactical structures, the importance given to certain protagonists and the inclusion or exclusion of the victims of the Romanian nation. We have been able to identify four elements common to all four textbooks.

First, with few exceptions, all present the same events, generally in chronological order – anti-Jewish legislation (1940–42), policy of Romanianization2 and national homogenization (1940–44), the pogroms of Dorohoi (July 1940) and Iasi (June 1941), deportation, extermination in Transnistria, the case of the Jews of Transylvania, etc. However, the way in which these events are presented differs. For example, only one textbook – that is intended for use within the special optional course – mentions the policy of Romanianization in its entirety (Petrescu 2007, 78–81), while two others focus only on the economic aspect of this policy (Balutoiu 2007, 114; Barnea et al. 2008, 108). The fourth textbook does not mention this policy at all (Selevet et al. 2008, 98–99). Moreover, only one of the textbooks intended for general teaching makes a reference to the Bucharest pogrom of January 1941 (Balutoiu 2007, 114), although the context in which this pogrom took place is mentioned in all three general textbooks (Selevet et al. 2008, 98; Barnea et al. 2008, 108; Balutoiu 2007, 114). Only the textbook for the optional course deals with this topic and includes photographs of it (Petrescu 2007, 78–79), but the involvement of a certain number of Bucharest citizens in this event is not mentioned. The way in which the events are presented is equally varied when it comes to the case of Transylvania. Three of the textbooks refer to it in a neutral and somewhat superficial way. However, one of the textbooks meant for general teaching makes a clear distinction between the Romanian and Hungarian situations at the time, emphasizing the difficulties that the Romanian state had to face: ‘While the Romanian army found itself in a difficult situation at Stalingrad, and while Romania was suffering heavy human and material losses, Hungary had only part of its army engaged in the war against the USSR and was guarding Transylvania’ (Balutoiu 2007, 115).

Secondly, we would like to underscore an important point. The choice of language and grammatical structure plays an important role in the presentation of historical facts. We have found in all the textbooks that sentences are constructed actively for those responsible, and passively when talking of the victims; these constructions tend, on the one hand, to accentuate the responsibility of the guilty, and, on the other, to accentuate the victim status of the deported. For example, it is written that the Jews ‘were evacuated’, ‘were deported’, ‘were killed’, whereas in the case of the protagonists of these acts the language is different: ‘Antonescu and his legionnaires began the removal of Jews from the economic structures of the state’ (Barnea et al. 2008, 108) and the Iron Guard ‘conducted an anti-Semitic policy, encouraged street violence, rewoke the animosity of the Romanians against the Jewish population’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 98).

Thirdly, we have also found in the textbooks that quotation marks are used extensively, distancing the authors from the statements or actions cited. For example, when reference is made to the ‘reforms’ initiated by Antonescu during the process of Romanianization (Petrescu 2007, 79); when the authors mention the ‘cleansing of the land’ carried out during the years 1941–42 (Barnea et al. 2008, 108); or again when they cite the ‘arguments’ advanced by Romania to justify its policy (Balutoiu 2007, 114).

Fourthly, all the textbooks analysed make reference to the positive actions of the Romanian people, leading some of them to receive the title of Righteous among the Nations. However, the way in which these actions are presented differs from one textbook to another. In the textbook for the special optional course, a whole chapter is devoted to Romanian individuals who helped save Jews, in a detailed and unbiased way. In the three textbooks meant for general teaching, these people are mentioned briefly – five lines more or less for them all (Barnea et al. 2008, 109; Balutoiu 2007, 105; Selevet et al. 2008, 98). Valentin Balutoiu’s book is explicitly positive in referring to these actions, when he writes, ‘In such difficult times during the war, many Romanians proved their great humanity and compassion towards the Jewish population. For this reason, some of them received the title of “Righteous among the Nations”’ (Balutoiu 2007, 115). It is important to stress this, given that only one of the three textbooks intended for general teaching refers to the negative actions perpetrated by Romanian civilians during the pogroms and/or massacres (Barnea et al. 2008, 108) – in addition to the special option textbook (Petrescu 2007, 83). Implicitly, the textbooks that do not deal with this subject reject the notion of individual responsibility. One of the textbooks in particular insists several times that it is impossible to hold a nation responsible for the events that unfolded during the Shoah, so exonerating the Romanian nation and preventing all debate upon the subject: ‘the responsibility cannot be attributed to a people, but must be charged to the state apparatus and to those who conceived and applied the plan of extermination’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 98–99). The affirmative and imperative tone of this sentence leaves no room for either reflection or debate on questions of responsibility, particularly for those episodes where it has been claimed that part of the civilian population of different countries is guilty of crimes against the Jews (Dean 2004, 120–40). Paradoxically, the only textbook that invites pupils to reflect on this notion of responsibility – national, state – is precisely the one among them that makes no mention of the involvement of Romanian civilians (Balutoiu 2007, 116). It is in the same textbook that the syntactical separation between the Jews and the Romanian nation is most evident. In the other textbooks, the integration of the Jewish victims in the nation is ambivalent, by the more or less regular use of phrases or adjectives that link them, such as ‘Romanian Jews’ ‘Jews of Romania’ or again ‘Romanian citizens of Jewish race’.

As regards the integration of victims in the nation, the three general textbooks, without exception, marginalize the Roma people, their deportation and extermination, literally and figuratively. Only about one to four lines are given to what happened to the Roma people during the Second World War. Only one textbook includes the description of the events in the main text (Selevet et al. 2008, 99); another places the description of the happenings in the margin of the page (Balutoiu 2007, 114), while in the third textbook of general history, the paragraph devoted to the Roma people is separated from the main body of the text by an exercise (Barnea et al. 2008, 109). Only the textbook for the optional course gives them a larger place in the presentation of the facts by including extracts about them, which are nonexistent in the other three textbooks. The selected extracts include a history of their population in Romania, photographs and a final exercise referring exclusively to the Roma people (Petrescu 2007, 105–7, 113–17).

In addition, all the textbooks analysed point to the responsibility of the state and the personal responsibility of Ion Antonescu for the events unfolding during the Shoah. Two of the textbooks focus almost exclusively upon this aspect; this is evident in the presentation of facts in the main text – they either emphasize and demonize him or underplay the will of the leader in eliminating certain categories of the population: ‘Antonescu’s regime made use of the army, the militia, the police and public functionaries to initiate the Holocaust and put it into practice’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 99), ‘the Romanian authorities, Ion Antonescu in particular, are considered guilty of the death of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews’ (Balutoiu 2007, 114). Antonescu often appears as the subject of phrases given in these textbooks that reinforce his guilt. The choice of the extracts reproduced in these books – which more or less put forward Antonescu’s responsibility – is another component of the prominence, or not, of Antonescu. All these textbooks underplay the civilians’ role.

Three of the four textbooks also cite and/or include extracts of the report published by the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Selevet et al. 2008, 99; Barnea et al. 2008, 107–8; Petrescu 2007, 104) – in the margins or in the main body of the text, for example, when it is written that ‘the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania confirms that a holocaust took place in Romania; the Antonescu regime and extremist groups were responsible for these crimes’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 99). Clearly all the textbooks follow the conclusions made by the same commission concerning the principal actors responsible for the events taking place during the Holocaust, namely the Romanian authorities and the leader Ion Antonescu (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005, 381). The report of the commission does, however, present the facts relative to the involvement of civilians (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005, 383), which some of the textbooks conceal, as we have already mentioned.



Following our analyses and comparisons, we can say that, as for our first hypothesis, the Shoah is indeed mentioned in the history textbooks in Romania. In fact, each of the four textbooks analysed includes three to four pages on the Holocaust in Europe and in Romania – two whole chapters in the case of the optional textbook. The Romanian history textbooks reveal an ambivalence in the construction of present-day Romanian identity in relation to the episode of the Shoah in Romania. While all the textbooks tackle the Holocaust, we have been able to show that the presentation of the facts varies, between distancing, concealing or giving an unbiased view as possible. A conflict in the construction of Romanian identity is clear: on one side, there’s a recognition and acceptance of these events and the responsibility attached to them, and, on the other, the Shoah in Romania and the responsibility of Romanian society in the events is underplayed. We have shown in this article that this construction of identity can either integrate or conceal the episode of the Shoah in Romanian history. Our results can fit into the existing literature on the study of the formation of identity through education and school textbooks, in a general sense, as well as those that focus on the study of the Shoah in Romania. Earlier analyses, like that of Waldman (Waldman 2010), have studied the representation of the Holocaust in Romanian school textbooks, marking a difference between the periods before and after 2004, the year in which the government’s attitude officially changed towards these events. This is when the Romanian school syllabuses were changed, with the aim of giving greater importance to the study of the Shoah in the classroom. Other studies have analysed the way in which the Shoah is presented and studied in Romanian classrooms: Thomas Misco’s 2007 ethnographic study (Misco 2007) showed the poor level of knowledge, of both pupils and teachers, on this subject. However, no study, to our knowledge, links these elements to the construction of a national identity in Romania, as we have proposed to do in the body of this paper. Our article allows us to bring to light the differing representations existing within a sample of Romanian school textbooks as well as linking these to the construction of Romanian identity.

Our article allows us to establish that ambivalences exist in the way facts linked to the Romanian past, in particular the Shoah, are presented and as a result the way the facts are transmitted and taught to Romanian secondary school pupils. We have aslo made evident the interconnections between teaching, school textbooks and the construction of a national identity. This allows us to state that these different representations and ambivalences are assimilated by Romanian pupils during their education, and that this assimilation becomes an integral part of their identity as Romanian nationals.

Translated from French into English by Ailsa Campbell



Maria-Philippa Wieckowski

Maria-Philippa Wieckowski was born in 1992. She graduated with a MA in Political Science, specializing in the politics and society of Central Europe, Russia and the Caucasus. Her centres of interest include the construction of identity and the relation to memory and the past in Romania after 1989. She divides her time between France and Romania.




1 Process of unification that began in 1859 and ended in 1918. Greater Romania existed until 1940.

2 ‘Policy followed by the Romanian authorities between 1940 and 1944, consisting of dispossessing Jews and eliminating them from Romanian society’ (Petrescu 2007, 174).


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This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.

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Photo of the publication Anne and Eva: Two Diaries, Two Holocaust Memories in Communist Hungary
Kata Bohus

Anne and Eva: Two Diaries, Two Holocaust Memories in Communist Hungary

01 August 2016
  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Hungary
  • Second World
  • War
  • World War II
  • Anne Frank
  • Éva Heyman
  • Jews


This article presents the publication histories and reception of two diaries in state socialist Hungary: the world-famous diary of Anne Frank and the much less-known diary of Éva Heyman, the so-called ‘Hungarian Anne Frank’. The analysis shows how Hungary’s Kádár regime (1956–89) tried to thematize Holocaust memory through the publication (or, in Éva’s case, non-publication) of Jewish wartime diaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These policies resulted in the emergence of a partial and ideologically loaded Holocaust narrative, but one that should nevertheless not be dismissed as complete fiction. Moreover, in light of this phenomenon, the long-held thesis about the complete tabooization of the Holocaust in state socialist Hungary cannot be maintained.



