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

Daria Czarnecka

First partially free elections in the Soviet bloc – Poland 1989

21 August 2015
  • 1989
  • Solidarity
  • fall of communism
  • Eastern Bloc
  • elections

Situation in Poland in the late 1980s.

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

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

Preparations for the elections

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

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

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

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

Electoral campaign

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

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

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

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

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

Elections and results

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

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

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

By Daria Czarnecka


This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl


The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

21 August 2015
  • Hungarian Revolution
  • 1956
  • Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Krzysztof Kloc

Unemployment in Interwar Cracow and the Great Economic Crisis: Conditions, Consequences and Counteraction

20 August 2015
  • Great Crisis
  • interwar
  • Cracow
  • 1930s
  • thirties


Unemployment in Cracow was a socio-economic problem which the city was facing throughout the Second Republic. The great crisis, whose consequences began to be felt in Cracow in the early 1930s, only made the phenomenon more acute and visible. This article offers a broad analysis of the issue in the context of the great crisis and the inter-war period. The discussion covers factors conditioning unemployment in Cracow, its social consequences and attempts at counteracting them made by both the city authorities and Church-based organisations.

The well-known French historian René Sédillot once wrote that those who claimed that it was “blind fate that directs the world’s events proclaim a great absurdity as there are many general or moral or physical causes that shake monarchies, lift them or lead them to perdition. If a single battle – he concluded – can decide about a state’s fall, there is a general reason for that state to disappear as a result of a single battle.”1 The question arises what revolutions, battles and falls of countries have to do with the global crisis which in the early 1930s also reached Cracow, then a provincial town? The general context matters here since focusing on the direct reasons for and consequences of the crisis in Cracow, one just cannot ignore the economic and social conditions in the city present long before the global and Polish economies collapsed. And so in this text I shall focus primarily on the consequences of the crisis in the context of the collapsing labour market and its repercussions, attempts at counteracting them as well as ways of managing them practised by the city authorities, Church-based organisations and society itself against a broad background of earlier socio-economic problems with which Cracow had wrestled since the very first days of its regained independence. I will also briefly discuss the reasons why the crisis did not have a special place in the memory of local residents. These are the objectives of the article.



Researchers claim increasingly often that poverty is not a state but a process,2 and each process, as we learn from history books, is subject to changes in time and space. The challenge then arises to correctly capture the factors responsible for initiating those changes and transformations. This is a very difficult task which sometimes requires advanced study covering remote times e.g. in the context of studying inherited poverty. One of the factors, certainly very tangible, is unemployment, a structural social problem which at the time of Poland’s Second Republic was treated by many as the fundamental reason for the gradual impoverishment of society. 3

According to the 1931 census held at the time of the great crisis, Cracow had 219,286 inhabitants (including 45,800, or nearly 21 %, of Jews), including 111,538, or over 50 % (44 % of women) of those professionally active. 22.9 % of the residents were “independents”, i.e. they either employed others or performed their work with the help of their family. Over 63 % of working Cracovians belonged to the “hired”, a group divided into physical labour force (workers and outworkers), who represented 44.7 % (including 18.6 % of domestic servants), and white-collar workers (18.4 %). Elżbieta Adamczyk claimed that Cracow still remained a city of intelligentsia and her percentage estimate for that group was over 20 % of the total population. Nearly 14 % were described as having a “non-defined social status”. The biggest employer was industry – clothing, food, steelmaking and construction – accounting for 30.3 % of those professionally active. Commerce and insurance employed 21,459 persons (19.3 %), most of whom were active in commodity trade, followed by space rental, insurance and brokerage. The passenger and cargo transport sector employed 5,941 Cracovians (5.3 %), schooling, education and culture – 5,116 persons (4.6 %), and medical care 5,589 persons (5 %). Public service, the Church and religious organisations represented 8,398 persons (7.5 %). Old-age pensioners and persons with disabilities were supported by the state, as were prisoners and residents of social care homes.4

As regards unemployment, the first task is to attempt to estimate the number of jobless in inter-war Cracow. However, it is near impossible to give a precise number for at least two reasons. Above all, it must be stressed that there is no complete source material concerning the registration of the unemployed in the Cracow branch of the State Job Agency (Państwowy Urząd Pośrednictwa Pracy; hereinafter, PUPP), where – which must be remembered – non-Cracovians registered as well. Secondly, the data from the PUPP often failed to reflect reality. In actual fact, the problem concerned the entire country. “The statistics of employment agencies of the time,” – as noted by Paweł Grata – “recorded [...] just numbers reflecting the total number of jobless persons registered there, and things varied as regards people’s decisions to be registered at the agency in the context of the existing labour law provisions and possible benefits stemming from them.”5 And so for various reasons not all unemployed persons came to the Agency. In October 1925, the Cracovian Inter-Union Committee of White- Collar Workers estimated the number of jobless among them to be 1,000, while the PUPP statistics recorded just one such person.6 Consequently, as put by Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, “the statistical data did not reflect [...] the actual scale of unemployment and in some periods side factors were present which had an impact on the changing numbers of those registered.”7 For example, such factors should definitely include the Act on unemployment benefits, which came into force in late August of 1924 and made such financial support available to registered persons only.8 Perfectly understandably, this led to a statistical increase of the number of unemployed. In reality, however, it just showed more precisely, while still not fully realistically, the scale of Polish unemployment of the time.

In Cracow, the number of jobless did not stay the same throughout the inter-war period and was obviously influenced by a number of various factors. Among them was the state of the Polish economy, a factor of key importance, but also one apparently trivial: the importance of the seasons of the year, due to which employment in certain sectors like construction was seasonal.

At the moment when the above-mentioned Act came into force in the summer of 1924, there were 2,750 persons registered as unemployed in Cracow. 9 At the end of 1925, that number was already 3,801, then in early 1926 it dropped to 2,500 to jump again to 3,000 persons in February. 10 In December 1926, the number of registered persons without employment stood at 1,602, and at the end of 1927 at 2,920.11 The unemployment rate in Cracow saw a steep increase during the economic crisis of the early 1930s.

In March 1930, there were 7,051 jobless persons; a year later, according to the census data, that number grew to as many as 9,810.12 In December 1933, the number of registered was almost half of that figure – 4,788,13 and in the preceding month even 3,118.14 At the end of 1934, there were 3,590 jobless persons in Cracow, almost as many as a year later (3,600) .15 In 1936, the average number of those registered at the PUPP was 3,210 persons, with the Cracow County Office estimating the actual number of unemployed to be around 4,500. A year later that average was 5,156, while the estimates from the County Office stood at around 8,500.16 In February 1938, there were 6,702 registered persons according to the PUPP data, while the County Office gave the figure of 9,000.17 In September, the number of unemployed according to the PUPP dropped to 1,955 persons.18 At the beginning of 1939, the number of those without employment was 5,585 persons.19

All those figures should be treated as approximations only, also given the increase in the number of Cracow residents from 178,588 in 1918 to around 259,000 in 1939, that is through the inter-war period.20 The conclusion is that the Cracow labour market was able to absorb a significant number of those coming to the city from the outside, particularly in the 1930s, and, importantly, both during the crisis and later when the economy picked up. According to the 1931 census, out of 17,760 persons working as domestic servants (98 % were women), as many as 16,056 lived on the employer’s premises, which I understand as meaning that such employment was almost entirely dominated by non-Cracovians, mainly young girls coming to the city from locations in its vicinity.21

The biggest employers were industry and commerce, employing 33,795 and 21,489 persons, respectively; in percentage terms, according to the 1931 census, that was nearly half of those professionally active outside agriculture.22 Those employment sectors, however, were hit hardest by the biggest crisis in the first years of the second decade of the interwar period. The unemployment rate in industry and commerce was as high as over 80 % of the total number of jobless registered at the Cracow branch of the PUPP.23 Particularly affected were construction workers, as more than 44 % of them lost jobs (1,650 persons). The following sectors shed more than 20 per cent of the workforce: timber (399 persons), steelmaking (1,083), clothing (1,217) and food (554). Also 2,175 white-collar workers were jobless.24

Researchers point out that Cracow’s unemployment rate was relatively low as compared with other large Polish cities since the great crisis hit mostly industry, which was not one of Cracow’s strengths.25 Leaving purely economic aspects aside, let us focus on the social dimension of unemployment. The quoted numbers let us develop a general idea of the scale of the phenomenon. Its essence, however, boiled down to economic aspects which would sometimes relatively quickly affect the lives of the unemployed to such an extent that their daily existence turned out to be a major challenge and piled a whole range of difficult problems before them.

Creeping poverty entering the homes of the jobless, which needed to be kept and paid for somehow, and the lives of their families, which had to be fed, at times triggered such behaviours as stealing or begging. Due to acute poverty, the subsistence of families would sometimes depend on young girls opting to sell their own bodies in the streets of Cracow or pushed out to the street by the parents or siblings against their own will. Most frequently, however, the jobless did what they could to weather the crisis with dignity, counting on assistance from the city and state authorities. Such aid was also provided by Church-based organisations, various charity and care institutions, or a legion of good-willed people who were not indifferent to the fate of those without employment.

It was truly a catastrophe for Cracovians given the fact that according to the estimates of the Bishop’s Emergency Committee, at the beginning of 1924 the city had around 30,000 people in need, excluding the Jewish community.26 That figure represented more than 21 % of all Christian residents of Cracow. We do not know the situation in the Jewish community of over 46,000 back then.27 Most probably it was not positive, either, if in the mid-1930s out of around 60,000 of Cracow’s Jews28 sometimes even as many as 16,000 persons (over 26 %), used the assistance offered mainly by the Jewish Community.29 During the great crisis in 1932, Jews from Cracow established an association called Zedaka Laanijim located in Paulińska Street. That institution, whose name meant “alms for the poor,” dealt with beggary among Cracow’s Jews. The poorest could rely on monthly financial benefits. For example, already when the economy picked up in 1937 such assistance was received by 400 Jewish beggars.30 It is worth mentioning that the Jewish Assistance Committee cooperated closely with Bishop Sapieha’s committee.31

Cracow’s Jews lived mainly in the quarter of Kazimierz, where – as recalled by a Pole residing there – “there was a specific smell of sweat, stuffy flats, unaired bed-sheets, spicy condiments, a sour smell of poverty.”32 Even if the optimistic scenario was assumed that the percentage of Jews in need was the same as that of the other Cracow inhabitants, one must conclude that at least every fifth local resident was living in poverty, many of them unemployed with families. One should be under no illusion, however, that the other Cracow residents lived comfortably and in luxury. However, as is written in an article on high prices published in the Goniec daily, “for now, society is bending under this burden, clenching the teeth and, determined, believes that times will change soon.”33

On 18 July 1924, the aforementioned Act was adopted on social assurance in the case of unemployment. Those entitled to benefit included persons who had lost a job and registered the fact at the PUPP within a month, and had worked for at least 20 weeks in the year preceding the job loss. The Act also provided for setting up Unemployment Funds to manage the monies to be paid out as benefits. .34 The Act was supposed to enter into force by 31 August, yet for not entirely clear reasons Cracow experienced a delay of almost a month and the registration of the unemployed began as late as in early October.35 Still, a relatively large group of the jobless failed to meet any registration conditions anyway. For example, out of around 3,000 unemployed persons registered at the PUPP at the end of 1926, the benefits were paid out to just half and they were a mere drop in the ocean of the needs of the unemployed.36

Worse still, the Act completely ignored white-collar workers, which they received with an angry uproar.37

In February 1926, Cracow’s regional management of the Unemployment Fund wrote a letter to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care where it demanded “in the face of the ever-growing poverty of unemployed white-collar workers, [...] the adoption of an amending act [...]” in order to include them in the Act in question.38 A month later desperate jobless white collars staged a demonstration.39 They continued to complain about their living conditions in the years to come.

The living conditions of the unemployed receiving benefits improved as compared with those who failed to meet the registration requirements. The situation of the latter – both blue – and white-collar workers – was not to be envied although they were taken care of by the Union of Parish Committees (Związek Komitetów Parafialnych; hereinafter, ZKP) headed by Bishop (and later Archbishop) Adam Sapieha, of which more later.

The hardship of the jobless was exploited by many Cracovian crooks, particularly at the time of the great crisis of the 1930s. For example, preying on other people’s misfortune, a group of men set up a fake job agency in 1931. Job seekers were supposed to pay 2.85 zloty and then to find employment in less than 20 days. It was not long before it became obvious that the whole project was a sham created and managed by professional tricksters, but the Cracow police soon managed to apprehend them.40

In the period discussed here, extensive charity work – which started even before the outbreak of the First World War under the supervision of Bishop and from 1926 onwards Archbishop Adam Sapieha – was done by the Catholic Church.

Soon after the end of the war Bishop Sapieha set up the Duke and Bishop’s Committee for Assisting the Affected by the War Calamity,41 later renamed as the (already mentioned) ZKP, whose tasks included job agency.42 Roughly at that time, Committees for Combating Unemployment were being set up across the country, yet they failed to operate extensively or effectively, .43 unlike the ZKP, which had 7,000 families under its wings in the 1920s. The Union collected and distributed cash benefits, food, clothes, medicines, etc. It also organised summer camps for poor children and took care of old and ill persons as well as orphans. “In short,” – as Bronisław Panek wrote – “the Union managed almost the entire social care provided in Cracow.” .44

From 1926 onwards, the Archbishop’s Emergency Committee (Arcybiskupi Komitet Ratunkowy; hereinafter, AKR) another body set up by the Cracow archbishop, also operated efficiently. The Committee focused, above all, on helping orphans, yet it did not neglect unemployment-related problems. For instance, the AKR tried to organise as many free-of-charge and cheap canteens for the unemployed as possible. Incidentally, canteens and kitchens were the basic form of assistance offered to the jobless by both Churchbased organisations and the city authorities. In 1920 alone, the kitchen run by Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul gave out 169,313 meals to poor adults and 108,500 to children.45 The Catholic Union of Polish Women managed a canteen for the poor in the quarter of Kazimierz based in Bożego Ciała Street, and one for unemployed and poor white-collar workers in Franciszkańska Street and św. Tomasza Street.46

In November 1923, the city, too, launched two budget canteens for whitecollar workers which gave out 1,300 lunches daily.47 In Warszawska Street, there operated a kitchen under the auspices of the AKR.48 The Committee had its canteens in such locations as the quarter of Prądnik Czerwony and Smoleńsk Street.49

The need to offer cheap or free meals was also addressed by the Municipal Committee for Combating the Consequences of Unemployment (Miejski Komitet do Walki ze Skutkami Bezrobocia; hereinafter, MKB), established in 1931 as a response of the Cracow city authorities to the crisis and its local consequences. Lunches were given out in kitchens in Franciszkańska Street, Bożego Ciała Street, Warszawska Street, Krakowska Street, św. Tomasza Street, and Nadwiślańska Street.50 The lunch cost 0.25 zloty and included a piece of meat, vegetables and bread.51 The Jewish community also had its own canteen for the poorest located in Gertrudy Street.52

Another could also be found at the registration office for the unemployed in Krótka Street. Reports have survived concerning that facility which give us an idea of how humiliating it must have sometimes been for the jobless to use the “services” of such canteens. “The provisions are poor [...]” – we read in a police document – “the potatoes and cabbage are rotten, meat of the lowest quality.”53 To make things worse, canteen staff treated the unemployed very badly. They behaved with disdain, sometimes just brutally “[...] pushing or even kicking women and elderly people.”54 One of the cooks “[...] was hitting [...] the unemployed with a ladle as they cried for equal and better meals.”55 Such stories intensified the sense of bitterness, low selfesteem and despair, or even personal meltdown experienced by the jobless. Humiliated and discouraged from accepting such a form of assistance by unpleasant experiences, the unemployed occasionally turned to theft and robbery as a means to provide for themselves and their families.

The MKB’s support was to target those who were registered at the PUPP but lost their right to receive benefits.56 The MKB opened several sections in charge of such areas as promotion, economic and financial affairs, food provision for children, clothes and labour, as well as commissions for medical and legal aid, and an audit commission. Between September 1931 and June 1932, the MKB collected over 482,000 zloty sourced from various contributions, collections and the tram ticket tax. Interestingly, it was as early as 1926 that the Townhall started to interfere in ticket or electricity prices in order to collect more funding for combating unemployment.57 A sum of 40,000 zloty was fed into the city coffers monthly, which according to the Townhall was enough to employ 600 jobless people to perform public works.58

At the same time, Cracow’s cafes and restaurants also supported the MKB’s charity work by raising their tea and coffee prices by 0.05 zloty, with the extra sum going to the Committee. As many as 6,825 unemployed people approached the MKB for assistance and they were subject to special verification so as to ensure that the support would go to those who needed it most. As a result 1,694 single persons received assistance as well as 3,045 families, i.e. 13,320 in total. The results of the Committee’s campaign were truly impressive. More than 267,000 lunches were given out, food vouchers worth 244,286 zloty were offered to unemployed persons, around 250–270 were employed on various public works, also children of unemployed parents were taken care of.59

It seems that all this could not have happened without the generous approach of fellow Cracovians. Appeals to support the MKB and Church-based organisations reverberated throughout the city. Help came from industrialists,60 office workers,61 labourers,62 artisans,63 tradesmen,64 physicians,65 tram drivers,66 and scouts.67 The selflessness of Cracow residents which went down in the history of the city was impressive to all. The MKB report read that “Cracow has excellently passed [...] a test of dedication to public good, and in terms of generosity it [...] overtook Poland’s largest towns by several counts [...].”68

The MKB collaborated with Archbishop Sapieha’s Committee. Although there had been some squabbles and misunderstandings between the Townhall and the archbishop in the past, now, in the face of the progressive economic downturn and raging unemployment, it was clear that all hands were needed to work for the improvement of the living conditions of the poor and unemployed. The MKB provided Church-run canteens with certain quantities of meat free of charge and supported the archbishop’s Committee with small sums of money. The Church, in turn, was doing some things for the City as regards helping the needy. In the face of the great crisis, Archbishop Sapieha established in 1931 the Committee for Assisting the Hungry (Komitet Pomocy Głodnym; hereinafter, KPG), which served free meals for the jobless in four kitchens.69 Throughout the inter-war period, several dozen Sisters of Charity worked at St Lazarus Hospital in Kopernika Street, and a dozen or so at St Ludovic Hospital in Strzelecka Street.70 Yet that was not the only contribution of the Church to medical assistance for the poorest. In Trynitarska Street, there operated a hospital of the Order of Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, popularly known as the Fatebenefratelli.71

Still, poor residents of Cracow liked best the hospital operating under the auspices of the aforementioned Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Lea Street. It is often thought that such establishments offer poor conditions. Was this really the case? Looking at the hospital’s weekly menu which has partially survived (albeit without the menus for Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday) one can conclude than many patients hospitalised today would eagerly swap places with the patients of Ladies of Charity:

“Sunday: breakfast – sandwiches, borsch or tea; lunch – chicken broth with fine pasta, chicken, cauliflower, potatoes; dessert – punch cake and stewed pear beverage; dinner – roasted veal in mayonnaise with vegetable salad or fish in vegetables and potatoes;

Monday: breakfast – ham, borsch or tea; lunch – Naples soup, roasted veal in batter with potatoes and cabbage with tomatoes; dessert – cream puffs with sour cream; dinner – rice ragout or French dumplings and apple soufflé;

Thursday: breakfast – ham, borsch or tea; lunch – chicken broth with dough, roasted veal with cream, potatoes and beetroots; dessert – fruit cake – stewed apple beverage; dinner – schnitzel, cucumbers, potatoes or apple pie, cauliflower;

Friday: breakfast – cheese, borsch or tea; lunch – mushroom soup and fried fish, red cabbage, potatoes; dessert – sweet sponge-cake dish with sweet cream sauce, stewed apple beverage; dinner – dumplings with plum filling with sour whipped cream.”72

No comment seems necessary; let us just remember that the menu is not from a restaurant but a kitchen in a hospital for the poor.

While the MKB was doing its charity work, the voivodeship authorities began to combat unemployment too, and in numerous letters sent to the institutions they controlled called on officials to pay voluntary taxes to benefit the Committees fighting the consequences of unemployment, both at the county and municipal levels.73 The county governors – as imagined by the voivode – were kindly asked to “present to the clerks who reported to them the need for and importance of the action aiming to alleviate the unemployment calamity and call on the clerks to pay voluntary taxes to benefit the campaign.”74 The tax was supposed to be at a rate of 1–2 % of the gross salary for clerks earning in excess of 500 zloty who supported their own families, and for single clerks earning more than 400 zloty. Those earning less could choose to be taxed or not,75 although – as was said at one of the meetings devoted to the matter – “only in exceptional circumstances will a petty contribution from a clerk be justified.”76 In practice, it seems, the “voluntary” nature of the initiative was illusory and superiors exerted much pressure on the subordinates to support the action benefitting jobless Cracovians.

The scenario was similar in the case of special stamps that officials offered to their clients who wanted to attend to some administrative business at a given institution. The proceeds from the stamp sale were also supposed to support the Committees. To what a degree such gifts were to be voluntary can be inferred from the words of the voivode, who instructed the clerks bluntly that “a given person’s refusal to buy the stamp [...] may not be a reason for a negative outcome of their case.”77 However, regardless of the motivation informing the people who paid for the stamps, the results of the voivode”s initiative was satisfactory. By April 1932, that is when the collection ended, the MKB coffers received 4,447 zloty.78 By the end of the year, the stamp sale brought 7,565 zloty.79

Another type of assistance for the unemployed different from cash contributions were in-kind donations offered by both the city authorities and Church-based organisations. Most typically, the donations included such products as bread, lard, groats, rice, flour, fat, beans, soap, clothes, underwear, fuel, etc.80 Regrettably, sometimes those were products – as we read in one of the reports – “of inferior quality.”81 “One week,” – another document reads – “while the donations were given out to the jobless, they received zinc white instead of flour. When they voiced their concern, a notice was put up in the canteen saying that the zinc white received might be exchanged for flour.”82 The very distribution of the in-kind donations, the unemployed said, was slow; and those in charge of the process often expressed unwillingness and disdain towards the beneficiaries.83

Nonetheless, the donations had a significant impact on the material standing of the needy and, which I find of particular importance, their morale.84 Only by the end of January 1932, the MKB gave out over 10,000 in-kind donations, whereby beneficiaries, including the unemployed, were offered the content of 54 train cars of coal and 6 of potatoes.85 In 1933, Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul gave out to the poor 191 kg of sugar, 234.5 kg of lard, 66 kg of apples, 49 coffee packets, 71.5 kg of soap, 112,000 kg of coal, 453 items of underwear, 614 of clothes as well as 138 sets of bedlinen and 79 pairs of shoes.86

For its part, the AKR distributed not just in-kind donations. For example, in late 1931 Christian residents of Cracow were offered vouchers worth 0.05 zloty each which could be exchanged for a piece of bread, a glass of tea, or used as a lunch subsidy for the poorest, something the buyers were particularly encouraged to do.87 After all the campaign was launched by the aforementioned KPG of Archbishop Sapieha, which began its operation in early 1931. The Committee was set up to help all those who “suffer hunger due to lack of work and insufficient income or illness.”88 Lunches served in the Committee’s kitchens cost 0.25 zloty, but the needy paid just 5 groszy. Usually, however, people could not afford even that little, which I think speaks volumes of the situation of Cracow’s poor back in the day. If that was the case, they received a hot meal free of charge. In total, over the nine weeks when the kitchen operated, more than 2,600 persons ate there. As many as 113,171 lunches were given out, including 65,924 free of charge.89

As much as they could, the local authorities also made efforts to offer jobs to the unemployed. There was pressure exerted on entrepreneurs to take on new staff, if only on a part-time basis. Unfortunately, the jobless often did not enjoy their posts for long as some companies were forced to cut jobs just a few months after employing new staff.90 Sometimes people were holding on to their jobs for dear life or vehemently defended at least part of their income. When in November 1928 the Townhall decided to transfer six cabman posts from the city centre to the suburbs, the owners of horse-drawn cabs threatened to do all they could to change the decision of the authorities, “even if 6 November were to repeat itself and if blood were to flow.”91

The jobless could also count on various training programmes helping them improve their qualifications or acquire new ones. Consequently, the labour market prospects became much better for those people, as with additional skills they were more attractive for employers. Such courses were delivered, for instance, by the Committee for Winter Assistance to the Unemployed, which in early 1937 prepared such training schemes for blue-collar workers (courses on central heating maintenance, on reinforced concrete, on roads and sewage systems, and on technical drawing), white-collar workers (such as instructors, accountants and shorthand writers/typists), and jobless women (cutting and sewing, manual and machine knitting, embroidery, leather haberdashery or corset-making).92

Above all, however, the unemployed were posted to public works, a popular practice throughout the inter-war period. Thanks to such opportunities, 1923 saw the start of the construction of the Cracow-Ojców road, modernisation of levees on the Vistula river from Niepołomice in the direction of Oświęcim, and in the city of Cracow itself efforts to regulate the Rudawa river and the construction of a bridge on the Vistula where Krakowska Street ended.93 The Townhall offered the jobless some other work too, like cleaning trunk sewers and their tributaries in newly connected districts, and in early 1926 around 1,400 persons found employment in that sector.94

In 1934, as many as 741 jobless persons were employed, including 277 in road construction and repair and 298 in sewer building; also 200 persons doing the earthwork on the Mound of Krakus.95 In winter, the city authorities engaged the jobless in snow removal.96 Such work was principally managed by a body established in the late 1930s called the Municipal Committee for Winter Assistance to the Unemployed (Miejski Komitet Pomocy Zimowej Bezrobotnym; hereinafter. MKPZB). As late as in early 1939, the MKPZB employed around 250 jobless persons and, weather permitting, their number rose, including women, who were usually employed to do the gardening in the Krakowski Park, Henryk Jordan Park, or along Mickiewicz Avenue.97

At the same time the Townhall, sometimes in conjunction with the voivodship authorities, called on the Polish government to provide considerable funding for that purpose98 or to offer appropriate loans.99 The costs of such project were high after all. Just in 1926 alone, the expenditure for public works amounted to 668,299.14 zloty. Thanks to the charges collected on top of the electricity bills and tram tickets, a sum of 476,278.77 zloty was collected, which means that over 190,000 zloty was still missing.100 In total, those monies allowed for the employment, chiefly for earthworks, of 878 persons who received a daily pay of 3.50 zloty, later increased to 3.80 zloty.101 That seems a sound amount. Analysing the prices back then, one can see that for such a daily sum, a worker could buy, for instance, a loaf of wheat bread (0.90 zloty), 1 kg of rice (1.53 zloty), a few kilograms of potatoes (0.14 zloty), a few eggs (0.16 zloty per egg) and a litre of milk (around 0.30 zloty).102 In the monthly perspective, shopping prospects were of course much better.

With time, particularly in the 1930s when due to the crisis the number of unemployed was growing, less was paid for their public work. In 1933, blue-collar workers received 2.75 zloty daily and a half of the amount in kind.103 By way of comparison, those who drew the unemployment benefit received around 12–16 zloty biweekly, i.e. still less than those involved in public works.104 No wonder then that public works were massively popular with the jobless and some did all they could to get their share, which sometimes led to regrettable cases of rabid rivalry between job seekers. In June 1935, the decision was made to employ them during the preparatory work for railway track replacement on the Cracow – Cracow Płaszów – Skawina line. As many as 400 came on the opening day although only a half was needed. A selection had to be made, ending in a bitter dispute between the chosen and rejected ones.105

Sometimes, however, it would turn out that despite their hardship the jobless were not that desperate to take any given post. More precisely: they were not ready to work far from home. Still in the 1920s, workers would keenly travel to Upper Silesia to work in mines and steelworks or to France to do some seasonal work. With time, however, some of the unemployed preferred to work in the city of Cracow or as close to it as possible. Such an attitude was not appreciated by the authorities. In May 1938, workers were sought to construct the Zakopane-Cracow road and regulate the Vistula river near Sandomierz. Around 700 persons were needed in total. Those with families were to be paid 2.70 zloty and the others 2.50 zloty. Still, no-one reported for work.106 It was only after the authorities threatened to stop the payment of benefits and allowances to the jobless that around 350 persons decided to go, and bachelors received an increase of the original rate up to the standard 2.70 zloty.107 At the same time, around 150 unemployed persons left Cracow to work on road construction near Szaflary.108

To summarise briefly the considerations presented above, one must say that – contrary to what is sometimes thought – the unemployed residents of Cracow usually were not left to their own devices unaided, and that throughout the inter-war period. As I have shown, the great crisis that hit the city in the early 1930s did not mark any breakthrough in the policies pursued by the local authorities and Church-based organisations as regards support offered to the jobless and the poorest. One could even risk saying that with their rich – as I intended to show in this text – experience in mobilising such support they were still ready to do more, as it was necessary in the face of an economic downturn induced by the crisis. Consequently, the range of assistance offered by the Townhall, the Catholic Church, and Jewish associations was relatively impressive, although, given the realities of Cracow back then, far insufficient. After all, not all unemployed residents were able to cope not just with the conditions in which they had to subsist, sometimes from one day to the next, but also with their own weaknesses which in times of hardship tend to haunt one with doubled force.



Literature on the great economic crisis – its root causes, course and consequences both in the field of economy and society – is very rich. However, not much attention is paid to the issue of remembering the crisis. This is not surprising: after all the matter at hand is highly complicated. The same is true for Cracow itself. I consider that the main problem is the nature of the crisis itself and its characteristics against a backdrop of the city’s socioeconomic situation over the course of the entire inter-war period. In the case of Cracow, as I have shown in my considerations presented above, the crisis did not leave a wasteland in its wake as was the case in some other parts of Poland, partly due to the fact that the city was poorly industrialised. Coupled with the fact that Cracow had known unemployment, poverty and social exclusion – permanently, although more or less acutely felt – since the end of the Great War, this helps to understand why the crisis of the late 1920s and the early 1930s was seen as just another economic slump. It was not a collapse to mark a divide between the times of prosperity and a great recession. Additionally, the intensified efforts on the part of the city authorities and Church-based organisations described here reduced those negative consequences.

Yet another aspect is the perspective of Cracow residents on what was happening around them. It must be remembered that in the first years of the inter-war period Cracovians compared their situation not with the global conflict that had just ended but with the pre-war times, which in their recollections were much better than their contemporary realities. That first post-war period, a time of high prices and shortage of provisions, was some sort of a benchmark and a reference point in the successive years leading to the crisis. While describing the mood of the local public in June 1924, the Cracow police stated that “the current sentiments of the public are predominantly influenced by the reform action of the Government. Although an economic crisis is just at the doorstep,” so went the analysis by the police, “society, which for a long time felt the acute consequences of the recent inflation-driven economy, appreciates the benefits related to the stable currency. Fresh in the public memory are the impoverishment of broad strata of society, the atrophy of savings and healthy credit, and, in terms of ethics, the decline of morality. [...].” However, as concluded by the police, “the general public usually approaches the actions of the Government trustfully and favourably, despite the economic crisis and growing unemployment [...].”109

Because of all this, the memory, and today – since there are very few left who have direct experience of those times – just the post-memory (the memory of the memory) of the great crisis did or does not arouse much emotion. It has become part of the general reflection on the weakness of the Polish economy in 1918–1939 and its consequences: unemployment and poverty. The obvious focus here is on Cracow. The end of the crisis, or its actual delineation, is still a difficult notion as chronologically it was close to the outbreak of the Second World War. The war, in turn, and then its repercussions, forced a completely different perspective on how Cracow residents and others see the Second Polish Republic and its economic and social problems. The great crisis became part of the background.

Text translated into English: Mikołaj Sekrecki


Krzysztof Kloc. A PhD student at the Institute of History of the Pedagogical University of Cracow, where he is drafting a biography of Ambassador Michał Sokolnicki under the supervision of Professor Mariusz Wołos. His interests include the history of diplomacy and the political history of the Polish Second Republic, with special focus on the history of Piłsudski’s camp, the Reborn Poland’s historical policy, and biographies of the period as well as the history of inter-war Cracow. A bursary holder from the Jerzy Peterkiewicz Educational Foundation (2013) and the Z Brzezia Lanckorońskich Foundation (2016) as well as a finalist of Scientific Awards of the “Polityka” weekly (2015). Krzysztof Kloc’s publications have appeared in such sources as “Dzieje Najnowsze,” “Klio,” “Niepodległość,” “Pro Fide Rege et Lege” and “Zeszyty Naukowe UJ.” He is currently working also on the publication of “Korespondencja 1946–1960” between Jerzy Giedroyc and Michał Sokolnicki.



1 After Władysław Zajewski, Czy historycy piszą prawdę (Cracow, 2015), p. 9.

2 Elżbieta Tarkowska, “Bieda, historia i kultura,” in Elżbieta Tarkowska (ed.), Zrozumieć biednego. O dawnej i obecnej biedzie w Polsce (Warsaw, 2000), p. 15.

3 Łukasz Linowski, “Enklawy biedy w miastach Wielkiego Pomorza w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym i ich miejsce w polityce lokalnych władz,” in Mateusz Rodak (ed.), Margines społeczny Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej, Warsaw 2013, p. 313.

4“Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9 XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Stosunki zawodowe. Miasto Kraków,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 64; Elżbieta Adamczyk, “Społeczność Krakowa i jej życie,” in Janina Bieniarzówna, Jan M. Małecki (eds), Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918–1939 (Cracow, 1997), pp. 29–30.

5 Paweł Grata, Polityka społeczna Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej. Uwarunkowania – instytucje – działania (Rzeszów, 2013), p. 190.

6 The National Archive in Cracow (Archiwum Narodowe w Krakowie; hereinafter, ANKr), the Cracow County Office (Starostwo Grodzkie Krakowskie; hereinafter, StGrKr), ref. 111, p. 7.

7 Zbigniew Landau, Jerzy Tomaszewski, Gospodarka Polski międzywojennej, vol. II: Od Grabskiego do Piłsudskiego: okres kryzysu proinflacyjnego i ożywienia koniunktury 1924–1929 (Warsaw, 1971), pp. 89–90.

8 Ibidem, p. 89.

9 Andrzej Pilch, Dzieje ruchu robotniczego w Krakowskiem (Cracow, 1987), part I, p. 314, table 20.

10 Ibidem; “Bezrobocie na terenie województwa krak.,” Goniec Krakowski (hereinafter GK) 1924, issue 29, p. 5; ibidem, no 33, p. 5.

11 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part I, p. 314, table 20.

12 Ibidem, part II, pp. 76–77, table 26; “Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9 XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Stosunki zawodowe. Miasto Kraków,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 64, p. 79, table 30.

13 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 76–77, table 26.

14 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 131.

15 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 228–229, table 30.

16 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 279.

17 Ibidem.

18 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 228–229, table 30.

19 Ibidem.

20 The population of Cracow in the inter-war period: 1918 – 178,588; 1921 – 183,706; 1924 – 185,843; 1925 – 187,283; 1926 – 188,734; 1927 – 190,196; 1928 – 206, 829; 1929 – 210,632; 1930 – 214,504; 1931 – 219,286; 1932 – 224,384; 1933 – 228,684; 1934 – 233,066; 1935 – 237,532; 1936 – 242,084; 1937 – 246,723; 1939 – 259,000 (an estimate), “Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9.XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Polska,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 94a, p. 1; Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: miasto Kraków, 1924–1937; Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, vol. XII, Województwo krakowskie. Śląsk cieszyński (Warsaw, 1925).

21 Elżbieta Adamczyk, op. cit., p. 30, table 4.

22 Ibidem.

23 Ibidem, s. 37, table 5.

24 Ibidem, p. 36.

25 On industry in interwar Cracow, see Jan Szpak, “Gospodarka. Przemysł,” in Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918–1939..., op. cit., pp. 191–202.

26 Czesław Brzoza, Kraków między wojnami. Kalendarium 28 X 1918 – 6 IX 1939, Cracow 1997 (hereinafter Kalendarium...), 18 Jan 1924, p. 122.

27 Cracow’s population was 184,415 then, including 138,218 of those classified as Christians and 46,197 Jews, Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: Miasto Kraków, 1924, January, p. 1.

28 Ibidem, 1935, April, p. 2.

29 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 226.

30 Stanisław Piech, “Życie religijne,” in Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918– 1939..., op. cit., p. 291.

31 ANKr, StGrKr, sygn. 155, pp. 23–24.

32 Andrzej Chwalba, Dzieje Krakowa, vol. V: Kraków w latach 1939–1945 (Cracow, 2002), p. 97; B. Panek in turn, wrote that “Kazimierz, Cracow’s southern quarter, was commonly known for two reasons: abject sanitary conditions and the ethnic dominance of Jews, often very rich and so ‘ruling the roost’ in the area, largely inhabited by the blue-collar poor,” B. Panek, Krakowskie organizacje charytatywne w latach 1918–1939, Cracow 1986, p. 54.

33“Obłędny taniec drożyzny,” GK 1926, issue 4, p. 1.

34Ustawa o zabezpieczeniu na wypadek bezrobocia z dnia 18 lipca 1924 r., Dz. U. 1924, no. 67, item 650.

35 GK 1924, issues 228–229, p. 6.

36 Elżbieta Adamczyk, op. cit., p. 38; during the payment of the benefits often chaos reigned supreme, difficult to contain for the officials. In the late 1930s, money was paid out in alphabetical order: for instance, on Monday to the unemployed persons whose family names started with letters A-J, on Tuesday – K-P, and on Wednesday to all the rest. On specific days those in need also received benefits in alphabetical order, Głos Narodu 1939, issue 22, p. 9.

37 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 111, tables 5–7.

38 “Skrajna nędza bezrobotnych pracowników umysłowych,” GK 1926, issue 34, p. 5.

3“Demonstracja bezrobotnych pracowników umysłowych w Krakowie,” ibidem, issue 70, p. 5.

40“Żerowanie niebieskich ptaków,” Ostatnie Wiadomości Krakowskie (hereinafter, OWK) 1931, issue 117, p. 6.

41 Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 18.

42Ibidem, p. 33.

43Zbigniew Landau, Jerzy Tomaszewski, op. cit., vol. I, p. 123.

44Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 37.

45 Ibidem, p. 40.

46S. Piech, op. cit., pp. 264–265.

47 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 15 Nov 1923, p. 122.

48 Stanisław Piech, op. cit., p. 268.

49 Ibidem, p. 270.

50 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 19.

51 Ibidem.

52 S. Piech, op. cit., p. 291.

53 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 163.

54 Ibidem, p. 165.

55 Ibidem, p. 163.

56 “Miejski Komitet do walki z bezrobociem,” OWK 1931, issue 97, p. 6.

57Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1926, Year XLVII, issue 1, p. 16.

58 Ibidem, p. 158.

59 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, pp. 13–24.

60 “Przemysłowcy krakowscy na rzecz bezrobotnych,” OWK 1931, issue 99, p. 6.

61 “Ofiarność Krakowa dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 171, p. 6.

62 “Robotnicy dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 129, p. 6.

63 “Rękodzielnicy dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 119, p. 6.

64 “Kupiectwo krakowskie dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 126, p. 6.

65 For instance, the Board of the Association of Physicians of the Health-insurance Fund in Cracow passed a resolution on medical advice for the unemployed holding an attestation from the MKB, “Bezpłatna ordynacja lek. dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 137, p. 6.

66 On the initiative of City Mayor Władysław Belina-Prażmowski and the tram service director Tadeusz Polaczek-Kornecki, a special kitchen was launched for children of jobless parents, which gave out 130 lunches a day. “In the kitchen” – the press reported – “meals are cooked by women from the tramway service, as well as a conductor who used to be a cook. The children are serviced by a few girl guides free of charge,” “Kuchnia dla ubogich dzieci w Tramwaju Krak.,” ibidem, issue 134, p. 6.

67 “Krakowscy harcerze dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 115, s. 6.

68 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 17.

69Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 6, pp. 244–245.

70 Stanisław Piech, op. cit., p. 271.

71 Ibidem.

72 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 566, pp. 869–871.

73 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, p. 67; ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 3.

74 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, pp. 77–78.

75 Ibidem.

76Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 9, p. 321.

77 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, p. 70.

78 Ibidem, pp. 153–154.

79 Ibidem, pp. 165–166.

80 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 168; OWK 1933, issue 4, p. 6.

81 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 168.

82 Ibidem, p. 163.

83 Ibidem, p. 155.

84 Ibidem.

85 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 31 Jan 1932, p. 254.

86 Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 43.

87 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 30 Dec 1931, p. 251.

88Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 6, p. 244.

89 Ibidem.

90 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, pp. 213, 235.

91 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 111, pp. 623–625; On 6 November 1923 in Cracow, workers on strike staged violent protests, sometimes even called a revolt, inspired by the Polish Socialist Party and directed against the policy of the then conservative government headed by the leader of the Polish Peasants’ Party “Piast” (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe “Piast”) Wincenty Witos. The protest soon developed into violent clashes of the workers with the police and armed forces, and were brutally suppressed, with 3 officers, 11 privates, 18 workers and civilians dead, and a total of nearly 150 persons injured.

92 “Czego mogą się nauczyć bezrobotni?,” Głos Narodu 1937, issue 22, p. 7.

93 Jerzy Gołębiowski, “Podłoże ekonomiczne wystąpień strajkowych warstw pracujących Krakowa w 1923 roku,” in Józef Buszko (ed.), Rok 1923 w Krakowie. Rozprawy i studia (Cracow, 1978), p. 58.

94 “Jeszcze jeden doraźny podatek na rzecz bezrobocia w Krakowie,” GK 1926, issue 24, p. 5.

95 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 193.

96 “500 bezrobotnych zatrudniono przy usuwaniu śniegu w Krakowie,” Głos Narodu 1937, issue 31, p. 9.

97 “Akcja zatrudniania bezrobotnych,” ibidem, 1939, issue 68, p. 9.

98 “A pan Wojewoda i Magistrat krakowski w sprawie bezrobotnych tylko radzą, radzą, radzą...,” GK 1926, issue 6, p. 5.

99Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1927, Year XLVIII, issue 3, p. 106.

100 Ibidem, issue 1, p. 29.

101 Ibidem.

102Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: miasto Kraków, 1926, June, p. 8.

103 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 145.

104 Ibidem, p.221.

105 Ibidem, pp. 239–240.

106 Ibidem, p. 285.

107 Ibidem, p. 289.

108 ANKr, Cracow Regional Office, ref. 128, p. 1021.

109 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 107, pp. 79–86.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Łukasz Mańczyk

The Possibility of Remembering economic Crisis

20 August 2015
  • Dorota Masłowska
  • Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną
  • Snow White and Russian Red
  • White and Red


The present paper draws on the opinion that reality is only a construct. The relativistic theory of truth displaces the classical (Aristotelian) one. It notes the undepictability (of the world) and (actual) inexpressibility. On the basis of two relatively progressive works (Dorota Masłowska’s book “Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną” [literal translation of the title: The Polish-Russki War Under the White-and-Red Flag; edited as “White and Red” in the UK and “Snow White and Russian Red” in the US], and Xawery Żuławski’s film “Wojna Polsko-Ruska/Polish-Russian War”], this paper confirms the traps of (artificial) limits of both thematization and division into academic disciplines and shows how contemporary art, writing about art included, tries to deal with them.

Instead of problematization – simultaneity and multi-layered structure, which try to be a counterpart, a representative but not an exponent (cf. the category of inexpressibility). A turn – of sonoristic provenance – from the civilizationally formed discourses towards the analysis of the tool itself (language and film language) as possibly the most non-abstract object of study.

The current paper takes as its starting point the question – already present in literary studies – about the purpose of the history of literature as an oppressive attempt to build, under the cover of objectivism, a dominating narration and hierarchy. The paper has been implemented for a monographic issue of a historical magazine; an issue devoted to economic crises. It poses also a preliminary question about the ontological possibility of isolating types of crises and remembering them in an agreed (objective) and subjective way; and also about the possibility of reflecting them in contemporary art, in comparison with works from earlier turning points in history.


I (Assumptions, methodology)

Memory may not exist.1

There is no history either (meaning that history is always “an untruth”, an interpretation. Always proclaimed in the interest of someone, either designedly or undesignedly. My history, your history, constitutively unobjective).2

And “category of truth”? Maybe such as was mentioned by Józef Tischner, professor of philosophy.3

Instead there “is” intederminability, changeability, fluidity, continuous reinterpretation, a process.4

So what might history, which does not (objectively) exist, be like? A story, a narrative. The latter notion appears most often in the context of objects of ART. A narrative is ARTIFICIAL. It is a point of view. An attempt to impose one’s own vision or one’s own mirage on the other participants who have decided to enter “the same” (or “an identical”) discourse. An attempt to impose one’s own language, to subordinate others to oneself, according to the folk wisdom expressed in the saying “bring down to your own level and wipe out with the force of your own argumentation”. It is oppression.

There is no unified history, there is only a struggle of multiple histories, a fight of narratives. And a fight of historical policies, which have even less in common with the unattainable ideal of objectivism. A permanent inability to agree, a battlefield. A battle in which individuals and collectivities take part.5

These are auxiliary categories, ones that make our existence easier: this is it and there’s nothing more to it.

This paper is a mirror, an individual act of reflection on a few intellectual currents, rather than an original contribution.6

Unfortunately – as we see nowadays – some try to find a remedy for the crisis, or at least to conceal its causes, by sparking a war.7

Waiting for a narration of the turning point was crowned by success, but this success took an unexpected form. Its identification took place too late and is still rejected by many.

After the political turning point of 1989, which was partly evoked by and partly caused an economic crisis, there rose an expectation of an overview, a vast literary panorama. An expectation that art would offer a reflection of what was taking place in real life. A reflection or a distortion, if you will (e.g. through the category of grotesque like Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz.8).

But in the meantime a complete change of circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) took place in Poland (in the world it began at least in the 1970s), and because of it the object of the expectations was inapplicable to what could be accepted as a proper answer.

Belatedly (later than it was expected) “narratives” (stories) appeared which were moderately consistent with the object of the expectations, but not meeting the expectations.

The object of these expectations, referring to the past and not to the future, is the longing for a great novel about a turning point, like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy or The Doll by Boleslaw Prus (although it was written despite and beyond the expectations of its times and offered a new approach to the topic).

The expectations were quite high: to relate and to provide a diagnosis: somewhat predictable but surprising at the same time.

There appeared – too late – works of the same type (content) but not as great as The Doll, however they did not evoke such resonance. I will not mention them here because this paper is not a polemic (within literary studies as such – it does not aim to analyse and change the hierarchies, nor to study what constitutes a masterpiece etc.).

It seems that a desired narrative about a turning point in history should also be a turning point in the way of thinking.

Thus expectiation should be an open formula, and not a written content. The work which is to “meet the expectations” of the times, must also be a surprise.

According to some of those who had expected it, such a work appeared after a lengthy period of time, and it took even longer before it was recognized and qualified.

Whereas those to whom it seemed (a good word) to be addressed, did not have such an expectation at all.

Here we come to the first turning point in this presentation. On its account one must assume that

a) memory about economic crises (as well as narratives about them e.g. in historical research or in reportage) or reflection of economic crises (in art, partly also in reportage as a subjective choice, personal description and interpretation of facts) are possible;

b) memory about crises and reflection of crises were materialized;

c) in some aspects Snow White and Russian Red may be accepted as such a materialization (footnote later, it will be justified).

It is pointless to bandy around the aesthetics of novelty if a book is over ten years old. It was indeed a novelty as far as Polish literature is concerned. Its determinants were and still are widely available (not to say dominant) in world literature. Let us name and enumerate them:

a) escape from thematization;

b) pretextuality of the plot, polemics with its essence, essentiality and validity;

c) escape from ideology – everything happens in the language, through the language and for the language. A novel about the language which is self-reflexive, and non-referential. Reality (if it exists at all) cannot be described. One may also mention the related category of inexpressibility.

Only words are “objectively” available from start to finish; if anything is certain at all, it is words. But not their meaning.

The book Snow White and Russian Red may be discussed also in relation to the category of experience. The turn to experience is allegedly another hastily announced turning point in the humanities.9

However, in my personal opinion, it seems to be stable (or perhaps more stable) and this opinion is based on strong foundations which are material at last (and not abstract – non-existent).

Experience understood as a bundle of experiences of a changeable subject, a bundle which is variable in time, is something that is most real, objective from the comparative point of view. In the shape and sound of words.

While ideologies, narratives and plots are abstract tools created by rulers and their servants (“court poets”) to serve their aims. They forced others to believe and immediately defeated them with this “weapon” (or in “fact”: instrument of aggression). They are a derivative of oppression, or a way to gain, keep and spread power.

The book and its film adaptation should be discussed separately.10

Both these works may be deemed outstanding, taking into consideration their proximity and – for the sake of the present paper – accepting the possibility of restoration of hierarchies in art and of so-called “restoration of the center”.11

Furthermore, abuse of another kind is possible. In their building material, both works contradict the possibility of thematization, they do not want to have “significance” at any cost. But to distinguish them from each other, the prose work (but not a novel) of this title might be referred to as a work about language while the film (a feature film?) – a work about imagination.

I had to express the above mentioned reservations in order to write clearly, taking into consideration current knowledge (or its changeable content12) and doubts.

Now I should only refer to what I understand as an economic crisis and as the economic crisis of 1989.

I understand crisis intuitively as a turning point, a time of verification or perfection of a previous system, or one of the ways of bringing another system into existence. At the root of the 1989 turning point there was – among other factors – an economic crisis: the failure of the previous model based on central planning, full employment and primacy of public ownership, which was co-dependent and simultaneous with limited independence and a shortage of democracy. The Round Table, the most obvious result of which was the election, referred to as contract election, brought about a much more important change: an economic transformation, the result of which (or perhaps its tool, cf. “shock therapy”) was another economic crisis.

In 2014 we celebrated a “round” anniversary of those events, which might have been an opportunity for re-evaluations or a time to explode myths and paradigms (of the free market, restrictive fiscal policy etc.). However, so far this has not contributed to achieving any consensus about what “really” happened nor about its results. What did the process of changing ownership relations and shaping or re-shaping the elite look like? What are their advantages and disadvantages? And this is where the aforementioned war of narrations takes place, one of many instances of the “Polish-Polish war.” Reminescent perhaps (and perhaps not) of Gombrowicz’s “duel of face-making.”

Both works, the book and the film, are of implicit character – they do not participate in the dispute at a high level of literality. They suggest another perspective, one that is minimally “comparable13 to what the Orange Alternative proposed at the end of 1980s, beyond the unjustified loftiness of the authorities, the opposition, and religion.

It is not the aim of the preceding paragraph to deny the importance of this dispute.

The relationship between awareness and economy, partly complying with what Marx said, may be both symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Let me return to the inadequate but incidentally useful abuse related to thematization. The domain of the “language war” in Masłowska’s book, and of the “imagination war” in Żuławski’s film is awareness, its status and transformations. Economy and its crises may either be its catalyst, its result, whether minimal or decisive, or may be happening beside it.

However, in order to meet the theme of the monographic issue, I will emphasize them, presenting both their interaction and independence, decorativeness.



1. The book
While one group of readers waited for a novel dealing with the turning point in history, it seems (and this is a good word) to have been written for another group of readers (who appeared and will appear after it had been written but also were created as a result of its having been written).

And it was a different book than expected, which became the reason for its artistic success.

Its “theme” (Heidegger’s quotation mark14 is an appropriate tool) is language. But in the end it also becomes its victim. And as a result, all that the language tries to convey, “represent,” becomes its victim: ideologies, values, patriotism, customs, construction of an individual with their priorities, subjective line of life, ways of coping with the crisis, both individual and economic. Both a proposition and its opposition.

As Ferdinand de Saussure already observed, language is self-reflexive and refers to itself.15 Thus an honest analysis of “history,” history of economic crises included, may begin with an analysis of how the language used for narrating these crises is described. The language itself should be deconstructed, and expose its inherent contradictions and hidden ideological presumptions.16

Instead of analyzing what is openly expressed with language, one should analyze what is happening on the hidden plane.

The language of the Polish People’s Republic and the language of the Third Republic of Poland are characterized by inadequacy, an incompetent attempt to fill in the gaps. Any social system is rickety: it is enough to analyze, say, its linguistic foundations.

Dorota Masłowska uses surprising juxtapositions which are far from what one is used to, in order to expose their conventionality, falsehood, instrumentality.

According to the dominant narrative, the year 1989 in Poland is perceived as a great victory in which not a single shot was fired, a model to be imitated by other nations, the beginning of the Autumn of Nations.

The author does not argue with this view, nor does she claim the opposite. She proves implicitly that neither of these theses is absolute, both are simplifications, Misrepresentations.17 She presents people who are lost, whose speech is a conglomeration of the old and the new: relics of the People’s Republic of Poland, pop culture, primitive early advertisements of the cheapest of products, like candy bars or washing powder, because they simply cannot afford true capitalist luxuries (like a new car or a detached house in a new, rich housing estate).

Masłowska’s protagonists are full of contradictions (i.e. are attractive from the point of view of dramaturgy). On the one hand, they beef about the “Russkis” (the word used in the book), are afraid of them, blame them for all the evil (kidnappings, disappearances, poverty), and on the other hand, they complain about the “No Russkis Day” when it is not possible to buy addictive substances, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, which they compensated for by inhaling instant borsch.18

They wage the eponymous Polish-Russki war under the white-and-red flag, which means precisely that under the same banner they wage a war with themselves and with one another19,20 their past and their habits. They are ambivalent: attraction is at the same time repulsion. What they try to repress, what they are ashamed of, is the “constitutive” part of their personality and partakes in providing pleasure, satisfaction, and a sense of being rooted.


2. The film
Nails’ loneliness, otherness or conflicts can be seen in a different light thanks to the art of film making. He lives in a detached house which was built in the age of Gierek21 and which is surrounded (besieged) by blocks of flats of prefabricated concrete.22 He has a different home than the others, a different starting point. His mother runs a small business in the form of a „horrendous solarium”.

His loneliness is also visible in the largest crowd scene, during a fair. Humbled by being dumped by Magda, he tries to introduce his own order, seize power (over everybody) in order to win his girlfriend back. He fights against the other participants of the fair who approve of the hierarchy headed by Robert Sztorm, the sponsor of the beauty contest which Magda is expected to win. Nails, probably the son of small business owners who began to grow rich in the 1980s, loses to a model of a businessman which appeared a decade later.

The interior decor reminds one about the shift from the old to the new. Wood paneling, unit furniture used as a wall to divide a room, a synthetic blanket with a pattern made to resemble the coat colour of a tiger (a substitute of tiger skin, the aesthetics of a fake), clothes, particularly those of older people. An old Polar washing machine struggling to wash off the new, unexpected “capitalist” dirt. The Polish Fiat 126. The chav subculture of that time. The aesthetics of the black BMW. The 1990s Polish rock music playing in the background and the obligatory discopolo23 at the fest. And finally, after Nails dies in the film, there’s the deserved “paradise”. Not a metaphysical one as someone might expect. A housing estate of detached houses built by a developer, with a very dense neighborhood of equally luxurious, identical houses. In other words, a goal pursued by many Poles in the first decade of the 21st century and nowadays.

An intriguing element is the motif of siding, an external decoration, an overlay, a mask, popular in the 1990s and used to cover the façade of a house at least two decades older. In the apocalyptic vision of Magda it appears to be of “Russki” origin, thus faulty; and during the celebration of family barbecue it begins to come off the walls, causing the death of all the members of Nails’ family, and in the end his own.24

Deconstruction takes place,the certainty is unmasked as something extremely conventional, but also oppressive to the individual and only beneficial to the system.

In the book: this deconstruction is achieved by means of language, which has been discussed. In the film by means of imagination: let us take for example the “meaningful” scene when Nails is being interrogated by a policewoman played, not without consequences, by the author of the book. In the wake of a war the author gets nervous and says: “there’s nothing. In these circumstances I have to write everything in this machine.”25

The walls of the police station turn out to be made of cardboard, to be conventional. Everything that Nails lived by, that fuelled his sense of drama, proves to be artificial: “Styrofoam, glass wool and cardboard. Is this what this city is built of? I am a trained dog.”


The following may be meaningful: the place that seemed to be a police station proves to be the backroom of a school (coalescence of the place where norms are passed and the first normative socialization occurs with the place where obedience to these norms is controlled).

Both the old world and the current one, its epigone, have gone bankrupt.

Everything is a matter of convention. Instead of a “decent interrogation,” there is a “mental electroshock therapy.” And only this proves to be real torture. Nails is too weak for that (Nails – in Polish Silny “strong” – here we observe an oxymoronic relationship between the name into which a declaration is inscribed and the reality). He decides to kill himself. Or he assumes that the wall which he about to hit with his head is fictitious, just like the police station in which he was held. But this second confrontation proves to be fatal. He lands in the props department of a film set, where various clothes are hanging (they may be perceived as clothes, as disguises, as social roles one must assume for this or that occasion). In the background he can hear slogans which construct the deconstructed awareness: Gierek’s “Will you help?”, the announcement of Karol Wojtyła as the new Pope (“Habemus papam”), Lech Wałęsa’s voice from the Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980.26

The problem of narratives and their self-interested nature is emphasized in the film too. In the talk-show Nails answers the demand of both the host and the society: “so I tell you right of the bat what I have learned from cartoons and religion lessons at school.” Nails (or his author, who tells him what to say) appears in almost every scene of the film, and at the end addresses the spectator in a paraphrase of Hamlet’s monologue: “Do I live or not? If not, tough luck! It will hurt...”. It may be a question about the state of awareness, autonomy of an individual and objective existence of “the world” perceived by others in the same way; something entirely different that does not come to my mind at present, and also, in accordance with “the assumptions” of the work, none of these.

The main problem of the protagonists of the Wojna polsko-ruska (besides looking for the mirage of “love,” mutuality, community) is poverty: economic and “spiritual” and always relative. Difficult to bear because of their aspirations, both great and one-sided, which result from the sudden coming of capitalism, a world of advertisements, which creates (artificial) desires and replaces (natural) needs. An irrational hunger which cannot be quenched, fueled by the information presented by the media, and later also fueled by the people who have accepted it as their own.

It seems that there is also a real insufficiency. The breaking of the former social bonds, which have not been replaced with new ones based on new rules. This results from unemployment, economic recession (due to a change in the markets as well as the geopolitics of trade and modes of exchange) and inadequacy of educational curricula for the new requirements.27

The decline of the center understood as a shared set of values and the center of administration (i.e. a departure from central planning, from a state which declares the intention to guarantee social justice, from full employment and a welfare state variously understood).

The insufficiency is planned in the new system, too. The political and economic enslavement is replaced by another kind enslavement, with the “help” of economics. Shortage of goods and poor organization of work are replaced by shortage of free time, theft of time, an imperative to pursue a career, and the will to have full control of the employee. And in spite of such work, it is still impossible to satisfy the desires created by the system. Those who “cannot afford that,” are the addressees of the excluding “advertising” slogan of one the hypermarkets: “Not for idiots.” The new identity is determined by the brands with which people surround themselves (a BMW but also poor substitutes of luxury in the form of junk food at a fest or from a local fast-food).

Just like before, the system serves itself and the individual is persecuted. The individual is trying to climb the social ladder, take a higher place, but by acting according to the methods of the system (the imperative to acquire more wealth by hook or by crook) and within its logic (money as the most important value) they simply justify the system. The individual may be its last or at best its “first servant.”

What changes is only the type of hierarchy. Earlier it was apparently built on values, the Decalogue, the family, patriotism, the sense of community, whereas the current criteria, equally illusive, include money, fame, selfpromotion, gadgets, media publicity, popularity, clothes, car, furniture and accessories in one’s apartment or detached-house.

By applying an already outdated methodology, one might try to compare the book to the film.28 However it would be contradictory to the world views on the basis of which they developed and an attempt to create universal, comparable essences, which they do not exhibit.

Even the earlier (“mapping,”29 didactic) statement that the book about a “war” is a story about language whereas its film adaptation is a story about imagination may be investigated as an untruth, graded from simplification, to misuse, to falsification.

It is impossible to make a thorough comparison of the two. The idiomacy within conventional genres aside, they also represent genres which are absolutely dissimilar.

Both works are built on the escape from thematization. The crisis which was mentioned above is a background in each of them, its secondary status emphasized continuously. Comparison e.g. of the ways in which the crisis is presented would be a violation of their “meaning.” To give examples one after another would only result, more and more harmfully, in passing over of their natures in silence. The less about it, the better.

The concept of adaptation does not provide a connection between them either.30 It is only a commercial trick (a best-selling book as the starting point for the promotion of a film).

Masłowska’s book is a sort of a hip-hop poem,31 a digressive one, referring perhaps to the romantic „model.” Written in prose, in which ironic rhymes appear every now and then. Speckled with references which dominate the original content and begin to modify it. Built on linguistic and cultural calques, which are often distorted (by the plot, the chronology, the causeand- effect relations; the structure – e.g. by anastrophe). Also drawing from Gombrowicz, whose work in turn was founded on Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and struggle against stereotypes about the Polish nature.

Both the book and the film are built from loosely shuffled cards of scenes. Reconstruction according to chronology is possible, but it would have an unfavorable impact on the whole (the pretextual plot is purposefully weak, though it contains a few mysteries).

Due to its substance, the film is closer to a “mass audience” (this is another out-of-date category). The main character was played by Borys Szyc who at that time had reached the height of his fame. He appears in every scene, which makes the film more consistent. It seems that the female characters are more distinct in the film than in the book. Screenplays are usually written in a less subtle way. Screenwriters were also looking for stereotypes which were hidden in the nuanced book to build the visible plot on. And beneath it there is a frantic interplay of meanings.. Perhaps it was the desire to find support in a convention, the need for a clear conclusion, that gave the film its ending (not present in the book), i.e. a housing estate of detached houses built by a developer. And a whole array of “national themes.” A film moves the spectator back in time using pictures and sounds, it achieves regression in a different way. Short snapshots are more meaningful, like in a music video.

The promotion campaign is another matter: it attempted to present Wojna polsko-ruska as a film for everyone, which deals with seemingly simple issues. One would have to exhibit maximum incompetence to interpret it in this way. However, while the early readers of the book were young, they belonged to the elite.

Further search for such comparisons would be a tautology. They do not lead to any new conclusions. These are to be sought elsewhere.



Economy does not turn out to be the main driving force behind the protagonists’ actions in the book or the film.

One may of course give more examples in the field of economics, but this will not change the general view, i.e. my interpretation. This also would be tautological.

The economic crisis is one of the components of the general crisis, unintentionally “expressed” in both works. If, as such, it may be considered the “theme” of the book and the film at all, as they ontologically strongly object to thematization.

But the protagonists – and this is also important – are not aware of it. Their dramatic situation consists also in the fact that they are like flies whose jars of artificial honey have been changed over: the “communist” for the “capitalist” one. They vacillate, they are unhappy, but it is difficult for them to find the real psychological, social, and economic causes of their state.

Their subjective crisis is a result of the fact that they mainly see the economic crisis. And they reduce their actions to money. In this way coming out of the real crisis becomes impossible for them. This crisis may be termed the base one. Perhaps this statement refers also to all the crises, erroneously defined as economic ones, including the current one.

