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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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Selevet, M. et al. (2008) Istorie. Manual pentru clasa a X-a [History. Tenth grade textbook]. Bucharest: Corint.

Tajfel, H., A. A. Sheikh and R. C. Gardner (1964) ‘Content of stereotypes and the inference of similarity between members of stereotyped groups’, Acta Psychologica, vol. 22, 191–201.

Tajfel, H. (1982) ‘Social psychology of intergroups relations’. Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 33, 1–39.

Thiesse, A.-M. (1999) La création des identités nationales. Europe XVIIIe-XXe siecles [The creation of national identities. Europe 18th–20th centuries]. Seuil, Collection Point Historique.

Van Dijk, T. A., ed. (1985) Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Vol. 2: Dimensions of Discourse. London: Academic Press.

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Verdery, K. (1993) ‘Nationalism and National Sentiment in Post-Socialist Romania’, Slavic Review, vol. 52, no. 2, 179–203.

Waldman, F. (2010) ‘Holocaustul in manualele scolare postcomuniste din Romania’ [The Holocaust in Romanian post-communist textbooks], in Holocaustul la periferie: Persecturarea si nimicirea evreilor in Romania si Transnistria in 1940–1944 [Holocaust at the fringe: the persecution and destruction of Jews in Romania and Transnistria, 1940–1944], ed. W. Benz and B. Mihok. Kishinev: Cartier.

Wodak, R. and M. Meyer, eds (2009, 2nd edn) Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage. Ziarul de Garda (2014) ‘Proiectul “Predarea Holocaustului in scolile din România” 2004–2014’ [The project ‘Teaching the Holocaust in Romanian schools’ 2004–2014], Ziaruldegarda.ro, April. Accessed 30 August 2016: http://www.ziaruldegarda.ro/proiectulpredarea- holocaustului-in-scolile-din-romania-2004–2014/


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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.

Trotsky, Leon (1971) The Struggle against Fascism in Germany. London: Pathfinder.

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

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

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

Vass, Henrik and Agnes Sagvari (1973) A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt határozatai és dokumentumai 1956–1962 [The decrees and documents of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party 1956–1962]. Budapest: Kossuth.

Zsolt, Agnes (1948) Éva Lányom [My daughter Éva]. Budapest: Új Idők.

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.

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.

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.

‘Virtual Jewish World: Budapest, Hungary’, in Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed 29 September 2016: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Budapest.html


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

Photo of the publication The Slovak National Uprising
Daria Czarnecka

The Slovak National Uprising

21 August 2015
  • Slovak Uprising
  • 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daria Czarnecka


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

Kościelak Lech, Historia Słowacji, Wrocław 2010.

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

This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl

Photo of the publication Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
Daria Czarnecka

Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

21 August 2015
  • communism
  • 1968
  • Prague Spring
  • Warsaw Pact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daria Czarnecka


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



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