‘We have our own Anne Frank, only we have yet to acknowledge her’ (Antal 1957) lamented a journalist in the official daily of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, Népszabadság, in 1957. He was referring to Éva Heymann whose life story and writing indeed bore a striking resemblance to those of Anne Frank.

Both Anne and Éva came from cosmopolitan Jewish families. Anne and her family lived in Frankfurt, later in Amsterdam, and her father owned a small business selling spices and pectin. Éva lived in Oradea (Nagyvárad), a city on the border between Romania and Hungary, where her family owned a pharmacy. Éva, like Anne Frank, was thirteen years old when she began her diary. She also wrote about the war’s effects on her life and about relationships between people in her family. She also fell in love, only her Peter van Daan was named Pista Vadas. And, like Anne’s, her diary also ended abruptly when she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she was later killed. Éva’s death occurred just a few months before Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. The diary of Anne Frank was published by her father Otto Frank in 1947 in the Netherlands, and the same year saw the publication of Éva’s diary by her mother, the journalist Ágnes Zsolt in Hungary. 1Anne Frank’s diary was widely popular in various Hungarian theatres in the late 1950s and was consequently published five times between 1958 and 1982 in book format. Éva’s diary, however, was not widely available in Hungary during the same period – a second Hungarian edition was only published well after the fall of communism, in 2009. The goal of this article is to explore the possible reasons for the difference between the two publication histories.

Because of their similarities, both diaries offer insight into the nature of the violence perpetrated upon Jews during the Second World War. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe interpreted the war, primarily as a fight between fascism and anti-fascism. In the context of this ideologically defined struggle, the persecution of Jews (in other words, non-political victimhood) during the Second World War was never a primary focus. Some academics go as far as to assert that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust was mostly suppressed in the Soviet Union2 and its Eastern European communist counterparts (Braham 1999, 51; Cohen 1999, 85–118; Steinlauf 1997, esp. 62–88). Specifically, the idea that the Holocaust in Hungary was a taboo topic during the socialist period is a long-held thesis in academia. Randolph L. Braham asserted, for example, that during the communist period, the Holocaust was ‘for many decades sunk in an Orwellian black hole of history’ (Braham 1999, 50).

While the tabooization thesis seems to hold true regarding the publication history of Éva’s diary, it certainly does not apply to Anne’s. Why was Éva’s diary ignored when Anne Frank’s was widely publicized? What can be learned from these examples about the memory politics of the Kádár regime regarding the Holocaust? This paper reassesses the development of Holocaust memory during the first decade of János Kádár’s reign in Hungary, and demonstrates that the regime made rather clumsy attempts to create an ideological narrative of wartime violence for its own benefit. Partly owing to its willingness to allow public depictions of such violence, the Hungarian state was nevertheless unable to completely suppress the emergence of a Jewish Holocaust narrative that contrasted with its own.

Though there was no censorship process in the strict sense of the word in Kádárist Hungary, 3 all publications were produced by the state, and had to go through a review process coordinated by the Main Directorate of Publishing [Kiadói Főigazgatóság]. Similarly, plays were reviewed by ‘trustworthy’ insiders before their stage adaptation began. Press and journalism was also under party control through a complicated institutional structure. 4 Therefore, it is possible to highlight the main cultural policy considerations and propaganda goals with regards to Holocaust memory based on texts produced within these structures of control.


The diary of Anne Frank on stage and in book format

The dramatized version of Anne Frank’s diary arrived onto the Hung-arian stage during a rather sensitive period, before the diary had been published in print. Its première in Budapest’s popular Madách Theatre took place in October 1957, almost exactly a year after the outbreak of a revolution. Events that started in Budapest on 23 October 1956 as a peaceful demonstration to express sympathy towards Polish workers, who had risen in Poznań earlier that year, ended in a popular uprising and bloodshed. The revolution became increasingly anti-communist, and the Soviet leadership eventually decided to use military force to prevent Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the possible dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. On 4 November 1956 Red Army troops marched into Budapest, the reform communist government that had been on the side of the revolution found temporary refuge at the Yugoslav Embassy but later some of its members, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy, were arrested and executed. János Kádár, himself a former member of the Nagy government, was placed in power by the Soviet leadership while the units of the Red Army stayed in Hungary until 1991.

In the immediate years following the establishment of the Kádár administration, cultural policies aimed at ‘uncovering’ the reasons behind what was referred to as the 1956 ‘counter-revolution’. Through these, the Hungarian regime intended to establish at least some semblance of legitimacy both in the eyes of international audiences and its Hungarian subjects. According to official publications, the outbreak of the ‘counter-revolution’ was linked to the infiltration of fascist elements from the West and the re-emergence of domestic Hungarian fascists from the interwar era and the Hungarian domestic far-right Arrow Cross [nyilaskeresztes] movement (Nyssönen 1999, 92–5). The February 1957 ‘Resolution of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party with regards to Current Questions and Tasks’ attributed the actions of the population to a smaller group of provocateurs (Kalmár 1998, 29). This harmful minority, the party narrative maintained, used ‘the dissatisfaction of the masses caused by the previous party leadership’s mistakes, aimed at confusing the working masses’ class consciousness with chauvinist, nationalist, revisionist, anti-Semitic and other bourgeois counterrevolutionary ideas’. 5 In order to substantiate the interpretation of the 1956 revolution as being instigated by (domestic and returning foreign) fascists, Kádár’s propaganda exaggerated their presence and influence during the interwar period.

Anne Frank’s diary was a possible vehicle to remind Hungarian audiences of the evil of fascism. Thus, when the theatre piece opened in 1957, one reviewer commented that ‘the whole drama is a sharp critique of the vandalism of the Nazi world’. 6 The person tasked with reviewing the book for publication supported it by emphasizing that Anne Frank ‘condemns the monstrosities of the fascists with sharp ruthlessness’. 7

Yet, the story of two families hiding from Nazi persecution did not lend itself easily to the communist ideological narrative, which simultaneously emphasized anti-fascist resistance. The Franks were not anti-fascist revolutionary fighters. For that very reason, the drama was banned from being performed on the Soviet stage for a while, because it ‘propagated passive behaviour against the enemy instead of active battle against fascism’. 8 This problem did not escape the attention of Hungarian theatre critics. The apparent contradiction was papered over with the redemptive image of socialism. Népakarat, the official paper of the trade unions put this the following way:

Hero or only a victim? [...] Both. But most importantly a hero – her life proclaims the same as those of the small soldiers of resistance: to believe in life, believe in humankind, believe in the fact that our life, which is offered as a sacrifice, is a memento and our death prepares the happiness of the future, the once coming triumph of humanity. And for this triumph, Anne Frank had to sacrifice her life the same way as the armed heroes of resistance did (Thurzó 1957).

By likening Anne Frank’s death to those for whom combat against fascism was a choice of conviction, the reviewer suggests that the extermination of millions of people by Nazism was the victims’ fight for the happiness of future generations. Anne Frank’s then already famous lines ‘I believe that people are really good at heart’ were turned into a political confession. This logic gave an ideological answer to one of the most debated questions surrounding the Holocaust: why did it happen? It provided an answer to this question not by looking at causes and roots of Nazi policies but by pointing to a future outcome. Anne Frank had to die so that socialism could triumph.

Other articles also gave the impression that Anne Frank’s death was not without purpose because in the present, communists were protecting peace and fighting the re-emergence of fascism. In a personal reflection piece in the paper Magyar Ifjúság, journalist Rezső Bányász expressed this as follows:

See, since you finished your youthful dreams forever, a new world has started to form here. There is a big and strong camp here, in which there are a thousand million people. And this camp is fighting against war and protecting peace. [It is protecting] the lives of Anne Franks, of small and big, young and old, white and black. The strength of this camp is unmeasurable (Bányász 1957).

Another commentator suggested that Anne Frank’s white gloves in the theatre piece (which she puts on for her first date with Peter) symbolized the coming of a free, better world (Nagy 1958). That world, the reader could easily deduct, was the socialist present. In the interpretation of the contemporary Hungarian press, the main message of the play was that Anne Frank’s death brought about the triumph of socialism that ensured that fascism would never return. This statement served a legitimizing function for the Hungarian Kádár regime as a bulwark against the return of ‘fascist elements’ that characterized the 1956 ‘counter-revolution’.

The Hungarian edition of Anne Frank’s diary first appeared in book format in 1958 – a year after the play had been performed – with a print run of 10,000 copies, 9 and was quickly republished a year later. These first two editions were rather simple publications, little more than booklets, unaccompanied by any kind of explanatory note from the publisher or anybody else. In 1962, the diary was compiled with Polish Holocaust child victim Dawid Rubinowicz’s diary and published 50,000 copies. 10 This third edition is more intriguing as an examination of state socialist propaganda and its uses of Anne Frank’s diary. István Bart, who was an editor at Európa Publishing House (the publisher of Anne Frank’s diaries in Hungary), pointed out that if a translated foreign manuscript contained sensitive issues, it was the foreword or the afterword that was supposed to shape the message more clearly for the reader. 11 Indeed, a resolution of the Politburo of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party from 1957 clearly stated that ‘publications that are debatable or include incorrect thoughts should be accompanied by an appropriate Marxist foreword’ (Vass and Ságvári 1973, 161).

There was no foreword to the 1962 edition but the afterword, written by writer Géza Hegedüs, emphasized the universality of the experience of persecution during the war.

[I]s there even one family in Europe’s broad area that does not have anything to mourn from those years? [... I]f Anne Frank’s ancestors had not prayed to Jehovah, she could have also died under the ruins of a house of some German city, her relatives could have fallen on the battlefields of fascism (Hegedüs 1962, 430).

The message is clear: fascism’s destructive force extended well beyond Jewish victims. This view matched the official narrative, which framed Jews as only one group of victims, as also expressed by the general secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party János Kádár at a Politburo meeting in 1960. Commenting on the then ongoing trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Kádár insisted that in the press reports about the trial, emphasis should be placed on the murder of ‘hundreds of thousands of Hungarians’. The Nazis, asserted Kádár, ‘did not only murder Jews, there were others there, too. This is not a Jewish question; this is the question of fascism and anti-fascism’ (Kovács and Miller 2005, 218). Neither Hegedüs’s afterword for the 1962 edition of the diary, nor the majority of the numerous reviews of the theatre adaptation in Hungarian newspapers concealed the fact that Anne Frank was Jewish and the she was persecuted because of that. 12Thus, in contrast to the idea of an Orwellian black hole that simply erased the history of the Holocaust, the Hungarian state, while indeed promoting a different war-narrative, did acknowledge the death of Jews and thus allowed the story of the Jewish Holocaust to come to light.