Except that one should be careful in drawing such a general conclusion, because (as a generalization) it goes against the two works discussed.

However, let us come back to the characters in Wojna polsko-ruska. Their actions are harmless and inefficient, and despite their polemic nature, they only serve to confirm the order of things. One example is the attempt to wangle money from Robert Sztorm, the producer of amusement parks, king of sand.32They organize their lives around money and its lack, and thus they confirm its primary value. Greediness amounts to desire for money (the ability to “buy the fest”: fries, coca-cola, or a new house in a new housing estate). Whereas one of the more “real” reasons of the defeat is the inability to communicate or to reach a compromise, which causes loneliness. Or the ability to stand at the side (oversight).

Nails is a sexaholic who functions in the rhythm dictated by the erections of his penis, which he refers to as George (“George governs Nails”)33; he dangles visions of patriotism; during “the lecture” on the beach he conjures up a utopian economic model founded on sand, and not on gold or oil.

His girlfriend Magda, not mature enough for a relationship, would prefer someone more influential who could help her build her modeling career (the union of power and libido which was mentioned before). Thus Nails must find a substitute. George’s loneliness is one of the driving forces behind the story. Nails meets Angela, an artist-satanist, who wants to pursue a career (this time a poetic one) at any cost, Nata (Natalia Blokus, a representative of the species Homo Blokus), a chavette who loves to sniff instant soups and who is more “masculine” than he is, and Ala, from a Catholic youth movement, who appears to be the biggest playgirl of them all.

Nails’s only potentially possible and promising relationship is the one he has with Magda. However there is an obstacle, described as Magda’s “gangrene” (of her leg); here it is an obscure metaphor of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood, which causes disability (the motive of walking on crutches), the sense of being inadequate, and excluded. This also seems to be a sign of the times. A world in crisis has turned upside down. Starting a family is has gone out of fashion. What counts more is autonomous sex which is alienated from family life. Not to mention the economic and social impediments which await a young married couple. From here it will be twenty years before pro-family policy is declared and a minimal system of benefits such as the “large family card” (which entitles one to discounts and additional services), tax reliefs, or a newborn allowance is introduced.

As I keep emphasizing the economic aspect, I realize more and more how difficult it is to speak about the economic crisis alone and leave out the social crisis or the crisis of world perception; and how difficult it is to delimit when a crisis ceases to be economical in nature. And which crisis was caused by which. Perhaps it is easier to make such a distinction in a historical paper, but not in an anthropological one.

It is becoming more and more obvious that a division of the world into disciplines is arbitrary and that holism is the alternative and that the cognitive apparatus is constructed on an ad hoc basis for the sake of a single statement.

It seems that in the narratives written following the decline of realism,34 it is not the economic aspect that is assigned the decisive role. Psychology, the need for participation, the problem of responsibility are more important. The organization of social and economic life is only one of the aspects, or it is left out.35

In the background there is the question – one which is recurrent in the public debate – about the actual primacy of economy over other spheres of life or life in general, and the question about the paradigm of growth in economics itself. The differentiation between wealth and welfare. It seems to be more adequate to speak about a crisis in general, economy being only one of its aspects. A crisis that affects us, to which sometimes war becomes a response.36

Text translated into English: Agata Jankowiak


Łukasz Mańczyk. Lawyer (Jagiellonian University), screenwriter (Łódź Film School). PhD student at the Jagiellonian University. Author of four books: “Służebność światła” (Kraków: Homini 2004), “Affirmative” (Beograd: Trci trg 2006), “Pascha 2007/punkstop” (Kraków: Towarzystwo Słowaków 2009), “Biserka” (Kraków: Universitas 2015). Town councilor in Krowodrza, 5th quarter of Cracow.



1 The category of memory in the objective sense or in relation to a community (e.g. memory of a nation or of a generation) is questioned. It is contrasted with subjective memory, which is close to interpretation, a carrier of meaning but only individual meaning. It might change in time (through re-interpretation of events and change of importance ascribed to them). I recommend e.g. Tomasz Maruszewski, Pamięć autobiograficzna [Autobiographic Memory] (Gdańsk: GWP, 2005).

And particularly: Andrzej Falkowski, “Pamięć i wiedza w kontekście rozwoju poznania naukowego” [Memory and knowledge in the context of the development of scientific cognition], Nauka 2004, nr 2, p. 105–124. In this paper the author takes as a starting point the (classic) definition of epistemic truth by Thomas Aquinas and in the course of reasoning contrasts it with successive contructivist definitions. His paper has a practical bent. The author uses real-life examples to prove that truth is a construct, and memory not so much refers to the past as is subject to transformations for the benefit of the present and the future, in order to guarantee that the new actuality agrees with the interpretation of the past.

And thus the author gives an example of a product tester whose memory changes, so that it is more consistent with the information gained later from a commercial (the memory of an unsavory juice changes into a memory of a savory juice under the influence of an attractive commercial broadcast sometime after he had drunk the juice).

Using the well-known drawing “duck or rabbit,” the author confirms, following his precursors, that the interpretation of reality depends on the observer’s information resources and his analysis of these resources. This is why “the same” situation will be completely different for different persons.

The author speaks about the paradox of the development of science, which does not expand our knowledge of reality, but only produces a new image of reality, again and again (p. 108).

Surprising conclusions may be drawn from the examination of the opposite, i.e. the process of forgetting. The author contrasts curves of forgetting, the gestalt theory of forgetting (the hypothesis of memory trace), and interferential concepts of forgetting (replacement of material by one of similar kind) with possibilities not so much of forgetting (repressing) as a gradual, partial or complete loss of access to the remembered data. Retrieval cues offer a possibility to re-gain access, if an appropriate stimulus of appropriate intensity is created.

Falkowski speaks about memory as a totally personal domain in which once this, once that information takes the most important place (cf. the notion of architecture of memory – J. R. Anderson, The architecture of cognition [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983]).

He disagrees with the idea of repressing information, and substitutes it with the hypothesis of a gradable loss of access. There exists a possibility of restoring access if an appropriate stimulus with an appropriate intensity is created.

He points to phenomena, familiar to Western intellectual thought, such as the imagination inflation and backward framing, i.e. readjusting memory to information and not vice versa (cf. also the notion of editing memory).

This paper may lead to the conclusion that perception and interpretation will always be instrumental in nature. Reality (including book reality and the reality pictured in reading) is a point of reference, a state to which the individual refers in a dynamic manner and never an “attitude.”

2 It is not about “the end of history” in the sense of reaching the apex (the end) of social evolution which Fukuyama proclaimed (see e.g. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man [reissue edition Free Press, 2006]).

But, just as with memory, it is about the question concerning the treatment of history as an objective sequence and a set of facts. History is a narrative. It has a narrator, so it is not objective, but it serves the interests of this narrator.

Besides, “the story [...] tells you something about the person, what they feel and how they evaluate and experience the world” (Graham Gibbs, Analyzing Qualitative Data [London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2008]).

The monopoly of professional historians, authority figures, and also authoritative publications and the catalog of the preferred forms have been weakened. Cf.: “Each individual gains a possibility to express oneself freely, regardless of their narrative predispositions” (Maria Antonina Łukowska, “Badania nad opowieścią wspomnieniową” [Studies on reminiscence narrative], Łódzkie Studia Etnograficzne vol. 30, p. 53, [Łódź: Polskie Towarzystwo Ludoznawcze, 1991]).

And “what an anthropologist should be most interested in does not have to pertain to reaching the sources of knowledge about the respondent’s past reality, but just to the knowledge about his ordering of the past” (Joanna Rembowska, “Narracje pamięci” [Narratives of memory] in: http://www.etnologia.pl/multi-kulti/teksty/narracje-pamieci.php, access: 2015/1/25).

And more about the subjectivism, which constitutes memory and is constitutive for memory: “memory which invariably constructs the meaning of the past, constantly depends on the moral system of the individual who remembers, on their hierarchy of values, their beliefs and tradition” (Joanna Rembowska, op. cit.).

3 Let me remind the reader about the following opposition: cognitive optimism, which assumes the possibility of knowing and checking the results, vs. cognitive pessimism (skepticism, criticism): the impossibility of reaching the truth (the impossibility of deciding about its content or absence of this “truth”). I recommend a systematizing paper with rich literature:

Witold Marciszewski, “Racjonalistyczny optymizm poznawczy w Gödlowskiej wizji dynamiki wiedzy” [Rationalistic cognitive optimism in Gödel’s dynamics of knowledge], http://www.calculemus.org/CA/epist/marc-optymizm.html, access 2015/1/31.

The current paper is written in accordance with the latter concept.

The opposition cognitive optimism vs. cognitive pessimism is reflected in the concepts of truth, in doctrine (e.g. in literary studies) and also in practice. For example, in law there functions the concept of material truth and also the concept of legal truth, based on the presumptions of law, legal fiction and unanimous statement of the parties.

See. e.g.

Filip Przybylski-Lewandowski, “Domniemanie prawne” [Legal Presumption], in Jerzy Zajadło (ed.), Leksykon współczesnej teorii i filozofii prawa [Lexicon of Contemporary Theory and Philosophy of Law] (Warszawa: C. H. Beck, 2007), p. 55.

Andrzej M. Świątkowski, “Fikcje prawne w instytucji rozwiązania stosunku pracy” [Legal Fiction in the Termination of a Job Contract], Państwo i Prawo [State and Law] 7/2010, pr. 18.

Legal truth (not necessarily consistent with the material truth) may also become the basis for a legal statement.

Example of a legal presumption: Polish Law on Road Traffic, Article 130a par. 10: “A vehicle taken into custody under par. 1 or par. 2 and not reclaimed by an authorized person within 6 months from the day it is taken into custody shall be deemed abandoned with the intention of disposal”. (Dziennik Ustaw [Journal of Laws] 2005, No 108, item 908).

Example of legal fiction: substitutive delivery which consists in declaring a letter delivered if the addressee is absent at the moment of delivery or refuses to receive the mail (e.g. Kodeks postępowania administracyjnego [Code of administrative proceedings] Art. 43, Dziennik Ustaw [Journal of Laws] 2013, No 0, item 267).

The current paper is not free from similar fictions and presumptions either, although they pertain to the field of literary studies and anthropology.

Cf. also:

– the coherence theory of truth: true is what is inherently coherent. This theory assumes that what is true in one system may be at the same time not true in another. Formal criteria (e.g. logic) and not substantive ones are decisive. See the works of the author of this theory, e.g. Francis Herbert Bradley, Essays on Truth and Reality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914).

– the consensual theory of truth: true is what a given group of people deem true. Here one finds a great scope of literature, from e.g. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Create Space Publishing Platform, 2011, (a social contract which establishes authorities, as a result of shared conviction);

to Juergen Habermas on establishing (consensual) truth in a so-called ideal speech situation; see e.g. Craig Calhoun et al. (eds), Contemporary sociological theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 352–353;

finally to Karl Otto Apel and his theory of apriority of social communication and communication ethics.

– the constructivist theory of truth: truth is constructed. It may also be the result and tool of class struggle. I recommend the paper: Andrzej Falkowski, “Pamięć i wiedza w kontekście rozwoju poznania naukowego” [Memory and knowledge in the context of the development of scientific cognition], Nauka 2004, 2, pp. 105–124.

– the minimalist (deflationary) theories of truth: truth is a sequence of expressions, whose occurrence may be ascertained (established) but it is not subject to further analysis (“verification”): e.g. the existence of a certain, e.g. literary, statement, is ascertained but its relation to its subject (or reason) is not examined. Cf. e.g. Cezary Cieśliński, Deflacyjna koncepcja prawdy. Wybrane zagadnienia logiczne, [Deflationary conception of truth. Selected logical issues] (Warszawa: Semper, 2009).

In reporting this issue I used also the synthetic presentation by Krzysztof Mądel, “Teorie prawdy” [Theories of Truth], a multimedia presentation for the seminar “Prawda w medycynie” [Truth in Medicine], Collegium Medicum UJ, Cracow, November 9, 2006 (madel.jezuici.pl/files/slide/teorie_prawdy.pps, access: 2015/1/31).

Krzysztof Mądel presented the following taxonomy of theories of truth: I – substantial theories (correspondence theory, coherence theory, constructivist theory, consensual theory, pragmatic theory); II – minimalist theories (performative theory, redundancy theory, semantic theory); III – classic theories (Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and even Foulcault and Baudrillard); IV – category of truth in context (in relation to academic disciplines, e.g. sciences and religion e.g. the infallibility of the Bible).

It is not my aim to relate Krzysztof Mądel’s views in detail, nor to engage in potential polemics. The reason behind this footnote is the desire to justify the methodology of my article which is close to the theories deemed minimalist (especially the correspondence, coherence, constructivist, consensual, redundancy and semantic theories), and the so-called truth in context (in relation to humanities).

4 The key notions of contemporary humanities are referred to so often and in so many different ways that it is difficult to determine their consistent interpretation (semantic range). Examples of source literature:

– indeterminability: see the footnote about the conception of cognition and theory of truth.

– fluidity: see Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

– continuous interpretation and (re)interpretation: “culture [...] understood as a never ending process of semiosis (creating and interpreting signs)” (Anna Burzyńska, “VIII. Semiotyka” [8. Semiotics], p. 258, in Anna Burzyńska, Michał Paweł Markowski, Teorie literatury XX wieku [Theories of Literature in the 20th Century] (Kraków: Znak, 2009).

5 What strengthens (explains) the essayistic thesis here is again a purely scientific enunciation:

“choosing a narrative as a source of knowledge, one must always remember that it cannot be explicitly defined or classified into particular structures established by the researcher. A narrative thus becomes an irreplaceable piece of evidence of certain aspects of the respondent’s biography. The narrative ‘gives the respondent a chance to speak for themselves’”(Gibbs, op. cit., p. 109).

In the same way one may describe the relationship between facts (including the economic crisis in which we are interested) and Masłowska’s novel and Żuławski’s adaptation.

Whereas Joanna Rembertowska, who provides the above quotation, sums up: “Thus he [the author] gets an opportunity to create and maintain the image of his own identity. By means of the narrative he also shows the way in which he perceives the world and, what is more, the way in which he perceives himself.” (Joanna Rembertowska, “Narracje pamięci” [Narratives of Memory], op. cit.).

And she continues: “An anthropologist ‘focuses not just on what people said and the things and events they describe but on how they said it’ (Gibbs, op. cit.)”.

One may relate this statement directly to the examples of artistic expression in which the form is of primary importance.

“Being both the narrator and the protagonist of our past we are the ones who attribute meanings to it” (Katarzyna Kaniowska, “’Memoria’ i ‘postpamięć’ a antropologiczne badanie wspólnoty” [’Memoria and ‘Post-memory’ and anthropological study of community], Łódzkie Studia Etnograficzne [Łódź Ethnographic Studies] vol. 13, p. 62).

6 See the footnote about the indeterminability, fluidity, and continuous interpretation and (re)interpretation.

7 This one and many remarks to follow are of essayistic and polemic character. Seemingly they are out of place in a research paper and outside the working problematization of this paper. However, this will be settled in favor of this paper in the last footnote.

Justification: discussing both these works in the way they have been discussed would lead to conclusions which have already been reached. Yet these works discuss issues which are rather new and do it in a new way, additionally trying to negate some ways of thinking, and the existence and rank of some social phenomena. Although only non-verbally or implicitly, they propose new theses, which were vague in the language used before. Or (in the extensive version) they engage in polemics with many former ones. Thus it seems justified to use more adequate methods, including ones constructed in the course of discussion. Ones that refer to straightforwardness and oppose the tendency to classify. Hence the essayistic mode, leaving out linearity and straightforwardness.

Because of the brevity of the present study, this method must partly explain itself (using examples) in the course of implementation.

8 Among many others, the following key to Trans-Atlantyk may be formulated: the economic and political crisis and the identity crisis co-exist and create each other. Just like in the works of Masłowska and Żuławski, and also in the context of war, understood not conventionally, hallucinatorily, oneirically, but literarily.

9 In the wide spectrum of social sciences, particularly in sociology, e.g. Anna Wyka, Badacz społeczny wobec doświadczenia [Social Researcher and Experience] (Warszawa: Instytut Filozofii i Socjologii PAN, 1993).

In academic disciplines known as humanities, particularly in anthropology, e.g. Ewa Domańska “Doświadczenie jako kategoria badawcza i polityczna we współczesnej anglo-amerykańskiej refleksji o przeszłości” [Experience as a research and political category in contemporary Anglo-American reflection on the future], in Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska and Ryszard Nycz (eds), Nowoczesność jako doświadczenie: dyscypliny – paradygmaty – dyskursy [Modernity as experience: disciplines – paradigms – discourses] (Warszawa: Academica, 2008), pp. 131–142.

10 Dorota Masłowska, Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało czerwoną (Warszawa: Lampa Iskra Boża, 2002);

Wojna polsko-ruska, written and directed by Xawery Żuławski, 2009. All the quotations from these works were translated for the sake of this paper by Agata Jankowiak.

11 Detailed explanation is beyond the scope of the current article, but the status of masterpiece is related to the belief that all works of art may be hierarchized on the basis of one unitary key. This view was criticized a long time ago by Janusz Sławiński in a paper published on 5 March, 1994, “Zanik centrali” [Decline of the Center], Kresy, 1994/2: 14–16.

12 It is recognized as one of the causes for the crisis of humanities. In the Polish context this issue was discussed in the monographic edition of the monthly Znak with the subtitle “Bankructwo humanistyki” [Bankruptcy of Humanities]. See Znak 2009/10 (663).

13 Thus I am inclined to agree with the (dominant) opinion that comparative studies are not possible because there are no common comparative criteria for independent entities, symptoms, activities. Idiomaticity excludes the scientific dimension of comparison but not the educational one.

Besides, “Jonathan Culler expresses the opinion that the so-called crisis of comparative studies is first of all the crisis of ‘comparability’, which is connected with the impossibility of taking a neutral stand, a neutral research position” (Andrzej Hejmej, “Niestabilność komparatystyki” [Instability of Comparative Studies], in Wielogłos 2010/1–2 [7–8] [Kraków: Wydział Polonistyki UJ, 2010]).

This paper refers to: Jonathan Culler, “Comparability,” World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Comparative Literature: States of the Art (Spring, 1995), pp. 268–270.

14 More on this topic, see e.g. Daniel R. Sobota, Źródła i inspiracje heigeggerowskiego pytania o bycie [Sources and Inspirations of Martin Heidegger’s Question of Being], vol 2: Filozofia życia, filozofia religii i filozofia egzystencji [Philosophy of Life, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Existence] (Bydgoszcz: Fundacja Kultury Yakiza, 2013), pp. 509–513.

15 The main thesis of the researcher was that the subject of linguistics is language considered in itself.

See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (New York: McGraw-Hill 1966).

See also: Ferdinand de Saussure, Writings in General Linguistics, trans. Carl Sanders (Oxford University Press, 2006).

16 An example crossing the fields of linguistic customs, modern history and politics: the uncritically accepted saying “black is black, white is white” used as a slogan by a Polish presidential candidate, the former leader of a social movement aimed at introducing freedom and democracy, may be, contrary to the user’s intentions, a reflection of the post-colonial way of thinking and the heritage of the theory of white race superiority over the black race. Similarly the word “asshole” may be a hidden criticism of anal or gay sex, which is not procreative.

17 Cf. also the bon-mot “The truth? There is no such thing” in The Dark House, written and directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, 2009.

18 Perhaps the aim here is to find a metaphor for a general prohibition of trading on Sunday, which was the subject of public debate when Masłowska was writing her book.

It is (perhaps) that what is inhaled is red borsch, red being the color of the October Revolution. Instead of the western “white way” offered white powder (the genuine drug), there is the eastern “red way,” a substitute.

19Cf. Sonet IV by Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński “On the War We Wage With Satan, The World and The Flesh” translated by Richard Sokoloski: staropolska.pl/ang/baroque/Sep_Szarzynski/tekst_sonnet_04.php3

– Poles fight against Russians
– Poles fight against “Russkis”
– Poles fight against Poles
– each of them fights an internal fight (say because of the internalized „homo sovieticus” from Father Józef Tischner’s writings).

The conflict equally concerns the struggle between two nations, whether real or imaginary (Poles, Russians, “Russkis”), that within one nation (Poles vs. “russified” Poles) as well as the one fought internally by an individual about which stance is going to win and in which circumstances.

21 Edward Gierek – one of the party leaders of the Polish People’s Republic, he governed in the 1970s. His name is associated both with Poland’s civilizational advancement, the so-called (economic) miracle on credit, and the economic, social and political crisis which ended his leadership.

22 This brings to mind the situation depicted in the film The Beads Of One Rosary (written and directed by Kazimierz Kutz, 1978) in which the main protagonist, a retired miner, fights to be allowed to remain in his worker’s house, even though a housing estate of tower blocks is being built around it. He struggles for his own dignity but also for the good conditions of life for the others (“They will see and say: ‘This is how the miners once lived and this is how they live now’”).

23 Disco-polo is a kind of music, popular in 1990s Poland and similar to disco music, “characterized by kitsch and simplistic performance” (http://sjp.pl/discopolo, date of access 23/11/2015). The genre resembles the earlier italo-disco, which emerged in Italy, and its development was simultaneous with that of Balkan turbo-folk, although the Polish music does not feature nationalist elements, as it was the case in Yugoslavia and the former Yugoslavia during the civil war and after it ended.

24 In Wojciech Kuczok’s Gnój [Muck] an old, faulty sewage system plays a similar role. It breaks down towards the end of the book and causes a complete destruction of the house and its inhabitants.

25 Analogy to the film Naked Lunch (written and directed by David Cronenberg, 1991) in which a fancy typewriter one is of the motifs: concentration on the tool with which one creates shapes and poor substitutes of meanings.

26 Slogans which ceased to unite. One may pay attention to the scene when Nails and his friend “play” with walkie-talkies. The reason for their fight and arrest by the police is the lack of a password, which makes their further conversation impossible (“wrong password”).

27 For example, the young characters in the film frequently discuss studies in economics and marketing at university, which have turned out to be merely degree factories. The quality of being conventional, absurd, oxymoronic, false, useless, incompatible with the alleged “nature of things” is also seen in the term “sandworks” which defies all common sense (and describes the basic activity of the richest businessman in the neighborhood, a local leader).

28 Cf. the above footnote concerning the question of comparability (the possibility of comparability). Comparative studies is one of the most important trends in literary studies. The term littérature compare appeared in France at the beginning of the 19th century. It was used with reference to comparison of works created in various languages and cultural environments. In 1954 the International Comparative Literature Association was established.

A question which is akin to the above is the considerations concerning the original and its copy, travesty, pastiche, as well as interdisciplinary research, e.g. study of the relationship between the original work and its adaptation (on stage, in film).

Nowadays the so-called crisis of comparative studies is being observed (as mentioned in the previous footnote). The parallel fall of structuralism (a belief that the whole world is constructed on the basis of the same rules, everything is interrelated and one thing results from another) was also of some importance. When it was decided that structures are nothing else than a contractual (artificial) construct, the ontological basis for comparability of particular works disappeared.

29 The notion of a map (or rather the lack of a map) is probably the best metaphor of the twilight of comparative studies and their impossibility (this also applies to all comparisons, and possibility of a hierarchy). This metaphor is often employed e.g. in the poetry of Andrzej Sosnowski. At the same time he refers to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Map.

30 As is well known, e.g. from Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Pan Tadeusz [Sir Thaddeus], adapted by Andrzej Wajda (Pan Tadeusz, written by Jan Nowina Zarzycki, Andrzej Wajda, Piotr Wereśniak; directed by Andrzej Wajda).

31 It is even more clearly seen in the author’s second book, Paw Królowej [no English translation, lit. ‘The Queen’s Peacock’ but also ‘The Queen’s Puke’] (Warszawa: Lampa i Iskra Boża, 2005). And also in its adaptations, e.g. Paw Królowej, directed by Paweł Świątek, Teatr Stary in Kraków, premiere 2012/10/27.

32 Cf. the production of happiness – decreeing happiness; “castles in the air.”

33 The English translator of Masłowska’s novel Benjamin Paloff (Snow White and Russian Red, Grove Press, Black Cat, 2005) consistently uses the name „George,” which is the equivalent of the adapted form „Dżordż” used by the author (a spelling which represents the English pronunciation of “George”). It does not, however, reflect all the linguistic operations that Masłowska performs – the reasons, the means and the results of this adaptation.

The form “Dżordż” has not caught on in colloquial Polish. Benjamin Paloff’s intention must have been to render the author’s idea to refer to the main character’s penis using a familiar name which most likely had not appeared in (literary) Polish before and to represent its autonomy and individual, unparalleled features.

In the same way as English uses names such as “Willy,” “John Thomas,” or “Dick,” so Polish has e.g. “Wacek” (the diminutive of “Wacław”).

“George” (“Dżordż”) indeed has control over Nails throughout the plot of both the book and the film, hence its name is of primary importance.

In Polish “Dżordż” has humorous, frivolous overtones, and is perhaps of diminutive character. Outside Masłowska’s book one will not find a similar phonetic spelling.

This “Dżordż” is derived from the Anglo-American name, which acquires an additional, enriching and conflict-provoking – confrontative sense in the Polish-“Russki” context.

34 The one that is associated e.g. with the works of Honoré de Balzac, the author of The Human Comedy.

35 If it is at all. As I wrote before, by analogy to sonorism (an approach to composition in contemporary music) contemporary art is dominated by the reflection on language itself, and not on the aspects of the world subject to description. Reflection on language, on construction, on imagination as such.

36 In this way the anxiety implied by the word wojna ‘war’ in the titles of the two works becomes a means to express a general, contemporary anxiety and the current existential and political situation.

I began and I will finish this article (in an attempt to deliver a punchline) with a quotation from Andrzej Falkowski: “the respondent’s memory changes so that it becomes more consistent with the information received later” (Andrzej Falkowski, op.cit., p. 119).

And I will allude to Nails’s statement: “Now I know what to say. I am a trained dog.”

The aim of the so-called narratives of memory and of fiction is not the past (nor theory) but the reality and consistency with the present state, (artificial) unification. Memory is subjective. Just like – in this approach – history, it is not in service of the past (including commemorating people and events, in their interest), but of the people who live “here and now”. It is in the service of the present and the future. It is treated instrumentally not only by the “lords of memory” themselves (ideologists, leaders, copywriters, ghost-writers) but also by “average” users of memory, including the memory of crises.

The memory of crises (also economic ones) will changing depending on the individual and general situation and needs, so that as a narrative it can preserve the illusion of coherence “The traces of the events which are experienced will mix, collide, replace one another” (Andrzej Falkowski, op.cit., p. 120).

The present attempt at interpreting both works and the conclusion about its impossibility cannot deviate from the current (non-fictional) situation of the reader and spectator, including the one who is writing these words.

In research into memory, construction of history, typologies of truth, in considerations of cognizability and comparability, one can see a constant opposition of classic and constructionist (relativizing) approaches.

This article, which is developed both in the main text as well as footnotes and written in two different languages, is only an attempt to discuss this opposition. At the same time it is an attempt to speak about crisis narratives and the changing approaches to the possibility of remembering in general.

The end of this footnote may be considered to be the actual ending of my paper, developed in two dimensions, the impressionistic (essayistic) one and the scientific one (in the footnotes), and which also constates similar undecidabilities, and ways of coping with them.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Marta Cobel-Tokarska, Marcin Zaremba

The Emotional Climate in Poland in the 80s: A New Perspective on the Social History of The Polish People’s Republic

20 August 2015
  • Poland
  • 1980s
  • Polish People’s Republic
  • emotions


In this article we address a research problem bordering on sociology and history – the emotional climate in Poland in the 80s in the light of personal documents. We will describe the most important problems connected with the chosen perspective – we intend to apply the achievements of the history of emotions and the sociology of emotions. We will then present the theory of emotional climate by Joseph de Rivera and an untypical source that we are going to use: letters intercepted by censors. Finally we will present a sample of what can be understood from those letters about the emotional climate.


Sociology of Emotions, History of Emotions

“When Catherine Lutz and Geofrey M. White published an article entitled The Anthropology of Emotions in 1986 summing up the last decade of anthropological studies of emotions, the cited works, including mostly by American anthropologists, amounted to 194. Meanwhile, in 1970 the anthropology of emotions was still ‘virtually unknown’ (Reddy in Levy 2001: 34). Nowadays studying emotions, feelings, passions and mental states is conducted by interdisciplinary research facilities such as ‘The Center for the History of Emotions’ in The Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Berlin) or so called research cluster ‘Languages of Emotions’ in Freie Universität Berlin, employing, among others, cultural and social anthropologists. Since 2009, in cooperation with The International Society for Research on Emotion, established in 1984, an interdisciplinary quarterly magazine Emotion Review has been published. (Straczuk, Rajter 2011: 7–8).”

The words above were written by the author of the Polish issue of an anthology of the most important Western texts on social studies of emotions. Their monumental Emotions in culture [Emocje w kulturze], along with other books and magazines present on the Polish market (Czerner, Nieroba 2011; Binder, Palska, Pawlik 2009, Kultura i Społeczeństwo [Culture and Society] 1–2/2006, Societas/Communitas 2/2012 et al.) allow Polish researchers to professionally approach the plane of social emotions, as they are provided with inspiring theories and valuable research tools.

Reflection on the social character of emotions is present in the works of the classical sociological authors: Leon Petrażycki, Georg Simmel, Norbert Elias, Max Weber, Emil Durkheim, Erving Goffman, Harold Garfinkel, Florian Znaniecki, Stanisław Ossowski, but does not constitute a systematic main subject. Since the 1970s there has been a development of the sociology of emotions: a subdiscipline considering emotions to be a key component of social life. Works of authors such as Arlie Hochshild (1983) are a breakthrough leading to the development of a new way of talking about emotions and liberating the subject from the dominance of psychology.

What are the assumptions of the sociology of emotions? First of all the fact that emotions constitute the central element of human experience. Social institutions such as family, church and authority gain power thanks to the emotional engagement of people. Emotions have the power to create bonds and structures. They are social by nature and are evoked by stimuli of a symbolical character. The interactive course of emotions is also a social event. Emotions have structural conditioning, they are connected with the learning process, they can be passed on in a society, differ based on gender, age, education, social class or layer, affiliation with subcultures. They are connected with fulfilling social roles: the actor is expected to show emotions adequate to the models of his or her role.

Social and cultural factors can be found in emotion-triggering elements, the motivational function of emotions, the expression of emotions. The apparent spontaneity of our emotions is usually the cultural form of what was imprinted in us during the process of socialization and what was practiced by us numerous times. The phenomenon of social control can refer to the emotional plane, as emotions can be a tool of inclusion and exclusion, also in the relations between groups.

The culture of emotions is composed of “a set of concepts of what people are supposed to feel in different situations. Components of this culture are the emotional ideologies concerning the adequate attitudes, feelings and emotional reactions in the basic areas of activity” (Turner, Stets 2009: 51). Therefore, the culture encourages us to “manage the emotions” and to do emotion work (Hochschild 1983) to fit its requirements. The emotion work is most visible when the rules of a culture go against our personal beliefs, which is perfectly fitting to researching life in non-democratic systems.

Facilitating the perspective of the sociology of emotions leads to a conflict between the vision of the emotional and the rational human being. The sociology of emotions should not be perceived as an approach competitive to the theories dominating up to now in sociology, such as the theories of rational choice, interest, functional theory, exchange theory... (Pawlik 2012) Human activity can rarely be explained in just one way, it is often surprising, irrational, violent, it can defy reason – therefore the sociology of emotions can explain what is otherwise unexplainable. It can also describe “typical” behaviors showing aspects that are not visible from other perspectives.

Studying emotions can go back to the past, as changes in the content of emotional experiences have a historical character and are a reflection of broader social, cultural and economical changes. The history of emotions develops on a larger scale similarly to the sociology of emotions – from the 1970s. Historians look for emotions in the past to capture the emotional styles characteristic for a given epoch, as seen in the documents. Peter and Carol Stearns (1985), among others, postulate that historians use the theories and notions worked out in this field by social scientists. The area of study for historians can be both individual and collective emotional experiences, as well as the aforementioned culture of emotions. The works of Jean Delumeau or Carlo Ginzburg inspire not only monographs of various aspects of emotional life of the previous centuries, but also interesting theoretical proposals (Reddy 1997, 1999; Rosenwein 2010). The history of emotions is beginning to enter Polish science as well.1 It is worth mentioning that despite the difficulties resulting from temporal distance, historians of emotions focus more on the periods of time more distant than the second half of the 20th century, even though it would seem that a contemporary researcher would be more able to understand the emotions of people living in the 1980s than in The Middle Ages.2 Yet it is hard to present the historiographic output in the scope of social studies of emotions in The Polish People’s Republic.3

Meanwhile, the 1980s in Poland are a very interesting period for a historian and a sociologist of emotions. People experienced unusually strong emotions in the face of important political events and a dynamic situation. At the same time the discourse concerning these emotions was almost absent in the public space. For instance, there was no advertisement market using emotions as the basic element of communication and persuasion; formalized (and censored) state media did not operate like the contemporary tabloids or gossip websites which use emotions for profit. Nowadays every message is “dripping” with emotions, but earlier their expression was regulated by different norms and was permitted mostly in the private space. Moreover, the specificity of social life did not encourage untamed honesty.4 This is why the search for traces of emotions of Poles in the 1980s leads to a specific source: personal documents. However, let us first examine the theory of Joseph de Rivera, which is critical for our research.


Emotional Climate

The as yet unwritten emotional history of People’s Poland would show how political events influence human emotions. Poles were on an emotional rollercoaster after World War II; periods of social optimism and hope were intertwined with weeks of mass depression, the nose-diving of moods. The events of Polish October in 1956 contributed to publicly manifested enthusiasm. Ten years later the feeling of discouragement and dissatisfaction got the better of everybody.

The existing social order generates a specific system of experiences for individuals living within its scope. This system may be called the emotional climate.5 This specific type of emotional habits and reflexes influences human behavior, actions and social interactions; it is in turn influenced by the content of culture and the character of the political and economic regime. A socialist government and an inadequate economy created a specific climate. Narojek determined its most important features to be as follows: the importance of private strategies, informal actions, creating “warm” relations between people and “cold” on the line citizen-state.6 Joseph de Rivera defines emotional climate in a similar manner. It is a category helpful in describing the state of a society, exceeding the individual plane of people’s experiences and showing deeper and more permanent social processes, as it is not possible to check the climate of short outbursts of collective emotions.7

De Rivera distinguished a few types of climate. The Climate of Fear was described in reference to the dictatorships of South America: Argentina, Chile and El Salvador, where the recurring waves of violence were used to obtain and retain power by the military. Fear causes the bonds to weaken, it fosters atomization, increases distrust. People avoid voicing their opinions in a climate of fear. A long-lasting lack of the sense of security may interfere with the moral compass, lead to gradual acceptance of the world-view imposed by the regime, submission, decrease of a tendency for nonconformist behaviors. Its opposition is the Climate of Security which makes people trust each other and eagerly engage in social activities.

The Climate of Insecurity can be observed when people cannot predict what will happen in the immediate future: political or economic. They do not know if their money will retain its value, if there will be products in the shops and therefore which strategies they should adopt.

The Climate of Trust (or optimism) and its antonym: distrust, a dominating sense of pessimism, are treated by the contemporary economy as an important economic indicator. The economy thrives in a climate of trust, conflicts between groups lose significance, optimism among individuals increases along with the tendency to show individual initiative (also towards shopping).

The Climate of Dissatisfaction is created on the basis of relative deprivation: people see the discrepancies between the level of their aspirations and the level of their actual realization and at the same time feel that they have a right to possess what they want. Some level of deprivation is socially acceptable. However, in some situations the differences between the “aspiration curve” and the “needs satisfaction curve” is perceived as unfair. It provokes a feeling of frustration that is reflected by collective defiance and aggressive behaviors. The Climate of Hostility can be defined as another level of the climate of dissatisfaction, when a strong sense of frustration is aimed towards other groups, often ethnic.

The last two types of climate: The Climate of Solidarity and The Climate of Hope. The former is mentioned when “people feel as being a part of something bigger than themselves”. In such a situation they are able to sacrifice themselves for the common good and feel proud of the sacrifice made in its name. Upholding such a climate for more than a few years may require unity in face of a threat, usually external. The Climate of Hope is characterized by a high level of expectations for the future.

The typology presented above is not exclusive. We should rather discuss mixed climates with a given dominant. Differentiation of contemporary societies presents a problem to the research: some groups may feel satisfaction while other are frustrated. These distinct features may stem from local specificity (regions at risk of unemployment). We should also consider the cultural boundaries of a given country and historical experiences of its inhabitants. De Rivera points to emotional culture being superior to the category of climate.


Source Materials

The Centre for Public Opinion Research has monitored the level of optimism in Poland since the 1960s. However, the quantitative research is not able to precisely describe collective emotions. This is why we have to refer to other types of sources to recreate the emotional history of the People’s Republic of Poland. One of those sources are the reports of the Bureau “W” [Biuro “W”] based on the monitoring of the private correspondence of Poles.

Private letters had been read since the end of 1944, when the Military Department of Censorship within the Department of Public Safety was created. In April 1955 the Committee for Public Safety created Bureau “W” which was in twenty years transformed through administrative reform into “W” Departments in 38 voivodships. Under martial law, Bureau “W” was transformed into the Main Office of Censorship. Besides being used for typical operational objectives, the letters were used to analyze public mood. Those deemed interesting by the censors were cited and later gathered in special reports. It is hard to recognize this as a representative source, even considering the considerable amount of correspondence processed in this manner. Those are, however, private letters written without awareness of the interference of censorship, so we can assume them to be a more authentic sample of human emotions than, e.g. letters sent to the press or to the radio.

Most of the information of Bureau “W” was destroyed. It was possible to find only reports from the voivodship Offices of Censorship from Biała Podlaska and Wałbrzych. From the second half of the 1980s the whole collection of information with extracts from the letters attached therein has survived. The first reports are from January 1987 and the last – from April 1989.8


Climates of the 1980s – a chronological review

Political fear became a base of the system of power in the People’s Republic of Poland. It influenced people’s behavior, encouraged passive acceptance and non-participation in public life. “Government by fear” weakened medium level bonds as the importance of family and friends grew. Having a group of friends increased the sense of security in both the psychological and very “practical” aspects of life.9 People trusted their family and friends, relations with others were burdened by distrust. The authorities were especially untrustworthy; they could, at any given moment and without public consultation: change the currency, introduce price rises, impose new regulations making people’s lives harder. It was also easy to lose access to scarce goods, and a secure position in the hierarchy. This is why the importance of “deals” and “buddy system” grew, as they gave a sense of security and control over reality.10

However, not every aspect of life in People’s Republic of Poland should be perceived through the prism of fear. It was heavily noticeable in 1944–1947 and it peaked during the Stalinist times. It softened during the Polish thaw to remain mostly only in the memory of society after October 1956. The fear redoubled during the first months of martial law.11 13th December 1981 came as a shock. The tanks, fears and a vision of the leaders of “Solidarity” either murdered or exiled to Russia made people terrified. When the news of the first victims, miners from the “Wujek” mine became known to the public, fear and terror reached their peak levels. The highest level of fear lingered until the end of December. When it turned out that the people warming themselves around braziers were “ours”, and not Russians dressed in Polish uniforms, and when the repression turned out to be relatively moderate, both appeasement and anger appeared.

The opinions of people sympathizing with “Solidarity” were expressed in a more blatant manner. Martial law deepened the gap between the supporters of the regime and its opponents, it created a wall which seemed insuperable. The pronoun “them” became a common way of addressing the authorities. A letter from Ząbkowice Śląskie (21.12):

[...] pigs, scumbags, scoundrels, thugs, murderers, Gestapo officers or even worse, but I have no other words – how can a Pole kill a Pole in their own motherland? But those are the reds, and they can cook up all the worst things a mind can create.12

The general mood was heated at that moment and the memory of the underground army’s actions in the cities of Spain, Germany and Italy was still fresh. Ideas of terrorist actions against the regime united small groups of youths in Wrocław and Warsaw. A writer from Police, a town in Pomerania, sent a recipe for a bomb to his friend:

In Belfast they plant bombs, for example. Just in case, here is a recipe: sulfur 30 % – sublimated sulfur, carbon 30 % – gastric afflictions /in a pharmacy/, nitrate 40 % – or “Condy’s crystals”. That is all from me from now. In the next letter, if you wish, I can give you a detailed description of the technological process of making home-made moonshine. The equipment has to be lifted from a school.13

“War fear” significantly weakened the inclination to non-conformist behavior which arose in 1980–1981. This is why the Solidarity underground did not manage to carry out an all-out Poland-wide strike. After the brutal pacification of demonstrations by the militia on 3rd May and 31st August 1982, people grew less eager to manifest their views in the streets. Parents wrote to their daughter:

Małgosia, we heard that there was unrest in Lublin again. Remember, don’t get involved in anything, don’t let anybody talk you into anything, use your own judgment. Our and your aim is for you to finish your studies. Let this goal be imperative in your every action.14

On the other hand, the sense of danger lead to accepting the vision of conflict imposed by the regime. The first Poland‑wide opinion poll on martial law conducted by The Centre of Public Opinion Research in February 1982 showed that 69 % of the interviewees recognized the decision to introduce martial law to be justified and 20 % – to be unjustified.15 In subsequent polls, as pointed out by the sociologist Antoni Sułek, there was a rapid decline in the amount of people admitting former affiliation with Solidarity.16

To some Poles the introduction of martial law was a relief as it ended the period of uncertainty connected with the strikes and the tormenting question: “Will they come or not?” Some presented authoritarian views: respect for the authority, idealization of order, hostility towards any “troublemakers”. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the factors predestining lower classes to authoritarian rules is a relative lack of economic and psychological security.16

Jan from Terespol wrote:

I am full of appreciation for WRON and the leader general. He introduced long awaited peace and order. This is the end for anarchists and the enemies of socialism.18

The beginning of 1982 came with the rapid impoverishment of Poles. 1st February brought the highest single increase of prices in the history of the Polish People’s Republic: food prices rose by 241 %, heating and power prices by 171 %. Ration cards for meat were introduced on 28th February. Immediate repression (fear, job loss) affected a relatively small part of society during the period of martial law, but everybody felt the burden of price rises.

A letter by a retiree from Wałbrzych:

I think our government has gone mad, because prices for anything available were increased by 250 – 400 % or even more. And our pension remained at 4800 PLN for two sick people. What can we buy in this situation? I am supposed to like and support our government which simply makes me die of starvation and poverty.

In spring 1982 the supply slightly improved, people were able to buy cheese, butter and eggs.19 But there still was not enough of some things – domestic appliances, furniture, curtains, toilet paper, household chemicals, clothes. Uncertainty connected with the supply, “will they make it available it or not”, whetted the atmosphere of panic, one of the most important symptoms of the emotional climate of that time.

The climate of uncertainty made people employ various strategies. They mostly stored things. They stockpiled of soap, toilet paper, flour and sugar in cupboards and basements. Cautious homemakers made jam and preserves; they pickled cucumbers, paprika, mushrooms. Big Soviet freezers became popular, as they could store meat. People hoarded gold and foreign currency “for a rainy day”. To get scarce goods and also secure “equitable” care in hospitals and “buddy systems”, networks and contacts were strengthened.

People depended on their families above all. Their members were sent as scouts to scour the area or to stand in line and get scarce goods. Retreat to the family realm also stemmed from the fact that the outside world after the 13th December became, if not hostile, at least uncongenial. At the beginning of martial law military commissioners appeared in workplaces and imposed often absurd norms of work discipline. Workplaces were reorganized, there were staff reshufflings, Solidarity activists were laid off. Increases in prices meant that work ceased to have material benefits, and its other benefits faded in an atmosphere of suspicion and no prospects.

After a few years, the fear gradually decreased. The communist government did not use the most drastic methods, those so eagerly practiced by military regimes in South America: they did not go as far as mass genocide, did not kidnap children or employ torture. Poland also did not experience intervention by the USSR. After martial law was introduced, there was no mass emigration of the elites, as was previously the case in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Poles did not feel abandoned like their neighbors did in 1956 and 1968 – they had their Pope. Moreover, a new generation of youth entered public life in the 1980s and had their own ways of rebelling20. People were gradually coming to terms with the situation. The authorities became ridiculous. The fear was defused by laughter. A sense of grotesque paranoia appeared. Simultaneously, the authorities gradually stopped using force in situations that would be previously resolved with violence. A man from Głogów wrote in August 1988:

On Sunday 31.07 we went to Holy Mass, after which a group of 30 people was formed and marched from one church to another through the streets of Głogów. During the march people sang “Boże coś Polskę...” [translator’s note: a religious and nationalist song], “Ojczyzno Ma” [tn: a patriotic song] and, while passing the barracks of the Polish Army, “Legiony” [tn: “We Are the First Brigade” – a soldiers’ song]. On one of the streets the march was photographed by a tourist from West Germany and the participants of the march raised their hands showing victory signs. We were all surprised that the Citizens’ Militia did not intervene. People were interested in the march, they stopped in the streets and watched it from their windows.21

From the mid-1980s the sense of fear was replaced by a pervasive sense of absurdity.22 A similar state was observed in Poland by the end of Gomułka’s term of office. However, by the end of Jaruzelski’s term of office the sense of absurdity spread, and had a much wider scope, causing the whole system to be treated as unnatural and absurd. It can be said that a new climate was born: a mixture of boredom, absurdity and despair.

This climate was shaped as an effect of everyday experience. First of all: boredom and a feeling of no sense in doing one’s job. Correspondents pointed to bad work organization and hidden unemployment, i.e. hiring anybody. The letters cited below were written in January 1987.

I started a new job on the 1st. Now I sit in an office and I’m an inspector of trade. I know nothing about it. For now I’m just sitting around and getting bored.
I have perfect conditions to think about pleasant things and write a letter at work. My ladies are not here because either they or their children are sick. I already had time to gossip, put on make-up and, most importantly, take out papers to keep up appearances.23

The authors of the letters have a “better”, specialized office job and higher job qualifications (secondary or higher education). “Those were the qualities which, on one hand, fostered a higher level of aspirations and on the other – expanded the scope of entanglement and dependence on the statecontrolled system of institutions, combining the individuals’ beginning of independent life with the period of the deepest crisis. (...) A disproportion between aspirations involving a vision of normal life with the possibilities of realizing their aspirations as offered by the system was especially noticeable for this category of people”.24

Aside from the already well described hardships of the economy of scarcity (queues, shortage of essential supplies),25 inflation proved to be onerous. Constantly rising prices crushed dreams of financial stability, a fair standard of living, a happy retirement. It made work lose its previous meaning. Especially when comparing one’s income with the earnings of workers in the private sector or those who worked in capitalist countries even for a short time. Hundreds of letters describe how Poles were fed up with inflation and how they lost hope for an improvement in the situation. An example form June 1988 (Zielona Góra):

When will we be able to finally live like normal people in other countries? We only get rising prices, the worst of which are the unofficial ones nobody talks about. Since February some products have gotten more expensive a few times already. There is no chance for a better living situation.26

This devouring sense of absurdity stemmed from the omnipresent People’s Republic of Poland’s coarseness as well. The clash of civilization collapse with the western world’s information technology revolution was painful. This feeling was perfectly conveyed by the author of one of the letters (Kędzierzyn-Koźle, mid-January 1987):

I am heartbroken and I see no point in doing anything. Our firm is making financial losses and the facility I work at is in a deplorable technical state. People generally do not do their job, there are incidents like theft, drinking at work. This is the way our socialist reality looks. To recap, we can say that the situation in our kolkhoz is a miniature image of what is happening in our country. One gets a sense that everything goes on because of some momentum with no control.27

An atmosphere of discontent had been mounting in Poland since the end of 1987, which was later manifested in strikes beginning in the middle of the next year. However, from Autumn 1988 the letters started to show the first signs of optimism. An improvement in the emotional climate was caused by information from the Soviet Union about perestroika. Some hopes were connected with the new government of Mieczysław F. Rakowski and the fact that the authorities gave permission for a television debate between Lech Wałęsa and Alfred Miodowicz, the chairman of the regime’s trade unions OPZZ [All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions].

Evolution towards a more optimistic climate caused people to organize themselves on political, educational and cultural fronts. Therefore the genesis of the Big Change in 1989 resulted from the change in people’s feelings and mind-sets: decline of social fear, anger and rage caused by the prolonged crisis and hope that change was possible.



Researching emotions in a historical perspective is subject to high risk. It is so primarily because of the specificity of the research – on one hand, emotions are something intangible that cannot always be recorded. On the other hand, they more strictly require proper recognition of the context in which they should be interpreted than “cold facts”. There are numerous difficulties: because of the fact that this subject was for many years exclusive to psychology and social psychology, historians find themselves having trouble with terminology and naming the object of the study. There is still a shortage of proper tools, even when considering the most recent history. When we facilitate the method of biographical interviews, oral history, emotions from the old days are recreated in retrospect and therefore they may not be well remembered, or distorted, hidden from the researcher and rationalized, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects.

Studying the existing materials, including personal documents such as letters written by authors not suspecting that anybody other than the addressee would read them, seems to be a safer choice. However, those letters are not a simple “stream of consciousness”. They are an act of communication, contact with another human being, to whom the sender may also not wish to reveal all their emotions. A social contract is important as well: standards for writing letters, describing experiences, an accepted level of unveiling of oneself, as well as the self-awareness of the writer – all these factors condition the effect of studying emotions on the basis of letters. One has to read them carefully, as the subject of emotions often appears in passing and is not necessarily an autonomous subject. An ability to transfer an individual perspective into the collective one and to generalize without simplifying is important as well.

It is worth making this effort not only to understand an earlier era. We often forget that emotions make for a very important component of collective memory (Kaźmierska 2011), and even if their actual causes have been long gone they – in a transformed shape – still influence our collective life. The aforementioned fear, discontent, boredom, sense of absurdity and the emptiness in the public sphere did not disappear from the collective consciousness in 1989. We still observe it in the fact that a great number of Poles retreated from the public life into private, family life. Currently diagnosed problems of Polish society: a low level of social trust, reluctance to build civil society, inclination to aggression and “hate speech” present mostly in Internet discourse, and even low turnout at the elections are deeply rooted in emotions. Some researchers have already use the tools of psychoanalysis to decipher hidden patterns of passing down traumas and psychological scripts (Leder 2014). The authors of this article believe that by understanding the emotions of Poles from the 1980s, we will be able to better understand contemporary Poland.


Marta Cobel-Tokarska. Works at the Sociology of Culture Department at the Academy of Special Education. She is interested in the idea of Central Europe (its representation in literature, culture and accounts of travellers) and the social history of the Polish People’s Republic. Her book “Bezludna wyspa, nora, grób. Wojenne kryjówki Żydów w okupowanej Polsce” (“Desert Island, Burrow, Grave. Hiding Places of Jews in Occupied Poland during the War”), was awarded the KLIO Prize for the best historical monograph of 2013 and was nominated for the Historical Award of the weekly magazine “Polityka.”

Marcin Zaremba. Historian and sociologist, lecturer at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw. Research interests: the social history of the Polish People’s Republic of Poland. His recent publications include: “Wielka Trwoga. Polska 1944–1947. Ludowa reakcja na kryzys” (“The Great Fear. Poland of 1944–1947. The People’s Reaction to Crisis”). He is a regular contributor to the weekly magazine “Polityka,” to “Newsweek” and “Tygodnik Powszechny.”



1 e.g. The Polish Academy of Sciences and University of Warsaw support a series of conferences entitled Uczucia i emocje w refleksji nauk historycznych [Feelings and emotions in reflection of historical science] (http://uczucia.wordpress.com)

2 See also e.g.: Andrzej Wyrobisz, “Wielki strach w Wenecji i we Florencji w XV wieku i jego możliwe przyczyny,” Przegląd Historyczny 4 (2004), pp. 457–466; Zbigniew M. Osiński, Lęk w kulturze społeczeństwa polskiego w XVI–XVII wieku (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo DiG, 2009); Michał Tymowski, “Strach i odwaga w czasie pierwszych europejskich do Afrykiw XV w.,” Przegląd Historyczny 3 (2006), pp. 333–346; Artur Markowski, “Lęki i dylematy rodziny żydowskiej w strefie osiedlenia w połowie XIX w. – przykład Nowogródka,” Przegląd Historyczny 4 (2012), pp. 775–798.

3 Anna Giza-Poleszczuk, “Trywialność ludzkich niedoli w socjalistycznym welfare state,” in Winicjusz Narojek (ed.), Jednostka wobec sytemu. Antropologia trwania i zmiany (Warsaw: IFiS PAN, 1996), p. 149.

4 See Janine Wedel, Prywatna Polska (Warsaw: Trio, 2007).

5 Winicjusz Narojek, “Klimat stosunków międzyludzkich (Analiza antropologiczna),” Studia Socjologiczne 3 (1977), pp. 179–196.

6 Winicjusz Narojek, Socjalistyczne “welfare state” (Warsaw: PWN, 1991).

7 Joseph de Rivera, “Emotional Climate: Social Structure and Emotional Dynamics,” International Review of Studies on Emotion 2 (1992), pp. 197–218.

8Finding an incorrectly catalogued file in the archives of Institute of National Remembrance verges on the impossible. It was found by Professor Andrzej Paczkowski, for which I would like to thank him sincerely.

9 Stefan Nowak, “System wartości społeczeństwa polskiego,” Studia Socjologiczne 4 (1979), p. 158.

10 Ibid., p. 159.

11 For more information see: Andrzej Paczkowski, Wojna polsko-jaruzelska. Stan wojenny w Polsce 13 XII 1981 – 22 VII 1983 (Warsaw: Prószyński, 2006); Ireneusz Krzemiński, „Mniejsze zło czy zamordowanie polskich nadziei? Społeczne skutki wprowadzenia stanu wojennego,” in Paweł Piotrowski (ed.), Wokół “mniejszego zła”. Stan wojenny w Polsce (Wrocław: IPN, 2010).

12 Archiwum Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej Wr 052/28, k. 49, 28 XII 1981 r.

13 AIPN Wr 052/27, k. 101, Informacja nr 12/82, Wałbrzych, 29 III 1982 r.

14 AIPN Lu 0179/275 t. 10, k. 73, 17 V 1982 r., a descriptive information including the whole of information connected with the functioning of Voivodship’s Office of Censorship in Biała Podlaska.

15 Antoni Sułek, Ogród metodologii socjologicznej (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, 2002), p. 69.

16 Antoni Sułek, Sondaż polski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN, 2001) pp. 128–131.

17 Seymour Martin Lipset, Homo politicus. Społeczne podstawy polityki (Warsaw: PWN, 1995), p. 119.

18 A document catalogued /AIPN Lu 0179/275 t. 10, k. 41, 25 I 1982/, a problematic piece of information including all the information connected with the functioning of the Voivodship Office of Censorship in Biała Podlaska.

19 On everyday life under martial law: Wojciech Markiewicz, “Kartki, oporniki, bimber,” Polityka December 22/29, 2001.

20 More on the subject: Marek Wierzbicki, Ostatni bunt. Młodzieżowa opozycja polityczna u schyłku PRL 1980–1990. Fakty, konteksty, interpretacje, IPN (Lublin-Warsaw: ISP PAN, 2013).

21 A document catalogued /AIPN 0449/54 t. 4, k. 86, 18 VIII 1988/, a collection of interesting commentaries and opinions, an attachment to information on attitudes and moods created on the basis of documents of “W”.

22 Mirosława Marody, Długi finał (Warsaw: WSiP, 1995), p. 54; Mirosława Marody, Jednostka w systemie..., (Warsaw: WSiP, 1995), pp. 221–226.

23 AIPN 0449/54 t. 4, k. 360–363/, a collection of characteristic statements noted down during monitoring of “W” from 2nd to 17th January 1987, an addendum to information on social attitudes and moods.

24 Mirosława Marody, Długi finał, p. 55.

25 See also: Małgorzata Mazurek, Społeczeństwo kolejki. O doświadczeniach niedoboru 1945–1989 (Warsaw: Trio, 2010); Jacek Kurczewski (ed.), Umowa o kartki, (Warsaw: Trio, 2004).

26 A document catalogued /AIPN 0449/54 t. 4, k. 97./, a collection of interesting commentaries and opinions, an attachment to information on attitudes and moods created on the basis of documents of “W”.

27 AIPN 0449/54 t. 4, k. 345/, a collection of characteristic statements noted down during monitoring of “W” from 19th to 31st January 1987, an addendum to information on social attitudes and moods.


List of References

Binder, Piotr, Hanna Palska and Wojciech Pawlik (2009) Emocje a kultura i życie społeczne (Warszawa: IFiS).

Bojar, Hanna (1991) “Rodzina i życie społeczne, Co nam zostało z tych lat... Społeczeństwo polskie u progu zmiany systemowej,” Aneks (London), pp. 28–68.

Czerner, Anna and Elżbieta Nieroba (eds) (2012) Studia z socjologii emocji (Opole: Uniwersytet Opolski).

Giza-Poleszczuk, Anna (1996) “Trywialność ludzkich niedoli w socjalistycznym welfare state,” in Winicjusz Narojek (ed.) Jednostka wobec systemu. Antropologia trwania i zmiany (Warsaw: IFiS PAN).

Hochschild, Arlie Russel (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (The University of California Press).

Kaźmierska, Kaja (2012) „Pamięć biograficzna i zbiorowa a emocje,” in Anna Czerner, Elżbieta Nieroba (ed.) Studia z socjologii emocji (Opole: Uniwersytet Opolski).

Koralewicz, Jadwiga and Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński (1987) “Życie rodzinne, towarzyskie i publiczne. Wartości i deprywacje,” in Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński (ed.) Nierówności i upośledzenia w świadomości społecznej: raport z badania Nierówności społeczne, poczucie więzi, wiara w siebie (Warsaw: IFiS PAN).

Krzemiński, Ireneusz (2010) “Mniejsze zło czy zamordowanie polskich nadziei? Społeczne skutki wprowadzenia stanu wojennego,” in Paweł Piotrowski Wokół „mniejszego zła”. Stan wojenny w Polsce (Wrocław: IPN, 2010).

Kurczewski, Jacek (ed.) (2004) Umowa o kartki (Warsaw: Trio).

Leder, Andrzej (2014) Prześniona rewolucja (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej).

Lipset, Seymour Martin (1995) Homo politicus. Społeczne podstawy polityki (Warsaw: PWN), p. 119.

Markiewicz, Wojciech (2001) “Kartki, oporniki, bimber,” Polityka December 22/29.

Marody, Mirosława (1991) “Jednostka w systemie realnego socjalizmu”, Aneks (London), p. 237.

Marody, Mirosława (1995) Długi finał (Warsaw: WSiP).

Mazurek, Małgorzata (2010) Społeczeństwo kolejki. O doświadczeniach niedoboru 1945–1989 (Warsaw: Trio).

Nowak, Stefan (1979) “System wartości społeczeństwa polskiego,” Studia Socjologiczne 4.

Paczkowski, Andrzej (2006) Wojna polsko-jaruzelska. Stan wojenny w Polsce 13 XII 1981 – 22 VII 1983 (Warsaw: Prószyński).

Reddy, William M. (1997) “Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions,” Current Anthropology 38, pp. 327–351.

Reddy, William M. (1999) “Emotional Liberty: Politics and History in the Anthropology of Emotions,” Cultural Anthropology 14, pp. 256–288.

Reddy, William M. (2001) The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge University Press).

Rosenwein, Barbara H. (2010) “Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions,” Passions in Context I 1.

Smolar, Aleksander (2009) “Towards ‘Self-limiting Revolution’: Poland 1970–89,” in Civil Resistance and Power Politics. The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford University Press), p. 129.

Stearns, Peter N. and Carol Z. Stearns (1985) “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” The American Historical Review Vol. 90, 4, pp. 813–836.

Straczuk, Justyna and Małgorzata Rajtar (eds) (2011) Emocje w kulturze (Warsaw: WUW).

Sułek, Antoni (2001) Sondaż polski, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN).

Sułek, Antoni (2002) Ogród metodologii socjologicznej (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar).

Tarkowska Elżbieta and Jacek Tarkowski (1994) “Amoralny familizm czyli o dezintegracji społecznej w Polsce lat osiemdziesiątych,” in Jacek Tarkowski (ed.) Socjologia świata polityki. Władza i społeczeństwo w systemie autorytarnym (Warsaw: ISP PAN), vol.1, pp. 263–282.

Wierzbicki, Marek (2013) Ostatni bunt. Młodzieżowa opozycja polityczna u schyłku PRL 1980– 1990. Fakty, konteksty, interpretacje, IPN (Lublin-Warsaw ISP PAN).


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Christian Wevelsiep

The emergence of the modern consciousness of crisis

20 August 2015
  • crisis
  • modernity
  • politics
  • economy
  • religion


The reflection in the article revolves around the following thesis: as crisis phenomena of the past can be differentiated and compared, the possibility of such a comparison is linked to a specific consciousness. This consciousness can be referred to as the modern consciousness of crisis. The article will discuss the emergence of the modern consciousness of crisis, its historical conditions as well as its main characteristics. The focus will be on defining this relationship, while keeping a certain distance to historicization by default. Even though historicist comparative analyses seem reasonable, they have to be carried out with specific historical meaning criteria in mind. In all times people probably experienced collective fears and anxieties related to crisis. However, those fears and anxieties were, obviously, anchored in various conceptions of order, which had a spatial, temporal, transcendental or political origin. Therefore, the analysis of the modern consciousness of crisis will comprise the following dimensions: the categories of time and space (1), the replacement or reinforcement of religious, salvation-historical or cosmological worldviews (2) and the dimensions of the political ability to act (3).


1. Introduction

Ever since people began to think, crises have ruled the world. At nearly all times there have been attempts to avert imminent decline, near or distant disaster. Modern and contemporary history is also shaped by diverse crisis experiences and impositions. In 2007, climate change was considered a central topic in the public discourse – until it was replaced by the financial and economic crisis. This brought up old and new questions and doubts about current growth models. Although discussions and critical reflections about current crises may appear to a concerned observer as very topical and therefore urgent, historical references are not as unambiguous as one may think. Economic crises are, just as other forms of crisis, often discussed in their historical context. In this way, world economic crises gain their historical ‘meaning’ when compared to the crises of past times. Let us just think about the beginning of the Wall Street Crash on Black Tuesday in 1929, which triggered the Great Depression within a short period of time. The crisis had very serious consequences: it caused the seemingly deepest structural collapse in the history of Western industrial capitalism – an unprecedented failure, which affected especially Germany and, as we well know, led to a general depression and the rise of nationalist, chauvinist and social Darwinist ideas.