Not all reactions to the diary were (or could be) controlled by the state administration. This becomes quite clear if one observes the reaction among Hungary’s Jews. This reaction was perhaps more important in Hungary than elsewhere in Eastern Europe because there remained a sizeable Jewish community in this country even after the war. The year 1945 saw about 190,000 survivors (Karády 2002, 68) and despite its steady decline thereafter, Jews in Hungary still amounted to about 150,000 people in the late 1950s, a considerable number.

Anne Frank’s diary represented a particular Jewish experience not generally applicable to Eastern Europe, with Budapest as a possible exception. Though the city’s Jews were forced into ghettos and hiding, and were severely persecuted by the Gestapo and their Hungarian Arrow Cross counterparts, they did not experience, just as Anne did not, extended periods of starvation and were somewhat shielded from the worst theatres of the war. Deportations of Hungarian Jews started shortly after the country’s German occupation, in May 1944, in the provincial and border areas. The capital, Budapest, with its substantial Jewish population of about 250,00013 was to be made Judenrein (‘free of Jews’) last. However, because of the worsening military position of the Germans, the mass deportations from Budapest never took place. The young theatre critic Anna Földes’s review on the theatre adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary in a weekly women’s magazine reflected on these particular experiences.

I should be writing a review, not an autobiography. But now, I am unable to start it in any other way. My name is also Anna and at the age of fourteen, after being persecuted and adrift, I spent weeks [hiding] with ten other people in a sixth-floor studio of a Budapest apartment house. On the blocked door, somebody wrote ‘elevator shaft’ [...] I wanted to read, see and re-live what I went through. In the battles of Anne Frank with the world, I was perhaps looking for my own teenage experiences; in her sad fate I was looking for a soothing balm for the pain of my own and my beloved (Földes 1957).

Anna Földes’s memories, though they did not openly contradict the communist interpretation of the history of the war, did highlight a sensitive issue: the persecution of Jews specifically (who are not presented in her piece as ideological opponents of the political establishment) during the Second World War in Budapest.

Földes was not the only one whose memories were triggered by the play. The official periodical of the Hungarian Jewish community, Új Élet, declared its intention in January 1958 to collect the diaries and memoirs of ‘Hungarian Anne Franks’ in order to preserve the memories of those Jews who died during the Second World War, as well as to document the persecution of Jews during that time. The journal expressed the intention of the leadership of the Jewish community to preserve these documents in the Jewish Museum, as well as to publish from them regularly in the paper.14 Indeed, Új Élet published several excerpts from such diaries in 1958–59. These featured numerous details that did not correspond to the official narrative of the Second World War in Hungary.

For example, an article entitled ‘An Anne Frank from Budapest’ [Egy pesti Anne Frank] from June 1958 highlighted that the young Jewish woman who, like Anne Frank, had literary ambitions ‘could not find in the city of millions a single soul who would have helped her’.15 This remark was clearly not in line with the communist narrative, which preferred to emphasize the presence of anti-fascist non-Jewish ‘helpers’. Új Élet, though emphasizing the ‘anti-fascist’ character of Anne’s writing, failed to interpret her messages in a universal frame: an article inspired by the theatre adaptation asserted that

Anna Frank’s diary is a Jewish writing, but not because in one of the scenes we can hear the ancient melody of Moaz Tsur during Hannukah celebrations. But it is Jewish, because Anne Frank testifies about love, about her Jewish heart even during the most difficult days when she writes into her diary: ‘And I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ 16

Even though the official paper of the Jewish community was under strict state supervision and all its issues had to be approved by representatives of the National Office of Church Affairs [Állami Egyházügyi Hivatal], it seems it was more able to provide room for alternative interpretations of Anne Frank’s message than other papers were. One possible reason for this could be in the state administration’s reluctance to antagonize a still considerable Jewish community but also the fact that the paper appeared in limited numbers and was almost exclusively read by Jews. This meant that the Jewish Holocaust narrative – with all its implications about the attitudes of non-Jewish society in general – was not likely to reach the broader Hungarian public, and thus did not weaken the official narrative of widespread anti-fascist resistance.


The diary of Eva Heyman – the untold story

When establishing why Éva Heyman’s diary was not published, it is worth considering that the reason might simply be that it focused on the Hungarian Holocaust. However, this explanation proves insufficient because some other Hungarian wartime Jewish diaries were published during the period under investigation.

Edith Bruck’s Ki Téged így szeret [Who loves you this much] was published by Európa Publishing House (the publisher of Anne Frank’s diary) in 1964. 17 Bruck grew up poor, in a small village in the Subcarpathian areas of Hungary (today’s Ukraine). In her book, Bruck wrote about her life before deportations, in concentration camps and her wanderings through Europe after the war. In Bruck’s narration, the most important ideological dividing lines in wartime Hungarian society appear between the rich and the poor. When describing her deportation, she mentioned that ‘the people of the village were standing in front of their houses, crying. Mostly the poor ones, because the rich have few tears’ (Bruck 1985, 22). Throughout the book, she frequently suggested a certain solidarity between Jews and non-Jews among the poor. This was in line with the Kádár administration’s interpretation that tended to portray the wartime Hungarian governments’ discriminatory actions as targeting not only Jews, but also communists and the working class in general. Furthermore, Bruck presented the soldiers of the Red Army in post-war Budapest as friendly, and explicitly refuted rumours of rape.

Coming out of the cinema, we saw three Russians on the corner of the street, they were chatting and they had a bottle. Margot was frightened and warned me not to stare but I did look at them. I did not believe the stories I was told. The Russians offered us the bottle and said ‘vodka, vodka’. Margot and Eliz ran away. The soldiers waved a greeting and I waved back (Bruck 1985, 61).

The presentation of Red Army soldiers in a positive light played into the hands of the Kádár regime that sought to make post-1956 Soviet occupation more palatable for the population. Though Bruck described expressions of popular anti-Semitism during the war, her book repeatedly emphasized solidarity (especially among the poor) within wartime society which meshed well with communist interpretations of the Second World War as a class-based conflict where the reactionary ideology of fascism was mainly supported by the petty bourgeoisie, but opposed by the working class that it sought to crush. 18

In 1966 another diary book appeared entitled A téboly hétköznapjai: egy diáklány naplójából [The weekdays of insanity: from the diary of a schoolgirl]. The author Zimra Harsányi was, like Éva, from Transylvania and the same age as Éva and Anne when she wrote down her experiences. However, Harsányi started her diary where Anne and Éva left off: she wrote about life in Auschwitz, Płaszów and other camps. Her writing described in detail the horrors of the Nazi war machine, supporting communist ideological arguments against fascism. Nevertheless, Bruck and Harsányi, who survived the war and chronicled their experiences, both revealed in their diaries that they had been persecuted in Hungary during the war as Jews. Therefore, one must take a closer look at Éva Heyman’s text to establish what in her writing might have appeared contentious to the Kádár regime and prevented the publication of her story.

Éva’s diary highlighted the possible tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish memories of the war. As the journalist and novelist Béla Zsolt (who was also Éva’s stepfather) emphasized in his review of the diary in 1947, ‘Yes, with us [in Hungary] it is almost considered ill-mannered to remind the murderer: he has not always been this good of a democrat [as today], or that he has not always joined so piously behind the canopy during the procession but he used to kill women and children’ (Zsolt 1947, 3). As Zsolt emphasized, Éva’s diary questioned the behaviour of many non-Jewish Hungarians during the war and described contemporaneous Hungarian society as comprising of Jews and ‘Aryans’ (her expression). ‘There always used to be a party on my birthday ... But grandma said she does not permit it anymore so that the Arians cannot say that Jews are showing off ’ (Zsolt 1948, 9). The societal division as depicted by Éva Heyman did not match with the official understanding of an ideological opposition between fascism and anti-fascism. On the contrary, it suggested that the Nazi-inspired racial categorization, which was adopted in Hungary as part of the anti-Jewish legislation from 1941, was reflected in actual social divisions between Jews and non-Jews. 19 Furthermore, Éva also attributed certain opposing political preferences to these two groups: she thought ‘Arians’ supported the political establishment while it was mostly the Jews who opposed it. For example, she described how very surprised she was when her stepfather explained to her that not only Jews could be communists and socialists (Zsolt 1948, 52). The idea that Jews were over-represented among the communists, linked with the notion that the majority of Hungarian society (comprised of ‘Arians’, in Éva’s words) was deeply inimical/anti-Semitic towards Jews was a very dangerous connection that the Kádár regime did not want to highlight. It would have undermined socialist claims for legitimacy and contradicted the official propaganda’s assertion that Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany during the Second World War was only the work of a few ‘fascists’ in power while most of the population engaged in an anti-fascist struggle.

Éva wrote detailed descriptions about the relations between Hungarians, Romanians and Jews in Oradea, which revealed social tensions between these groups as early as 1940 when the Second Vienna Award reassigned Northern Transylvania to Hungary from Romania. The question of territorial loss was a key element of Hungarian interwar politics as well as Hungarian national identity ever since it had occurred following the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 inflicted severe territorial losses on the dissolving Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and as a result, Hungary lost about two-thirds of the territories that had previously constituted the Kingdom of Hungary. The main foreign policy goal of Admiral Miklós Horthy’s conservative-Christian interwar political establishment was the revision of these territorial changes. The return of some territories to Hungary as a result of the arbitration of Nazi Germany in 1940 was greeted with huge popular support. However, Éva’s description of the event highlighted how problematic this development was on a practical level:

So, the Hungarians had been here for a few days then, and grandpa was very upset because they deported all the Romanian families within hours and they [the Romanian families] had to leave all their belongings behind [...] Grandpa called them [the Hungarians] ‘parachuters from the mother-country’ and grandma said that there were all these Arrow Cross-looking people walking around town. One day, grandpa was called to City Hall and the military commander told him that he could no longer be in the pharmacy [that he owned] because he is an untrustworthy Jew who likes Romanians (Zsolt 1948, 27–28).

The excerpt from Éva’s diary highlighted Hungarian chauvinism, as well as anti-Semitism in the lower levels of state bureaucracy and state administration. The issue of widespread anti-Semitism among the Hungarian public and lower-level authorities came up several times in Éva’s diary. She described how a Jewish hotel-owner was arrested and robbed with the help of Hungarians (Zsolt 1948, 47), and suggested the widespread usage of anti-Semitic language among Hungarian authorities. When writing about the police confiscating her bike, Éva quoted one of the policemen saying that a ‘Jewish child is not entitled to a bike from now on, not even to bread, because Jews are taking away the bread from the soldiers’ (Zsolt 1948, 48).