However, a historical comparison that we may try to draw and use to avert current social disasters will not be very effective here. Another question seems more interesting, i.e. we may compare and contrast crisis phenomena of the past, but the very possibility of such comparative analyses is connected with a specific consciousness. This consciousness can be referred to as the modern consciousness of crisis (das neuzeitliche / moderne Krisenbewusstsein) and is the focus of this article. Simply put, the text will discuss the emergence of the modern consciousness of crisis, its historical conditions and main characteristics. This consciousness of crisis should be understood as part of the modern man’s relationship to himself and to the world. In the paper, there will be an attempt to define this relationship, while at the same time keeping a certain distance to, frequently default, historicization. Admittedly, historicist comparative analyses are sensible but they have to be carried out with specific historical meaning criteria and realms of experience in mind. In all times people probably experienced collective fears and anxieties related to crisis. However, those fears and anxieties were, obviously, anchored in various conceptions of order, which had a spatial, temporal, transcendental or political origin. What ‘we’ understand as ‘the modern consciousness of crisis’, can be therefore divided into the following dimensions: the categories of time and space in the horizon of the modern age, the replacement or reinforcement of religious, salvation-historical or cosmological worldviews and, not least, the dimensions of the political ability to act.


2. Time and space in the modern age

From the point of view of contemporary history, one that includes crises, upheavals and violent events, the notion of modernity is disputable. On the surface, a social and political goal may be formulated. If we understand modernization as an ongoing process that is based on specific basic processes and aimed at economic growth, structural differentiation, value shift, mobilization, participation and the institutionalization of conflicts, such an approach will probably not be questioned. In this sense, the process of expanding autonomous fields of action as well as the differentiation of ‘value spheres’ such as law, religion, economy and politics take place on the ground of new institutions, which allow for political communitization. However, what one may describe as a typically modern pattern in a certain period of time in Western Europe does not have to be understood in the same way in other regions or societies. Modernization, seen as a normative project that promotes mass democratic and welfare-oriented developments and too quickly leads to rationalization, economic growth and secularization, is not subject to any unilinear development logic. On the contrary, it has to involve detours. The beginning of the modern age cannot be ‘enacted’, and there is no master plan in the logic of modernization. In societies experiencing the dynamics of modernization, the old meets the new, traditions mix with innovations, there is a blend, a ‘collaboration’, a ‘creeping mutation’ going on.1 Therefore, while entering the semantic field of modernization, one can also aim at something that is not based on the (Western) European history of rationalization. A ‘beginning’ or an ‘awakening’ can be seen as an attempt to bring the history and the present closer together, to accept the past, learn from it and use it to strengthen one’s identity.2 In the following, we will reflect on how such a concept of learning may be relevant to the particular case of the modern consciousness of crisis. Furthermore, we will discuss how the ambivalences and dissonances of the modern are reflected in society.3 Normatively speaking, bridges into the modern should be built, but at the same time, while thinking about visions of the future and expectations, one should not forget the unpredictability and contradictions of each modernization. The political events of the present show in all urgency how fragile developing societies are and how fast the course of history can be swept away because of people’s interests, wishes and hopes. Let me provide you with just one example: the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014. It was not clear whether it actually had the characteristics of a revolution. The euphoria over its supposed victory did not last long, as we know. It died out in the clouds of smoke from incendiary materials and burning cars, among the masked people with cobblestones and stun grenades that shaped Maidan Nezalezhnosti in the recent past. Hope, attached to once revolutionary moods, gave way to disillusionment. After the peaceful revolution, the policy of violence returned. This political reality means that hundreds of people were killed – as protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square, soldiers of the Ukrainian army in the war in the East or unknown combatants of ‘New Russia’.

This brief look at the perplexing presence of crisis highlights the importance of the reflections presented below. The pragmatic bridges into the modern, which could be a basis for an ‘awakening’, are very fragile. From a theoretical point of view, one could contribute with cautious remarks and reflections about the interpenetration of social change and persisting visions of order, the coexistence of democratic hopes for the future and emerging crises. Such remarks should also address the problems of historical and political identity. The goal of the reflections cannot be to formulate a convincing concept but only to point to problems and dissonances of the historical and political construction of meaning.



As a modern observer will soon realize, the categories of time and space play a fundamental role in the context of historical perceptions of crisis. While discussing historical events, precise time and space indications should be provided. For the learning process in historical research, it is crucial and indispensable to situate the events in time and space, but we have to bear in mind that our current understanding of reality and everyday phenomena has been shaped by patterns characteristic of a given time and space.4 However, the seemingly self-evident approach to space and time has its own historical past, too. In the premodern age, most people had limited possibilities to acquire universal and comprehensive categories of space and time. The knowledge of the world’s horizon developed little by little. It is not until the 18th century that we can speak of an all-embracing spatiotemporal perspective in the modern European world. The invention of chronological and geographical instruments was an external factor. The internal aspects of the developments may have been more complex, as they included the relationship of our consciousness to things, as well as spatial and temporal relationships between events and the material world. Ascribing cultural meanings to spatial and temporal distances played a special role here. The modern construction of the world cannot be complete without defining empty times and empty spaces.5 What Lucian Hölscher points out here, applies first and foremost to the (im)possibilities of comprehending the perceptions of space and time in the early and high Middle Ages. The way medieval people thought and felt about space and time will always remain to some extent foreign. Time and space were not homogenous categories. They did not reach into infinity. They were concise and “in a way, they clung to things and processes that they measured.” All of that is so difficult to comprehend today because for the modern man, the human perception of the world with space and time as endless and independent quantities has become self-evident, especially in view of impending crisis scenarios and the idea of a manageable future. The process of dismissing premodern ideas of time and space brings autonomy. However, this results in other problems and uncertainties. These include, most importantly, the perception of time, which in a modern sense is no longer seen as the simple postponing of a predefined end of the world. The certainty that it is not the return of Christ that comes at the end of time but ‘only’ an empty futurity can be seen as the burden of modern times. Therefore, it is worth asking here what the typical modern conceptions of the future are and on what unspoken assumptions are they based. Some conceptions of the future are generally considered as determining factors in political decision-making processes. They range from ideas typical of particular social groups to scientific prognostic models and concrete political visions: a broad spectrum, which can only be mentioned here. These predictions rarely come true. However, this does not mean they have no historical relevance. On the contrary, their historiographic value manifests itself in the tensions between conceivable alternatives, expected or probable consequences and mere factuality. This has been exemplified in Marxist visions of the future, which predicted that a social model would come to an end. It can also be seen in various literary future scenarios and bizarre utopias, created in the late 19th century.6

However, the development of homogenous spatiotemporal dimensions, which was a decisive turning point, draws attention to the crucial relationship between the available knowledge of the future and the possible actions to be taken in it. The modern consciousness of crisis, which is the topic of the article at hand, is directly linked to the realization that the need for reliable social prognoses in society has dramatically increased since the 18th century. Slow developments in the earlier and premodern times gave way to today’s immense acceleration and dynamics. Technological, social and political breakthroughs have led in the modern age to an enormous need for action, a need that stimulates political programs. Its historical relevance results from the specific approach taken today to a supposedly manageable future. The typically modern concept of the future, which excludes fateful developments whenever possible, seems to be a “self-evident possession of every modern society.”7 However, its self-evident nature fades away when one takes a look at specific transcendental, religious and political premises that historical concepts of movement are based on. If we make an attempt at comparing a typically premodern with a typically modern consciousness of a particular future time period, we will see considerable differences in the understanding of the concept of ‘future’ in general. In a virtual conversation with an educated Central European from the 17th century, the idea of disregarding divine plans of salvation would be, for instance, just as strange as the thought of a humanly possible, manageable future. The political scope of action that opens up in the modern age points in this respect to a religious and, to some extent, cosmological dimension.


3. The religious-cosmological dimension

Crisis scenarios in all social domains of human life reflect historical periods, with different ways of coping and forms of consciousness. How did people in the premodern world deal with precarious living conditions, limited food and supplies, existential insecurity and threats? In this context we often refer to words such as process, development and progress. However, we can also find various religious and salvation-historical frameworks that cannot be reduced merely to those historical concepts of movement. Various examples from various temporal layers (Zeitschichten) convey diverse concepts of the future, which can hardly be reduced to the dualism of modernity and premodernity.

A case of the Frankish state ruled by Charlemagne can be cited as the first example.8 There, a defeat inflicted by Basks on Franks in the Pyrenees was taken advantage of by the Saxon troops, which attacked the other side of the country. The Saxons penetrated to the Rhine. They plundered, devastated and burned estates and settlements, moving southwards to the Moselle. The whole country had to deal with fragility and a threat to security, as we would call it today. The impending famine, depicted in the relevant annals from 778/79, seemed inevitable. Here one may ask the question whether in such a situation some kind of need for political action that would alleviate human misery had already been identified. As Patzold emphasizes, an interesting mixture of quasi-‘state’ and religious ways of coping did emerge.9 In March 779 bishops, abbots, counts and other influential men gathered in Héristal near Liège, invited by Charlemagne to discuss this precarious situation. As a result, two seminal texts were written, which are pivotal to our understanding of future horizons at that time. The first text was devoted to fundamental structural changes and the organization of the state, including the relations between metropolitans and suffragans and the prohibition of guilds. The second text referred more directly to the impending famine. Charlemagne’s advisers formulated immediate measures to be taken in the face of crisis.10

To what extent can that approach to action and to the future be seen as ‘rational’ from the modern perspective? The difference between long-term, sustainable structural measures and interventions aimed directly at providing protection and limiting people’s suffering is known in contemporary politics, too. However, the analogy supposed here is disputable. We should namely ask what measures were in fact taken in the early Middle Ages. These included ordaining the number of Masses to be celebrated and the number of psalms to be sung, ordering how long the high and mighty should fast and how much alms they should give. Dividing people into the powerful and stronger on one hand and ‘lesser’ ones on the other should not come as a surprise in a hierarchical and stratified society. The text mentions the clergy and counts, divided into a number of classes. “The counts do not have to pray. They must however provide money or pay in kind. The king’s vassals should also provide money, the exact sum depending on the number of their subordinates who have their own land. The laypeople should, just as the clergy, provide for four poor people, as long as they are able to do that, or for fewer people, depending on their capabilities.”11 Based on these words, we could say that official measures were taken in order to prevent people from suffering. Within the scope of possibilities, they were reasonable, e.g. the possibility of introducing an ‘alms regulation’. However, one thing should not be overlooked here: the structure of the text is actually different from what we would expect today. The text does not start with a description of deficiencies or material needs that indicate a humanitarian catastrophe. It aims neither at assessing demand-related regional differences nor at providing rational estimates of the extent to which people would need food supplies. Instead of discussing a real demand, the text focuses on some form of religious ethics of conviction (religiöse Gesinnungsethik): the attitude of the addressed people and the principles of religious honesty. This means that the regulations were not meant to organize a distribution of vital resources according to modern principles. They were not aimed at “the stomachs of starving people”12 but at ensuring the grace of the almighty God. It is the hope that God would ‘take care’ of the Franks’ fate and would create the conditions needed for good harvest and sufficient food that dominates in the text. These, if you like, ‘political measures’ were rather secondary and can hardly be compared with the criteria of modern state security. For a medievalist, this assessment will come as no surprise. The consciousness of crisis that finds expression here results from people’s particular approach to body and soul. The modern approach to safety and security is aimed primary at ensuring people’s physical integrity, while the premodern approach did not necessarily prioritize physical survival and well-being. On the contrary, it put spiritual well-being above anything else.

Let us have a look at another example of the semantic development of a premodern consciousness of crisis. In the early modern age in the 17th century, the perception of crisis was, as we well know, also imbued with religious and cosmological ways of coping. The question of people’s mental and emotional reaction to the syndromes of violence, starvation and sickness, which had a huge impact on their lives, has been addressed by researchers from many different perspectives.13 For a long time, the 17th century was regarded as an epoch of consolidated confessionality and religiousness, but in our context this conviction still leads to objections. It is here that history, especially in relation to the Thirty Years’ War, meets further symptoms of crisis, which in the end come to include also the seemingly strengthened religiousness of the era. If we think of the economic and cultural developments of the early modern period, we will see that the 16th century was first a time of cultural prosperity in Central Europe, which was then affected by various crises of the last third of the century. The ‘century of crisis’, as the 17th century is frequently referred to, actually started in the 16th century. We must bear in mind that the early modern world was – also before acute crises arose – a world of scarcity. In one decade as many as three harvest failures could happen. If a bad harvest came two years in a row, the rise in prices and food shortage became life-threatening. People knew that bitter reality; it was not anything unusual. Existential threats were, as we well know, presented in expressive semantic forms. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, described in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6, were called Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. They were coming alone but often in an ominous alliance. The crisis phenomena of those times included spreading diseases and dramatic shortages, but also climatic peculiarities such as the noticeable and scientifically proven cooling in the Little Ice Age. The fundamental subsistence crisis that affected people over longer periods of time led to well-known religious and cultural patterns of interpretation. Climatic phenomena such as unusually long cooling periods, lack of rainfall, thunderstorms and hailstorms, drought or floods were seen as the signs of God, evidence of “the prevalent sins for which people were punished.”14 The economics of sin identified the sinfulness level of individuals or groups of individuals. The devil’s activity on Earth was also a popular concept, illustrated in numerous printed works, where gambling, drunkenness, blasphemy and sorcery were presented as various diabolic figures. It was also the time of flourishing literature on the intensified witch hunts, black magic and demonology. Simply speaking, the fundamental power that people faced and had to overcome was forced into just as fundamental religious patterns.

To put it simply, the modern consciousness of crisis is related to the supposed overcoming of premodern periods, which were full of fear. But to what extent can we actually speak of ‘overcoming’? Obviously, just a few keywords are enough to show that the fear existing in the premodern times is by no means gone. On the contrary, it is present nowadays, in the form of the fear of terror and violence, fear of the future or fear of the foreign and the different. Nevertheless, there have been approaches in the field of the history of mentalities, which took people’s changing attitudes as a starting point and assumed that there is a continuous enlightenment and rationalization process. According to these approaches, the premodern man lived in the land of anxiety, which he then overcame on the threshold of the modern age. Since the late 17th and the 18th century, the prevailing cultural and religious disquiet lessened. In view of the Enlightenment, gloomy fears apparently disappeared, becoming just figments of the imagination. The power of reason supposedly helped to overcome the despondency of the premodern age.15 However, two substantial aspects prevent from overvaluing this popular picture. Firstly, there is the truism that long-term progress in social culture occurs only at the cost of new grievances but also new semantic developments. The concept of ‘overcoming’ fear in the sense of the modern enlightenment is debatable, as it seems that the fear that is inherent to a given epoch is passed on to the next one. Therefore, we should not pose questions about the extent to which reason gains the upper hand in view of the Enlightenment but rather about possible ways of coping with practical experiences of powerlessness.

One last example completes our reflections. No matter how we interpret the development of the relationship between the consciousness of crisis and religious views, it is the process of the development of human freedom that has been fundamental to the modern concept of the future since the 19th century. Increasing control over the forces of nature creates a malleable, open future. In the early modern age, the concept of the future was still narrow and room for maneuver and the introduction of extensive changes in any spheres of social life was extremely limited. The demand for an open futurity, however, contributed to dynamic developments after the industrial and spiritual revolutions. The supply of food increased, economic exchange and the exchange of people intensified, knowledge about the forces of nature led to the emergence of alternative forms of human co-existence. The wishful thinking that could be found in the earlier utopist visions moved to the horizon of imaginable fulfillment, even though particular forms and symptoms of crisis were affecting large parts of industrialized society. However, it was the creation of a new horizon of expectations, which formed a decisive turning point in the relationship of people to the future. If we no longer interpret collective and individual history as the anticipation of the Last Judgment and, consequently, we do not simply equate the future with the arrival of the Savior, then the concept of the future loses its “numinous nature”.16 The process of opening distant, yet unexplored periods of time is still accompanied by fear and anxiety, the fear of the consequences of technical innovations, the fear of accidents and anonymization, not least the fear of the mass of people. However, a new consciousness of time and crisis comes into play here: the imperfection of human orders and structures is attributed not so much to the metaphysical reign of evil in the world but rather to socio-political decisions. Even though in the 19th century the negative consequences of the industrial revolution still overshadowed progress, the typically modern consciousness of the future and crisis was changing. Today, it brings the promise of the endless self-development of humanity but it also leaves some space for “the apocalyptical perspective of the fast and imminent self-destruction” of humanity.17


4. Political empowerment

Human history is a result of human decisions. As R. Koselleck notes, this is true in two different ways. History is namely shaped not only by those powerful people who influence the course of events but also by historians, determining history through their writing.18 Obviously, we should keep in mind that ‘history making’ is a modern term. It refers to a change in historiography, where a new self-conception of historians and historical methods replaced the approach that dominated in Western culture over centuries. In those historical times, it was possible to tell diverse (hi)stories (Geschichten in German) without creating one history (the singular form; Geschichte). This emergence of one, singular history, a history that could be created and shaped, was indicative of the modern experience, connected with a profound semantic change in historical terminology and concepts. History in itself replaced plural histories, which is known to be a result of the lasting theoretical reflection of the Enlightenment. History as a subject of man or even “a subject of itself ”.19 The importance of this change in historical self-perception probably cannot be overstated in the context of the development of a modern consciousness of crisis. The transition from a multitude of histories to one central concept helped to see the reality as a whole and to develop a stronger link between people and history. The modern action space, filled with past experiences, new areas and uncertain expectations, marked the abandonment of the extra-historical instance. In the meantime, events that used to be interpreted in the light of old history, with no reference to its collective singular concept, converged, influenced by the consciousness of history that occurs within one integrated space.

Here we face one of the biggest challenges: having discussed the emerging concept of history that can be created and shaped, we want to move on to the consolidation of the modern consciousness of crisis. An attempt will be made to roughly compare the modern and the pre-modern consciousness of crisis and, in spite of historical change, to identify the meaning criteria that determine the specific consciousness of crisis nowadays. When earlier crises or conflicts are being discussed today, the modern consciousness is taken as a basis. This modern consciousness has been determined by specific historical conditions. In the above-mentioned situation of threat in the Frankish Empire of the 8th century, a pre-modern consciousness of crisis prevailed, one that was based on the ideas characteristic of that time and place, on specific metaphysical concepts and the experience of the imminent danger of suffering and sorrow. Nowadays we would rather speak of endangered systems, humanitarian disasters, tense security situations etc., with no reference to the meaning criteria of space, time or transcendence. It is the modern idea of contingency that is difficult to handle. According to modern historical semantics, the culture surrounding modern people could also be different. Furthermore, the historicity of modern consciousness indicates a specific relationship to the world. Contingency, understood not as fortuitousness but as openness to action describes an area of specific uncertainty, where both action and coincidence happen.20 With the epochal threshold to the historical modern age, contingency became a kind of a historical transcendental, a legitimate signature for what we need for a convoluted concept of the modern. Contingency, a frequently used, yet vague term, comprises both the manageable and the unmanageable, decisions between exclusive possibilities as well as the awareness that each action is accompanied by specific modern risks.21 Taking this awareness into account, the modern consciousness of crisis is exposed to an irreducible tension. In possibilities show a discreet uncontrollability. The appearance of crisis exposes the action as unfounded.

Action, as compared to behavior, means a decision or a choice between diverse possibilities, for which legitimation is provided. The criteria of this concept of action go back to the field of human capacity to reason, but at the same time they provide information about specifically modern ‘contingency semantics’.22 Modern contingency semantics is in contrast to premodern experiences. It does not derive from a consciousness of traditions and possibilities, which clearly differentiated between the human area of influence and all that fell outside human authority and therefore helped to restrict the human power of action. The examples of the medieval order of creation or the antique worldview show that the premodern approach was less loaded in this respect. It differentiated between what can and what cannot be controlled or managed. Consequently, the premodern approach could separate the present sphere of practice from transcendence and contrast the finite practice with infinite divine horizons. Today one would presumably speak of helpful clarity, of some practical relief by means of philosophical orientation. For Aristotle, decisions concerned eternity. In the antique way of thinking, contingency referred to events, and not to event horizons, whereas action was in a sense located in a “finite horizon of possibilities.”23 It is presumably this assumption that dispersed in the light of growing awareness in the modern age, and has nevertheless left a discreet shortage. From the modern perspective, the idea that the concept of human action could be extended endlessly seems, namely, to be rather a burden. What was once included in an ontological concept of divine authority and therefore could not pose any problems as a subject of human action, belongs in modern times to the consciousness of human ability. This means far-reaching changes: one speaks of a project of the modern (Habermas), of universalist conditions of validity; in the area of science and technology one discovers even the possibility of extensive biological manipulation. It can be speculated how people in antiquity would position themselves in relation to this horizon of possibilities. It should be noted here that this process of expanding human possibilities for action is accompanied by a contradictory political selfrelation. When the horizon of possibilities cannot be limited anymore, it is no longer a question of the mere consciousness of improvement but rather one of far-reaching changes in open and malleable futures. The modern consciousness of contingency raises orientation problems but it cannot be satisfied with the shrugging realization of eventful fortuitousness. This can the moment of crisis, areas for action that are believed to be areas of open be seen particularly on the example of the experience of crisis, in which case the genuine areas of capabilities and action overlap with the aspects of fortuitousness. People suspected that a collapse was inevitable. They may have recognized structural flaws in economic and social systems but they missed the right moment to introduce changes. The modern observer is familiar with such discursive and media patterns. The quality of the consciousness of contingency is shaped by the consciousness of a contingent reality. Political organization tasks can be, accordingly, easily formulated but still, there is the question what the historical reflection could contribute here. As in many other contexts, once again we can see here a modern experience of hiatus. The process of liberating collective and individual actions from premodern limitations, which took place in the early modern age, was initially regarded as open. With the increasing gap between experiences and expectations, historical thinking was fracturing. Besides the boundless realization of possibilities, there is a discrepancy between reality and possibility, which seems to have become self-evident in the modern political approach. Maybe a completely different ‘reason’ could be gathered from this new consciousness of contingency: a reason, which in view of discontinuities and breaches in history develops an alternative consciousness of fulfillment, certainly not in the sense of a conceivable comeback to a premodern consciousness of ability, but more simply – as a productive doubt about the criterion of unlimited feasibility. In other words, the empathic side of the modern consciousness of crisis and contingency is yet to be discovered.

Text translated into English: Joanna Maria Spychała


Christian Wevelsiep. Studied educational theory, philosophy and politics science. He completed his PhD in special educational theory in Dortmund as well as political sociology in Flensburg, Germany. He is at present working as a teacher in Bochum and as an external “Privatdozent” at the University of Flensburg. His main areas of research are: Theory of society, anthropology and ethics, history of modern violence. At the moment he is working on a monograph about the history of war from a basic-anthropological view.



1 Hans Ulrich Wehler, Modernisierungstheorie und Geschichte (Göttingen, 1975), pp. 16ff.; Lutz Raphael, “Ordnungsmuster der Hochmoderne? Die Theorie der Moderne und die Geschichte der europäischen Gesellschaften im 20. Jahrhundert,” in Ute Schneider and Lutz Raphael (eds), Dimensionen der Moderne. Festschrift für Christoph Dipper (Frankfurt a. M. /New York, 2008), pp. 73–91, esp. pp. 78ff.

2 Jürgen Kocka, “Historische Sozialwissenschaft heute,” in Manfred Hettling and Paul Nolte (eds.): Perspektiven der Gesellschaftsgeschichte (Munich, 2002), pp. 5–24, especially pp. 6ff.

3 Here: Annette Mülberger and Thomas Sturm (eds), Psychology, a Science in Crisis? A Century of Reflections and Debates (= Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 43). 2012, pp. 425–52; Margaret Gredler, Designing and Evaluating Games and Simulations. A Process Approach (1992); Steven Fink, Crisis Management. Planning for the Inevitable (1986).

4 Lucian Hölscher, Semantik der Leere. Grenzfragen der Geschichtswissenschaft (Munich: Wallstein, 2009).

5 Ibid., p. 14.

6 Blom 2009.

7 Lucian Hölscher, Weltgericht oder Revolution. Protestantische und sozialistische Zukunftsvorstellungen im deutschen Kaiserreich (Stuttgart, 1989), p. 15.

8 Hereinafter Steffen Patzold, “Human Security, fragile Staatlichkeit und Governance im Frühmittelalter. Zur Fragwürdigkeit der Unterscheidung von Moderne und Vormoderne,” in Cornel Zwierlein (ed.), Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Heft 3, (38), 2012, pp. 406–423.

9 Ibid. pp. 408ff. Obviously, the concept of ‘state’ invokes an extremely wide-ranging discussion about state-like structures in the premodern age, a discussion that we are not able to continue here. Cf. Wolfgang Reinhard, Geschichte der Staatsgewalt (Munich, 1999).

10 Patzold 2012, p. 408.

11 Ibid. p. 418.

12Ibid. p. 419.

13 Johannes Burkhardt, Der dreißigjährige Krieg (Frankfurt a. M., 1991); Hans Medick, “Der dreißigjährige Krieg als Erfahrung und Memoria. Zeitgenössische Wahrnehmungen eines Ereigniszusammenhangs,” in: Peter Claud Hartmann and Florian Schuller (eds), Der dreißigjährige Krieg. Facetten einer folgenreichen Epoche (Regensburg, 2010), pp. 158–173; Hans Medick and Benigna Krusenstjern, (eds), Zwischen Alltag und Katastrophe: der dreißigjährige Krieg aus der Nähe (Göttingen, 1999).

14Johannes Arndt, Der Dreißigjährige Krieg 1618–1648 (Stuttgart, 2009), p. 199.

15 Jean Delumeau, Angst im Abendland – Die Geschichte kollektiver Ängste im Europa des 14. bis 18 Jahrhunderts (Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg, 1989).

16 Hölscher 1989, p. 23.

17 Ibid. p. 25.

18 Koselleck 1985, pp. 260ff.

19 Ibid. p. 263.

20 Michael Makropoulos, “Historische Semantik und Positivität der Kontingenz. Modernitätstheoretische Motive bei R. Koselleck,” in Hans Joas and Peter Vogt (eds), Begriffene Geschichte. Beiträge zum Werk R. Kosellecks (Frankfurt a. M., 2011), pp. 481–514.

21 Niklas Luhmann, Soziale Systeme. Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie (Frankfurt a. M., 1984), p. 152; Ulrich Beck, Was ist Globalisierung? Irrtümer des Globalismus – Antworten auf die Globalisierung (Frankfurt a. M., 1997); Id. (ed.), Perspektiven der Weltgesellschaft (Frankfurt a. M., 1998).

22 Makropoulos 2011, p. 485.

23 Ibid. p. 486.


List of References

Arndt, Johannes (2009) Der Dreißigjährige Krieg 1618–1648 (Stuttgart).

Beck, Ulrich (1997) Was ist Globalisierung? Irrtümer des Globalismus – Antworten auf die Globalisierung (Frankfurt a. M.).

Burkhardt, Johannes (1991) Der dreißigjährige Krieg (Frankfurt a. M.).

Blom, Philipp (2009) Der taumelnde Kontinent. Europa 1900–1914(Munich).

Delumeau, Jean (1989) Angst im Abendland – Die Geschichte kollektiver Ängste im Europa des 14. bis 18. Jahrhunderts (Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg).

Fink, Steven (1986) Crisis Management. Planning for the Inevitable.

Gredler, Margaret (1992) Designing and Evaluating Games and Simulations. A Process Approach.

Hölscher, Lucian (1989) Weltgericht oder Revolution. Protestantische und sozialistische Zukunftsvorstellungen im deutschen Kaiserreich (Stuttgart), p. 15.

Hölscher, Lucian (2009) Semantik der Leere. Grenzfragen der Geschichtswissenschaft (Munich: Wallstein).

Kocka, Jürgen (2002) “Historische Sozialwissenschaft heute,” in Manfred Hettling and Paul Nolte (eds), Perspektiven der Gesellschaftsgeschichte (Munich), pp. 5–24, esp. pp. 6ff.

Luhmann, Niklas (1984) Soziale Systeme. Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie (Frankfurt a. M.).

Makropoulos, Michael (2011) “Historische Semantik und Positivität der Kontingenz. Modernitätstheoretische Motive bei R. Koselleck,” in Hans Joas and Peter Vogt (eds), Begriffene Geschichte. Beiträge zum Werk R. Kosellecks (Frankfurt a. M.), pp. 481–514.

Medick, Hans (2010) “Der dreißigjährige Krieg als Erfahrung und Memoria. Zeitgenössische Wahrnehmungen eines Ereigniszusammenhangs,” in Peter C. Hartmann and Florian Schuller (eds) Der dreißigjährige Krieg. Facetten einer folgenreichen Epoche (Regensburg), pp. 158–173.

Medick, Hans and Benigna Krusenstjern (eds) (1999) Zwischen Alltag und Katastrophe: der dreißigjährige Krieg aus der Nähe (Göttingen).

Mülberger, Anette and Thomas Sturm (eds) (2012) Psychology, a Science in Crisis? A Century of Reflections and Debates (= Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 43). 2012, pp. 425–52.

Patzold, Steffen (2012) “Human Security, fragile Staatlichkeit und Governance im Frühmittelalter. Zur Fragwürdigkeit der Unterscheidung von Moderne und Vormoderne,” in Cornel Zwierlein (ed.) Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Heft 3, (38), pp. 406–423.

Raphael, Lutz (2008) “Ordnungsmuster der Hochmoderne? Die Theorie der Moderne und die Geschichte der europäischen Gesellschaften im 20. Jahrhundert,” in: Ute Schneider and Lutz Raphael (eds), Dimensionen der Moderne. Festschrift für Christoph Dipper (Frankfurt a. M. /New York), pp. 73–91, esp. pp. 78ff.

Reinhard, Wolfgang (1999) Geschichte der Staatsgewalt (Munich).

Wehler, Hans Ulrich (1975) Modernisierungstheorie und Geschichte (Göttingen).


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Przemysław Furgacz

Review: Through History with Crisis. Anna Żelazowska-Przewłoka, Crisis as an Element of the Economic Situation

20 August 2015
  • crisis
  • book review
  • economic crisis

“Ramses is dead, whereas crisis is very much alive” – audiences in the Polish People’s Republic used to laugh at this punchline from a popular comedy sketch. Even though the world and Poland itself have changed considerably since those days, one may get the impression that those words are still true – crisis lives as it lived before. It may seem that the worst global economic crisis of the 21st century is behind us but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is but an illusion. Present economic growth as well as exceptionally high levels of stock market indices (for example in the summer of 2014 the American stock market index S&P 500 reached a record high – it doubled compared to the doldrums of 2009) are maintained artificially, as the most important central banks around the world reduce interest rates to ultra-low levels – and keep them low for an extremely long time – and banks and financial markets are supported on a large scale by newly issued money within various rounds and operations of so-called quantitative easing. The latest stress tests of the European Central Bank have shown that as many as nine Italian banks do not meet the required standards of capital adequacy, and it should be emphasized that the scenarios assumed for those stress tests were rather mild. France is fighting against economic stagnation and Japanese economists get headaches not only due to stagnation but also due to an astronomically high public debt. The situation on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is not good either. While in 2007 the median salary in the USA was $55,500, at present it is $51,000 (inflation-adjusted). In short, at any moment the global crisis may return with twice the impact.

Thus, since the issue of economic crises continues to be relevant, Anna Żelazowska-Przewłoka’s book entitled Kryzys jako element sytuacji gospodarczej [Crisis as an Element of the Economic Situation] is a valuable read. In the four chapters that extend over 280 pages, the author offers a survey of the most important economic crises, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Even though the book discusses theories of business cycles and of the emergence of recessions and crises, it is first and foremost a study for people interested in the economic history of the world and Poland, and not in the theory of economics. The character of the book is best seen in the comprehensiveness of its chapters. The fourth chapter entitled “Crisis in Poland” comprises half of the book and it is at the same time the most interesting chapter.

The compelling data and statistics are a huge advantage of the book. For example, on page 146 we find an informative table showing to what extent the Polish economy in the 18th century was backward and its fiscal instruments unwieldy. It turns out that the fiscal income in Poland in 1700 amounted to only 3 per cent of the fiscal income of France while in the case of the future partitioners of Poland – Prussia, Russia and Austria – it amounted to 8,8 and 26 per cent respectively. In 1788 the fiscal income in Poland was equal to 2.7 per cent of the fiscal income in France in the same year (although it should be remembered that the territory of Poland had been reduced as a result of the first partition, having lost the populous Galicia, the relatively affluent Royal Prussia and the eastern part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). In the same year the income of Prussia, Russia and Austria was equal respectively to 19 per cent, 40 per cent and 43 per cent of the income of France. Similar interesting economic statistics are abundant in the book.

The subsection describing the Great Depression in Poland is very interesting. This issue is discussed in great detail. The author justly claims that Polish authorities did not rise to the challenge. Poland was particularly painfully struck by the Great Depression, one of the reasons being an inadequate, erroneous economic policy of the authorities of the day. It was assumed that the stability of the Polish zloty and its convertibility into gold were a priority. Instead of devaluing the currency – like many other countries did – in order to render Polish exports more competitive and imports from abroad less profitable, Polish policy makers responsible for state economic policy stubbornly maintained a fixed parity of the zloty. For a long time the authorities did not even introduce any currency restrictions, although they were widely introduced in other countries. It was in a way a result of the fear of hyperinflation which had touched Poland so painfully in 1923. The authorities worried that if devaluation were to be instituted, Poles and so-called high finance would lose their confidence in the zloty – confidence that had been earned through hard work over a long period of time. Except that high finance was withdrawing its investment and portfolio capital from Poland during the crisis anyhow, heedless of the stability of the zloty. The policy of maintaining public monopoly and export subsidies, even at the cost of implementing price dumping, was also misconceived. Companies compensated for their losses by significant price rises in the domestic market and this was acutely felt by the poor inhabitants of the Second Commonwealth of Poland.

One downside of Żelazowska-Przewłoka’s work is that some titles of the subsections do not correspond to the issues which they actually cover. For example, in subsection 3.5. entitled “Economic crisis in the years 1899– 1903” only one paragraph is de facto devoted to this issue, while the other three examine other topics. This must be surprising to the reader. Another drawback is – unnecessary as it seems – discussion of the same content in various subsections, although fortunately this does not happen too often. Some minor objections regarding factual accuracy may be additionally raised to subsection 4.21, which describes a crisis in Poland in the period 2008–09. Strictly speaking, at that time there was no recession much less a crisis in Poland, although there is no doubt that the decline of the Polish zloty exchange rate against the euro, the US dollar and the Swiss franc and the related problems of Polish companies, imprudent enough to conclude ill-advised transactions in foreign currency, was truly alarming. The author does not put enough emphasis on the fact that Poland emerged untouched from the global crisis mainly because it had not joined the euro zone in spite of meeting all the criteria at a certain moment. While comparing how the crisis affected Slovakia (which had joined the euro zone) and Poland, it seems unquestionable that it was Poland which had made the right choice while Slovakia had not. Particularly so, if one takes into account the fact that later on Bratislava was forced to offer multibillion financial guarantees to help wealthier Greece (or basically large French and German banks which were Greece’s greatest creditors). Generally, it is surprising that the author practically omitted the euro zone crisis. While describing the latest global economic crisis she concentrates almost exclusively on what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. However, having said that, one should emphasize that these are only minor drawbacks, which do not belittle the high value and usefulness of this study. Kryzys jako element sytuacji gospodarczej [Crisis as an Element of the Economic Situation] is an interesting and gripping book. Apart from the first chapter, its language is easy to understand and straightforward. Thus, if someone wants to explore the economic history of the world and of Poland, this book will undoubtedly provide them with a great deal of valuable information.

Text translated into English: Agata Jankowiak


Przemysław Furgacz. Graduated in international relations from the Institute of Political Science and International Relations, the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. In 2012 he defended his PhD. dissertation in the same institute and university. Now he lectures in the College of Business and Entrepreneurship in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. His research focuses primarily on economics, global finances, security policy and military affairs.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Ľudovít Hallon

Parallels in the Economic Business Cycles in Slovakia in the Period between WWI and WWII, and after 1989

20 August 2015
  • 1989
  • crisis
  • interwar
  • Slovakia


This study looks at how crises affected the economies and business cycles in Slovakia and other Central European states. It compares both the economic and non-economic causes, as well as the various effects following the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918 with the problems that emerged after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc in 1989. A careful analysis shows that substantial changes extended to the legal system as well as the entire political and socio-economic system. At the same time, quite different processes were also occurring in both eras. The extent of their impact depended upon the specific conditions in the post-1918 successor states or the particular post-communist countries. Mainly, the initial economic conditions and subsequent economic and political developments after 1918 and 1989 would determine the repercussions of the crises.

The development of economic cycles in Slovakia after 1918 and after 1989 reveals many striking parallels. Countries which came into existence after the demise of the Habsburg Monarchy, such as Slovakia, were in a similar situation after 1918 as the post-communist countries after 1989. Economic development in the 1920s and 1990s of the 20th century in Slovakia and in neighboring countries naturally also show particularities and differences.

The shared characteristic was the partial or entire change of the social, economic, and political system, as well as legislative changes, accompanied by a collapse of long-term markets and a loss of trade outlets. A fundamental change of market orientation occurred, and mainly in the direction of the developed Western countries. However, the countries which came into existence in the 1920s strengthened the role of new trade barriers, and in the 1930s aimed to achieve autarky, whereas the post-communist countries of central and south-eastern Europe rejected the barriers to economic integration through the process of joining the EU. Another important parallel occurred in the realm of ownership. In the successor countries, complex capital transfers happened; in Czechoslovakia, for instance, it involved land reform and other property changes. Post-communist countries carried out a complex privatization process. However, after the demise of the Monarchy, the continuity of a market economy and private ownership persisted, whereas privatization after 1989 brought about a complete change in the character of ownership when the recent transition from central control to a market economy occurred.

Economic and political changes in the 1920s and 1990s put to the test the viability of individual companies, economic sectors, and the whole economic structure. As a result, profound structural change took place in the economy of particular countries. The aforementioned processes shared similar concomitant circumstances and measures, such as currency reforms, the exchange of money, inflation, and a significant social impact. The collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Soviet bloc resulted in processes which led to a renewed cycle of global recovery, and further complicated the economic and structural changes in the particular countries.

The previously noted factors appeared in certain countries, depending on specific conditions; these mainly concerned the achieved level of social and economic development, the character and structure of the economy, the character of the political system and the strategy of politics on economic issues. It can be stated that in the case of Slovakia, those basic conditions were unfavorable. In the context of the new economic situation, Slovakia had an inappropriate economic structure after the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Soviet Union.

Before 1918, the present-day area of Slovakia belonged to the most industrially developed regions of Hungary. It remained a mainly agrarian country; the development of industry occurred in Hungary based on a political program which aimed to industrialize, but focused only on certain parts of Hungary and only on certain sectors (mining, the iron industry, textiles, the pulp and paper industry, the leather industry).

In addition, production depended entirely on consumption in other parts of Hungary and on government orders. That is why the structure of the economy showed some serious disproportions hidden by closed markets and a whole system of economic preferences made by the government in the area of taxes, loans, shipping discounts and direct financial grants (Faltus 1983, 544–558; Kováč 2004; Horváth, Valach 1975; Vadkertyová 1975, 417–440).

Economically, the fall of Austria-Hungary brought about the disintegration of the united market of the monarchy, and disrupted the infrastructure and the complicated process of forming economic areas for new central- European countries. The area of Slovakia created a new economic space along with Czech regions, which had assumed the biggest share of industrial production made in the more developed Austrian part of the Monarchy. Slovakia’s share in the industrial potential of the new country based on the statistics from 1910 can be estimated to be about 8 %. The capital share of Slovak financial institutions created approximately 6 % of the value of the banking industry in Czechoslovakia. Slovakia played a more important role only in agriculture, where it accounted for approximately one third of the crop production and animal husbandry. The borders of the successor countries cut Slovakia’s business sphere off from the main trade outlets in former Hungary. The large centralized factories, which produced iron, chemicals, textiles, and other products, depended on markets outside Slovakia; they were hit head on by the competition of more mature industries from the Czech regions, which also had to solve the problem connected with the loss of trading outlets in a smaller marketplace. After the demise of the Kingdom of Hungary, Slovak companies lost tax, tariff, borrowing, and other advantages provided by the authorities, as well as lucrative government orders. The breakdown of infrastructure turned out to be one of the greatest problems, mainly the disruption of the railway network, which appeared to be the one more developed segment of the transport system in Slovakia. It became necessary to rebuild the whole network in a westward direction toward the Czech regions and Western markets. The underdeveloped road infrastructure faced a similar situation. The banking industry lost its ties with central banks in Budapest, which caused a reduction or even a cessation of capital flow. Key companies were left without capital backing (Faltus, Průcha 1969, 15–27; Průcha 2004, 41–48).

The influence of an entire set of negative factors was initially muffled by a short post-war boom in 1920–1921, due to conditions of gross shortages and high demand. In Slovakia, there were relatively successful outcomes, as 129 new joint-stock companies started up and the banking industry increased national Slovak capital. However, the boom was restricted by a state regulated economy. Prices increased and inflation grew, even if it was more benign in comparison with surrounding states. Another phenomenon of the boom was the expansion of concerns and banks from Czech regions, connected to profitable Western capital, to the entrepreneurial sphere and banking industry of Slovakia with help from the economic legislation of the new state (the Nostrification Act of 1919). In the Slovak space, the banks and corporations of the Czech regions took on the functions of Budapest’s great banks and the Austrian-Hungarian companies from the preceding era. At the global level, a post-war economic crisis had already appeared in 1920 and it had to balance the disparities of a war economy, post-war reconstruction and hyperinflation (Andrýs 1922, 267–273; Skorkovský 1923).1

In Czechoslovakia, a crisis broke out in the second half of 1921 and continued until 1923. Unprofitable companies ceased to exist, production declined, and prices fell. In Slovakia, the recession crisis saw a 30 % decline in industrial production, which was far more than average on the international scale. In the successor countries of Austria-Hungary, the crisis manifested even more serious signs of far reaching significance. It also revealed the negative aspects of the breakdown of a common market and showed its impact on a large scale. Important factories, which lost their trade outlets in the crisis situation after 1918, found themselves in an untenable situation, and dozens of them simply disappeared. In the less developed economy of Slovakia, the disappearance of one big company had a long-term impact on the social and economic development of an entire region. The corporate sector was handicapped by a significant deterioration of productive conditions, most of all in railway transport. The demise of the Monarchy and negative conditions of production caused an outflow of capital from Slovakia and a disruption of capital expansion from the Czech lands. That is why other companies were left without capital assets and they ceased to exist. The tendencies mentioned above handicapped most industrial branches. The worst situation was in the relatively developed iron industry, in which Hungarian capital concerns lost their interest and they agreed to their liquidation in exchange for compensation. Most of the ironworks disappeared (Krompachy, Zvolen, Hnúšťa) or changed their production plan (Trnava). Because of that, the Slovak economy lost a fundamental part of a sector, which, until the formation of Czechoslovakia, had constituted the core of its industrial potential. Other handicapped sectors included the chemical industry (Dynamit Nobel Bratislava), the textile and glass industry, the food industry and the stagnating mechanical engineering industry. In 1922–1924, the crisis in Czechoslovakia carried from the areas of production to the lending sphere. The deflation of currency had a great influence on these developments, especially during the pivotal year of 1922. Deflation safeguarded the long-term and stable development of the currency, but it undermined export industries and merged them with banking. The losses of the banking industry in Slovakia reached the high figure of 643 million Kčs (Czechoslovak crowns). The banking system of Czechoslovakia was saved from certain collapse by a reorganization of the country on the foundation of legislation during 1924 (Faltus 1966; Strhan 1960).

In years 1924–1929, the economy of Czechoslovakia experienced a relatively successful boom within the context of a worldwide economic expansion. It resulted in about a 40 % increase in industrial production (Průcha 2004, 148–164). This, in fact, applied only to the Czech lands. The enterprise sector of Slovakia went through a complicated process of structural changes. Production increases only occurred in sector branches which found new outlets in the changed conditions of the domestic and international market, as well as the capital hinterlands (the pulp and paper industry, the wood industry, the cement industry, the rubber industry, the magnesium industry, the electric industry, the petrochemical industry and the printing industry, some segments of the food sector), or ones which received support from the economic policy of Czechoslovakia (the electricity supply industry). Others managed only to reconstruct pre-war capacities and production potential (mining, the textile industry, the food industry as a whole) and some of them remained below the pre-war level of production (the iron industry, the chemical industry, the glass industry). That is why until the end of the 1920s, the entire capacity of industrial production merely reached or just exceeded the level of the crisis year of 1913. The resulting effect was a stagnation of industrialization. Very slow progress in infrastructure reconstruction contributed to that, such as the revival of the railways and road network, as well as a slow elimination of other unprofitable production conditions in Slovakia (Hallon 1995, 68–87; Hallon 2004, 309–324).

One can visually document the changes in the industrial structure as a consequence of the disintegration of the united Monarchy’s market and postwar economic attitudes by looking at the increase in the number of active working people in particular economic sectors during years 1910 – 1930. It is based on a sum of enterprises and factories in statistics for the given years. The comparison of production amounts or its value in the given period could be even more objective and visual. Unfortunately, we do not have access to sufficient statistical data.


Table 1 Changes of the industrial structure in Slovakia in years 1910–1930 according to number of active employees.

BranchEmployment on December 31, 1910Employment on May 27, 1930
Mining 9600 11037
Iron and steel industry 9434 3082
Metal working 5881 5233
Engineering and electrotechnical industry 2621 5821
Building materials industry 5986 12877
Glass industry 3429 2684
Chemical industry 2344 3230
Pulp and paper industry 4291 5412
Textile industry 11231 11945
Leather industry 1267 1277
Wood industry 9678 13192
Food industry 12091 11147
Printing industry 248 978
Electrical industry 533 1386
Building industry 4618 14353
total 83375 104600

Source: Table 1 is compared according to the statistics of number of factories and employees on December 31, 1910 and May 27, 1930, which were compiled by (Faltus, Průcha 1969, 287; Faltus 1987, 73–84).


If we compare the development of industry in Slovakia after 1918 with other successor countries of the interwar period – Hungary, Poland and Austria – it is clear that they manifest very similar trends of development. Similar to Slovakia, other successor countries underwent structural changes of industry depending on initial economic relations after the decline of the Monarchy and due to decline of a unified market in Austria-Hungary. Crucial branches of industry experienced the greatest decline or stagnation because they were most dependent on market outlets in the economic realm of the former Monarchy during the 1920s. In Slovakia, this applied mainly to the building materials industry, in Hungary the engineering industry and food industry, in Austria the building materials industry, the iron and steel industry, the engineering industry, and in Poland, for example, brown coal mining and petroleum and non-ferrous metals production. Development occurred in branches which found new market possibilities in the changed conditions; for instance, in Hungary the textile industry got rid of Czech and Slovak competition. Until the end of the 1920s in all the above countries, the overall amount of industrial production barely exceeded the pre-war level, or did not even reach it, as was the case in Austria and Poland. The only exception in the central European region was the Czech lands; because of a more favorable starting point after the decline of Monarchy and a wealthier industry, they managed to overcome losses or stagnation in some economic sectors (textiles, coal mining) and replaced them with growing sectors (the engineering and electro-technical industries, the footwear industry), resulting in a large increase in the amount of industrial production. In order to illustrate the comparative development of industrial production during the interwar period in Slovakia, the Czech lands, and three other successor countries, here is a table presenting the level of success achieved in industrial development.


Table 2 Index of industrial production in Czech lands, Hungary, Poland, and Austria in 1929 and 1938 in comparison to 1913 (1913 equals 100 %).

yearCzech landsHungarySlovakiaPolandAustria
1929 142 112 108 91 98
1938 140 128 123 93 77

Nota bene: Presented data is based on different statistical surveys (the number of employed workers, the amount of production, the value of production), and that is why the table is an example.

Source: (Landau,Tomaszewski 1971, 59, 289–290; Fischer 1987, 543, 796; Faltus, Průcha 1969, 14, 25, 43, 287; Lacina 1996, 286–287).


Overall, agriculture in Slovakia enjoyed a more advantageous position during the 1920s. After the demise of the Kingdom of Hungary and creation of new borders with Hungary, Slovakia acquired the market outlets of Hungarian producers in Czech regions. It was also protected by customs barriers which the governing circles of Czechoslovakia, dominated by the agrarian party, had passed. Those favorable factors were reflected mainly in crop production. Land reform in Czechoslovakia removed the greatest inequalities in the structure of agricultural enterprises, mainly because of the decline of aristocratic and clerical estates. The modernization of production and the development of progressive middle-sized farms achieved only a little progress (Faltus, Průcha 1969, 133–134, 157, 206).2

The Great Depression economic crisis of 1929–1933 interrupted the gradual consolidation of Slovak economy by the end of the 1920s. However, the industrial recession was less sharp than in the Czech lands because Slovakia had experienced a weaker economic boom in the previous years. According to contemporary analyses, the level of employment decreased by 25 % during years 1930 – 1932 and the number of worked hours decreased by 29 % in industry. The most important problem in agrarian Slovakia was agriculture, which still employed approximately 60 % of active working people. An agricultural crisis in Slovakia and all of Czechoslovakia broke out in 1929 and farming production was affected mainly by the collapse of prices for products in 1928–1932 by about 42 % (Hallon 2004, 324–327; Lacina 1974, 38–44, 49–51).3 At that time, the crisis stimulated the ruling powers towards investments in infrastructure, with the interest of creating new job positions, and this in turn accelerated the development of railways, roads, and the energy sector. Ruling circles moved towards a new philosophy of state-monopolistic interventions in economy. In the second half of the 1930s, investments in the armaments industry emerged as a new phenomena because of the military threat to the country. The main objective of those investments was to prepare Slovakia as a potential hinterland against Nazi Germany. However, building an infrastructure more quickly and with a lower-paid workforce motivated investment in non-military areas of production. Companies from Czech regions such as Škoda, Zbrojovka Brno, Baťa and others rejuvenated the process of industrialization in the second half of the 1930s in Slovakia. In this period of time, the economic and political concept of solving the economic problems of Slovakia began to form. The economic revival influenced mainly the western and north-west parts of Slovakia, which were situated closer to the markets of western Europe and possessed a better developed infrastructure, while most other regions of Slovakia continued to lag behind (Hallon 1995, 147–161; Ferenčuhová, Zemko 2012, 366–372).

The heavy armaments industry, which started to form in the 1930s, lasted throughout the Slovak Republic from 1939 until 1945. Then after 1948, it continued during the socialist era of industrialization and the depths of the Cold War and formed the basic framework of the Slovak economy. The industrialization of Slovakia was definitively completed in the system of the centrally planned economy. The fast pace of industrialization was evidenced by the fact that in 1948–1989, the industrial potential of Slovakia increased approximately 29 times; on the other hand, the industrial potential of the whole country increased only tenfold. In the 1980s, the long-term plan of balancing the industrial level of Czech regions and Slovakia was nearly attained. In fact, production reached parity in both regions. Apart from the heavy armaments industry, the structure of the Slovak industry was dominated by raw material processing and the production of semi-finished products for final production in the Czech regions. This kind of heritage from the socialist economy was extremely disadvantageous for a market economy after 1989 (Turčan 1960; Ferianc 1987, 190; Londák 2012).

The common denominator of economic development in post-communist countries after 1989 was the decline of economic ties, the switch from centrally planned economies towards a market economy, privatization, and a radical transformation of the entire economic structure. In the case of Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union, additional factors consisted of national and regulatory changes and the formation of economic areas in new countries. Other phenomena included monetary reforms, inflation, the disappearance of entire segments of the economy, and severe social repercussions.

The fluency, speed, and the depth of economic transformation were closely connected with the development of the economic politics of individual countries. Many expert analyses agree with the view that the transformation in Slovakia, as far as the influence of globalization and structural changes are concerned, took place in a few phases, which were closely connected with the actions of individual governments since 1990. In the first period of 1990–1992, under the conditions of the federal state, basic assumptions developed with the onset of monitored processes, in particular, the historical change of the social system, which followed the economic changes. The opening of the Slovak economy to the world made possible actions of a revolutionary character, such as the decentralization of economic governance, foreign trade and price liberalization, the achievement of the domestic convertibility of currency, and the creation and implementation of the first phase of privatization. After 1992, the further introduction of those changes was carried out. A similar scenario of economic reforms in the observed period also occurred in 14 other post-communist countries, mainly in the small central European countries, which later belonged to the Višegrad 4 and CEFTA (The Central European Free Trade Agreement).

The economic reforms in the period of 1990–1992 were followed by the immediate unravelling of post-communist economic ties and a change of orientation towards countries with a market economy, mainly with EU states. Unlike what happened in 1989, a deep economic recession ensued in 1991–1993, reaching the industries of 5 CEFTA countries, which saw declines of between 29 % and 39 %. The amount of mutual trade between Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia decreased in years 1988–1992 by 42 % of the GDP (gross domestic product). In 9 countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the GDP declined by about 23 % in years 1989–1991. Unemployment increased on average from 0 to 9 % (Borovský 2001, 448–451; Godfrey 1995, 6–8). During the change of external economic relationships, the problem for Slovakia was a disadvantageous commodity market in foreign trade. In 1991, a nearly 67 % share of Slovakia’s exports came from industrial branches, mostly the iron and steel industry and heavy industry, which had provided the bulk of production to markets of other [former] satellites of the Soviet Union. Above all, this affected the heavy armaments industry. The former regime had been preparing the conversion of the heavy armaments industry, chiefly due to reduction of international tensions. After the collapse of eastern markets and change of the whole philosophy of economic politics in Czechoslovakia, the production of so-called special technologies decreased at a significantly faster pace. The following table no. 3 illustrates the development of orientation of Czechoslovakia’s foreign markets and that of other post-communist countries, in comparison to mature Western countries in the short period of time between 1989 and 1992.

The position of Slovakia and other post-communist countries in foreign trade relations became largely influenced by developments in the monetary and financial areas. A common characteristic was high inflation, caused mainly by the liberalization of prices. In Czechoslovakia, the inflation before 1989 officially reached about 1 %, and according to real estimates about 2.5 % per year. However, in 1991 inflation rose 65 %, according to the price index (Švejnar 1993, 29–33). In 1992, the price level declined and inflation stabilized. At the beginning of the 1990s, historical changes affected nearly all European countries with centrally planned economies and resulted in a proposal for a program of complex privatization and its subsequent execution. This process opened the door to foreign capital. After a heated controversy about several concepts in Czechoslovakia, the voucher method of privatization won out, therefore, the gratuitous distribution of state property to the widest strata of citizens took place based on coupons representing a share of the capital. According to the plan, the privatization would be implemented in several waves. The first one started with a ratification by Czechoslovakia’s government in August 1991 and was to be completed in March 1993. For a complete or partial denationalization in the first wave, 678 big companies enrolled, worth 169 billion Kčs (Czechoslovak crowns). Of these, 48 % were privatized by the coupon method and only 7 % were resold to investors. Another 28 % of the enterprises came under the management of National Property Fund.4


Table 3 The change of orientation of foreign markets of Czechoslovakia and selected post-communist countries, in comparison to mature Western countries in period of 1989 – 1992 in % of sales value.

Other Western
Other Western
Other Western
1989 37,6 47,2 46,2 40,1 44,9 39,4 32,5
1992 63,2 25,4 68,9 21,3 72,1 15,9 51,8

Source: “Zmeny strategickej orientácie obchodu postkomunistických krajín” (1993), Trend 45, p. 4.


The first wave of privatization in Czechoslovakia attracted great interest because it provided the opportunity for immediate profit from the right to resell acquired shares to a company or to investment funds, which the citizen could take part in. The participation of 2.6 out of the 5 million citizens of Slovakia did not suffice to overcome the negative social impacts of economic reform. The most noticeable was a rise of unemployment. In 1991, it had reached 2.6 % in the Czech lands, and 10.4 % in Slovakia. Among the main reasons causing those problems was the structure of the Slovak economy (Godfrey 1995, 6–8). Its foundation continued to be the energy-intensive processing of imported raw materials and semi-finished goods for final processing in the Czech lands. Economic reform and initial restructuring had far more serious consequences in Slovakia. Economic problems contributed to the popularity of new movements on the Slovak political scene, requiring fundamental change in the constitutional arrangement. In June 1992, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko) led by Vladimír Mečiar won the elections. In Czech lands, the right wing party and its leader Václav Klaus took power, aspiring to hasten all the reforms. The new national governments did not manage to agree on two basic questions, which were the constitutional arrangement of the country and the concept of economic reform. For this reason, the presidents of national governments, V. Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, personally decided to divide up the state.

In the first period of existence as a separate country, until the end of 1995, favorable trends predominated in the Slovak economy, which were a consequence of the government’s actions to defend the new currency and the independent economy of the new country, as well as the boom in Western markets. There was a significant rise in foreign trade, increasing the share of trade exchanged with developed capitalistic countries. In October 1995, it resulted in the full liberalization of the foreign currency exchange and full convertibility of the credit account balance. For major world currencies, a fixed exchange rate was introduced, determined first by a basket of seven currencies, and then by the two major currencies (DM, USD). Initially, this arrangement had a positive influence. The government supported mainly exports with special measures such as a 10 % devaluation of the Slovak crown (Slovenská koruna) in July 1993 and a 10 % import surcharge (Beblavý 2000, 97, 109–111). Semi-finished products predominated among exports, which at that time were in demand on the Western market, mainly because of lower prices; that helped to preserve the traditional basis of Slovak industry. A balanced proportion of imports and exports was possible to sustain only until 1995. After that, imports predominated, because of a passive foreign trade balance (Jakoby 2000, 145–146).5

The decisive factors for further economic development and a change from an unprofitable economic structure resembled that of other transitional countries – an influx of foreign investments and the engagement of a country in the globalization process. Joining multinational economic structures depended mostly on the nature of privatization. In fact, for the privatization process, the first Mečiar government rejected the coupon method and was looking for its own alternative plan for privatization. In 1994, diverse views on privatization in Slovak ruling circles led to the dismissal of Mečiar’s first government and enabled the short intermezzo of Jozef Moravčík’s government. As one of its main tasks, Moravčík’s government delineated a new plan for coupon privatization. The second Mečiar government, which followed in October 1994, trashed all those ideas and presented a completely new alternative method based on bonds. In reality, the main form of privatization became a direct sale of companies to domestic investors in long-term installments, with the goal of strengthening the Slovak entrepreneurial class. This process, designated as a management privatization, had a very vague background and reduced the influence of foreign investors even more than the former state. In the years 1993 to 1995, 11 companies participated in the sale, which were priced at 4.5 billion Slovak crowns (Sk), and their share in the purchase price of the companies decreased within those years from 24 % to 11 %. In the following period, the inflow of foreign capital grew very slowly and lagged behind other CEFTA countries in that direction (Marcinčin 2000, 291–296).6 Government and economic arrangements started to affect the relationships with foreign markets in a negative way, mostly through the stable exchange rate, which led to an overvaluation of the currency, a decrease of competitiveness, and an increase of foreign deficit to a value of 81 billion Sk (Jakoby and Krautmannová 1998, 75–81).


Table 4 Inflow of foreign investments to CEFTA countries in 1993–2000 per citizen in USD.

1993 331 543 60 479
1995 771 1162 203 236 887
1997 896 1587 377 376 1232
2000 1752 1900 828 686 1507

Source: (Hošková 2001, 7–10).


A fundamental change toward the globalization of the Slovak economy took place with the formation of the reform-minded first government of Mikuláš Dzurinda in October 1998. It replaced the stable currency exchange with a so-called floating one and voided the act concerning strategic companies, which had inhibited the privatization of genuine monopolies and other crucial enterprises. A law passed introducing industrial parks and investment stimuli, which allowed for a 10 year tax reduction period, as well as benefits for requalification. The signing of an association agreement with EU in 1999 and admission to the OECD in 2000 were strong motivating factors. The stated trend deepened and expanded in other directions during Dzurinda’s second right-wing government in 2003–2006; it did so mainly by applying a consistent income tax and a value added tax of 19 %, which was a part of the tax reform from 2003, in addition to being an element of joining the EU in 2004 and preparing to join the Eurozone. A part of the government’s plan aimed to complete the privatization of strategic companies and the input of foreign capital was also calculated as part of the retirement and health system (Marcinčin 1997, 9–12; Okáli, Gabrielová, Hlavatý, Morvay, Outrata 2001, 195–197; Juríčková, Vokoun, Kačírková 2005, 57–61). In the analyzed period, Slovakia joined international economic structures. In 1990–1999, investments worth 2.3 billion USD reached Slovakia, while in 2000–2005 it amounted to 18 billion USD. In the gains in capital per citizen, Slovakia outstripped Poland and reached the level of Slovenia. Foreign investments played a crucial role in the historical change of the structure of industry, as well as in the change of ownership in other spheres of economy.

Above all, based on foreign investors’ activities, the automotive and electrotechnical industries have become the most significant sectors. Today they constitute the core of Slovakia’s economic potential (Okáli, Frank, Gabrielová, Kormanová, Morvay, Outrata 2005, 452–457; Ferienčíková, Vážan 2005, 523–524).7 The structure of investments from the point of view of their direction was not perfect. The share of direct foreign investments in the overall value of invested capital gradually rose from 40 % to 60 %, but the remaining investments accrued to the purchase of strategic companies in the form of a public tender auction. The sale of even more companies occurred below their real value and was accompanied by corruption.

In terms of regional placement, the investments were directed mainly to the southwest and northwest Slovakia, similarly to the 1930s of the previous century, while in other regions investments appeared only as small islands on the map of all investments. The inflow of investments also depended on the development of employment in individual regions, as documented by data from Table 6. It follows that investment activity in addition to the structure of the economy also affected the regional socio-economic development and became part of the deep discrepancies between different parts of Slovakia. Mainly the central, south and northwest areas of Slovakia were economically underdeveloped and, as a consequence, chronic social problems appeared, as well as political extremism. Negative factors also accompanied the hectic boom of some regions apart from southwest Slovakia, where the development of the transport infrastructure was extremely underdeveloped in comparison to economic growth (Juríčková, Vokoun, Kačírková 2005, 57–61; Dudáš 2012, 371).


Table 5 Overall value of direct foreign investments in the Slovak Republic in 2003–2008 at year’s end.

FDI in billions of USD overall 14540 20035 20989 28832 34197 37759
FDI in USD per citizen 2690 3710 3890 5340 6330 6990
Exchange rate USD/SKK 32,920 28,496 31,948 26,246 22,870 21,385

Source: Štatistická ročenka Slovenskej republiky (2008), p. 314; Štatistická ročenka Slovenskej Republiky (2009), p. 315; (Ferienčíková, Pappová 2010, pp. 459–473).


Table 6 Inflow of direct foreign investments at the level of self-governing regions of Slovakia in 1997–2008 in comparison to the level of unemployment in 2012.

Self-governing regionLevel of unemployment
in 2012 in %
Cumulative inflow of FDI
until the end of 2008 in thousands EUR
Bratislava region 5,6 19 820 110
Trnava region 11,4 2 144 839
Trenčin region 9,0 1 282 443
Nitra region 13,3 960 159
Žilina region 14,3 2018 619
Banska Bystrica region 18,0 749 386
Prešov region 18,3 233 584
Košice region 19,7 2 331 879

Source: (Dudáš 2012, p. 371).


Foreign corporations played a crucial role also in the privatization of banking, which was preceded by the reform of banks covered from public resources. Those corporations were important as well in the privatization of insurance investments and enterprising infrastructure, such as in the natural gas industry, the electrical industry, telecommunications, and partially in transportation. The entrance of international business chains utterly changed the character and structure of the market. The integration of the Slovak economy into multinational economic structures and the activity of foreign capital, particularly in certain segments of economy and non-productive sectors such as natural monopolies and strategic companies, health service, as well as in trade, are more controversial issues. That is why they triggers critique, both on the political scene and in society. The main point of the critique has become the outflow of profits to foreign countries, the danger of a reallocation of investments and production to other countries, as well as the sharp decrease of domestic agricultural and food products on the market. Another of the many problems concerns the still predominant proportion of final, or rather ‘montage’ production in companies of foreign capital, which uses cheap labor, and the low share of the domestic development of new technologies. The accompanying phenomenon of economic restructuring since the late 1990s included the decline of agriculture and the acceleration of the demise of many enterprises in traditional areas of production, such as the food, textile and chemical industries.

The incumbent leftist government led by Robert Fico from 2006–2010 halted the privatization of strategic companies and prevented the outflow of profits of private health insurance companies, which also involved foreign capital. However, most of the economic arrangements to promote foreign investments remained in force and its approach towards foreign investors did not change in comparison to the previous period. The inflow of direct foreign investments continued in 2006–2008 and amounted to approximately 17 billion USD.8 Economic and political conditions changed markedly after the onset of Fico’s second government in 2012, mainly due to the so-called flat tax and an overall increase of taxes, which contributed to a worsening business environment. Development since 2008 was affected by the onset of the global economic crisis, which substantially limited investment activity on a global scale. The economic crisis in Europe associated with the financial and budgetary crisis in the Eurozone, also influenced the orientation of world markets and Slovakia’s foreign trade. Slovakia remains a main partner of the EU, and especially Germany, but China has quickly raised its share of Slovak foreign trade exchange, and has already moved up to second place (Morvay 2011). It has proven difficult to find an alternative to economic development based on foreign capital and supranational economic structures, within the space of Europe, particularly in the EU and Eurozone.

Fundamental changes would have to occur at the global level, for example, in regard to the withdrawal of global corporations’ profits. Currently, it is in fact more a crisis of the global socio-economic system than the fluctuations in the economic cycle. Therefore, addressing global economic challenges will require long-term and far-reaching changes in global social systems.

A comparison of the business cycle in Slovakia and other central European countries after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 and the Soviet bloc in 1989 shows that the economies of the given countries, in which crises occurred, happened for economic as well as broader non-economic reasons. They were both very similar in many ways after 1918 and after 1989. They consisted of different constitutional changes as well as changes in the overall political and socio-economic system. At the same time, they logically manifested different characteristics. The extent of their influence depended on the specific conditions of individual successor states, or post-communist countries. It depended particularly on the internal structure of the economy and the level of overall economic development achieved. Initial economic conditions and other economic and political developments after 1918 and 1989 determined the depth of crisis phenomena. In countries with unfavorable initial conditions, which also included Slovakia, the national economic and political changes influenced the comparative economic cycles more substantially than the effects of global economic fluctuations, whether it was the world economic crisis of the interwar period, or the global economic crisis in 2008–2009.

A common feature of development after the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Soviet bloc in the successor states, and later the postcommunist countries, was the disruption of long-term economic relationships and the loss of traditional market outlets. A reorientation of markets followed and thereby changed the structure of the economy, leading to infrastructure problems and economic losses. In Slovakia, the mentioned factors were compounded by an unprofitable economic structure, due to economic development after 1918 and 1989. While Slovakia in 1918 joined the new Czechoslovak Republic at the beginning of the industrialization process, at the end of the 1980s, it found itself in its final phase. The unprofitable structure of the economy, focused on semi-finished goods and armaments, was the result of the economic politics of the previous socio-economic system and its state of crisis. At the same time, however, it depended on specifics of the economic strategy of Czechoslovakia before 1989 relative to the western and eastern part of the state. In interwar Czechoslovakia, the economic development of Slovak industry was realized in a common economic space with the Czech lands, where a poorly developed Slovak industry and some other segments of economy encountered competition from Czech regions. In the 1990s, that phenomenon only played a more crucial role until the dissolution of common state in 1993. The Slovak economy was still developing within the economic space of an independent country. Subsequent change occurred with Slovakia’s admission into the EU in 2004 and its integration into global economic structures.

With the establishment of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, in addition to losing traditional market outlets, also lost the support of industrialization policies of the former Kingdom of Hungary, and the corporate sector had to face serious infrastructural problems, which reduced its competitiveness. Partial changes of ownership relations appeared with processes of nostrification and land reforms. However, the continuity of a market economy remained intact. The impact of the Monarchy’s demise and formation of a new economic space in Czechoslovakia accelerated the post-war economic and deflationary crisis. The loss of production, especially in industry, was the consequence of the changing economy and also the long-term stagnation of industrialization during the business cycle of the 1920s. Stagnation was related to the slow elimination of unprofitable production conditions in Slovakia, especially in transport. The change of philosophy of the country’s economic strategy, paradoxically, stimulated the consequences of the Great Depression. An interest in creating new jobs in the 1930s accelerated the rebuilding of infrastructure and external threats led the state to investments in the armaments industry in Slovakia. A cheap labor force and the consolidation of production conditions also attracted investments in non-military production. A new wave of industrialisation had begun.

The changes in the economic structure and ownership in Slovakia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc assumed considerably greater dimensions than in the 1920s, and were accompanied by more extensive economic losses. During the last years of Czechoslovakia’s existence, Slovakia’s economy transformed from a centrally planned economy to a market economy and began the process of privatization. The influx of foreign capital depended on the character and pace of this process, as well as on the remodeling of an unprofitable economic structure created in the former regime. After becoming an independent state, the nature of privatization in Slovakia took a new direction from the political group under V. Mečiar, which slowed down the influx of foreign capital, which preserved the old structure of economy. The economic strategy of political incumbents since the end of the 1990s’ brought about an increase in foreign investments. That enabled the admission of Slovakia to the EU and, as a consequence, also to the Eurozone.

The composition of key economic sectors has completely changed. Integration into international economic structures, however, has also brought some negative effects. Dozens of viable enterprises disappeared, foreign competition undermined agriculture, new disproportions in the economic development of regions appeared, and profits from new sectors escaped abroad. Slovakia’s integration into the global economic system exposed it to global crisis occurrences, as was the case during the economic crisis in 2008–2009. The crisis phenomena, however, can only be addressed effectively at the global level.

Text translated into English: Katarzyna Kaczmarek and Michael Kopanic


Ľudovít Hallon. Born in 1958, he has been working at the Institute of History, the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, since 1986. In 1992, he defended his dissertation thesis entitled “The Development of the Energy Concept of Slovakia during the Years 1918–1938.” His professional specialization concerns the History of Economy and Technology in the 20th Century in Slovakia and Central Europe. He is an author and co-author of 6 monographs, more than 20 chapters in monographs and approximately 90 scientific studies in Slovakia and abroad. Since 2009, he has served as head of the Department of History of Sciences and Technology, at the Institute of History, of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He gives lectures on a regular basis at international scientific congresses and conferences.



1“Akce tzv. Nostrifikační,” in Deset let Československé republiky (Praha, 1928), vol. 2, p. 147.

2 Dvacet let československého zemědělství (Praha, 1928), pp. 28–29, 33, 36; Dvadsať rokov aktívnej práce v prospech zemedelských potrieb Slovenska (Bratislava, 1938), pp. 30–35.

3 Slovenský priemysel (1932), pp. 11–36, 106–107.

4 Ministerstvo privatizácie Slovenskej republiky (1999) “Vývoj privatizácie, stav december 1999,” available online at: www.privatiz.gov.sk; Fond národného majetku Slovenskej republiky (1999) “stav december 1999,” available on line at: www.natfund.gov.sk

5 Top Trend (1997).

6 Ministerstvo privatizácie Slovenskej republiky (1999), “Verejný register privatizovaného majetku, stav v júni 1999.”

7 “Vybrané ukazovatele hospodárskeho a menového vývoja Slovenskej republiky,” in Biatec 12, pp. 32–33.

8 Štatistická ročenka Slovenskej republiky (2009), p. 315.


List of References

Andrýs, Miroslav (1922) “Zoznam emisnej činnosti na Slovensku 1920–1921,” Prúdy 4, pp. 267–273.

Beblavý, Miroslav (2000) “Monetárna politika,” in Anton Marcinčin and Miroslav Beblavý (eds), Hospodárska politika na Slovensku 1990–1999 (Bratislava: Centrum pre spoločenskú a mediálnu analýzu: Výskumné centrum Slovenskej spoločnosti pre zahraničnú politiku), pp. 93–128.

Borovský, Juraj (2001) “Približuje transformačný proces slovenskú ekonomiku Európskej únii?,” Ekonomický časopis 3, pp. 434–461.

Dudáš, Tomáš (2012) “Vplyv prílevu priamych zahraničných investícií na produktivitu práce na Slovensku – sektorový a regionálny pohľad,” Ekonomické rozhľady 3, pp. 363–376.

Faltus, Jozef (1966) Povojnová hospodárska kríza v Československu (Bratislava: Vydavateľstvo SAV).

Faltus, Jozef and Václav Průcha (1969) Prehľad hospodárskeho vývoja na Slovensku v rokoch 1918–1945 (Bratislava: Vydavateľstvo politickej literatúry).

Faltus, Jozef (1987) “Zamestnanie obyvateľov Slovenska a priemyselné závody na Slovensku podľa uhorského sčítania k 31.12.1910,” Slovenská archivistika 2, pp. 73–84.

Ferenčuhová, Bohumila and Milan Zemko et al. (eds) (2012) Slovensko v 20. storočí. V medzivojnovom Československu 1918–1938 (Bratislava: Veda).

Ferianc, Ján (1987) “Sociálno-ekonomický rozvoj Slovenska v období socialistickej výstavby,” in Rozvoj Slovenska v politike KSČ (Bratislava).

Ferienčíková, Sonia and Marek Vážan (2005) “Nové trendy vo vývoji priamych zahraničných investícií v krajinách strednej a východnej Európy,” Ekonomické rozhľady 4, pp. 522–533.

Ferienčíková, Sonia and Alexandra Pappová (2010) “Foreign direct investment as a determinant of investments development path of Slovakia,” Ekonomické rozhľady 4, pp. 459–473.

Fischer, Wolfram (ed.) (1987) Handbuch der europäischen Wirtschafts-und Sozialgeschichte, vol. 6, (Stuttgart).

Godfrey, Michael (1995) “The struggle against unemployment: Medium – term policy option for transitional economies,” International Labour Review 134, pp. 3–15.

Hallon, Ľudovít (1995) Industrializácia Slovenska 1918–1938. Rozvoj alebo úpadok? (Bratislava: Veda).

Hallon, Ľudovít (2004) “Príčiny, priebeh a dôsledky štrukturálnych zmien v hospodárstve medzivojnového Slovenska,” in Valerián Bystrický and Milan Zemko et al. (eds) Slovensko v Československu 1918–1939 (Bratislava: Veda), pp. 293–365.

Horváth, Štefan and Ján Valach (1975) Peňažníctvo na Slovensku do roka 1918 (Bratislava: Alfa).

Hošková, Adela (2001) “Vplyv priamych zahraničných investícií na ekonomiku Slovenska,” Biatec 9, pp. 7–10.

Jakoby, Marek and Irena Krautmannová (1998) “Zahraničný obchod,” in Juraj Borgula (ed.), Sľuby a realita – Slovenská ekonomika 1995–1998 (Bratislava: M. E.S. A. 10), pp. 75–81.

Jakoby, Marek (2000) “Zahraničný obchod,” in Anton Marcinčin and Miroslav Beblavý (eds), Hospodárska politika na Slovensku 1990–1999 (Bratislava: Centrum pre spoločenskú a mediálnu analýzu: Výskumné centrum Slovenskej spoločnosti pre zahraničnú politiku), pp. 139–160.

Juríčková, Vilma and Jaroslav Vokoun and Mária Kačírková (2005) “Zmeny v správaní podnikovej sféry v priebehu transformácie ekonomiky Slovenskej republiky,” Ekonomický časopis 1, pp. 49–62.

Kováč, Dušan et al. (2004) Slovensko v 20. storočí. Na začiatku storočia 1901–1914 (Bratislava: Veda).

Lacina, Vlastislav (1996) “Dynamika průmyslového rozvoje v meziválečném Československu,” Český časopis historický 2, pp. 281–302.

Lacina, Vlastislav (1974) Krize československého zemědělství 1928–1934 (Praha: Historický ústav ČSAV).

Landau, Zbigniew and Jerzy Tomaszewski (1971) Zarys histrorii gospodarczej Polski 1918–1939 (Varšava).

Lodnák, Miroslav (2012) Ekonomické reformy v Československu v 50. a 60. rokoch 20. storočia a slovenská ekonomika (Bratislava: Historický ústav SAV – Typoset).

Marcinčin, Anton (1997) Zákon o strategických podnikoch. Krok späť? (Bratislava: Slovenská spoločnosť pre zahraničnú politiku).

Marcinčin, Anton (2000) “Privatizácia,” in Anton Marcinčin and Miroslav Beblavý (eds), Hospodárska politika na Slovensku 1990–1999 (Bratislava: Centrum pre spoločenskú a mediálnu analýzu: Výskumné centrum Slovenskej spoločnosti pre zahraničnú politiku), pp. 283–307.

Morvay, Karol et. al (eds) (2011) Hospodársky vývoj Slovenska v roku 2010 a náhľad do roka 2012 (Bratislava: Ekonomický ústav SAV).

Okáli, Ivan and Herta Gabrielová and Egon Hlavatý and Karol Morvay and Richard Outrata (2001) “Economic Development of Slovakia in 2000,” Ekonomický časopis 2, pp. 195–241.

Okáli, Ivan and Karol Frank and Hana Gabrielová and Ľudmila Kormanová and Karol Morvay and Richard Outrata (2005) “Hospodársky vývoj Slovenska v roku 2004,” Ekonomický časopis 5, pp. 451–498.

Skorkovský, Jaroslav (1923) Banky a peňažné ústavy na Slovensku a Podkarpatskej Rusi (Bratislava).

Strhan, Milan (1960) Kríza priemyslu na Slovensku v rokoch 1921–1923 (Bratislava: Vydavateľstvo SAV).

Švejnar, Jan (1993) “Czech and Slovak Federal Republic: a solid foundation,” in Richard Portes (ed.), Economic transformation in central Europe: A progress report (London: Centre for Economic Policy Research), pp. 21–57.

Turčan, Pavol (1960) Socialistická industrializácia Slovenska (Bratislava: Osveta).

Vadkertyová, Katarína (1975) “Poľnohospodárstvo na Slovensku v rokoch 1900–1914,” Historický časopis 4, pp. 417–440.

“Vybrané ukazovatele hospodárskeho a menového vývoja Slovenskej republiky” (2005), Biatec 12, pp. 32–33.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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

Izabela Mrzygłód

Harsh Reality. Living in Warsaw under Hyperinflation in 1923

19 August 2015
  • hyperinflation
  • Warsaw
  • Great Crisis
  • 1920s
  • twenties
  • interwar


The paper shows the impact of hyperinflation on the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Warsaw in 1923, focusing specifically on the situation of those population groups who earned their income. It analyses the problem of a drop in the value of real wages and the way households were managed at the time of rapid collapse of the value of money. The article shows the changing life conditions of the inhabitants of Warsaw in the face of economic crisis and attempts to answer the following questions: What were the costs of hyperinflation for the population of Warsaw? What strategies did Varsovians adopt to protect themselves against economic losses? What kind of an impact did financial hardship have on social relations in Warsaw in the early 20th century? Hence, the paper follows in the tradition of historical research into everyday life adding a bottom-up perspective to the portrayal of the Polish hyperinflation, a dimension which is rarely present in the relevant publications by economists and economic historians.


1. Polish hyperinflation – Introduction

The Polish inflation of 1919–23 was a legacy of the financial policy pursued by the Central Powers at the time of the First World War. Its post-war development, however, was determined by the specific situation of Poland. The country regained its independence in 1918 and was only just beginning to create its structures and the economic system, and yet had to face the challenge of post-war reconstruction and the need to finance the war it waged against Bolshevik Russia. To cover all these expenses, the state took out loans with the Polish State Loan Bank, which printed Polish marks for that purpose. Although inflation was deepening quickly as a result, it was used after the war to boost the economic situation. In 1923 inflation accelerated dramatically and the weak Polish economy slid into depression. Come autumn, the country found itself “in the abyss of hyperinflation, the very ‘heart of darkness’, destroying all foundation of social and state existence,”1 wrote Andrzej Wierzbicki, director of the largest association of industrialists. In June 1923, after a short period of stability, the exchange rate of the Polish mark dived in response to the collapse of the German mark.2 From that moment on, the value of the Polish currency was on a downward spiral until the exchange rate crashed in October. On the last day of May 1923, there were 52,875 Polish marks to a dollar; on 31 December – 6,375,000.3 In January 1924, the Polish currency hit rock bottom. On 10 January, one dollar could buy 10,250,000 marks.4 The rate was expected to fall further to 15,000,000 or even 20,000,000 marks per dollar,5 but the forecast never materialised. The process of the Polish mark losing value is illustrated by Table 1.


Table 1 Drop in the value of the Polish mark

Date Wholesale price index
(January 1914 = 1)
Growth rate
(in %)
Dollar exchange rate index
(January 1914 = 1)
Growth rate
(in %)
31/01/1923 5,391 7,804
28/02 8,431 + 56.4 11,494 + 47.3
31/03 9,784 + 16.0 10,051 – 13.6
30/04 10,481 + 7.1 11,700 + 16.4
31/05 11,130 + 6.2 12,563 + 7.4
30/06 18,623 + 67.4 24,167 + 92.4
31/07 30,387 + 63.2 40,000 + 65.5
31/08 52,408 + 72.5 59,206 + 48.0
30/09 72,278 + 37.9 75,873 + 28.2
31/10 276,487 + 282.5 401,224 + 428.8
30/11 679,437 + 145.7 872,897 + 117.6
31/12 1,423,007 + 109.3 1,502,976 + 72.2
31/01/1924 2,521,667 +77.2 2,267,063 + 50.8

Source: Edward Taylor, Inflacja polska (Poznań, 1926), p. 23.


Rapidly growing prices and a fall in the value of real wages shrunk the internal market. It was not only the purchase power that decreased as people had to radically curb their spending. Seeing its income dwindle, the state, too, was forced to cut down on public procurement. This was because hyperinflation exacerbated the chaos in public finance. Although the budgetary deficit was contained, the printing of the Polish mark brought fewer and fewer advantages.6 In addition, at the time of rising inflation, the role of direct taxes was diminished to the benefit of indirect levies. In 1923, only 9.2 % of state income from public levies comprised direct taxes and charges.7 On the other hand, all users of the Polish mark were subject to the so-called inflation tax, which was especially painful to those who lived off their wages.8

With fewer customers willing to buy products, companies scaled down their activities, which reduced demand for raw materials and investment goods. As early as March, industrial production started to gradually decline, first in the area of investment goods and then in the consumption sector. The downturn might have been slow at the beginning, but by October production was in ruins.9 A little before that, in late summer, the so-called inflationary export bounty disappeared together with all its advantages. At the same time, the loan market ground to a halt – the quickly depreciating legal tender made it impossible to obtain easy credit in the currency in circulation while creditors started asking for collateral as a form of protection from inflation-related losses.

With the industry collapsing, managers had to lay people off. The unemployment rate rose sharply in March.10 Even though it fell in the summer due to seasonal jobs, it picked up its momentum in the autumn. Also rising was partial unemployment (not visible in statistics), which consisted in shortening the working week.11 Even though we have access to economic indices, it is still difficult to establish a clear timeline for hyperinflation and the beginnings of the economic crisis in Poland. According to the popular definition offered by Phillip Cagan, hyperinflation begins when the monthly rise in prices exceeds 50 percent and continues so for many months to come. Based on calculations by Wojciech Morawski, we could pinpoint the beginning of hyperinflation as June 1923 when the inflation rate amounted to 96.7 % and stayed at 89.2 % in July.12 However, even Morawski mentions the spring of 1923 as the starting point of hyperinflation. Other scholars suggested different demarcation lines – Jerzy Tomaszewski wrote about the autumn of the same year whereas Oskar Lange saw the beginnings of the crisis in July.13 For the purposes of this paper, however, chronological boundaries are marked by political and economic events. My starting date is 30 June 1923, the day when the Treasury Minister in the centre-right government handed in his resignation after he failed to implement his reforms of the treasury and financial systems. As for the date concluding the period, I have chosen 1 February 1924 when the practice of printing the Polish mark for the needs of the Treasury was stopped. The value of money ceased to fall – from February on, the exchange rate of the dollar stabilised at 9,250,000 Polish marks14 and the government managed to secure a positive balance of revenue over expenditure.15 Even though it solved some problems, putting a stop to inflation did not bring about any dramatic improvement in the standard of living. The social consequences of hyperinflation were to be experienced for a long time yet.


2. Thematic scope and sources

The paper shows the impact of hyperinflation on the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Warsaw, focusing specifically on the situation of those population groups who earned their income. It analyses the problem of a drop in the value of real wages and the way households were managed. It poses the following fundamental questions. What were the costs of hyperinflation for the population of Warsaw? What strategies did Varsovians adopt to protect themselves against economic losses? What kind of an impact did financial hardship have on social relations? Hence, the paper follows in the tradition of historical research into everyday life adding a bottom-up perspective to the portrayal of the Polish hyperinflation, a dimension which is rarely present in the relevant publications by economists and economic historians.

The experience of inflation dominated everyday life in 1923. The period of hyperinflation may be called the “unreliable everyday”, to use a phrase by Zygmunt Bauman, which signifies a kind of reality that does not exude “safety, confidence in what is to happen and what cannot happen, what to do and what to avoid. [...] Peace and boredom.”.16 With hyperinflation the opposite is true. Fraught with many unknowns, it mars existence with uncertainty, challenges habits and belies tested strategies. It not only diminishes trust in the currency itself (which is rapidly losing value), but also undermines the authority of the state and disrupts social order.

The paper recreates the structures of everyday life on the basis of various source materials. It draws upon the available statistics, economic and sociological analyses as well as belles-lettres and memoirs. Most importantly, however, it makes use of everyday press articles, which provide much more information about the situation of Varsovians than scarce private records of hyperinflation and the very limited and imperfect economic and social studies of that time. It reaches back to dailies and weeklies of varying nature, ideology and political standpoint. Left-wing press is represented by Robotnik (The Worker), the mouthpiece of the Polish Socialist Party; right-wing press – by Kurier Warszawski (The Warsaw Courier), popular in the capital. There is interesting information to be found in sensationalist press such as Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny (The Illustrated Daily) and Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny (The Information and Telegraphic Courier). In addition to the dailies, I have also examined two weeklies – Bluszcz (The Ivy) for women and the satirical Mucha (The Fly) – as well as specialist economic journals – Kurier Ekonomiczny (The Economic Courier), Przemysł i handel (Industry and Trade) and Gazeta Bankowa (The Banking Gazette).


3. Warsaw and its inhabitants in the face of hyperinflation

In 1923, Warsaw had a population of 960,381 people.17 The largest population group in the city was made up of workers employed in different sectors of industry, but the lifestyle and the nature of the Polish capital was mainly influenced by members of the intelligentsia such as white-collar workers, representatives of free professions and public servants. Blue-collar and white-collar workers, that is the people who obtained most of their income from wages and salaries, accounted for 63.2 % of the total working population. Self-employed people who did not hire extra labour force (mainly merchants and craftsmen) accounted for 17 %,18 while the share of the group classified as bourgeoisie is estimated at 2.1 % of the total.19 This last small group exerted a major impact on the economic life of the country. Triggering mechanisms of income and wealth redistribution, inflation was a major force shaping post-war relations. It created a sort of social ladder with different professional groups located lower or higher on its rungs depending on how well they coped with the devaluation of the Polish mark. The key demarcation line divided those who drew profit from the growing inflation from those who suffered losses. Very roughly, the group of “winners” was made up of those who had access to more flexible income and resources which did not depreciate (industrialists, entrepreneurs, bankers, real estate owners). The “losers”, on the other hand, were those who earned more stable wages (public servants as well as blue-collar and white-collar workers).20 In Poland, a special role in the redistribution of national income was played by the State Treasury responsible for spending budgetary funds. The so-called inflation tax was levied on the entire population, but was especially painful for the working man (a fact postulated by T. Szturm de Sztrem21), whilst the profits went to the state and the economic community benefiting from unadjusted loans.

Rising inflation deepened social inequality and aggravated antagonisms, which often went beyond the simple division into winners and losers. It intensified conflicts between social groups and enhanced different stereotypes such as the dishonest, greedy Jew or the selfish peasant paying no regard to the public good. As inflation turned into hyperinflation, practically everyone started to incur losses (with the exception of a small group of stock market profiteers). Industrialists and bankers suffered because of the slump in the loan market and the disappearance of the so-called inflationary export bounty; entrepreneurs and merchants grappled with the problem of price calculation and the difficulty to purchase goods; white-collar and blue-collar workers were more and more affected by the drop in the real value of wages and job cuts. The Warsaw daily newspapers, however, reflected the shift only slightly and kept depicting the social groups in a way more suited to the reality of inflation than hyperinflation.


4. Everyday hardships – income and the cost of life

The wage situation in 1923 resulted from a number of factors which had previously left their mark on earnings. The war and the German occupation reduced wages on Polish territory to a very low level indeed – in 1918, the wages of workers and public servants were below 40 % of their real value in 1914. The years 1918–1921 saw a marked increase in both the nominal and real value of wages, which approached their pre-war levels in mid 1921. However, ever since that moment, a discrepancy could be observed – the nominal value of wages kept increasing, but their real value was falling and suffered from constant fluctuations as a consequence of accelerating inflation.

In order to adjust wages to the growing cost of living, a sliding wage scale was introduced. Statistical commissions calculated the rate at which the cost of living rose and the indices they published were used to regulate the amount of nominal earnings. Importantly, the adjustment complied with provisions in collective bargaining agreements adopted in different companies, provisions which were sometimes very divergent. Whether such agreements were honoured or not depended to a large extent on the good will of entrepreneurs. White-collar workers were in a worse position, which was especially true of the large group of civil servants, who were only covered by the sliding scale from February 1923.22

Warsaw applied the calculations made by the Commission for the Study of the Cost of Living at the Central Statistical Office, which announced the price growth index once a month. The calculations are shown in Table 2. Nevertheless, the indexation of wages went only so far to protect them from falling. At the time of runaway inflation, the time and frequency of payment played a key role. The most popular way of remuneration was payment in arrears, which was the most disadvantageous for workers.


Table 2 Indices of the growth in the cost of living in Warsaw

Month Half-monthly periods
(January 1914 = 1)
Monthly periods
June 1923 + 47.99
July + 57.42
August + 32.23 / + 30.12 + 72.09
September + 24.45 / + 13.97 + 41.83
October + 83.25 / + 66.91 + 205.86
November + 51.06 / + 53.67 + 132.14
December + 65.89 / + 62.60 + 171.4
January 1924 + 89.62 / + 31.72 + 149.77
February – 1.93 / – 0.23 – 2.16

Source: list compiled on the basis of information from Kurier Warszawski and Robotnik.


In 1923, the system of wage indexation developed during inflation ceased to be adequate for the living conditions under hyperinflation. The ever higher amounts of money Varsovians brought home each month could buy less and less. S. Karpiński, president of one of the Warsaw banks in 1923, wrote the following entry in his diary under 2 August: “I paid a million for a pair of shoes and 5.5 million for clothes. The salary I got from the Bank in July was 15 million.”23 Prices of goods, including necessities, rose each day and the cost-of-living allowances could not offset the losses suffered as a result of inflation. This is why real wages were subject to sharp fluctuations. According to calculations made by T. Szturm de Sztrem, the index of real wages in the industrial sector in the second half of 1923 looked as follows:


Table 3 Index of real wages in the industrial sector in the second half of 1923 calc ulated in marks of the pre-war purchasing power (year 1914 = 100)

June 79.8
July 69.8
August 80.4
September 97.8
October 60.9
November 86.7
December 84.5

Source: Jerzy Tomaszewski, Stabilizacja..., p. 18.


Any attempts to adapt the sliding wage scale to the reality of hyperinflation were doomed, the calculations made by the commission giving rise to more and more controversy. From August on, the Statistical Commission started calculating the growth in the cost of living every two weeks, but this only produced a temporary improvement. The calculations were increasingly imprecise. The figure of 132.14 % calculated for November invited the following comment in The Worker: “This is of course valid for the most modest, almost starvation budgets. [...] But if you take the price of bread as the index [...] than the ratio will be even more striking: on 15 November, the price for 1 kilogramme of bread was set at 59,000 Polish marks by the commission [...], while on 30 November, the official price of bread was 160,000 Polish marks, which means it rose by almost 200 %.”24

On 6 December 1923, the Parliament passed an act on taxation adjustment, which was to enter into force on 1 January 1924. The practice of calculating some public levies on the basis of a unit with a fixed value (the reference zloty) triggered the process of adjusting other regulatory liabilities as well.25 Even though the introduction of a fixed measure of value was welcomed, the calculation of prices was still the biggest cause for concern. The adjustment of taxes, excise duties and railway tariffs led to another price increase while the calculation of product value provided sellers with new opportunities to abuse the system.26

Wages were adjusted more slowly, even though the Central Trade Union Commission demanded as early as mid-December that a relevant act be adopted by the Parliament.27 From January, the requirement to calculate wages on the basis of the fixed measure of value was introduced for different groups and included in collective agreements.28 Wage adjustment stoked conflicts between workers and entrepreneurs as the latter tried to use the adjustment to reduce wages and were unwilling to pay cost-of-living allowances to adjusted remuneration. Employers justified the practice by the worsening situation in the industrial sector.29 In spite of such difficulties, the real value of workers’ wages increased in the first half of 1924.30

At the time of hyperinflation, Varsovians incurred higher costs not only in terms of the rising cost of living, but also the increased transaction costs related to everyday shopping. The time spent looking for hard-to-find products or visiting various shops to compare prices added to the cost of purchased products and increased their value in the eyes of consumers.

What was especially time-consuming was queuing up for necessity goods. Queues were part and parcel of hyperinflation-stricken Warsaw. Sensationalist press reported in July: “Sugar queues have become so commonplace in the recent weeks that today there is no store in Warsaw before which large crowds of women have not been gathering since the small hours.”31 Errands which involved long waiting were often entrusted to people who had time to spare, that is the old and the unemployed.32 But in some situations, governmental regulations made purchasing a product conditional on presenting the passport33 – such was the case of sugar, whose rations had to be collected by Varsovians in person, a provision which caused serious problems for the working population. The additional time and energy put into trade transactions is sometimes called the shoe leather cost.

Inflation also gave rise to calculation problems. S. Karpiński wrote in November: “The constant calculations and additions of the cost-of-living allowance mars our work at the office.”34 Companies and institutions struggled to calculate allowances and recalculate capital. Each Varsovian, regardless of their level of education, had to face the problem of multi-million transactions. Inflation taught the “common cook” as well as a member of the intelligentsia to do their sums.35 The very figures posed problems – people tried to tell the difference between a billion and a trillion with the press offering helpful tips.36Tiresome mathematical operations were a necessity adding time and energy to the costs of hyperinflation.


5. Adaptation strategies – household budgets

Confronted with rising prices and a drop in the real value of wages, Varsovians had to make serious changes in the structure of their household budgets and the way they satisfied their needs. Planning everyday expenses posed many difficulties. Z. Kaliciński remembered how his father would collect his wages and then “take a sheet of paper and a pencil, arrange the banknotes in little stacks and then count, write, sum up.”37

How extensive the changes had to be depended most of all on the initial situation in a household. A small number of Varsovians did not have to modify their budgets at all – the resources they had gathered allowed them to maintain their previous standard of living. Cuts and reductions could only be made by those families which still earmarked some of their funds to satisfy higher order needs and had a complex structure of consumption. This was not the case of households whose income only sufficed to afford the basics, let alone those where people lived at the minimum subsistence level. At most, they could resort to reducing starvation diets.

Wherever possible, people tried to consume more rationally, a good illustration of which is summer vacations taken by the intelligentsia. In spite of the growing pauperization, the group found it hard to compromise on their ingrained code of social behaviour. Consequently, efforts were made to cut down on costs rather than give up leisure trips altogether. High prices in well-known spas made smaller places more popular and foreign destinations were losing out to domestic ones.38

Most often, however, summer vacations were simply taken out of the budget. This was due to the shrinking discretionary fund, that is those resources which were set aside for additional and spontaneous expenses related mainly to tourism and culture. Books and newspapers were among the first items to go in the austerity drive. This raised fears of society becoming barbarised. The Warsaw Courier offered the following comment: “Purchasing anything new becomes a luxury. Black marketeers don’t buy books because they don’t want to – the intelligentsia, because they can’t afford them.” .39 People tried to compensate for the losses and find new ways of satisfying higher order needs. Władysław Berkan, a worker returned from Germany, wrote in his memoir: “I used to subscribe to about fifteen different newspapers, but now have to do with just one. And if the newsagents keep raising prices like that, I will stop at reading the free-of-charge copy of Postęp (Progress) on the tram.”40 Yet another way to read gratuitously was to consult newspapers in cafes. Budget cuts sometimes encroached on education, especially when children were forced to go to work to help their parents.

People also gave up all amenities and investment in home furnishings – furniture “one owns has to suffice as long as the new one doesn’t get cheaper.”41 After the July increase of telephone tariffs, the press reported the common phenomenon of people giving up their phones not only in private flats, but also in offices and pharmacies.42 In August, it was noticed that many consumers postponed the repair of their gas installations as a way to avoid gas bills.43 People tried to reduce the cost of buying clothes, too. One way to curb consumption in this area was to use old items kept for a rainy day. And so they would repair and darn damaged articles of clothing and wore down those which have already finished their useful life.44 If new clothes had to be obtained, they were bought in second-hand street markets offering them at bargain prices.45 The Fly often included cartoons depicting a member of the intelligentsia or a worker in tatters,46 visibly unable to afford new shoes or clothes. A lot of Varsovians could not replace the clothes they had had since 1914 so their appearance was not very far from the one shown in the cartoon.

In order to be less reliant on paid services, people either substituted many of them with home work or simply gave them up. In August, for example, after yet another increase in ticket prices, the number of people travelling by tramways dropped significantly.47 At the time of high prices, W. Berkan cut down on barber services – he would shave at home and have his hair washed by his wife.48 However, the savings thus generated entailed opportunity costs in the form of the time and energy necessary to perform the necessary activities.

By cutting spending on higher order needs it was possible to rebalance household budgets. The share of basic goods and services, especially food, increased as a sign of society getting poorer. Yet, economies had to be made even in this category. The Ivy, whose target readership was made up of well-to-do women, offered recipes for cheap ginger bread and biscuits.49 Still, the recipes suggested in the periodical were beyond the reach of many Varsovians. One of the readers of a sensationalist daily wrote: “With prices at such exorbitant levels, I have very modest expenses: breakfast for 5.000 marks, lunch for 10.000 marks and supper for 5.000 marks, which makes up 20.000 marks per day or 600.000 marks per month.” The person earned 575,190 marks at the time. The low cost of food, which he could not afford anyway, was due to the fact that he dined at his relatives’.50 The pauperized white-collar workers were also saved by collective catering establishments run by social welfare organisations, which used post-war supplies from American food aid campaigns. 51

The need to slash household budgets radically combined with the difficulty in satisfying basic needs made people focus on the material aspects of everyday life and their own problems. Care for the public good was pushed to the background. A journalist writing for The Warsaw Courier deplored the fact that there are no people willing to help the Women’s Work Club, a charity organisation.52 Concluding the description of the economies he had made, W. Berkan said: “What do I care for others! At a time like that, everyone tries to save himself as best he can. [...] Those [...] who have to limit themselves and draw on their old juices are the most numerous.”53

Members of those households which operated at the subsistence level put all their time and energy into satisfying the needs from the lowest section of Maslow’s pyramid and reducing deficiencies. This is aptly put by The Fly in its Ode to the Stomach: „Żołądku mój jedyny. Przy tym Nowym Roku / Życzę ci, bym cię zgubił na ulicy w tłoku, / Bo powiedz, kiedy marka nasza całkiem kona, / Kiedy dolar przeklęty sześć i pół miliona, / Kiedy mąka miliony, pustki w mojej chacie, / Powiedz drogi żołądku, czym napełnię ja cię?” (O my dear stomach. It is my New Year’s wish / That you should get lost somewhere in the crowd / As the mark is on its death bed/ And there are six and a half million to the cursed dollar/ As flour is worth millions and the pantry is empty/ Tell me, my dear stomach, how should I fill you?) .54 The poem was published on 28 December 1923 – trade was already in the doldrums due to reduced shopping activity and Warsaw, suffering from high prices, was additionally hit by winter problems with food supply.


6. Adaptation strategies – extra sources of income

The drop in the value of real wages forced Varsovians not only to curb their household spending, but also to look for new sources of income. A oneoff inflow of cash could be ensured by the sale of an unnecessary object such as the tailcoat sold by the hero of the novel Przedwiośnie (The Coming Spring).55 The extensive classified advertisements section of The Warsaw Courier, where typical ads by shop, company and workshop owners prevailed, also featured adverts by private persons. As the indicated time when a potential transaction could take place were most often in the afternoon, we may assume that such ads were published by working people. A lot of the ads were about the sale of furniture and clothes. For example, the following offer was made at the beginning of August: “For sale: double bed, sturdy with nickel bars, net and mattresses. 16/2 Kopernika Street; from 5–7 p.m.”.56 In addition to the sale of chattel, extra income could be obtained by pawning objects, which gave the owner a chance to buy them back once the financial situation in the household got better. However, the options to sell or pawn things were limited, especially in a society which had come out of a war and had struggled with economic problems for a number of years.

Another way to improve the household budget was to look for additional earnings and find work for every family member. Many public servants looked for a second job, a tendency described by Stefan Kozłowski in his study on bank employees.57 Wives and children were also forced to undertake paid work. The share of women in the total working population in 1918–1923 was the highest in the entire interwar period.58 Even though the professional activity of Warsaw women increased in the second half of the 19th century59 and was often a necessity at the time of war, undertaking paid work by women who had children was a limited phenomenon – the traditional family model was dominant among the working class.60 This is why, at the time of hyperinflation, wages earned by women and children were perceived as a sad necessity and a sign of pauperization.61

In the intellectual milieu, women’s work was more common, especially in the creative and progressive circles, but even there earning money by wives and mothers was often seen as an economic necessity. Newspapers describing the story of Leon Brześciński, who was made redundant, mention the fact that his wife found employment only when her husband had been laid off, but her earnings were not enough to support a family of three.62 The reason is that work performed by women did not bring as much profit as men’s work, women’s pay being lower than men’s in most sectors of the economy.63

Inflation forced people to rationalise their household budgets and create new forms of saving wherever it was possible. The rapidly depreciating Polish mark could not hold value effectively, which explains the disappearance of the traditional form of saving through putting aside part of the income. In their flight from the mark, people looked for alternative means of hoarding such as non-depreciable goods, foreign currencies and corporate stocks.64 Playing the stock market could be a very lucrative activity at the time, the boundary between saving and getting profit from speculating in stock being blurred. The records and memories of the period often mention the “stock market rush” among Varsovians. Józef Świdrowski recounts: “At the time of advanced inflation, stock market speculation was rife. [...] Joint-stock companies mushroomed and people bought stock without asking about the value of the companies or their line of business. One day, I skipped school and went to Warsaw [...] to buy stocks.”65 This caused concern as currency depreciation made its impact on the way people treated work – it made them believe that it was possible to achieve success quickly and without much effort. As was noticed by E. Taylor, new models of wealth emerged: „It made the unscrupulous profiteer successful. Thus was the most bitter fruit of inflation born – the ‘moral inflation’, which permeated the entire social structure and cast its shadow on the post-inflation period.”66

Press reports of crimes related to inflation and social pauperization other than profiteering are equally numerous. The unprecedented scale of money circulation and the common avoidance of the mark created conditions for various forgeries. People forged banknotes, shares in stock market companies and cut diamonds,67 which were popular as a way of hoarding value. Once prices of tobacco increased, counterfeit cigarettes hit the market.68

As it was impossible to obtain resources to satisfy basic needs and access to many goods was limited, some people resorted to stealing. The especially popular form of theft took place at railway sidings where loaded freight cars were parked. At the beginning of September, The Warsaw Courier reported that there were organised groups robbing trains in the area of Warsaw.69 Theft supplied households in the necessary goods whilst the sale of stolen products offered an additional source of income. We could venture a thesis that stealing basic necessities from trains at the time of the general frustration caused by reports of illegal exports may be interpreted as an act of social justice. On the other hand, the lack of response from the authorities may suggest that there was more tolerance for such offences. Moral qualms related to the breach of social norms and breaking the law had to give way in the face of harsh reality.


7. Conclusion

The experiences of Varsovians with the hyperinflation were to a great extent typical for the whole of Polish society. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in some respects the economic situation varied depending on the region of the country. The process of economic integration was progressing very slowly, despite the fact that in Autumn 1923 the Polish mark came into effect on the whole territory of the Republic of Poland (after its adoption in Upper Silesia on 1 November). Prices varied from city to city and Warsaw was seen as the most expensive one. On 9 November 1923 the magazine Robotnik (The Worker) informed that: “Warsaw, which is the seat of the main commissioner for combating high prices, Mr Bajda, and a ‘dynamic’ section for combating high prices [...], is the most expensive city in Poland, as one might easily conclude by comparing the prices in the following cities: Warsaw, Łódź and Włocławek.


Potatoes cost:
in Włocławek 600,000 measured in bushels70
in Łódź 1,000,000 „ „
in Warsaw 1,400,000 „ „ [...]
in Włocławek 250,000 measured in bushels
in Łódź 300–400,000 „ „
in Warsaw 400,000 „ „ [...]
in Włocławek 35,000 measured in litres
in Łódź 35,000 „ „
in Warsaw 65,000 „ „”71


This disproportion grew because of the wage indexation practice. For example, in Cracow the calculations of the Central Statistical Office (GUS) for Warsaw were used as a reference point until April. It was only in June that the local commission calculated the rates for May on the basis of locally collected data. The two-week calculation periods, which were introduced in Warsaw in August, were fully applied in Cracow only in December.72 The situation of the population living in urban and rural areas differed greatly, with the latter having better life conditions.

As we take a closer look at the economic strategies adopted by Warsaw consumers and entrepreneurs, we can clearly see that, faced with everyday hardship, they pushed their individual interests to the fore focusing on the overriding objective of obtaining hard-to-find products and offsetting losses caused by the quick drop in the value of money. Moral and social considerations were usually given less importance. The practices described above also created conflicts and made society very polarised, which is why the state tried to influence the worker-employer and consumer-seller relations by putting in place various regulations (cost-of-living index, wage indexation, price control, anti-speculation laws). Such steps, however, could not fully cope with the quickly changing reality of hyperinflation.

Together with the rise of prices and the decrease of real wage value, frustration and discontentment grew. As the economic situation was deteriorating, the inept actions undertaken by the authorities undermined the trust of society towards the young Polish state. In an introduction to one of his leaflets, the socialist activist Tadeusz Hołówko remarked: “Life was better under the Moscow rule! – this kind of curse may still cross the lips of women who watch the rising price of bread and the basic necessities with despair and who can buy only a half of what they used to buy with their husbands’ earnings before the war.” In this very publication he tried to explain “what the Polish worker has gained from independence” and emphasized the significance of political and national freedom as well as the achievements in the scope of law on social policy.73 Five years after November 1918, economic difficulties were dampening the joy of the newly regained independence.

The government itself, hardly able to contain the worsening economic situation and embroiled in political in-fighting, only exacerbated social tensions. The economically motivated conflict between the government and the people reached its turning point on 6 November in Cracow when striking workers were attacked by the army. 32 people died. The events showed the frustration of the general public caused by the difficult material situation and the resistance to the ineffectual policies of the centre-right government. They reverberated across Poland and in Warsaw where they compounded the feelings of anxiety and threat. They also added fuel to the criticism levelled by the opposition against the government, contributing to its fall in December 1923.

The difficult experiences of the year 1923 affected the attitudes of the society in the years to come. In 1925, when in view of economic difficulties the value of the zloty started to drop and the so called specie inflation occurred, the fear of hyperinflation revealed itself with full force. Even though the level of currency depreciation was far from the one in 1923, people panicked and started to exchange the zloty into foreign currencies. Also, at the time of the Great Depression, the fear of inflation influenced the decisions taken by the Polish government to consistently pursue a policy of deflation.

Inflation-related problems were also an important factor shaping the negative opinion of the parliamentary rule. In his memoir Czesław Bobrowski wrote: “In the years to follow even someone as politically inactive as me would have bitter thoughts about the functioning of the parliament and government on the political as well as economic level (the inability to control inflation).”74 Longing for order and strong authority manifested itself in 1926. The aversion towards the centre-right government of Winceny Witos and the unpleasant memories of the events of autumn 1923, paved the way towards power for Józef Piłsudski. In 1926 the socialist activist Jan Kwapiński noted: “After Skrzyński’s resignation, the creation of Witos’s government had to give rise to turmoil in the masses of the society, especially on the left, as it was a challenge mounted to the whole nation. The members of the Polish Socialist Party and Trade Unions were not wrong to say that the working class had to expect the deterioration of their situation. [...] It was assumed that the new government might unleash an even greater storm than that of 1923. All the more so because the economic situation of the country was much worse, unemployment had risen sharply, and following the news about the formation of Witos’s government, the benefits of Grabski’s currency reform were weakened. The dollar cost 11 zloty instead of 6 or 8 as before.”75 It was probably this kind of prevailing mood on the left and the fear of the return of hyperinflation that contributed highly to the social consent for radical solutions and created a favourable climate for the coup d’état attempted by Piłsudski on 12 May 1926, which resulted in the introduction of an authoritarian regime in Poland.

Text translated into English: Mikołaj Sekrecki and Magdalena Macińska


Izabela Mrzygłód. PhD candidate at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw, staff member at the Museum of History of Poland, editor of the book review section of the Internet weekly “Kultura Liberalna.” In the years 2005–2010 she studied history at the University of Warsaw. Her master’s thesis on everyday life in the period of hyperinflation in 1923 was awarded second prize in the Stanisław Herbst Contest. Currently, she is working on a doctoral dissertation on the political attitudes of students of the University of Warsaw and the University of Vienna in the 1930s. She is interested in the social history of the 19th and 20th centuries, history of women, history of the interwar period and German-speaking countries.



1Andrzej Wierzbicki, Żywy Lewiatan. Wspomnienia (Warsaw, 2001), p. 336.

2 Wojciech Morawski, Od marki do złotego. Historia finansów Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw, 2008), pp. 70–71.

3 Jerzy Zdziechowski, Finanse Polski w latach 1924 i 1925 (Warsaw, 1925), pp. 12–13.

4 Stanisław Karpiński, Pamiętnik dziesięciolecia (Warsaw, 1931), p. 314.

5 Feliks Młynarski, Wspomnienia (Warsaw, 1971), pp. 185–189.

6 Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Zarys historii gospodarczej Polski 1918–1939 (Warsaw, 1999), p. 103.

7 Jerzy Tomaszewski, Stabilizacja waluty w Polsce (Warsaw, 1961), p. 31.

8 For the mechanism of inflation tax see Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Gospodarka Polski międzywojennej (Warsaw, 1967), vol. 1, pp. 287–292.

9 Ibidem, pp. 102–103.

10 Ibidem, p. 123.

11 Idem, Robotnicy przemysłowi w Polsce 1918–1939. Materialne warunki bytu (Warsaw, 1971), pp. 164–165.

12 Wojciech Morawski, Od marki..., p. 56.

13 See: Wojciech Morawski, “Stabilizacja waluty w Polsce w latach dwudziestych na tle innych stabilizacji europejskich,” in Zenobia Knakiewicz (ed.), Od Grabskiego do Balcerowicza. Systemy pieniężne w gospodarce polskiej (Poznań, 1997), p. 118; Oskar Lange, “Koniunktura w życiu gospodarczym Polski,” in Przewroty walutowe i gospodarcze po wielkiej wojnie (Cracow, 1928), pp. 347–437; Jerzy Tomaszewski, Stabilizacja..., pp. 15–38.

14 Jerzy Zdziechowski, Finanse..., p. 15.

15 Jerzy Tomaszewski, Stabilizacja..., pp. 56–57.

16 Zygmunt Bauman, “Codzienność nasza niecodzienna...,” in Małgorzata Bogunia- Borowska (ed.), Barwy codzienności. Analiza socjologiczna (Warsaw, 2009), p. 77.

17 “Statistical Yearbook for Warsaw 1923 and 1924”, Warsaw 1926, p. 17.

18 Marian Marek Drozdowski, “Skład i struktura społeczna ludności Warszawy międzywojennej,” in Marian Marek Drozdowski (ed.), Warszawa II Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw, 1968), vol. 1, p. 35.

19Barbara Poznańska, “Skład społeczno-zawodowy i narodowościowo-wyznaniowy burżuazji Warszawy w okresie międzywojennym 1918–1939,” in Marian Marek Drozdowski (ed.) Warszawa II Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw, 1972), vol. 4, p. 143.

20 The influence of inflation on the distribution of wealth is discussed in: Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Gospodarka..., vol. 1, pp. 287–292.

21 Tadeusz Szturm de Sztrem, Żywiołowość w opodatkowaniu: podatek inflacyjny (Warsaw, 1924).

22 Tadeusz Szturm de Sztrem, Płace zarobkowe w okresie dewaluacji pieniężnej (Warsaw, 1924), p. 35.

23 Stanisław Karpiński, Pamiętnik..., p. 299.

24Robotnik, 4 December 1923, p. 2.

25Kurier Warszawski, 30 December 1923, p. 9.

26Robotnik, 1 January 1924, p. 5.

27 Ibidem, 21 December 1923, p. 3.

28 For example, bakeries started calculating wages in zlotys from 21 I: Kurier Warszawski, 11 January 1924, morning supplement, p. 3.

29Robotnik, 1 February 1924, p. 1; 28 February 1924, p. 2.

30 Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Gospodarka... (Warsaw, 1971), vol. 2, p. 97.

31Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 18 July 1923, p. 1. Also on the same topic: Robotnik, 2 August 1923, p. 1; 2 September 1923, p. 3.

32Kurier Warszawski, 13 January 1924, p. 10.

33 Ibidem, 7 September 1923, morning supplement, p. 2.

34 Stanisław Karpiński, Pamiętnik..., p. 304.

35 Rem Sygietyński, “Refleksja finansowa III,” Przemysł i Handel, 45, 1923, p. 668.

36Kurier Warszawski, 1 September 1923, evening issue, p. 6.

37 Zdzisław Kaliciński, O Starówce..., p. 28.

38 “Nasze życie: wrzesień-październik,” Bluszcz, 1923, 40, pp. 382–383.

39Kurier Warszawski, 13 August 1923, morning supplement, p. 3.

40 Władysław Berkan, Życiorys własny (Poznań, 1924), p. 317.

41 Ibidem.

42Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 25 July 1923, p. 1.

43 Ibidem, 1 August 1923, p. 3.

44 Władysław Berkan, Życiorys..., p. 316; Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 23 July 1923, p. 1.

45Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 27 July 1923, p. 2.

46Mucha, 55 (1923), 29, p. 4.

47Kurier Warszawski, 13 August 1923, p. 3.

48 Władysław Berkan, Życiorys..., p. 318.

49 “Przepisy kuchenne,” Bluszcz, 1923, 26, p. 218.

50 Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 23 July 1923, p. 1.

51 Kurier Warszawski, 3 October 1923, morning supplement, p. 2.

52 Ibidem, 2 July 1923, evening issue, p. 5.

53 Władysław Berkan, Życiorys..., p. 318.

54 “Do żołądka,” Mucha, 55 (1923), 52, p. 4.

55 Stefan Żeromski, Przedwiośnie (Wrocław-Warsaw-Cracow, 1982), pp. 268–269 (The Coming Spring, transl. by Bill Johnston, Budapest-New York, p. 327)

56Kurier Warszawski, 7 August 1923, evening issue, p. 14.

57 Stefan Kozłowski, Warunki bytu pracowników bankowych w Polsce w latach 1920–1927 (Warsaw, 1928), p. 26.

58 Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Robotnicy..., p. 248.

59 Maria Nietyksza, “Przemiany aktywności zawodowej kobiet. Warszawa na przełomie XIX i XX wieku,” in Anna Żarnowska and Andrzej Szwarc (eds), Kobieta i społeczeństwo na ziemiach polskich w XIX wieku (Warsaw, 1995), pp. 99–114.

60 Władysław Mierzecki, “Praca zarobkowa kobiet w środowisku robotniczym w Polsce międzywojennej,” in Anna Żarnowska i Andrzej Szwarc (eds), Równe prawa i nierówne szanse. Kobiety w Polsce międzywojennej (Warsaw, 2000), pp. 109–110.

61Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 14 July 1923, p. 2.

62Ibidem, 7 July 1923, p. 1.

63 Working conditions for women in the industrial sector are discussed in: Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, Robotnicy..., pp. 248–250.

64 “Oszczędności prywatne,” Bluszcz, 33–34,1923, pp. 286–287.

65 Józef Świdrowski, Moja droga w świat. Wspomnienia 1906–1939 (Warsaw, 1980), p. 108.

66 Edward Taylor, “Waluta,” in Stefan L. Zaleski (ed.) Bilans gospodarczy dziesięciolecia Polski Odrodzonej (Poznań, 1929), vol. 2. p. 243. See also: Edward Taylor, Inflacja..., p. 272–286.

67Kurier Informacyjny i Telegraficzny, 31 July 1923, p.1; Kurier Warszawski, 15 November 1923, morning supplement, p. 6;

68Kurier Warszawski, 12 July 1923, morning supplement, p. 4; 31 July 1923, p. 8.

69 Ibidem, 2 September 1923, p. 9.

70 The Polish bushel (korzec) is an old measure of dry capacity equal to 128 litres.

71Robotnik, 9 November 1923, p. 4.

72 On life conditions in Cracow: Jerzy Gołębiowski, “Podłoże ekonomiczne wystąpień strajkowych warstw pracujących Krakowa w 1923 roku,” in Józef Buszko (ed.) Rok 1923 w Krakowie (Cracow, 1978), pp. 90–91.

73 Tadeusz Hołówko, Co robotnik polski zdobył przez niepodległość (Warsaw, 1923), at: http://lewicowo.pl/co-robotnik-polski-zdobyl-przez-niepodleglosc/ (1/10/2015).

74 Czesław Bobrowski, Wspomnienia ze stulecia (Lublin, 1985), p. 43.

75 Jan Kwapiński, Moje wspomnienia 1904–1939 (Paris, 1965), p. 224.


This article has been published in the fourht issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memories of econimic crises.

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


Debate: The Memory of Economic Crisis

18 August 2015
  • crisis
  • Padraic Kenney
  • Wojciech Roszkowski
  • Matěj Spurný
  • Tamás Pesuth
  • Iga Kozlowska

Moderated by Prof. Padraic Kenney
Prof. Wojciech Roszkowski
Dr. Matěj Spurný
Tamás Pesuth
Iga Kozlowska


A panel of invited scholars discusses the nature of economic crises as historical events, with a particular focus on the ways they are experienced, interpreted, and remembered, and also their long-term political and cultural implications. The discussants in this conversation consider what makes economic memory distinct from memories of war and atrocities and, conversely, what makes them similar. They probe new lines of research that explore the sources of economic memory, the kind of language employed when remembering economic events, discursive versus non-discursive memories, economic memory as a tool of political legitimation and alternative memories, to date under-examined.


P. Kenney: First, I would like to explain why I understand that we are here. At one of the first meetings of the editorial board of the journal, I remarked that the study of memory tends to always focus on the same things. These are very important things, like the memory of war and the memory of atrocities, and maybe sometimes also the memory of revolution. Scholars discuss memory in these contexts, and there is a great deal more to say about these issues, especially since we continue to have wars, atrocities and revolutions. But I wondered whether a journal whose focus is in part on memory can explore something new? This was shortly after the Great Recession which began in 2007–2008, and so I thought, “Could we have a conversation about this?” or, “Could we not encourage scholarship focused on the memory of an economic crisis?” I suggested this, and I think everybody agreed: “What an excellent idea! We really should have such a conversation or even have an issue devoted to that topic.”

The journal wants to be at the forefront of trends in scholarship. Maybe in this case we are just a little bit ahead of the trend, and so we found that relatively few people are already working on this question of how economic crises are remembered. I should add that we did receive some excellent articles, and they are published in this issue. In most cases, though, the memory of crisis has not moved to the centre of scholarly research. But we should be confident enough to say that, just because we know relatively few people who are working on it, that in itself is not a signal that this is not an important question. Rather it is a signal that this is something worth discussing at greater length. I think I can be safe in saying that it is not only outside of this room that there are relatively few people working on this particular area. Even inside of this room, perhaps none of us would identify ourselves as working on the memory of economic crisis. And that is fine. The best way to stimulate further interest in this area is to talk about what it might look like. What we can offer in our conversation is something like a roadmap. We have not travelled this road ourselves, but we can see, I hope at least collectively, what that roadmap might look like. My hope is that not only will this be helpful for this issue of the journal devoted to memory about economic crisis, but, since it probably has not happened before that a group of scholars has spent a few hours talking about the memory of economic crisis, by doing precisely this, we can also produce something which will be of use to historians who are just beginning their research or maybe looking for a different approach to familiar areas, whether they are historians interested primarily in economic history or historians who are primarily interested in memory studies, or, for that matter, people outside of history, who work, for example, in the cultural study of memory. I hope that we might, in this way, encourage new kinds of scholarship.

Very often when we have discussion forums like this in a journal, there are scholars who have all written extensively on that topic and can speak from many years of experience working in it. That is not the situation here. We are experimenting, in effect using our knowledge of economic history or knowledge of memory to try to map out an area that would seem to be useful and productive. We have different kinds of expertise around this table representing different parts of the region. Since more expertise around this table deals with economic history, I would first like to ask, “What place is there for the study of memory within the field of economic history? How can we bring the study of memory into economic history?”

W. Roszkowski: Taking a step back, I would first like to express my anxiety about certain differences between what we call the study of memory, politics of memory and history in itself. I think that they are very often confused with each other. Politics of memory is basically politics. It uses history, while explaining or appealing to memory, or trying to prove certain things referring to memory which do not necessarily ring true. Anyway, it is a kind of instrumental approach to memory. Secondly, the study of memory is a field, a scholarly discipline, one that is very difficult to intuitively grasp, because memory is very hard to measure. First of all, there is the problem of collective memory, which is a philosophical issue. I do not believe in collective memory, but rather in the sum of individual memories. Next, I would like to ask how we can measure concepts such as hunger, joblessness, etc. as memories, and not as they were actually experienced in real life. Basically, we have a problem here with an image perpetuating the idea that economic memory can be remembered in terms of very simple words such as “hunger,” “fear,” “losing jobs,” “poor pay,” “good pay,” things like that. Usually, economic memory stores bad experiences rather than good experiences. And then there is another field of expertise. There is history itself, the history of events. Of course, in this case it is also “told” by someone and to some extent it is never really true. And the final question here is language. A great deal of memory is stored in simple terms, but the economic reality is told in scholarly economic history using pretty complex terms. If I explain to somebody who is praising the Gierek years here in Poland in the 1970s, that the productivity of fixed capital was declining, then we are instantly moving in different worlds. He is going to say, “Well, I remember Coca-Cola. I remember the Maluch, you know, the small Fiat, but what you just told me is beyond my comprehension. What does productivity of fixed capital mean?” Yet this concept is crucial to understanding the economic decline or the indebtedness of the 1970s. People did not care about the indebtedness, because it did not affect them directly. What affected them were the shopping queues, the length of the actual lines they had to stand in to buy groceries.

P. Kenney: Don’t we also remember wars or atrocities in simple terms?

W. Roszkowski: We use simple terms when we speak of individual memory. Whenever I say something about the general events of the war, usually somebody stands up and says, “No, no, no, my story is different.” So there is a certain collective experience, and then there are individual stories. Usually, they accumulate to form this general image, but there are individual exceptions.

P. Kenney: So, in the case of war, people want to share their individual experiences and think of them as very individual experiences, whereas in the case of economic memory their story might not be so individualistic. Instead, they would say, “I too was hungry, I also had a problem,” or, “I was part of something that everyone else experienced.”

T. Pesuth: Because Professor Roszkowski mentioned the difference between collective memory and individual memory, I would like to start with a joke that is connected to this theme. An economist says: “If my neighbour’s friend is unemployed, then we speak about an economic downturn. If my neighbour is unemployed, then that’s a recession. And if I am unemployed, then that’s a crisis.” Memory studies is an instrument or tool that can be applied to economics. If we take a look at the history of economic history, then we can see that over the past 20 to 25 years, there has been nothing but cliometrics. Cliometrics is all about using economic tools to analyse a historical event, but only from a quantitative approach. I think that since the crisis of 2007–2008, this has changed, because we can now adopt qualitative approaches, while taking into consideration cultural, political, and other contexts. Stanley Fischer, the former Governor of the Bank of Israel and now the Vice-President of the Federal Reserve said, “I think I have learned as much from studying the history of central banking as I have from knowing the theory of central banking, and I advise all of you who want to be central bankers to read history books.”

P. Kenney: Well, after all, if we are looking at how people behave economically, they behave in a particular way because of things they know. In other words, things they remember.

T. Pesuth: We always say that people act rationally, but that is not true. There is also an emotional aspect to our activity that is sometimes derived from memory.

M. Spurný: I am a social and cultural historian, but now I understand it is not so easy to find experts specialising in the memory of economic crisis. I also liked very much the distinctions which Professor Roszkowski proposed, because I think it is important to differentiate between the politics of memory and the study of memory. If we are going to talk about remembering an economic crisis and instrumentalising this memory within a political context, then this is a great topic and we will really have plenty to talk about. I think, for me, as a social historian, one of the crucial notions which might connect these topics is the concept of legitimacy, in the Weberian sense of the legitimacy of a system of domination. Remembering economic crisis may even be more important than remembering wars and conflicts. The mid-20th-century crisis of liberalism in its entirety and the Great Depression are both crucial topics. Remembering of the Great Depression acted as crucial justification for the legitimacy of all types of fascism, corporatism, and of course socialism as well. One of the ways forward is to study the memory or acts of remembering connected to different generations. The generation that remembers the Great Depression is dying out, and the ensuing political elites obsessively used remembering of the Great Depression as a symbol of the economic crisis of liberal capitalism in order to legitimise themselves. This was very effective in the 50s and 60s, and maybe even partly in the 70s, but this approach lost its impact in the 80s, because there were no longer as many people old enough to remember what it means to be unemployed or hungry. But this has not been a popular topic within memory studies, so I agree that historians should pay attention to the memory of economic crisis, because it may not only serve as an important framework for understanding change and the decline in the legitimacy of state socialism, but also the turn towards neoliberalism in the discourse dominant in the West in the 70s.