Éva’s diary, if published, might have highlighted many weaknesses in the official narrative of the Second World War. Her repeated implications of widespread anti-Semitism among Hungarians contradicted one of the regime’s claims to legitimacy, namely that it was made up from and supported by a broad stratum of Hungarian society that had actively opposed fascist and Nazi ideas during the war. As opposed to Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria, the home-bred communist movement in Hungary had, in fact, been consistently quite weak and received little support from the population. The generic narrative of communists fighting a war against fascism was especially unsuited to the Hungarian context as opposed to Poland – a country ‘without a Quisling and, in all of Nazi-controlled Europe, the place least likely to assist the German war effort’ (Connelly 2005, 772 ff.). Hungary had entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany and remained its ally up until the abortive attempt to switch sides in 1944. Unlike Poland and Czechoslovakia, which both produced considerable resistance movements during the Second World War, Hungary only generated a weak and insignificant resistance (Deák 1995, 209–33). Until the country was invaded in March 1944, there had barely been any German soldiers on Hungarian soil for any resistance to fight against.



One reason for the relatively frequent publication of Anne Frank’s diary was its political usefulness for the Hungarian communist regime. The diary was presented as an anti-fascist testimony, in accordance with the ideological interpretation of the Second World War as a fight between fascism and anti-fascism. Moreover, it was levied to warn against the resurgence of fascism, which was sought to support the Kádár regime’s narrative of the 1956 revolution as the result of ‘fascist instigation’. A redemptive image of communism was evoked to assure theatregoers and readers moved by Anne Frank’s story that nothing similar would happen again because communists were strong security against fascism, new and old. The printed version of the diary provided an opportunity for the regime to emphasize the universality of experiences of persecution during the Second World War instead of focusing on the Jewish Holocaust. This message became especially important in the aftermath of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961–62, 20 which, according to several scholars, marked the beginning of Holocaust memory around the world. 21

An important reason why Éva’s diary was not published was its presentation of sensitive issues of Hungarian national memory, which the communist establishment did not want to address. While it may have been acceptable to acknowledge that Hungarian Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis during the war, the regime had no interest in publishing a diary critical of Hungarian attitudes towards Jews. Éva’s diary described in no uncertain terms that anti-Semitism was widespread in Hungarian society and that non-Jewish Hungarians sometimes benefitted from the persecution of Jews. Furthermore, Éva’s diary highlighted that the generic communist interpretation of the Second World War as a fight between fascism and anti-fascism was particularly unsuited to Hungary, where the communist movement was especially weak, and resistance negligible.

Although the Hungarian state clearly controlled the interpretation of Anne Frank’s story, the publicity of the play and the book brought about an increased interest among Hungarian Jews in similar testimonies. These were published in the official journal of the Jewish community, Új Élet, and though they only reached a limited Jewish public, they brought important aspects of the Holocaust in Hungary to the surface.



Kata Bohus

Kata Bohus is a post-doctoral researcher in the Anne Frank Research Group at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg – the Göttingen Institute of Advanced Study, Georg- August-Universität Göttingen. She received her PhD from the Central European University in 2014. Her research focuses on state policies towards Jews, Holocaust memory formation and anti-Semitism during the state socialist period in Central Europe, and especially Hungary.





1. It is not clear how much of the text of the published diary is written by Ágnes Zsolt. For details, see Kinga Frojimovics, ‘A nagyváradi gettó irodalmi bemutatása. Zsolt Béla Kilenc koffer című regénye’ [The literary representation of the Nagyvárad ghetto. Béla Zsolt’s novel, Nine Suitcases], Studia Judaica XIII (2005), 201–10; Gergely Kunt, ‘Egy kamasznapló két olvasata’ [Two readings of a teenage diary], Korall 41 (2010), 51–80; Dániel Lőwy, ‘A “magyar Anne Frank” naplójának eredetisége’ [The originality of the diary of ‘the Hungarian Anne Frank’], Amerikai Magyar Népszava, 27 March 2010, 14.

2. See, for example, William Korey, ‘Down History’s Memory Hole: Soviet Treatment of the Holocaust’, Present Tense, vol. 10 (Winter, 1983), 53.

3. On the working mechanism of state control in the arts, see Miklós Haraszti, The Velvet Prison. Artists under State Socialism (London: I. B. Tauris, 1987).

4. On press and journalism in the Kádár era, see Róbert Takács, ‘A sajtóirányítás szervezete a Kádár korszakban’ [The structure of press control during the Kádár era], Médiakutató, 2009/3. Accessed 25 October 2016: http://www.mediakutato.hu/cikk/2009_03_ osz/07_sajtoiranyitas_kadar

5. Minutes of the meeting of the Temporary Executive Committee, 23 November 1956. M-KS 288.5/4, Magyar Országos Levéltár [Hungarian National Archives, henceforth MOL], Budapest.

6. Lectoral report on Frances Goodrich and Albert Heckett’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. File: Goodrich-Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19. Országos Színháztörténeti Múzeum és Intézet [National Museum and Institute of Theatre History, henceforth OSZMI], Budapest, Hungary.

7. Lectoral report on ‘Het Achterhuis’ by Lászlóné Frank, 22 April 1955, 5. File: Anne Frank Naplója lektori jelentései, Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum [Petőfi Literary Museum], Budapest, Hungary.

8. Hungarian lectoral opinion of an article in Variety, 27 April 1957. File: Goodrich- Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19. OSZMI.

9. Letter from Európa Publishing House to the Main Directorate of Publishing about books at the Week of Books Festival, 14 April 1958. 16–8/1958, file 3, box 33, XIX–I-21-a, MOL.

10. Report from Európa Publishing House to the Main Directorate of Publishing, 10 January 1961. XIX–I-21-a, box no. 86. doboz, Európa Publishing House, 1961, MOL.

11. Author’s interview with István Bart, 6 January 2015.

12. More than half (20 out of 37) reviews I found mentioned that Anne Frank was Jewish.

13. ‘Virtual Jewish World: Budapest, Hungary’ in Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed 25 October 2016: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Budapest.html#5

14. ‘Magyar Anna Frankok’ [Hungarian Anne Franks], Új Élet, 1 January 1958, 1.

15. ‘Egy pesti Anna Frank’ [An Anne Frank from Budapest], Új Élet, 15 June 1958, 4.

16. ‘És mégis bízom az emberi jóságban’ [And I still believe in the goodness of humankind], Új Élet, November 1957, 5.

17. Though she was of Hungarian origin, she wrote her books in Italian, thus the diary was a translation.

18. For more details, see David Beetham, ed., Marxists in the Face of Fascism: Writings by Marxists on Fascism from the Interwar Period (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), 197–204; Léon Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (London: Pathfinder, 1971), 155–56.

19. The so-called ‘third Anti-Jewish Law’ of 1941 appropriated the racial definition of Jews as used by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws; it forbade mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews and also punished sexual relationships between them.

20. The former Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and subsequently tried and executed in Jerusalem. During the war, he had been responsible of managing mass deportations of Jews from German-occupied Europe, including Hungary. During the trial, the Hungarian chapter of the Holocaust featured prominently, which the Kádár administration tried to reformulate, through Hungarian media coverage, to fit its own interpretation of the war. For details see: Kata Bohus ‘Not a Jewish Question? The Holocaust in Hungary in the Press and Propaganda of the Kádár Regime during the Trial of Adolf Eichmann’, Hungarian Historical Review, vol. 4, no.3 (2015), 737–72.

21. See, for example, David Cesarani, ed., After Eichmann. Collective Memory and the Holocaust after 1961 (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); Michael Rothberg, ‘Beyond Eichmann: Rethinking the emergence of Holocaust memory’, History and Theory, vol. 46, issue 1 (February, 2007), 74.

List of References

Books and articles

Antal, Gabor (1957) ‘Anna Frank naplója’ [The diary of Anne Frank], Népszabadság, 29 October.

Banyasz, Rezső (1957) ‘Késői levél Anna Frankhoz – a békéről’ [Late letter to Anne Frank about peace], Magyar Ifjúság, 30 November.

Bart, Istvan (2002) Világirodalom és könyvkiadás a Kádár-korszakban [World literature and book publishing in the Kádár era]. Budapest: Osiris.

Beetham, David, ed. (1983) Marxists in the Face of Fascism: Writings by Marxists on Fascism from the Interwar Period. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bohus, Kata (2015) ‘Not a Jewish Question? The Holocaust in Hungary in the Press and Propaganda of the Kádár Regime during the Trial of Adolf Eichmann’, Hungarian Historical Review, vol. 4, no. 3, 737–72.

Braham, Randolph L. (1999) ‘Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalists and the Holocaust’, East European Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 4, 4–11.

Bruck, Edith ([1964] 1985) Ki Téged így szeret [Who loves you this much]. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.

Cesarani, David, ed. (2005) After Eichmann. Collective Memory and the Holocaust after 1961. London and New York: Routledge.

Cohen, Shari J. (1999) Politics without a Past: The Absence of History in Post-communist Nationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Connelly, John (2005) ‘Why the Poles Collaborated so Little: And Why That is No Reason for Nationalist Hubris’, Slavic Review, vol. 64, no. 4, 771–81.

Deak, Istvan (1995) ‘A Fatal Compromise? The Debate Over Collaboration and Resistance in Hungary’, East European Politics and Society, vol. 9, no. 2, 209–33.

Foldes, Anna (1957) ‘Anna Frank üzenete’ [The message of Anne Frank], Nők Lapja, 24 October.

Frojimovics, Kinga (2005) ‘A nagyváradi gettó irodalmi bemutatása. Zsolt Béla Kilenc koffer című regénye’ [The literary representation of the Nagyvárad ghetto. Béla Zsolt’s novel, Nine Suitcases], Studia Judaica XIII, 201–10.

Haraszti, Miklos (1987) The Velvet Prison. Artists under State Socialism. London: I. B. Tauris.

Harsanyi, Zimra (Ana Novac) (1966) A téboly hétköznapjai: egy diáklány naplójából [The weekdays of insanity: from the diary of a schoolgirl]. Budapest: Franklin Nyomda.

Hegedus, Geza (1962) Afterword to Anne Frank és Dawid Rubinowicz naplója [The diaries of Anne Frank and Dawid Rubinowicz]. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.

Kalmar, Melinda (1998) Ennivaló és hozomány. A kora kádárizmus ideológiája. [Food and dowry. The ideology of early Kádárism]. Budapest: Magvető.

Karady, Viktor (2002) Túlélők és Újrakezdők [Survivors and restarters]. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő.

Korey, William (1983) ‘Down History’s Memory Hole: Soviet Treatment of the Holocaust’, Present Tense, vol. 10 (Winter), 50–54.

Kovacs, Andras and Michael Miller, eds (2005) Jewish Studies at the CEU IV (2004–5). Budapest: CEU.