W. Roszkowski: From what Dr. Spurný said, I see another distinction which I think is very important, and that is the memory of events that people were witness to and the memory of events that people were told about. This is particularly noticeable in Poland, because my generation, for instance, very well remembers the Gomułka years, the Gierek years, and Martial Law. My son was 3 years old when Martial Law was introduced, but he remembers standing in lines for groceries with his mother. But someone who was born in 1988 or 1989 has no memory of economic decline whatsoever. And that constitutes a big difference. I think that the study of memory should not only focus on the things that people remember, but also on the things that people do not want to remember. This reminds me of what was said about the decline of liberal thought and the approach to liberalism in the 30s, 40s, and so on. Currently, how much do people remember of the decline of the command economy? Very little. They do not want to remember it, because it was so humiliating. They do not want to remember this terrible time in which they were forced to do things they did not want to do. They were wasting time and energy. It was a wasteful experience.

P. Kenney: Perhaps memory of economic crisis is really a fundamental kind of memory relating to the legitimacy of regimes, and thus we can best understand the decline or the success of some regimes by how people remember economic experience. This suggests that scholars of memory should be spending more time looking at this kind of memory rather than the memories of atrocity and war taking place during the period between regimes. If you are remembering World War II, you are remembering something between regimes. At the time, it was not obvious that we were between regimes, but now we know that was a period when the world was about to change from one set of regimes to another. Revolutions, wars and atrocities, all unusual situations, can be viewed as those periods in between. And Dr. Spurny is suggesting, and I think this is very compelling, that in fact, a central memory story of the 20th century is the memory of how things are “most of the time.” At the same time, there are things that people do not want to remember and often this is the experience of humiliation, of not having a job, not having enough food, not being able to take care of one’s family, having to stand in line. These are things that people suppress from their memories, so on the one hand, these are possibly the most important memories, and on the other hand, they are memories that people do not want to talk about having. This is where I would like to introduce the concept of non-discursive memory. Maybe what has happened with memory studies is that, quite naturally, people have studied discursive memories, things that everybody writes about and have the language to write about. We sometimes say that writing about atrocities is beyond our ability. The Holocaust is a case in point. Yet thousands and thousands of people who experienced the Holocaust have written about it. There are mountains of literature about that, so this is very much an instance of discursive memory. And here we are talking about memories that in a way do not get written about. So is it useful to make a distinction between discursive memory and non-discursive memory? And if we are talking about a kind of memory people push aside or suppress, or at the very least do not write about, well, then, what can a historian do?

M. Spurný: I have a slight problem with this distinction between discursive and non-discursive memory, especially when we are talking about economic crisis. Let me give an example. The most significant social protest of interwar Czechoslovakia was the so-called Most Strike. Most is a city in Northern Bohemia with a tradition of coal extraction. There was a protest in 1932, which resulted in dozens of dead and injured miners. This protest had already become a big topic in the inter-war period, with leftist intellectuals who supported the miners participating in the discourse. Afterwards, especially after the war and within post-1948 state socialism, this memory was reinforced a great deal. Miners wrote down their memories of the crisis and the strike. Hundreds of these memories were put together, and up to the 80s, three hundred publications and articles were written about this event. It was a crucial topic for the leftist narrative of inter-war Czechoslovakia, as well as Czech history embracing the entire 20th century. This is just one example that begs the question of whether we can really talk about nondiscursive memory.

P. Kenney: Also in Poland in the 1930s, memoirs of the unemployed were collected, and this was a very powerful collection. That is another good example where something clearly not discursive became quite discursive.

T. Pesuth: We have to distinguish between having memory and understanding it.

P. Kenney: It seems that discursive memory is that which can be explained and non-discursive memory is that which cannot be explained. For example, a memory connected to the Holocaust can dictate certain behaviour. Some people may say “Well, we don’t want to travel to Germany or perhaps to Poland because terrible things happened there generations ago,” and that is something that can be passed on and explained through memories of the Holocaust. On the other hand, if someone in the family insists on buying 40 kilograms of potatoes in November, she might not say “Well, I’m doing this, because in 1932 we were very hungry.” So in that sense, it’s a non-discursive memory. You just say, “It’s what we do, we buy a lot of potatoes and that’s why the closet is full of potatoes,” and nobody says “that’s really strange, why is there a closet full of potatoes?” So in that way it is a memory which is not explained. At some point, there will be a generation that says “Why do we have so many potatoes?” and nobody is quite sure why that has happened.

M. Spurný: I agree with you that memories of economic crisis are more difficult to understand and explain to subsequent generations in a manner that allows them to internalise them. However, I do not think that people failed to speak about these experiences, because we have studies, publications, articles and collections of workers’ memories of economic crisis. We know from interviews that people actually quite often told stories about economic crisis when with their families. For example, people who were born before WWII and who were loyal to the communist system, would tell their children, “You don’t remember what it means to be unemployed, but we know how humiliating that can be. Of course, we see a lot of failures in this communist system, but at least we had a job and were not hungry.” As important topics emerged in the 70s and 80s, such as human rights and environmental devastation, this argument became less convincing for subsequent generations. On the other hand, maybe there are some differences between remembering war or deportations, and remembering economic crisis, because every human has some experience of physical pain, whereas it is probably more difficult to internalise the experience of scarcity, of not having enough, of being exploited. This slight difference may be important for answering the question of why remembering economic crisis is so bound to single generations, yet loses its impact or meaning for subsequent generations.

I. Kozlowska: With regard to the question of discursive and non-discursive memory, as a sociologist of memory, I think it may be interesting to treat this distinction as a spectrum or a process of moving from non-discursive memory – maybe we can call this bodily memory, the sort of memory encapsulated in the hoarding of potatoes – to that memory being mobilised by some groups or actors in such a manner as to become explicitly discursive. For example, people could walk past a building that survived the war and not notice it, even if someone important lived there. We can say that that is a non-discursive memory in that it fails to communicate any meaning or message. But then maybe some people in the community get together, and say, “We should commemorate this building by putting a plaque on it.” That social action then transforms the status of that object or that memory from non-discursive to discursive.

P. Kenney: We can think of massive efforts right after the war to collect memories of people who had survived the war, especially within the Jewish community. There was a very conscious effort to take something which many survivors could not speak about or did not know how to speak about, and to make it discursive. This happened quite quickly and to the extent that it became almost a default position. There is almost an expectation now, or has been for the last 25 years, that if you experienced something in the war, you are almost obligated to talk about it. It is a default thing and it is discursive. There was a similar effort from a very political perspective that sought to highlight the memoirs of the unemployed in the 1930s. So it is often a political intervention. It is the politics of the Jewish community after the war that says, “We need to collect these stories,” and it is in particular leftist politics in the 1930s, either in Most or in Poland, that says, “We need to collect these stories in order to make a particular political point.” It is a political effort that makes a non-discursive memory become discursive.

W. Roszkowski: But I wonder, first of all, what are the sources on which study of memory is based. I think we should start with this. Published and recorded memoirs plus interviews and nothing else? What more is there? I think that we should focus on the representativeness of the sources of study of memory. Because to make the study of memory as watertight as possible, as precise as possible, we should really take care to ensure the representativeness of the sources, i.e. focus not only on the language, but also its representativeness.

M. Spurný: May I be a little bit subversive? So you are making a distinction here between the politics of memory, or maybe something like collective memory, and an authentic individual memory? Yet there are many examples that would appear to suggest that very often the question of the authenticity of this individual memory is of paramount importance, because very often it is a function of the politics of memory. There is a connection between these two logoi. In fact, there is no sharp division between these two areas. Everybody who conducts interviews knows that the manner in which stories are told depends on the contemporary values that are dominant in a given time and place.

W. Roszkowski: I do think there is something useful about the concept of collective memory. I just do not believe that there is a collective mind, but rather, that there is a kind of sum of individuals’ memories. But I would like to go back to the question of how we can explore non-discursive memory. I think this can be achieved through reading between the lines. Economic history is not just about the economy. It is about many other things. It is about culture. Culture is in fact very often underestimated in economic history studies. So what are that other factors that co-exist “between the lines” if you ask a person about economic memory? I think that there are at least two. First, there is national feeling. For example, Germans are reluctant to think about the wartime atrocities. They prefer to remember the public works of Hitler in the 1930s and the big reduction in unemployment. Why? Because they are Germans. The Poles do not think about the liquidation of German unemployment. They think about their wartime experiences. In addition, they reflect on these using very specific language. For example, when posed the question, “Who occupied Poland? The Nazis or the Germans?” visitors to the Museum of the Warsaw Rising in Warsaw from Germany or other countries may say, “Oh, yes, those Nazis were terrible.” And the guides usually say, “You know, we have a problem with that, because in Poland we remember the Germans, not the Nazis. They were not all necessarily party members. They were German soldiers, German policemen etc.”. Therefore it IS important to find out what lies between or behind words that a person is using. Is this contemporary language or the language of the past? Are we dealing with the experience of this person shaped by economic experience alone, or does national feeling also play some role? Secondly, national feeling co-exists with faith. For example, what emerges from a lot of Gulag memoirs is something that hardly anyone speaks about. Frequently, people who survived the Gulag were people who believed in God. I do not know if this correlation is measurable, but it is clear that purely economic circumstances are not the only factor affecting economic memory.

T. Pesuth: To follow up on Professor Roszkowski’s focus on national feeling and faith, I would like to add that the most important thing is culture. I am doing my research on the 2008 financial-economic crisis and its effect on banking culture. I am not primarily concentrating on macroeconomic factors and employment, liquidity, etc. According to my thesis, the main factor contributing to the crisis was the banking culture, the improper banking culture especially prevalent at the “too big to fail” multinational banks, compounded by the shortcomings of the regulatory bodies. Let me use the German example. Despite the 2008 crisis and the Greek crisis, German society, German academics, German politicians and German bankers still remain under the influence of the post-Nazi regime. To this day, their very negative experience with hyperinflation legitimates what is in effect a national consensus on anti-inflationary rules. This is why it is these central bankers that most strongly disagree with the measures that have now been adopted by, for example, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In other words, memories of economic crisis can play an important role in contemporary economic policymaking.

P. Kenney: What seems to be a problem here is that economics is assumed to be an entirely objective science, so the case of the German bankers is wonderful because the assumption is, “They are German bankers, they’re the best bankers in the world, they are professionals!” It becomes very difficult to say, “Well, yes, but they have a particular perspective and a particular policy, which is shaped by history and the memory of economic crisis.” As a social historian, I was thinking about the memories of people standing in line, hoarding potatoes and so on. But what you pointed out is that there is another group of people that has memories of economic crisis, and they are bankers, corporate leaders, politicians, trade union leaders etc.

T. Pesuth: Economic memory has an important place in contemporary politics. For example, during the Greek crisis, Greece pointed out that Germany should remember that, when they were in a very bad economic situation, the Greeks helped Germany by forgiving their debt under the terms of 1953’s London Agreement. So now, why can they not do the same for Greece?

P. Kenney:P. Kenney: I think that there are a couple of closely related problems that keep coming up that I would like to put back on the table. One is the problem of sources of memory and the other is a problem of the language with which people talk about economic crisis. It seems to me that these are related because the source problem is partly a language problem. If the sources that we have are created by, perhaps, political activists who decide that it is important, for example, to interview unemployed workers or to get them to tell their stories, or artists or novelists who decide that it is important to write about an economic crisis like the one in Most that was mentioned, then we have a particular view of the economic crisis. That is the story of course of the literate people and also expressive in particular ways. It may be that as a result we lack a full panoply of sources that could really produce a good understanding of economic crisis. At the same time there is the problem of language. The point was made earlier that we tend to think about the economic crisis in very simple terms: “It was bad,” or conversely, “Things were good”. We mentioned the Gierek era and the 1930s in Germany. They are both post-crisis eras that people can remember as, “Life was good. Things worked. I had access to goods that I didn’t have before.” Therefore, given the simplicity of language and the bias of sources, it seems to me that the historian trying to capture the memory of economic crisis faces a real challenge. So, what do we do?

T. Pesuth: Concerning the issue of contemporary language, we have to distinguish between language that is understandable or not understandable. If I talk to a person who has never studied economics, and I tell him or her that actually the bankers reacted rationally on the basis of financial incentives, they won’t understand. But if I tell them that the bankers were selfish or greedy, they will understand. So this is something that we should change. It is a crucial problem that economists only talk to other economists about using their technical language.

P. Kenney: So this should be changed, so as to give people tools to be able to talk about their experiences?

T. Pesuth: Exactly.

W. Roszkowski: But the language problem is rooted in different understandings of objectives. For a banker, robbing the depositors seems rational, while for the depositors it is unfair. It is an injustice. So there are different points of view I’m afraid. Can these be brought together in such a manner as to definitely state that there is one common denominator of evaluation?

M. Spurný: Another thing that makes remembering economic crises difficult is that there is rarely a clear distinction between victims and oppressors. This is also the problem when it comes to remembering late socialism, where it is unclear whether the regime or the society is to blame. It may be even more difficult when it comes to remembering economic crisis: people know where an injustice has occurred, but there were also people who benefited financially from it. Maybe a banker ends up in prison, but generally it is hard for people to make sense of an economic crisis. So it is not only the language that is of significance, but also the nature of what happened.

P. Kenney: It seems to be precisely a language problem, because sometimes one can say, “Yes the banker is the oppressor,” or the capitalist owner is an oppressor who has thrown people out of work. Or it might be obvious to somebody that it is the banker’s fault that they have now lost their apartment or their home. But most of the time it is just a little bit harder to see that. And of course it is not the banker who shows up at your house, and says, “You must leave.” It is somebody whom the bank has hired or maybe it is the police. Being unable to say “I know who the oppressor is,” makes that story much more difficult.

I. Kozlowska: I think there is something really important about the facile distinction between the oppressor and the victim when it is applied to cases of remembering war or atrocity as opposed to those involving the remembering of economic crisis. I think this is really important, because frequently one of the goals of collective memory is to build some sort of collective identity. And, historically, that has been a national identity. In the process of nation-building, for example in Germany and Poland, collective memories were important in defining who “we” are in opposition to who the “Other” is. We are Poles, and they are Germans. With memories of economic crisis, the “Other” is less clear, and maybe that is why economic crises are harder to understand and remember.

W. Roszkowski: I would like to bring up a question that I do not think we can avoid: Can the study of memory be normative or can it not? Is it good that people have a certain type of memory or not? I think this question is critical because the kind of memory that exists in certain communities or societies very often creates a certain type of politics. If people are brought up in a false reality which they have been taught at schools, or exposed to in the family home or by the media for generation after generation, then they are different people. They become people that we sometimes cannot communicate with. Because if I say, “Well A is the truth,” and the person has been told by his grandparents and parents and by teachers at school for his whole life that A is bad then difficulties in communication naturally arise, because a person like this simply does not know the facts.

P. Kenney: I think the idea of legitimacy actually helps us put more weight on popular memory of economic crisis. Because in the end it does not matter if it is true or not that people remember the depression in one way or another, or if their memories of the communist period are true or not, or their memories of the recession of 2008 are true or not, because those memories create actual facts. People process that story in a particular way, and then they assess the current regime in a particular way. So if a politician asks, “Are you better off now than you were ten years ago?” the answer becomes a political fact, and in a way it is kind of useless for the historian to say, “No, no, no, actually that’s not true that you were better off under late communism,” or whenever it might have been.

M. Spurný: I actually do not understand the view that the perceived role of historians is to correct people’s misconceptions. If there is a reason for historians to consider memory, then it is to help extract alternative memories. For example, in post-socialism, it is very difficult for ex-party members or people who were collaborating with state security agencies to remember the past because there is a dominant narrative which makes these people semi-criminal. If they talk about their past, then all that is left for them to do is to apologise or to search for some way to justify what they did. As historians, we have to historicise. That in practice means that we should not only write about the prominent narrative, which is the narrative of those who fought against the regime, but also to show that different narratives are legitimate, and in an extreme case, the narratives of the Nazi oppressors or SS officers are as well, because they are important for understanding why things happened the way they did. There is a trend in German historiography active since the late 80s that recognises that ordinary people were also part of the Nazi regime’s power machinery, and for that reason their perspective is also important. For me as a historian, it is always important, through historicising events, to relate alternative narratives and to describe the very different positions of different social groups, because all of these groups have the right to remember.

T. Pesuth: Besides uncovering alternative memories, the study of economic memory is also an important factor in reconciliation and even in economic cooperation. One Hungarian economist stated that historical knowledge and historical awareness are factors that can increase productivity. For example, on the Slovak and Hungarian border, there is a Suzuki car factory. About half of the workers are Hungarians and half are Slovaks. If they only had a very simplified knowledge of history, the Hungarians might dislike the Slovaks because, following the Trianon Treaty, “they stole our mountains,” and the Slovaks might dislike the Hungarians because, “they were always exploiting us.” It is important that simplified economic knowledge and awareness is developed into something more substantive, so that the two groups can get along and work well together, thereby increasing economic productivity and economic cooperation within the European Union.

P. Kenney: One of the things of importance that we have neglected so far in this conversation is the vital role of gender in understanding economic memory. If we think about how people remember economic crisis, surely it would be the case that people’s different positions in a society would be relevant. For example, women who are homemakers or who are standing in line to buy food are going to remember that story in a way that is different from men who are operating differently within the economy. How would we advance the discussion about gender in economic memory?

W. Roszkowski: I think it depends on the role of women in economic life at the particular time and place. I think in terms of employment or unemployment, for instance, the memory of men and women under communism in Poland would not differ very much, because most women worked and most men worked. That is not the problem; the problem was the sharing, or not, of all the duties within the household. The memory of women in Poland during communism therefore definitely differs not in terms of whether they worked or not, but in terms of the fact that they had to combine their professional duties with household duties.

M. Spurný: I would not agree. I do not think this is some kind of anthropological constant, though there is of course a long tradition prevalent since the 19th century that women functioned in the private sphere and men participated in the public sphere.

I. Kozlowska: When we are talking about women’s experiences in economic crises, I think it might be interesting to look at periods where there was economic prosperity sometimes experienced by women as a crisis. One such memory that is very prevalent in the feminist historical narrative in the U. S. is that of women’s employment post-WWII. During WWII, there was mass employment of women in traditionally male, blue-collar jobs. In factories, and so on. When the men returned from the war, many women were pushed back out of the labour force, in what was of course a very economically prosperous time. So it might be interesting to look at transitional moments. In post-1989 Poland, for example, there was of course a difficult economic situation, but it was also a moment of great potential for economic development and many women did in fact lose out, as they were the first to be pushed out of the labour force.

M. Spurný:M. Spurný: A similar thing happened in post-WWII West Germany. Some historians talk about normalisation in the 50s when, more than in any other period, women were pushed out of various functions they had held in society. However, it is not only the question of gender differences in remembering, but also maybe one of recognition. The notion of recognition might help us to understand how things are remembered and why they are remembered. Everybody wants to be recognised, whether they are women or men.

W. Roszkowski: Recognition is a good word, because I think, in terms of language, very often in Poland this raises the question of whether women actually work at home. Are household duties work or not? In terms of national income, they are not. Somebody once said that if a man marries his housemaid, he decreases the GNP because it ceases to be a market relation. From the point of view of recognition, what matters in memory is appreciation.

P. Kenney: Thinking about housework makes me think about an essay by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, where she recalls her grandmother, who had drawers full of recycled aluminium foil that she saved and pressed out and folded in drawers. Raising her children during World War II, there was nothing that she would throw out. This is the kind of thing that is remembered, in this case only because Slavenka Drakulić opened those drawers, remembered them, talked to her grandmother about it, and is then able to create a memory out of this and connect specifically to the war. She also reflects upon herself and the way that she saves things, and how she is different from her daughter, who was born in the late 1970s and who remembers things entirely differently. Drakulić even sees that she has difficulty in communicating with her daughter about the shortages that she herself does not really remember, since she, Drakulić, was born in the late 1940s. So she does not even have these memories of shortage herself, but somehow tries to convey them to her daughter for whom shortages have no meaning. So these kinds of memories are reconstructed precisely because of the lack of recognition and despite the fact that none of these women, Drakulić’s grandmother, Drakulić herself, or her daughter, are able to articulate these experiences and relate them to clear economic processes.

Years ago I did research where I interviewed people who were workers in the 1940s to learn about their everyday lives. I found that when I interviewed men, they wanted to talk entirely about high politics. They wanted to explain communism to me, which of course was entirely useless information. When I would speak to women, they would respond very differently and say, “I remember nothing from those years.” They too assumed that I must want to talk about politics, and they did not feel competent enough to talk about that or they really did not feel like they had anything additional to say. But when eventually it became clear that I wanted to ask about daily life in a factory or about buying food, all of a sudden they had an incredible amount to say, and it was actually far more interesting. So I had to make it clear to them that their daily life is history too and that the experience of the workplace is history.

M. Spurný: I think this is a very good point. Many people think when you interview them that they have nothing to say. Sometimes it is very difficult to explain to them that they do have a lot to say, and this is also gendered. Maybe women talk about their studies and what happened during the war, and then the children came. But after that there is no story. I would like to hear from them what it was like to raise children in the 50s and 60s, but it is very difficult, because there is a deep fear that “I” wasn’t really a part of the history of that time. It is very difficult for people to remember normal life.

P. Kenney: Because it has no narrative. If you are deported, there is a narrative. Just taking care of children, you do not have a narrative. Maybe the children have a narrative of growing up. Other people have a narrative of working. That makes it very difficult to pull out that history or that memory. Again we have a memory that is lacking in structure. So a common memory in Poland of the late 1970s, and then especially in the “Solidarity” year and a half, is this idea that there was nothing in the stores. You would go to the store and there would be nothing but vinegar in the store. There is a common trope of “nothing but vinegar” and yet clearly you know there was something sometimes in the store and people were able to buy food.

I. Kozlowska: I think maybe one of the goals of memory studies that focus on women and men’s relative experiences of economic crisis may be to point out different gendered experiences and the historical moments where we see those things changing, rather than to make generalisations like “women are like this and men are like this, and it never varies through time.” Historians should try to historicise and contextualise men and women’s experiences under different conditions in different periods of time.

M. Spurný: I agree. It is not our task to say in which ways men and women are different and in which ways they are the same. Rather our task is to really show that, historically, there have been different roles for women and men and of course this shapes different memories. This also shapes how boys and girls are brought up, and this division between public/private, men/women runs very deep in societies. As historians, we have to show that perceptions are different, because people have different experiences and they remember different things.

P. Kenney: One of the things that seems to me, from this discussion, to be different about memory of economic crisis is that, broadly, and I am sure we can think of exceptions, if we ask a large number of people about memories of atrocity they may remember different things but their judgment of that thing would be largely the same. No one could say, “Well, actually, deportations, you know, there were some good things about those.”. It is going to be a negative memory, and it is not even going to depend on things they have read. With economic crisis, we have a different situation, I think, where people can regard an experience with different emotional attachments. We have a few examples that gender actually helps us to get at. We might take a period of crisis, and on the one hand, the man who has lost his job would remember it with deep shame, so much so that it would be difficult to talk about such a shameful event. Whereas the women might say, “Well, it was difficult and I felt sorry for him but you know we continued on.” Conversely, we had situations, like in late socialism, where the man might say, “Things were great. I finally had my car and I had these various opportunities.” And women might say, “My God, it was such a hassle to buy food and to feed everyone day after day.” They would remember things entirely differently. Am I correct in saying that economic crisis is a different kind of event, because people would actually disagree even about whether it was bad? Gender might not be the only way in which things are remembered differently, but it might be one of the ways that memory of the economic crisis could be differentiated even from a qualitative point of view.

M. Spurný: I do not think there is a difference between economic crisis and “other” topics, the Holocaust of course being an extreme example. If you take other war experiences or post-WWII experiences like forced expulsion, these memories too depend on the positions of people at that time. Memories of those who were expelled would differ from those who were offered the house of someone who was expelled. People’s memories also depend on their contemporary political position. Whether someone thinks that it was great that the Germans were finally expelled and we could finally have our country back, or that it is always bad to force someone to leave their home, no matter who has been forced to do this, will depend on that person’s current political position. There were probably many people who, as late as the 40s or 50s, continued to remember the early 40s or late 30s and the Aryanisation of property as a great time, because they got rich. But you cannot say that today, so memory is silenced because of the contemporary value system. Again, any difference in remembering does not depend on whether what is remembered is an economic crisis or some other event, but rather on the common values present in a given time and place.

I. Kozłowska: We have not yet brought up the practice of commemoration. Thinking about what makes the memory of economic crisis different from the memory of war or atrocities, it seems that we have many statues for war victims or war heroes, but we do not generally commemorate economic disasters or hardship. Professor Kenney mentioned the woman with the drawers of nicely folded aluminium foil, and I visualised a statue of a woman pulling this neatly folded aluminium out of a drawer.

P. Kenney: That would be a powerful image. Anthropological museums try to recover life of the 1930s, for example, or the communist period. A colleague of mine has recreated the kitchen of her parents in Lódź. At the moment it is a virtual museum, but she is trying to create a real museum out of it in Lódź, where you can walk into her family’s kitchen. And there might be a drawer that is full of the folded tinfoil. There is a monument to the Irish famine in New York, and there are several in Ireland. There are also monuments to the Ukrainian famine. These are exceptions that prove the rule because they are then recast as atrocities. They are not only memories of hunger but also of the intentional starvation by Stalin or by the British. In a way it does not matter how intentional the Irish famine was or the Ukrainian famine. The most important thing is that they get commemorated as atrocities and not simply as economic crises.

M. Spurný: You had these commemorations in the communist times, especially of heroic workers on strike and of workers as victims of capitalism. These existed in many towns and some are still there, but people do not know what they mean any more. Again, it is a question of our contemporary values, and if we historicise, we see that these monuments are commemorating victims or heroes somehow connected to economic crisis.

W. Roszkowski: You are right that, as far as monuments are concerned, we never see an image that represents an economic event.

M. Spurný: There was this Stalin monument in Letná Park in Prague which showed workers and peasants standing in a row around Stalin, and because they were standing, people would say that it was a queue for meat (Czech: fronta na maso). It was a humorous redefinition of what the monument was supposed to symbolise.

P. Kenney: That is actually a great example. You cannot have a monument of a bread line under communism. You can only have one if you have Stalin in front of a “line” that is then reinterpreted as a bread line. That is an excellent point. And I think it is a good point on which to end. Thank you all very much.


The discussion took place on 23 October, 2015 in Warsaw at the offices of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity.



Pardraic Kenney. Professor of History and International Studies, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, and Chair of the Department of International Studies at Indiana University (USA). He has written on the experience of workers in early Communist Poland, on the gendered nature of anti-communist opposition, on social movements in the fall of communism in Central Europe, and on Eastern Europe’s road from communism. His most recent book, on political prisoners in the modern world, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. He is the Vice President of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He has received many research fellowships, including from the German Marshall Fund, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Fulbright-Hays Program.


Wojciech Roszkowski. Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Silesian Voivodeship with the Law and Justice party. He sat on the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets and was a substitute for the EP Committee on Culture and Education and a former member of the Delegation for relations with Japan. From 1980 to 1983 he was a Member of the independent self-governing trade union Solidarność. He is a former fellow of Collegium Invisible and the Wilson Center in Washington D. C., and a signatory of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.


Matěj Spurný. Senior lecturer and member of the Department of Social History at Charles University in Prague. His fields of research include modern social history, nationalism and multiethnicity in the Czech lands in the twentieth century, and the history of modern European dictatorships. In 2010, he completed his PhD at the Institute of Economic and Social History, Charles University. His dissertation was titled, “Not like us. The social marginalization and integration of minorities in the Czech borderlands while ‘building the new order’ (1945–1960).”


Tamás Pesuth.Assistant Professor at the Department of Finance at Corvinus University of Budapest. He lectures on finance, monetary policy, banking regulation and international financial institutions. He is the Honorary President of the International Circle of Hungary and the Secretary-General of the Hungarian Association of Foreign Affairs.


Iga Kozlowska. Doctoral Candidate (ABD) in the Sociology Program at Northwestern University. Her research areas of interest include (trans)national identity, gender, collective memory, post-communist societies, and European affairs. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Transnationalizing Historical Memories: Memory Entrepreneurs and the Invisible Iron Curtain.” She received a Fulbright Award (2015–16) to support her dissertation research on memory entrepreneurs in Poland. In her spare time she blogs about transatlantic relations at frommoscowtowashington.wordpress.com.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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


Zsuzsa Frisnyák

Anomie and the public transportation of Budapest. The effects of hyperinflation, 1945–1946

17 August 2015
  • academic
  • Hungary
  • crisis
  • hyperinflation
  • public transport


This paper describes and analyzes the everyday effect of hyperinflation through the example of public transportation. In everyday life in Budapest, trams were traditionally the most important means of mass public transportation. The stressful atmosphere of tram journeys is revealed through the complaints written by passengers. In January 1946 the state extended the administration of instant punishment to the employees of the transportation company as well. The employees did not leave their job, because the company provided them with food. Hyperinflation loosened the ties within society, the traditional cooperation mechanisms of society became weaker, yet anomie did not lead to anarchy.


This story is about the micro impacts of the macro scale processes that baffled Eastern European Countries in the Soviet sphere of influence following World War II. What kind of macro scale processes are we talking about? The Eastern European extension of the Soviet Union’s economic and political influence behaved differently in countries that emerged from the war victorious from those that lost the war. The funding for the recovery of the Soviet economy was taken from Eastern European countries. In victorious countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia the economic and political transformation to conform to the reality of the new power structure progressed faster. These states had already carried out monetary reforms and nationalization in 1945, what’s more, they had introduced the framework for a planned economy earlier. In the years following 1945, reconstruction’s growing need for money caused financing by inflation in these countries as well.1

Nationalization and the introduction of a planned economy – i.e. the buildup of a new economic and political framework – progressed somewhat more slowly in those countries that lost the war. As far as these countries were concerned, the Soviet Union was interested in exploiting their economic resources as intensively as possible. In the years following 1945 the losers had to fulfill reparation payments, provide dismantled factories as war trophies, and sign economic contracts that were only beneficial for the Soviet Union. These liabilities forced the defeated countries to export capital in a situation in which restoration was also vital. And so inflation was much higher in these defeated countries compared to those that emerged victorious. In Hungary’s case, reparation payment amounted to 600 million dollars, in contrast to the 200 million dollar contractual obligation, according to calculations by László Borhi.2

Historical literature discusses Hungarian hyperinflation of 1945–1946 as a unique phenomenon.3 The reasons for its occurrence were explained by the financing of Hungary’s war reparation payments (issuance of unsecured banknotes) as well as by expenditure related to the support of Soviet troops stationed in the country (between 500,000 and 700,000 people). The increasing inflation of the wartime Hungarian currency, the pengő, lasted from July 1945 until the end of July 1946. In the summer of 1946 people could purchase hardly anything in the shops in exchange for their pengős, practically the only available options were barter and the illegal black market. All this meant that masses of people living on fixed incomes were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and had to exhaust their pre-war savings to make ends meet. Finally, on August 1, 1946, the introduction of the new currency – the forint (Ft) – put an end to hyperinflation.

This study aims to present the everyday effects of hyperinflation through the example of the public transportation of Budapest. Archive material in itself is not able to shed light on every detail of this story. The most precious part of the documentation – the minutes of the Directors Board Meeting of the Budapest Székesfővárosi Közlekedési Rt. (Budapest Transportation Company Ltd., hereinafter BESZKÁRT) – mainly reflect events from the point of view of the management struggling to keep the company going. Only partial archival data remained on several questions considered to be sensitive issues at the time (e.g. food supply of the employees of the company, discipline at work). Besides the written complaints of passengers, visual resources (photos, tram posters and drawings expressing the point of view of passengers) bear witness to the signs of social anomie and the everyday trials people were facing during the months of hyperinflation.

In everyday life in Budapest, trams were traditionally the most important means of mass public transportation.4 As a result of the war, BESZKÁRT suffered mainly from the loss of its rolling stock. During the siege of the capital city, 80 % of the tram cars were damaged, but the tram tracks remained in relatively good condition. By August 1945, of the 1860 damaged tram-cars the employees of the company put 1114 back into operation, which took an enormous effort. However, as a result of the provisional repair works, the number of functional tram-cars began to decrease as soon as the beginning of 1946. In January-February, 1946 only 830–920 tramcars operated on a daily basis.5 By April 1946 the tram system could only be sustained at the expense of eroding the rolling stock: trams were taken apart and their parts were used to mend broken vehicles.6 By July 1946 some 400 trams, which had been repaired in the course of the previous year, were unserviceable. The transportation overload of vechicles further accelerated their amortization. The tram track network did not suffer similar damage during the war. By the end of 1945, 90 % of the 191 km long electric street car system was in a serviceable condition. The quality decline of this network started in 1946 since the maintenance works of the previous year had failed to take place. In January 1946 the company had 18,000 employees. In 1945 the trams carried only some 208 million passengers. Performance boomed and in 1946 the trams covered as much as 80 million kilometers with as many as 410 million passengers.7 Nevertheless, this was still about 44 % less than the transport capacity registered in 1943.

The new board of directors of BESZKÁRT, which was owned by the capital city, started its operation at the beginning of August 1945, just before the local government elections held in the fall of that year. Political parties, the state and the leaders of the capital city all appointed their representatives to the board. Naturally, the company management and the representatives of the employees shared the workload of this body. The weekly board meetings were headed with great skill by Sándor Millok, a social democratic politician who managed to avoid the sharpening of political counter interests among the parties. During the period 1945–1946 board meetings were not characterized by heated debates. The board, in which the delegates of the parties were especially active, quite often failed to support the proposals of the operative leaders of the company. The majority of the board’s time was spent on discussing the current tariff increase. In 1945 alone, fares were increased eight times. During the period January 7, 1946 – July 9, 1946 tariffs were upped on 20 occasions. I present the increasing trend in travel fares by using one ticket type – the cheapest one available – as an example, the so-called through ticket. (Figure 1.) In 1944 the price of the ticket was 0.4 pengős. The data below were taken from a collection documenting the tram transportation of 1946 by compiling the passenger information posters, which were placed inside trams.


Table 1 The price of the tram through ticket in pengős in 19468

7 January 500
28 January 3 000
23 February 20 000
20 March 50 000
1 April 100 000
25 April 1 600 000
2 May 3 200 000
10 May 5 000 000
23 May 50 000 000
14 June 5 000 000 000
27 June 3 000 000 000 000
28 June 10 000 000 000 000
29 June 30 000 000 000 000
2 July 200 000 000 000 000
3 July 500 000 000 000 000
4 July 2 000 000 000 000 000
5 July 5 000 000 000 000 000
6 July 50 000 000 000 000 000
7 July 200 000 000 000 000 000
9 July 500 000 000 000 000 000


From July 9 the travel fares were not calculated in pengős anymore but in a new currency, the so-called Tax Pengő.9 From this point forward it is impossible to follow the up-to-date price increase in the archived documents. The reason for this is that information for the public about tram fares was not printed out each time it were changed, instead the company stuck the new rates on top of the old ones. (Figure 2.) The last known fare is from the period preceding the introduction of the forint on August 1. On July 25 one through ticket cost 500,000 Tax Pengős.

Theoretically BESZKÁRT had to maintain its operations from the revenues collected from travel fares.10 This, however, proved to be impossible, they even had to take out loans to be able to pay employees’ wages on time. The rate of tariff increase – due to political considerations – followed the rate of increase in wages but with a delay. The prices of raw materials and consumer goods demonstrated an even greater rate of increase. Lacking financial resources, BESZKÁRT was unable to purchase even the most necessary goods (gas and motor oil) during the winter of 1945–1946. In addition, in Hungary, due to the general lack of coal, the use of electric energy had to be limited as well. All this had an effect on mass transportation: during the bitterly cold winter months the trams did not run in the mornings in Budapest. The inhabitants of the capital city were cold, hungry and forced to take long walks on a daily basis.11

The operation of BESZKÁRT reached its worst stage in July 1946. At that point travel fares were 8 % of the price rate of 1938. The travel fares were insufficient for the maintenance of service operation even on the very day of their introduction. This was when the company management suggested – as a stopgap solution – to suspend traffic temporarily on a 41 kilometer network section. Given the incident-prone network of tracks, the missing street-cars and the limited number of ticket conductors, it was impossible to keep to the timetable. The board of directors did not agree to the suspension of operation because this plan was politically unacceptable. They decided to “maintain transportation at all costs even if it meant severe damage to the running stock” .12 Nevertheless, the limitation of public transport by tram had long been in existence. Following the forced outages of 1946 to save on electricity, the company operated a significantly lower number of trams (921 instead of 1027) than the number identified on the timetable. The month of July 1946 was made even more difficult due to the higher than average absence rate of employees: many of them returned to their homeland to give their families a hand in harvesting the crops.


Traveling conditions

On tram vehicles most often consisting of one car – apart from the driver – one conductor was on duty. The conductor basically had two tasks. Theoretically s/he had to get off at every stop and then – after making sure that the passengers were safely boarded – s/he was to blow a whistle for the driver to start the tram. During the time between the stops, the conductor walked through the car and sold tickets to passengers not having a season ticket. This work schedule worked well during the pre-war times when the trams were not overloaded yet. However, after the war the guards did not get off at every stop anymore because there were no guarantees that they had room when they wanted to get back on the tram. Instead, they leaned out of a window to start the tram. To reduce the crowdedness and to create more standing room, from February 1946 the company started to remove the middle row seats.

BESZKÁRT tried to have the police prevent passengers from traveling on the steps of the trams which was extremely dangerous.13 From time to time the management turned to the mayor to have the police deal with those traveling on the steps by heavily penalizing them. In August 1945 during a five-day action conducted by the police, masses of people taveling on the steps had their identity cards checked. But the police were also short of staff, they did not have the energy to focus on such insignificant matters. However, there were cases when the customers did not only occupy the steps in the direction of travel but also the opposite ones, moreover, they also climbed up on the roof.

Unfortunately the accident statistics of 1945–1946 cannot be compiled due to lack of data. The incomplete monthly reports which remained show an extreme and ever decreasing standard. Between November 21 – December 20, 1945 a total of 145 accidents of bodily harm occurred, of which 10 were fatal while 97 were severe. During the first three months of 1946 tram transportation was the cause of 502 accidents involving bodily injuries. Fifty died and 254 were severely injured. During this period of time, trams collided with other vehicles in 498 cases, the number of derailment cases was 131. Surprisingly, neither the managers of the company, nor the board of directors paid attention to the extreme injury indicators. No measures were taken to reduce the number of incidents.

The atmosphere on the trams was extremely tense. The stressful atmosphere and discomfort of tram travel are revealed by the complaints written by passengers. Interestingly enough it was not the circumstances of traveling (trams running rarely and overcrowded, service outages, accidents) that tested the tolerance level of passengers but the behaviour of conductors. Week in, week out, letters were sent to the company headquarters by upset passengers. The core message of these letters is the following: traveling by tram is not an enjoyable experience, why do conductors make it even more unpleasant? Don’t we have enough problems of our own, must we endure their rudeness as well? The passengers were convinced that the behavior of the conductors had changed over the previous years because they no longer wore individual identification numbers on their uniforms. Before the war there was a number on the hats of conductors. However, in 1945 one of the trade unions managed to get these identification numbers removed.14 Passengers frequently found themselves in a situation where they did not know who to complain about.

The conflicts between a conductor and a passenger almost always followed the same pattern: the conductor, irritated by the stressful work conditions swore and/or raised his hand against a passenger and the passenger found his behavior unacceptable. The second part of the conflict was spent on who was who and that the conductor should provide proof of identity immediately.

The increasingly rude tone used towards the end was also infused with political swearing and threats which had nothing to do with the original conflict. The written complaints mailed to BESZKÁRT are examples of verbal or, in certain cases, even of physical aggression. From the specific case descriptions here are some rather typical ones. Not one but two witnesses signed the complaint according to which the conductor tried to push off a passenger who was traveling on the tram steps while the tram was moving at high speed. In another case the conductor deliberately pushed off the hat from the head of a passenger thus forcing him to jump off the tram while the vehicle was in motion to save his hat for “a hat is priceless these days”.15

At another time, because the conductor was being rude, the passengers joined efforts and prevented the tram from leaving the stop. According to less extreme case descriptions the conductors gave the start signal to the driver while not every passenger who wanted to get on was able to board the tram. The company investigated the cases here and there but not too intensively. There was a general text according to which the conductor at fault was punished, reprimanded and was instructed to behave politely again.

There was one, albeit unusual, letter of praise as well addressed to BESZKÁRT requesting that a conductor should be rewarded for her outstanding behavior. The conductor lady was very polite – wrote the passenger – which was a rare experience to have on trams: “people from the countryside got on the tram with a big baggage and she treated them in the most polite manner possible and made sure that when these people were getting off, the whistle blower (the person whose job was to start the tram with a signal) did not start the vehicle, lest these people should fall off the tram, etc. This lady was behaving so nicely that several passengers noticed her and acknowledged appreciatively that such conductors also existed. I would have really liked to have all passengers traveling on that tram sign a sheet of appreciation.”16 An amusing incident related to this matter is that BESZKÁRT did not consider the rewarding of this conductor to be reasonable. The conductor lady only acted as we instructed her to behave, therefore she is not entitled to any special praise – reads the response of the company.


“the payment ethics of our passenger base are notoriously quite loose”17

As much as the passengers blamed the conductors, BESZKÁRT accused the passengers. The company incurred losses not only because the number of passengers traveling free of charge was high18

but also because of the characteristics of the tariff system. The response people gave to hyperinflation was reasonable, the number of pre-purchased tickets and one-week passes was showing a strong increase while the value of these items was declining. This was not cheating on their behalf, travelers simply took advantage of the opportunity. By May 1946 some 50 % of paying passengers traveled with a weekly pass.19 However, with the dynamic spread of weekly tickets the losses incurred by the company increased. In order to curb losses, the company limited the use of weekly passes, according to the new regulations weekly tickets could only be used for traveling to work and only those were entitled to purchase a weekly ticket who could show a proof of entitlement from their employer. Not surprisingly, the stricter rules imposed on people did not deliver any result. Employers also went along with the evasion of the regulations and issued their proof of entitlement enabling ticket purchasing to anyone without consideration. “The mass of requests placed for weekly tickets is ‘unprecedented and beyond all expectations’, ‘major companies, factories and even institutions in the capital city are issuing proofs by neglecting the rules.’” – states the record taken at the Board meeting held on June 18, 1946.20

The conductors also took advantage of the rapid tariff increase of tickets, while the management of BESZKÁRT was considering different actions to fend off the latest forms of fraud. This was a cat-mouse game in which it was always the company who was put at a disadvantage (was forced to take action). The fraudulent game conductors played was that on the day before a tariff increase they would purchase all of the tickets from their own budget and sell them to the passengers the next day at the new, higher rate. The counter action of the company: the conductors were only allowed to sell those tickets marked with a serial number, which they were given at the beginning of their shift each day. The conductors’ reaction to this measure was that they asked all passengers getting off the tram to return their tickets, which were then resold to the new passengers. This trick had a tradition at BESZKÁRT which can be traced back all the way to the 19th century. And the story went on and on.

The point of the passengers’ frauds was aimed at ways to avoid payment. Given the passenger overload on trams, the tricks were not too subtle. Since in a crowded tram car the conductor had difficulty moving around, s/he was not able to reach many passengers to check their tickets. Those traveling without a ticket – if caught red-handed – defended themselves by saying that they wanted to purchase a ticket but the conductor did not come to them. The response of the company was that they sent conductors to work in civilian clothing.21 The conductors monitored passengers on both ends of the tram in order to spot those who deliberately wanted to avoid ticket purchasing. They were relying on the movements of travelers to determine fare evaders. Not surprisingly, this way of ticket control did not deliver major results: in February 1946 only some 380 penalties were imposed. Naturally, travelers could also evade purchasing a ticket if they did not even try to get into the middle of the tram but they remained on the outer steps, or – which was extremely dangerous – they grabbed the rear bumper and sat on it. Considering the overcrowded tram cars, traveling on the outer steps did not automatically mean that those traveling there were all trying to avoid payment. The guards had a vested financial interest in the reduction of the free rider base because their salaries also depended on the number of tickets sold. According to an estimate by the board, the number of free riders was 15 % of the total traveler base. This was based on the data showing the rate of increase in the volume of tickets sold on one tram if two conductors were in service instead of one. However, the free rider counts carried out in March 1946 were not followed by the introduction of a second conductor. The company also lacked staff.


A crack in the wall of work culture

At the beginning, the company attempted to prevent the decline in work ethics and discipline by influencing the conscience of employees. (Figure 3) How is it possible that in 1944, while the war was still ongoing, the company was able to achieve a higher transportation performance with a lower staff than now in 1945–1946? Why were employees more disciplined back then and why aren’t they now? These were questions to which there was no simple response. “You worked more and better for those who had driven the country to ruin! This is the sad truth.” – reads a poster with a touch of reproach.22 These softer forms of pressure were not effective. In October 1945 BESZKÁRT had an – albeit failed – attempt to stop renunciations due to lack of labor by a bureaucratic ban. Referring to their public interest activity, the management was actively lobbying for the government to prohibit denunciation of their employees. However, their efforts failed. Nevertheless, as a result of declining social conditions, in January 1946 the state extended the administration of instant punishment to the employees of BESZKÁRT as well.23 From that point forward every employee who was caught stealing company property immediately faced instant punishment and the threat of the death penalty. No documents report on whether there were actual cases of this.

A very telling proof of the decline in the discipline at work is that the company introduced a separate bonus for all those who turned up at their workplaces on each workday. The relativity of the obligation to show up at work was triggered by the lack of food on a national level. In February 1946 one of the members of the board suggested that each employee should be given several days off every month in order to procure food. Naturally, such a regulation could not have been made. Absence from work could not have been legalized, nor could they have been penalized. The company management tacitly acknowledged this situation. In February 1946, they introduced a bonus which was 12,5 % of the monthly salary. The conditions of receiving the bonus were not strict. Theoretically only those who worked every workday were eligible for the bonus. Practically it was given to everyone.24 From the benefits encouraging employees to work those were the valuable ones, which were given in kind not in money. In 1945, as a Christmas gift, the employees were given a can of food, two eggs and some apples. In the spring of 1946 the company launched a work competition with the following prizes: 200–500 kilograms of coal, 200–500 kilograms of firewood and 10–20 liters of petroleum.

Therefore, due to the fact that wages lost their purchase power, the importance of having a job was not so significant. Wages barely covered the cost of a basic standard of living. Despite all this, employees did not leave their jobs in high numbers. The reasons for this were multifold. During the months of inflation, the small communities of BESZKÁRT employees attempted to get though the difficult times also by supporting and relying on one another. Instead of the depreciating value of wages, the fringe benefits of the employment became truly important.

BESZKÁRT provided food supplies – although at a low standard – to their employees. In the shops of the company the employees were able to receive their food rations. They were able to purchase a bread ration of 20 decagrams, or flour, lard, coffee substitute, etc. In addition to the food distribution shops, even more important were the canteens of the company. BESZKÁRT operated 12 company canteens where each employee and their family members received a hot plate of food for lunch. The extensiveness of canteen services is reflected in the fact that in December 1945, 48,000 portions of meals were consumed per day. This was enough to stay alive yet, quite naturally, it was not enough to trigger a sense of well-being.

But where was BESZKÁRT able to acquire food from? Theoretically the company – in possession of food purchase permits issued by the government – had to be served by the producers and vendors from the countryside. However, farmers were reluctant to sell their produce at a significantly lower price than the black market rates, therefore they denied having any stock. BESZKÁRT, however, had a great advantage: it owned transportation vehicles. The products located by the company’s procurement staff were transported to Budapest on company trucks. Buses, trucks, even trains pulled by BESZKÁRT’s own diesel engine ran back and forth several times a week between Budapest and target stations in the countryside. The company concluded barter agreements with the producers. From these affairs, only one of them survived in written form. The contract is not about food but firewood. The company transported the logged firewood to the capital city, in exchange the owner was to sell a part of the firewood cargo to BESZKÁRT at a lower rate than its black market price.

In order to eliminate the tension surrounding food supply, in the fall of 1945 BESZKÁRT gave permission to its employees to travel to the countryside on the food transporting trains.25 Employees had plenty of room in the empty cars running from Budapest to the countryside. However, problems occurred on the way back. The company procurement staff and the employees carrying increasingly large food packages cooperated in the distribution of storage space. All this resulted in the fact that less and less room remained for the transportation of products required for the public supply of employees. Due to transgressions, BESZKÁRT was imposing stricter controls over the use of the vehicles transporting the goods for travel purposes. They defined a top limit for the number of persons allowed on board, the weight of luggage allowed to be carried and finally, from April 1946 they refused to transport people altogether.

To sum up the content of the previous pages, in addition to impoverishment, the lack of goods and the decline of work culture, hyperinflation also had another consequence impacting the deeper levels of social structure. The rules of social cooperation – both written and unwritten – fell apart. All the players participated in the creative interpretation or avoidance of these rules, including private individuals, companies and, moreover, the state itself. Nevertheless, the methods and the tools were different depending on the possibilities and the power of the players. For instance, the method of the state power was that it kept moving the goalposts all the time adjusting them to the situation of the given moment. For example, the rule was that BESZKÁRT had to sustain its operations from its revenues. However, since this rule was impossible to adhere to, the state was continuously subsidizing the company. BESZKÁRT and Hungarian State Railways had a mutually accepted rule that – in possession of travel permits – the employees of the companies were able to travel from their home to their workplace by using each other’s services free of charge. In reality this meant that every railway or BESZKÁRT employee wearing a uniform travelled for free. This was all public knowledge, even the management of the transportation companies were aware of this rule breaking practice. What did the people do? They kept track of the changing rules and found ways to avoid them. When BESZKÁRT introduced the provision of a bonus in the case of employees who were not absent from work, the employees realized what this rule actually meant. It was not obligatory to go to work every day.

The traditional cooperation mechanisms of society became weaker, hyperinflation loosened the ties of society, yet anomie did not lead to anarchy. Many still remembered the similarly extreme inflation rates which evolved after the first world war. People had experience on how to survive such a situation. On the other hand, the people of Hungary had a very strong hope that after August 1, 1946, with the introduction of the new currency, their lives would get better. And indeed, as the new currency made its debut, shops were reopened, even though the world of food coupons did not come to an end for a very long time after that.

Several people voiced the experiences of BESZKÁRT regarding hyperinflation at a board meeting held on November 19, 1946. The company management is not only to ensure the prosperity of the company – stated one of the delegates – but should also maintain the peace of mind of its employees. Someone else talked about the fact that at the time of inflation the monthly wage of people had been equal to the price of half a kilogram of potatoes and that the time had come for people to live a decent life.26 In that situation demanding a decent life only meant: the shops are selling lard right now, the company should pay the year-end bonuses now. But this all leads us to another story.

What is this story actually about? In everyday life, hyperinflation was a temporary situation. Its outcome could be foreseen: the introduction of the new currency. It was extremely important, as it meant hope for everyone. The devaluation of money relativized the traditional cooperation mechanisms of society. Travel was stressful and hostile, moreover there were many serious and fatal accidents. The empolyees of BESZKART worked for food and a hot daily lunch instead of their wages. Discipline at work got weaker. Both the conductors and the passengers participated in swindles concerning tickets. The rules of public transportation were flouted regulary.



Zsuzsa Frisnyák. Born in 1960. A senior research fellow at the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Until 1996 she was curator of the Transport Museum in Budapest. Her area of research is the history of transport and infrastructure in Hungary in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her Ph.D thesis was a historical statistical analysis of data about rail transported passengers and goods from the 19th century. Recent publications include “Közlekedés és politika. 1945–1989” (Transport and policy) Budapest, MTA Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont, and “A magyarországi közlekedés krónikája 1750–2000” (Chronicle of Transport in Hungary 1750–2000) ed. Ferenc Glatz, Budapest, 2001.




1. According to data by Tamás Réti, the amount of money in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was nine times larger than ten years earlier. In Poland inflation was even higher. The soviet state claimed the German assets that were invested in Czechoslovakia and Poland during the war. Tamás Réti, A gazdasági rendszerváltás és a korlátozott szuverenitás Kelet-Európában 1945–1948 között.

2. László Borhi, Hungary in the Cold War 1945–1956, pp. 141–153

3. János Honvári (ed.), Magyarország gazdaságtörténete, pp. 447–451. Iván Pető and Sándor Szakács, A hazai gazdaság, pp. 58–60. William A. Bomberger and Gail E. Makinen, The Hungarian Hyperinflation, pp. 803–804, 806–807. William A. Bomberger and Gail E. Makinen, Indexation, Inflationary Finance.

4. This study does not focus on bus travel which was marginal at the time, being limited on only one or two operating lines. Similarly, it fails to include the discussion of the metro line because the performance of these two means of mass transportation cannot be compared to that of the tram. Nevertheless, the crisis situation outlined in this study was also relevant and observable in the case of these two public transport modes in the city.

5. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on February 12, 1946. BFL. XI. 1919. c. 145. doboz.

6. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on April 12, 1946. and Economic audit of the BESZKÁRT BFL. XI. 1919. c. 15. doboz.

7. István Káposztás, “A fővárosi közlekedés,” p. 286.

8. Source of data: Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.” (Public advertisements 1946) Private ownership.

9. Beatrix Paal, “Measuring the Inflation of Parallel Currencies,” p. 4.

10. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on Januar 8, 1946. BFL. XI. 1919. c. 15. doboz.

11. Passengers understood the reason for the limitations in traffic but not its method. Why didn’t they stop the tram service in the evening hours? During the day we must go about collecting food and „long distance walking impacts people who are particularly suffering with run down shoes or having no shoes at all.” Letter of Mrs. József Kismarosi to BESZKÁRT on December 13, 1945. BFL. XI. 1519.h. 145. doboz, 010108/1945.

12. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on July 2, 1946. BFL. XI. 1919. c. 16. doboz.

13. The letter of BESZKÁRT to the Mayor of Budapest, 3 Januar 1946. 1289/1946. BFL XI. 1919. h. 146. doboz.

14. The company explained the disappearance of ID numbers by claiming that they received a high number of groundless complaints. In reality, the objective was to make it difficult for passangers to file a complaint.

15. Complaint of passengers to the Directorate of BESZKÁRT, December 10, 1945. BFL. XI. 1519.h. 145. doboz 010541/1945.

16. Irén Gerecze to the management of BESZKÁRT, December 6, 1945. BFL. XI. 1519.h. 145. doboz 010194/1945.

17. The letter of BESZKÁRT to the Mayor of Budapest, May 22, 1946. XI. 1519.h. 147. doboz, 003800/1946.

18. Approximately 19 % of the passengers did not buy a ticket. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on February 12, 1946. BFL. XI. 1919. c. 15. doboz.

19. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on May 22, 1946. BFL. XI. 1519.c. 16. doboz.

20. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on June 18, 1946. BFL. XI. 1519.c. 15. doboz.

21. Memo about checking of passengers, October 31, 1948. BFL. XI. 1519. n. 3. doboz.

22. Past and present. The dark side of reconstruction. BESZKÁRT poster, 1945. Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.”

23. Announcing instant punishment. Proposals. January 4, 1946. BFL. XI. 1919. h. 146. doboz.

24. Decree No. 3213/1946 on the Provision of bonuses and the regulation of fringe benefits. BFL. XI. 1519.h. 147. doboz.

25. Decree, December 29, 1945. 000110/1946. BFL. XI. 1919. h. 146. doboz.

26. Minutes of the BESZKÁRT Board of Directors Meeting taken on November 19, 1946. BFL. XI. 1619.c. 17. Doboz


List of Figures

Figure 1. Passenger information poster placed inside trams. Fares of July 2, 1946.
Source: Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.” Private ownership.

Figure 2. Passenger information poster put up inside trams. The current fares of the day were stuck over the previous ones. At the very top the status of July 25, 1946 is shown.
Source: Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.”

Figure 3. BESZKÁRT propaganda poster to improve discipline at work, 1946. The text says: “Tram Conductor Colleagues! We were able to perform the checking and handling of the tickets of (...) one million passagers by putting (...) conductors into service per day. (...) however for the same task we had to employ (...) people per day. Any further decline in the performance may result in a breakdown of service!”
Source: Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.” Private ownership.



Budapest City Archives. Budapest Székesfővárosi Közlekedési Rt. BFL. XI. 1519.c. 14–17. doboz, 1519. h. 145–147. doboz, 1519.n. 3, 15 doboz.
Collection called “Hirdetmények 1946.” Private ownership.
Newspaper: Ludas Matyi, Szabad Száj, Pesti Izé.



Aldcroft, Derek H. (2001) The European Economy 1914–2000 (London-New York: Routlege).

Berend, T. Iván (2006) An Economic History of Twentieth-Centrury Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bomberger, William A. and Gail E. Makinen (1980) “Indexation, Inflationary Finance, and Hyperinflation: The 1945–1946 Hungarian Experience,” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 88, no. 3, pp. 550–560.

Bomberger, William A. and Gail E. Makinen (1983) “The Hungarian Hyperinflation and Stabilization of 1945–1946,” Journal of Political Economy, vol 91, no. 5, pp. 801–824.

Borhi, László (2004) Hungary in the Cold War 1945–1956 (Budapest-New York: Central European University Press), pp. 352+8.

Botos, János (2006) A korona, a pengő és a forint inflációja 1900–2006 (Budapest: Szaktudás Kiadó Ház).

Frisnyák, Zsuzsa (2001) A magyarországi közlekedés krónikája 1750–2000 (Budapest: MTA TTI).

Frisnyák, Zsuzsa (2011) Közlekedés, politika 1949–1989 (Budapest: MTA BTK Történettudományi Intézete).

Honvári, János (ed.) (1997) Magyarország gazdaságtörténete a honfoglalástól a 20. század közepéig (Budapest: Aula kiadó).

Juhász, Erzsébet K. (1996) “A budapesti közforgalmú közlekedés újjászervezése 1946-ban,” Városi Közlekedés, pp. 173–177.

Káposztás, István (1988) “A fővárosi közlekedés felszabadulás utáni történetéből (1945– 1967)”, Új Magyar Központi Levéltár Közleményei 3, pp. 279–318.

Paal, Beatrix (2000) “Measuring the Inflation of Parallel Currencies: An Empricial Reevaluation of the Second Hungarian Hyperinflation,” Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research SIEPR Discussion Paper No. 00–01. http://siepr.stanford.edu/publicationsprofile/669 (last accessed 8.9.2015)

Pető, Iván and Sándor Szakács (1985) A hazai gazdaság négy évtizedének története 1945–1985 (Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó).

Réti, Tamás (1991) “A gazdasági rendszerváltás és a korlátozott szuverenitás Kelet-Európában 1945–1948 között,” Közgazdasági Szemle, pp. 1143–1158.

Siklós, Pierre L. (1989) “The End of the Hungarian Hyperinflation of 1945–1946,” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 135–147.


This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

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

Katarzyna Szczerbowska

Fashion '89 or the beginnings of recycling

21 August 2014
  • 1989
  • Fashion

Clothes sewn according to patterns from catalogs and Burda, treasures found at bazaars and in second-hand stores, re-designed parents’ clothes, trousers dyed anew, blouses made from cloth diapers, shoes with special designs cut out - any method of acquiring an original costume was ok.

If at the end of the 80s someone from behind the Iron Curtain wanted to look good, he or she had to show off with a lot of real inventiveness. This happened differently across the map of Eastern Europe, but the proletarians of all the countries there were united in their enormous creativity.

PRL (People's Republic of Poland)

The main inspiration came from western films, music videos and photos found in foreign newspapers. Some people sewed clothes they had spied before at the tailors, others tried to copy them at home by means of dyeing old clothes or narrowing trousers legs or sleeves, either manually or on their own sewing machines. On special occasions, clothes were bought in stores of the dollar network Pewex, but as an imported blouse cost there as much as three average salaries, only a few could afford shop regularly in this paradise, tempting as it was with its real scent of the west. Fashion depended on the environment.

The most elegant young men in the humanities faculties wore black trousers, white shirts and classic denim jackets, of course dyed black. On their shoulders hung light leather bags, the straps slung diagonally, in a military style, across their slender chests. They wore suede lace-up shoes, sometimes beige, but preferably black. Their girlfriends usually wore long black skirts, and in the autumn a long coat was compulsory. Those who wanted to demonstrate their independence and freedom reached for surplus military jackets, usually American or Canadian. In the movie "Siekierezada", Janek Pradera wore a Canadian army jacket. The movie, based on a book by Edward Stachura, perfectly matched the freedom myth. Teenagers sewed skirts, dresses and blouses out of cloth diapers, usually putting the stitches in by hand.

The advantage of these clothes was that you could dye them any color in a cooking pot. Socks and scarves were dyed a furious yellow-green with Rivanol, which unlike clothes dyes, was available everywhere at that time. In general, the height of any girlish dream was to pick up an outfit from Hoffland. As the risk of meeting someone in the same clothes at a party was very high, most fashionable ladies crumpled logos under brooches and other added features, or subtly altered their dress or trousers before they joined the ballroom battle.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia

There were no Pewex stores, second-hand shops or clothes bazaars. The biggest dream was an item of clothing, sent by family from Poland – this was the method by which Baltic young people got their hands on jeans (or the regional "justy" that left ones legs a ghostly bluish hue after a rain storm) and colorful dresses. The Polish church did not provide packages with clothes, so as not to attract the attention of the authorities; it was usually limited to chocolate, dark yellow cheese and salted butter from the Netherlands.

Attending religion lessons or mass itself was a form of rebellion against the order established by the authorities. In the Baltic states, there was no question of a sudden outbreak of garish, bright purple, winter jackets sometimes designed by Polish manufacturers, so the streets were dominated by drab greys and dark, dull autumn colors that are difficult to define. A stretched sweater, knitted by grandma, and original combinations of dad’s shirts and your older brother’s trousers allowed you to stand out from the crowd.

The avant-garde girls wore long skirts, sewn by their mothers or aunts. It was hard to get any material in the shops, so teenagers who wanted to wear something original altered their parents’ and grandparents’ clothes. They narrowed bell-trousers and shortened skirts from the 60s that their mothers had worn. Fathers’ shirts that hung on skinny girls like the caricature of a dress were very helpful in the creation of a certain image. Scarves, which gave each face a unique frame, were very popular, and soon became a mandatory accessory for school uniforms, suits, sweaters and coats.


Thanks to parcels from families living in West Germany, East Berlin was the nearest western fashion capital for eastern countries. There, you could see real denim jeans and jackets on the streets (these had been "thrown" over the Berlin Wall). People also wore cotton blouses with ironed-on prints depicting the idolized faces and hairstyles of foreign musicians, as well as slogans in English.

Some of them were pretty odd -nobody really knows why white, disposable paper jackets with logos for engine oil or butter brands on their backs were very popular. There were many other examples of creativity: interesting shoes, jackets and coats could be purchased from friends who had richer relatives abroad. Many people made a living from selling on these gifts. East Germany was the land where the hand-to-hand trade flourished the most. Groups of friends gathered, in a state of pious adoration, around those of their number who had access to an incoming wave of clothes.

When information about a new delivery spread, you had to come running to the apartment of the happy "redistributor", or else others would be faster in this hunt for interesting items of clothing. In 1989, in the east of Germany, there was no money for expensive materials, decorations or buttons. Therefore the leather-like "Dederon" and other chemical textiles were invented. The jeans brands "Shanty", "Wisent" and "Boxer", which sadly didn’t match up to their counter parts from the west, were also produced there. The magazine "Sibyl", which showed contemporary fashion in eastern Germany, was very popular. As only some people could afford exclusive or western fashion ,a sewing machine was standard equipment within each family.


Kent cigarettes (with their golden stripe) were the informal currency in Romania, and the clothes' world was ruled by jeans or classic trousers and nylon sports jackets. Absolutely everyone had one of these jackets, and it didn’t matter whether they came with a stand-up collar, a hood or standard collar. They were mostly navy blue, just the same hue as the blue of the Romanian flag.

However, people generally also loved to wear black, brown or white jackets, and women often chose red or orange. Young people wore hoodies and cotton blouses under the jackets, while the older folk wore patterned sweaters and classic shirts. The real dream items, which would really make you stand out from the crowd, were leather jackets and duffel coats. Elegant Romanian women paraded in black skirts and jackets and white blouses or classic black dresses. Baggy parents' clothing was also re-designed by tailors.

The collars of shirt or the waists of old grandmother's skirts were made smaller. To get original sweaters you had to rely on the knitting skills of your mother or grandmother. Unfortunately, it was not at all easy to get hold of wool. Romanian stores, even in the greatest crises, never lacked oranges and olive oil, but to obtain wool you had to dismantle old sweaters. This was, without being ironic, the real beginning of recycling: the same raw material produced several generations of clothes.


In Bulgaria, richly decorated folk costumes were the inspiration for fashionable girls. In a country where there have been traditional songs sung and dances performed in every bar and restaurant for centuries, folk costumes were, like the traditional salads with peppers and vinaigrette sauce, evergreens, and relatively easy to get hold of.

There was no shortage of talented embroiderers and seamstresses, so their products had a myriad of patterns and all the colors of the rainbow. To achieve an original effect, it was enough to combine an embroidered folk blouse with modern trousers. In winter, traditional fur hats were worn as accessories to coats. The Bulgarians were not embarrassed to wear their folklore and therefore the streets of Bulgaria were dominated by a "merry" styling, which was absent in the other countries of the so called people's democracy.

Like everywhere else in southern Europe, the most popular costume for men was a suit and white shirt - a look that never goes out of fashion. The black suits and simple white shirts worn with classic suit trousers are still popular in Bulgaria today, both for special occasions and as everyday wear. On the golden shores of the Black Sea, girls spied the newest clothes trends on guests of the hotel 'ghettos' for currency holders from the rotten West.

With a little luck you could buy jeans or a cotton shirt - maybe even from a Pole or an East German in coastal towns like Kamcia. In this way the natives acquired original clothes, and the tourists got to spend their extra cash on Bulgarian watermelons and souvenirs.


Czech ballerinas, also called “cwiczki”, with their flexible thin rubber soles, pure cotton fabric and elastic band across the instep, were cult footwear in Czechoslovakia. They were pretty and comfortable. Almost everyone wore them in the land of stewed cabbage and dumplings, and ladies in all of Czechoslovakia’s neighboring countries dreamed of owning a pair. To stand out from the crowd, people dyed them in all possible colors, cut out patterns in them, or sewed in colorful details on the shoes. What else? Young people tended to wear denim uniforms and long sweaters. Blouses with wide sleeves and men’s shirts were hits – these were best a few sizes too big, of a funny style, and taken out of granddad’s wardrobe before being dyed anew a strong color. Short jackets that gave the impression they were a little too small were very popular - they were hard to get buttoned up.

The avant-garde youth mostly opted for leather motorcycle jackets, and the greatest winter prize was a fur-lined American pilot’s jacket. The Czechoslovakian Pewex was called Tuzex and, like in Poland, you could buy western trousers or tops there. A lot of clothes were brought from Poland, Hungary and East Germany, and jeans were sewn by the Vietnamese minority in Czechoslovakia. Sometimes you also came across interesting clothes in department stores in Prague and other big cities like Brno and Bratislava.


Thick roll neck pullovers or stretched (worn out) sweaters, white coats and surplus jackets distinguished trendy Hungarians from the more conservative people, who dressed in suits, and finally from those who were indifferent to fashion and wore jeans, cotton T-shirts and checked shirts. A sweater was the sign that you were dealing with a member of the intellectual elite. It was usually black, with a simple pattern, knitted most often by a grandmother, aunt or mother. Music videos and western record covers were a good source of inspiration for the creation of fashionable outfits. Usually the Beatles or Led Zeppelin performed the role of arbiters of elegance. Wrangler jackets and dungarees, spotted on American stars in music videos, were particularly desired. A long woollen scarf, the longer the better, was a compulsory accessory.

Elegant ladies ordered clothes at the tailor's or re-designed their old things themselves.

Many contemporary Hungarian designers like Dóra Abod have taken inspiration from the fashion of the 80's. In her collections she attempts to evoke the rock scene atmosphere from 25 years ago and is quick to reach for leather and shiny fabrics. Fans of turtlenecks and classic clothes can these days dress themselves in USE Unesed garments, and Nanushka is popular among lovers of large shirts.

Many ideas for the creation of original clothes were repeated in different countries, where people were weary of looking at the empty shelves in communist shops where clothes were sold only in theory. What could the people do? An old, popular saying goes: "the tailor cuts his coat according to his cloth". But even in these melancholy times, the communities cut off from the clothes that had been introduced in Paris, Milan, New York, did not allow themselves to be pressed into one common format.

The Czechs had their “ćwiczki”, Poles had their great clothes bazaars and master tailors, the Bulgarians made use of their tradition, and the Germans surfed on the wave of the West. And even though the streets were dominated by greyness, there were always people who wanted, and were able, to shine thanks to their great imaginations, stubbornness and creativity.


Viktor Tarnavskyi, „Dzieci swoich czasów. Ruchy młodzieżowe w Rosji a zmiany kulturowe po upadku ZSRR, Wydawnictwo Trio, 2007

Beata Łaciak, „Obyczajowość polska czasu transformacji, czyli wojna postu z karnawałem”, Wydawnictwo Trio, 2007

Jacek Kurczewski, Mariusz Cichomski, Krzysztof Wiliński, „Wielkie bazary warszawskie”, Wydawnictwo Trio, 2010

Przemysław Zieliński, „Scena rockowa w PRL. Historia, organizacja, znaczenie, Wydawnictwo Trio, 2007

Moda. Historia mody XX wieku, Taschen, 2012

The writing of the section about clothes in Poland was assisted by the recollections of, among others: Wojciech Stanislawski, historian and editor of "Rzeczpospolita", Jacek Kaminski, longtime editor of "Gazeta Wyborcza", who currently works with “Lampa” magazine, and the theater expert Maryna Bersz.

The writing of the section on clothes in the Baltic countries was assisted by the recollections of, among others, Marija Paskevic, a Polish woman who grew up in Lithuania and was a high school student in 1989. She now lives in Norway, where she works in a bookstore and studies pedagogy.

The writing of the section about clothes in Romania and Bulgaria was assisted by the recollections of, among others, Hubert Kropielnicki, editor of the weekly "Przekrój", who spent his holidays in these countries in the years around 1989.

The writing of the section about clothes in Czechoslovakia was assisted by the memories of, among others, Ján Krivoša, First Secretary, Embassy of the Czech Republic, and also used the websites: www.pagyna.wz.cz/80leta.html and www.mezizenami.cz/clanek/nesmrtelna-80-leta as useful references.

The writing of the section about clothes in the GDR was written with the help of, among others, Joanna Janecka, Department of Culture, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Warsaw, and also used the website: http://www.zeitklicks.de/ddr/zeitklicks/zeit/alltag/leben-in-der-ddr/mode-im-sozialismus/ as a useful reference.


by Katarzyna Szczerbowska


Dagmara Dudek

Evangelical churches and the Peaceful Revolution of 1989

21 August 2014
  • 1989
  • GDR

The role of Evangelical churches during the Peaceful Revolution has become a part of the public narrative on the events of 1989. According to this narrative, churches acted as a catalyst in the process of the overthrow of the regime. When discussing the Peaceful Revolution and last months of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), one can point to certain events, immediately associated with churches, which seem to be pivotal.

These are the protests in East Berlin, which significantly grew over the summer of 1989 and were brutally suppressed during the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the GDR and Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig culminating in a demonstration attended by nearly 70,000 people, which gave an overwhelming victory over the GDR regime. However, these events, to which I will briefly refer, are to be seen as an outcome of complex processes. Therefore, reflection upon the role of Evangelic churches during the Peaceful Revolution requires answering two questions: what was their position in the GDR? In what ways did churches support oppositional activities?

Churches and demonstrations in the autumn 1989

Protests in East Berlin in the months that had proceeded the fall of the Berlin Wall were directly connected to falsification of local election results, which took place on Mai 7, 1989. Since then, there were regularly protests every 7th day of each month. At that point, Gethsemane Church in East Berlin became a center, which was opened to critically-minded activists. Form October 2 onwards, peace prayers were held for the detained protesters from Leipzig. The commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of GDR were scheduled to take place exactly on October 7, that is when the demonstrations were expected. This highly politicized ceremony additionally attracted a lot of attention due to participation of Mikhail Gorbachev. Given this context and growing social disillusionment, clash between the state and the protesters on October 7 was inevitable. As a result of the violent riots, many people were severely injured, detained and some of them managed to flee to Gethsemane Church, which gave shelter to the protesters. Within days Gethsemane Church became a center, where information about the arrested participants of the protest could be obtained and where the so-called ‘memory protocols’ were written down.

Demonstrations were held across the whole country. A crucial role played St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig, where weekly piece prayers were held since September 1982. They later resulted in famous Monday Demonstrations. In the 1980’s the numbers of people attending piece prayers varied, but in 1988 and 1989 they started to grow significantly. After the protests in East Berlin had been brutally crashed on October 7, the next Monday Demonstration was only two days ahead. This was awaited with fear and anticipation, because the state resorted earlier to violence on an incomprehensible scale. Despite great risk, on October 9, the number of protesters amounted to 70,000. This completely unexpected number of people caused the state to refrain from using violence. The Berlin Wall came down exactly within a month.

East German churches in the first post-war decades

The position of the Evangelical Church (predominant denomination in East Germany after the war) in relation to state was precarious throughout the years. In the immediate post-war period, state sought to gradually constrain its activities, which was not an easy endeavor, given the size of the institution and its connections to West Germany. Religious beliefs were overtly in opposition to state’s attempts to build new identities and remodel values. This process, though it varied by years, encompassed secularization and ideologization of all spheres of public life. Organizations such as Free German Youth (FDJ) as well as political ceremonies were means of conveying new socialist values and remaking of persons. So was the Jugendweihe, a youth ceremony introduced in 1954, during which young East Germans pledged their loyalty to the state. The intention of the regime was to altogether replace Christian confirmation with an atheist celebration. Consequently, also children’s participation in religious instruction was at odds with secular education in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism.

The end of the 1960s brought relaxation in relations between the state and churches. After the Berlin Wall had been erected and GDR successfully sealed off, state appeared to be in a position to gain fuller control of its citizens and institutions. These developments naturally significantly obstructed communication and cooperation between churches across the German border; until the end of 1960s Evangelical churches in both East and West Germany were formally subordinated to a single all-German Evangelical Church in Germany (EDK). Due to political expectations and growing pressure, East German churches founded the League of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (BEK). This split, which can be interpreted as a way of coming to terms with the emerging political situation, did not, however, put a definitive end to contacts between various Evangelical representatives and individuals rooted in religious communities in both German states.

Towards engagement in political matters

Support given by churches to those opposing the GDR regime has a longer history than it is commonly assumed. Although many associate Evangelical churches in the first place with oppositional activities and demonstrations that took place in the autumn 1989, it should be noted that churches played an important role and facilitated critical engagement with socio-political issues already back in the 1960s and 1970s. This made the state resort to new strategies, which were aimed at eliminating any potential threats, and thus preventing acts of civil disobedience. One of them was a rule concerning public events, which came into force in 1970. According to this regulation, any prospective public events, with the exception of strictly religious ones, had to be reported to state authorities in advance, in order to obtain a permission. At that time and especially over the subsequent years, hardly any meetings organized by churches were entirely devoted to religious matters, and churches were becoming more and more supportive of social, political and environmental discussions relevant to society. Religious character of these meetings (they were for instance preceded by a service) often allowed to avoid the intrusion of the state into internal affairs of the Church. The regulation introduced at the beginning of the 1970s, paradoxically fostered within the next two decades cooperation between churches and groups actively engaged in the freedom movement. Intended as an impediment to political activities, the policy on public events became a leverage and enabled dissident activities under the roof of the Church.

Church as a realm of freedom

Over the years, Evangelical churches enabled many initiatives, which normally could not take place anywhere else, and would not be officially endorsed by the state. Some of them evolved into oppositional activities, such as for instance “Offene Arbeit”, which was a model of Christian social work with youth deemed by the state anti-social. These circles formed a basis for the establishment of “Kirche von Unten”, a protestant movement, which gathered oppositional-minded activists, who voiced their socio-political and environmental concerns. Organizing summer and winter academies opened to all interested participants, churches served as a platform enabling discussions on various socially relevant topics. They provided space for oppositional meetings, printing of underground press, exhibitions, screenings. A good example provides the Environmental Library [Umwelt-Bibliothek] founded at Zion Church in East Berlin, which, on the one hand, gathered banned literature and allowed to distribute materials concerning environmental and socio-political issues and, on the other hand, was a place, where oppositional groups could meet and discuss their activities. Churches also contributed to the development of alternative youth culture in the GDR. The so-called Blues-Messe attended by young people was a type of a service, which encompassed mainly blues music not played otherwise in any state-clubs geared towards East German youth. Also members of punk bands, who, due to their attitude not matching “socialist morals”, were denounced as anti-social, could find their place within the Church. As the discussed examples show, the scope of initiatives, which churches welcomed and supported, was quite large at the time.

Rethinking the role of evangelical churches

25 years after the fall of Berlin Wall the positive role of churches within the context of 1989 seems undisputed. However, it should be also noted that not all of the churches followed suit. In fact, only a handful of churches in big cities such as East Berlin or Leipzig welcomed prayers for peace or some forms of oppositional activities. Former opponents of the regime bring to attention the fact that churches provided space, and thereby supported freedom movements, but they also point to the complex relationship between activists and Church representatives. It is also noteworthy that the origins of the events of 1989 have been differently discussed by various milieus and communities in unified Germany. For instance, a narrative according to which the revolution was religiously-driven has been contested in public discourse by some of the dissidents. These political actors emphasize that it is the ordinary citizens (predominantly atheists) who started the Peaceful Revolution and contributed to the overthrow of the regime.


Deanna Wooley

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

21 August 2014
  • 1989
  • freedom express
  • Czech Republic
  • Czechia
  • remembrance
  • Velvet Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambivalence both for and against Monumentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambivalence Encoded in the Commemorative Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

journalist points out,

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

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

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

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

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

Tenth Anniversary: Ambivalence Re-Interpreted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Ambivalence and the “Velvet Revolutionary” Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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


Mandy Townsley

“Neither for King nor Empire”: Irish Remembrance of the Great War in the 1920s

21 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Ireland


This article addresses the difficulties of Irish remembrance of the Great War from 1923 to 1930. This period of the Irish Free State, newly independent of the British Empire, demonstrates the difficulties for a new state in crafting their national identity in the wake of empire and the problem of remembering events that do not easily fit into a new national narrative. The different spheres of remembrance that interacted and influenced the way the Irish came to understand their Great War experience are examined.

Wars are rarely integrated into a national narrative with ease, particularly for a new nation. While the Great War was interwoven into the tapestry of British history, it remained a difficult subject for the Irish. Although the Irish voluntarily sent 210,000 Irishmen to war, roughly forty percent of their service age population, between 1914 and 1918 the postwar period was rife with questions about loyalty, empire, and remembrance. For men like James Clifford, who served at the Battle of Gallipoli and lost his arm at Loos, the 1920s in Ireland represented a repression of the war experience. His brother’s wife, an ardent nationalist, forbid discussion of Clifford’s service and threw away his medals and mementos of the war out of disdain for these symbols of an oppressive imperial conflict. 1

The familial censorship by Clifford’s sister-in-law was not unlike what would happen in the public realm during the 1920s. It was during the early 1920s that the Irish experienced significant violence in their bid for independence, and in the wake of this violence, the Irish had to decide what an independent Ireland would represent. The rise of the republicans and their contextualization of the Great War as an imperial one meant that official and popular remembrance of the war was fraught with tension. Yet despite this current of chaos, on a personal level many Irish people found ways of remembrance and commemoration that were solidified during this period. During the 1920s the Irish Free State was in the most nebulous period of its relationship with the experience of the Great War. It was during this era that the Irish people negotiated what role the Great War would have in their society. Because the government took an ambivalent stance on remembering the Great War, the fate of war remembrance was fought out in public sphere. Ultimately dissension over this issue, as played out in the public, relegated memory of the war to the personal level. Men like James Clifford had to find their own ways of commemorating a war that irrevocably altered so many lives.

While scholarship on Great War commemoration in Ireland has increased in the past fifteen years, these discussions often focus on one aspect of commemoration, most commonly monuments, parades, or memorials. Too few have examined the interplay between official, popular and personal forms of remembrance in the Irish Free State. These spheres of remembrance influenced and communicated with each other. Therefore we must consider each of them to fully understand remembrance of the Great War in the Free State. This is important, not only to gaining a more complete understanding of this moment in Irish history, but more importantly, this illuminates a little studied aspect of remembrance. Perhaps the Irish case can provide insight into other nations with difficult pasts to better understand how official, popular and personal remembrance interact, contest, and compete with each other.

Collective war memory, sometimes regarded as monolithic, is comprised of a complex interaction of official, popular, and personal remembrance. These spaces of memory communicate with and influence each other. Official spaces of memory often convey a specific meaning behind a war experience as endorsed by a government. This realm of memory can be contested, supported, or even ignored by popular or personal remembrance. Popular remembrance, sometimes called public memory, is represented by the differing layers of the populace which can find expression in newspapers, public speeches, song, etc. Personal war memory is expressed through private acts of remembrance like the creation of rituals within a family, by an individual, or through personal documents meant to encapsulate the memory of an event.

In their seminal works, George Mosse2 and Jay Winter3 attempted to flesh out the complexities of grief and the impulse to memorialize the Great War in Britain and Germany. What emerges from these works on Great War memory is that there were attempts across Europe to cope with the bloodshed of the war through commemoration and remembrance. While these attempts occurred at various levels, it is important to note that remembrance of the war was a phenomenon across Europe. Public and private attempts at commemoration were fueled by individuals because “states do not remember; individuals do, in association with other people.” 4 Therefore, as Winter argues, understanding the process by which individuals remember the past is important because it informs the public manifestations of remembrance. 5 So then individuals are the core of memory, and in the case of Winter’s study, Great War remembrance. He also asserts that groups of like-minded individuals form collectives that interact with other collective remembrances of the war.6 With this precedent set, this article pushes Winter’s premise further to reorient discussion of the memorialization of the Great War around the interaction of these layers or collectives of remembrance to better understand how war memories are created and sustained. This article argues for the importance of the interaction of these layers: governmental apathy and dissension within the popular sphere forced remembrance to the personal level.

In Ireland, instead of official methods creating a commemorative atmosphere with a semblance of popular support, there was a struggle to create either form of memory due to deep political divisions within Irish society. Yet people “needed to find a kind of solace, a way to live with their memories.” 7 49,500 Irish soldiers died in the conflict and thousands returned, many with debilitating chronic emotional, physical, and psychological problems stemming from their war experience. Forty percent of the Irish service age population volunteered and a quarter of them never returned. This meant that significant portions of the Irish were impacted by the war directly through war service or indirectly through family or friends. Personal remembrance occurs in every war-torn society, and the Irish certainly were not alone in their difficulty of post independence commemorations of wars fought under an empire. For the Irish it was at this personal and private level that remembrance of the Great War became isolated yet preserved as the only effective level of remembrance due to questions of imperialism and national identity. This article contends that in the early Free State we can see the contestation between these different layers of memory: ambivalence on the part of the government forcing the role of the war to be violently decided within the populace, the outcome of which was that the republican sentiment prevailed and individuals and families had to commemorate on a personal and private level in order to avoid slanderous claims of imperialism and anti-Ireland sentiment.

Official Remembrance

The end of the Great War was not the end of violence for the Irish. They were almost immediately plunged into a War for Independence against Britain which culminated in Irish independence in 1921. Under the treaty provisions with Great Britain, Ireland was partitioned, which meant that the northern six counties remained part of the United Kingdom, while the southern counties became the Irish Free State. Many republicans who had fought against the British during the War of Independence felt that partition was a sham committed by the British government, while others felt it was the best possible compromise. This disagreement over whether or not to accept the treaty led to the Irish Civil War, which ended in 1923, and the permanence of partition. As the newly independent Free State moved on from the horrors of almost a decade of war, this meant deciding which events and symbols would make their way into the new national narrative. While the 1916 Easter Rising, War of Independence, and Civil War entered the arena of potential inclusions alongside the Great War, each would find difficulty finding a seat in the emerging pantheon of Irish history.

The 1916 Easter Rising is often touted as the birth of independent Ireland. If any event of the early twentieth century offers the most clear-cut potential for inclusion as a site of memory for the Irish Free State, it is this. Yet even this event did not easily fit into the new Irish state. While the Rising with its heroes and idealistic hopes for Ireland seems the inception point for a birth of the state myth, in actuality remembrance of the rebellion was not an all-encompassing, uniting force. Both pro- and anti-Treatyites claimed the martyrs of the rebellion, which was untenable in the post Civil War period. The fact that both sides claimed these men and the event itself begged the question: How could the Rising be the creation of a state that had gone to war with itself? Politicians of all stripes attempted to claim the rebels of 1916 at one time or another to legitimize their party. 8 The Rising was often dragged into political debates in service to contemporary desires, and thus it was a fluid event that never became a coherent rallying point for the state. The specters of the dead “constantly disrupted all attempts at origin, continuity and history itself.” 9 Additionally, because “emphasizing one interpretation of the past necessarily meant marginalizing another,” the Rising might be usable to reconcile the pro – and anti-Treatyites but it would still marginalize Unionist and nationalist interests in the Great War. 10

The Rising was sometimes pitted against the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The Somme became a badge of honor for the Unionists, who viewed their bloodletting on this battlefield as evidence of their loyalty to Britain and a reinforcement of their contract with the Empire. 11 This was contrasted with the Rising, which reinforced the nationalist Catholic agenda for independence, and was soaked in the religious connotations of martyrdom, redemption, and sacrifice. 12 These events became counter-narratives to each other and to the larger debates that had long faced Protestants and Catholics in the country. The Somme was held up to “contrast the centrality of the Rising” and the Rising allowed republicans to emphasize their opposition to the Unionist/Protestant agenda. 13 These diametrically opposed positions on two of the most important events of the early twentieth century in Ireland dramatically affected how the Great War was understood in the Free State. While the Rising was not easily commemorated, the Great War became associated with the Unionist/Protestant agenda such that “discursive imaginings of the First World War are thus inextricably connected to the dynamics of political conflict and divided loyalties in Ireland, and are themselves contested.” 14

If the Easter Rising did not clearly fit into a new Irish narrative, how could the Great War, the War for Independence, or the Civil War, all of which were arguably even more complex in their meaning for the Free State? They were uncomfortable reminders of the tensions between the government and ardent republicans. 15 The War for Independence, seemingly destined for commemoration, was marred by intense Treaty debates and the Civil War which followed. The ghost of the Civil War hung over the memory of the War for Independence, making it difficult to use it as a unifying event, since it led to more war. The Civil War presented a challenge since, as all such conflicts do, it had divided the nation, and celebrating the pro-Treaty victory was seen as only furthering those divisions. As Anne Dolan argues, the Civil War was difficult to integrate into the Free State narrative, partially because both the pro- and anti-Treatyites wore their service proudly, which begs the question, “After civil war can the winners honour their victory; can they commemorate it [...] with the blood of their comrades still fresh on their boots?” 16 Though President Cosgrave attempted to use the Civil War to boost his Cumann na nGaedheal party, which took power when the Civil War ended, ultimately the conflict did not retain a prominent position as a commemorative event in the Free State. The complexities of remembering an event that tore the nation asunder and continued to breed bad blood proved too difficult. This war had been a dirty one, won through “atrocity and execution, lacking the requisite laurels and blazes of glory,” so it became necessary to repress some memories in order to get on with governing the Free State after 1923. 17 The Civil War became the dividing line for politicians in the Free State and “rehashing the old row seemed somehow more alluring than the reality that politics had retreated to the unheroic inanities of living the independence they had coveted for so long.” 18 For much of the Free State, the Civil War was not past, but present. The fact that it was constantly affixed to political parties and arguments meant that commemorating it, at least publicly, was a difficult endeavor. Much like remembrance of the Great War, this remembrance was also relegated on a private level, as noted in Anne Dolan’s work. While the two events bear some similarity in this fact, they are vastly different, in that the Civil War difficulties in remembrance were due to destruction of Irishman against Irishman in a fight for the direction of the independent state, whereas remembrance of the Great War came to represent a battle of national identity and the rejection of empire.

The constant struggle against the British government led many republican leaders to shun any residual connections with the Empire after independence. Other European nations sought to commemorate and make sense of the Great War tragedy in the 1920s. After 1923 Ireland sought to establish itself as a new nation. Though Ireland, like Finland and Czechoslovakia, was newly independent after the war, Ireland’s independence came at the cost of both a war for independence and civil war that further embedded fierce dissension over their former imperial rulers. Unionists, predominantly Protestants, rejected this new independence from Britain. Because Unionists treasured their imperial connection, commemorating the war was far easier than for Irish republicans, who were predominantly Catholic. During the 1920s those few Unionists within the Free State became inextricably linked by the government and in the public eye with Great War commemoration. In its attempt to eschew British ties, the Free State government also eschewed ties with the Great War. Because the Irish fought in the Great War under the British flag it was seen as a British war for imperial gain and had no place in the new national narrative of an independent Ireland. This attempt to eradicate British ties would have significant consequences for ex-serviceman, their families, and the families of those who did not return.

The 1920s was a decade of tremendous contestation about the perceived imperial legacy of the Great War in the Free State. The government had to walk a fine line of allowing Armistice Day ceremonies, while also appearing as a strong nation independent of Britain. It was so near to the end of the war it would have been politically inadvisable to disallow such commemorative activities. President W. T. Cosgrave’s administration did not desire to stop them altogether, yet Armistice Day celebrations were not government funded, nor were they attended by major leaders. The administrations of the 1920s essentially walked a tightrope between republican sentiment, which desired a total excision of everything British (and therefore imperial), and the rest of the Irish population. They were trying not to look too British, while acknowledging that there was a demand for these services. Ultimately the administration of the 1920s allowed parades and services but did not endorse them. The Great War and its combatants were not part of the new Irish nation and therefore would not garner its support. This would cause debates over the role of the First World War and its potential as an imperial symbol to be negotiated in the public sphere.

Armistice Day parades, which commemorated the end of the Great War, took place in many European nations and often served as a national moment of mourning and commemoration. Though the government allowed Armistice Day parades in the Free State, many members of the government and their affiliated agencies felt such commemorative acts were imperialist in nature and would only cause violence. Military marches involving British Army uniforms, standards, the Union Jack flag, or anything deemed militaristic in the parades were regarded as especially dangerous, prompting this response from Chief Superintendent of the Ennis Garda Edward O’Dufy in 1928,

“The Armistice parade [...] was a definite Imperialistic display, and not a commemoration to the war dead, as it ought to have been. The continuance of exhibitions of this kind which are hateful in the eyes of nine-tenths of the people will undoubtedly court trouble. It is not suggested that any action should be taken against the men concerned on this occasion, but I respectfully beg to renew my recommendation to have permission for such displays refused in future years.”19

O’Dufy viewed the parade as a demonstration of the British Empire which would only cause problems among those who viewed the Empire as a former oppressor. In his request to have such parades banned O’Dufy was not alone. A letter stamped “secret” to the secretary of the Department of Justice argued that these marches were “intended much more as a military display than a bona fide commemoration service for the dead, to which latter there can be no objection, though there appears no necessity to perpetuate this form of ceremony.” 20 It is clear some government officials felt that commemorations were not necessary to the Free State, although they were willing to allow them as long as such events were devoid of military displays which promoted the British Empire. In both cases, the authors note that if such an event was devoid of imperial symbols and tone and was purely an act of remembrance, parades would be acceptable. Herein lies the larger difficulty for the Irish of the Free State: how intertwined was the Empire and postwar commemoration? As to whether or not remembering the war could be extricated from the Empire, that would ultimately be decided in the public sphere.

This perceived intertwining of empire, the war, and Armistice Day caused the Free State government concern that Great War remembrance activities were causing more harm than good. The early morning violence of November 11, 1928 seemed to bear this out. At various locations around the island, bombs exploded near monuments to British kings and poppy21 depots were ransacked. A movie theater was raided and the film Verdun, set to show the next day, was stolen. 22 Such violence against symbols of the war was problematic for the Free State government and though they did not endorse such violence, they did not endorse the commemorative symbols either. The new government was stuck.

The Irish Free State government attempted to appease the organizers of the Armistice Day celebrations while simultaneously withholding direct support to mollify republican sentiment. Although they took an official stance of ambivalence towards the symbols and ceremonies of the war, this period of post-civil-war tension was one of negotiating the new state’s symbols. Symbols are integral to the visualization of a new state “and they play an important role in creating emotionally charged bonds of social solidarity.” 23

Just as symbols can breed solidarity and national identity, they can breed dissension. As the Irish of the Free State attempted to craft an independent national identity they had to decide which symbols would represent them. Officially the state chose the green, white, and orange tricolor flag, a symbol born out of the republican movement, as the official state flag. This decision was highly contentious since those who had won the civil war and were in government chose it, while the losing side also felt the tricolor was their symbol. Enter into this debate the Union Jack and “God Save the King,” traditional symbols of the British Empire and its army. Republicans saw these symbols as evidence of an imperial minority representative of the centuries Ireland had endured under the boot of the British Empire. 24 As such, the Union Jack and British anthem become inextricably linked with empire and the Great War in this heady era of negotiating national identity. What is unfortunate about this simplistic view is that it does not allow for more complicated understandings of these symbols. While there were undoubtedly many who sympathized with the British, there was also a strong contingency of those who saw these symbols as commemorative of the Great War rather than imperial fervor. It is this debate over symbols and the identity of the Irish nation that would come to a head in the public sphere over popular remembrance.

Questions over a permanent representation of war through a memorial also fueled debates over the role of the war in Ireland’s identity. While England, Germany, and France were busily erecting war monuments in the 1920s, the proposed monument in the Free State caused outcry and debate. War memorials and monuments present an opportunity for people of a nation to reflect and grieve. 25 The arguments and delays that would plague the Irish attempt to create a national memorial for the Great War demonstrate a loss of this opportunity to reflect and grieve publicly.

From the initial proposition in 1919, the national war memorial took twenty years and multiple redesigns before it came to fruition. These delays and arguments demonstrate how divided the government and Irish public was over commemorating the war. The first proposal for a memorial veteran’s home, submitted by the Comrades of the Great War organization, was rejected by the government on the practical grounds that, although they had raised £50,000, the group had no long-term plans for funding. Changing tack, in 1924 a second proposal was submitted to the government for a war memorial in Merrion Square in Dublin. This proposal met with stiff resistance in the Dáil (parliament). Some argued that a memorial was a poor way to assist ex-servicemen, many of whom were disabled and would benefit from social services, as evident in one Irishman’s comment, “If the Irish Imperialists wish to show an appreciation of the heroism that gave Britain and her Allies the victory of 1918, let them attend to the survivors of the War who are in need of such help. Dead men cost nothing to maintain.” 26 This was a prevalent opinion among many Irish people who believed that a memorial did little to ease the suffering of ex-servicemen. The author’s equation of the Comrades Association with imperialists shows how supporting remembrance of the war publicly became interlinked with support of the British Empire.

Dissenting voices from the government often argued that such a physical representation of the war would ultimately be a memorial to the British Empire and send the wrong message to the world about the new Irish state. Placement of the memorial in Merrion Square, disturbingly close to the seat of government, was also a point of contention. While some government leaders argued that a memorial was acceptable, they disputed the Merrion Square location, contending that it should be farther from government buildings, so as not to give the impression that the Great War was in any way connected with the Free State government. 27 Here, as with debates over the usefulness of Armistice parades, “private grief and public acknowledgment constantly conflicted with each other.” 28 The government sought to allow the expression of remembrance, as long as said remembrance did not taint the identity of the new state with its perceived imperial symbolism.

By 1927 there was no consensus on the memorial and the proposal was withdrawn from the Dáil. Undaunted by the amount of controversy the memorial created, the planners restructured their next proposal for a memorial archway to Phoenix Park, the largest park in Dublin and central to the city. This proposal was rejected in 1928. Within a decade of the first proposal the Dáil had rejected three memorials, at which the organizers inquired if any area of the park would be amenable. They were offered Islandbridge, an area far from the seat of the government, and in 1931 a model for a memorial on the site was approved. Construction began in early 1932 and President Cosgrave requested that Irish ex-servicemen comprise fifty percent of the work force. After a decade of political wrangling, the Great War national monument was finally approved, although it was not government funded. The Free State government’s approach to this problem of remembering a war with perceived imperial tones demonstrates the larger concerns over Ireland’s new identity. While the monument was completed in 1939 on the outskirts of Dublin, it never had an official opening ceremony and almost immediately fell into disrepair. The monument could hardly have been less integral to the new state’s national identity, thus demonstrating that the Free State government saw no place for the Great War in Ireland. While the government did not ban Armistice parades or the monument, they established a stance of ambivalence and apathy which forced discussion of the war’s role to take place in the popular sphere.

Popular Remembrance

Questions over national identity and the place of the Great War found expression and debate in public remembrance. While official remembrance was marred by internal ambivalence bordering on the hope that such commemorative activities would soon dissipate, popular memory was far more openly opinionated. The debates over the National Memorial engendered commentary from the public; some believed that a stone monument was not the best way to assist the ex-servicemen. In the poem “Broken Soldier” S. J. Fitzgerald wrote “Stone crosses help not those who languish/In fetid slum – in want and cold” noting later in the poem “They need no monument, psalm or psalter, /But a chance t[o] live; they are destitute.” 29 Many Irish recognized the plight of returned soldiers yet felt the best way to help them was not through parades or monuments but through social programs.

Others voiced their dissent of an imperial display more starkly, “We are pleased to know that the renewal effort to make Merrion Square a permanent monument to British jingoism, while men who took part in the different bloody battles are in want and dire hardship, is not likely to be successful.” 30 The connection of the Great War to the British was made all the more evocative by a contributor to Honesty31 in November 1926, who argued that memorials to the Irishmen of the Great War were tantamount to memorializing the Black and Tans. The Black and Tan police force, utilized by the British during the War of Independence from 1919–1921, had a sinister reputation in Ireland for their wanton use of violence. In response to the Merrion Square proposal the author argued, “Have we not... quite sufficient memorials already up and down through the country to the memory of the infamous ‘Black and Tans’ in the shape of the many crosses... that mark the scenes of their brutal murders?... No further memorial of a kind such as is contemplated in Merrion Square is needed.” 32 The comparison of Irish soldiers of the Great War to the Black and Tans, a group perceived by many Irish as brutes of the Empire, was, perhaps, the most incendiary connection possible. By arguing that “For an Irishman, therefore, Poppy Day is simply a memorial to the ‘Black and Tans’,” the author implied that Irish soldiers were no better than the men that had terrorized the Irish during the War of Independence. 33 The author’s assessment of the Irish exservicemen shows that for some republicans, an Irishman in British uniform was no Irishman at all. The fact that the Black and Tans had terrorized the Irish people and the Irish soldiers had fought in France, Gallipoli, etc. made no difference. Irish soldiers were guilty of being imperialists because of the uniform they once wore. Because of their service to Britain they were guilty by association.

The emotional fervor attached to the question of imperialism fueled violence, particularly against ex-servicemen or those participating in commemorative events. One aspect of Armistice Day commemorations that resulted in violence was the wearing of the Flanders poppy. The poppy was a symbol of the Great War across Europe and was sold to raise money for the British Legion, an organization which provided services for ex-servicemen. Antipathy for this symbol of the imperial war was widespread among Irish republicans. On November 7, 1925 John Brennan wrote in the newspaper Honesty, that the poppy was “the emblem of sleep for the dead and ‘dope’ for the living.” 34 Brennan observed the dire situation of ex-servicemen in the Free State and noted that no one was helping them find employment. They were offered “instead, a poppy flower once a year – a little insidious flower, from which is gathered the opium to drug and enslave the masses of India and China, and the workers of England and Ireland.” 35 Furthermore, in Brennan’s estimation, the republicans did not deny the bereaved their grief or need to remember, rather they were concerned that the popularity of the poppy was “an attempt to fasten the minds of the workers on the glory of sacrifice for imperial purposes, so that when again the recruiting sergeant makes his appearance in our streets – and our pulpits – he can call upon the ‘poppy seeds’ to go across the seas and renew the blood-red crop.” 36 So within the popular sphere of remembrance was a concern that the bereaved were duped by imperialists into wearing a symbol of empire to commemorate their dead and wounded: “you whose dead lie in foreign fields or in Irish prison graves, remember your dead in your prayers, but do not play England’s game by swallowing the poppy drug and wearing England’s emblem this November eleventh.” 37 Like the arguments of government officials, this author contends that if remembrance could be stripped of imperial symbols, in this case the poppy, then it could accurately commemorate the dead. What begins to emerge here is the republican wish for the symbolism to disappear, yet it is often within the symbols that people found solace and solidarity.

Others were angrier than Brennan in their assessment of the use of the poppy on Armistice Day. In an open letter to Honesty an anonymous writer rages against the poppy sellers, “Your motives are hatred of Ireland, rather than love of the dead... You know that as well as I do, but your mission is Imperialism, your tools the ex-soldiers...” 38The author goes on to suggest that the Irish are willing to pray for ex-soldiers and the dead of the Great War, but that if these imperial symbols are not disused, violence will ensue. 39 Such virulent reactions to the poppy demonstrate the enormity of the debate over identity, symbolism and memory in the Free State. To some the poppy was a physical representation of the soldier’s experience, particularly on the Western Front, of the horror and bloodbath of war. To others it was a symbol of Irishmen sent to fight, yet again, for the British, in an imperial war that only caused the Irish harm.

Far from being just words, this tension over the remembrance of the Great War took to the streets. On Armistice Day 1925 Dublin experienced violence between the commemorative crowd and republicans. Smoke bombs were thrown at the Celtic Cross at Trinity College while members of the crowd attempted to continue singing “God Save the King.” The Irish tricolor flag was flown alongside the Union Jack, causing no end of frustration to those who saw these symbols as antithetical to each other. The smoke bombs caused chaos resulting in poppy wearers chasing non poppy wearers, with the Irish Civil Guard in hot pursuit. The day was also marked by the burning of a Union Jack by college students in front of Trinity College. 40 The city of Cork also experienced violence during the 1925 Armistice Day events. A Celtic Cross memorial was the focus of an explosion. Originally built to honor the dead of the South African War, after the Great War it became the focus of Armistice activities. This was the second attack on this particular memorial and the Cork Examiner notes that, prior to the attempted destruction, an Armistice wreath was burned. 41 According to the Cork Examiner, 5,000 ex-servicemen participated in the Armistice parade that year; the newspaper noted that both Catholic and Protestant church services were held for the purpose of commemoration. 42

Acts of violence toward commemorative acts and sites were frequent in the Irish Free State in the 1920s, yet not all resulted in such direct violence. During a 1926 Dublin memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Anglican Church of Ireland) a crowd of ardent republicans consisting of thirty Fianna Fáil scouts demonstrated outside. One young man argued, “We won’t recognize Imperial demonstrations. We respect these people’s church: but we won’t have Union Jacks flying.” 3 These comments indicate that the young man saw a separation between protesting the Protestant church itself and protesting the memorial service. He took offense specifically at the memorial service and the imperial symbolism of the Union Jack. The crowd marched outside blasting bugles and shouting “Up with the IRA!”. 44 This public attempt by republicans to disrupt the memorial service was a less violent, yet revealing incident. Though the demonstrators may have seen themselves as protesting commemoration of the Great War that happened to take place in a Protestant church, ultimately they were protesting at an Anglican church holding a memorial service for the dead. This shows just how inextricably the war was bound up with the British Empire. The public sphere of remembrance was increasingly overshadowed by the violent rejection of perceived British imperialism.

The frequency of these types of protests at Protestant churches furthered the republican concept that the war and those who commemorated it were imperialists and/or Unionists. Clearly not all protesters drew a direct connection between their demonstration against imperial symbols and the Protestant church, as evident from the young man’s statement above. Even so, these confrontations were often violent or, at the very least, drew attention and made newspaper headlines. This brought attention to the protests and, for those republicans who did equate Protestantism with the empire and the war, furthered their own belief and helped

Even as acts of violence were occurring, in Cork in 1925 there were also attempts to remember the war in a more honorary manner. On the local level, sometimes small memorials or commemorative plaques were created for the fallen of that town. On Armistice Day 1925 the Cork Young Men’s Association unveiled a Memorial Room and tablet in Gregg Hall of the Incorporated Church of Ireland in honor of their members who fell in the Great War. In attendance were families of the deceased, members of the British Legion and the Independent Ex-Service Club. Fifty-nine men from the Young Men’s Association died in the war and it was noted that, “their names, which were engraved on the tablet would never be forgotten; they would be remembered with pride and gratitude (applause). They did not fail in their great fight for justice and right.” 45 Even as contingents attempted to tear apart Armistice Day events, local groups sought to remember and commemorate. That this, like so many across the Free State, was a Protestant church event attended by the British Legion, an organization seen as the pinnacle of imperial vestiges by many, further intertwined war remembrance with supporters of the Empire.

Some businesses, predominantly Protestant owned, also attempted to memorialize the war. Guinness published a commemorative book, the Roll of Employees Who Served in His Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918 in 1920. This book listed each name of the 800 Guinness employees who served in the war, including the 100 who died. 46 This book was published not for public consumption, but for the men who served and the families of the fallen. The intent of the volume was to provide some recognition for the men’s service: “To those who fell we render reverent homage; to those who survive we offer this small, but none the less sincere, expression of heartfelt gratitude.” 47 The short introduction alludes to the perspective of the company on these men’s service, “who gave their services – and in many instances, their lives – for the defense of the Empire at the most perilous and critical period of its history.” 48 It is important to note that this book was published during the War for Independence between Ireland and Britain, yet the Guinness Company was able to differentiate between the service of the soldiers and the contemporary conflict. Even so, the connection of the war as one for the protection of the British Empire was ingrained during the 1920s Irish Free State. The Congested Districts Board and the Bank of Ireland also produced commemorative books for the families of their employees. These publications were easier to justify for Protestant-owned businesses due to long-held connections between Protestants and the British. These commemorative books were small succor for the loss of a father, son, or brother but they were a gesture of support for those affeccted by the war.

Despite acts of violence and harassment towards those who strove to publicly cope with their grief, there were those who supported open remembrance that sought to distance remembrance from the imperial stigma. In response to the success of Cork’s Poppy Day, held on November 14, 1925, the Cork Examiner offered this assessment, “to the generous spirit of Cork’s citizens, who, recognizing the debt of gratitude which is owed to the erstwhile defenders of ours whom the times have treated harshly, gave freely and ungrudgingly, and in token wore the Flanders Poppy ‘In Remembrance’.” 49 This article distanced the poppy and those who wore it from the imperial stigma, asserting that many people were buying them out of gratitude for the soldiers’ sacrifice rather than in support of Britain. A year later the newspaper furthered their argument concerning the true nature of the poppy as a symbol: “[...] the Flanders Poppy, chosen because [...] for us in these islands the Western Front was the centre of our interest, and much of that eight hundred mile battleline ran through Flanders fields, where in its season the poppy showed its brilliant red on every side – its emblem of the red carnage of war.” 50 Others sought to reclassify the Great War in Ireland as one that deflected the darkness of German imperialism, arguing that “theirs was the task, and what greater or nobler under the heavens, to aid those who were answering the Prussian demand to rule the world with a spirit-stirring ‘No!’ that was thundered high above the dreadful diapason of Germany’s greatest guns.” 51 The rhetoric of anti-imperialism raises its head again, yet the author of the newspaper article attempts to shift the tone of his criticism towards German imperialism rather than British. This was an attempt, however unsuccessful in the long run, that at least tried to reorient discussion of the empire and the Great War toward the continent, rather than Ireland’s long, checkered past with Britain.

Violence against supporters of commemorations juxtaposed with this minority of supportive voices meant that republican sentiment prevailed in the fight over the role of the Great War. Even those who supported public remembrance did so for different reasons, some out of imperial allegiance, others out of satisfaction that German imperialism was defeated, and still others out of gratitude for the willing service of the soldiers. While no war engenders one unified popular memory, what is significant in the case of Ireland is just how violently the popular memory of the war was torn apart and how, within only a short time, the war was inextricably linked to the British Empire in a way that would preclude public commemorations devoid of the imperial stain. Ultimately, the decreasing interest in Armistice celebrations stemming from this violent disagreement over the role of the Great War worked in the government’s favor. In the opinion of many government leaders, the war was a British one, and they only bowed to public pressure in allowing commemorations. The public debate over the role of Great War remembrance was ultimately won by republican sentiment.

Personal Remembrance

Despite the problems in creating official or popular remembrance, those affected by the war found other ways to remember and commemorate because “families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric.” 52 Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering on the American Civil War gets at the core of the difficulties in commemorating the dead of a war when those dead seemingly have no positive place in the national narrative. She argues that regardless of which side the dead fought for, their relatives felt compelled to restore meaning to their deaths. This is similar to the Irish affected by the Great War. Personal grief and strife rarely follow political boundaries; many families affected by the war simply wanted to remember, and entered into the identity debate when accused of being imperialists. “Death without dignity, without decency, without identity imperiled the meaning of the life that preceded it,” and many affected by the war felt compelled to bestow some meaning upon that loss. 53 When told that a relative’s sacrifice in the war was unworthy of commemoration because it was conducted in service to the British Army, it is reasonable to suggest that many Irish resented that the meaning they bestowed on death and service was stripped away. Approximately 50,000 Irish families were bereft of a member and 150,000 coped with an ex-serviceman’s survival. Personal remembrance endured despite the violence and ambivalence of the 1920s and found a way to express itself in a less public, more private manner that enabled distance from ardent republican accusation.

For some Irish, this personal remembrance began during the war, as Irishmen were felled across the Western Front. Diaries of the women left at home provide significant insight into how remembrance of the war was created on a personal level almost immediately. The diary scrapbook of Mrs. Emilie Harmsworth provides just such an insight. In lieu of a funeral and burial for the fallen, this scrapbook takes the place of a physical manifestation of mourning. This commemorative scrapbook contains only information relating to the death of her brother. It is a relatively thin book of about forty pages of letters and other documents. There is no inscription on the front cover and the documents immediately jump into information concerning Emilie’s brother. Clearly from the organization of the book it was intended for herself and her family, who would already be familiar with the background of the situation.

On October 24, 1914 Emilie received the devastating telegram that her brother Henry was killed in action at the Battle of Ypres. In the British Army since 1894, Henry was a captain in the Leinster regiment. Emilie and Henry were the youngest of thirteen children born to a barrister in Finglas, Co., Dublin, and were only a year apart in age. By the time of the Great War both had entered their early forties, yet Henry never married. It is significant to note that the War Office telegram, in addition to all major communication concerning Henry’s death, was sent to Emilie rather than their older siblings. That she was designated as his next of kin speaks to the closeness of their relationship. Although the death letter informed Emilie of the end of Henry’s life, it was the start of a much longer process for her, because, as Faust notes, for survivors “...death was literally endless.” 54

This process began with three years of letter-writing for Emilie, starting almost immediately, when she wrote to members of Henry’s regiment for his affects and confirmation that he was, in fact, dead. For a month after the telegram, Emilie feverishly communicated with soldiers in the Leinster regiment, hopeful that her brother was instead a prisoner of war. After several letters confirming her brother’s death and burial, by early 1915 Emilie shifted her letter-writing to having Henry’s last possessions returned to her. 55 From her actions it is clear that Emilie was emotionally traumatized by her brother’s violent end. It is not unusual that she was this fixated on the events surrounding his death. It is almost as though she believed that more information might equal understanding of what seemed to be a senseless death.

Each letter written to her concerning locating and mailing her brother’s possessions was carefully incorporated into the scrapbook. Each bit of evidence of Henry’s death, letters of condolence from his regiment, the death telegram, Emilie’s last postcard returned, and Henry’s last postcard were carefully included. Even the War Office listing that accompanied her brother’s possessions is included in this memento of her brother’s death. As Emilie’s letter-writing campaign shifted from determining if Henry was a POW, to gaining her brother’s possessions, to ascertaining the details of his last moments, she carefully kept the reply letters that indicate her ongoing desire to accumulate everything concerning Henry’s death. 56 While Emilie created the scrapbook to preserve the memory of her brother’s death, it was also a physical means of passing on his memory to her children. They were old enough to have known their uncle but, given the closeness between Emilie and Henry, it is reasonable to suggest that she most likely worried that his absence from the rest of their lives would cause him to fade in their memories.

Like so many heartbroken women before her, by tracking down the physical remnants of Henry’s life, Emilie attempted to make his death real because lacking a body made acceptance difficult and denial easy. 57 Funerals allow the bereaved a public and formal method of expressing their grief. 58 In lieu of this act of mourning women like Emilie had to create their own methods of mourning, and in her case, the scrapbook about Henry’s death was that method. Like the survivors of the American Civil War, Emilie and thousands of Irish families had to integrate the experience of war death into their lives often without the benefit of traditional death ceremonies. 59 The scrapbook of Henry’s death was his funeral, his tombstone to be revisited through the years in remembrance.

Like Emilie Harmsworth, ex-servicemen also struggled to remember a war they had survived while so many died. With the atmosphere of commemoration making public remembrance uncomfortable at best, and violent at worst, during the 1920s ex-servicemen increasingly found their own quieter moments of remembrance. These were devoid of disparaging comments accusing them of being imperialists. For some, like Bartholomew Hand, a veteran of Gallipoli, taking his son Paddy, to the War Memorial at Islandbridge every time they rode their bicycles in Dublin was a way to remember his service and his comrades, and to pass along that experience without the tumult of the organized events. On these bicycle rides Hand showed Paddy churchyards where his fellow Gallipoli veterans were buried. Paddy recalled that it was not until later in life that he realized this had been a pilgrimage for his father. 60

Other ex-servicemen also had difficulty remembering the war and their fallen comrades in the politically tense atmosphere of the 1920s where attending commemorative events branded them as imperialists. Many of these men saw themselves as Irishmen and republicans and found this branding contemptible. Still, they desired a way to commemorate their experience. Like Bartholomew Hand, Bernard Flood found attending Armistice Day activities difficult, viewing them as bombastic events in honor of a horrible experience. However, Flood found his own way to remember his fallen friends. Every year Flood laid a wreath at the war memorial in Drogheda. 61 Though Flood refused to discuss his war service, he commemorated it with his own pilgrimage, devoid of the political tensions over imperial symbolism.

Some men braved Armistice Day events in spite of the imperialist slander they were often branded with. After the war Kieran White had to contend with this imperial slander from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) men. White confronted one these men and a fight ensued, in which White was the resounding victor. White later explained that he did it “so [he] could always hold [his] head high.” 62 He further challenged the expectations around him by making appearances at local Armistice Day events regardless of gossip. In an era where the IRA represented some of the staunchest republicans, White’s willingness to defend his British army service demonstrates that ex-servicemen were subjected to harassment based on the sole fact that they were former British soldiers rather than members of the IRA. Some ex-servicemen chose not to engage with this harassment or commemorations for fear of persecution. White chose to defend himself and to attend Armistice Day activities, knowing full well the tensions inherent in doing so.

Memoirs also represent personal forms of memory. In the 1920s Frank Laird wrote of the harrowing experience on Gallipoli in 1915. He wrote only for himself and had no intention of publishing his account. He wrote “the memory of D Company remains supreme as a possession forever and to meet an old D company man afterwards was always to find a friend.” 63 It was after his death in 1925, as a result of wounds to his lungs sustained on Gallipoli, that his wife and sister organized his writings for publication. So while Laird’s writings were very personal and intended to memorialize his experience and fellow soldiers, the publication by his family was yet another expression of personal remembrance. These women clearly regarded the publication as a way to remember Laird.

Mementos of the war often provided ex-servicemen or their families a venue for remembrance. Sometimes a war medal, a last letter or postcard, the death telegram, or, in the case of Jeremiah Fitzgerald, a photograph, became a constant venue of commemoration. At sixteen Fitzgerald enlisted in the British Army and fought at the Battle of Mons and Ypres. During the war he came into contact with Father Francis Gleeson from the Dublin archdiocese. Father Gleeson was a cherished addition to the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Fitzgerald’s regiment, credited with organizing the men for a counterattack against the German forces after the officer corps had taken heavy losses. This act, unusual for a member of the religious corps, was regarded as one of the utmost bravery. Father Gleeson’s courage, held in high esteem by Fitzgerald, led him to keep a picture of the Father with him for the rest of his life. 64 This was a positive and touching homage to a man he well regarded. A photograph, maintained for life, in this case is a clear memento of remembrance.

Others were tortured by their war experience and that of their families. William Grey of the Irish Guards enlisted following the death of his brother Edward at the Battle of Mons. Lacking specific details about Edward’s death, William enlisted to find out what happened. While in France William lost a length of bone on the Somme in 1917 and was discharged in 1918. Yet despite his emotional and physical losses, William did not uncover more about his brother’s fate. In the postwar period William agonized over Edward’s death and his failure to find out the facts. William was so tortured by Edward’s death that he frequently wept, saying, “Where is Eddie? What happened to him? Is he still alive?” 65 Such concerns occupied his thoughts for the rest of his life, and William died not knowing his brother’s fate. This obsession is an example of the personal grief that could find no respite and was indifferent to the politically tense realm of governmental ambivalence and popular anger.

So while the government saw no use for the Great War in the Free State and the discordant voices in the public argued over the potential imperial nature of commemoration, families and ex-servicemen were left to cope and remember largely on their own. Though Armistice parades carried on through the 1930s, the 1920s marks a period of negotiation over the symbols of memory and ultimately the new state’s identity. Questions over identity and the Great War’s role were fought out in the public realm with the government taking a backseat. As acts like wearing a poppy or attending a parade increasingly became contentious, families and ex-servicemen turned inward; this is a trend that would continue in the 1930s. Arguments over the new Irish identity would ultimately rule in favor of republican sentiment and the sphere of popular remembrance of the war would almost completely dissipate by the 1940s. Then it was only at the level of personal remembrance that the war was commemorated, even in the smallest ways. Ultimately the disputes over commemorating the Great War were a matter of whether or not a war fought under Britain could be included in an independent Ireland. It could not be integrated, as evident from the violent opposition and the resulting focus on more private commemorations. While official frameworks faltered and popular memory tore itself apart over the question of imperialism and identity, personal memorialization distanced itself from overtly public displays of remembrance in order to avoid the taint of imperialism with which republicans had branded the war.


Mandy Townsley. Doctoral candidate at Washington State University in the United States. Currently she is preparing a dissertation focusing on the concurrent remembering and forgetting of the Great War in Ireland during the Free State period.


1 Neil Richardson, A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in World War I (Dublin: O’Brien Press Ltd, 2010), p. 44.

2 George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

3 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century (London: Yale University Press, 2006).

4 Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 4.

5 Winter, Remembering War, p. 4.

6 Winter, Remembering War, p. 4.

7 Winter, Remembering War, p. 7.

8 Rebecca Graff-McRae, Remembering and Forgetting 1916: Commemoration and Conflict in Post-Peace Process Ireland, (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), p. 77.

9 Graff-McRae, p. 76.

10 Graff-McRae, p. 93.

11 Graff-McRae, p. 85.

12 Graff-McRae, p. 85.

13 Graff-McRae, p. 86.

14 Graff-McRae, p. 90.

15 Graff-McRae, p. 44.

16 Anne Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War: History and Memory, 1923–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.

17 Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, p. 200–201.

18 Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, p. 201

19 NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Chief Superintendent Edward O’Dufy of Ennis Garda Nov. 12, 1928.

20 NAI JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from Coimisineir to the secretary of the Dept of Justice, Nov. 8, 1928.

21 The Flanders poppy was the designated symbol of Armistice Day across Europe, having grown on the Western Front.

22 NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from the Chief Superintendent of the Garda to the Secretary of the Department of Justice, November 21, 1928.

23 Ewan Morris, Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in 20th Century Ireland

24 Morris, p. 136.

25 Catherin Reinhardt, Claims to Memory: Beyond Slavery and Emancipation in the French Caribbean, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), p. 2.

26 Honesty, “Bread or Stones for Heroes. The Merrion Square Memorial-A Precedent from the Past,” January 16, 1926, 10–11.

27 Fergus D’Arcy, Remembering the War Dead: British Commonwealth and International War Graves in Ireland since 1914 (Dublin: Government Stationary Office, OPW, 2007), p. 176.

28 Nuala Christina Johnson, Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 91.

29 S. J. Fitzgerald, “Broken Soldier,” Honesty, January 30, 1926.

30 Honesty, “Hands off Merrion Square,” July 21, 1926, p. 12.

31 Honesty was noted by Joan Fitzpatrick Dean in Riot and Great Anger: Stage Censorship in Twentieth Century Ireland as a fairly progressive publication that addressed the taboo subjects of divorce, children borne out of wedlock and other issues of public morality (see page 116). It was a weekly journal published from 1925–1931 at which time it merged with the National Democrat to form Nationality.

32 Honesty, “Poppy Imperialism,” November 13, 1926, p. 9.

33 Honesty, “Poppy Imperialism,” November 13, 1926, p. 9.

34 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.

35 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.

36 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.

37 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.

38 Honesty, “An Open Letter to the Promoters of Poppy Day,” November 14, 1925, p. 6.

39 Honesty, “An Open Letter to the Promoters of Poppy Day,” November 14, 1925, p. 6.

40 Cork Examiner, “Smoke bombs thrown, Exciting Incidents in Dublin,” November 12, 1925, p. 7.

41 Cork Examiner, “Cork Explosion, Attempt to Blow Up a Monument,” November 16, 1925, p. 5.

42 Cork Examiner, “Cork Ex-Servicemen, Armistice Celebrations,” November 16, 1925, p. 8.

43 Cork Examiner, “Fianna Scouts, Demonstration Outside Dublin Cathedral,” November 9, 1926

44 Cork Examiner, “Fianna Scouts, Demonstration Outside Dublin Cathedral,” November 9, 1926.

45 Cork Examiner, “Cork Ceremony Unveiling a Memorial,” November 12, 1925, p. 7.

46 Guinness, Son & Co. Ltd, Roll of Employees Who Served in Hist Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918, (Dublin: Anthony Rowe Limited, 1920), p. 5.

47 Guinness, Son & Co Ltd, p. 5.

48 Guinness, Son & Co Ltd, p. 3.

49 Cork Examiner, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” November 17, 1925, p. 9.

50 Cork Examiner, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” November 12, 1926, p. 8.

51 Cork Examiner, “The Heroic Dead,” November 12,1924, p. 5.

52 Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Albert Knopf, 2008), XIV.

53 Faust, p. 268.

54 Faust, p. 144.

55 NLI, MS 46, 536 Papers in relation to Henry Telford Maffett, 2nd Batt Leinster Regiment.

56 NLI, MS 46, 536 Papers in relation to Henry Telford Maffett, 2nd Batt Leinster Regiment.

57 Faust, p. 146.

58 Faust, p. 153.

59 Faust, p. 267.

60 Philip Orr, Field of Bones: An Irish Division at Gallipoli (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2006), p. 220.

61 Richardson, p. 212.

62 Richardson, p. 215.

63 Frank Laird, Personal Experiences of the Great War (An Unfinished Manuscript), (Dublin: Eason and Son, Ltd, 1925), p. 48.

64 Richardson, p. 146–7.

65 Richardson, p. 169.

List of References

Primary Sources:

Guinness, Son & Co. Ltd. (1920) Roll of Employees Who Served in His Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918 (Dublin: Anthony Rowe Ltd).

Laird, Frank (1925) Personal Experiences of the Great War (An Unfinished Manuscript), (Dublin: Eason and Son Ltd).

National Archives Ireland:
NAI JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from Coimisineir to the secretary of the Dept of Justice, Nov. 8, 1928.
NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Chief Superintendent Edward O’Dufy, of Ennis Garda Nov. 12, 1928.
NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from the Chief Superintendent of the Garda to The Secretary of Dept of Justice, Nov. 21, 1928.

National Library Ireland:
NLI Papers in relation to Henry Telford Maffett, 2nd Batt Leinster Regiment: MS 46, 536.
NLI, Cork Examiner November 17, 1925, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” p. 9.
NLI, Cork Examiner November 12, 1925, “Cork Ceremony Unveiling a Memorial,” p. 7.
NLI Cork Examiner, November 12, 1925, “Smoke Bomb’s Thrown, Exciting Incidents in Dublin,” p. 7.
NLI, Cork Examiner, November 9, 1926, “Fianna Scouts, Demonstration Outside a Dublin Cathedral.”
NLI, Cork Examiner, November 12, 1926, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” p. 8.
NLI Cork Examiner, November 16, 1925, “Cork Explosion, Attempt to Blow Up Monument,” p. 5.
NLI Honesty, November 7, 1925, “Poppy Dope for Irish Workers,” p. 5.
NLI Honesty, November 14, 1925, “An Open Letter to the Promoters of Poppy Day,” p. 6.
NLI Honesty 16 January 1926, “Bread or Stone for Heroes. The Merrion Square Memorial – A Precedent from the Past,” p. 10–11.
NLI Honesty 30 January 1926, “The Broken Soldier.”
NLI Honesty 21 July 1926, “Hands off Merrion Square,” p. 12.
NLI Honesty, November 13, 1926, “Poppy Imperialism,” p. 9.