Kunt, Gergely (2010) ‘Egy kamasznapló két olvasata’ [Two readings of a teenage diary], Korall 41, 51–80.

Lőwy, Daniel (2010) ‘A “magyar Anne Frank” naplójának eredetisége’ [The originality of the diary of ‘the Hungarian Anne Frank’], Amerikai Magyar Népszava, 27 March, 14.

Nagy, Judit (1958) ‘Anna Frank fehér kesztyűje’ [The white gloves of Anne Frank], Film, Színház, Muzsika, 25 July.

Nyyssonen, Heino (1999) The Presence of the Past in Politics. ‘1956’ after 1956 in Hungary. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä Printing House, 1999.

Rothberg, Michael (2007) ‘Beyond Eichmann: Rethinking the emergence of Holocaust memory’, History and Theory, vol. 46, issue 1, 74–81.

Steinlauf, Michael (1997) Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Takacs, Robert (2009) ‘A sajtóirányítás szervezete a Kádár korszakban’ [The structure of press control during the Kádár era], Médiakutató, 2009/3. Accessed 25 October 2016: http://www.mediakutato.hu/cikk/2009_03_osz/07_sajtoiranyitas_kadar

Thurzo, Gabor (1957) ‘Anna Frank naplója. Bemutató a Madách Színházban’ [The diary of Anne Frank. Premier in Madách Theatre], Népakarat, 22 October. File: Goodrich-Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19.

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Új Élet (1958) ‘Egy pesti Anna Frank’ [An Anne Frank from Budapest], 15 June, 4.

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Zsolt, Bela (1947) ‘Feleségem könyve’ [My wife’s book], Haladás, 30 October.

Documents and manuscripts

Author’s interview with István Bart, 6 January 2015.

File: Goodrich-Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19. OSZMI.

Hungarian lectoral opinion of an article in Variety, 27 April 1957. File: Goodrich-Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19. OSZMI.

Lectoral report on Frances Goodrich and Albert Heckett’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. File: Goodrich-Hackett: Anna Frank naplója, Madách Színház, 1957.X.19. Országos Színháztörténeti Múzeum és Intézet [National Museum and Institute of Theatre History, henceforth OSZMI], Budapest, Hungary.


Lectoral report on ‘Het Achterhuis’ by Lászlóné Frank, 22 April 1955, 5. File: Anne Frank Naplója lektori jelentései, Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum [Petőfi Literary Museum], Budapest, Hungary.

Letter from Európa Publishing House to the Main Directorate of Publishing about books at the Week of Books Festival, 14 April 1958. 16–8/1958, file 3, box 33, XIX–I-21-a, MOL.

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This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.

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

Photo of the publication That old Soviet idea
Marek Kornat

That old Soviet idea

27 August 2015
  • Ribbentrop and Molotov pact
  • Poland
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop contract
  • 20th century history
  • Second World War

Poland’s decision to reject the Soviet demands as regards the Red Army passage did not matter from the perspective of Stalin’s motivation, yet it awarded him a pretext used by Soviet propaganda and historiography.

“Once it became obvious that Hitler pushes for a war, France and Great Britain tried to set up a front to counter the aggression and sent a delegation to Moscow so as to agree a programme for cooperation. The Soviets did not exclude a possible agreement, saying that they could accept the proposal under the condition that the Red Army troops (...) were allowed to move through Poland. Proud and suspicious, the government in Warsaw rejected the idea and the Soviets interpreted the response as a manifestation of distrust towards them. There might not have been any Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (and maybe the Second World War, either), had the Poles not believed so much in their own ability to counter the German troops. As regards the Soviet entry into Polish territory, the Soviet decision was understandable. Since Poland, as Germany intended, was to disappear, why would Russia not restrict the German expansion by taking a slice of the country for itself?” Such are the reflections presented a few days ago in the “Corriere della Sera” daily by the Italian writer, journalist and diplomat Sergio Romano.

Unfortunately, the successive “round” anniversaries of the outbreak or end of the Second World War make that old Soviet idea recur. Let us recall the fact then.

In the night from 11 to 12 August Allied military delegations arrived in Moscow to hold talk with the Soviets (the British headed by Admiral Drax and the French by General Doumenc), which meant that the efforts to negotiate a tripartite alliance treaty between Great Britain, France and the USSR entered into the decisive phase. The leader of the Soviet delegation in the Moscow talks Marshal Voroshylov demanded the use of Polish and Romanian territories for fighting with the Germans. He stated that as the USSR did not share a border with Germany, the Red Army was unable to take part in the war and deliver on the commitments it had made. On 18 August, the ambassadors of France and Great Britain to Poland presented the issue to the Polish government in Warsaw.

The Soviet demands concerning the Red Army “passage” through Poland and Romania were an unambiguous proof that the Soviets wished to break off the negotiations with the Allied Powers, as it would have been inconceivable to imagine that the Polish reply would be anything but negative. And indeed, such was the Polish stance communicated to the ambassadors of the Allies several times between 18—22 August. Already on 19 August, a German-Soviet economic treaty was signed in Berlin, and von Ribbentrop was invited to Moscow a week later. On Hitler’s personal request to Stalin, the hastened trip took place as early as 23 August. The talks in Moscow resulted in the well-known agreement concerning the division of the “spheres of interest” in Eastern Europe between both totalitarian powers.

To satisfy the Soviet demands would have been tantamount to an agreement to have the east of Poland occupied and a death sentence voluntarily signed. Upon the Soviet entry on Polish territory, Poland would have lost independence just as the Baltic States had lost theirs: having let in the Red Army in October 1939, they were unable to put up resistance in June 1940.

One must have no illusions concerning Stalin’s policy in 1939. His pronouncements concerning Poland and the Versailles order reveal his true intentions. The 7 September 1939 entry in Georgi Dimitrov’s Diary quotes Stalin’s very clear words about Poland: “Doing away with that country in conducive circumstances would mean one bourgeois fascist state less. What wrong would that be if as a result of shattering Poland we spread the socialist system over a new territory and population?” True, the Soviet dictator was forced in 1934 to proclaim his orientation towards cooperation with western democracies, yet this did not mean any fundamental change to the strategic principle: the notion that the Versailles order had to be demolished, put briefly. Highly important and suggestive remain his words from July 1940, where in a conversation with the British ambassador to Moscow Stafford Cripps the USSR leader said that before the outbreak of the Second World War no Soviet-British rapprochement was possible as his country focused on the demolition of the “old” balance of powers built after the First World War without Russia, while Great Britain fought for its retention. “The Soviet Union wanted to change the old system of powers (…), while England and France wished to keep it. Also Germany wanted to make a change in the power system and this joint wish to do away with the old system became the basis for the rapprochement with the Germans.”

One should repeat after the German historian Martin Broszat that Hitler found in Stalin a partner for waging a total war of destruction, a “partner equally eager to treat foreign territories lightly”. Because of this, “Hitler’s way of thinking in terms of dividing spheres of interest on vast areas which he tried to propose to the English in vain, met with a mutual sentiment (...).” This, in turn “must have been a potent stimulus and incentive to start just in Poland the implementation of the nationalist-socialist concept of a new large-scale system of relations in terms of territory and population.”

Poland’s decision to reject the Soviet demands as regards the Red Army passage did not matter from the perspective of Stalin’s motivation, yet it awarded him a pretext used by Soviet propaganda and historiography. Currently, the propaganda of Putin’s Russia makes use of such ideas. In Russia, history was and still is a political tool. What remains more striking is the fact that the Soviet version of the interpretation as to the reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War keeps finding believers outside Russia.

In the summer of 1939, the Soviet Union and the German Reich, two totalitarian powers, struck an agreement. Although it would not be long-lasting, it was definitely real. The Polish government could be nothing more than a passive observer of the developments. No Polish policy was able to take the Soviet authorities away from their intention to pursue cooperation with Germany in order to secure new territories in Eastern Europe. No Polish policy was able to prevent the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, or to change the inevitable course of the events leading to the war.

Photo of the publication The Romanian Revolution

The Romanian Revolution

21 August 2015
  • 1989
  • Romanian Revolution

In mid-December 1989 events in Timisoara launched the revolution which resulted in overthrowing the long-term Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Before the dictator and his wife were sentenced to death and executed, over a thousand people were killed and several thousand injured in riots.


Based on timeline prepared by dr. Florin Abraham

On 14 December, on discovering the authorities’ intention to implement the Court’s decision to evict Reverend Laszlo Tokes, 30-40 parishioners of the Reformed Church protested in front of his house on Timotei Cipariu Street in Timisoara. The head of the local Militia decided to halt the eviction to avoid further tension.

However, on 16 December, Nicolae Ceausescu ordered Militia and Securitate forces to re-establish order and evict Reverend Tokes. The officers were met with resistance of hundreds of protesters gathering around the Reverend’s house and shouting anti-Ceausescu slogans. The intervention resulted in violent clashes which led to even more unrest: people gathering and tearing down portraits of Ceausescu and red flags, building barricades and breaking windows in town centre shops. As a result, tear gas was used and several protesters were arrested. Laszlo Tokes was evicted on the following day. This did not put an end to the protests, on the contrary: military units coming into the town for a victory parade were attacked by a crowd of 4,000 people shouting slogans against the regime. The law enforcement services responded with tear gas and water jets, while the army used tanks and opened fire.

The clashes continued after Nicolae Ceausescu had left Romania for an official visit to Iran. Facing the remobilisation of protesters, the authorities declared a state of emergency. As the demonstrations in Timisoara escalted, on 19 December the troops were sent to the town’s biggest industrial factories, in an attempt to keep the situation under control. Meanwhile, an anti-Ceausescu manifesto signed by SLOMR, a Romanian free trade union, was announced in some cities in Transylvania (Sibiu, Alba Iulia, Sebes, Deva, Targu Mures, Brasov, among others), calling people to strike.

On 20 Decemeber Timisoara went on general strike. Ioan Lorin Fortuna, one of the protest leaders, initiated the formation of the revolutionary committee called the Romanian Democratic Front (Frontul Democratic Român - FDR). FDR representatives held talks with the Prime Minister Constantin Dascalescu, laying down their demands: an inquiry into the killings which took place on 17 December and release of those arrested; resignation of Ceausescu and his government and the formation of a National Salvation government; guarantee of free press. On the same evening, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had by then returned from Iran, delivered a televised speech in which he condemned the events in Timisoara and accused foreign countries of involvement in Romanian domestic affairs.

On 21 December 1989, the FDR leaders read the Proclamation to 100,000 demonstrators from the balcony of the Opera House. In all the major towns of Transylvania, workers were striking in solidarity with Timisoara. The law enforcement forces were trying to dissuade people from openly protesting. At noon in Bucharest, hoping to win the popular approval of his policy and regime, Nicolae Ceausescu organized a public rally with the participation of tens of thousands of people. He addresses the crowds, promising increase in salaries, pensions, social aid and state allowances for children, but the people fled from the square. Troops were mobilized in the city to protect the Secretary General of the Party and his wife. The law enforcement forces intervened violently against the demonstrators, who shouted anti-Ceausescu slogans in several places in Bucharest, using tear gas and water jets, arresting people and even shooting at them. Military units were also mobilized in all the protesting towns in Transylvania, in order to intervene against the demonstrators.