Secondary Sources:

D’Arcy, Fergus (2007) Remembering the War Dead: British Commonwealth and International War Graves in Ireland since 1914, (Dublin: The Government Stationary Office, OPW).

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick (2004) Riot and Great Anger: Stage Censorship in Twentieth Century Ireland, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Faust, Drew Gilpin (2008) This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Albert Knopf).

Howe, Stephen (2000) Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Jeffery, Keith (2000) Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Johnson, Nuala Christina (2003) Ireland, the Great War, and the Geography of Remembrance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Johnstone, Tom (1992) Orange, Green and Khaki: The Story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War, 1914–18 (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan).

Lee, J.J (1985) Ireland: 1912–1985 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Morris, Ewan (2005) Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in 20th Century Ireland (Dublin: Irish Academic Press).

Mosse, George L. (1990) Fallen Soldiers, Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press).

Nora, Pierre (1992) Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past (New York: Columbia University Press).

Orr, Philip (2006) Fields of Bones: An Irish Division at Gallipoli (Dublin: Lilliput Press).

Reinhardt, Catherine (2006) Claims to Memory: Beyond Slavery and Emancipation in the French Caribbean (New York: Berghahn Books).

Richardson, Neil (2010) A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in World War I (Dublin: O’Brien Press Ltd).

Winter, Jay (1995) Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Winter, Jay (2006) Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century (London: Yale University Press).

Winter, Jay (2008) “Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War,” in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, eds. Astrid Errl and Ansgar Nünning (New York: Walter de Gruyter).


This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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

Robert Blobaum

Warsaw’s Forgotten War

21 August 2014
  • Poland
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Warsaw
  • remembrance
  • Piłsudski
  • Dmowski


By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death, and conflict over increasingly scarce resources. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has largely been forgotten. This article draws on various theoretical perspectives from the field of memory studies, particularly of the political and cultural structures which create silences, in an effort to explain why the First World War is likely to remain Warsaw’s forgotten war.

By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death and conflict over increasingly scarce resources necessary to sustain human life. Were it not for copyright law, the title of Tadeusz Konwicki’s famous novel, A Minor Apocalypse, would serve as an apt heading for a study of the impact of the world’s first total war on the daily lives of the inhabitants of one of central Europe’s great cities. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the major apocalypse of devastation and destruction which characterized Warsaw’s amply-documented experience of the Second World War, the deprivation and desperation marking the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has been largely forgotten. In Warsaw today, one is hard pressed to find any sign or site of public memory that might recall or reflect on the suffering of its citizens during the Great War, even as minor apocalypse. This is in stark contrast to the innumerable commemorative plaques, memorials and monuments devoted the Warsaw’s experience of the Second World War that dominates the city’s memory culture.

Not surprisingly, the historiography on Warsaw during the Great War is extremely limited, while that devoted to Poland more generally occupies little more than a shelf in the stacks of the Warsaw University library. Again, the contrast with the ever-expanding literature on the city’s experience of the Second World War could not be more striking. Moreover, in the traditional Polish national narrative that has dominated the existing sparse scholarship on the First World War, Warsaw figures little more than the major urban political setting in the larger story of the recovery of an independent Polish state (Królikowski and Oktabiński 2008; Wyszczelski 2008). One glance at the existing Polish-language secondary literature reveals an overwhelming preponderance of outdated titles on the military history of the war, devoted primarily to battles in which Polish legions participated, along with accounts tracing the activities of political parties and personalities during those years, especially those identified with the struggle for Polish independence. This has been supplemented in recent years by important German and English-language scholarship on the German occupation regime, which established its seat in Warsaw following the Russian evacuation of the city in August 1915 (Polsakiewicz 2009; Kaufman 2008). However, inasmuch as Warsaw appears in these studies, it does so mainly as a setting or target of German occupation policy, rather than a subject worthy of study in its own right.

The only real scholarly treatment of the experience of Warsaw’s inhabitants during the Great War is the one written by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, published nearly forty years ago (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1974). While Dunin’s focus was directed partly at the material condition of the population and the demographic consequences of the war, his short monograph is descriptive rather than analytical and interpretive, and lacks any kind of comparative perspective. Given the context in which it was written, Dunin’s book also ignored important issues related to class, ethnicity, gender, and culture that have inspired the best recent scholarship of the wartime experience of other capitals and major cities. Three years earlier, Dunin was also responsible for the publication of the only significant anthology of memoirs on the First World War in Warsaw, which informed and shaped his later study (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971). The perspectives presented, as we shall see, were predominantly those of the male Polish intelligentsia and, as such, they focused more on wartime political developments than on everyday life.

Truth be told, literature on the urban experience of World War One in European metropolitan centers is still in its infancy. The pioneering volume of essays on the war’s social history in London, Paris and Berlin, Capital Cities at War, edited by Jan Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, was published only in 1997. This was followed by a second volume devoted to a cultural history of the war in the three capitals in 2007. In between, Belinda Davis, one of the contributors to the first Capital Cities volume, published Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000). Outside of the “Big Three” capital cities, David Rechter published an analysis of Jewish politics in wartime Vienna in 2001 (The Jews of Vienna and the First World War); but the real breakthrough came with Maureen Healy’s Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (2004) with its focus on shops, street corners, schools, pubs, and apartment buildings, everyday sites of conflict and “communal disintegration” on the home front as a consequence of growing hunger, violence, and the deterioration of social norms. More recently, Roger Chickering’s The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914–1918 (2007) adopted a comprehensive methodological approach to a micro-history that illuminates the wartime experience of a medium-sized frontline city.

If the literature on the social and cultural history of the Great War in major European urban settings has yet to extend much beyond London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna to places like Warsaw Budapest and Prague, there is even less to be said of studies of war-related memory and memorialization in these latter cities. In Warsaw’s specific instance, one basically needs to start from scratch. In its attempt to initiate such a discussion, this article draws on various theoretical perspectives in the field of memory studies, beginning with the classic “socio-constructivist” approach to memory originally developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs 1980), as well as its significant amendment by Jan Assmann to account for institutionalized commemoration through cultural evolution (Assmann 2011). It has also benefited from the considerable theoretical contributions of Pierre Nora and his collaborators, particularly those related to the “places” (or “realms”) of memory, an academic enterprise developed over several decades (Nora 2001 and 2007). Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s analysis of the relationship of power to silences in memory, commemoration, and the production of historical narratives (Trouillot 1995) is especially relevant to this study, which focuses not only on what has been forgotten from Warsaw’s lived experience of the First World War, but also why it has been forgotten. At the same time, this article will contrast the forgotten war with the minimally memorialized one. Commemorating the social and economic experiences of non-combatants in wartime is a challenge in any case, but a monument constructed in 1925 in Vienna’s Central Cemetery depicting a grieving mother who was just as likely to have lost her child to malnutrition and disease as to battle during the war, suggests at least one possibility (Healy 2006, 54). Present-day Warsaw’s memory landscape of the First World War, as we shall see, contains nothing of the sort.

A Past Buried by Memory

Over twenty years ago, in his famous discussion of the recovery of memory of the Second World War, the late Tony Judt argued that in contrast with Western Europe, the problem in post-communist Eastern Europe was not a shortage of memory, but its reverse: “Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw. [...]” (Judt 1992, 99). For our purposes, Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza) in present-day Piłsudski Square offers a case in point. In 1923, a group of anonymous Varsovians, inspired by state-sponsored monuments and commemorations originating in Britain and France, placed before the Saxon Palace, then the seat of the Ministry of War, a stone tablet commemorating the unknown Polish soldiers who had fallen during the years 1914–1920. This effort at commemoration already conflated two wars, the Great War of 1914–1918 and the Polish-Soviet War, not to mention the border wars and armed conflicts with Ukraine, Lithuania, and Germany. Soon enough, the initiative for an official tomb was taken up by the War Minister, General Władysław Sikorski; some forty battlefields were considered by the Ministry for removing and transporting to Warsaw the remains of an unknown soldier, and ultimately Lwów during the Polish-Ukrainian War in eastern Galicia was selected. On 2 November 1925 the ceremonial reburial was accompanied by a twenty-one gun salute and the lighting of the eternal flame by President Stanisław Wojciechowski (Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowy 2005).

The burying of memory of the Great War, by heaping on it more recent memory, had clearly begun. In fact, it was already in process before the appearance of the tablet of the anonymous citizens in front of the Saxon Palace. Without a doubt more unknown Polish soldiers had died on the battlefields of the Great War than in independent Poland’s subsequent border wars and war with Soviet Russia. Accompanying this process of historical production were more fundamental silences about the everyday experiences and sufferings of Warsaw’s non-combatants, who died in even greater numbers than did its soldiers fighting in various armies during the First World War.

Let us return for a moment to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Ministry’s decision to use the site of the tomb to honor those who had died fighting for an independent Poland since 1794 contained a silence about the majority of Poles who had died fighting in the Great War in the service of the imperial Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian armies. Of the thirteen battles of the years 1914–1918 currently inscribed on tablets at the site, all of them involve Polish legions and brigades which fought – presumably for the idea of independent Poland – under their own banner, but as part of other armies, particularly the Austro-Hungarian and French. If the reality of Pole fighting Pole (rather than for independence) for the greater part of First World War contradicted the emerging narrative, so too did the collaboration of Polish political elites with ruling regimes and occupation authorities, even if those elites were divided in their support of the Entente and Central Powers. This includes those rival political figures now credited through their combined efforts with the restoration and defense of an independent Poland, Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski, to whom statues, squares, and roundabouts have been dedicated in Warsaw.

In any event, the thirteen battles featured in Piłsudski Square are not representative of Polish combat during the First World War. However, they are overshadowed by twenty-four battles from late 1918 to 1920, the years of the Soviet-Polish war and of Poland’s border wars with its Ukrainian, German, and Lithuanian neighbors, when Polish soldiers were mobilized and fought for a Polish state. The Battle for Lwów, as mentioned, fits this category, and that one of its battlefields, Gródek Jagielloński, was selected over dozens of others for the removal of the remains of an unknown soldier was not accidental. General Sikorski had commanded troops there in fending off a bloody Ukrainian siege in January 1919 (Wapiński 1997, 471). The wars of 1918–1920, too, would be dwarfed after 1945 by the seventythree inscriptions commemorating land, naval, and air battles of World War II in which Polish forces fought, or, like Katyń, were buried. They would also be bracketed by fifty-two “battles” prior to 1914, including terrorist attacks on Russian troops during the revolutionary years of 1904–1908. Thus, of the 162 battles featured at Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, approximately 45% are dedicated to World War II, 32% to the period 972 to 1914, 15% to the wars of 1918–1920, and only 8% to the years of the Great War – none of which, again, commemorate the thousands of Polish soldiers who died in the service of imperial armies. “Commemorations,” according to Trouillot, “impose a silence on events they ignore and fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate” (Trouillot 1995, 118). Whatever the intentions of the Warsaw citizens and their homemade tablet in 1923, the state-driven narrative at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is about the state, and those who fought and died for it for nearly a millennium. The tomb embraces accompanying themes of victimization and martyrdom, while excluding and trivializing what does not fit the conceptual framework which shaped its creation and evolution. The effective silencing of Polish military casualties during the Great War is not the result of conspiracy or even a political consensus. Instead, its roots are structural. This memory structure is also reflected in Warsaw’s larger monument landscape, which, in its few references to World War One, emphasizes its outcome – namely, independent Poland – at the expense of its actual course.

One can hardly expect military cemeteries, even symbolic ones like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to commemorate non-combatants of any era, yet as Katrin Van Cant has shown in her analysis of the nearly eighty open-air monuments erected in Warsaw between 1989 and 2009, the emphasis on the heroes of recent Polish military history and particularly those of World War II is similarly pronounced in the city’s streets (Van Cant 2009). 1 30% of these monuments are directly related to World War II, the majority of which commemorate the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising. By comparison, only 6.5% of the new statues refer to World War I. “The most natural explanation for this,” according to Van Cant, “is that in Polish national memory, this war, despite the terrific human and material losses on the Polish side between 1914 and 1918, mainly has a positive connotation, because of its outcome” (Van Cant 2009, 98–99). In other words, the Great War does not easily fit the dominant narrative told by Warsaw’s monuments (any more than it did the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), “of Poland and the Polish people as victims of their history, nevertheless always displaying an indestructible will to fight for the existence and freedom of the nation” (Van Cant 2009, 113).

However, if we look closely at these monuments, we will see that there is more to the story. None of the monuments in Van Cant’s study refer to the Great War as it was experienced by non-combatants in Warsaw, but to its “positive outcome” for the Polish nation. That outcome had been a relatively taboo subject in the communist era, during which not a single monument was erected to commemorate a person or event that took place prior to 1945, with the exception of the monument to the Polish communist and founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzierżyński, in the city center. 2 The 1998 Memorial to the Military Action of the Polish American is dedicated to Polish-American soldiers who fought under the command of General Józef Haller in France and against the Ukrainians in eastern Galicja in 1918. There is also the 2005 memorial to Father Jerzy Skorupka, a chaplain in the Polish army who died in 1920 during the war with the Soviets. In the 1990s three statues were dedicated to Piłsudski, the acknowledged “founder” of the interwar state, and a final one to Dmowski in 2006. Due to Dmowski’s primacy of place in the pantheon of Poland’s radical right, the monument and surrounding roundabout in his name proved the most controversial, despite Dmowski’s “positive” role at the Paris Peace Conference.

Also honored, in Skaryszewski Park, is Colonel Edward M. House, advisor to the American wartime president Woodrow Wilson and “friend of Poland,” whose 1932 statue was removed by the communists in 1951 and restored in 1991. 3 Wilson and Herbert Hoover are two other Americans connected to the First World War honored in the Polish capital. Tellingly, Wilson is honored with a plaza (plac in Polish) for making an independent Poland one of his Fourteen Points and an American war aim. Constructed in the interwar period as a major transportation hub, plac Wilsona and its name survived through and beyond the communist era. Meanwhile, Hoover, the head of the postwar American Relief Administration responsible for saving thousands of lives, is honored with a skwer (which really isn’t a square) adjacent to Warsaw’s most prominent boulevard, Krakowskie Przedmieście. Skwer Hoovera remains the only physical marker of Warsaw’s existential catastrophe of the Great War. In 1922 a monument “of gratitude to America” had been erected in Hoover’s honor that portrayed two women holding children who had presumably been saved from starvation as a result of American relief efforts, but by 1930 the sandstone sculpture was already falling apart and had to be removed from the square. It was subsequently destroyed during the Second World War. Under the communist regime, the square was stripped of Hoover’s name along with the pedestal for the original monument, but the square’s original name was restored in 1992, accompanied by a stone memorial. Plans to restore the original statue of 1922, however, have not been realized to date (Hoover Institution 2005).

Two groups, as Van Cant shows, are completely underrepresented in Warsaw’s public monuments – women and Jews. Three of Warsaw’s currently standing monuments commemorate Jews, all of them directly related to World War II and the Holocaust, of which only one was erected after 1989, in the distant suburb of Falenica. Women come off slightly better, with four new monuments since 1989, raising the total to seven, which honor “the fighting (and caring) woman and first-class patriot” (Van Cant 2009, 109). Primarily viewed as non-combatants during the First World War, no member of either group is remembered for this time period. More significant, however, is that Varsovians themselves are woefully underrepresented in the monuments and statues of their own city. Only a few local heroes have been honored with their own monument in Warsaw, and none of them are connected to the First World War. The emphasis is clearly on the national rather than the local. As Van Cant explains, “Warsaw as the capital fulfills the role of visiting card to the entire country” and the narrative delivered by its monuments is firmly focused on the later history of twentieth-century Poland “because it was extremely traumatic and [because] the scars inflicted by those events are still very fresh in the national consciousness” (Van Cant 2009, 112). However, the problem with remembering the First World War in Warsaw may run much deeper than a preoccupation with what came after it, but with how its “history” was recorded in the first place, in its very sources.

The Root of the Problem

The recording of history, Assmann argues, gives rise to “a dialectic of expansion and loss,” the latter “through forgetting and through suppression by way of manipulation, censorship, destruction, circumspection, and substitution” (Assmann 2011, 9). According to Trouillot, “[Sources] privilege some events over others, not always the ones privileged by the actors [...] Silences are inherent in the creation of sources, the first moment of historical production” (Troiullot 1995, 48 and 51). If, as Trouillot argues, “History is the fruit of power” and “in history, power begins at the source” (Trouillot 1995, xix and 29), what can be said of the sources available for an examination of the everyday lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War?

Let us begin with the archival evidence. Warsaw was under Russian rule during the first year of the war, until early August 1915, after which the city came under German occupation. The documents written and compiled by these political authorities obviously reflect a certain perspective, if not always from the top, then from various ranks of administrations concerned primarily with the preservation of order and control. Seldom do we hear from those who are the subjects of these documents, except when they offer resistance to or come under suspicion of the authorities. The most significant archival collection of Russian administration for the first year of the war, the files of the Warsaw Superintendent of Police, demonstrates a preoccupation with requisitioning and evacuation, along with ungrounded fears of Jewish espionage on behalf of the Central Powers. 4 No attention is paid to the steady deterioration of living standards caused by the war and requisitioning, at least in the documents available to us. And what is available to us represents only a small fraction of the written record, since many documents were deliberately destroyed during the Russian evacuation, while others were transported from Warsaw, never to return. Thus what have survived are fragments, such as the files of the requisitions commission for Warsaw’s fourth precinct, 5 which historians may take as representative – at least for a particular process.

The documents of the German occupation authorities in Warsaw fared no better, in fact, even worse. Again, there was purposeful destruction. The majority of the most important and secret documents from the Warsaw Governor-General’s office were burned in November 1918, as described in his memoirs by Bohdan Hutten-Czapski, the principal “Polish expert” of Governor-General Hans von Beseler (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 478–479). Nevertheless, some 980 volumes were preserved, as were those of the Chief of Administration, and deposited in the Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN). Following the German invasion of 1939, these documents were packed off in their entirety to Potsdam, where they were destroyed in 1945 during the siege of Berlin. Meanwhile, fragments from Beseler’s personal collection had been preserved by his family and after World War II were transferred to the German federal archive in Koblenz. Some were reproduced on microfilm and photocopies and returned to Poland. Today, some thirty-six files as well as fragments from fifteen others, only a tiny fraction of what had once existed, are available to researchers at the Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych (AGAD). 6 These consist primarily of Beseler’s reports, the quarterly reports of the Chief of Administration, and a small number of announcements, declarations, orders and petitions. The collection of the Imperial German Presidium of Police in Warsaw contains only a few random documents, which are practically useless, since it is difficult to place them in larger contexts.

Nonetheless, the available German documents, taken as a whole, reveal more about wartime living conditions in Warsaw than the Russian documents, perhaps because their political implications grew as the war continued. Official quarterly reports, for example, discuss the refugee crisis the Germans encountered upon entering Warsaw, high inflation and unemployment, threats to public health, tensions in Polish-Jewish relations, fraternization of German troops with Polish women, and especially issues related to the food supply – its control and distribution, and associated activities, such as smuggling. Appendices to the reports of Chief of Administration contain particularly valuable statistical data on various diseases and levels of employment. What is striking, however, is the absence of references in these documents to the political situation in Warsaw, perhaps because these were precisely the kinds of documents that were purposefully burned in November 1918.

In an early report from the Fall of 1915, Beseler claimed that one of his main tasks was “to contain or deflect political propaganda” for independence. 7 To do so, the German occupation regime first permitted cultural expressions of Polish (and Jewish) national sentiment and, as the war continued and the Russians failed to sue for peace, the establishment of quasi-state institutions and self-governing bodies such as municipal councils. Among the former was the Provisional State Council (Tymczasowy Rada Stanu – TRS), a consultative body formed to work with German and Austrian authorities to design state institutions in the occupied Polish Kingdom. Before it was replaced by one of those institutions (the Regency Council), the TRS lasted some seven and a half months, from 14 January to 31 August 1917. It is estimated that over 25% of its archive survived the Second World War, 8 a far higher percentage than that of its successor, both of which are located in Warsaw’s AAN. Whereas one is hard-pressed to find references to the political situation in the German documentary collections housed in Warsaw-based repositories, this appears to have been a primary concern of the TRS, whose files reveal a careful monitoring of the Warsaw press, both legal and underground, thanks to which we have some evidence of incidents of unrest – food riots and student strikes in May 1917, demonstrations and political vandalism following the arrest of Józef Piłsudski in July 1917. However, such documents afford us only fleeting and fragmentary glimpses into the lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War, and these through lenses trained on other objects.

The same could be said of the collections of private papers of individuals who served in these “Polish” institutions which are also housed at AAN, principal among them the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers. 9I mention these two in particular because of the positions held during the war by Stanisław Dzierzbicki and Piotr Drzewiecki, respectively. A civil engineer by training, Stanisław Dzierzbicki was a dedicated public servant who, during the war years, became involved in the provision of relief and assistance to victims of the war, most significantly as the president of the Main Welfare Organization (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza – RGO), after which he became a member of the Provisional State Council and Minister of Agriculture under the Regency Council. To judge by his papers, Dzierzbicki was concerned primarily with issues related to funding, provisioning, and the distribution of assistance before 1917 and, as his functions changed in that year, by outbursts of unrest in Warsaw’s streets and universities. Piotr Drzewiecki, who had presided over a number of industrial and commercial boards before the war, was one of the founding members of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee, an NGO formed with imperial Russian approval in August 1914 in order to deal with war’s side-effects, economic or otherwise, on the Warsaw home front. As the war continued and the needs of Warsaw’s inhabitants mounted, the Citizens’ Committee became the main welfare agency in the city. Following the Russian evacuation, its executive branch was transformed into the Warsaw city administration, where Drzewiecki served as vice president. Drzewiecki’s papers for this period reveal the perspective of an administrator dealing with German demands for labor, unwelcome German supervision of the city’s judicial and educational institutions, and a strained city budget. They also reveal a National Democrat concerned with electoral politics, in this case, the newly formed Warsaw City Council. In both the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers, with the focus on the administrative and political, only side-glances are offered toward the quotidian struggles of those whom they presumably served.

The best view of these struggles from the archives, at least for the first twenty-one months of the war, is contained in the minutes of meetings of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and its presidium, which are available in the Warsaw city archive. 10 The minutes of these meetings are quite detailed and demonstrate how the committee’s responsibilities expanded in conjunction with the needs of the city and its population. From concerns about the city’s unemployed, waves of refugees, energy supplies, and setting price ceilings in the early months of the war, to the provisioning of public kitchens, food rationing, the spread of infectious diseases and drafting an electoral ordinance during the first year of the German occupation, the challenges facing the Committee are well documented. However, while the Committee’s discussions of the reports of its sections and sub-sections appear in the minutes, they are abbreviated, while the reports themselves – which would provide an even closer view of everyday life on the ground – are not available. Thus, what we often see is in the aggregate – the number of refugees sheltered, or meals served in public kitchens over a particular period – instead of the specific. Far less complete are the archives of the Committee’s successor organizations, the Warsaw city administration and the Warsaw city council, although what is available provides evidence of financially strapped city institutions trying to make ends meet while dealing with an implacable occupier and growing urban unrest, including a strike of municipal employees. 11 Basically, the documentary evidence is far more robust for the first year of the war, when Warsaw remained under Russian rule and before the Warsaw Citizens Committee and its sections were transformed into organs of self-government, than in the last three-plus years when the general economic crisis experienced by the city’s inhabitants was gradually transformed into an existential catastrophe.

Indeed, a similar imbalance can be noted in a reading of the mass circulation press, the principal chronicler of everyday life. The difference can be explained by censorship, whose constraints were fewer under the Russians than the Germans. In part, this was because Warsaw’s Polish-language daily press, by and large, was pro-Russian, as were the National Democrats, who possessed the strongest political organization in the city. Greater press freedom was also a consequence of the Revolution of 1905, which led to a veritable explosion of press titles in Warsaw, including those in Yiddish and Hebrew. Compared to its Polish counterpart, the Jewish-language(s) press in Warsaw was viewed with far greater suspicion by the Russian government during the first year of the war, to the point that it was shut down entirely as the Russians prepared their evacuation from Warsaw in the summer of 1915 (Zieliński 2005, 116). While reporting on the situation at the front, especially as it drew closer to Warsaw in the fall of 1914 and again in the summer of 1915, was largely taboo, the Polish press remained free to express itself on practically everything else, including the now perennial “Jewish question.” More to the point, through featured sections titled “Z miasta” (“From the City”), dailies such as the long-standing Kurjer Warszawski, with its close ties to the city’s Polish political and cultural elites, as well as Nowa Gazeta, representative of Warsaw’s assimilated and liberal Jewish elite, were able to offer relatively clear snapshots of how the city’s residents sought to negotiate the hardships of the war’s first year, although the accompanying commentary reflected the biases of journalists and editors.

This situation was reversed under the Germans, who were well aware of the politically destabilizing effects of the ever-deteriorating living conditions in the city, to which their policies of requisitioning and control of resources were the main contributing factor. Thus, reporting on those conditions and their consequences became increasingly taboo, particularly following the establishment of preventive censorship on 25 September 1915, which specifically targeted “all rumors, news and commentaries about the decisions of the occupation authorities, whether civil or military” and “all articles about incidents, accidents, epidemics and poverty.” 12 While some circumvention of the censor was possible, as I have discussed in another article devoted to a discussion of Warsaw’s “barefoot” phenomenon (Blobaum 2013), the issues had to appear politically innocuous to avoid scrutiny. One will therefore find no mention of Warsaw’s major food riots of June 1916 and May 1917 in the officially registered Warsaw daily press – a most dramatic instance of silencing. What we know about these riots come from other sources – a list of ransacked grocery stories subsidized and administered by the city that Nowa Gazeta and other legal dailies intended but were never able to publish, as well as accounts in the clandestine press. Interestingly, even in a media outlet whose self-proclaimed goal to provide information that could not otherwise appear in the Warsaw press, news about the May 1917 riots appeared in its back pages, this despite the fact that looting had lasted an entire day. 13

As if in compensation, the German occupation authorities were more than willing to permit public expressions of Polish national pride in commemorations, the most significant being the celebrations of the anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May 1791, and in the press commentary leading up them. Particularly welcome was the discussion of events in Polish history that had an anti-Russian flavor, such as the 1830 and 1863 uprisings. There was another form of venting, however, that proved even more valuable to the Germans. After an initial attempt to put a lid on public expressions of Polish-Jewish hostility in order to prevent disturbances in the rear of their armies, as the war continued the German authorities gradually began to lift it in order to release steam from frustrations built up by their own policies. By the end of the war, the vitriol in Polish-Jewish press polemics in Warsaw matched that of the last years of Russian rule.

The point here is that, over the course of the war, as everyday struggles in Warsaw literally became a matter of life and death, the Warsaw press moved away from these struggles in its coverage. One might blame the German censor in the case of the legal press, but the issues of malnutrition and starvation were not a priority of the uncensored “independent” press, even when the collapse of living standards resulted in food rioting.

Memoirs are often taken by historians as a more suspect type of primary source, even if they place too much faith in the value of archives and contemporary press accounts. However, it is important to raise questions about which memoirs get published and with what objective. A look at those compiled by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz in his anthology for Warsaw during the First World War is instructive here. As mentioned, despite its claim to represent a cross-section of perspectives, the anthology displays a clear bias in favor of political activists and journalists from the male Polish intelligentsia. Bogdan Hutten-Czapski, a landed Polish aristocrat close to the Kaiser who arrived in Warsaw as a member of the entourage of Governor- General Beseler, is the sole voice of the German occupation authorities in the anthology, while the perspective of the of the imperial Russian regime lacks a single representative. Despite Warsaw’s pronounced demographic feminization during the war, excerpts were taken from the writings of only two women, Maria Kamińska and Władysława Głodowska-Sampolska, activists with ties to the radical left, ancestors of the communist regime which ruled Poland at the time of the anthology’s publication in 1971, but who were politically insignificant during the war years. Further exaggeration of the role of proto-communist formations is evident through the inclusion of memoirs written by male activists Bronisław Fijałek and Aleksander Tomaszewski. The anthology also appeared three years after that regime’s 1968 “anti-Zionist” campaign, a purging of Jews from the state bureaucracy, party apparatus, and positions of prominence in Polish society. Excerpts from the memoirs of two assimilated Jews – those of Kamińska (whose real name was Maria Eiger) and the journalist Aleksander Kraushar – do make an appearance, but their authors’ ancestry remains unacknowledged by the editor. Wartime Warsaw thus appears in the anthology as ethno-religiously homogeneous, and without a single mention of Polish-Jewish relations, the defining issue of local politics following municipal council elections in 1916.

This is not to suggest that Dunin-Wąsowicz’s anthology is worthless for the study of everyday life in Warsaw from 1914 to 1918. As mentioned, Dunin’s book on Warsaw during the First World War pays a great deal of attention to material conditions and their deterioration, and his anthology does provide space for the memoirs of social workers. One of the most revealing comes from Franciszek Herbst, who served as secretary of the Labor Section of the Warsaw Citizens Committee and continued to serve the city administration following the Committee’s dissolution. Yet even Herbst writes that the distribution efforts of the Citizens Committee were exclusively carried out by women volunteers (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 306). If women were in the front lines in the distribution of aid during the war, the direct recipients of this aid, first and foremost, were also women. These two categories of women are absolutely crucial to understanding the experience of war in Poland’s once and future capital, but their voices are nowhere to be found in Dunin’s anthology. Nor will we find them in the works of professional historians.

History and Memory

Pierre Nora has succinctly defined historiography as “the scholarly construction of memory” (Nora 2001, xx). Michel-Rolph Truillot ties that “scholarly construction” to power and to “the size, the relevance, and the overwhelming complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia” (Trouillot 1995, 19). “The value of a historical product,” he argues further, “cannot be debated without taking into account the context of its production and the context of its consumption” (Trouillot 1995, 146). In this sense, history – as the story about what happened – becomes part of continuous myth-making and sanitization processes that include the creation of sources, the social construction of memory itself, and its cultural organization, commodification, and institutionalization through ceremony and commemoration. Despite professional historians’ belief in scientific history and an ability to set aside their own preferences and stakes, only broad and profound transformations of consciousness and identity can create new ways of understanding the past – for example, of the kind in France identified by Nora which gave birth to memory studies.

In Poland, while the beginnings of such transformations may be perceptible, national consciousness and identity are still largely shaped by feelings of victimization and the “struggle” for independence which, in turn, have provided the conceptual framework that makes some narratives rather than others powerful enough to pass as accepted history. Except for its outcome, as we have already noted, the First World War ill fits this framework and the everyday travails of non-combatants on the Warsaw “home front” during the war even less so. To demonstrate this point more specifically and the way that “history” can be made to fit an established and accepted framework, let us return for a moment to how women and their wartime roles are featured in the few studies devoted to them.

As mentioned previously, Warsaw’s women, broadly speaking, can be divided into two categories. The first, to borrow Belinda Davis’s term used throughout her study of wartime Berlin, were the “women of lesser means” (Davis 2000), who, in the case of Warsaw as well as Berlin, comprised the vast majority of women. In Warsaw this included the laboring poor, but more significantly the female unemployed, particularly former domestic servants, who before the war comprised the largest number of employed women in Warsaw and whose jobs were lost due to the evacuation of Russian officials and the growing impoverishment of middle-class and intelligentsia households. Joining these “women of lesser means” were single mothers and wives left temporarily or permanently without male partners due to wartime circumstances of conscription and labor out-migration. Among the most publicly and politically visible women in this category were the rezerwistki, soldiers’ wives whose sense of entitlement was publicly acknowledged – that is, until it came to be perceived as a threat to the existing social order. Finally, there were the “women of loose morality,” as they were referred to in the press, occasional prostitutes whose numbers increased significantly in the midst of the city’s economic destitution.

The second kind of women in Warsaw were similar to those identified by Maureen Healy in her study of wartime Vienna, defined as a vocal minority among affluent women who spoke on behalf of “women” in general, including “women of lesser means” (Healy 2004, 167). Although the numbers of women of affluence, if anything, declined in Warsaw during the war years as economic misery traveled up the social hierarchy, the size of the minority speaking on behalf of women grew noticeably as a small number of prewar feminists of conviction were joined by a much larger group of feminists of wartime circumstance. The latter can be defined as the female members of prewar social and cultural conservative elites whose perspectives and, ultimately, demands were shaped by their wartime experience in philanthropy, social work, and public assistance. These women, conservative in their political outlook but well aware of the importance of their wartime social roles, made and ultimately won the case for women’s suffrage and equal political rights by the end of 1918.

Neither of these two groups of women, however, is featured in the scant literature on women during the First World War. Instead, the focus has been placed – or misplaced – on those women who served as volunteers in auxiliary military organizations, particularly those which supported the Polish Legions. These organizations, with a combined 16,000 members by the middle of 1916, were also the largest wartime women’s associations on Polish lands. As noted by Joanna Dufrat, their agenda included the promotion of equal political rights (Dufrat 2008), but to assign the achievement of those rights to these organizations is to exaggerate. To claim, moreover, that “the most significant role” played by Polish women during the war years was their work in auxiliary organizations (Kuźma-Markowska 2011, 267), trivializes and even silences the wartime home front roles played by the majority of women, as consumers in dire need of philanthropy and public assistance and social workers attempting to meet that need, especially in urban centers like Warsaw.

The fact that women are featured at all in the Polish narrative of the First World War – even as patriots contributing to the recovery of an independent state – is the outcome of a slight alteration in the conceptual framework resulting from the introduction of women and gender studies to Polish universities since 1989. An even more fundamental change has occurred in the discussion of Polish-Jewish relations, starting in the late 1980s and accelerating with the publication of Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross in Polish (Gross 2000). Over the last couple of decades there has been a great deal of new research into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Poland (Blobaum 2005) and on the parallel and interrelated trajectories of modern Polish and Jewish politics (Porter 2000 and Ury 2012). For the period of the First World War, the work of Konrad Zieliński particularly stands out (Zieliński 2005).

There is a danger, however, in reducing the histories of Poles and Jews in the modern era to their “relations,” to the emergence of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism, and more generally to the rise of mass political organizations. I raise this issue as someone who recently has become conscious of his own participation in this distortion and, therefore, in the neglect of other possible narratives. As Assmann reminds us, the past is not something that can be “preserved,” but is “continually subject to processes of reorganization according to changes taking place in the frame of reference of each successive present” (Assmann 2011, 27). In this instance, professional historians have become prisoners not only of a fashionable historiographical trend focused on the rise of modern and competing nationalisms, but also of sources that confirm their own predispositions, in particular the writings and memoirs of political activists and intellectuals, as well as the articles and columns which characterized a highly politicized Polish and Jewish press. In the process, we have taken evidence of political mobilization, the development of national identities, and growing antagonism between Poles and Jews to shape what is becoming an accepted narrative, while ignoring evidence to the contrary: namely, that majorities of Poles and Jews, even in Warsaw’s hothouse, were not politically mobilized, and that the numbers of those who were not only waxed, but also waned.

During the First World War, only a minority of eligible voters participated in Warsaw’s first-ever municipal elections in 1916. What then can be said of the even larger numbers of Poles and Jews, especially women, who were not embraced by the limited suffrage in the electoral ordinance approved by the German occupation authorities earlier that year? In the end, identity politics were likely of secondary or even tertiary concern to the majority of Poles and Jews who by circumstance should have been, and were, focused on pursuing strategies of surviving the wartime existential crisis, even if it came at the other’s expense and, truth be told, at the expense of fellow co-nationals.

According to Trouillot, historians, whether amateur or professional, are full participants in the processes of historical production, of shaping and reshaping of conceptual frames of reference that determine what is thinkable and unthinkable, and of making the unthinkable a “non-event” (Trouillot 1995, 98). Warsaw’s two major food riots during the First World War, clear expressions of concerns at the street level, have thus become non-events in conceptual frameworks that contain space only for events of political and national significance. Recovery of the lived experiences of ordinary Varsovians during the war and the capacity of such a narrative to pass as accepted history require a fundamentally different, if not directly competing, framework. The odds, at least in the short term, are against its emergence.

Conclusion: An Imagined Centennial

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War is rapidly approaching. It will be interesting to see how this event will be commemorated in Warsaw, or if it will be treated as a “non-event.” Given the layered structures of memory, commemoration, and historical production, one can imagine possible scenarios. As a consequence of the war’s “positive” outcome in November 1918 – the restoration of an independent Polish state – the centennial of August 1914 may not pass by entirely unnoticed. Perhaps a wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of those Poles who died as members of the Polish legions, to the neglect of those who did not. Perhaps honorable mention will be made of women who served in auxiliary organizations supporting the legionnaires. One might expect to hear speeches of politicians in front of Warsaw’s two monuments to Józef Piłsudski, likely in competing claims to the founder’s legacy. This expected accentuation on the end point of independence may not be entirely exclusive, however. Perhaps newspapers and magazines will publish articles by local, non-academic historians focusing on the nuts and bolts of the city’s history to include stories from the war’s first days and weeks – of a city in motion, of the run on banks, of panic-buying, of the shortage of coin to make spare change, of the prohibition on sales of alcohol.

Such stories, if they do appear, will not challenge the existing conceptual framework. No mention will be made of the thousands of young men who volunteered to serve in the Russian army, or of the support of Warsaw’s political elites for the generally popular cause of Russian arms. No mention will made of the thousands of young women who volunteered to serve on the home front as nurses and nurses’ aides in treating the Russian wounded. No mention will be made of the Russian government’s financial support for and fruitful working relationship with the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee in managing the immediate economic consequences of the war’s first weeks and months. Mention might be made of Warsaw’s most popular political figure during the war’s first year – Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, co-founder and presiding officer of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and the city’s first president following the Russian evacuation – but a proposal to honor his contributions to the city’s well-being and his efforts to fend off existential disaster is extremely unlikely. After all, in November 1918, Piłsudski technically seized power from the Regency Council, one of the quasi-state institutions created by the German occupier and headed by Lubomirski who had “collaborated” with not one, but two imperial regimes. To date the sole tribute to the well-meaning prince’s activities during the war remains the publication of the diary of his devoted wife (Pajewski 2002).

Just as Lubomirski’s profile fails to fit the statuary mold of hero and martyr, so too does that of Dr. Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka. Trained in France as a specialist in tuberculosis Budzińska-Tylicka began practicing in Warsaw in 1908, where she became an early pioneer in the area of women’s health and formed part of the leadership core of the prewar feminist movement that focused on equal rights. During the war years, Budzińska-Tylicka organized courses in the delivery of first aid and organized a field hospital for treatment of the wounded, while also continuing her advocacy of women’s rights. In September 1917, she presided over the Polish Women’s Congress, whose most prominent delegates came from the fifteen organizations that comprised the Union of Polish Women’s Associations. Following the meeting of this “small women’s parliament,” as Nowa Gazeta called it at the time, 14 Budzińska-Tylicka and the executive committee of the Women’s Congress intensively lobbied the Warsaw city council and administration to revise the electoral ordinance of the previous year, while organizing mass meetings to pressure male elites into granting voting rights at both the state and local level. Following the war and the death of her son from the Great Influenza, and with the success of the suffrage campaign behind her, Budzińska-Tylicka became a prominent spokesperson for planned parenthood and birth control. Budzińska-Tylicka’s support for “conscious motherhood,” including abortion, was condemned at the time by Poland’s interwar Roman Catholic Church and would be condemned now by its more powerful and more politically influential contemporary version. Moreover, Budzińska-Tylicka opposed the Sanacja regime established by Józef Piłsudski following his coup d’état of 1926 (Sierakowska 2006, 80). Thus, despite Budzińska-Tylicka’s prominent place in the successful women’s suffrage movement of the war years, we should not expect to see a public monument constructed in her honor any time soon. A more likely candidate would be the better known “national feminist” Iza Moszczeńska, who, as founder of the Women’s Military Auxiliary League sought to merge women’s desires to participate in the struggle for independence with their emancipatory aspirations as early as 1913 (Dufrat 2008, 118). Moreover, Moszczeńska was an early twentieth-century defender of the more traditional notions of “Polish” motherhood (Blobaum 2002, 807), and thus better fits existing conceptual structures for commemorating women in Warsaw. That said, the odds against a Moszczeńska monument are long as well, given the general paucity of public statues devoted to women in the Polish capital.

There remains the monument of the desperate mother and her two hungry children which once stood prominently on Hoover Square – to my mind, the most symbolic representation of everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War. The planned reconstruction and resurrection of that monument, originally announced in 2006, has been inexplicably delayed. I can imagine no better moment than the centennial of August 1914 for a ceremonial unveiling of that statue, not necessarily “in gratitude to America” (the inscription on the original statue), but in remembrance of a forgotten war and its horrific impact on the lives of the majority of city’s non-combatants. After all, a conceptual framework once existed to accommodate that statue in the heart of Warsaw. The question is whether one exists in the present.


Robert. Blobaum. In Eberly Family Professor of European History and Director of the Transatlantic MA Program in East-Central European Studies at West Virginia University. His books include Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904–1907, which was awarded the Oskar Halecki Prize, and Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland, both published by Cornell University Press. He is currently working on a book devoted to everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War.


1 Being interested primarily in the “street scene,” Van Cant’s study deliberately excludes cemeteries.

2 The monument to “bloody Feliks,” whose hands were repeatedly painted red by politically-inspired vandals in the 1980s, was removed immediately after the 1989 revolution.

3 This according to the inscription on the base of the statue.

4 Archiwum Państwowe m. st.Warszawy (APW), Zarząd Oberpolicmajstra Warszawskiego (ZOW).

5 APW, Komisja Rewizyjna IV Rejonu Miasta Warszawy (KR).

6 These are available in three collections: Cesarsko-Niemieckie Generał- Gubernatorstwo w Warszawie (CNGGW), Szef Administracji przy Generał-Gubernatorstwie w Warszawie (SAGGW), and Cesarsko-Niemieckie Prezydium Policji w Warszawie (CNNPP).

7 AGAD CNGGW 1, Beseler to the Kaiser, 23 October 1915.

8 Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN), Tymczasowa Rada Stanu w Warszawie (TRS), description of collection.

9 AAN, Akta Stanisława Dzierzbickiego (ASD) and Akta [Piotra, Ludwika i Wiesława] Drzewieckich (AD). The Drzewiecki collection, in addition to the papers of Piotr Drzewiecki, also contains those of his brother Ludwik and Ludwik’s son, Wiesław.

10 APW, Komitet Obywatelski Miasta Warszawy (KOMW), 1914–1916.

11 APW, Zarząd Miejski m. st. Warszawy (ZMW), 1915–1919.

121 APW, Redakcja Nowej Gazety (RNG) 1, Circular #12 of the Press Department of the Chief of Administration under the Warsaw Governor-General, 6 October 1915. This collection of documents from the editorial board of Nowa Gazeta contains communications and announcements from the German occupation authorities and offers a rare perspective on how one Warsaw daily dealt with German censorship.

13 See “Rozruchy żywnościowe wybuchły w Warszawie,” Komunikat Informacyjny 1 (9–11 May 1917), p. 4. The same could be said for Rząd i Wojsko, an “independent” press organ published by Piłsudski’s supporters; see “Głód i polityka” and “Rozruchy w Warszawie,” Rząd i Wojsko 18 (20 May 1917), pp. 7, 8.

14 “Po zjeździe kobiet”, Nowa Gazeta 446 (10 September 1917), p. 1.

List of References

Assmann, Jan (2011) Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Blobaum, Robert (ed.) (2005) Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Blobaum, Robert (2013) “Going Barefoot in Warsaw during the First World War,” East European Politics and Societies 27, 2, pp. 187–204.

Blobaum, Robert E. (2002) “The ‘Woman Question’ in Russian Poland, 1900–1914,” Journal of Social History 35, 4, pp. 799–824.

Chickering, Roger (2007) The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Davis, Belinda J. (2000) Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

Dufrat, Joanna (2008) “Ligi Kobiet Królestwa, Galicji i Śląska. Próba polityczne jaktywizacji kobiet w okresie I wojny światowej,” in Agnieszka Janiak-Jasińska, Katarzyna Sierakowska and Andrzej Szwarc (eds) Działaczki społeczne, feministki, obywatelki. Samoorganizowanie się kobiet na ziemiach polskich do 1918 roku (na tle porównawczym) (Warsaw: Neriton), pp. 113–130.

Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof (1974) Warszawie w czasie pierwszej wojny światowej (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Naukowy).

Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof (ed.) (1971) Warszawa w pamiętnikach pierwszej wojny światowej (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy).

Gross, Jan Tomasz (2000) Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka (Sejny: Fundacja Pogranicze).

Halbwachs, Maurice (1980) The Collective Memory (New York: Harper).

Healy, Maureen (2006) “Civilizing the Soldier in Postwar Austria,” in Nancy M. Wingfield and Maria Bucur (eds.) Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), pp. 47–69.

Healy, Maureen (2004). Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Hoover Institution Library and Archives (2005) “An American Friendship: Herbert Hoover and Poland,” available online at: http://www.hoover.org/library-and-archives/exhibits/27245, accessed 13.07.2013.

Judt, Tony (1992) “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe,” Daedalus 121, 4, pp. 83–118.

Kaufmann, Jesse C. (2008) Sovereignty and the Search for Order in German-Occupied Poland (Stanford University Doctoral Dissertation).

Królikowski, Lech and Krzysztof Oktabiński (2008) Warszawa 1914–1920: Warszawa i okolice w latach walk o niepodległość i granice Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Akademickie i Profesjonalne).

Kuźma-Markowska, Sylwia (2011) “Soldiers, Members of Parliament, Social Activists: The Polish Women’s Movement after World War I,” in Ingrid Sharp and Matthew Stibbe (eds) Aftermath of War: Women’s Movements and Female Activists, 1918–1923 (Leiden and Boston: Brill), pp. 265–286.

Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowy (2005) “Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza,” available online at: http://wojsko-polskie.pl/articles/view/3109, accessed 09.07.2013.

Nora, Pierre (ed.) (2001 and 2007) Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Mémoire, 2 volumes (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Pajewski, Janusz (ed.) (2002) Pamiętnik księżniej Marii Zdzisławowej Lubomirskiej, 1914–1918 (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie).

Polsakiewicz, Marta (2009) “Spezifika deutscher Besatzungspolitik in Warschau 1914–1916,” Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 58, 4, pp. 501–537.

Porter, Brian (2000) When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth- Century Poland (New York: Oxford University Press).

Rechter, David (2001) The Jews of Vienna and the First World War (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization).

Sierakowska, Katarzyna (2006) “Budzińska-Tylicka, Justyna (1867–1936),” in Francisca de Haan, Krassimira Daskalova, and Anna Loutfi (eds) A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms. Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries (Budapest: Central European University Press), p. 80.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995) Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press).

Ury, Scott (2012) Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Van Cant, Katrin (2009) “Historical Memory in Post-Communist Poland: Warsaw’s Monuments after 1989,” Studies in Slavic Cultures 8, pp. 90–119.

Wapiński, Roman (1997) “Władysław Sikorski,” Polski Słownik Biograficzny 37, 3, No. 154, p. 471.

Winter, Jay and Jean-Louis Robert (ed.) (1997, 2007) Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914–1919, 2 volumes (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Wyszczelski, Lech (2008) Warszawa Listopad 1918 (Warsaw: Bellona).

Zieliński, Konrad (2005) Stosunki polsko-żydowskie na ziemiach Królestwa Polskiego w czasie pierwszej wojny światowej (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej).


This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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

Benedict von Bremen

Warriors and Victims: Commemorating War on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen – A Local-National Perspective

21 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Germany
  • memorials
  • cementeries
  • memorial sites
  • Nazis
  • Nazi


The Stadtfriedhof Tübingen has three burial sites connected to wars. The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 contain and commemorate soldiers who died in Tübingen hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. The Gräberfeld X is a burial and memorial site for the mortal remains of victims of Nazi rule whose bodies were used in the university’s anatomical institute. Analyzing and interpreting these three local war memorial grave sites and putting them into the larger national context of remembrance shows how the German memory culture of wars has changed over time from warriors to victims.


The town of Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, in southwestern Germany has one of the country’s oldest universities, the Eberhard Karls Universität, founded in 1477. A great number of its professors have been interred in the Stadtfriedhof, the city’s central cemetery, dating to the first half of the 19th century and located near many of university’s academic and medical buildings. Moreover, this graveyard is particularly known for the burial sites of famous Tübingers such as the German Romantic authors Ludwig Uhland and Friedrich Hölderlin, as well as Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, third chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, there are also burial plots that commemorate the casualties of three wars that have shaped German history in the past 140 years. While the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 commemorate and hold the remains of soldiers who died in Tübingen hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, respectively, the Gräberfeld X is a burial and memorial site for the mortal remains of victims of Nazi rule whose bodies were used in the anatomical institute of the university’s medical faculty. What can these commemorative graves, whose only commonalities, it seems are their close vicinity in the same cemetery and the wreaths dedicated to the victims of war laid down each November on Volkstrauertrag (German Memorial Day), tell us about the memory of the aforementioned armed conflicts in Germany history? By analyzing and interpreting these three local war memorial grave sites and their architecture and putting them into the larger national context of remembrance, this article aims to show how the memory culture of Germany’s last three European and interconnected wars and the focus of commemoration has changed over time, from warriors to victims, and what this can tell us about the meaning attached to these conflicts.

Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71

The defeat of France by a Prussian-led coalition of German principalities in the War of 1870 resulted in the creation of the Reich, or German Empire, in 1871 – the first unified German nation. While its emperor was the Prussian king, the Reich itself was a federation made up of the various German principalities, among them the Kingdom of Württemberg. The latter’s university town of Tübingen on the Neckar had, during the war, housed wounded German soldiers from various contingents in its hospitals. A number of these soldiers died, and thereby constituted a problem: How to commemorate them (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 45)?

The Napoleonic Wars sixty years earlier had seen a change in how the war dead were remembered. After earlier armed conflicts, it had been princes or generals who received post-war monuments and equestrian statues to celebrate their leadership and battlefield heroism. With the mass armies and accompanying mass casualties of the armed conflicts in the early industrial age, the common soldier began to be the focus of remembering a war, especially the dead who had sacrificed their lives on the altar of the evolving notion of a “nation.” This particularly found expression in architecture: the names of fallen soldiers of a community were engraved in public plaques, often on church walls. By doing this, a community commemorated the loss of its sons and thereby showed its gratitude for their sacrifice for posterity (Rieth 1967, 11–12; Vogt 1993, 16ff.).

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 with its approximately 620,000 casualties that spawned an outpouring of monuments to the memory of its casualties. Often in the form of a statue of a common soldier, these memorials, erected on battlefields and town commons, commemorated the heroism of the rank and file and the part that they had played, at least in the eyes of Northerners, in saving the Union, or nation, as well as remembering the ultimate sacrifice of the fallen. Therefore, battlefield heroism and death, as well as the concept of the nation, were entwined in the North’s memorial culture after the war. National cemeteries were built on important battlefields to inter and commemorate those who fell far from their homes. (Piehler 2010, 224–227).

The situation in Tübingen after 1871 was both different and similar to that in America. The war between the Union and the Confederacy was a civil war, while the Franco-Prussian War was not. 1 Both wars, however, were nation-building conflicts: the outcome of the American Civil War was that the United States would, after the defeat of the slave-holding South, be based on the North’s principles of industrialized free labor, while the War of 1870 resulted in the unification of Germany under Prussian domination. Although the German princes had fought alongside each other against France, the Reich’s political map was still characterized by the regional nature of various principalities, from duchies to kingdoms, and an accompanying sense of Heimat that was very much rooted in local identities. The victory over France rekindled nationalist sentiments that had been smoldering since the wars of liberation against Napoleon and during the absolutist restoration period that had followed, ultimately leading to the proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in the mirror hall of Versailles in January 1871.

Tübingen’s role as a university town with continuously expanding medical faculties and its spatial proximity not far from the battlefields of France had made it a Lazarettstadt, a military hospital city that received wounded soldiers from different principalities’ military contingents. Fourteen of them died and were to be laid to rest in situ. This posed an issue: How, in what form, were these soldiers to be remembered? Shortly after the end of the war, in 1871, this question was addressed. It was decided to commemorate the dead with a monument in the cemetery where they were interred – the Stadtfriedhof. A debate ensued about the architectural form of the monument, and from among a number of designs one was finally chosen (Hoffmann- Curtius 1986, 47f.).

The result was a stone obelisk, adorned with old swords and helmets, laurel wreaths, and an Eiserners Kreuz (Iron Cross), with the names, ranks, and regiments of the deceased soldiers engraved on the sides, and the words

1870–72 /2

Unlike monuments erected for the commemoration of regiments that were tied to a specific city, such as that of the Naussauisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 87 garrisoned in Mainz until 1918, and thereby deeply rooted within a certain locale, the Kriegerdenkmal on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen3 addressed the memory of soldiers who did not hail from the town were they are buried. This was because of the nature of the Franco-Prussian War and the set-up of the German armies, together with Tübingen’s role as a Lazarettstadt.

From an architectural perspective, the newly-found nationalism of the Reich after the War of 1870 expressed itself in the Iron Cross on the Kriegerdenkmal obelisk. The Iron Cross was a military decoration for common soldiers to acknowledge their bravery that had been instituted by Prussian King Frederick William III in 1813 during the wars of liberation. 4 While the Christian cross would have been the usual and religious choice as the symbol of decorating graves, selecting the Iron Cross, a symbol of Prussia, points to the need to subsume the fallen from different German states under a sign that symbolized the new nationhood of the Reich. This also replaced traditional religious notions with the symbolism of a nation by overarching the heritage of single principalities and constituting a new and higher order (Vogt 1993, 35ff).

Moreover, as this was a monument to commemorate dead soldiers in a cemetery and not a leading general or prince in a more central locale such as a public square, and as these soldiers’ sacrifice in the fight for the newfound nation was a thing to be remembered, their names were engraved on the obelisk for posterity – for future generations to be reminded of what these soldiers and their deaths (or, to go by the inscription, being wounded first in the fight for the fatherland) had accomplished for the new nation symbolized by the Iron Cross. Still, their regional identity and heritage was deemed important, as was the mention of their regiments, which were closely tied to regional identity. But they rest “IN HEIMISCHER ERDE,” which again emphasizes the shared fatherland they had fought for, despite their regional backgrounds. They are buried at home away from home.

In addition to pointing out the regional and regimental affiliation of the dead soldiers, a distinction is made between their ranks. The name of a fallen lieutenant is not found on the obelisk, but received a separate grave slab. 5 The social gap between the officer class and the rank and file, was becoming increasingly permeable, especially for members of the upper middle-class after the Napoleonic Wars, 6 and therefore also the German social hierarchy of the time; here it finds an embodiment both architecturally and spatially.

Furthermore, the architectural design of the obelisk signifies the fashion of the time. Implementing swords reminiscent of old Greek edged weapons and a helmet from the same time are examples of the Neoclassicism that swept the western world at the time (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 48). The previous century had seen a renewed interest in antiquity, its architecture and literature (Watson 2010). By using Ancient Greek armaments, reference was made to heroic legends, such as the Iliad, thereby also denoting the dead soldiers buried and commemorated in Tübingen as heroes of the successful recent war for unification.

Looking at monuments for the participants of the Franco-Prussian War in other regions of Germany, we detect similarities to the Kriegerdenkmal. 7 In the square in front of the train station of Bad Dürkheim, a wine-growing town in Rhineland-Palatinate, then part of the Bavarian Rheinprovinz, a large ashlar of sandstone erected in 1911 commemorates the town’s participants in the War of 1870. Their names are arranged in order of importance (alongside soldiers who served in Bavarian regiments are some civilians, including women, who contributed to the war effort) and therefore according to social status. All around the ashlar are Ancient Greek helmets and laurels. In contrast to the Kriegerdenkmal on the Stadtfriedhof, the statue of a lion holding a shield adorns the Bad Dürkheim monument. The use of allegorical representations of animals on war memorials was common at the time (Rieht 1967, 12); most likely, the lion stands for the coat of arms of Bavaria, while the shield might represent the proximity of the Palatinate, or Rheinprovinz, to France and Bavarian troops acting as defenders in the first days of the war. Another War of 1870 memorial is in the neighboring village to the south, Wachenheim, this one adorned by an eagle. What the Bad Dürkheim memorial lacks, though, is the Iron Cross. This is perhaps due to Bavaria’s reluctance to join the new Reich and the strong feeling of Bavarian patriotism, creating an aversion to the centralized power of Prussia throughout the Kaiserreich. Of course, it should not be forgotten that these two monuments commemorate local participants of the war against France, while the Kriegerdenkmal remembers non-Tübingeners, which might attest to the lack of national symbolism.

Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18

The War of 1870 and the French cry for revenge after a humiliating defeat and a loss of territory (Elsace-Lorraine) were among the factors, such as Germany’s military stockpiling and saber-rattling, that contributed to the outbreak of another war between Germany and France, a conflict that started locally, with a mortal injury to the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, and became global with the involvement of European imperialist powers’ colonies and the 1917 entry of the United States. The Great War saw the clash of mass armies in industrialized modern warfare and unprecedented numbers of casualties, about two million military in Germany alone. Tübingen, which had become a garrison town in the late 19th century, extending its medical faculties, and Germany on the whole, had to deal with the vast number of war dead and the political and ideological aftermath of the Kaiserreich’s defeat and the effects of the Treaty of Versailles. In this context, the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen can be seen as a culmination point of issues concerning local and national war remembrance.

The debates on a monument for Tübingen’s veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, and thus on commemorating an earlier conflict, heated up once again in the early 1910s, but were overtaken by the events of the time (Hornbogen 1995, 155). With the influx of wounded to Tübingen’s medical facilities, the Württembergian city once again faced the task of both interring and remembering the war’s dead, but now on a scale that by far superseded the War of 1870. In addition to the great number of casualties, the end of the war, Germany’s capitulation, and the Treaty of Versailles played important roles in giving significance to the war and its dead.

In 1921, the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 was inaugurated. Its name shares the “Krieger” of Kriegerdenkmal. Choosing to use not Soldat (soldier) but Krieger (warrior) is already an interpretation. Krieger conjures up images of Germanic or medieval warriors, both legendary and real, already familiar to German schoolchildren at the time, with an added connection to heroes like Siegfried from the Nibelungen epic or medieval Helden such as Kaiser Barbarossa or Emperor Frederick I. 8 These figures were appropriated to create an overarching national German history and identity, as well as role-models in the highly militarized culture of the Kaiserreich, with its emphasis on soldiering, loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice. This is emphasized by the inscription on the large central stone wall of the Kriegerfriedhof, DEN HELDEN DES WELTKRIEGS – “to the heroes of the world war.”

And just as Siegfried was murdered from behind by the unfaithful Hagen von Tronje in the medieval epic, the Dolchstoßlegende emerged after World War I. Because the Reich had not been, for the most part, a battlefield9; because the real brunt of a war economy with food shortages only had real effects on the civilian population in 1917–18; because German troops were successful on the eastern front, forcing Russia to sign a separate peace contract; because the reversals of the German spring offensives of 1918 and the subsequent retreat to defensive lines nearer to Germany itself were played down by the Oberste Heeresleitung’s propaganda; because the armistice, planned by the military but signed by the new democratic government of November 1918, seemed to many Germans sudden and unexpected; and because the revolution of 1918 to 1919 was, in part, accompanied by Bolshevik-inspired Arbeiter – und Soldatenräte, the myth that the German armies, allegedly unbesiegt im Felde (undefeated on the field of battle), had been stabbed in the back by the revolutionaries and the new Social Democrat government took hold in Germany, especially in conservative and right-wing circles. The Treaty of Versailles with its implications of territorial losses on the outskirts of the Reich and of its overseas colonies, the scaling down of the German armed forces, and especially the article that stipulated that Germany alone was responsible for the outbreak of the Great War added insult to injury; it was, in German eyes from the extreme left to the extreme right, a Schandvertrag, a shameful treaty that insulted Germany’s honor (Krumeich 2001, 585ff).

Therefore, Germany had to grapple with a number of questions. Why was the war that seemed heading toward a victory suddenly lost? Who was responsible? And what did almost two million German soldiers die for? Some of these issues were addressed in architecture, most prominently war memorials, of which the Kriegerfriedhof in the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen is one example.

The warrior cemetery was inaugurated on October 30, 1921 in the presence of participants of a number of groups that shaped the commemoration of the Great War during the Weimar Republic, most prominently the Kriegervereine. These veterans' organizations had emerged after the War of 1870; its members wanted their contemporaries and future generations to appreciate what soldiers had accomplished during the war. They did this by funding and erecting monuments, through reunions that took place in the public, and lobbying through the media. At the inauguration of the Kriegerfriedhof, the Kriegervereine were present, along with other military veteran organizations and student fraternities, standing at attention, holding flags, singing martial tunes, commemorating dead comrades, and giving speeches. In one speech, a motif that runs through the remembrance of the First World War’s casualties in Weimar Germany is that their sacrifice for the fatherland should not have been in vain (Hornborgen 1995, 157). The underlying sentiment was to take revenge for the lost war, and especially the Treaty of Versailles.

Architecturally, the most important motif was the Feldgrauer. Just before the Great War, the contingents of the different principalities that made up the imperial German army had adopted a field-gray uniform, a drab color that was suited to the trench warfare of the First World War. In 1916, the German imperial army introduced the Stahlhelm, the steel helmet with its distinctive design reminiscent of certain Germanic medieval helmets. The Feldgrauer figure that was representative of all German soldiers (Jeismann and Westheider 1988, 9) therefore derived his name from this uniform, with the addition of the iconographic silhouette of the steel helmet.

In the Kriegerfriedhof, a Feldgrauer’s head is engraved on a centrally placed stone memorial reminiscent of an ancient tomb. His face stares determined into a distant future. This is a metaphor expressing that Germany had not really been defeated – or that it was, at least, going to set things straight, to revise the Treaty of Versailles, in a future conflict (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 58). Similarities can be found in other World War I memorials all over the Germany. In Düsseldorf, the Ehrenmal für das Niederrheinische Füsilier-Regiment Nr. 39 memorial shows columns of armed Feldgraue marching straight from the tomb into a new battle, while in Worms four Feldgraue representing the Infanterie Regiment Prinz Carl (4. Großherzoglich Hessisches) Nr. 118 stand at attention. In the Palatinate town of Herxheim am Berg, three stone field-gray-clad soldiers march forward, their rifles at the shoulder. In the oldest church of Lindau on Lake Constance, the Peterskirche, a marble Feldgrauer lies on his deathbed – still fully clothed with helmet, overcoat, boots, belt, clutching a rifle in his hand, ready to spring up and do his duty again at a moment’s notice.10 The war memorial of Hardenburg, a district of Bad Dürkheim, depicts a Feldgrauer on the ground, at first glance looking beat, holding a broken short sword in his hand – but he is not yet completely defeated, as he is still propped up on his arm. The small Palatinate village of Forst’s World War I memorial, though, is not as aggressive or revisionist. Here, Feldgraue without helmets rise from their deathbed and pray to Jesus Christ. Similarly, religious undertones can be found in the First World War memorial in the Swabian town of Burladingen, where an angel takes a Feldgrauer in its arms. 11

But as in the example of the Stadtfriedhof’s Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and its contemporary memorials in other German towns, the Kriegerfriedhof lacks the rootedness in the city where it is situated. Its connection, however, is to an important part of Tübingen – its medical facilities. As during the War of 1870, soldiers from all over Germany were treated here, and, in some cases, died here. Their sheer numbers also necessitated that the Kriegerfriedhof be much larger than the Kriegerdenkmal. While the latter is located in a small area with only an obelisk, some steps leading to it, and a low wall all around, the Kriegerfriedhof is an actual cemetery. About 261 soldiers – among them some allied soldiers – are interred in the warrior cemetery (Hornbogen 1995, 156). Instead of putting all their names on a single architectural structure, as with the Kriegerdenkmal obelisk, each soldier got his own marker. The rank and file received small marble stones with their name and their year of death. These markers are arranged in subsequent lines according to the years 1914 to 1919. The large number of markers and their arrangement are representative of the mass casualties of World War I, and evocative of the lines of soldiers going over the top that were mowed down by one of the latest instruments of modern warfare, the machine gun.

As with the Kriegerdenkmal, the rank and file in the Kriegerfriedhof are separated from officers and non-commissioned officers. The latter received actual crosses bearing their names, ranks, units, and complete date of death, while the common soldiers’ markers only bore their names. Additionally, there is a path between the long rows of small stone markers and the smaller number of crosses, which are nonetheless equally arranged by years and in rows. The spatial separation of the graves symbolizes the separation of the (non-commissioned) officer and common soldier’s classes, a continuity from real life, where officers had more privileges even in death, as in the Kriegerdenkmal, thereby showing the class-based system of the Reich.

The cult of the Feldgrauer, together with its implications of martially repealing the Treaty of Versailles, continued into the Third Reich. After 1933, the university quickly expelled Jewish professors and ideologues like philosopher Theodor Haering (Hantke 1991, 179ff). After the re-introduction of general conscription in 1935, new military garrisons for the Wehrmacht were built, among them the Hindenburg Kaserne. Its entry was adorned with a statue of a Feldgrauer (Vogel 1991, 45). In addition, a monument celebrating composer Friedrich Silcher was erected in the Platanenallee on the Neckar. Below the statue of Silcher himself, it depicts, on the one hand, a pair of lovers, Silcher’s Volkslieder celebrating the Heimat. On the other hand, two Feldegraue are part of the monument. One of them is marching forward, while the other has been struck by a bullet and falls at the feet of his comrade. This is a reference to “Der gute Kamerad,” a sad poem by Tübingen Romantic author Friedrich Uhland about a soldier’s loss of a comrade in battle, written during the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty years later, Silcher composed a tune for this poem, and “Der gute Kamerade” became (and remains) a staple of German military songs, especially when commemorating dead soldiers during funeral ceremonies. Unveiled just before the invasion of Poland in the summer of 1939, the Silcher Denkmal with its Feldgrauer iconography not only pointed to the past and to the sacrifices of World War I, but also to the future, where more German soldiers were to lose their lives on the battlefield (Loistl 1991, 171ff). Unlike the Great War, however, the commemoration of World War II and Nazi rule dead would take a different turn in the post-war years.

Gräberfeld X

On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Millions of people, soldiers and civilians alike, had died during the Second World War in Europe. In contrast to the end of World War I, though, Germany was completely occupied and a process of demilitarization, denazification, and democratization was set in motion by the (western) Allies to prevent Germany from ever starting a war again. In Nuremberg, high-ranking Nazi officials faced a war crimes trial for instigating the war and causing the deaths of innocent civilians. The liberation of concentration camps, which Allied soldiers often forced German civilians from nearby towns to visit, and the release of films documenting Nazi atrocities showed the world and the German public the results of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Several other war criminal trials were conducted over the next years. Many Germans, however, tried to forget the twelveyear Tausendjähriges Reich and began rebuilding what the war had destroyed in their respective occupation zones. Nonetheless, some did not want to forget.

An organization of those who were once politically persecuted, the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes (VVN), opened the discussion on the Gräberfeld X13in the Tübingen Stadtfriedhof in 1950. They demanded that victims of the Nazi state that had been interred in the Gräberfeld should be commemorated. During the late 1930s and the war years, the anatomical institute of the university’s medical faculty had received a large number of bodies for dissection; many of these people had been executed because they had opposed the Third Reich, or just because of their alleged racial inferiority. Among them were German passive resisters who had doubted the successful outcome of the war, as well as forced laborers from German-occupied countries who had been intimate with German women and thereby violated the 1935 Nürnberger Rassegesetze, all offenses punished by death under Nazi law. After their execution – whether official ones in prisons or unofficial ones in labor camps, all in Württemberg – their corpses were used for study purposes at the anatomical institute, and some specimens might have been been used as late as 1990 when the medical faculty had some questionable specimens removed from its collections and interred in the Gräberfeld X (Hayes 2013, 50–52; Schönhagen 1987, 7–10).

These were victims of Nazi rule with its racist and anti-opposition ideology. With Germany having been liberated from this rule and the war criminals being punished, those who were persecuted and had survived their ordeal wanted the memory of their dead fellows to be preserved, not least to keep future generations from letting something like the Third Reich happen again. The Tübingen city council decided to erect three stone crosses with the inscription “1939–1945,” an architectural form common for remembering the (military) dead of World War II and symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion and reconciliation. Through this general depiction, though, different types of casualties were subsumed into a larger community of the victims14 of World War II, regardless of whether they belonged to the armed forces of the aggressor nation (Germany), civilian victims of air raids, for example, or to ethnic or political groups persecuted by the Nazis (Hayes 2013, 40–42; Schönhagen 1987, 11). This is also shown through the ubiquity of these three crosses in war cemeteries all over Germany. They can be found, for example, in the World War II victims’ memorial in the Tübingen Bergfriedhof commemorating most of all those Tübingers who had died serving the German armed forces during the war (Hayes 2011, 133–144; Hayes 2013, 40–41).

In the early 1960s, new demands arose. Especially in light of the fact that the Gräberfeld X was run-down, unkempt, and overgrown, the city decided to clear it and, because of the continual demands from various groups, opted to add a plaque to specify more who was buried here. After heated debates, the following inscription was chosen:


But despite being more specific than the three crosses with “1939–1945” on them, this wording is still very vague, and it does not really specify who exactly is buried in the Gräberfeld X, or why they were killed (Schönhagen 1987, 14–15). The difficulty of finding an appropriate way of honoring the victims of Nazi rule buried in the Gräberfeld X represents the difficulty West Germany had with its Nazi past during these years. While some wanted to forget or felt that it was enough to commemorate all victims the combined, regardless of why they were killed, others saw importance in adequately and frankly remembering different victim groups. In turn, this struggle of defining national remembrance shows on the local level of Tübingen, where groups with different opinions clashed. The 1962 plaque was a compromise between those who wanted to remember and those who felt at least some obligation to do so, but were not willing to be more specific and who, moreover, wanted to be rid of the past – a Schlussstrich. Getting more concrete would have meant dealing with what had actually happened in their immediate vicinity, that is, in the city of Tübingen, and the surrounding region of Württemberg. In turn, this would have shown that the crimes of the Nazi regime did not only happen in a distant occupied territory, but right at home as well (Hayes 2013, 42–43; Schönhagen 1987, 14). Thereby, the disconnectedness of Nazi crimes and the Heimat that pervaded the early post-war attitude of not having witnessed or even knowing the Third Reich’s crimes in the fatherland was perpetuated, something that, in hindsight, is hard to believe, as forced laborers, euthanasia clinics, and concentration camp death marches occurred right before the Germans’ eyes16; but in the postwar years, forgetting the past was the rule, with a few exceptions.

Therefore, it took another twenty years before the Gräberfeld X became a focus for the Tübingen public once again. As in the 1960s, the Gräberfeld had overgrown, and was in need of re-structuring. A published photograph of a bulldozer left by a gardener on top of some graves resulted in public outcry from many sides, as this was seen as dishonoring the victims of the Nazi regime. The Gräberfeld X was back in the spotlight. Shortly thereafter, bronze name plates were set next to a path that led to the three crosses and the 1962 stone plaque. On Volkstrauertrag 1985, the Tübingen Oberbürgermeister Carlo Schmid held a speech at the Gräberfeld X for the first time, connecting what happened on the Tübingers’ doorstep, and putting this in the larger context of the Nazi policy of extermination.17 He also announced that the city government of Tübingen would commission a study of the backgrounds of those interred there (Hayes 2013, 47–50). While the political group of the 1950s had known some of the people’s fates, it was historian Benigna Schönhagen’s 1987 study that tried to establish how many victims of Nazi rule were actually buried in the Gräberfeld X,18 as well as some of the individuals’ stories, thereby exposing the interconnectedness of Tübingen and the Third Reich – of local and national history.

This new type of remembrance can be seen in the larger context of remembering the casualties of World War II in Germany. It took almost forty years until special emphasis was added to the general remembrance of all victims, commemorating those who perished as a result of Nazi policies, until what is today called Vergangenheitsbewältigung became widespread (Hayes 2011, 132–133). Some have attributed this to the temporal distance from the war years and the aging or dying out of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators, and therefore also their disappearance from the public. While there had been war crimes trials up until the 1960s, such as the Auschwitz trials, the crimes of the Third Reich were mostly attributed to a small group of high profile perpetrators, leading Nazi figures like head of the SS Heinrich Himmler, or lower-ranking but influential people like Adolph Eichmann. It was only over time that both historians in academia and amateurs in local historical societies began unraveling the mechanics of the Nazi regime and the participation of many population groups, thereby providing a more nuanced picture of the Täter, or perpetrators, how much the “average” German knew or was him – or herself involved in, for example, profiting from Arisierung, or being involved in Nazi organizations such as the Hitlerjugend. Moreover, the student revolt of the 68er and their questioning of what the Vatergeneration had done in the war – if their fathers had “only” served the fatherland or had, in the course of the war, participated in crimes – added to a more critical perspective on a past that was not so distant, both in space and time. Concentration and labor camps had been spread all over Germany, forced laborers had worked for farmers and corporations, and the depiction of the Wehrmacht as a clean army removed from the Weltanschauungskrieg (as opposed to the ideological Waffen-SS) began to be overturned as well.19

As such, this critical reception and interpretation of the Nazi past also deviates from how earlier wars were remembered in Germany. While the War of 1870 was a victory and the First World War a conflict whose outcome was disputed, World War II had been a total defeat that was seldom glorified.20 This led to neither the creation of an idealized past where the military had helped build Germany, as with the Franco-Prussian War, nor to the sense of an important foundation for the strength of the country, as with World War I and the instrumentalization of its memory by the Nazis (leading to the next world war, and even more disastrous results). The Second World War and the Nazi years came to be seen, over time, as a dark chapter of German history that should not be repeated. Instead of glorifying the fallen heroes – soldiers – the critical reception of the past that continues in Germany to this day does places no emphasis on remembering the military casualties of World War II, but the victims of the Nazi regime, for which the German armed forces was an instrument of power. The heroization of a martial past instrumentalized for nationalism is less the focus than the remembrance of the victims of a criminal regime and a historical imperative never to repeat the Third Reich or to achieve political aims through war.

In the Gräberfeld X, this type of remembrance is visible in a variety of ways. For one, like the soldiers’ graves, the identified names of victims are represented in a number of bronze plaques set on both sides of a trail leading to the main architectural monuments to keep their memory alive. While the three stone crosses are still there, another plaque was installed, founded by the university and thereby acknowledging the part that the medical faculty played (Hayes 2013, 50–54). It finds more concrete words for the people buried in the Gräberfeld:

Verschleppt Geknechtet Geschunden /
Ofer der Willkür oder verblendeten Rechts /
fanden Menschen Ruhe erst hier /
Von ihrem Leib noch /
forderte Nutzen eine Wissenschaft /
die Rechte und Würde des Menschen nicht achtete /
Mahnung sei dieser Stein den Lebenden /
Die Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen /

Soon though after its inauguration in 1990, the plaque was violated by people who painted swastikas over it, and a new version was installed (Hayes 2013, 53). Before entering the Gräberfeld, which is surrounded by a hedge, just as the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 is, a signboard gives detailed information about the Gräberfeld and its history of commemoration – unlike the two soldiers’ cemeteries, which are devoid of any inscriptions indicating to their historical contexts.

While all three burial sites receive wreaths on Volkstrauertag and some graves at the World War I cemetery are adorned with flowers, there are often events in Gräberfeld X, especially on days like May 8, the day of the German capitulation in 1945, where anti-Nazi groups and historical societies meet, sometimes with family members of some of the deceased present. Some dedicated individuals try to keep the memory alive of those interred in Gräberfeld X by researching individuals’ stories and establishing contact with their families, often from Eastern Europe, to provide information about their relatives’ fates (Hayes 2013, 55–58). In general, there are various individuals and societies in Tübingen, such as the Geschichtswerkstatt and the Verein Lern – & Dokumentationszentrum zum Nationalsozialismus e.V. Tübingen, which research the past and cultivate its memory, and especially its lessons, and present them to the public through lectures and publications.

Conclusion and Outlook

The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18, and Gräberfeld X on the Tübingen Stadtfriedhof are, at a first glance, no more than three burial sites connected to the past three European wars through their German participants and their spatial proximity. Looking more closely, however, we see they are also intertwined because of their connection to Tübingen medical institutions and their place in the context of commemoration of the War of 1870, World War I, and World War II in Germany. The burial sites are part of the cemetery in Tübingen, but most of those interred are not Tübingers. Regarding the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, finding a way to commemorate the dead soldiers of this war from different German principalities was also a task of moving beyond the regionalism of German states to the concept of a nation state. It were not any longer just kings and generals that were remembered, but the sacrifices of the common soldiers on the altar of the nation received a place in memory as well. This development strengthened with the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18. Those who died in Tübingen hospitals were seen as part of the sacrifice of the Feldgrauer in general, and their commemoration as part of interpreting the Great War as a conflict that German soldiers had not lost; its results, mainly the Treaty of Versailles, were revised so that the sacrifice of the war heroes was not in vain. The total defeat in World War II and the Gräberfeld X show how the focus of commemorating war dead shifted from soldiers (seen as warriors) to noncombatants, especially those who were victims of Nazi rule, to illustrate the criminality of said regime. This development needed many decades and re-interpretations to take hold in German public memory. As such, these local burial sites also mirror the changing national memory and debates on how wars and their casualties are remembered in Germany.

While it took a long time before the commemoration of those interred in the Gräberfeld X became a focus of public memory, just as on the national scale, its way of remembering the victims of Nazi Germany has also become the dominant form, just as the historical public consciousness in the Federal Republic of Germany focuses on the Third Reich, its crimes, and its victims. In light of this, the commemoration of earlier wars steps into the background, and the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 is also spatially removed in the cemetery, overgrown with moss, just as this conflict has almost vanished from public memory. Still, it is impossible to disassociate the War of 1870, the Great War, and World War II due to their historical relationship, as well as their function as markers of how the memory of wars has changed in Germany in the past 140 years.


Benedict von Bremen. Born in 1984 in Marsberg, Germany. From 2005 to 2011 he studied at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, majoring in Modern History and American Studies. His M. A. thesis was One of the Horrors of War Strayed from His Era into Yours: Ambrose Bierce and Civil War Memory. Since October 2011 he has been a research fellow at the American Studies Department, Tübingen University. He is a founding member of the Verein für ein Lern – & Dokumentationszentrum zum Nationalsozialismus e.V. Tübingen in November 2010. Since June 2012 he has collaborated on “NS-Täterbuch Tübingen.”


1 France hoped in 1870 that the southern German principalities such as the kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria, which had, for the most part, been aligned with Austria and defeated in the War of 1866, would take France’s side and turn against Prussia and its allies in the Norddeutscher Bund. On the contrary, a nationalistic war fever at the prospect of victory against an old enemy swept through the southern German principalities allied with Prussia.

2 “Fourteen German warriors who were severely wounded in the fight for the fatherland and cared for in this city until they died are buried here, in the soil of the homeland, 1870–72.”

3 Tübingen only became a garrison town in the 1890s (Starzmann 2009).

4 The Iron Cross was then founded again during later Prussian and German wars (Vogt 1993, 18–20).

5 Unfortunately, this slab is now overgrown with moss. At least to the best of the author’s memory, the fading inscription speaks of a lieutenant buried there.

6 Resulting from the need for more officers to lead the growing mass armies of the industrial age, as well as an opportunity for upper middle-class men to rise in the social hierarchy where the rank of officer was strongly tied to the nobility (Rumschöttel 1973, 41ff).

7 The ideas for a central monument commemorating the Tübingen veterans of the War of 1870 did not materialize; a plaque was only hung in a Tübingen church (Hoffmann- Curtius 1986, 52ff).

8 The symbolism of the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, as mentioned earlier, was rather Hellenist-inspired.

9 The Russian offensive into East Prussia was stalled by Field Marshal von Hindenburg’s army in September 1914 and only a few southwestern German towns were targets of air raids.

10 In German folklore, Kaiser Rotbart (or Barbarossa) sleeps in a mountain, to wake up one day to save Germany in its darkest hour.

11 World War I memorials in other European countries give the war a different meaning. Many French war monuments depict the poilu as a citizen soldier returning to his family, without the martial undertones of German Feldgrauer depictions (Jeismann and Westheider 1988, 9f). A Great War memorial in the Belgian town of Dinant puts the memory of Belgium being invaded and the fight for its liberation in the foreground (here, German soldiers committed war crimes after allegedly being shot at by franctireurs in 1914, leading to mass shootings of civilians that were taken up, among other similar incidents, by Entente propaganda as the “Rape of Belgium”).

12 Cf. the attachment of 1939–1945 plaques on almost every monument pictured.

13 The Stadtfriedhof is divided into various smaller burial plots, ordered A to Z. Cf. The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 is situated in Gräberfeld N while the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 is the Gräberfeld S.

14 For an interesting distinction between “sacrifice” and “victim,” see: Hayes 2011, 132.

15 “Here rest several hundred people of various nationalities who found a violent death in camps and institutions of our country.”

16 For example, the author’s maternal grandmother told him in the early 1990s, when he was still a child, how she had witnessed the nighttime evacuation of her hometown’s “insane asylum.” But fearing being sent to a “Konzertlager” (euphemism for concentration camp), many Germans kept quiet.

17 Wreaths had been laid down at the Gräberfeld on Volkstrauertag since the 1960s, but without any special mention of who was buried there or why (Hayes 2013, 44).

18 Before the Nazi years, the bodies of people whose fate was not connected to the Third Reich, but which were nonetheless used in the anatomical institute, had been buried in the Gräberfeld as well; it was more or less the disposal grounds of the anatomical institute. It is still not quite clear how many Nazi victims are buried there–the estimates range from 400 to 700 (Hayes 2013, 39; Schönhagen 1987, 8, 23).

19 See, for example, the heated discussions about the Wehrmachtsausstellung in the 1990s.

20 For changes in how the World War II era was dealt with in Tübingen, cf. Ulmer 2011.

21 “Deported, enslaved, ill-treated, victims of arbitrariness or misunderstood laws, it is only here that these humans could find rest. A science which did not respect their rights and dignity still wanted to use their bodies. This stone shall be an admonition to the living. The Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, 1990.”

List of References

Hantke, Manfred (1991) “Der Philosoph als ‘Mitläufer’ – Theodor Haering: ‘Es kam ein Führer! Der Führer kam!’,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp.179–185.

Hayes, Oonah (2011) “‘Den Toten zur Ehr, uns zur Mahnung’: Die Opfer-Darstellung in der Entwicklung zweier Tübinger Denkmäler während der Nachkriegszeit,” in Hans-Otto Binder et al. (eds) Vom brauen Hemd zur weißen Weste? Vom Umgang mit der Vergangenheit in Tübingen nach 1945 (Tübingen: Fachbereich Kultur), pp. 131–157.

Hayes, Oonah (2013) “Gedenken anstoßen? Warum am Gräberfeld X (der Opfer) gedacht wird,” in Ludger M. Hermanns and Albrecht Hirschmüller (eds.) Vom Sammeln, Bedenken und Deuten in Geschichte, Kunst und Psychoanalyse: Gehard Fichtner zu Ehren (Stuttgart: frommann-holzboog), pp. 37–61.

Hoffmann-Curtius, Kathrin (1986) “Denkmäler für Krieg und Sieg,” in Wolfgang Hesse et al. (eds) Mit Gott für Kaiser, König und Vaterland: Krieg und Kriegsbild Tübingen 1870/71 (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 45–59.

Hornbogen, Helmut (1995) Der Tübinger Stadtfriedhof: Wege durch den Garten der Erinnerung (Tübingen: Schwäbisches Tagblatt).

Jeismann, Michael and Rolf Westheider (1988) “Bürger und Soldaten: Deutsche und französische Kriegerdenkmäler zum Ersten Weltkrieg,” GESCHICHTSWERKSTATT 16, 6–15.

Krumeich, Gerd (2001) “Die Dolchstoß-Legende,” in Etienne François et al. (eds) Deutsche Erinnerungsorte Vol. 1 (München: C. H. Beck), pp. 585–599.

Loistl, Alexander (1991) “Die Silcher-Pflege in Tübingen zwischen 1933 und 1945,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 171–178.

Piehler, G. Kurt (2010) “The American Memory of War,” in Georg Schild (ed.) The American Experience of War (Paderborn et al.: Ferdinand Schöningh), pp. 217–234.

Rieth, Adolf (1967) Denkmal ohne Pathos (Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth).

Rumschöttel, Hermann (1973) Das bayerische Offizierskorps 1866–1914 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot).

Schönhagen, Benigna (1987) Das Gräberfeld X: Eine Dokumentation über NS-Opfer auf dem Tübinger Stadtfriedhof (Tübingen: Kulturamt).

Schönhagen, Benigna (2007), “Das Gräberfeld X in Tübingen,” in Konrad Pflug et al. (eds.) Orte des Gedenkens und Erinnerns in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgart: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung), pp. 376–82.

Starzmann, Holger (2009) “‘Garnison des Geistes”: Die Anfänge der Militarisierung einer Universität,” in Matthias Möller (ed.) Still gestanden? Die Geschichte einer alten Kaserne (Tübingen: Förderverein Kulturdenkmal Schellingstraße 6), pp. 11–22.

Ulmer, Martin (2011) “Verdrängte Verbrechen und gefallene Helden: Wie sich Tübingen in den 1950er und 60er Jahren an den Nationalsozialismus erinnerte,” in Hans-Otto Binder et al. (eds) Vom brauen Hemd zur weißen Weste? Vom Umgang mit der Vergangenheit in Tübingen nach 1945 (Tübingen: Fachbereich Kultur), pp. 47–75.

Vogel, Thomas (1991) “Kunst und Künstler in Tübingen 1933–1945,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 45–53.

Vogt, Arnold (1993) Den Lebenden zur Mahnung: Denkmäler und Gedenkstätten: Zur Traditionspflege und historischen Identität vom 19. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Hanover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus).

Watson, Peter (2010) The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century (London et al.: Simon & Schuster).

Geschichtswerkstatt Tübingen e.V., available online at: http://www.geschichtswerkstatt-tuebingen. de/, accessed 31.05.2013.

Lern – & Dokumentationszentrum zum Nationalsozialismus e.V. Tübingen, available online at: http://www.nsdok-tuebingen.de/, accessed 31.05.2013.


This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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

Christian Wevelsiep

Turning Points in the History of War: Criteria for the Meaning of Violence in the Great War of 1914–1918

20 August 2014
  • War
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • ideology
  • historiography


The focus of this paper is to discuss the criteria for the meaning of violence in the context of the history of war. To be able to classify the instances of violence during the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine the criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by the transformation of how war was waged, as well as an unlimited awareness of violence (1./2.). Here we have in mind the most comprehensive of all images of violence: the totalitarian image of man. This begs the question of how we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence. This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need fundamental anthropological reflections (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.).


It is generally recognized that history does not boil down to reconstruction of actual life and experience. It also constitutes a process of interpreting which occurs in the minds of the subjects who create it. When looking at historical figures, historians demand that each person takes full responsibility for their own story. In the context of the history of violence and war such a perspective first requires the formulation of rough definitions. A solemn speech about the solid foundation of war, about the father of all things (Ger. Vater aller Dinge) or just about history as a set of rational rules and regulations, expires in the trenches of war. A glimpse at the inter-existential dimension is a look at the everyday reality of war, including the moments of mass killing. “The annihilation of a man as an individual forces us to perceive people as a mass. This is a totalitarian moment. Lenin recognized it, as did Mussolini, Hitler, and others. They perceived war as a powerful fatality in which everything sweeps away, as an uncontrollable torrent and a total power, which ends in nihilism.” (Metz 2010, 191)

John Keegan, an eminent war theorist, also focuses on such an existential perspective, when he embarks on a journey to find The Face of Battle (Keegan 1978). To his mind, the classical military history records create a picture of war which leaves many questions unanswered. They delve into genre scenes and spectacle and create an atmosphere in which bravery, heroism, defeat, and attacks are described from a ruthless point of view. A traditional military historian can find words to describe great military moves and maneuvers, but not the individual deaths and individual lives of soldiers. Keegan, however, is intensely interested in the inconspicuous individuals and events behind the great wars. He sees the efforts to create a historical narrative as entwined with the commitment to comprehend the fundamental position and the existential condition of an individual in a battle. The difference between victory and defeat, which is the main way in which historians, commanders, and chroniclers approach the battle, fades away when we take a closer look at the reality. A soldier has no well-defined picture of a battle in his mind. Enormous danger is a more urgent concern, and therefore his fundamental position is different from the commander’s. If in this way we grant an individual the right to veto, we treat everything less as a revolution in the historiography then, to put it mildly, a glance at the core situation, the bare existence and the image of war.

As we well know, the First World War meant the collapse of civil society. The reasons for this are varied, but they include the negation of what civil society essentially represented: the idea of a free individual who takes responsibility for his actions. Given the mass executions, the mud of the trenches, and the mechanized nature of war, this idea came to an abrupt end. Verdun and the Somme have shaped the face of battle. They represent a turning point in the history of violence as instances of theretofore unseen forms of battle of matériel and massive battles in the death zones of trenches. In the century of violence, war became an independent entity. It became ubiquitous anonymity and omnipresent death; the very essence of war was exposed. Ernst Jünger (1982) formulated a famous and apt description of this turning point: it was not soldiers, but laborers who kept the battle running. They were characterized by their willingness to accept a subordinate role in the anonymous, mechanized, and technological operations, rather than adopting the warrior tradition. The workers who lost their lives in the hail of grenades and machine guns usually could not see their opponents; the enemies remained mostly invisible and beyond reach.


Do we have to present the face of battle in all its hideousness, as evidenced here, and in many other historical examples? No; we are aware of the horrors of war, the suffering of soldiers and civilians, the fury of violence, and we do not want to increase our knowledge of it. Nevertheless, we must attempt to remember and to grasp the meaning of the horrors of war; a meaning which is difficult for us to decipher and which is overshadowed by constant doubt concerning our existence. For Theodor Lessing, for example, history in the face of war was an arduous process of making meaning of meaninglessness. Deeply affected by the First World War, he opposed the religious delusion by which history reflects reason and significance, progress and justice (Lessing 1983, 12). He doubted both the idealist and the materialist delusions in history. Hence, he tried not to present history with all its glorifying embellishments, but as an attempt to make meaning out of something which is inherently meaningless. Lessing’s writing was controversial, but the way in which he posed questions was convincing. His aim was not only to demolish the solid foundations of war, but also to explicitly inquire into the criteria for potential meaning – criteria for meaning in the context of the history of war. This fundamental question is still valid as a question. How can sociology and historiography contribute to the understanding of the notions of peace and war in our day? It seems that this question may be answered off the cuff: one should forbid war, avert violence, and protect rights. This may serve as a starting point for the following reflections. To be able to classify the instances of violence and the totalitarian logic of the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by (1.) the transformation of war which, as we have mentioned, became totalitarian. It also showed (2.) an unlimited awareness of violence, which was not restricted to the mechanism of violence. The distance which was shaped during mass executions was subject to the abstraction of new proportions and it also pointed to the most comprehensive of all violence abstractions: the totalitarian image of a man. How can we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence? This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need a fundamental anthropological reflection (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.). In this context, the role of historiography is far from insignificant.

1. Military capability: The transformation of war

The historical notion of violence can be discussed from various points of view. On the one hand, in the mechanized form of battle we have evidence of the radical, technically-oriented alienation of man: as many as 2.96 million bullets of a total weight of 21,000 tons were prepared to attack the British troops at the Somme. The use of chlorine gas made a new form of nervous impairment of the enemy possible. The massive annihilations of soldiers in June 1916 marked a tragic climax in the history of war. All these factors point to a radicalized, unrestricted, and industrialized form of violence. Hordes of people waiting in the trenches in order to trudge through destroyed devastated area and barbed wire towards certain death: at this point such an image recalls a form of totalitarian destruction which was to become a reality in the war yet to come (Metz 2010, 192; Keegan 1978, 304). Nevertheless, insight into the terrible events of the war also requires the wider perspective of the historian. We can therefore describe the history of the First World War as a process which was characterized by the transformation of war, in terms of a political, as well as material and technological change. After the relatively peaceful period of one hundred years before the First World War, when the five major European powers followed the policy of balance, the German Wars of Unification again raised the question of power. With the emergence of the German Empire a new power also emerged. The developing economic and military power resulted in a new form of imbalance (hereinafter Kennedy 1996; Neitzel 2008; Craig 1989). International relations fell into a trap which they managed to avoid throughout the comparatively peaceful nineteenth century.

Sobering, as these reflections may seem, the nearly ten millions casualties were nothing new when we consider the total population of Europe. The novelty was not in the number of the casualties. The global dimension was not striking either, as it had already come into play during the Seven Years’ War. The novelty was rather in the method, in the way decisions concerning human lives were made, and in the technological dimension of elimination. In the First World War armed countries clashed in a battle between man and machine. Thus we can identify the new military capability as the first “criterion for meaning” in violence analysis. The mechanization of war brought lethal innovations: poison gas, tanks, submarines, but also machine guns, which were invented a long time before, but were now being used on a massive scale. Compared to the war of 1870, over 58 per cent of the soldiers died of artillery fire. Hundreds of thousands of opponents lost their lives as a result of machine gun fire, which, in a symbolic way, marks a turning point in the history of violence. However, let me go back to discuss a distinct military capability of the great powers. When we ask how this “great seminal catastrophe” could occur in this form in the twentieth century, we must not turn a blind eye to the relationship between the production forces and the effective military capabilities. The main factors which promoted, extended, and shaped the war are well known. These were: an early stalemate, Italy’s rather ineffectual entry into the war, apparent exhaustion, and the Russian inability to wage war, as well as America’s crucial decision to join the war. The final collapse of the Central Powers must be perceived as closely correlated with the economic and industrial resources available to the Allies. We assess the actual capability in terms of absolute superiority of the productive forces rather than the quality of leadership and the generals’ aptitude. By way of example, Kennedy (1989, 389 ff.) analyzes the Great War from the point of view of the relationship between economic changes and the military conflict. He perceives the Austro-German coalition at the beginning of the war as a military force with the superior military capability as its front troops operated efficiently and were supported by an increasing number of recruits. Russia and France, on the other hand, had difficulty in coordinating a military strategy. We are able to answer why the Allies did not manage to gain significance three years after the beginning of the war when we take a closer look at the notion of military capability. The Coalition was strong in the areas which could hardly contribute to a quick and decisive victory. For instance, the closing of the German overseas trade caused major damage, but was not as significant as British representatives expected. German export industry focused on military production and the Central Powers were self-sufficient in food supply as long as the transport system could be properly maintained. The Allies outnumbered their enemies, but this did not contribute to their rapid victory, which was partly due to the type of war itself. Both parties used forces which were deployed over hundreds of kilometers. Major operations which were methodically and strategically prepared well in advance and aimed at a decisive blow were in fact split into hundreds of smaller operations on the battlefield. The events on the Western Front clearly show that the fronts on both sides could not achieve a real breakthrough and thus expand short-term territorial gains. Each side was able to make up for its losses through reservists, grenade supply, barbed wire, and artillery, and to minimize the advantage of the assailant. The major image inscribed in the memory of the war is that of prevented offensives and destructive crossfire. The role of the individual in the war is well understood: a growing number of new waves of recruits were mobilized at various sites to compensate for the loss incurred on the battlefields.

Hence, in order to assess the properties of the violence in the First World War, an analysis of the battlefields is insufficient. There is no doubt that the Great War electrified national economies and led to a significant increase in armor volume. Before 1914 armor generated less than four percent of the national income. Since the total war led to the increase of this number up to more than 30 per cent, it was inevitable that the overall production volume of the defense industry grew by leaps and bounds. The wartime governments grew to be in charge of the industry, workforce, and finances. The long-lasting complaints about the chronic shortage of ammunition on both sides ultimately led to the cooperation of politics with business and employment, the aim of which was to provide the necessary supplies. “Given the powers of the modern bureaucratic state to float loans and raise taxes, there were no longer the fiscal impediments to sustaining a lengthy war that had crippled eighteenth-century states. Inevitably, then, after an early period of readjustment to these new conditions, armaments production soared in all countries.” (Kennedy 1989, 389)

2. The mechanism of violence, ideology and war

It appears that the main distinction used to analyze the Great War is therefore the organization of the state system – the separation between the countries’ domestic and foreign affairs. In order to understand the role of separation of politics and economy in all matters directly relating to the war, one needs some additional background information (hereinafter Münkler 2006, 51 ff.). The so-called “Westphalian sovereignty,” which had shaped international relations since 1648, must not be overlooked here. People waged wars for a long time to achieve economic goals, but war itself was less an economic than a political goal. The Westphalian sovereignty was an attempt to place the state in the center of the war on a permanent basis, also with a view to separate religious or economic influences from political ones. The war between the cabinets and the war between the nations are the two classical types of war. For the next 150 years, when war was a matter of cabinets, it constituted a political tool, “which had never been this way before or afterwards” (Münkler 2006, p. 52). In this period the general public was completely excluded from the war events, at least they were not systematically used for defense purposes. The war was a matter of the governments which had manageable and limited purposes. The war was also to a large extent “tamed” so that the civil population in the war zone was as little involved in the action as possible. Opposing forces changed their positions, tried to cut off the enemies from the supplies or to confront them in a decisive battle. The population waited in the background and was responsible for financing the war and yet the costs incurred due to armed conflicts could often be extremely burdensome. (Kant’s plea for republican forms of government addresses this issue). Overall, it can be argued that the war of this period did not acquire an existential dimension. To some degree it remained calculable and, significantly, it was consistent with the justified renunciation of the use of force when the balance of forces was observed.

We recognize a significant turning point in the history of war when both mechanical calculability and moral factors gained significance in the course of battle. When the population, ready to take action and make sacrifices, was put in the balance in the course of revolutions, social power relations were renewed. As regards the form of battle, the era of strategic maneuvers had ended. In the re-defined ideological battles it was important whether “in due time and in the right place one had superior forces at one’s disposal and used them with absolute determination to win here and now” (ibid., 55). War was based on the requirements of the concentration of forces in a specific time and space. This meant a battle set-up which depended on the physical and moral exhaustion. In the early twentieth century this state of affairs was marked by specific military forces and forms of the organization of violence, especially the ability to use fossil fuels for the mobilization and deployment of forces, thereby affecting the speed of the troops’ advancement in the area and going beyond the logistical limits of the war. Civil infrastructure became a central element of modern military capability, leading to a long-lasting merge of civil economy and military establishment. The unreasonable alliance between the state and war became visible (Krippendorff 1985). Its ideological aspect, however, should not be neglected. The “levèe en masse” and the people who constituted the nation contributed to the fact that politics was no longer limited by the national borders. The violence mechanism that we observe in the age of extremes (Hobsbawm) goes back to the moral factor, in a sense that the nationalist fervor of the people became the resources of military capability. The turning point that we can observe here is complex and contradictory. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was the idea that a republican society, unlike an aristocratic one, would avoid and tame war, since it corresponded to the common sense of the citizens concerned, and it could now decide on questions of life and death. This idea was inextricably linked to the notion of political freedom, but it did not obtain the desired confirmation during the revolutionary wars. The war of modern times was a civilization war which was waged as an ideological and moral battle by those with the “right” attitude. The revolution engaged civil society again in the war. Out of the ideologization of war there emerged a new form of military force which, in turn, severely affected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this broader sense, the military capability and the violence mechanism encompass an expanded notion of violence awareness. The new army was a mass army characterized by unlimited recruitment possibilities. As a result, it could afford much heavier losses, provided that war was perceived as an existential notion (Metz 2010, 80 ff.). The total war of the nineteenth century became a totality, insofar as it introduced the possibility of exhausting human resources on the battlefield.

This form of a mass, total warfare was formed in the nineteenth century on the condition that the psychological mobilization of the masses was a consequence of revolutionary nationalism. Such a mobilization was then extended by means of technological and infrastructural resources. Factors such as crowd, technology and ideology formed the face of total war and, as a result, created the experience of physical and mental exhaustion which, in turn, resulted in the horrors of war. It is common knowledge that the economic performance of the countries involved in the war decreased throughout the war, and that the moral exhaustion of the entire population was also visible. The long war was also a battle against the enemy’s flow of resources and supplies: England took advantage of its superior navy to build a long blockade against the Central Powers. Germany to some extent relied on submarine warfare in order to cut off the enemy from essential supplies by sinking merchant ships. Toward the end of the war one could see the signs of the future air warfare, when the infrastructure of the enemy was destroyed by bomber fleets (Münkler 2006, 57). Is it possible to summarize the “meaning” of the war, in terms of the organization and transformation of violence, in the way presented above? Ultimately, we are talking about a war whose aim was to let the enemy bleed to death at the risk of one’s own heavy losses. The only conceivable way to gain victory would be by means of mass slaughter in the form of subsequent attacks at the death zones – which were not militarily successful but certainly stemmed from the “reasonable” calculations. This is clearly visible in the German attack at Verdun, which cost 700,000 casualties in the period of ten months; an event where the war turned into “a blood pump, attached to a human material used for military purposes” (Metz 2010, 93). As early as this instance of senseless battle and rational military leadership we observe a turning point in the history of war, for which there are no compelling definitions.

3. Political existentialism: The failure of reason

Having discussed the criteria of violence organization, we can look at the First World War as an attempt to penetrate into the heart of the enemy country in a battle. After 1866 and 1870 it was certain that such a war was feasible. August 1914 marked the beginning of a war in which a seemingly unbearable tension culminated and was defused. To many people it seemed a liberation from existential emptiness. The ecstatic celebration of the August events was apparently followed by apathetic killing and anonymous deaths in the trenches. The longing for the existential human illumination and purification during the war were followed by dirt, stench, and death. When the following sections inquire into the causes which led to the failure of reason, and when we further inquire into the possibility of remembering the horrors of war, it is to be understood in a specific way. It is not simply about drawing “lessons” from history, but rather about gathering criteria for meaning from the history of war, criteria which appear to be fundamentally political notions.

Quite reasonably, the political explanations for the outbreak of war turn attention to the threat resulting from the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894), which Great Britain joined in 1904. The idea of preventive war was virulent, not least due to the fact that the progressive development of infrastructure made it technologically possible to use mass transport. Beyond this, however, we must ask why the failure of reason occurred, and to what extent politics and diplomacy prioritized the logic of military confrontation. We must ask how the limits of diplomacy could be reconciled with the unleashing of violence. Also, we must not forget that there were definite attempts to let the leap in the dark (Bethmann-Hollweg) follow solutions involving the limited renunciation of the use of force. When in November 1914 there was no hope left for a quick military success, Falkenhayn asked Bethmann-Hollweg to negotiate a separate peace with Russia, then with France, in order to be able to confront England, the opponent, on an equal footing (Neitzel 2003, 136). This initiative was based on the notion of adhering to the policy of escaping from the war as soon as all the military resources had been used. The political leadership could not take a firm stand on this matter, as there was disagreement early on in defining Germany as the main war opponent. Although some models of freedom through victory were devised based on Germany’s central geographical position, they still lacked a clear goal orientation. There was a policy that prioritized geo-strategic interests over reason. While the negotiation of a separate peace with Russia was postulated, at the same time Germany was trying to maintain influence in South-East Europe and the Middle East. Although the Foreign Office initially rejected the idea of freedom through renunciation, there were still Danish mediation attempts to explore the theoretical possibility of a separate peace with the Tsar. These “peace negotiations,” as a result of which Danish State Council Hans Niels Andersen travelled to Saint Petersburg in 1915, did not go beyond exploratory talks. The successes on the Eastern Front boosted hopes for the “status quo ante” peace. There was hope to build bridges for Russia on which it could walk with its head held high. Although the Russian army suffered heavy losses, this did not have an impact on its determination to wage war. Russia adhered to the treaty of 1915 and avoided the exclusion from the War Coalition. In retrospect, one could definitely say that the path toward peace was obstructed by many parties. The Tsar and his political advisers were unable to define the load limits of the country. The Central Powers, on the other hand, probably due the understanding of their limited military capability, offered a push for peace but rejected the serious general Peace Congress vehemently (ibid., 137).

In this context it is worth asking why the only serious and genuine proposal of Pope Benedict X suggesting a solution to the exhausted Europeans was rejected, or why the policy of balance and a temporary limited peace never had a real chance of victory. Why could moral clarity be created only through a one-sided victory, by the “peace of defeat” (Metz 2010, 96)? At the beginning of the war there was euphoria which there was hope of preserving for domestic policy and which also, to some extent, led to absurd expectations concerning the aim of the war. There appeared, for instance, memoranda of Pan-Germanism which called for far-reaching annexations and assumed an imperious and hegemonic role of Germany in Europe. The war and its supposed first “successes” awakened desires, fantasies of power, and a lust to establish the German Reich as global power which, together with the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, would form the core of world powers (hereinafter Neitzel 2003, 132 ff.). The tentative and ambivalent attempts to walk the path of non-violence in the face of imminent defeat were therefore problematized. In early September 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, established guidelines for a potential preliminary peace. According to the Chancellor, the main purpose of the peace dictated by Germany should have been to secure its own country from the eastern and western side for good, i.e., if possible, France was to be weakened so that it could not regain its status as a superpower and Russia was to be pushed away from the German border. Based on these symptomatic points we can see the core demands of the German policy concerning the aim of the war, extensive territorial claims and grandiose plans which, from the beginning, rejected the idea of returning to the status quo ante. The focus on a clear victory through peace was indeed strong and visible in all warring parties. The adviser of the U. S. president had to realize in 1914–1915 that there was no readiness in Berlin, London, and Paris to agree to a temporary renunciation of violence. In terms of the areas of influence and territorial borders, the warring parties, politicians, and military officers focused on improving the status quo. It seemed impossible at any time that a lasting peace could be established without moral clarity, and that the negotiated solutions could be taken into account, considering the military force of the enemy. This was clearly reflected in the German foreign policy since the spring of 1917. When, after an unsuccessful mediation attempt, President Wilson made an appeal to negotiate peace without victory on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, the German Reich communicated the peace conditions in order to show trust, but at the same time, engaged in the submarine warfare again with equal commitment. This political move led to the demolition of political relations, the entrance of the USA into the war in April 1917, and to the escalation of the long-term war which, with hindsight, was not an objective inevitability. More specifically, in order to understand why the path to a tentative renunciation of violence remained blocked, one has to consider the perception of reality of the German leadership, as well as the increasing powerlessness of politics against the independent military forces. Politics at this time could no longer be regarded as “a possible chance for peace” (ibid., 157). Until 1918 people were led by the conviction that one could achieve peace through force. This may be illustrated in the peace treaties of Brest-Litowsk and Bucharest, which sort of reflected the aim to extend power at the expense of others and, even more, the degree of the denial of reality which was determined by the strategies used by military forces until the final shedding of blood. The forces which did not strive for settlement and the post-war order, but attempted to reach what appeared enforceable by means of their own military capability were key.

The fundamental notion of the turning points and the aspects of violence can be fragmented into various intertwined issues. From a historical point of view, it is crucial to realize that the extreme severity and relentlessness of the war was rooted in the unconditional desire to gain power. Is it sufficient for the purpose of this paper to point out the alleged lust of the decision-making elites, the circulating ideas of Social Darwinism, the excessive desire to gain prestige, or the overwhelming nationalism? Or is there be some other criteria for meaning that could be included in the summation? Nevertheless, the failure of reason remains enigmatic: nine million soldiers were killed before the end of the war, probably around the same number of civilians lost their lives as a result of hunger and disease. Is it estimated that, in Germany, around 800,000 people died of hunger due to the British naval blockade – all this apparently could not change the internal logic of politics. The War of the Nations headed for the “peace of defeat,” and for four years a fixation on one-sided victory precluded the conclusion of separate tentative peace, which was still conceivable in the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What remains worth mentioning is the a priori enmity which apparently constituted the approval of the senseless suffering. Even millions of deaths could not break the iron will of the governments. In a fight without a real winner, those who had greater military capability and power at their disposal determined the victory morale. As such, the meaning criterion of violence is not only technological, but also ideological. The willingness to wage war can ultimately be explained by the absoluteness of evil embodied in the enemy. Real redemption of the world through war could only be achieved by defeating evil, an obviously blind mechanism, which continued even after the horrors of Verdun. In this respect it is necessary to pose fundamental anthropological questions from the quagmire of political and state regulations and to disclose the criteria for the meaning of violence and non-violence in the context of historical experience.

In other words, how to explain the discrepancy between the civilizational accomplishments of the war between the nations and the historical evolution toward universal condemnation of the concept of war? The unrestricted nature of both world wars raises a legitimate question of why there were wars even after the consolidation of the modern statehood. Let us keep the devastating effects of war in mind. Then the question needs to be posed: How did it happen that an idea of war remained so firmly anchored as a signifier of meaning: as a means to an end, as apparently legitimate continuation of politics, as a guiding principle which nations adhere to? To understand this, it does not suffice to steer clear of the axiom of war as a political means (see Clausewitz), since this is anachronistic. Quite on the contrary, it requires insight into the political existentialism of a given time. A glimpse at the philosophical concepts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals an additional moral aspect. Fichte, for example, based his reflections in the Address to the German Nation (Ger. Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808) on the civilizational existential crisis in Prussia. He aimed at the concept of the true war of his times, which was no longer a dynastic war of a sovereign, but a legitimate war that had to be a total, so that the people could be formed into a national unity. We can see how discrepant – or how similar – the nineteenth century was in relation to the beginning of the twentieth century, in the conviction that the war was no longer interpreted as an isolated political or military action, but rather that it embraced all of life. In the people’s war “people fight for their own definition of a purpose, not for the conceived interest of a person who is born and dies in separation from them, and is certainly not one of them. But the real purpose is infinite, one can approach it but not reach it” (Fichte 1813, as quoted by Stadler 2009, 94). It is not easy for us today to comprehend the depth of political existentialism where the terms death, victory, country, and eternity are used in the same context without hesitation. In the history of war, however, it indicates the focus on the moral dimension necessary to understand total war: Fichte discusses the notion of war as a moral effort of the whole nation in its struggle to survive as a free community. If we are talking here about the philosophical struggle to overcome the anti-Napoleonic wars, then we pose a question which goes beyond the narrow historical context, i.e. how a group of people can form a nation.

During a war, a continuous collective battle, people become a nation. This marks a threshold of the national and moral awakening of the nineteenth century, which is important to the understanding of a modern total war of the nations. The ambivalence becomes evident: if we no longer perceive war as a means to an end, or as a calculation used to achieve our clearly defined objectives, but rather as a non-material means of self-constitution, then a totalized meaning dimension becomes tangible. It is no longer simply a matter of rational interests but the existential relationship within large groups. It is necessary to overcome one’s own humiliation and powerlessness, to increase power, glory, and one’s own honor and, hence, to assert one’s own national identity in the fight against what is foreign. The aspect of hostility becomes existential. The aim of a group of people fighting for their existence is to defend their own existence and to preserve one’s own being (Schmitt 1932; ibid. 1963). One’s own being becomes a “fundamentum incomcussum” (Waldenfels 1997, 46), an opinion and decision-making body that defines a case of emergency. One’s own being does not require an external entity to satisfy its own interests in itself, it is a categorical entity which disposes of the external being. These philosophical reflections express the depth of the existential hostility which we noticed in the lasting failure of reason during the long war. We can comprehend the political situation of the early twentieth century only when we consider the criteria for the meaning of violence over an extended period of time. The development extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was marked by the sign of a promising replacement, the essence of which is reflected in the conversion of eschatology into utopia. One set hope for salvation not in transcendence, but in worldliness. The focus was on the question of who or what would occupy the vacant position of metaphysics, who or what ought to serve as the highest and safest reality and, therefore, the final legitimate point of historical reality. It is known that there appeared at least two new worldly realities. The demiurges of “humanity” and “history” changed the legitimacy of the old policy and would manifest its historical-anthropological categoriality: the drastic destruction of a given reality, mediated by religious, political, or ideological stipulations is a contradiction to pure and autonomous self-disposal. The tragic climax lies in the fact that, in principle, a man cannot lead an ex nihilo life. This terrible freedom pertains to a type of historicity that may be based only on something which is predetermined existentially. The general meaning criteria may stem only from this “perplexity.” This leads to a theory of history which results from the immediate functionality for a pragmatic and cooperative action but which aims at a more radical obligation: war as an act of political self-constitution.

4. On the role of historiography

Corpses with arms ripped off, parts of skulls, blood and carcass could be found everywhere. In this way a Bavarian soldier described the battlefield of Sedan on the day after the fight. The image of the bursting grenades, which literally tore victims into pieces, was “horrible.” The Battle of Sedan lasted only one day, but it surpassed anything “that anyone has ever seen” (Lorenzen 2006, 143). The Prussian-German army stored their entire artillery under a central command and aimed their fire not only at the enemy’s artillery posts, but also at the enemy soldiers. The trenches which characterized the First World War did not yet exist. However, Sedan anticipated some elements of the following world wars: the totality of the war in which all human values are lost. What, then, is the role of history if it does not include an element of superficial morality or a politically manageable “meaning”? In order to answer this question we also need to take a wider perspective and inquire into the criteria for the meaning of reason and non-violence as reflected in the human ability to create meaning. One of such creation of meaning is visible in the still-relevant idea of war removal which was pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century as a possibility. The First World War brought an end to the bourgeois era in Europe (Mommsen 2004); despite growing discrepancies, it was a period of economic prosperity and thus growing wealth. Slowly, democratic structures emerged in the European structure, but this process found no reflection in constitutional norms. All these factors – the idea of peace, increasing prosperity, vague democratization – could not, of course, prevent the acrimonious struggle of the European powers. There emerges a pivotal question which has been discussed in history studies to this today, i.e. that the narrative of non-violence could not gain acceptance, even though it was theoretically possible. It is important to emphasize one thing here: the explication of the meaning of political violence should include different aspects, i.e. political criteria for the meaning of the key functions of government, the sociological and technological dimension of the specific military capability of the rival powers, but also some fundamental anthropological criteria. Only in combining these aspects can we approach a profound sense of the understanding of violence.

Was the war inevitable? In 1899 and 1907 the Hague Peace Conferences were organized, with a view to creating an international legal framework for the prevention of war. Their effects were short-lived. Bourgeois pacifism, which now acted in public independent of church and religion, as well as of the state and its logic, remained abrupt. The international peace societies in London in 1843, in Paris in 1889, and later in Germany and Austria, agreed on nothing other than the idea of the global peace. Their operations were far-sighted and visionary. The International Mediation Institute, the formation of an international court of justice and the establishment of a league of nations were the requirements which became reality as late as at the end of the following century. International successes such as Lay Down Your Arms (Ger. Die Waffen nieder 1891) by B. v. Suttner or the establishment of the Army Medical Services were possible at that time. Inspired by the battle of Solferino in the Franco-Sardinian war against Austria, Henry Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino and sent it to the leading political and military figures. Under the impression of 40,000 casualties and the injured, he stimulated the formation of voluntary aid organizations. A conference in Geneva took place as early as the year of the report’s publication. During the conference such proposals were discussed. The “Geneva Conference” created the framework which was later followed by European countries forming the first landmark agreement of international law. In other words, humanitarian ideas and the possibility of the renunciation of violence and peace as a bourgeois principle of reason were more than just lofty ideas.

All the possibilities of the renunciation violence beg the question of how the European, and especially German elites could engage in the nationalist transformation of politics and the world war, which surpassed the radicalism of previous conflicts. The vast majority of European societies were in a transitional phase, characterized by sensitivity and fragility. The key functions of the government were in the hands of a few elites, all this taking place in spite of voting rights, which were becoming widespread. It was simple to appeal to nationalist sentiments during political upheavals. Nationalist movements gained momentum. Under the influence of the zeitgeist, they developed into imperialist ideologies, which culminated in the demanding attitude of world empires. Only those with great military capabilities were capable of surviving. Only those who had to face the war for a long period of time could survive in the rings of power. These ideas, as we know, survived throughout the extreme twentieth century. The development of mass armies, the pillarisation of powers systems, the development of warfare technologies, the arms race, but also the general consent to the emerging war – all this contributes to explaining this ideological viewpoint. The “leap in the dark” was “inevitable,” as it was politically desirable, but also because it reflected a general mentality of the time (Mommsen 2004, 21–35). European societies of the late nineteenth century were walking a “slippery slope” (ibid., 23) and they were in the atmosphere of thrall until the events of August 1914. In Germany these days were perceived as an “incomparable shared social experience” (Fest 1973, 99). This traditionally deeply divided nation, which suffered for a long time due to its internal conflicts, overcame this discrepancy by means of commitment to the war conflict. Even if this was true for only part of the population, the virtually religious character, expressed in national excitement about the future and war-related hopefulness, was evident. The general consciousness perceived the war as a welcome opportunity to escape from the misery of normality, to succumb to the process of rebellion and to submit to the hegemonic objectives. There were days of solemn deceptions that were ended in September 1918 by the hastily appointed political leadership.

Finally, we will attempt to draw conclusions and describe the turning point of the war. If we do so, we are left with an irritating reflection. It was not reasonable to assume that the masses of republican citizens would join the war. According to Kant, history was no longer about the actions of the minority, but was supposed to reflect the actions of all the people. It was a transition from unconsciousness to consciousness of purposeful action that inspired the political progress of modernity, a form of history, “in which people had only themselves as a goal” (Metz 2010, 189). This “new” meaning was formed as a collective sense, as basic concepts of humanity, nation and proletariat. But, as we know, this future fell apart during the First World War. Which criteria for meaning can we finally gather from this tragic turning point in history?

5. The significance of the site

In 1914 death was looking for a new venue. With its tens of thousands of graves, Verdun is perceived symbolically as a “graveyard of Europe” (Schlögel 2008, 435). This is an inconsistent picture, since it encompasses both orderly arrangement of cemeteries as well as the radical devaluation of human life. It is important to ask how one can now shape the memory of the Great War. The meaning of history is based on the collective perception which is reflected in the notions of the “culture of memory” and “sites of commemoration.” Since the establishment of historiography as a “pure” science, it has been considered essential to separate myth from reality and to narrate the story as it was. One of the most basic views here is that, despite thorough examination and unbiased assessment, history is continuously shaped and reinterpreted, and therefore it is susceptible to political interpretation. This, of course, particularly applies to the history of war: the well-known events of a war, the turning points and battlefields, are more than just space for what is accidental and possible. They are more than nodes of individual memories; they turn into events in the culture of remembrance, in which the battle for sovereignty in interpreting events is ignited and memory takes cultural and political shape. There are a plethora of examples, e.g. Magdeburg (1631), Leipzig (1813) and Sedan (1870), which need not be discussed in great detail here. Nevertheless, the criticism of the form of memory culture, in which “only” the interests of a political formation or calculations are manifested, should be discussed thoroughly in some respects.

Is it possible to preserve the essential moment of a site before it becomes a political instrument? This is an interesting twist in modern historiography. As opposed to the classical way of presenting events in a chronological order, as a temporal sequence, it points to the spatiality of all human beings’ stories. The idea to perceive each historical process as spatial, in which history is expressed by means of an endless effort to control space, is of the utmost importance for the present considerations. It means less political instrumentalization than existential and political reflection. The location-oriented approach may oppose long-lasting deconstruction, the fragmentation of objects, as far as it maintains the mental reproduction of coexistence and allows the retelling of the history of the twentieth century with all its horrors, discontinuities, and fractures. To perceive a site as a historical moment is nothing less than to establish a reference to a single totality of historical formations and to focus more on spatial aspects of political matters.

Let us take a look at one such historical site: the Somme, July 1916. Between Noye and the Somme there is a strip of land which grows the most traditional product of the region – sugar beet. Plowing becomes arduous when, on closer inspection, there appear strange objects, i.e. remnants of the war. Mortars, howitzer grenades, aerial torpedoes and smoke shells have been found on this site up to the present day. The Somme was not the densest battlefield of the Western Front. When compared to other gruesome statistics concerning the use of grenades and the duration of shelling, the Somme did not rank first on the list, but still, for various reasons, the majority of blind shells have been found at the Somme. The region was an extensive attack front, where as many as twenty divisions could meet and use their resources. Here, endless suffering was mixed with impressive short-term triumphs. On 16 September 1916 Great Britain first entered the ruins of the village of Flers in their tanks. 1918 was marked by the success of the first major armored breakthrough in modern military history, whereas earlier the most critical offensive of Hindenburg was brought to a halt. John Keegan presents an image of endless battles, characterized by violent confrontations and miserable terrain: “Between Ypres and Armenteirs, water is found everywhere close beneath the surface and much of the line had to be constructed of sandbag barricades instead of trenches. Almost everywhere, too, the Germans occupied what commanding heights there were: near Ypres, the Passchendaele and Messines ridges; in the coalfields, most of the slag-heaps and, until they were destroyed, the pithead towers. Compelled to struggle for possession of the higher, drier ground, the British had driven their lines in many places almost to within conversational distance of the Germans” (Keegan 1978, 245).

In this place, as in many others, we experience everyday death, but we also recognize the criteria such as proximity and distance. Despite heavy losses incurred by the British troops Flanders became their homeland. Behind the lines the troops often left the trenches and looked around in the villages for a feeling of closeness, a roof to sleep under, a bed of straw, some beer, or even a place to play football. The farmers of the region learned how to make a profit during the war. They opened canteens and cafés, which offered a welcome change. The British troops “conquered” not only geographical areas, but also some attractive places nearby. One can see this from the peculiar way in which some places were named, e.g. “Armenteers” (Armentières), “Wiper”, (Ypern) and “Plugstreet Wood” (Ploegsteert). These terms do not relate to the great battles, but to inconspicuous events occurring in the background of the war. This point of view opens the possibility of commemorating the war in a special way: essential to the orientation of the human world is the inescapable spatial character of experience, the irrevocability, the slope leading to death, the finality of the existential and historical events (Rentsch 1999). Historical acquisition also includes the aspect of vulnerability, powerlessness, and other criteria, such as responsibility and guilt. The relationships which orient us in the human world do not fall to pieces, then to create a form of memory, but rather we recognize the primary forms of meaning. We recognize basic historical facts in the finite totality of the existentially structured orientation space. We can neglect the finite totality of the existential space, conceal it, and keep it from ourselves. However, in this way historical time will never become an objectively defined world history, from which one can distance oneself. There is a basic difference between the unique ability to create meaning for the primary world, the experience that we gain in the world of inter-existentially constituted practice, and the type of experience which is scientifically plausible. Historical experience ends when the existentially political vision of the primary world begins. At that point, all attempts to learn superficial “lessons” from history fail, for the technology available to the community culture during the war does not leave the autonomy of the primary world unscathed (ibid., 110 ff.). The military and technological possibilities penetrate deep into the experience of the common world and thus violate the principles of a singular totality. Therefore, insight into the comprehensive totality of the common life is essential to create historical memory. If ethical principles are to show themselves in the face of war, they must demand nothing less than a fundamental relationship between fragility and the claim for non-violence. In our shared world we can experience practices in which there is always risk of failure; practices characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability, which constitute meaning. The meaning which can be created in this context is secured by a negative. It reflects our groundlessness and elusiveness. We can objectify neither a single totality of life as a whole nor individual outstanding events in the history. We are not able to functionalize historical events in a sense that we perceive them as examples of a greater design. In other words, we can imagine the human experience as neither individually nor politically and instrumentally goal-oriented. The shape of the meaningful life emerges only in fragmentariness, and in the experience of poverty and paucity.


Christian Wevelsiep. Studied educational theory, philosophy, and political science. He finished his Ph.D in special educational theory in Dortmund as well as political sociology in Flensburg, Germany. He is cureently working as teacher in Bochum and as external “Privatdozent” at the University of Flensburg. His main focuses of research are: theory of society, anthropology and ethics, and the history of modern violence. At the moment he is working on a monograph about the history of the war from basic anthropological view.

 List of References

Craig, Gordon (1989) Die Geschichte Europas 1815–1980 (Munich: C. H. Beck).

Fest, Joachim (1973) Hitler. Eine Biographie (Frankfurt a. M., Berlin, Vienna: Propylaen).

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1845/46) Sämtliche Werke, 8 volumes, edited by Immanuel H. Fichte. (Berlin).

Jünger, Ernst (1982) Der Arbeiter (Stuttgart: Herrschaft und Gestalt).

Keegan, John (1978) Das Antlitz des Krieges (Düsseldorf/Vienna: Econ).

Kennedy, Paul (1989) Aufstieg und Fall großer Nationen (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).

Krippendorff, Ernst (1985) Staat und Krieg. Die historische Logik politischer Unvernunft (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).

Lessing, Theodor (1983) Geschichte als Sinngebung des Sinnlosen (Munich: Beck).

Lorenzen, Jan (2006) Die großen Schlachten. Mythen, Menschen, Schicksale (Frankfurt, New York: Campus).

Metz, Karl Heinz (2010) Geschichte der Gewalt. Krieg – Revolution – Terror (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag).

Münkler, Herfried (2006) Der Wandel des Krieges. Von der Symmetrie zur Asymmetrie (Weilerswist: Velbrück).

Mommsen, Wolfgang (2004) Der erste Weltkrieg (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).

Neitzel, Sönke (2003) Blut und Eisen. Deutschland im Ersten Weltkrieg (Zurich: Pendo Verlag).

Neitzel, Sönke (2008) Weltkrieg und Revolution. 1914–1918/19 (Berlin-Brandenburg: be.bra Verlag).

Rentsch, Thomas (1999) Die Konstitution der Moralität. Transzendentale Anthropologie und praktische Philosophie (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).

Schmitt, Carl (1932) Der Begriff des Politischen (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot).

Schmitt, Carl (1963) Theorie des Partisanen (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot).

Schlögl, Karl (2008) Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer).

Stadler, Christian (2009) Krieg (Stuttgart: facultas wuv).

Waldenfels, Bernard (1997) Topographie des Fremden. Studien zur Phänomenologie des Fremden 1 (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).


This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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