On 22 December in all main towns of Romania, people took to the streets to continue the protests. General Vasile Milea, Minister of National Defence, refused to carry out Nicolae Ceausescu’s order to shoot the demonstrators and committed suicide. Nicolae Ceausescu declared a state of emergency throughout the country on national television and radio. The Army and Militia forces refused to shoot at people and took the side of the revolutionaries. Towards noon, the revolutionaries occupied the public television building.

At 12:06, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu fled the Central Committee building by helicopter. Soon the revolutionaries took control over the building and removed Romanian Communist Party flags. Petre Roman announced the victory of the revolution from the Central Committee balcony. At 12:55, actor Ion Caramitru and poet Mircea Dinescu announced the victory of the revolution from the Romanian public television studios. The public radio building were also occupied by demonstrators, who began broadcasting the revolution live. Appeals were made for calm and for ceasing of confrontations with the forces still faithful to the former regime. All over the country, big crowds of people gathered in the streets in support of the revolution.

Army was ordered to support the revolution and prevent further violence. Some former Securitate agents were attacked by angry revolutionary mobs in Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca and Harghita County. A formation of the National Salvation Front Council, the revolutionary structure that would guide the country during the coming months and organize free elections, was announced and all the structures of the former regime were dissolved. Acts of terror later became widespread throughout Bucharest and the entire country, especially in strategic areas such as airports, ministries, military buildings, public television and radio. Military units were in disarray and began attacking each other.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were captured at Targoviste after their brief flight and taken into custody by the Securitate. They were transferred from the Targoviste Securitate headquarters to the military unit under the command of Colonel Andrei Kemenici.

Television continued to broadcast live events near the Central Committee, including various military units opening fire. At 23:00, Ion Iliescu presented the Statement of the National Salvation Front Council to the Country (CFSN). The document summed up the objectives of the revolution: to institute the democracy, freedom and dignity of the Romanian people, to dissolve the institutions of the Ceausescu regime, to ensure power is taken by the CFSN and the Superior Military Council, which will then create local branches in order to provide local government.

During the night, fighting continued in Bucharest among unidentified group and all over the country, people were killed in the exchange of fire. Terror acts continued in the next days all over the country, resulting in several dead and injured, among both civilians and the military. The CFSN adopted exceptional measures calling for an immediate ceasefire in the country, the trial of the Ceausescus, the confiscation of weapons from civilians and the unification of the armed forces. On 24 December the CFSN leadership and the military decided to briefly try Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu and sentence them to death, with immediate execution.

On 25 December 1989 at Targoviste, the Exceptional Military Court accused Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of genocide (64,000 deaths during their regime), undermining state power and the national economy and diversionist acts. They were sentenced to death and all their possessions were confiscated. At 14:50, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were shot dead by a firing squad. The Romanian Television broadcasted the news of the Ceausescus’ execution in the evening. At night, a short video was aired on Romanian Television showing the trial and execution of the Ceausescus. The CFSN decided to annul all the honours and titles awarded during their rule. Terror attacks diminished in intensity all over the country. The CFSN appointed Petre Roman as Prime Minster of the provisional government.

The first CFSN plenary meeting took place on 27 December to elect its officials (President – Ion Iliescu, Vice-President – Dumitru Mazilu) and adopt the new symbols of the country. The new leadership of the country was acknowledged by most states, including the United States, Hungary and the Soviet Union. 

Photo of the publication Velvet Revolution day by day

Velvet Revolution day by day

21 August 2015
  • 1989
  • communism
  • 20th century history
  • End of Communism
  • Velvet Revolution
  • Soviet Union

On 17 November 1989 the intervention of security forces against the rally’s participants marked the start of the “Velvet Revolution”. The event took place on the 50th anniversary of the closing of Czech universities by the Nazi Germans. It was held under the auspices of the Socialist Union of Youth, an official youth organization. The Prague rally also involved students from the independent movement, Stuha (Ribbon).

It began at Albertov Street, where tens of thousands gathered to hear speeches. From there, the procession headed to Vyšehrad, where the official event ended at around 6 a.m., although people spontaneously headed to the centre of Prague, where the protesters were surrounded and brutally repressed by the security forces on Národní Avenue. According to an independent commission of inquiry, a total of 568 people were injured. One of the secret policemen (working in the student movement under a false identity) played the role of a dead protester during the demonstration. The alleged death of the student, published by the opposition news agency, played a significant role in arousing the public. University students entered the strike in response to the brutal crackdown.

November 17 

• A student demonstration, attended by tens of thousands of people, took place in Prague on the 50th anniversary of the closing of Czech universities by the Nazi Germans. In the evening, the demonstration was ended by brutal intervention on Národní Street. This intervention met with great public opposition.

November 18

• Students from Prague universities went on strike to protest against the intervention on Národní Street. The students were supported by Prague theatre actors who, instead of performances, discussed the intervention and the situation of society with spectators. In the days that followed, their colleagues from all over Czechoslovakia joined the Prague students and actors.

November 19

• The Civic Forum (OF), which became the umbrella opposition movement, was established in the Prague-based Drama Club (Činoherní klub). Its aim was to initiate dialogue with the Communist leaders. Václav Havel became its unofficial representative. Public Against Violence (VPN), a similarly- oriented opposition movement, was later established in Slovakia. 

• Thousands of people walked through the centre of Prague chanting anti-regime slogans and demanding punishment for those responsible for the intervention on Národní třída. Similar rallies took place in many Czechoslovak cities in the days that followed. 

November 21 

• The Chairman of the Federal Government, Ladislav Adamec, met representatives of the striking students and the Civic Forum for the first time. 

November 22

• For the first time, Czechoslovak television aired live speeches during the demonstration on Wenceslas Square. 

November 24 

• Miloš Jakeš and other members of the Communist Party leadership resigned at an extraordinary meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Karel Urbánek, a lacklustre member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, became the Party´s new Secretary-General. 

November 25–26

• Around 750,000 people attended mass rallies in support of the Civic Forum in Letna Park, Prague. Václav Havel and other OF representatives were not the only speakers. They were joined by Alexander Dubček and the Chairman of the Federal Government, Ladislav Adamec, who was, however, booed off stage. 

November 27

• The majority of workers joined the two-hour general strike under the slogan “The end of one-party rule”. 

November 29 

• The Federal Assembly of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic abolished the articles of the Constitution relating to the leading role of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in society and education in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism. 

December 3 

• Ladislav Adamec introduced the new government, which was dominated by members of the Communist Party. Its composition aroused great public resentment. The Civic Forum threatened to call a general strike if there was no change. 

December 4

• The borders were opened for Czechoslovak citizens, who could travel freely to Austria without exit visas or customs declarations. Up to 250,000 people visited Austria during the following weekend. 

December 7

• The entire federal government resigned, including Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who recommended that Marián Čalfa be appointed to form a new government. 

December 8 

• The Civic Forum decided to nominate Václav Havel as Presidential candidate. 

December 10 

• The President of the Republic, Gustáv Husák, appointed a new federal government with representatives of both the OF and the VPN. He then announced his resignation to the Federal Assembly of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. 

December 15 

• Marián Čalfa, Chairman of the Federal Government, organized a secret meeting with Václav Havel in the Office of the Government, during which he offered cooperation in promoting Havel's Presidential candidacy. 

December 19 

• Marián Čalfa, Chairman of the Federal Government, presented a policy statement in the Federal Assembly of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and, on behalf of the government, put forward Václav Havel as candidate for President. 

December 21 

• The Extraordinary Congress of the Communist Party decided to dissolve the People's Militia, the Party’s paramilitary unit. 

December 28 

• Parliament passed the Co-optation Act to appoint new members. Among them was Alexander Dubcek, who became Chairman of the Federal Assembly. 

December 29

• The representative of the Civic Forum, Václav Havel, was elected President of the Republic at Prague Castle. The students ended their strike after his election.

Photo of the publication 3 October 1990 - Reunification of Germany
Andrzej Włusek

3 October 1990 - Reunification of Germany

21 August 2015
  • iron curtain
  • German Reunification
  • fall of communism
  • 1990

On 3 October 1990 the process of reunification of Germany was concluded and as a result the German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) joined the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG/West Germany) and Berlin was reunited into a single city.

After the end of the Second World War, the German state was divided into four occupation zones, controlled by France, Great Britain, the USA and the USSR. With the pulling apart of the USSR and the Western countries, and the beginning of the Cold War, the Allies agreed to combine their occupation zones into one state entity, the Federal Republic of Germany. The Soviet Union was not far behind and created its own dependent state, the German Democratic Republic. The city of Berlin, despite its location in the Soviet part, was split in two, with the western part being granted the status of a free city.

Germany would remain divided for many years. In 1952, however, Joseph Stalin suggested that the state should be unified. The western powers initially agreed, but on the condition that free elections be held in the united Germany, with which Stalin obviously disagreed. Eventually, the idea of unification collapsed and the Soviet Union decided to close all border crossings between the two countries and construction of the Berlin Wall began, deepening the division of the former state. 

Another opportunity for unification emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the politicians from both sides having already moved closer together, the breakthrough only came with the holiday season, when crowds of East-German vacationers in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland sought asylum in FRG embassies, paralyzing their everyday activities. These acts were an obvious demonstration of public aversion to the regime. In order to relieve the tension in Hungary, the barbed wire guarding the border with Austria was removed, allowing the Germans to cross the “green border” and so enter Germany through Austria. This event foretold the lifting of the Iron Curtain.

On 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the creation of the German Democratic Republic, the streets saw numerous demonstrations instead of grand celebrations. This climate caused Honecker to resign and, on 7 November, the entire SED Politburo followed suit. On 9 November, the border between the FRG and the GDR was opened to everyone, with no formalities required. In Berlin, crowds of people began to demolish the Berlin Wall. On 8 December, at the Congress of the SED, Prime Minister Modrow stated that the reunification of Germany should not be spoken of at all. Meanwhile at the Bundestag, Helmut Kohl – Prime Minister of the FRG, presented a 10-item plan for the reunification of Germany. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was quick to respond, saying that implementation of the plan was out of the question, since it infringed on the inviolability of frontiers guaranteed by the Helsinki Conference of 1975.

Thus a veritable battle for the reunification of Germany began. On 18 March 1990, elections were held in the GDR with the Christian Democrats winning over 40% of the votes. This encouraged Kohl to continue his efforts towards reunification. He announced a guaranteed exchange rate of 1:1 between the eastern and western Deutsche Marks, thus enabling the formation of a monetary union on 1 July 1990.

Despite the German desire and efforts towards unity, the four powers remained responsible for Germany as a whole, as had been guaranteed to the Allies under the Paris Treaty on the Sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Germany, concluded on 23 October 1954. On 5 May, the “2+4 Conference” began in Bonn, involving ministers from East and West Germany and the Four Powers. It ended on 12 September 1990, after heated debates, with the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”.

Item 1 of the Treaty stated that the united Germany did not and would not have any territorial claims against other states. The German army would be reduced to 370,000 and the Soviet troops would withdraw by 1994. In addition, the four powers renounced their responsibility for Germany. 

On 31 August, the governments of both German states signed the comprehensive “Treaty Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic on the Establishment of German Unity” with effect from 3 October 1990. Parliamentary elections were held on 2 December 1990, and the results were as follows: Christian Democrats 44%, Social Democrats 33.5%, Liberals 11%, Alliance '90/Greens 4%, and Communists 2%. The two German states merged.

The unification caused the clash of two economic systems – socialism and capitalism. The situation in the eastern part, more sparsely populated and economically weaker, was much worse. This imposed a huge financial burden on Germany, and over the five year period between 1990 and 1995, the government spent twice the federal budget on the development of the former GDR. The program, known as “East German Economic Reconstruction”, had the aim of creating equal opportunities and introducing the eastern federal states to the free market. In the autumn of 2005, it was announced that the overall costs of reunification amounted to 1.5 - 1.6 trillion Euros.

Despite the reunification, the division into Ossis (“Easties”) and Wessis (“Westies”) was not eradicated, and continued to divide the citizens of this reunited state for years after the formal unification.


By Andrzej Włusek


W. Czapliński, A. Galos, W. Korta: Historia Niemiec. Wrocław 2010

Erhard Cziomer: Historia Niemiec 1945-1991. Kraków 1992

Jerzy Krasuski: Historia Niemiec. Wrocław 2008

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Photo of the publication The Introduction of Martial Law in Poland
Katarzyna Ścierańska

The Introduction of Martial Law in Poland

21 August 2015
  • communism
  • Martial Law

13 December marks the anniversary of introduction of Martial Law in Poland. An authoritarian government, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), introduced severe political oppression in an attempt to crush political opposition. 

In 1980-1981 the Communist Party of Poland suffered from a substantial crisis. It could not cope with the expansion and pressure of ‘Solidarity’ movement, its growing popularity and demands to extract reforms from the government. The Party itself was divided by factional struggles and confusion in the leadership. Poland’s economy had practically collapsed. On the other hand, there was pressure of dissatisfied Kremlin and its threats of supposed armed intervention. Plans for reconsolidation of power were prepared in secret. General Jaruzelski - Prime Minister and the First Secretary of The Party - believed that without Martial Law, the military intervention was inevitable. His decision was an act of self-defence, necessary to keep the hold on the country.

On Sunday morning, 13 December 1981, millions of Poles awoke to find that the entire country was placed under a state of martial law. Appearing on television, in the only available channel, Jaruzelski said:

Today I address myself to you as a soldier and as the head of the Polish government. I address you concerning extraordinarily important questions. Our homeland is at the edge of an abyss. The achievements of many generations and the Polish home that has been built up from the dust are about to turn into ruins. State structures are ceasing to function. Each day delivers new blows to the waning economy.

Jaruzelski declared that his intention was to maintain “legal balance of the country, to create guarantees that give a chance to restore order and discipline” and “save the country from collapse”. For the Poles however, it meant putting an end to the hopes for political and civic freedoms. Thus started severe repressions – many people were arrested and imprisoned. Those who were not – were intimidated, forced to stop their activity or emigrate. For those who were already abroad, closed borders meant that coming back to the country was not possible at all. Multiple organisations and pro-democratic movements, including ‘Solidarity’, became illegal overnight. Moreover, the streets were filled with tanks and armed soldiers. Telephone lines were controlled, airports closed and mail regulated by censorship. Another restriction of freedom was an imposition of curfew. Similarly, the mass media, public transportation and educational institutions were placed under strict control. It was clear that the new regime wanted to mercilessly crack down on the opposition.

Introduction of Martial Law was a general strike for “Solidarity”. The trade union was made illegal and most of its leaders were interned. Those who avoided arrest started to reconstruct ‘Solidarity’ in the underground. The amount of social opposition was impressive. During the initial impositions of martial law, several dozen people were killed. The shipyards in Gdańsk and Szczecin were pacified, as well as the Lenin Iron Mill in Nowa Huta and Iron Mill in Katowice. In Katowice, on 16 December, happened the most dreadful incident, when six miners from the Wujek coal-mine were killed by members of the military police ZOMO.

< p>Foreign reactions to events in Poland were immediate. Soon after the announcement of General Jaruzelski, the news reached all corners of the World. If the Soviets reacted with a sigh of relief, the response of the Western governments was generally negative. The politics of the communist regime was particularly condemned by the United States and its President, Ronald Reagan. On 23 December, he made a special announcement addressed to the nation “about Christmas and the situation in Poland”. Reagan promised to continue shipments of food to Poland, but also imposed economic sanctions against the government of Jaruzelski, followed by the sanctions against the Soviet Union.

Martial Law lasted till July 1983 being officially suspended on 18 December 1982. All that time was a trauma for the Poles and democratic opposition. The situation of already run-down Poland drastically deteriorated and the country was pushed toward bankruptcy. The prospects for the future were dark, but it was only a matter of time before the ultimate fall of communist regime.

By Katarzyna Ścierańska

A. Dudek, Z. Zblewski, Utopia nad Wisłą. Historia Peerelu, Warszawa 2008.
Poland's Transformation: A Work in Progress : Studies in Honor of Kenneth W. Thompson, ed. M. J. Chodakiewicz, J. Radzilowski, D. Tolczyk, Charlottesville 2003.

Photo of the publication Overthrow of Zhivkovs government on November 10, 1989
Daria Czarnecka

Overthrow of Zhivkov's government on November 10, 1989

21 August 2015
  • 1989
  • fall of communism

Todor Zhivkov was a communist autocrat. He attempted to keep close diplomatic relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics when he became the First Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1954, the Prime Minister (after destroying the opposition within the party) in 1962, and, finally, the Chairman of the Council of State in the years 1971 to 1989.

A plot by party activists and military commanders to organise a coup and move in a pro-Chinese direction was detected and thwarted thanks to Zhivkov's efforts. Zhivkov was also the author of the proposal submitted to Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-sixties to include Bulgaria in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Zhivkov's policy, high mobility of special forces, and comprehensive surveillance of society prevented any opposition in Bulgaria. Actually, movements supporting perestroika and glasnost, focused on human rights, not the opposition in the strict sense, were the main challenge of the Bulgarian government in the years 1987 to 1988. Their activity was inspired by the western standards of "green politics", and paid much attention to ecology, in addition to democratic slogans. The independent trade union "Podkriepa" (the equivalent of Polish "Solidarity") was founded as late as on 24 February 1989. The Turkish minority had the most destabilizing effect on the situation in the country.

In May 1989, the Turks living in Bulgaria began peaceful demonstrations against the policy of forced Bulgarisation introduced by Zhivkov. These quiet protests resulted in hysterical and brutal response of the government. Troops supported by tanks were sent against the demonstrators, and approx. 30 people died in the clashes. To contain the situation, the Bulgarian authorities allowed the Turks to emigrate. This led mass exodus - approx. 300 thousand people had left Bulgaria by August 1989. Further repressions by the government involved arresting the signatories of the "Letter of 121 intellectuals" (a protest against the anti-Turkish actions), and so the decree on "the mobilization of civilians in time of peace" was introduced.

The turning point for Todor Zhivkov was the CSCE International Ecology Conference "Ekoforum" which took place in Sofia between 21 October and 3 November of 1989. During the meeting, the Bulgarian environmentalists organized rallies where political slogans were also expressed. Despite initial resistance, the government had to capitulate. On 3 November 1989, the first legal demonstration was organized by the newly formed Bulgarian section of the Helsinki Committee. Eight thousand people participated in the event.

Nonetheless, the fall of Zhivkov did not entail changes in social mentality. It turned out that the party reformers and Gorbachev, who - despite public assurances of friendship - much disliked the Bulgarian autocrat, were Zhivkov’s biggest enemies. A new government was established as a result of a skilful coup led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Petar Mladenov. According to the official version, Todor Zhivkov resigned. Mladenov's team made Zhivkov and his associates fully responsible for social unrest and the crisis. Then, as a result of escalating demonstrations, Mladenov's government sat down for talks at the Round Table.

by Daria Czarnecka

Axelrod A., Philips Ch., Władcy, tyrani, dyktatorzy. Leksykon, Warsaw 2000.
http://www.omda.bg/bulg/news/party/BKP.html [access: 3.11.2014]



This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Photo of the publication The fall of the Berlin Wall
Aleksandra Krzemień

The fall of the Berlin Wall

21 August 2015
  • 1989
  • East Germany
  • GDR
  • fall of communism
  • Berlin Wall
  • West Germany

After the Second World War, as a result of the policy adopted by the Great Powers, Germany was divided into two states. 
The western part was occupied by the Allies, while the eastern part found itself under the influence of the Soviet Union. Berlin, as the capital city of the Third Reich, was also eventually divided into the various spheres of influence of the victorious states.

The authorities of East Germany, failing to deal adequately with the wave of migration heading for the western part of the country, decided to curtail this unwelcome phenomenon by building a wall. It is estimated that in the period 1949–1961 around 2.6 million people left East Germany. In 1961 the authorities of East Germany began to implement a carefully guarded plan to build a wall. Later this wall came to function as a symbol of a divided Europe.

After many years of separation, 1989 finally saw the opportunity to overthrow the previous order and restore a normal state. In the summer of 1989 huge numbers of East German citizens began to seek refuge in West German embassies throughout the Eastern Bloc, with the intention of obtaining permits to travel to the western part of their divided country. This upheaval of the population and the general international atmosphere brought changes to the authorities of East Germany, beginning when Honecker lost power in November. Egon Krenz became the leader of the state; however, despite the intention to mitigate the situation, the country was hit by a wave of protests and he failed to weaken the impact of the events. On 4 November, at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, a manifestation initiated by the Berliner Ensemble group was joined by half a million people. They demanded freedom of choice and opinion, depriving the Socialist Unity Party of its leading position, dismissal of the Government, and permission for opposition activities.

On 6 November the mass escapes hit the news, which became possible because on 1 November East Germany allowed non-visa travel to Czechoslovakia, and on 3 November it agreed to open the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany for East German citizens. On the weekend of 3 to 5 November over 10 thousand East German citizens, using various methods, travelled through Czechoslovakia to West Germany. The news spread through the media like wildfire: everyone was talking about “the symbolic fall of the Wall.”

While the events of 3 November were unprecedented, what was about to happen six days later would made 9 November a breakthrough point in the history of the world. The opening of the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and later between Czechoslovakia and West Germany, was a road of no return. The border between East and West Germany was not meant to last much longer.
On 6 November the Council of Ministers published a draft act on travel abroad for a period of thirty days a year. However, the procedure for issuing the travel permit was so lengthy that it instigated a wave of protests. On the following day the Law Committee of the People’s Chamber turned down the draft and demanded the visa obligation be abolished for business and private trips.

On 7 November Stoph’s Government resigned, and a meeting of the Central Committee was summoned. During the meeting various topics were discussed, but on 9 November Egon Kranz put an end to the pointless discussions and insisted on addressing the issue of departures. Willi Stoph, as the current Chairman of the Council of Ministers, suggested that a provisional regulation should be immediately introduced concerning travel and permanent departures abroad from East Germany. Applications could be submitted without stating a specific reason for the departure.

A press release was planned for 10 November, yet on the same day Schabowski, who was in charge of the media and absent from the conference and hence not familiar with the exact arrangements, began to read long passages from the regulation during a press conference. In response to questions regarding the document, he stated that the regulation came into force immediately. He replied to the question whether this also concerned Berlin using a quotation from the document, “Permanent departures can take place at all border crossing in East and West Germany.”

After the conference, press agencies reported Schabowski’s statement regarding the opening of the borders.
None of the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party managed to foresee what was about to take place on the night of 9-10 November in Berlin. East Berliners arrived at the border crossings in numbers far higher than expected by the border army.

Initially some attempts were made to stop the crowds, but at 9 p.m. the Chief Department of the 4th Ministry of National Security ordered the stamping of identity cards of those people going to West Berlin. While this meant that they would be deprived of their citizenship, this did not seem to matter anymore. Finally the stamping was abandoned and thousands of people crossed the border of the divided city without any control. People around the country began to enthuse about this freedom regained after decades of oppression.

by Aleksandra Krzemień


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Photo of the publication The Hungarian Revolution 1956
Katarzyna Ścierańska

The Hungarian Revolution 1956

21 August 2015
  • Hungarian Revolution
  • 1956
  • communism
  • Eastern Bloc

The Hungarian Revolution, a nationwide uprising against the Soviet ruled communist system and the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic, broke out on 23 October 1956. The revolt lasted until 10 November and, despite its failure, is considered one of the most significant and tragic events in post-war Hungarian history and was the first crack in the Iron Curtain that divided the World into two hostile camps.

After 1945, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Army and the country fell under Soviet in-fluence. Having destroyed all political opposition, the communists took power and established a new government, totally subject to the Kremlin. In 1949 Hungary became the People's Re-public of Hungary, with Mátyás Rákosi, 'Stalin's best pupil', as its authoritarian leader. A time of cruel political repression and economic and cultural decline of the country then began. Dur-ing the next few years, thousands of Hungarians were arrested, tried, executed or deported to Russia. Severe subjugation touched the education system and the Catholic Church. The hardline politics of the Hungarian government were thoroughly approved by Joseph Stalin. His death, on 5 March 1953, was a signal for change in the policies of communist regimes. In July 1953, Rákosi was replaced as Prime Minister by the reformist Imre Nagy. He gained popular consent, though the Kremlin distrusted him. Despite his removal from office, howev-er, it was far too late to contain the changes that had begun. After Khrushchev’s famous 'se-cret speech' of February 1956, in which he attacked the period under Stalin's rule, frustration with Soviet domination was primarily expressed by the Poles. In June 1956, the demonstra-tion of steelworkers in Poznan was roughly put down by the government. However, in Octo-ber 1956, the reverberation of these events in Poznan inspired a period of change and mod-erate liberalisation, known as the "October thaw". The Polish experience encouraged many Hungarians to hope for similar concessions for Hungary.

The revolt began in Budapest as a peaceful demonstration of students. On the afternoon of 23 October 1956, a crowd of approximately 20,000 young people gathered by the statue of Józef Bem, a Hungarian-Polish hero of the 1848 Revolution. A list of sixteen demands which included a declaration of independence, the demand for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and that Hungary join the United Nations was prepared and read out. By the evening, the manifestation numbered more than 200,000 participants. Rejected by First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party Ernő Gerő, who expressly condemned the manifestation, the angered protesters decided to topple a 30-foot-high bronze statue of Stalin. The crowd surrounded the headquarters of the state radio station, hoping to broadcast their demands to the nation. At this time, the first shots were fired and the Hungarian revolution began.

At Ernő Gerő’s request, Soviet troops began arriving in Budapest and for the next few days fighting raged between the groups of poorly-armed young people and the forces of the Soviet army alongside the ÁVH, the State Security Police. On 24 October, Imre Nagy was selected as Prime Minister to satisfy the Hungarian protestors’ demands and to placate them with limited concessions. Nagy called for an end to the violence and promised reforms.

The spread of the uprising within Budapest and other areas of Hungary and the attacks at the Parliament caused the collapse of the government –Ernő Gerő fled to Moscow, Imre Nagy became Prime Minister and János Kádár First Secretary of the Communist Party. Fighting lasted for five days, culminating in the expulsion of the Soviet forces from Budapest on 28 October. On that day, Imre Nagy announced an unconditional general ceasefire and amnesty, as well as the end of the single-party system in Hungary. On 1 November, Nagy formally declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. The fighting slowly ceased, as the rebels waited for aid and support from the West, believing that Hungary was finally gaining independence. The happiness and hope didn’t last long – on the morning of 4 November, Soviet tanks entered the capital, beginning the ‘Operation Whirlwind’ intervention led by Marshal Ivan Konev. The insurgents put up disorganised yet formidable resistance that lasted until 11 November, when the forces of the Hungarian Army finally capitulated to the Soviets. Total casualties among the insurgents amounted to at least 2,500 killed and 20,000 wounded. In Budapest, 1,569 civilians were killed. The Soviets lost 699 soldiers and 1,450 men were wounded.

In the aftermath of the revolution, thousands of Hungarians were crushed by waves of severe repression. Many of them were arrested, brought before the courts, sentenced and executed. Approximately 200,000 fled Hungary as refugees. Imre Nagy, who had taken shelter in the Yugoslavian embassy in Budapest, was arrested, sent to Romania and executed in 1958. János Kádár was appointed the new Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Workers’-Peasants’ Government and General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party.

Despite the fact that the revolt was crushed, its consequences were long-lasting and significant for further decades – the Hungarian revolution proved that the Cold War was in deadlock and the Iron Curtain was about to fall. The Republic of Hungary was declared on the 33rd anniversary of the Revolution. 23 October is now celebrated as a national holiday in Hungary.

author: Katarzyna Ścierańska

Photo of the publication Cuban Missile Crisis
Andrzej Włusek

Cuban Missile Crisis

21 August 2015
  • communism
  • 1962
  • Cuban Missile Crisis

ln the 1960s the leader of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered the installation of missiles with the potential of carrying nuclear warheads in Cuba. This changed the relations between the US and Cuba, which became part of the direct confrontation between the two superpowers – the USSR and the US.

Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, and from that moment he wanted to break away from economic dependence on the United States. In order to achieve this, he signed a trade treaty with the USSR, and began buying Russian oil and weapons. He also decided to nationalize the entire petroleum industry, which had previously been controlled by the Americans and the British.

The effects of this policy were seen quickly, with Washington immediately announcing a commercial boycott of the island and broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. The United States also began to seek ways to overthrow Fidel Castro. This was to be done by the use of batistianos, supporters of Fulgencio Batista, overthrown by Castro, trained from the spring of 1960 in camps organized by the CIA. The operation was already being prepared while Eisenhower was president, although it was the new president of the United States, Kennedy, who agreed to execute the mission.

“Operation Pluto” began on April 15 and ended in a fiasco. The Cuban authorities quickly and decidedly suppressed the operation and defeated all opposition on the island. At the end of 1961 Castro announced that he was a Marxist, which explicitly indicated his hostility towards the United States, giving the Soviet Union a foothold in Latin America and bases located only 160 km from the United States. Khrushchev chose to take advantage of the situation without delay, and began operation “Anadyr”, aimed at the deployment of missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Cuba. In addition, it was planned to station dozens of aircraft and 51,000 Soviet soldiers there.

The presence of Russian weapons in Cuba was discovered by the Americans in October 1962. Even if Castro intended to arm Cuba against potential military intervention of the US, Khrushchev had sent him weapons for a totally different purpose. As a result, the countries of the Organization of American States authorized the United States to deploy forces that might oppose the Soviet warships.

On October 22, President Kennedy publicly announced the plan to blockade Cuba. 180 warships patrolled the waters around the island, and invasion troops were prepared in Florida. Diplomatic overtures began, and on October 25 a Soviet agent used an unofficial channel to make a proposal indicating that the Soviet Union was interested in ending the conflict and withdrawing their missiles in exchange for a promise that Washington would not attack Cuba, either then or in the future. The White House found this difficult to believe because the behaviour of the Soviet embassy staff suggested an evacuation, as if an armed conflict was about to begin. On October 26, a letter was delivered from Khrushchev confirming the proposals, and on October 27 another message was sent in which he offered to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in exchange for withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey.

Finally, it was decided that, in exchange for the dismantling and removal of the Soviet missiles, the Americans would abandon the blockade and ensure that in the future the island would not become a target of invasion. Kennedy also agreed to the request of the Soviet Union regarding the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey. By November 2 the Soviet missiles were removed from the island, and the blockade was lifted on November 20. By the end of April 1963, the United States withdrew its missiles from Turkey, and a crisis that could have led to a war between the two superpowers was resolved.

As a result both sides came to an agreement regarding rapid communication in similar situations in the future. On the other hand, this event provoked the initiation of an arms race. Without a foothold in Cuba, the Soviet Union had to start an intercontinental ballistic missile program, which prompted the United States to adopt the same concept. The end of the Cuban missile crisis reduced the risk of war while in the long term inspiring the continued development of the military potential.


Andrzej Włusek



Peter Calvocoressi: World Politics, 1945-2000. Warsaw 2002

Krzysztof Michałek: Amerykańskie stulecie. Historia Stanów Zjednoczonych Ameryki 1900-2001. Warsaw 2004


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Photo of the publication Soviet invasion of Poland 1939
Andrzej Włusek

Soviet invasion of Poland 1939

21 August 2015
  • 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

Photo of the publication August Agreements in Poland
Daria Czarnecka

August Agreements in Poland

21 August 2015
  • 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

Photo of the publication Outbreak of Second World War - 1 September 1939
Anita Świątkowska

Outbreak of Second World War - 1 September 1939

21 August 2015
  • 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